Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Here, There Be Dragons

Our discussion in class on Wednesday raised three questions that I think get at the core of the issue of conceptualizing medieval dragons—do we give them undue significance symbolically because we believe they don’t exist? Do they occupy the same symbolic space as stags or wolves? Are they special, or just “big beasts”?

We observed that the dragon does not always denote active evil— it can be a force of nature, a divine guardian, simply a large animal preying on livestock. But I do think that the association of serpents/dragons with the Devil/evil places the dragon in a significant symbolic space that has nothing to do with our perception of it as a “real” animal. I keep returning to the stag example to try to tease out why I think the dragons have special significance. Perhaps it is not that I think the dragon is special or “other” compared to all other physical animals, but that it belongs to a cast of animals that are especially significant because of the import of their symbolic natures—that is to say, the dragon/serpent and the stag are not inherently MORE symbolic than other animals, but the things that they symbolize are of particular import. The dragon does not have greater symbolic meaning than bees, for instance, but “evil” (or even “force of nature”) is a broader symbolic category than the individual virtues ascribed to the bees. This might be a specious distinction, but it seems to me that  “evil” and “devil”, whether or not consistently applied to snakes/dragons, have an immense conceptual import (as does the stag’s connection with Christ).
On the other hand, my mind is insisting on a distinction between the symbolic function of the stag and the dragon. The stag as the symbol of the hunted Christ is not contingent upon the individuals who are doing the hunting, whereas the “evil” dragon seems to be contingent on the piety or strength of the dragon-slayer. Without the contrast of this individual, does the dragon have the same connotation? While some holy figures do in fact engage in stag hunts, the stag has this potential for symbolic identity at all times, even when not being hunted by anyone.
 I think I am hung up on the slippage between the snake/dragon/devil formulations, and that in truth the dragon, like the stag, always has this potentiality of symbolic identity. The St. George motif plays into these associations with evil/devil/enemy of chastity, but the work being done by the dragon-hunt motif is the conflation of holy strength with physical strength in overcoming a fearsome beast (or am I falling into another trap of misconceptions about dragons?). We wondered in class whether this work could be performed by some other animal, such as St. Francis and the lion and Daniel and his lions—and I think that to some extent, it is. Any fearsome beast could prove holy strength. The dragon, I think, adds different depth to the stories with some of the associations Riches describes—it becomes in addition an allegory of the triumph of chastity, etc. And, although much the strength of the story seems to rest in the contrast between “good” and “evil” (or at least in the assertion of a hierarchy of power, divinely instituted), I don’t think we can say that the dragon loses its symbolic associations when not in the presence of a holy individual.
Part of the problem I’m having is reconciling the bestiary snake/dragon that slithers and preys on elephants with the guarding or hoarding “literary” dragon that exists to prove the holiness or strength of a hero figure—and, for that matter, with the gendered snake/Eve/devil figure discusses by Riches. It is perhaps the conflation and transfer of attributes between these somewhat distinct entities that gives both depth and confusion to the symbolic significance of the dragon, but to what extent do they actually interact? The bestiary authors call the dragon the “greatest of serpents”, and as such much of its symbolic associations have to do with its snake-like appearance:

To this dragon the devil is likened, who is a most enormous serpent. As it often rushes forth from its cavern into the air and the air glows around it, so does the devil, raising himself from the depths (of hell), transform himself into an angel of light and delude stupid people with the false hope of glory and human joy. As it is said to be crested, so is he himself the king of pride. It has its power not in its teeth but in its tail, and so his power being lost, he deceives with a lie those whom he attracts to himself. It lies hid about the paths by which the elephants go, and so the devil always pursues men who are fond of display. It binds their legs with coils and if it is able entangles them, and so he entangles their road to heaven with the knots of sins; and it kills them by suffocation, and so if any one dies entangled in the chain of sins, without doubt he is condemned to hell. (BL Harley MS 4751)

Yet now I am even more confused, because perusing the bestiary entries for “snake” yields nothing more sinister than poor vision, venom, and fear of naked men (indicating perhaps an aversion to the innocence of pre-fall man). If the dragon is simply a large snake, why this contrast in symbolic import? Does the snake lend negative associations to the dragon, or dragon to the snake? What of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which Riches notes is early connected to the Devil and the dragon of the Apocalypse of St. John? We’ve noted, of course, that things have different connotations in different contexts, but in order for associations to transfer and change contexts, certainly some of it must be persistent.
This all complicates my desire to place the dragon and the stag in similar symbolic space.
One of the iconographical stags identified by Thiebaux in The Stag of Love, the “serpent-slaying stag”, highlights the opposition of these two figures and themes (and seems to me to support the category of particular symbolic import I’m trying so hard to place snakes/dragons and stags in)—the stag either seeks the “water of renewal” after consuming the poisonous “snake of vice”, or uses water to force the snake/devil up from underground to do battle. As the stag’s other various forms seem to have seem to have related symbolic purposes (the “thirsting stag” symbolizes the yearning of the soul for God, the “harried stag” is the soul driven by vices, the “transfixed stag” is the wounded Christ, and the “nobly-antlered stag” signifies the means by which men glorify God), I think this supports identifying stag/Christ and snake/Devil as particularly important symbolic figures.
            I’m not sure where all this leaves me. My thoughts feel rather like the image of infinity represented by a snake eating it’s own tail, going around in circles until I’m not sure what a dragon means or a snake means anymore. Thoughts?



The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages, ed. David Badke, online at http://bestiary.ca/.

Marcellet Thiébaux, The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), pp. 17-58.

Samantha Riches, St. George: Hero, Martyr and Myth (Stroud: Sutton, 2000), pp. 140-78.


  1. I really liked your post because in a way it helped me to think about the own research paper and some symbolic issues I was encountering. Your comment about the fact that " We’ve noted, of course, that things have different connotations in different contexts, but in order for associations to transfer and change contexts, certainly some of it must be persistent." got me thinking that , at least in the case of the wolf that I was researching, although it meant different things when analysed through the bestiaries, the beast poems, the fables, and within beast literature it did have a common thread running through it. At least with the wolf, its symbolism was inherent within the Scriptures and it carried over through time, and yet it did seem to shift when represented in different mediums. I'm now wondering how much of a basis a certain symbol needs to have one say that an animal concretely represents something? It would be a great question to continue researching in the future!


  2. I am still trying to figure out how best to think about dragons myself. What would it have been like to read Beowulf or the legend of St. George believing that dragons were actual animals? I think you are right that dragons carry a more powerful symbolic meaning thanks to the fact that the thing that they symbolize (the Devil, evil) is itself powerful in a way that a particular vice (greed) is not. Perhaps here we could say, the dragon is taken up as the symbol because the need for a strong symbol is there in the referent (i.e. you don't want to symbolize something so powerful as evil with something easily beaten, like an ant). And yet, it is in the very nature of that which is symbolized to need an actual, material, living, real, what-have-you referent. That is, it matters that dragons are real in order that evil may be perceived as real. Which makes me wonder: which was lost first: the sense of the power of evil/the Devil or the conviction that dragons actually existed?