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Where there be dragons
Jan 27, 2012

 

The Chinese dragon is god of water. In the western world, even among desert dwellers, dragons are also associated with water and often said to live in wells. This belief spawned the myth that the bottom of a well is the dragon’s eye.
The Bible contains numerous mentions of this creature, one of the oldest found in Isaiah 27:1: “The Lord ... shall slay the dragon that is in the sea ...”
However, dragons to the Hebrews weren’t usually seen as real. They were symbolic references to “the enemy.” This enemy ranged from Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians, to the devil himself.
Last week’s Twisty Tongue described the Chinese dragon. Let’s contrast that with this passage from the Book of Revelation: “And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads  ... stood before the woman” (Rev. 12:3-4).
Belief in dragons was so prevalent in olden days that ancient map-makers used to note their presence in charts they drew. It’s reported they claimed, “Here be dragons.” But research has uncovered only one such map — The Lennox Globe (c.1503-07). Still, many early maps and charts do depict drawings of dragons, usually locating these in the neighbourhood of Southern Africa. The earliest such map is the Psalter Map (ca.1250).
Dragons are also connected with caves and piles of treasure. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins encounters the terrible dragon Smaug in a cave. Tolkien describes Smaug: “A vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail ... stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things ...”
Possibly, the idea of dragons, caves and treasure springs from Teutonic mythology where we’re told of the dragon Fafnir, who lurked in his cave guarding his treasure — a hoard of jewels and gold that was the source of life and power.
Luckily, in myth there’s always a hero, a dragonslayer, and in this case it is Siegfried who becomes invulnerable once he has killed Fafnir and bathed in his blood.
Siegfried isn’t alone in such unusual behaviour. Myths of many lands tell of heroes who gain power by eating the heart of a dragon or drinking its blood.
In early Christian thought, dragons represented the devil. The story of St. George, England’s patron saint, is apparently connected to this tradition — God’s servant defeating Satan.
St. George, who never set foot in England, was probably born in what is now Turkey. Also, since dragons are creatures of myth and fantasy, it’s certain he never slew one. But his story was known there by the eighth century and he became the patron of knights, soldiers and then Crusaders.
We first find dragon in Middle English as dragoun. It came from the Old French dragon. French borrowed it from draco, which is Latin for serpent. It’s ultimately from the Greek drakon (serpent).