Friday, May 29, 2015

The Many Species of Dragon

Rather like cats, dragons seem to have taken on a reputation for being especially symbolic creatures.  As Samantha J. E. Riches describes, “a cursory study of the imagery, legends and lore associated with dragons and related monsters clearly demonstrates that these mythical creatures have a multiplicity of associations and can exemplify many different ideas” (“Encountering,” 197). The questions that our readings and discussion raised for me, however, was whether they were indeed a “special” type of animal in some way, more legendary than real, or simple, real creatures just like any others, with diabolical meanings attached to their wings instead of holy ones, just in a far away place—or even real creatures that one can encounter in one’s own backyard swamp. After our discussion, I believe I have come down on the side of “yes” to all of these, leaning more one way or another depending upon the context. As we ended up asking in class, can it truly be said that there is just a being of a “dragon” in the medieval era? Can we think of it rather as different species? Or perhaps different manifestations based on need? In the case of symbolic dragons, if they do indeed have any sort of enhanced symbolism, can we, as in the case of cats, possibly attribute that quality either to their physical form or their liminal role in the animal kingdom?
As we saw in the case of Beowulf’s dragon, or rather dragons, even in just the one text there was the possibility of two interpretations of dragon-kind: Fafnir and what I will refer to as simply the Dragon (with a capital D, which I feel it deserves). For the first type, we see Fafnir, who is a crawling, snake-like creature without flight (Shilton, 68). Fafnir was also not originally a dragon, at least according the the Volsunsaga, and he therefore seems to be a much more direct representation of symbolism than the other. This dragon, we are told, was not originally a dragon. Instead, he was a man who was excessively greedy as well as being murderous, and he transformed into a dragon as a result of these failures of virtue (71). On the other hand, we have the Dragon, who Howard Shilton argues, though it may also have been assumed to be originally human, appears to be more literally an animal. This Dragon has flight, has the ability to “spew” fire and wreak havoc on towns, and flies wreathed in flame (67). Although it is possible that this Dragon was originally interpreted as the result of a transformation similar to Fafnir’s (72), in Beowulf, it is “a real dragon, it is a primordial creature, a beast” without, tellingly, Fafnir’s capacity for human speech (73). Although it is not a common creature, such a beast may have been regarded as something akin to a komodo dragon: unusual and foreign, but there (71). The Dragon is “evil” without intentionality rather than “Evil” (74). It does still share the non-virtuous features seen in Fafnir, however. This Dragon is associated with greed, hoarding treasure, and murderousness, “fuelled by the desire to appease its anger and malice” (74), though Shilton claims that it is not “immoral” (74).
Though this is Shilton’s interpretation rather than necessarily that of the writer, this reminds me (of course) of the bestiaries, discussing the emotions of animals. An animal can perhaps be wrathful, but can it be sinfully wrathful in the same way as a human being? That question also brings again to mind the animal trials, where animals were put on trial for murder. Given our failure to make total sense of that extremely puzzling historical phenomenon, it is uncertain whether people ascribed intentionality to animal emotion and activity. In the transformation of Fafnir, though, there seems to be another, clearer similarity to the animal trials: the blurring between the animal and the human. Sinfulness in humans might create a real transformation into animality. 
In our other readings, more pieces of the dragon puzzle continued to reminded me of the animal trials through one interpretation of interaction with these creatures seen across multiple readings. The first is again in Shilton’s piece, where he describes the Dragon, arguing for its animality, as “an inimical force of nature,” evil only in the sense that “a natural phenomenon is evil” (Shilton, 74). Riches (interesting name for a dragon scholar, by the way) similarly describes some dragons in her more general piece covering dragon representations, “Encountering the Monstrous.” There are violent encounters between humans and these monsters, such as the famous battle between St. George and the dragon, but there also episodes of non-violent encounters between saints and dragons. In these, “a dangerous monster, symbolic of the hostile natural world, is contained and tamed rather than annihilated,” and it may be driven off by the sign of the cross or the saint’s injunction (Riches, “Encountering,” 208). In one story, discussed by both Peregrine Horden and Riches, a saint divides an area into separate parts using his staff, reserving one side for the continued life of the snakes (208). Rather than destroying them, the saint gives the snakes their own place to live where they will not be of harm to people. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
In the week on animal trials, we puzzled over ecclesiastical animal trials and the habit of giving pest animals their own plot of land, which they were enjoined to take for their own in the stead of the land which they were then occupying. Do the saint and dragons stories give us a new way to think about those trials, in seeing them as a potential imitation of popular Christian methods for dealing with the holy world which apparently had worked before in Saints' lives? Or, ascribing less causality to the situation, which brings up chicken and egg issues, might we at least see them as a very similar manifestation of the view of the natural world in the medieval era? As Shilton argues, natural was not necessarily seen as Evil, or a force of Satan, although it could be, just as we see that the dragon could similarly be a diabolical symbol. Instead, it could just be a threat to be redirected, or, as Horden puts it, an “ecological hazard” to be removed, at least in some instances (46).
The story of the saint dividing the island also appears in Horden’s argument for the dragon as a largely literal, physical, beast-representation of malarial sorts of disease. The dragon is the natural world (or malarial swamps and their products), and getting rid of the dragon is draining the swamp, getting rid of the source of disease. As we discussed in class, however, it is a bit unclear as to how the dragon can both be representative and literal, although Horden left me engaged with the lack of clarity in the issue rather than unconvinced. I think, again, the answer is "yes" to that either/or question. It is true that, as Professor Fulton Brown said, of course people did not see literal dragons—after all, we know now that dragons are imaginary (at least in this world/universe), and the most obvious rebuttal to this is again the bestiary argument: it depends on what you mean by “dragon.” Dragons as Albertus Magnus saw them certainly did exist, they were simply the gigantic snakes found in India, no more misrepresented than the elephant was. But I am not sure that we can totally discount people seeing dragons up close in dragon form, if we get into the psychology arena. I believe that it is in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic that he mentions the idea that the imaginary things people see, or how they misinterpret what they see, depends on the time period. People arguably really did see armies battling in the sky in the aurora borealis or ghosts in flickering candlelight. I am not entirely sure that we can say that when a person visited a swamp and saw a monster, they actually saw a crocodile and just did not know its name, or they were simply misnaming a thing they never saw. Instead, they may have really seen what was, to them at that moment, a dragon. The point being, as Horden describes in the opening vignette of the malaria article, even recently an anthropologist was in a situation where someone told him there was a dragon afoot (45). Were dragons only distant comets in the sky and only off living in India where no one in Western Europe could have seen them personally, like the other monsters Wittkower describes (allowing again, in that instance, that there were indeed actual “monsters” as well)? Not necessarily, I think. The human brain is a pretty marvelous thing, and it has a tendency to see what it expects to see. In medieval, malaria-ridden France (malaria also causes hallucinations, does it not?), they very likely expected to encounter a dragon in that swamp, and perhaps they did! Going back towards the more metaphorical perspective, perhaps, in addition to the natural world seeming in many ways to be dragon-like, and vice versa, in terms of the relationship between wilderness, disease and medieval people. perhaps it helped to put a face and a physical form to an otherwise seemingly unknowable, unfightable evil.

Speaking of the physical dragon form, the question remains as to what inspires the rich symbolism of the dragon. Perhaps it is this idea of the dragon as linked to both wilderness and humanity, the possible forms of the dragon as both an animal and as a transformed human. Or is it just that the dragon is so mightily formidable? I believe someone referred to it in class as a “top-tier predator.” As it is described in Beowulf, at least, certainly. The Dragon is massive and terrifying. As we established, it is a force of nature, and as Shilton concludes, it is a naturally fitting counterpart for a hero (Shilton, 77). It is also reptilian, flying, poisonous, scaly, associated with fire, and man-eating, making it a good symbol for Satan. Again, it is a strong representation of wild, devastating nature. Given Horden’s hypothesis on the role of saints in driving out disease (73), as well as the role of the saint as hero and conqueror of the non-Christian, the dragon makes sense as an opponent. Similarly, as a force of nature, the dragon might be perceived as an agent of God (Riches, “Encountering,” 211). It could also be perceived as the uncontrolled female, a concept linked to animality, sinfulness, diabolism, Lilith, and the Fall from Eden, as Riches so disturbingly and compellingly argues in her second article, tracing the associations across related images and understandings of the Saint George legend (Riches, “St George,” 156-78). As we saw earlier in the quarter in Sperber's piece on categorical anomalies and symbols, it seems likely that the symbolic richness came less from it being a categorical anomaly among non-human animals (though, as I mentioned, perhaps it was a bit because of its liminal place on the edge of civilization/the human) and more to do with an obvious Biblical link and an intimidating and noxious physical form. Monsters, just in being monsters, might not necessarily be especially symbolic, but perhaps dragons, as incredibly large monsters with a close Biblical cousin, are.


  1. You discuss the question of intentionality with regard to the evil of dragons and animals put on trial. A distinction needs to be made, however, between plain intentionality and the capacity to act morally. I don't think you really mean that "the Dragon [in Beowulf] is 'evil' without intentionality." The Dragon is not merely mechanical. Its actions are motivated by intentions, by a desire for revenge. The Dragon is an agent, but not a moral agent--that is, in lacking the capacity to reflect on its actions, to reason, it is not a member of the human(+) community--it is still, however, a member of the natural community. The anger of the dragon is in its nature. Thus we get to the parallels you point out between the descriptions of many encounters between saints and dragons and what we know of ecclesiastical animal trials. Here Shilton's distinction between "Evil" and "evil" is useful. Capital E, reprehensible Evil is so because it opposes the goodness of its nature, its creation. Lowercase, natural evils are amoral because their "evil" is a part of their creation. I believe it is recognition of this difference that is part of the reasoning behind banishing rather than killing dragons, or setting aside land for grasshoppers. The category of natural "evils" are part of creation and thus must be respected as such, lest it be thought wrong that God created the world as it is.

  2. I like your question about why the dragon is so powerfully symbolic. Both of your suggested reasons seem reasonable to me. I wonder if we can come up with reasons why it might be perceived as so formidable?

    In the first place, perhaps it has something to do with the quasi-human characteristics which you mentioned that the dragon has. Combining these with its "top-tier predator" status is pretty scary. So if we imagine that the primary characteristic of dragons is a terrifying enmity, then how could they be more perfect? What could be more terrifying than an implacable enemy of humanity, having human vices, human intelligence (but no human compassion), and the deadliest qualities of the animal kingdom?

    And in the second place, if the dragon once got into that niche of the "awful monster that's scarier because it's sort of human-like too" there would be no getting it out. Because when people saw dragons, they wouldn't be seeing literal dragons. Whatever they did see, it would be either less formidable than a dragon, in which case they wouldn't call it a dragon—or it would have some appropriately terrifying quality, in which case the legend of the dragon would be that much reinforced. There could not be a case where a confirmed dragon sighting debunked some exciting myth about dragons' might.

  3. My favorite evolutionary "just so story" about dragons is that they represent a species-memory of the three types of "top-predators" that our primate ancestors had to cope with: raptors (thus the wings), snakes (thus the reptilian scales and eyes), and big cats (thus the beards and hot breath). Predators are not evil, just hungry and relentless, so (if we buy this argument), dragons represent the memory of all of our ancestors who somehow escaped long enough to breed. I don't know quite what to do with theories like this--they are easily as compelling as malarial swamps!--but somehow it is true that almost all human mythologies include some form of dragon-like predator, sometimes understood as simply evil (against us) and sometimes imagined as bringing good luck. Again, animal symbols constantly push back against our readings precisely because the animals are real. Perhaps the very durability of dragons as symbols is the best argument we have for their reality as animals? As a thought! RLFB

  4. I'm rather intrigued by your comparison of saints "conquering" dragons to late medieval and early modern animal trials. I regret not having read the Horden article, so I'm not familiar with all it's intricacies, but I certainly think the similarity of dragon conquering and lawsuits involving locusts seems to strengthen the "dragon as malaria" argument. The fact that a similar method of dealing with problem animals (including the punishment, as well as the religious association of those handing down the punishment) was still used many centuries after dragons were supposedly banished begs to be thought of as more than a coincidence. But it also raises the question of how we categorize both dragons and the insects facing banishment. If we want correlate dragons with malaria, and by extension mosquitoes carrying malaria, then are dragons really "top-tier predators?" Or are they just pests, like locusts? Certainly, then, the malarial dragons are not the same as Beowulf's dragon, but perhaps that is because they are created in different contexts, which we all know is important to consider. I'm tempted to make some claim (despite, again, not being completely familiar with Horden) that a malarial swamp would be filled with mosquitoes that are then preyed upon by snakes, which we know were recognized by some (Albertus Magnus) as being actual dragons, so by banishing malaria the saints banished the food source of the snakes and so the dragons went away. But to give in to that temptation would be to forget that Albertus' dragons were boas, not little garter snakes, and also would be trying to conflate different contextual conceptions of dragons into a single "thing." Still, though, the idea that dragons are malaria is compelling, perhaps only because of its novelty, and you seem to have navigated Horden's argument quite well. RAE

  5. Touching on the being of a “dragon,” and the different interpretations of what a dragon may look like, I think the descriptions of the form of dragons is somewhat analogous to the depictions of other rarer animals. We saw when we examined the depictions of elephants in class just how varied those drawings were. The same was true for lions and several other species. When medieval artists were able to get a good look at these creatures, the drawings could be pretty accurate. Considering no one was ever able to get a good look at a dragon, it would stand to reason that so many different depictions of dragons developed. The different versions, be it long serpents with multiple sets of wings, or perhaps a smaller, more stocky creature with strong wings. In any event, what was known as a dragon varied from account to account, essentially based on the imagination or false recollection of whoever claimed to have saw one. To that end, it doesn’t seem like the interpretation was ever that these were all differing “species,” and most explanations of the species all fell under “draco.” Rather, it seems reasonable that the understood rarity of these creatures would allow people to accept the differing descriptions.
    - Jeramee Gwozdz