Dragon
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Source: British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 3244, Folio 59r


 

Dragon

Latin name: Draco

Other names:

The greatest of all serpents on earth

 

 
General Attributes

The dragon's strength is found in its tail, not in its teeth. Its lashing tail does great harm, and the dragon kills anything it catches in its coils. The dragon is the enemy of the elephant, and hides near paths where elephants walk so that it can catch them with its tail and kill them by suffocation. It is because of the threat of the dragon that elephants give birth in the water. The dragon's venom is harmless. The dragon has a crest and a small mouth. When the dragon is drawn from its hole into the air, it stirs up the air and makes it shine. Dragons are found in India and Ethiopia. Dragons are afraid of the peridexion tree and stay out of its shadow, which will harm them. Doves roost in the tree to be safe from the dragon. Dragons cannot stand the sweet smell breathed out by the panther and hide in a hole when the panther roars.


Allegory/Moral

The Devil is likened to a dragon because he is the worst of all serpents. As the dragon makes the air shine, so the Devil makes himself appear as the angel of light to deceive the foolish. The crest of the dragon represents the Devil crowned with pride. As the dragon's strength is not in its teeth but in its tail, the Devil, deprived of his strength, deceives with lies. The way in which the dragon attacks elephants represents the way the Devil attacks people, lying in wait along their path to heaven, wrapping them in his coils, and suffocating them with sin.


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 11): India produces the largest elephants as well as the largest dragons, which are perpetually at war with the elephants. The dragon is of so enormous a size that it is easily able to envelop the elephant in its coils. He describes the tricks of the dragon, which watches from a neighbouring tree the road which the elephants take when going to feed, and then darts down upon them. The elephant when at-tacked, being unable to disengage itself from the serpent's coils, seeks a tree or rock to rub itself against in order to kill the dragon, but the latter, to prevent this, binds the elephant's legs, and flies at its nostrils and other tender parts, especially its eyes; and this is the reason, Pliny asserts, why elephants are often found blind and worn to a skeleton with hunger and misery. He mentions the dragon as being destitute of venom in Book 29, 20. As to the cause of their enmity Pliny says that the blood of the elephant is remarkably cold, for which reason in the parching heats of summer it is sought by the dragon with extraordinary avidity. The dragon lies coiled in the rivers, and when the elephant comes to drink, fastens itself round its trunk and fixes its teeth behind its ear, that being the only place which the elephant cannot protect with its trunk. 'The dragons, it is said, are of such vast size that they can swallow the whole of the elephant's blood; consequently the latter, being thus drained, falls to the earth exhausted, while the dragon, intoxicated with the draught, is crushed beneath it and so shares its fate.' Pliny makes several references to cinnabar, or 'dragon's blood,' more particularly in Book 33, 38. He speaks of it as being held in the highest esteem and says that it is properly the name given to the thick matter which issues from the dragon when crushed by the dying elephant, mixed with the blood of either of them; and that it is the only color that in painting gives a proper representation of blood. He deprecates the practice of physicians who use mineral vermilion, i.e., minium or cinnabaris nativa, which is a rank poison, in medicine in mistake for the Indian cinnabar, owing to their similarity of name (Book 29, 8). (from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919)

Aelian (174-235 CE) (De Natura Animalium, Book vi, ch. 21): speaks of the bitter enmity between the dragon and the elephant, and says that the dragon, concealed in the trees, covers up the tail half of its body with foliage and lets the forepart hang down like a rope; and when the elephant comes along it darts at its eyes and tears them out, and then, encircling its neck, lashes it with its tail, and suffocates it in this uncommon and novel kind of noose. (from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919)

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 4:4-5): The dragon is the largest serpent, and in fact the largest animal on earth. Its name in Latin is draco, derived from the Greek name drakon. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling. Not even the elephant is safe from the dragon; hiding where elephants travel, the dragon tangles their feet with its tail and kills the elephant by suffocating it. Dragons live in the burning heat of India and Ethiopia. (Book 16, 14:7): Dracontites is a stone that is forcibly taken from the brain of a dragon, and unless it is torn from the living creature it has not the quality of a gem; whence magi cut it out of dragons while they are sleeping. For bold men explore the cave of the dragons, and scatter there medicated grains to hasten their sleep, and thus cut off their heads while they are sunk in sleep, and take out the gems.

Hugo de Folieto [c. 1110-72 CE] (from British Library MS. Sloane 278, The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce translation): The scripture teaches us that the greatest of the serpents is the dragon and that it deals death by its poisonous breath and by the blow of its tail. This creature is lifted by the strength of its venom into the air as if it were flying, and the air is set in motion by it. It lies in wait for the elephant, the most chaste of animals, and encircling its feet with its tail it tries to suffocate it with its breath, but is crushed by the elephant as it falls dead. But a valuable pigment is obtained from earth which has been soaked with its blood. The reason of their hostility is this. The poison of the dragon boils with exceeding great heat, but the blood of the elephant is exceedingly cold. The dragon therefore wishes to cool its own heat with the blood of the elephant. The Jews say that God made the great dragon which is called Leviathan, which is in the sea; and when folk say that the sea is ebbing it is the dragon going back. Some say that it is the first fish created by God and that it still lives. And this beast, at one time called a dragon and at another Leviathan, is used in the Scripture symbolically. The dragon, the greatest of all serpents, is the devil, the king of all evil. As it deals death with its poisonous breath and blow of its tail, so the devil destroys men's souls by thought, word and deed. He kills their thoughts by the breath of pride; he poisons their words with malice; he strangles them by the performance of evil deeds, as it were with his tail. By the dragon the air is set in motion, and so is the peace of spiritually minded people often disturbed in that way. It lays wait for a chaste animal; so he persecuted to the death Christ the guardian of chastity, being born of a chaste virgin; but he was overcome, having been crushed by him in his death. As for the precious colour which is got from the ground, that is the Church of Christ adorned by his precious blood. The dragon is the enemy of a pure animal; likewise is the devil the enemy of the Virgin's Son.

British Library Harley MS. 4751 [c. 1235 CE] (The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce translation): The dragon is the greatest of all serpents, or of all living things upon the earth. The Greeks call it "Dracon," whence the Latin name is derived, so that it is called Draco. And this creature often stealing forth from its caverns mounts into the air, and the air is violently set in motion and glows around it. It is also crested and has a small mouth and narrow passages through which it draws its breath and thrusts out its tongue. Moreover its strength lies not in its teeth but in its tail, and it injures by a blow rather than by a bite. It is harmless as to poisons, but they say poisons are not needful to this creature for dealing death, because if it has caught any one in its coils, it kills him. From which not even the elephant is safe by the greatness of its body. For lurking about the paths by which the elephants are accustomed to go, it binds their legs in its coils and kills them by suffocation. Now they are bred in Ethiopia and in India, where it is so hot that there is heat upon the very mountain tops. / 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.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): The Dragon is most greatest of all serpents, and oft he is drawn out of his den, and riseth up into the air, and the air is moved by him, and also the sea swelleth against his venom, and he hath a crest with a little mouth, and draweth breath at small pipes and straight, and reareth his tongue, and hath teeth like a saw, and hath strength, and not only in teeth, but also in his tail, and grieveth both with biting and with stinging, and hath not so much venom as other serpents: for to the end to slay anything, to him venom is not needful, for whom he findeth he slayeth, and the elephant is not secure of him, for all his greatness of body. Oft four or five of them fasten their tails together, and rear up their heads, and sail over sea and over rivers to get good meat. Between elephants and dragons is everlasting fighting, for the dragon with his tail bindeth and spanneth the elephant, and the elephant with his foot and with his nose throweth down the dragon, and the dragon bindeth and spanneth the elephant's legs, and maketh him fall, but the dragon buyeth it full sore: for while he slayeth the elephant, the elephant falleth upon him and slayeth him. Also the elephant seeing the dragon upon a tree, busieth him to break the tree to smite the dragon, and the dragon leapeth upon the elephant, and busieth him to bite him between the nostrils, and assaileth the elephant's eyen, and maketh him blind sometime, and leapeth upon him sometime behind, and biteth him and sucketh his blood. And at the last after long fighting the elephant waxeth feeble for great blindness, in so much that he falleth upon the dragon, and slayeth in his dying the dragon that him slayeth. The cause why the dragon desireth his blood, is coldness of the elephant's blood, by the which the dragon desireth to cool himself. Jerome saith, that the dragon is a full thirsty beast, insomuch that unneth he may have water enough to quench his great thirst; and openeth his mouth therefore against the wind, to quench the burning of his thirst in that wise. Therefore when he seeth ships sail in the sea in great wind, he flieth against the sail to take their cold wind, and overthroweth the ship sometimes for greatness of body, and strong rese against the sail. [This is usually said of the sawfish.] And when the shipmen see the dragon come nigh, and know his coming by the water that swelleth ayenge him, they strike the sail anon, and scape in that wise. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


Illustration

There is considerable variation in the illustration of dragons, but they usually have two or four feet, long tails, and at least one pair of wings. Fire-breathing dragons are rarely depicted; the dragon in British Library, Harley MS 3244 appears to be breathing fire. The most common scenes show the dragon attacking an elephant or threating the female elephant giving birth; the dragon held at bay by the peridexion tree; and the dragon trying to hide from the panther.


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