More Good Dragons in Christianity

St. Isidore of Seville, in his Questions about Exodus (Quaestiones in Exodum, part of his series of quaestiones about the whole Old Testament) talks about the miracle of Moses turning his staff/rod/stick into a snake, matched by the Egyptian magicians turning their staffs/staves into snakes. Moses’ staff-snake eats the Egyptians’ staff-snakes, then Moses turns it back into a staff. Thus showing that God’s power given to his servants beats the power of gods, pagan priests, and magicians. Blah, blah, blah — you know this story.

Except that St. Isidore describes Moses’ staff turning into a dragon, and eating the Egyptians’ dragons. In fact, the title of Chapter 12 is “De virga in draconem versa.” He calls the staff-snake a “serpent” in the first two paragraphs, but paragraph 3 goes straight for the dragon thing. It’s not a big ref, but it’s St. Isidore, whom everybody read and copied. That makes it a big thing.

“Moses’ rod, turned into a dragon, swallows up (adsorbuit) the rods of the magicians; and beneath the worthiness of His glory, Christ “is found obedient even unto death,” and swallows (consumpsit) death’s sting through that same death of the flesh, the prophet having attested, “O death, I will be your death; O hell, I will be your bite.” (Hosea 13:14)

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the little-used ancient titles of the server guy who carries the processional crucifix is “draconarius,” after the Imperial cavalry guy who carried the Imperial cavalry’s dragon banner. There are a good few pieces of Christian art which show Christ’s cross conflated with the snake on a stick raised up for the people to look at and be healed (such as certain Easter snake/dragon candlesticks borne by a “draconifer”).* And in fact, St. Isidore refers to that passage in paragraph 2.

But this is the first passage I’ve seen clearly connecting Christ/snake-on-stick with Christ/snake-staff, and with Christ as the Real Dragon that beats the pitiful illusionary ones. St. Isidore being a trusted source in all of medieval Europe, this explains a lot of the art.

Now, dragons being sometimes good guys would also explain why a place like Christian Wales would take a dragon as its symbol and show it battling the bad pagan dragon of the Saxons in their legend of King Vortigern. If Christ is a good dragon that fights and eats bad dragons, Christians are also good dragons that can fight bad dragons (demons or pagan humans) or convert them (pagan humans).

Previous old posts on the obscure odd reference to Christ the Dragon:

“Wrong on Rowling,” in which I refute certain things opined by the writer Michael O’Brien.

“Dragons in the Tain Bo Cualnge,” in which I show the epical origins of the generally favorable connotations of dragons in medieval Irish poetry by Christians.

“Dragon-Stompin’ Jesus,” featuring a Christ as dragonslayer poem by the poet named Dunbar who’s from Scotland, as opposed to the one from Dayton.

I find that I’ve never actually quoted the nifty medieval sequence for Pentecost Thursday and other occasions (like marriage, in the medieval UK), “Alma chorus Domini,” though I mentioned its medieval combat use. Some say it’s by Orientius, some by Notker. The point to notice is that the title Vermis, worm (as in “I am a worm and no man”) also can be translated as “dragon” in Germanic languages in Europe. Anyway, whoever it’s by, it goes like this:

“Let the dear chorus praise now the names of the Highest Lord.
Messiah, Savior, Emmanuel, Sabaoth Adonai;
Only-Begotten, Way, Life, Hand, Homoousion;
Beginning, First-Born, Wisdom, Power,
The Alpha, called the Head and End both together, and the Omega;
The Fountain and Source of good, the Paraclete and Mediator;
Lamb, Sheep, Calf, Serpent, Ram, Lion, Worm;
Mouth, Word, Splendor, Sun, Glory, Light, and Image;
Bread, Flower, Vine, Mountain, Gate, Rock, and Stone;
Angel and Bridegroom and Shepherd, Prophet, High Priest;
Immortal, Lord God, Pantocrator, and Jesus;
May He save us; to Him be glory through all ages.”

UPDATE: * The “pateritsa” or pastoral staff of an Eastern bishop, or of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (as pointed out in the comment box by Ivan), is described as “made of a precious metal and having at the top a cross with serpents turned inward towards it, denotes the power of the Holy Spirit and especially the Cross as an instrument of support for all the faithful. It is pastoral in nature and is there for all the people to see and to know that the Cross can lead them, chastise the disorderly, and gather the dispersed. It reminds us of Moses who held up the staff in the wilderness as the snakes came to bite the people. As long as they looked at his staff, they suffered no harm. The serpents on top, turn inwardly toward the Cross as reminders of the Lord saying, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”” (Google pateritsa images shows that it also comes in a tau/crutch shape without snakes, or sometimes is replaced by a tall cane for everyday use.) Also called “zhezal” or “zheslo”, but they’re not good search terms. Here are some good pics of pateritsas.

So material on the Eastern pastoral staff tradition would probably be a fruitful place for research. And indeed, the pateritsa snakes seem to be described as “dragons” fairly often, perhaps because their appearance is more that of a fabulous monster than a naturalistic snake.

August 1, 2014 UPDATE! Welsh vs. Saxon dragons are actually based on the Mordecai vs. Haman dragons in the longer Septuagint version of the Book of Esther! Check it out!


Filed under Good Christian Dragons

18 responses to “More Good Dragons in Christianity

  1. *grin* Always have been annoyed by “all dragons are evil” type Christian theory!

  2. Pingback: Why I adore Suburbanbanshee’s blog « Head Noises

  3. Pingback: Isidore of Seville, good dragons, Moses and Christianity at Roger Pearse

  4. Ivan

    Do a google image search on the staff of the Oecumenical Patriarch.

  5. I forgot about Tolkien’s nigh-magisterial defense of monsters in his Beowulf paper, and his reminder to Lewis that fantasy is in no sense a lie:

    ‘Dear Sir,’ I said — ‘Although now long estranged,
    Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
    Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
    and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned.
    Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
    through whom is splintered from a single White
    to many hues, and endlessly combined
    in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
    Though all the crannies of the world we filled
    with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
    Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
    and sowed the seed of dragons — ’twas our right
    (used or misused). That right has not decayed:
    We make still by the law in which we’re made.

  6. Harry


    You have no idea how angry (really quite furious) this Welshman gets when a O’Breinite declares that my nations beloved symbol (one that many a Christian has bled for) is actually an attack on the faith, and that all who support it should be looked upon with suspicion.
    I’m not a nationalist, but O’Brien’s arguments have a habit of turning me briefly into one. And the annoying thing is he’s not a bad guy- just ignorant.

    • You are very welcome. Especially since fantasy is nothing without Arthur, and Arthur is nothing if not the Pendragon.

      Y Ddraig Goch is cool!

      • Actually, it turns out that the Welsh dragon is a direct port from the Greek version of the Book of Esther, where Mordecai dreams of battling dragons, and it turns out they represent himself vs. Haman! I’ve linked to the update info above.

  7. Sharon Ferguson

    I have come very late to this discussion, but largely because of a frenzied quest of research on the net about the kind of dragon I am tailoring for a short story I am working on. The majority of what I have found has not been encouraging for what I have in mind, even though I did not set out specifically to prove Christian dragons in particular. I was seeing my dragon character as a definitive guardian for people, and much of what is chronicled on the net suggests that I might have a naive view about it. I am so glad to come across your post! And now I am thinking that if short story snowballs into a novel (as my short stories are wont to do) I have something from which to work my ‘myth-arc.’ Wouldn’t it be fun to blow people’s minds with a dragon that actually DEFENDS God and His Creation? The Welsh, I think, have the right idea…

  8. Pingback: The serpents of Orthodoxy | Summa minutiae

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  10. Alys

    Except for the fact that all the Celtic countries
    were pagan. (in fact all of Britain was Celtic before the invasions) .

    • What’s your point? Im serious…youve stated something so very obvious to the rest of us. Do you have new information to add? How does that tie in with the history of Christianity in Wales? Or is critical theory the only thing you can use to flex your flaccid historical muscle?

    • ….are you trying to claim the Irish Catholics don’t exist?

      Because that’s the only way that your objection makes any sense, if the post-Christian Celtic countries were not actually Christian.

    • Of course the Welsh were originally pagan, and of course not all of the Britons converted to Christianity before the Saxon invasion. But somewhere in there, between the Romans leaving and the conversion of the Saxon invaders, there weren’t any pagan Welsh anymore.

      In fact, this was one of the primary snarks of Welsh writers against the Irish, the Saxons, the people of Brittany, the Norse, etc. And that’s why there were so many Welsh saints in Northern France.

      This was also one of the reasons why St. Patrick sent a Strongly Worded Note to the British kings who were supposed to be Christian. There he is, trying to convert the Irish pagans, and his own people, the British Christians, aren’t setting a good example.

  11. Pingback: Symbols in Christian Religious Art | Musings of Lady Anna Kasper

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