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'Dragon in the West' examines the beast's origins

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‘Dragon in the West’ examines the beast’s origins

From ancient Greece to early Christianity!

Ask two disparate groups of American or European children to draw you a picture of a dragon and chances are, despite what may separate them geographically or culturally, the results will be largely the same. It’ll likely start off looking like a sauropod dinosaur with a long neck and tail, plus four limbs. The head will, of course, be more akin to a crocodile’s than a brontosaurus’, full of razor-sharp teeth.

The placement of the bat-like wings may prove a source of consternation, though. While some children will replace the forelimbs with wings, others will incongruously put them on the back, in violation of evolution’s preference for tetrapods. Some children may also include additional visual signifiers: fiery breath, a cache of gold, a damsel in distress, and maybe a heroic knight coming to save her.

How is it that this familiar set of features has come to define our collective image of the dragon, the most celebrated of all monsters?

'Dragon in the West' examines the beast's origins

This is the question at the heart of University of Exeter historian Daniel Ogden’s new book The Dragon in the West: From Ancient Myth to Modern Legend (Oxford University Press, 2021). Ogden is a recognized authority on supernatural beliefs in the ancient world, having penned several books on Greco-Roman witchcraft, and a recent one on werewolves. In 2013 Ogden authored two indispensable studies on dragons, Drakōn: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds and Dragons, Serpents and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds.

His latest work, The Dragon in the West, represents a synthesis of these two texts, an attempt to “join the dots” between the dragons of classical antiquity and those of the early Christianity. Moreover, The Dragon in the West expands its purview by considering the role of dragons in medieval Scandinavian sagas, Germanic epics, and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. By charting the development of the dragon through these various historical eras, Odgen hopes to show how the dragon of our contemporary pop-culture — like those in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and HBO’s Game of Thrones — came to be.

In keeping with the three historical periods under consideration, The Dragon in the West is divided into three sections titled “Heroes,” “Saints,” and “Vikings.” “Heroes” begins by defining what exactly a dragon is, tracing the term back to the Latin Draco and the Greek Drakōn. Ogden demonstrates that Greek dragons began as “large, often gargantuan, snakes,” devoid of legs or wings, but possessing a “supernatural quality or affinity, and often […] additional or exceptional physical or behavioral attributes.” In this way Ogden’s characterization contrasts with that of historian Scott G. Bruce, whose recent The Penguin Book of Dragons portrays dragons as harboring the dual identity of either rare and exotic animals, or supernatural beings, but never just one or the other.

Ogden’s view of the dragon rests firmly in the latter camp. This is best demonstrated by his lengthy discussion of the Bagrada Dragon, as recorded by Roman military historian Silius Italicus’s Punica (c. AD 83-103). Cited by Bruce as a key example of a naturalistic account of a Hellenistic dragon, Ogden argues assiduously (though not necessarily convincingly, in my opinion) that the Bagrada Dragon is every bit as supernatural as the dragons encountered by heroes like Hercules or Jason and his Argonauts.

In the conclusion to this section of The Dragon in the West, Ogden lays out one of his key claims, that the modern dragon is a fundamentally “Christian creature,” having sprung forth (like Christianity itself) from the intermingling of Jewish eschatology and Greco-Roman paganism. In what he admits is a highly speculative analysis, Ogden makes the case that the modern dragon is a chimera resulting from the conflation of the Jewish Tannīnā (sea-dragon) with the Hellenistic Drakōn, to which the additional attributes of both the Greco-Roman Kētos (sea-monster) and Christian demons were affixed.

This analysis allows Ogden to segue into “Saints,” Dragon in the West‘s longest section and clearly where the author is most comfortable, as all the dragons here are unequivocally demonic entities who either serve as allies or avatars for the Devil himself. By meticulously outlining the development of the predominate tropes of the hagiographical dragon encounter, Ogden ultimately arrives at the dragon-slaying legends of the celebrated Saint George and the lesser-known Theodore Tyron, both of whom mark the point at which the dragon’s implacable enemy transitioned from saint to warrior.

The Dragon in the West’s final section, “Vikings,” might be the most interesting, because it offers up several translations of Norse dragon-slaying sagas previously unavailable in English. Ogden again privileges stories of supernatural dragons, especially shapeshifters, but his overall point — that it’s in the tales of Beowulf and Sigurd’s slaying of Fáfnir that we first see the emergence of the modern dragon, with all the familiar features and accoutrements — is well stated.

One issue of some ambiguity, though, is how much influence Christianity really exerted on the Vikings’ dragon traditions. Ogden claims the modern dragon must have been imported with the foreign religion, but still duly notes that the Norse did have their own indigenous dragons, like the world-spanning Jörmungandr, which is fated to be slain by Thor at Ragnarök.

The cosmic role of Jörmungandr raises the issue of the relative conservativeness of The Dragon in the West, in the sense that Ogden is decidedly uninterested in tracing the origins of the dragon back to its ancient Near Eastern roots, where primeval chaos-dragons waged battle with mighty storm gods. Outside of the Greek Typhon and a few fleeting references to this tradition’s biblical analogue in Yahweh’s duel with Leviathan (and an admittedly useful chart in the appendix outlining these myths), Ogden has little to say about this ultimate source of the dragon mytheme.

Dragon in the West, "Jason and the Dragon of Colchis"

Such quibbles aside, Ogden’s latest book is a remarkable survey of the evolution of the dragon myth in western culture. Coming in at 480 slick, glossy pages, with 59 images (many of them full color) plus various useful charts and tables, as well as an index and voluminous bibliography, The Dragon in the West is both an absolute steal at just under $40, and a must-have for any dracontophile’s library.

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

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