Here be dragons

IT is St George’s Day on Wednesday 23rd April, a day when some people wave the flag of St George and come over all patriotic.

Not that St George really has much to do with England since he was born in Lydda, a town in what is now Palestine and was a soldier in the Roman Empire. A Christian convert, he was subjected to brutal torture before being decapitated in 302AD, and is regarded as one of the great Christian soldier martyrs. Perhaps the greatest dragon he faced was the horrors of torture in defence of his faith.

Dragons crop up everywhere – and gods, heroes and even archangels have been slaying them for thousands of years.

Some dragons are good, some are neutral, some are tormented and enslaved – almost all, mainly through their deaths, help human beings to feel better about themselves (which probably explains the popularity of television’s Dragons Den).

In legends and myths around the world, a dragon is typically depicted as a reptile or serpent, sometimes with wings, sometimes with a long dramatic tail with dorsal spines.

There are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons in Europe, deriving from Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies (the English word “dragon” derives from the Greek “drakon”), and the Far East. Over the centuries the two traditions have influenced each other to some extent.

Dragons appear in every culture and mythology – in ancient Greek, in the early Vedic religion in Indian, Jewish, Persian, China and east Asia generally, the Americas and Australia.

Some dragons are said to breathe fire or to be poisonous. Sometimes they hoard treasure, sometimes they have to be placated with virgins or young flesh generally. But they are not always malign – in China, the dragon is a symbol of power, in Vietnam, the dragon brings rain, and pre-Christian dragons, such as Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales, can be benevolent.

Recent evocations of dragons include the enduringly popular game, Dungeons and Dragons, and the terrifying but tormented creature that helps Harry, Ron and Hermione to escape from Gringotts in the final book of the Harry Potter sagas.

So where do dragons come from?

One suggested origin is spitting cobras and another is the now endangered Nile crocodiles which in ancient times were occasionally found in Southern Europe, having swum across the Mediterranean. Skeletons of whales and fossil remains of huge prehistoric creatures – including dinosaurs – could easily have suggested monsters or dragons to early man.

Perhaps we have to invent monsters to explain our irrational fears – or as a metaphor for the things that we are reasonably and genuinely afraid of.

It is curious that several creatures that many people are scared of, even have phobias about – snakes, spiders and bats, for example – occur in one form or another throughout the earliest myths and legends and down through literature and art. Our fears of these creatures are deeply ingrained in our folk memories. Tolkein uses a spider as the basis of one of the nastiest of his monsters, the huge and hideous Shelob, while bats and vampires (a current obsession, particularly among adolescent girls) are virtually synonymous.

Snakes inhabit our darkest fantasies – not to mention the Christian origin myth in the Garden of Eden. They are seductive, powerful, sexually ambiguous and ultimately lead us into forbidden or doomed behaviour. Keats’ Lamia is a particularly vivid poetic incarnation of the serpent – and in southern Slavic languages, the word for dragon is actually Lamja.

We still talk about slaying dragons in contemporary life – it may be a bullying teacher, a sadistic or ruthless manager or anyone who exerts undue and cruel power over us. We rarely actually kill them these days but the symbolic triumph experienced in standing up to a dragon is very satisfying.

Dragons in myth may be ritually stabbed or beheaded, fought to the death, shrivelled down to harmless lizards or burned to ash – in real life, the challenge is to cut them down to size, to see them uprooted, unseated, deposed or otherwise despatched from their position of power and influence.

There are few sensations more enjoyable than seeing a bully revealed in his or her true colours as a nasty little coward, a creature that uses his or her power (or sexuality) to frighten and manipulate in order to further their own desires, empire or greed.

So, let’s raise a glass to St George and all dragon slayers!

And see this week’s Nine Things for nine notable dragons.

Fanny Charles