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'The Penguin Book of Dragons' reaches from ancient Greece to the modern day

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‘The Penguin Book of Dragons’ reaches from ancient Greece to the modern day

Real animals, demons, or just myths?

“There is a great deal of debate among writers with regards to dragons: do animals of this sort actually exist in nature, or, as is often the case in many other things, can they only be found in fables?”

These words come from the 17th century German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher and his 1638 book Mundus subterraneus (Subterranean World) which argued not only that the Earth is hollow, but that it’s inhabited by dragons which he believed were extremely rare, but nevertheless natural animals. Kircher’s inquiry into the putative reality of dragons is a major theme throughout The Penguin Book of Dragons (2021), edited by historian Scott G. Bruce of Fordham University.

The Penguin Book of Dragons is organized into ten sections charting dragon mythology from ancient Greece and Rome up to the late 19th century. A five-page opening essay by Bruce outlines his objectives with this collection, chief among them being an examination of how the dragon has been interpreted over time. Bruce notes that the two major views have been to see dragons as either rare and exotic animals, or as supernatural beings in league with the Devil.

'The Penguin Book of Dragons' reaches from ancient Greece to the modern day

Engraving by Flemish artist Stradanus, based on Silius Italicus’ account of the Roman army confronting a dragon during the Punic Wars.

This striking dichotomy is evident from the book’s very first section, which looks at dragons in Greco-Roman culture. While Hellenistic dragons were not Satanic per se, they were often supernatural instruments of the vengeful and petty Olympian gods. Here Bruce contrasts the fantastic myths of Hercules and the hydra, Perseus and Medusa, and the death of Laocoön with the naturalistic accounts of dragons offered up by military historian Silius Italicus (c. 28-102 CE), and the famed naturalist Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE).

Bruce next moves into the Christian Middle Ages, where the bulk of The Penguin Book of Dragons remains. A selection of excerpts from the Bible demonstrates the presence of dragons in scripture, which is followed by accounts of demonic dragons as the implacable adversaries of various apostles, martyrs, saints, monks, nuns, priests, and popes. While most of these dragons are decidedly supernatural in nature, occasionally one comes across a text advocating the opposite position.

The Spanish Bishop Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) wrote about dragons as biological beasts, as did the Byzantine theologian John of Damascus (c. 675-749), who argued that the belief in demonic dragons was contrary to scripture, and that dragons were in fact merely exotic animals. The celebrated 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) likewise wrote about seeing dragons being hunted and butchered in China.

In some cases, however, the distinction between cryptozoological and theological dragons is not so clear-cut. Pope Gregory the Great, for instance, recorded accounts of Benedictine monks in Italy who claimed to have encountered dragons. Some of them read like run-ins with wild animals, but others sound more akin to episodes of sleep paralysis.

As The Penguin Book of Dragons moves into the early modern period, accounts of dragons as animals become more common, including those of the aforementioned Kircher, English naturalist Edward Topsell (1572-1625), and a 1614 broadside published by John Turndle (1575-1629), detailing alleged eyewitness sightings of a dragon lurking about in St. Leonard’s forest in Sussex. Bruce even includes two supposed dragon encounters from 19th century American newspapers, one of which is better known in cryptozoological circles as the controversial case of the Tombstone Pterodactyl.

As with any curated collection of texts, criticisms could be made about Bruce’s choices of which dragon tales to include. Many of the best-known legends are featured, including Beowulf, Sigurd’s slaying of Fáfnir, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the dueling red and white dragons, St. Columba’s original encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, Edmund Spenser’s dragons from The Faerie Queene, and of course the tale of St. George and the dragon.

Other iconic dragons are absent, though, including the Babylonian Tiamat and one of my personal favorite dragon stories, the Lambton Worm. But Bruce has included so many more obscure and seldom-reprinted texts that one can hardly fault him for leaving out a couple well-known classics.

Bruce has edited two other entries in the “Penguin Book” series, one on the undead and one on Hell, both of which have been criticized as overly Eurocentric. The Penguin Book of Dragons narrowly avoids this by including an admittedly modest but nevertheless serviceable sampling of dragons from the Middle East and Asia, including a fascinating document by Persian writer Al-Masudi (c. 896-956), which speculates that dragon reports may be the result of some freak meteorological phenomena.

Bruce has included so many obscure texts that he can't be faulted for leaving out a couple classics.

The Penguin Book of Dragons is not an anthology of contemporary short stories, or even classical fairy tales and legends – though it does contain more than a few. Rather, it’s a collection of primary source documents including poetry and prose, religious scriptures and tractates, excerpts from antiquated scientific works, and even historical newspapers. Each section and individual text contains a brief essay by Bruce. Select annotations via endnotes found at the back of the book help to elucidate certain texts, and an index and a micro-bibliography of suggested further reading are included, also.

The ideal audience for The Penguin Book of Dragons would probably be students in a class dedicated to studying the “creatures” from a historical or literary perspective, as well as anyone with a similarly academic bent toward the most famous monster in the history of the human imagination.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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