Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, , at sacred-texts.com
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The ancients conceived it as the embodiment of
malignant and destructive power, and with attributes of the most terrible kind. Classic story makes us acquainted with many dreadful monsters of the dragon kind, to which reference will afterwards be more particularly made.
It is often argued that the monsters of tradition are but the personification of solar influences, storms, the desert wind, the great deeps, rivers inundating their banks, or other violent phenomena of nature, and so, no doubt, they are, and have been; but the strange fact remains that the same draconic form with slight modifications constantly appears as the type of the thing most dreaded, and instead of melting into an abstraction and dying out of view, it has remained from age to age, in form, distinctly a ferocious flying reptile, until in the opinion of many the tradition has been justified by prosaic science. It is surprising to find that the popular conception of the dragon—founded on tradition, passed on through hundreds of generations—not only retains its identity, but bears a startling resemblance to the original antediluvian saurians, whose fossil remains now come to light through geological research, almost proving the marvellous power of tradition and the veracity of those who passed it on.
Mr. Moncure Conway ("Demonology, or Devil Lore") says: "The opinion has steadily gained that the conventional dragon is the traditional form of some huge saurian. It has been suggested that some of those extinct saurians may have been contemporaneous
with the earliest men, and that traditions of conflicts with them, transmitted orally and pictorially, have resulted in preserving their forms in fable proximately."
"Among the geological specimens in the British Museum," says Hugh Miller, "the visitor sees shapes that more than rival in strangeness the great dragons and griffins of mediæval legends; enormous jaws, bristling with pointed teeth, gape horrid, in stone, under staring eye-sockets a foot in diameter; and necks that half equal in length the entire body of a boa-constrictor. And here we see a winged dragon that, armed with sharp teeth and strong claws, has careered through the air on leathern wings like those of a bat." We are also told in the sacred Scriptures by Moses of "fiery serpents," and by Isaiah of "a fiery flying serpent." Other monsters—dragons, cockatrices, and some of whose form we have no conception—are also mentioned. Euripides describes a dragon or snake breathing forth fire and slaughter, and rowing its way with its wings. It is evident that such a creature may at one time have existed. Looking at the widespread belief in dragons, there seems little doubt that the semi-myth of to-day is the traditional successor of a really once-existent animal, whose huge size, snake-like appearance, and possibly dangerous powers of offence made him so terrible that the earlier races of mankind adopted him unanimously as the most fearful embodiment of animal ferocity to be found.
One of the latest acquisitions in the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, is the skeleton of that enormous creature the long-limbed dinosaur (Diplodicus Carnegii), recently discovered in America, eighty-nine feet in length from the head to the tip of the tail, the huge bulky framework of the monster measuring eleven feet in height at the shoulder. The enormous length of its neck and tail, with relatively small head, would indicate it to be an amphibious inhabitant of the waters, feeding on the vegetation growing in its depths.
Mr. Moncure Conway, in his remarkable work, "Demonology, or Devil Lore," describes all intermediate stages between demon and devil under the head of dragon. This he believes to be the only fabulous form which accurately describes all the transitions. Throughout all the representations of the dragon one feature is common, and that is the idealised serpent. The dragon possesses all the properties of the demon along with that of harmfulness, but differs from the devil in not having the desire of doing evil. The dragon in mythology is the combination of every bad feature in nature, all of which is combined into one horrible whole. "The modern conventional dragon," says Mr. Conway, "is a terrible monster. His body is partially green, with memories of the sea and of slime, and partly brown or dark, with lingering shadows of storm-clouds. The lightning flames still in his red eyes, and flashes from his fire-breathing mouth.
[paragraph continues] The thunderbolt of Jove, the spear of Woden, are in the barbed point of his tail. His huge wings—bat-like and spiked—sum up all the mysteries of extinct harpies and vampires. Spine of crocodile is on his neck, tail of the serpent and all the jagged ridges of rocks and sharp thorns of jungles bristle round him, while the ice of glaciers and brassy glitter of sunstrokes are in his scales. He is ideal of all that is hard, destructive, perilous, loathsome, horrible in nature; every detail of him has been seen through and vanquished by man, here or there; but in selection and combination they rise again as principles, and conspire to form one great generalisation of the forms of pain, the sum of every creature's worst."
"The External Forms of Dragons are greatly dependent on the nature of the country in which they originate. In the far north, where exist the legends of the swan and pigeon, maidens and vampires, exists the swan-shaped dragon. As demons of excessive heat principally existed in the south, so in the north the great enemy of man was excessive cold. In the northern countries is found also the serpent element, but as serpents are there frequently harmless, this feature does not enter much into their composition. The Cuttlefish is supposed to have helped in the formation of the Hydra, which in its turn assisted in forming the dragon of the Apocalypse. Assyrian ideas also seem to have assisted in the pictorial impersonations of the hydra. This
many-headed monster is a representation of a torrent, which being cut off in one direction breaks out in another. The conflicts of Hercules with the hydra are repeated in those of the Assyrian Bel with Trinant (the deep), and also in the contentions of St. Michael with the dragon. The old dragon myths left in Europe were frequently utilised by the Christians. Other saints besides St. Michael were invested with the feats of Hercules; St. Margaret, St. Andrew, and many others are pictured as trampling dragons under their feet. The Egyptian dragon is based on the crocodile, and this form being received into Christian symbolism did greatly away with other pagan monsters. The hideousness of the crocodile and the alligator could easily be exaggerated so as to suit the most horrible contortions of the human imagination. Amongst the most terrible dragons is Typhon, the impersonation of all the terrors of nature. Son of Tartarus, father of the harpies and of the winds, he lives in the African deserts; from thence fled in fear, to escape his terrible breath, all the gods and goddesses. He is coiled in the whirlwind, and his many heads are symbolical of the tempest, the scrive, the hurricane, and the tornado."
Under the head of The Colonial Dragon Mr. Conway has embodied all the horrors and difficulties with which the early colonists would be beset. Amongst these he places the Gorgon and the Chimera. The most widely spread of all is the last named, and from it is supposed that all Christian and British dragons
are descended. The Christian myth of St. George and the Dragon is but a variation of Bellerophon and the Chimera, in which the last has given place to the dragon and the pagan hero to St. George.
"In ancient families there are usually traditions of some far-distant ancestor having slain a desperate monster. It is always the colonial dragon that has
been borrowed by poets and romancers. The Dragon killed by Guy of Warwick is but another variation of the chimera. There is again the Sockburn Worm, slain by Sir John Conyers for the devouring of the people of the neighbourhood; the well-known tradition of the Lambton Worm is in reality a modification of the Aryan Dragon of the Storm Cloud; smaller than a man's hand he swells out to prodigious dimensions."
A favourite subject for Chinese and Japanese painting and sculpture is a dragon very much of the
same type, and a monstrous representation of a dragon in the form of a huge Saurian still forms the central object at Japanese festivals.
Among the Chinese the dragon is the representation of sovereignty, and is the imperial emblem borne upon banners, and otherwise displayed as the national ensign. To the people of that vast country it represents everything powerful and imposing; and it plays an important part in many religious ceremonies and observances. Dr. S. Wells Williams, the eminent sinalogue, describes the fabulous monster of Chinese imagination in the following passage: There are three dragons—the lung in the sky, the li in the sea, and the kiau in the marshes. The first is the only authentic species according to the Chinese; it has the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, neck of a snake, belly of a frog, scales of a carp, claws of a hawk, and palm of a tiger. On each side of the mouth are whiskers, and its beard contains a bright pearl; the breath is sometimes changed into water and sometimes into fire, and its voice is like the jingling of copper pans. The dragon of the sea occasionally ascends to heaven in waterspouts, and is the ruler of all oceanic phenomena." The fishermen and sailors before venturing away from land or returning to port, burn joss-sticks and beat gongs to ward off the evil influences of the dragon, and it is worshipped in a variety of ways. According to a fable current in China, the Celestial Emperor Hoang-ti was carried up to heaven, along
with seventy other persons, by a great dragon; those who were only able to catch at his moustaches were shaken off and thrown on the ground. It is still the custom when an emperor dies to say that the dragon has ascended to heaven. An eclipse the simple
[paragraph continues] Celestials believe to be caused by a great dragon that seeks to devour the sun or moon. A great noise is made by firing guns, beating drums, and the rattling and jangling of pairs of discordant instruments to frighten the monster away. A frequent subject of their artists is the dreadful dragon sprawling through masses of curling clouds in the act of grasping at or swallowing the great luminary, a subject which no doubt bears a deeper meaning than we see, and one intimately connected with their mythology.
In some of their splendid festivals the worship of the dragon is celebrated with great excitement and furore. On the Canton river a boat of immense length formed like a dragon in many wondrous folds, rowed by fifty or more natives, with wild music and dancing, and accompanied by a crowd of junks; the unfurling of sails and the streaming of flags from the masts, the beating of drums, the noise and smoke from the firing of guns, all exhibit the fondness of a people for the pleasures of a national holiday.
Dragon's Teeth.—Cadmus slew the dragon that guarded the well of Ares, and sowed some of the teeth, from which sprang up the armed men who all killed each other except five, who were the ancestors of the Thebans. Those teeth which Cadmus did not sow, came to the possession of Ætes, King of Colchis; and one of the tasks he enjoined on Jason was to sow these teeth and slay the armed warriors that rose therefrom. The frequent allusion to the classic term dragon's teeth refers to subjects of civil strife; whatever rouses citizens to rise in arms.
The mythical dragon has left the lasting impress of his name in various ways in our language and literature, as in the art of nearly every country.
☊ Dragon's Head and ☋ Dragon's Tail.—In astronomy Nodes are the opposite points in which the orbit of a planet, or of a moon, crosses the ecliptic. The ascending node marked by the character (☊),
termed the Dragon's head, is where the planet or moon ascends from the south to the north side of the ecliptic, and the descending node indicated by the character (☋) the Dragon's tail is where it passes from the north to the south side.
Draco, a constellation in the northern hemisphere, representing the monster that watched the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides, slain by Hercules, and set as a constellation in the heavens.
Draco volens, a meteor sometimes visible in marshy countries—Ignus fatuus, or will-o’-the-wisp.
Draco volens, or flying dragon, a curious class of saurian reptiles peculiar to the East Indies, having membranous attachments to their limbs, which give them the appearance of flying as they leap from tree to tree.
Dragon's blood, a vegetable balsam of a dark red colour brought from India, Africa, and South America. So called from its resemblance to dried and hardened masses of blood.