Category Archives: Good Christian Dragons

The Green Dragon on Pub Signs

If you see an English pub name that consists of an animal and a color, it usually has something to do with heraldry. If it’s not a modern name that somebody pulled out of his butt, then the original namegiver was usually expressing his loyalty to his local lord, or to a hero he supported, or to the king. It was often a sign of what kind of customers he wanted to attract.

“The Green Dragon” has long been a popular pub name in the UK. A few years back, one newspaper counted 41 Green Dragons. Tolkien also gave the name to the inn in Bywater where Sam often resorted, which made it a popular name around the world. And of course, Americans should know that Boston’s Green Dragon was one of the cradles of the American Revolution, the favorite tavern of people like Paul Revere.

Now, mind you, there was a Masonic lodge that met in an upstairs room in the Green Dragon. So I recently read a paranoid author not just complain about the role of Freemasonry among the Founding Fathers (which was justified), but claim that the Green Dragon was a sign that the pub was dedicated to Satan.

Arrrrrgh.

As I have pointed out before, there are a lot of English, Scottish, and Irish heraldic associations with dragons. Arthur Pendragon and the Red Dragon of Wales were symbols of the good guys, associated textually with Mordecai’s dream vision of himself in one version of the Greek Book of Esther, as a good guy dragon/snake fighting the evil dragon/snake of Haman. Dragons were a symbol of heroic and fierce fighters, as well as the Roman imperial cavalry. They were also borne in arms by those whose ancestors had legendarily slain dragons, or in places where dragons had legendarily dwelt.

The usual explanation for the Green Dragon name was that pub owners were showing support for the Earl of Pembroke and his family, the Herberts. The green dragon was not his arms, but it was his livery badge (along with a bloody arm usually being eaten by the dragon – sadly I have found no pictures of this!). Pembroke had supported Henry VIII and his son Edward. After a lot of stuff happened, he had supported Queen Mary’s right to rule over the pretensions of Lady Jane Grey. He supported Elizabeth too. Pembroke held extensive lands both in Wales and in England.

But there were other heraldic green dragons. The Maules of Scotland have a green dragon, emitting flames before and behind. (From the tip of the dragon’s curly tail, not in a farting way.) The Ely/O’Neylan O’Carrolls bear a green dragon spitting flame in a more conventional manner. More relevant to Tolkien, the Tames of Oxfordshire bear a green dragon, which is part of the joke behind his fun little story, Farmer Giles of Ham.

Some have suggested that later Green Dragons may have been subtly expressing support for King Charles II’s Catholic queen, Catherine of Braganza. She bore her family’s badge, the Green Wyvern. After the restrictions of Cromwell’s time, a lot of pub signs honored Charles II; so honor to his queen would not have been surprising.

In Boston, the tavern was founded in 1657 and had an elaborate copper sign shaped like a dragon. Of course within a few days it had oxidized green, so it was obviously a Green Dragon.

Not particularly Satanic, guys. (And it’s an awful idea for any Tolkien fan to swallow.)

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The Dream of Mordecai Referenced Again in the Alliterative Morte Arthure

Simon Armitage has translated the Alliterative Morte Arthure into modern English alliterative verse in The Death of Arthur. It mostly deals with the story of Arthur’s forces fighting the Emperor Lucius. In the poem, this is very excitingly told and moves right along, although most of us will remember Malory retelling it at excessive length. So forget Malory and read this instead!

There’s also a different account of Arthur’s death (not a surprise given the title), but I haven’t gotten there yet.

The interesting bit, which I have just added to the Wikipedia article for everyone’s convenience, is that once again we have a medieval Arthurian work where we see references to Mordecai’s dream, in one of the longer versions of the Book of Esther!

And here’s the original text of Arthur’s dream of a dragon from the west fighting a giant bear from the east up in the sky. (I don’t know why this never came up during the Cold War, btw.)

In this case, Arthur’s two philosopher clergymen quickly interpret the dream as meaning that Arthur is the scary dragon who wins the day. (Good Christian dragons for the win!) And it’s reasonable, because Arthur is the Pendragon, and as noted in the connected Mordecai-referencing stories of Merlin and Vortigern and of Lludd and Llewelys, the symbol of Wales was a red dragon.

The Armitage translation, The Death of Arthur, is awesomely done, so check it out, too! I am listening to the audiobook on Overdrive (courtesy of my local library); but it may also be available on Hoopla, Amazon’s subscription service, Amazon Prime borrowing, etc.

The king was in a grete cogge with knightes full many,
In a cabane enclosed, clenlich arrayed;
Within on a rich bed restes a little,
And with the swogh of the se in swefning he fell.

Him dremed of a dragon, dredful to behold,
Come drivand over the deep to drenchen his pople,
Even walkand out the West landes,
Wanderand unworthyly over the wale ythes;
Both his hed and his hals were holly all over
Ounded of azure, enamelled full fair;
His shoulders were shaled all in clene silver
Shredde over all the shrimp with shrinkand pointes;
His womb and his winges of wonderful hewes,
In marvelous mailes he mounted full high.
Whom that he touched he was tint forever!
His feet were flourished all in fine sable
And such a venomous flaire flow from his lippes
The flood of the flawes all on fire seemed!

Then come out of the Orient, even him againes,
A black bustous bere aboven in the cloudes,
With ech a paw as a post and paumes full huge
With pikes full perilous, all pliand them seemed;
Lothen and lothly, lockes and other,
All with lutterd legges, lokkerd unfair,
Filtered unfreely, with fomand lippes –
The foulest of figure that formed was ever!
He baltered, he blered, he braundished thereafter;
To batail he bounes him with bustous clawes;
He romed, he rored, that rogged all the erthe,
So rudely he rapped at to riot himselven!

Then the dragon on dregh dressed him againes
And with his duttes him drove on dregh by the welken;
He fares as a faucon, frekly he strikes;
Both with feet and with fire he fightes at ones.
The bere in the batail the bigger him seemed,
And bites him boldly with baleful tuskes;
Such buffetes he him reches with his brode klokes,
His breste and his brayell was bloody all over.
He ramped so rudely that all the erthe rives, 79
Runnand on red blood as rain of the heven!
He had weried the worm by wightness of strenghe
Ne were it not for the wild fire that he him with defendes.

Then wanders the worm away to his heightes,
Comes glidand fro the cloudes and coupes full even,
Touches him with his talones and teres his rigge,
Betwix the taile and the top ten foot large!
Thus he brittened the bere and brought him o live,
Let him fall in the flood, fleet where him likes.
So they thring the bold king binne the ship-borde,
That ner he bristes for bale on bed where he ligges.

Then waknes the wise king, wery fortravailed,
Takes him two philosophers that followed him ever,
In the seven science the sutelest founden,
The cunningest of clergy under Crist knowen;
He told them of his torment that time that he sleeped:
“Dreched with a dragon and such a derf beste,
Has made me full wery, as wisse me Our Lord;
Ere I mon swelt as swithe, ye tell me my swefen!”

“Sir,” said they soon then, these sage philosophers,
The dragon that thou dremed of, so dredful to shew,
That come drivand over the deep to drenchen thy pople,
Soothly and certain thyselven it is,

That thus sailes over the se with thy seker knightes.
The coloures that were casten upon his clere winges
May be thy kingrikes all, that thou has right wonnen,
And the tattered tail, with tonges so huge,
Betokens this fair folk that in thy fleet wendes.
The bere that brittened was aboven in the cloudes
Betokenes the tyrauntes that tormentes thy pople
Or elles with some giaunt some journee shall happen,
In singular batail by yourselve one;
And thou shall have the victory, through help of Our Lord,
As thou in thy vision was openly shewed.
Of this dredful dreme ne drede thee no more,
Ne care not, sir conquerour, but comfort thyselven
And these that sailes over the se with thy seker knightes.”

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Wales, Dragons, and the Book of Esther

Okay, Geoffrey of Monmouth fans, what does this sound like?

“….Mordecai… a great man and among the first of the king’s court, had a dream… And this was his dream:

“Behold, there were voices, and tumults, and thunders, and earthquakes, and a disturbance upon the earth.

“And behold, two great dragons came forth ready to fight one against another. And at their cry all nations were stirred up to fight against the nation of the just. And that was a day of darkness and danger, of tribulation and distress, and great fear upon the earth.

“And the nation of the just was troubled fearing their own evils, and was prepared for death. And they cried to God, and as they were crying, a little spring grew into a very great river, and abounded into many waters. The light and the sun rose up, and the humble were exalted, and they devoured the glorious.

“And when Mordecai had seen this, and arose out of his bed, he was thinking what God would do; and he kept it fixed in his mind, desirous to know what the dream should signify.” (Esther 11:2-12, or Esther Prologue A:2-12, depending on Bible)

In the Greek epilogue to Esther contained in some Bibles, there’s more dragon talk:

“And Mordecai said, “These things have come from God; for I remember the dream that I had concerning these matters, and none of them has failed to be fulfilled. There was the little spring that became a river, and there was light and sun and abundant water. The river is Esther, whom the king married and made queen. The two dragons are Haman and myself.”

Ha! Another good Jewish/Christian dragon!

UPDATE: So that explains why Madonna thought her Purim costume should be the dragon lady from Game of Thrones with two shoulder dragons. Well played!

And here’s Merlin and King Vortigern, in Regum Historia Britanniae, Bk. 2, chapter 3:

“As Vortigern, king of the Britons, was sitting upon the bank of the drained pond, two dragons… came forth, and approaching each other, began a terrible fight… After this battle of the dragons, the king commanded Ambrosius Merlin to tell him what it portended. Upon which, bursting into tears, he delivered what his prophetical spirit suggested to him….”

Some versions of the story do more with the pond. Most versions of the story make a big point of mentioning how big a racket the dragons were making. This probably comes from Esther, but it becomes an important part of the story in the Welsh dragon prequel, “Lludd and Llevelys.” As Charlotte Guest translated it in the Mabinogion:

“The second plague [of Britain] was a shriek which came on every May-eve, over every hearth in the Island of Britain. And this went through people’s hearts, and so scared them, that the men lost their hue and their strength, and the women their children, and the young men and the maidens lost their senses, and all the animals and trees and the earth and the waters, were left barren…

“And thereupon King Lludd felt great sorrow and care, because that he knew not how he might be freed from these plagues… Lludd the son of Beli went to Llevelys his brother, king of France, for he was a man great of counsel and wisdom, to seek his advice…

“And the second plague,” said [Llevelys], “that is in thy dominion – behold, it is a dragon. And another dragon of a foreign race is fighting with it, and striving to overcome it. And therefore does your dragon make a fearful outcry… thou wilt see the dragon fighting in the form of terrific animals. And at length they will take the form of dragons in the air. And last of all, after wearying themselves with fierce and furious fighting, they will fall… And they will drink up the whole of the mead; and after that they will sleep. Thereupon do thou immediately… bury them… in the strongest place thou hast in thy dominions, and hide them in the earth. And as long as they shall bide in that strong place no plague shall come to the Island of Britain from elsewhere.”

“…And thus the fierce outcry ceased in his dominions.”

In the History of the Kings of Britain, Merlin acts an awful lot like Joseph and Daniel and Solomon, and not much at all like a pagan druid. This is why it’s explicitly said that Vortigern and his advisors thought Merlin’s prophecies (which appear later in Book II at the request of the Bishop of Lincoln, and try hard to sound like the Book of Revelation processed through Welsh poetry) were based on “divine inspiration.”

This kind of Biblical reference is something that was more obvious to people in the past than to us: because we aren’t as big of Bible readers, or because our favorite books are different from theirs, or because our spelling is different. For them it’s obvious that Iona = Jonah = Columba = Colm [Cille] = dove, but to us it’s totally non-obvious and hidden from our sight.

Of course, a lot of times Biblical references are even hidden from us by our nice modern Bibles! Very few sources deign to notice that the Mary in the Magnificat is quoting Esther 11:11, which is (horrors!) from the Greek Septuagint!

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A Pope-Founded Town Named “Dragon”

Dragona is a town in Italy on the banks of the Tiber, eleven miles along the Via Ostiensis (the old Roman road to the port of Ostia, which was fourteen miles from Rome). It was founded by Pope Gregory IV under the names “Colonia Draconis” or “Draco,” and it was later called “Tenuta del Dragone.” The pope also built a little villa there, so the name of the new town wasn’t an insult.

Liber Pontificalis II, 82: “ipse pontifex in curte quae cognominatur Draconis, domum satis dignam, undique porticibus ac solariis circumdatam a solo noviter fieri statuit, in qua tam ipse quamque etiam futuri pontifices cum omnibus qui eis obsequentur ibidem statione immorare solebant.”

(“On the estate called Draco, the same Pontiff recently decided to build an appropriate enough house, surrounded from every direction with only porticos and terraces, in which he, and any future Pontiffs, and all those who follow them, may be accustomed to stay at, as a rest-station.”)

This was the first known papal villa. Its exact location has not been found.

As for the name: just like most of the area around Rome back in the day, Colonia Draconis was in a pretty marshy, swampy area, which the Carolingian Italians started trying to reclaim. There were tons of snakes living in the marsh (mostly grass snakes and the black Aesculapian snakes, both of which are long but not venomous), and the snakes were locally called “dracona.” Hence the name. (The snake population may also be why a lot of the old marshy areas in that part of Italy were very fond of venerating St. George.)

Anyway, since repopulating a barren area was a bit dangerous, the Pope gave the farmland outright to those who would settle there, making sure that the farmers given the land had large families with plenty of guys of weapon-bearing age. None of this feudal/serf stuff!

But it really must have been pretty dangerous (Ostia was subject to attack by Muslims, Vikings, and every other kind of sea pirate) or not super-good land, because the region mostly depopulated again over the following centuries. Without people keeping up the drainage, the marshes came back. Marshes meant malaria, so it was even more dangerous to live there. In 1081, the then-Pope gave the area to the monks of St. Paul (St. Paul Outside the Walls, outside the gates of Rome on the Via Ostiensis) who don’t seem to have developed it much.

But in the mid-1800’s, the marshlands began to be drained again, and farms came back again. Then after the war, tons of people came to live in the suburbs of Rome, including rural Dragona. They got a parish church in the late Sixties, followed by power, water, etc. So it’s not super-picturesque and medieval/Roman in the town, but it’s got pretty countryside still.

Dragona has a suburb named Dragoncello (which translates into English as “tarragon”).


Dragona’s webpage
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A webpage in Italian with historical information about Dragona.

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The Chronicle of Melusine (Middle English translation)

Now here’s a really popular romance of the Middle Ages: Melusine of Lusignan, as told by Jean d’Arras and company.

Melusine is normally drawn with a fish tail or tails. (In fact, the German woodcut that Starbucks first used for their trademark was not a mermaid but a melusine, as you can tell by the lack of mirror and the twin tails.) But in the actual legend, she had a lower half that was a snake (or dragon!) on Saturdays.

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Catch and Release Dragons: St. Clement of Metz

St. Clement of Metz’s legend tells of him finding a bunch of serpents and dragons nesting in the city’s Roman amphitheater, biting people. They surrendered after he made the Sign of the Cross, so he captured their leader with his stole and led it out of town. All the other snakes followed obediently. He commanded the dragons and snakes to live in the wilderness and not venture back into the city, and they all slithered happily ever after.

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Good Christian Dragons – “Good Holy Vermine”

It’s a well-known fact that anti-Catholics and anti-historics refuse to see jokes. You can wave them in front of their faces and explain the whole thing, but they won’t get it. They’d rather be shocked and horrified.

So in Poitiers, like many other places in Europe, they had a processional dragon called the Grand’Goule. It had a legend with it, about how good St. Radegonde and her nuns defeated the wicked dragon. St. Radegonde founded St. Croix (Holy Cross) Abbey, so named because they had some relics of the True Cross (courtesy of the Byzantine Empire and St. Radegonde’s aristocratic connections). The legend says that one day, nuns who were sent down to the caves of the wine cellar next to the river weren’t coming back. So armed with either some blessed bread, some holy water, her abbess staff, or the abbey’s bit of the True Cross, St. Radegunde went down the cellar and found that a big female dragon had come in from the Clain River’s spring and made the cellar its den, and was eating all the nuns. (Not just meat, but virgins too, you’ll notice.) So St. Radegonde defeated the dragon, and all was well. There’s a little statue of the Grand’Goule sporting bat wings, eagle feet, a wyvern’s tail, and a snake’s head.

The other thing that people don’t get is that dragons, when representing Ultimate Evil or Death Incarnate or just something scary, are usually portrayed by the medievals as kinda funny critters. The devil and his angels may be dragons, but their wings are stunted and unable to carry them back to heaven. They’re just pests and nuisances and losers. Dragons are usually shown this way, too. They quickly turn into the procession’s comical characters.

OTOH, because of the draco banners’ use in warfare and because dragons guarded things like cities and treasures, the French city’s dragon is something of a patriotic monster. It’s like Godzilla protecting Tokyo from all other monsters. So the processional dragon was popular and loved in its comical menace.

By the 17th century, the little processional draco banner had turned into a big parade float, with the statutory kung-fu action jaws that really opened and shut, and a big bag to hold bread donations to the poor (and the guys who worked hard propelling the float and operating the jaws). So people would throw bread, apple cakes, buns, and cookies* into the Grand’Goule’s mouth, or try to aim flower wreaths at the head as extra decoration.

Then the good Catholic people of Poitiers in the 1600’s thought that it would be funnier to elaborate on this. So when tossing bread, they’d yell, “Bonne sainte vermine, protegez nous!” or even “priez pour nous!”

“Vermine” means vermin, in French. It’s also a pun on “verminus”, little worm or little wyrm/dragon; and on “vermina,” someone who has worms. Finally, it sounds like “St. Firmin” or “Fermin,” the shorter versions of St. Firminus of the famous bulls. So it’s funny several ways, especially if you’re pretending to ask for intercession against worms. It makes a great parody of normal saint processional float behavior, too.

When you give donations to charity, it’s normal for the receivers to pray for the givers. So it’s funny to feed the dragon while asking it to pray for you; but it’s also not a total joke, because the poor and the guys driving the dragon really are going to pray for the donors.

Needless to say, the anti-Catholic English sources of the 19th century take this fun float and turn it into the epitome of ignorant idolatrous ebil. They are all for saying that this proves that Catholics think dragons are saints, that Catholics worship dragons, blah blah blah.

I say that they are party-poopers. And I really, really want me a dragon float.

* The Poitier dragon-feeding cookies were called “casse-museaux,” which means “snout-breaker.” (This pictures St. Radegonde whacking the dragon with blessed bread.) Here are some recipes for today’s casse-museaux, which are probably pretty different from the ones in 1600’s Poitiers, but obviously are still yummy.

Rogation Days casse-museaux biscuit-cakes with white cheese and orange peel. A similar recipe with both milk and cheese with a texture more like muffins or cake.

Casse-museaux hazelnut bars.

Casse-museaux the Ste. Maure de Touraine way, with goat cheese and a lot of alcohol.

Kid in Brassac selling anti-dragon casse-museaux. Here they make them from sheep’s milk. The article describes them as being hard and crisp on the outside, but soft and scrumptious within. Legend says that the inhabitants of Castle Brassac drove a dragon back to the Agout River by smacking him on the nose with some quickly flung casse-museaux. If you have sheep’s milk, here’s a recipe for Brassac casse-museaux.

(Casse-museau can also mean a sort of apple cobbler, chestnut biscuits, or an unsweetened goat cheese cake from Berry.)

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