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!