The dragon winds its serpentine way through the legends of all countries of the Old World and many of the New. A whole gallery of the world’s heroes — Perseus, Marduk, Hercules, Siegfried, St George, Beowulf — have fought it and killed it, but it refuses to die. It lives on as a folk memory: a huge, scaly creature, reptilian, and usually winged in a leathery, bat-like way. It breathes fire, guards treasure, haunts pools and its blood is more venomous than that of any other creature imaginable.
New myths continually reinforce the essential elements of the old legend. Smaug, Tolkien’s dragon, guards a mountain hoard, `countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.’ The dragons of Anne McCaffrey’s science-fiction books feed on firestone, which com Below: Tolkien’s dragon,bines with acids in the digestive system to Smaug, from The Hobbit,produce poisonous phosphines. ‘When the undertakes the traditional dragons belched forth gas, it would ignite in employment of dragons ?the air into ravening flame.’ C. S. Lewis’s guarding a mound of Narnian dragon, the metamorphosed Eu fabulous treasure stace from The voyage of the Dawn Treader, discovers the joys of flight climbing out of his lair in the valley. ‘He began the climb with a jump and as soon as he jumped he found that he was flying.’
Christian tradition has made the dragon into a devil figure, the embodiment of all evil, `the dragon, the old serpent’ cast out from heaven by the archangel Michael — but it was not always so. The true dragon was an ambivalent creature, combining both good and bad qualities. It was a creature to be propitiated with human sacrifice, a guardian of watery places — the giver, if it chose, of rain. It was also a symbol of regeneration. To slay the dragon was to refertilise the earth, and this symbolic ritual was perpetuated in folk drama and annual rites in both the Eastern and the Western world.
The dragon is a stock character of the mummers’ plays — killed by St George, brought to life again by the doctor. In Sicily an effigy of a dragon was carried in procession on St George’s Day, along with two huge loaves. At the end of the festival, the loaves were broken into little pieces and every farmer buried his part in his field to ensure the fertility of his crops.
In Bavaria the drama of the dragon-slaying was played out at midsummer. The critical part of this ritual was St George’s piercing of a bladder of blood carried inside the dragon effigy. ‘The blood was mopped up by the spectators and later spread over the flax fields to help the harvest.
The Chinese New Year is celebrated with huge dragon effigies of paper and bamboo, which are carried in procession through the streets. The dragon is mutable and it is ubiquitous. Its influence is pervasive. Creation myths of many cultures regard it as the beginning of all things.
A Babylonian epic, the Enuma elish, tells how, in the beginning, the mighty god Marduk fought and killed the great dragon Tiamat, embodiment of the original watery chaos, and how, after his victory, he created heaven and earth:
He split her like a shellfish in two parts, Half of her he set up and sealed it as the sky,Pulled down the bar and posted guards. He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.
The other half became the earth and so confusion was reduced to order, a cosmos was made from chaos.
An Indian myth, found in the Rig Veda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns dating from about moo BC, tells how the valiant god Indra conquered a great dragon called Vritra that had sealed up all the life-giving waters of the earth. I ndra killed the monster, releasing the water, which flowed once more in a thousand springs, streams and rivers. This conflict was seen not as a once and for all victory for the god, but as a battle that had to be faced and fought over and over again to bring monsoon rains out of drought.
The first classical dragon was Typhon, a monstrous animal of Greek mythology, associated with volcanoes and high winds (hence typhoon). The ancient Greek poet Hesiod described it in Theogony with the fascinated loathing characteristic of the Western man’s view of the dragon:
Up from his shoulders there grew a hundred snakes’ heads, those of a dreaded dragon, and the heads licked with dark tongues and from the eyes on the inhuman heads fire glittered from under the eyelids.
From all his heads fire flared from his eyes’ glancing;and inside each one of these horrible heads there were voices that threw out every sort of horrible sound.
This dragon, Typhon, fought a terrible battle with Zeus, crippling him with a sickle. Hermes, messenger of the gods, healed Zeus who then chased Typhon all through Thrace into Sicily, where he finally buried him under Mount Etna.
Typhon was the father of a formidable brood that provided many of the monstrous creatures of Greek legend — the Chimera, the Nemean lion, the eagle that ate Prometheus’s liver, and the many-headed dragon killed in the second of the twelve labours assigned to the Greek superman-hero Hercules.
This creature, the Hydra, lived under a plane tree terrorising the people who lived round the Lernaean swamp near Argos. It was not only malicious and venomous, but also self-regenerating. Hercules called on his charioteer, Iolaus, to burn the stump of each neck as he sliced through the heads, and in this way prevented new heads appearing. He then dipped his arrows into the creature’s blood, tipping them with deadly poison.