1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dragon

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DRAGON (Fr. dragon, through Lat. draco, from the Greek; connected with δέρκομαι, “see,” and interpreted as “sharp-sighted”; O.H. Ger. tracho, dracho, M.H.G. trache, Mod. Ger. Drachen; A.S. draca, hence the equivalent English form “drake,” “fire-drake,” cf. Low Ger. and Swed. drake, Dan. drage), a fabulous monster, usually conceived as a huge winged fire-breathing lizard or snake. In Greece the word δράκων was used originally of any large serpent, and the dragon of mythology, whatever shape it may have assumed, remains essentially a snake. For the part it has played in the myths and cults of various peoples and ages see the article Serpent-Worship. Here it may be said, in general, that in the East, where snakes are large and deadly (Chaldea, Assyria, Phoenicia, to a less degree in Egypt), the serpent or dragon was symbolic of the principle of evil. Thus Apophis, in the Egyptian religion, was the great serpent of the world of darkness vanquished by Ra, while in Chaldaea the goddess Tiāmat, the female principle of primeval Chaos, took the form of a dragon. Thus, too, in the Hebrew sacred books the serpent or dragon is the source of death and sin, a conception which was adopted in the New Testament and so passed into Christian mythology. In Greece and Rome, on the other hand, while the oriental idea of the serpent as an evil power found an entrance and gave birth to a plentiful brood of terrors (the serpents of the Gorgons, Hydra, Chimaera and the like), the dracontes were also at times conceived as beneficent powers, sharp-eyed dwellers in the inner parts of the earth, wise to discover its secrets and utter them in oracles, or powerful to invoke as guardian genii. Such were the sacred snakes in the temples of Aesculapius and the sacri dracontes in that of the Bona Dea at Rome; or, as guardians, the Python at Delphi and the dragon of the Hesperides.

In general, however, the evil reputation of dragons was the stronger, and in Europe it outlived the other. Christianity, of course, confused the benevolent and malevolent serpent-deities of the ancient cults in a common condemnation. The very “wisdom of the serpent” made him suspect; the devil, said St Augustine, “leo et draco est; leo propter impetum, draco propter insidias.” The dragon myths of the pagan East took new shapes in the legends of the victories of St Michael and St George; and the kindly snakes of the “good goddess” lived on in the immanissimus draco whose baneful activity in a cave of the Capitol was cut short by the intervention of the saintly pope Silvester I. (Duchesne, Liber pontificalis, i. 109 seq.). In this respect indeed Christian mythology found itself in harmony with that of the pagan North. The similarity of the Northern and Oriental snake myths seems to point to some common origin in an antiquity too remote to be explored. Whatever be the origin of the Northern dragon, the myths, when they first become articulate for us, show him to be in all essentials the same as that of the South and East. He is a power of evil, guardian of hoards, the greedy withholder of good things from men; and the slaying of a dragon is the crowning achievement of heroes—of Siegmund, of Beowulf, of Sigurd, of Arthur, of Tristram—even of Lancelot, the beau idéal of medieval chivalry. Nor were these dragons anything but very real terrors, even in the imaginations of the learned, until comparatively modern times. As the waste places were cleared, indeed, they withdrew farther from the haunts of men, and in Europe their last lurking-places were the inaccessible heights of the Alps, where they lingered till Jacques Balmain set the fashion which has finally relegated them to the realm of myth. In the works of the older naturalists, even in the great Historia animalium of so critical a spirit as Conrad Gesner (d. 1564), they still figure as part of the fauna known to science.

Britannica Dragon.jpg
Dragon Lizard (Draco taeniopterus).

As to their form, this varied from the beginning. The Chaldaean dragon Tiāmat had four legs, a scaly body, and wings. The Egyptian Apophis was a monstrous snake, as were also, originally at least, the Greek dracontes. The dragon of the Apocalypse (Rev. xii. 3), “the old serpent,” is many-headed, like the Greek Hydra. The dragon slain by Beowulf is a snake (worm), for it “buckles like a bow “; but that done to death by Sigurd, though its motions are heavy and snake-like, has legs, for he wounds it “behind the shoulder.” On the other hand, the dragon seen by King Arthur in his dreams is, according to Malory, winged and active, for it “swoughs” down from the sky. The belief in dragons and the conceptions of their shape were undoubtedly often determined, in Europe as in China, by the discovery of the remains of the gigantic extinct saurians.

The qualities of dragons being protective and terror-inspiring, and their effigies highly decorative, it is natural that they should have been early used as warlike emblems. Thus, in Homer (Iliad xi. 36 seq.), Agamemnon has on his shield, besides the Gorgon’s head, a blue three-headed snake (δράκων), just as ages afterwards the Norse warriors painted dragons on their shields and carved dragons’ heads on the prows of their ships. From the conquered Dacians, too, the Romans in Trajan’s time borrowed the dragon ensign which became the standard of the cohort as the eagle was that of the legion; whence, by a long descent, the modern dragoon. Under the later East Roman emperors the purple dragon ensign became the ceremonial standard of the emperors, under the name of the δρακόντειον. The imperial fashion spread; or similar causes elsewhere produced similar results. In England before the Conquest the dragon was chief among the royal ensigns in war. Its origin, according to the legend preserved in the Flores historiarum, was as follows. Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, had a vision of a flaming dragon in the sky, which his seers interpreted as meaning that he should come to the kingdom. When this happened, after the death of his brother Aurelius, “he ordered two golden dragons to be fashioned, like to those he had seen in the circle of the star, one of which he dedicated in the cathedral of Winchester, the other he kept by him to be carried into battle.” From Uther Dragonhead, as the English called him, the Anglo-Saxon kings borrowed the ensign, their custom being, according to the Flores, to stand in battle inter draconem et standardum. The dragon ensign, which was borne before Richard I. in 1191 when on crusade “to the terror of the heathen beyond the sea,” was that of the dukes of Normandy; but even after the loss of Normandy the dragon was the battle standard of English kings (signum regium quod Draconem vocant), and was displayed, e.g. by Henry III. in 1245 when he went to war against the Welsh. Not till the 20th century, under King Edward VII., was the dragon officially restored as proper only to the British race of Uther Pendragon, by its incorporation in the armorial bearings of the prince of Wales. As a matter of fact, however, the dragon ensign was common to nearly all nations, the reason for its popularity being naïvely stated in the romance of Athis (quoted by Du Cange),

“Ce souloient Romains porter,
 Ce nous fait moult à redouter:”

“This the Romans used to carry, This makes us very much to be feared.” Thus the dragon and wyvern (i.e. a two-legged snake, M.E. wivere, viper) took their place as heraldic symbols (see Heraldry).

As an ecclesiastical symbol it has remained consistent to the present day. Wherever it is represented it means the principle of evil, the devil and his works. In the middle ages the chief of these works was heresy, and the dragon of the medieval church legends and mystery plays was usually heresy. Thus the knightly order of the vanquished dragon, instituted by the emperor Sigismund in 1418, celebrated the victory of orthodoxy over John Huss. Hell, too, is represented in medieval art as a dragon with gaping jaws belching fire. Of the dragons carried in effigy in religious processions some have become famous, e.g. the Gargouille (gargoyle) at Rouen, the Graülly at Metz, and the Tarasque at Tarascon. Their popularity tended to disguise their evil significance and to restore to them something of the beneficent qualities of the ancient dracontes as local tutelary genii.

In the East, at the present day, the dragon is the national symbol of China and the badge of the imperial family, and as such it plays a large part in Chinese art. Chinese and Japanese dragons, though regarded as powers of the air, are wingless. They are among the deified forces of nature of the Taoist religion, and the shrines of the dragon-kings, who dwell partly in water and partly on land, are set along the banks of rivers.

The constellation Draco (anguis, serpens) was probably so called from its fanciful likeness to a snake. Numerous myths, in various countries, are however connected with it. The general character of these may be illustrated by the Greek story which explains the constellation as being the dragon of the Hesperides slain by Heracles and translated by Hera or Zeus to the heavens.

See C. V. Daremberg and E. Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines (Paris, 1886, &c.), s.v. “Draco”; Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie, s.v. “Drakon”; Du Cange, Glossarium, s.v. “Draco”; La Grande Encyclopédie s.v. “Dragon”; J. B. Panthot, Histoire des dragons et des escarboucles (Lyons, 1691). See also the articles Egypt: Religion, and Babylonian and Assyrian Religion.

(W. A. P.)

In zoology the name “dragon” is now applied to a highly interesting, but very harmless, group of small flying lizards forming the genus Draco, belonging to the Agamidae, a family of Saurian reptiles. About 20 species of “flying dragons” inhabit the various Indo-Malayan countries; one, D. dussumieri, occurs in Madras. They are small creatures, measuring about 10 in. long, including the tail, which in some cases is more than half of the entire length. The head is small, and the throat is provided with three pouches which are spread out when they lie on the trunks of trees. They are, however, chiefly remarkable for the wing-like cutaneous processes with which their sides are provided, and which are extended and supported by greatly elongated ribs. These form a sort of parachute by which the animals are enabled to glide from branch to branch of the trees on which they live, but, being altogether independent of the fore limbs, they cannot be regarded as true wings, nor do they enable the lizard to fly, but merely to make extensive leaps. But they have the habit of opening and folding these prettily coloured organs, when resting upon a branch, which gives them the appearance of butterflies. When not in use they are folded by the side after the manner of a fan, and the dragon can then walk or run with considerable agility. Its food consists of insects.