Here be Dragons

Today is 23 April, the traditionally accepted date of St George’s death (in AD 303). To celebrate St George’s Day, Charlie Morgan continues our theme of mythical beasts as he takes a look at St George’s legendary adversary: the mighty dragon.

Saint George. Line engraving, 1851.

Saint George. Line engraving, 1851.

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that today is St George’s Day. Without the festivities of, say, St Patrick’s Day, for years St George’s Day’s saving grace was being the time of the year when we’d be reminded of dragons. The fourth season of Game of Thrones began recently and patron saints tend to not do well up against HBO blockbusters; however, until Daenerys gets her own feast day I suppose we’re stuck with St George. Which makes this as good a time as any to explore what dragons actually are.

As with unicorns, most of us are familiar with dragons from literature, art and films. From Falkor the luckdragon in The Neverending Story and Haku in Spirited Away, to Maleficent’s dragon form and Draco in Dragonheart. From dragons in the Harry Potter series and Reign of Fire, to Mushu in Mulan and Lockheed in X-Men. Not forgetting, of course, Smaug the Magnificent in the Hobbit and many more. But where did myths of these legendary creatures come from?

The woman clothed with the sun is attacked by a seven-headed dragon (representing the 12th Book of Revelation).

The woman clothed with the sun is attacked by a seven-headed dragon (representing the 12th Book of Revelation).

The legend of St George and the dragon stems from the latter serving as a symbol of the Christian devil. This might come from an adapted form of the snake in the Garden of Eden but it’s most memorable in the Book of Revelations, where Satan is embodied as ‘a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads’. The beast wages war with Archangel Michael before being thrown down to earth where he is worshipped as a false God. Eventually an angel descends from heaven and casts the dragon into a bottomless pit.

Satan as a dragon thrown into hell, circa 1420-30.

Satan as a dragon thrown into hell, circa 1420-30.

Flash forward and it’s no surprise that the story became so reified during the Crusades. But if dragons in Europe inspired fear, further east they did the exact opposite.

Illustration of a male devata (i.e. lesser deity) riding a large dragon.

Illustration in a Thai manuscript of a male devata (i.e. lesser deity) riding a large dragon.

If you visit the Forbidden City in Beijing you might spot the ornately decorated Nine Dragon Wall that stands within. If you make a trip to our Medicine Man gallery when it re-opens you might catch sight of an ominous looking chair upon which dragon heads protrude from the arms. You might have been born in the Year of the Dragon or you might have watched a costumed dragon snake through Chinatown during New Year’s; either way it is clear that dragons play an important role in Chinese culture.

Chinese dragons long symbolised luck or power but have tended to fly and breathe fire far less than their European counterparts. Instead, they regularly swam through water, controlled the weather and for years gave legitimacy to Imperial families: specifically, the five-clawed dragon motif confirmed the Emperor as the Son of Heaven and provided his consorts with similar authority. In countries that border China dragons also command respect. In Bhutan the national icon is the ‘Druk’ (Thunder Dragon) and the state ruler is the Dragon King. Say what you want about monarchies but that’s a pretty cool name.

Late 19th century Chinese imperial letter from the governor of Chiang-su (Kiangsu) Province, The letter is enclosed with yellow silk end papers depicting the five-clawed dragon motif.

Late 19th century Chinese imperial letter from the governor of Chiang-su (Kiangsu) Province, The letter is enclosed with yellow silk end papers depicting the five-clawed dragon motif.

When it comes to their blood, dragons again divide opinion. According to some myths, bathing in dragon blood would imbue the bather with invincible skin; in others, it’s acidic or simply deadly to the touch. Back in Europe, the last dragon was supposedly slain in 1572 when one was taken down by a farmer hitting it on the head with a walking stick. Still, in a 1670s recipe by Lady Ann Fanshawe that produced a ‘red powder good for miscarrying’, the first ingredient she listed was ‘of Dragon’s blood one dram’. Was she referring to plant resin or, as certain encyclopedias of the time suggested, the real blood of a dragon? We can only guess as to which side of the fence Lady Fanshawe was on but, since then, the medical has certainly won out over the mythological.

Lady Ann Fanshawe's recipe.

Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe.

Today we are most familiar with dragons such as those which mark the boundaries of the City of London or the one that is emblazoned on the flag of Wales. Interestingly the latter has not been a historical constant and, with a nod to Muriel Bailly’s recent blog post, during the reign of the Stuarts it was jettisoned in favour of a unicorn. Aside from flags, and outside the world of cryptozoology, dragons nowadays exist mostly in the realms of science fiction and fantasy.

In the real world we have to settle for Komodo dragons and Draco lizards. Incidentally, other inspirations for dragon mythology may have come from a variety of places, as discussed by the Smithsonian and Live Science. Yet a 2004 piece of docu-fiction, called The Last Dragon, began by noting the amount of cultures that, despite having no contact with each other, all developed mythologies of dragons. From this it posited a fictional evolutionary process of the dragon before its eventual defeat to man. The film is of course fiction, but centuries on from both St George and the Chinese Emperors it’s still nice to dream.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

2 thoughts on “Here be Dragons

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