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
.

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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St. John’s Dragon and St. John’s Love

St. John’s dragon in a chalice is almost as common in some churches as St. Michael vs. the dragon/devil. There’s a lot of different stuff behind this.

1. Pretty much everybody in church history identified St. John the Apostle with the author of the Book of Revelation. (And “the beloved disciple,” too.) The Book of Revelation has a dragon in it (the one menacing the Woman Clothed with the Sun), so there’s an obvious association of ideas. (Sometimes St. John even gets pictured with the monsters of Revelation, which is cool if you like many-headed monsters on your stained glass.)

2. St. John and St. James (the “brothers of thunder”) used to share December 27 as their feast day. They were associated with the chalice as a symbol, because (after they angled for thrones next to Jesus) of the fulfilled prophecy that they would both “drink from the chalice from which I will drink” by suffering similar troubles. The confusion lies in that Church also carries a chalice in scenes of the Crucifixion; and that Jesus had another prophecy about John (the ‘hey, what business is it of yours when John dies’ prophecy/snark), and in fact John didn’t get martyred. So it’s a little bit confuzzling as an attribute.

3. However, there’s a legend that John, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy about being able to drink poison, either drank a poisoned cup of wine at a feast without harm, or that when he said Grace over the wine, a vision of a snake/dragon of poison appeared over the glass so that John and everybody else were warned, or that a snake/dragon actually slithered out of the glass and out of the room with the poison. This made for a cool stained glass scene (chalice plus big bitey snake, or chalice plus little flappy dragon) or statue or painting.

This also made St. John one of the patrons of wine and winemaking. (This was particularly fitting, since wine often is associated with fervent love in the Scriptures, and St. John’s Gospel is particularly associated with love.) This was particularly handy on his December 27th feastday, because it was still the Twelve Days of Christmas and a time to be merry.

So on Dec. 27, people would (and still do) bring some of their wine to church and have it blessed by the priest with a special blessing. When blessed by a priest with this old prayer, the wine, called “St. John’s wine” or “the love of St. John,” is actually a sacramental, not just blessed for usefulness like a car. So people would pour it into their wine barrels at home to bless all the other wine. People would save it and give to the sick or dying, or use it for peacemaking when needed. But most of all, people would drink “the love of St. John” to each other at dinner that night. (In Austria, the Family Von Trapp learned to have the older members drink to the younger, all around the table, saying, “I drink you the love of St. John,” which was answered by the toastee, “Thank you for the love of St. John.”)

It is also very nice to give one of your blessed bottles to the priest, so that he shares the merriment too! (And if he doesn’t want to drink it himself, I’m sure he’ll know who can use a nice bottle of the Love of St. John.)

So St. John’s dragon in the chalice is really more of an obedient answer to prayer than a totally bad dragon; and he’s associated with merriment and salvation.

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Dragons: Not Just for Rogation Days

It turns out that the French really, really liked taking their “draco” windsocks/floats out for processions.

The “draco” or “dragon banner” came first from the Sarmatians, who used them as military insignia. They were sort of like giant red windsocks, with a noisemaker in the “mouth” of the dragon that caught the wind, like a bullroarer or similar. The Romans who fought the Sarmatians thought this was cool, and adopted the custom. It later became the official banner of the late Roman cavalry. From there, it spread all over Europe. But the Normans were especially fond of dragon banners, and you can see one in the Bayeux Tapestry. Very very windsock in appearance, too.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the original Greek/Roman “dragon” was a giant snake. Several of the ancient sources said that the dangerous part of a dragon was its whipping or strangling tail. So a windsock looked like a very dangerous, long-tailed dragon.

Anyway, if you had the local feudal military in your religious procession, they brought along their various banners, including their draco. If you won a battle through your local saint’s intercession, you might give your banner to the local church, too. So eventually, most French-area cathedrals and parish churches seem to have had either a real draco, or the increasingly elaborate dragon floats and automata and costumes of later days. (England was Norman, so England had dragon banners and floats and costumes in their processions too.)

Anyway, depending on the festal preferences of French people, the dragon got hauled out on the following dates:

The three Rogation Days, and sometimes Ascension also. (The last day featuring a limp, draggling tail.)

Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday. (The last day featuring a limp, draggling tail, because Holy Thursday was coming.)

Palm Sunday, Holy Saturday, and Ascension Day.

In Spain, there were dragones, monstruos, bestias, and serpientes on various days. However, the Corpus Christi processional dragon was called the tarasca. In Lima, Peru, there was a processional dragon on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (summer in Peru), and it was also called a tarasca.

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St. Vigor’s Catch-and-Release Dragon

Here’s a wonderful video showing St. Vigor of Bayeux and his dragon. The music is the melody of a “cantique” sung for his feast day. The guy who runs the St. Vigor homepage made it, showing all the church art of the saint that he’s been able to find. (The ones with dragons in them, anyway.)

St. Vigor lived in the sixth century. He and his sidekick, Theudemir, did a bunch of evangelizing of Christians and pagans in Normandy. They were dealing with all sorts of people (Gauls, Franks, Norse, Bretons), and even ran into some kind of operational pagan Celtic temple (dedicated to Belenos, we are told).

Normandy is full of legends of dragon-slaying and dragon-drowning saints, but St. Vigor took a slightly different approach. When he had made the Sign of the Cross and made the dragon unable to resist him, and he had leashed the dragon with his stole in the best approved French style (making it “like a tame sheep”), he handed the dragon’s leash to Theudemir, with instructions to take it to the seashore, so that it would have no more power on the land.

Anyway, the taming of the Dragon of Cerisy Forest was legendarily the reason that Volusianus, a local nobleman, gave the land to St. Vigor to start the monastery of Cerisy. It shows up in the “Vita Sancti Vigoris,” which is apparently a pretty late life (10th c. is the current best guess).

The saint came to prominence again after the Viking invasions, when a cleric named Avitianus brought his relics from Bayeux to the monastery of Saint-Riquier. After various miracles happened, the Saint-Riquier monks started asking around for information, and got a copy of the Vita from the monks at Saint-Ouen. There are a couple of churches dedicated to him in England also, apparently because people moved to England from St. Vigor’s area of Normandy.

I’ve also run into a lot of interesting material at the Dragonlore site. The Journal of the College of Dracology folks have done a fair amount of solid heraldry and other research, in the Notes and Queries style.

They unearthed the point that even in the West, most dragons were seen as either “giant serpents” or “giant serpents with wings” until quite late in the day. The continuing use in battle of noisemaker-mouthed windsock dragon banners (the “draco” of Sarmatian and late Roman cavalry) helped this. Then the popularity of griffins seems to have influenced people to draw dragons with four legs and wings at that point. And yes, it does seem like most of the non-windsock “dragons” in the Bayeux Tapestry are really griffins or basilisks of some sort, because they look very birdy in front.

UPDATE: St. Carantoc also released a dragon into the sea, while St. Samson released one into a river. Apparently legend had a medieval English parish priest ordering a dragon to stay in the sea for a thousand years, which of course begs the question of what happens when he comes out. (Study hard, English seminarians!)

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St. Ephrem’s Dragons

St. Ephrem, Epiphany Hymn 8, verse 16:

“In the beginning, the Spirit of fruitfulness
brooded on the waters,
and they conceived and gave birth
to dragons, fish, and birds.
The Holy Spirit brooded on the waters of Baptism,
which gave birth to mystical eagles —
pure virgins and guides of the Church;
and mystical fish —
celibates and mediators, of course;
and mystical dragons —
those clever ones, of course,
who are made as simple as doves.”

This Syriac hymn takes advantage of both the Genesis translation of sea creatures as “dragons,” and the Greek notion that giant serpents are dragons.

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Heavenly Warrior Dragons

More good Christian dragons! This one is sort of a punishing one, however. It sounds like the Irish kenning of “dragon” for “great warrior” has crept into the story, and they’re talking about a warrior angel.

However, this is from the Vita S. Kannechi, the Life of St. Cainneach of Aghaboe. He was a busy guy — hung out with St. Columba, became famous in Scotland as St. Kenneth or St. Canice, and bopped around the continent a bit before coming home. This was pretty typical for a roaming pilgrim Irish monk back in the day. However, this life was written in the 8th century, so the dragon story is not necessarily anything contemporary to the guy. (The Life of Columba that mentions Cainneach is very contemporary, however.)

Vita S. Kannechi, c. 9:

“Therefore St. Cainneach promised to spend the future, his sepulture, and his resurrection in this offered city with the above-mentioned king. But having frequently visited the saint, the angel of God who had predicted his resurrection in Ireland, rebuked him for the incautious promise. So then St. Cainnech was in anguish, between his promise and the angel’s word.

“But the Lord, the True Judge, helped him. For a fiery dragon descended from Heaven and cut off the outside toe of St. Cainneach’s right foot. St. Cainneach left his toe there, fulfilling his promise; and obeying the angel’s word, he went back to Ireland. Indeed, this above-mentioned king was afterwards a wonderful man and a bishop.”

Only the Irish would link dragons and pinkie toes.

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St. Ammon’s Dragon Guards

St. Ammon or Amun was an early Christian monk who lived in Nitria, Egypt. He and his wife were forced into an arranged marriage while young. On their wedding night, they agreed to remain celibate together, and kept the vow for eighteen years. After that, they mutually consented to get away from their families’ plans: his wife keeping the house and inviting other vowed virgins to stay there, and him heading out to the desert to be a hermit. Other people heard of his holiness, and tons of other hermits camped out in his area, just as with the popular St. Anthony of Egypt. This caused St. Anthony to invent monasteries for men, and he passed the idea along to St. Ammon for keeping a dull roar among his several thousand hermits. It all went well, and his feast day is October 4.

In this story, we see a bit of the Greek “dragon = big python snake” and a bit of a more Western approach. We also learn that Egyptian desert dragons are scary, but not always bad, and that snakes listen better than people do (as St. Martin of Tours also complained).

Anyway, this story is from St. Rufinus of Aquileia’s Historia Monachorum, chapter 8. (PL 21: 420, 14 – 422, 4.):

I don’t believe that what we heard about Ammon, from a certain holy man we saw in the wilderness in the place in which he had lived, should be omitted. And so when, having parted from the blessed Apollonius, we proceeded to the part of the wilderness opposite Meridianum, we saw a dragon’s huge dragging tracks across the sand; his size had appeared so great that it looked like some treetrunk had been drawn through the sand. So that as we looked, we were struck with huge terror.

But the brothers who had escorted us encouraged us to dread nothing at all, but to rather to take hold of faith and follow the dragon’s track. ‘For you will see,’ they said, ‘how much faith may prevail, when you would have quenched it out of us. For we kill many dragons and snakes and vipers* with our hands; for as we read it written that the Savior allows those believing in Him “to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy.”‘ (Lk. 10:19) But with them saying this, we dreaded more and more because of the fragility of our faithlessness, and we asked them not to want to follow the dragon’s tracks, but rather that we might proceed straight on the road. Yet one of them, impatient, had followed the dragon with alacrity. And when he had found its cave not far off, he called us so that we might have gone to him and seen the end of the business.

Yet another of the brothers who dwelt nearby in the desert hurried to meet us, and forbade us to follow the dragon, saying we could not endure his appearance, especially because we were not used to seeing anything such as that. Truly, he said that he himself frequently saw that same beast of incredible devastation, and that it was fifteen cubits long. And when he had advised us against approaching the place, he hurried himself to pull away, recall, and turn back the brother who had awaited us, prepared for the beast’s killing and unwilling to depart unless he had killed it.

When he would have come to us, he refuted our faintheartedness and faithlessness. So arriving at his little cell, we rested, received by him with much love. Truly, he told us that in this place where he always stayed had been a certain holy man named Ammon, whose disciple he had been; through Ammon, the Lord had done many things of power. And so he told us this one, among others.

“Frequently,” he said, “thieves came to him, carrying off the bread from him which was the only thing he ate, and was what he stored for his most continent way of living. And when he had suffered this annoyance frequently, on a certain day he proceeded into the desert; and coming back from there, he ordered two huge dragons to accompany him; and then he ordered them to stay at his monastery door, and they went in and guarded him. The thieves came according to custom, and saw what the guards on the threshold were, so that the dragons saw them; and [the sight] made them unable to move or think; they lost the power to speak and they collapsed immediately. When the old man realized this, he went out and found the thieves half-dead, and coming near and rousing them, he rebuked them, saying, ‘You see how much stubborner you are than these beasts; for they obey us according to God, but you neither fear God nor go blush to disturb the life of God’s servants.’

“Nevertheless, bringing them into the cell, he set the table and asked that they take food. Truly, with pricked hearts and their whole minds, they turned away from brutality; in short, they did better than many who began to serve the Lord earlier. For they did such great penance that after a few seasons, they also could do the same signs and the same works of power [as Ammon].

“Afterwards, at a different time, with a certain most immense dragon having laid waste to the neighboring regions and killed many, the inhabitants of that place came to the above-mentioned Father, asking him that he might kill the beast for their region; and at the same time, that they might persuade the old man to mercy, they brought a shepherd’s young son with them who had been terrified out of his mind by only a sight of the dragon, and had felled and been carried off, unable to move and swollen, from only the dragon’s breath. Then he restored health to this boy, indeed by anointing him with oil.**

“Meanwhile, he would promise nothing to those urging him to kill the dragon himself, as if one who could not help them with anything. But rising early, he went off to the beast’s sleeping place, and fixed his knees to the earth, begging the Lord. Then the beast began to come against him with a huge attack, sending out foul snorting and hisses and rattles. But fearing nothing of this, he said, turning toward the dragon, ‘May Christ, the Son of God, Who shall destroy the great whale, destroy you.’*** And when that old man spoke, immediately that direst dragon also vomiting poison with every breath, blew up, bursting down the middle.

“But when the neighboring inhabitants would have gathered and wondered at it, unable to bear the violence of the stink, they got together an immense mass of sand over it — with Father Ammon still standing by, because not even when the beast was dead did they dare approach it without him.”

* Vipers: literally, “horned serpents,” a translation of the Greek “cerastes”. It all means “vipers.” There’s a specific species in Egypt that has little scales standing up above its eyes and looking like horns.

** Anointing him with oil: Presumably, oil of the sick. The Anointing of the Sick is plenty ancient.

*** “Who destroyed the great whale” — Isaiah 27:1. “In that day the Lord, with his hard and great and strong sword, shall visit Leviathan the bar serpent, and Leviathan the crooked serpent, and shall slay the whale that is in the sea.” Also, since Christ compared Himself to Jonah, and since He was in the belly of Sheol for three days and nights when He was dead, Hell is the “great whale,” and Hellmouth has often been portrayed looking like a stylized whale mouth, in pictures of Jesus leading out the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

There is such a thing as a Nubian Spitting Cobra and a Red Spitting Cobra, both of which are found in Egypt. Maybe that’s what’s meant by the poison breath?

Here’s a translation of all of The History of the Egyptian Monks. Unfortunately I didn’t find it until after I did mine!

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St. Simon Stylites: Dragon Veterinarian

Well, now that I know that the Greek “drakon” was seen as being a sort of big python snake, this kind of story makes a lot more sense! So as part of my continuing research into Good Christian Dragons, I present this story that shows both a saint healing a dragon, and that snakes trust saints as Adam-like stewards of Creation.

St. Simon Stylites is a pretty well-documented guy; he was a Byzantine celebrity, even. He lived alone in the ruins of an old Greco-Roman city, on a little railed platform he built on top of an 80-foot-high pillar. (There isn’t much left of it.) So mostly he stayed on top of the pillar, although occasionally he would come down his ladder and stand on the base of the pillar to do things or speak to someone. Technically he was a hermit, but the place was always getting swarmed by visitors, so he ended up becoming a sort of hermit/preacher/advice guy. He let men come inside the little wall around his pillar and come up the ladder to his platform, so he even had disciples come up there to learn from him.

From Chapter 10 of the Latin translation of the Vita S. Simeon Stylites (PL 73, 330, 7-24):

“In this time an exceedingly large dragon dwelt near [St. Simon Stylites] in northern parts, where no grass grew; and a stick got stuck in its right eye. And behold, that blind dragon came and drew near to the little dwelling where the man of God was staying, dragging itself along; it lay there with its head abased and its body all curled around itself in a ring, as if asking for a favor. On seeing this, Blessed Simeon immediately removed a cubit-long stick from its eye. And on seeing this, everyone glorified God, yet fled from it in awe. But the beast coiled up around itself and remained immobile in one place until all the people had passed. Then getting up, it adored the monastery doorway* for almost two hours and then went back to its den; and it hurt no one.”

* The door in the little wall around the pillar.

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