The Sleeping Dragon

in Esotericism/History/Latest/Philosophy

What is a dragon? ​A mythical creature based on aspects of real creatures, a lizard with four legs and wings that breathes fire. That’s how I picture a dragon, the conventional fantasy dragon of today. It could be friendly, a human ally as in ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, a DreamWorks film (2010) based on Cressida Cowell’s book (2003). But this is a contemporary twist where the power of friendship defeats evil. For in mediaeval Christianity, the dragon symbolises evil.

​In the Book of Revelation we are told the history of the dragon and his relationship with humans.​

A dragon appeared out of the sky, huge and red, with seven heads, ten horns and a crown on each of his head. He dragged a third of the stars out of the sky and throws them down to the earth. He stood in front of a woman, ready to eat her child as soon as it is born. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and throw him out of the heaven. The dragon was furious and pursued the woman and her new born son.​

His powers are now completely directed against humans. He pursues the woman and her son. A lamb arises out of the earth and challenges the dragon and defeats it, chaining him up for a thousand years.​

In the wild visions of John the Revelator, the dragon fuses with Satan as the leader or evil. Its physicality is hard to pin down. Is it a snake? With legs? Like a cloud of smoke it shifts, taking on multiple appearances.​

In mediaeval Western Europe, Christianity continued to depict the dragon as the enemy and killing the dragon was depicted as a sign of holiness. St George was not the only dragon-killing saint. In Venice, on a pillar above St Mark’s square you can see a statue of St Theodore, victorious above a crocodile. The victory of mammal over reptile. It feels like a religious interpretation, a folk memory of the fight for dominance over the earth in which the giant lizards lost out to the warm-blooded hairy successors, with their greatest champion, homo sapiens. ​

​Defeating the dragon was the mark of slaying evil and of a warrior-saint. But my favourite dragon-slaying saint is the patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth, In a scene that reminds me of a sci-fi horror movie Saint Margaret, or Saint Marina, praying in her cell, is visited by the devil who swallows her while taking the shape of a dragon. In vampire-slaying style, she is carrying a cross which helps her to burst forth from its stomach. The dragon expires as its stomach explodes. The action was compared to the great pains and danger of childbirth. Her superpowers, endowed by her purity of mind, made her a figure of hope for expectant mothers. She could overcome the danger, beat the threat of death that lurked over every labour and delivery. In most illuminations of the late mediaeval period she is depicted rising out of the back of the dragon as the standing pose made her look powerful, her standing pose dominating the beast.

For many warrior-saints the dragon also symbolises the threat from the East. It’s a metaphor for the assertion of Western Europe and the dragon-slayers have a crusading violence and vigour.  Yet in the Anglo-Saxon-Jutish poem Beowulf, the dragon enemy is also depicted as evil.

Beowulf looks back to the glorious soldiering heroes of an age before Christianity and is set across the sea from where the epic was composed in East Anglia, in Scandinavia. The most remembered and illustrated scenes are Beowulf’s battle with Grendel and Grendel’s mother. The final conquest of Grendel’s mother is the old story of patriarchal assertion. The male warrior brings down female power, slaying her with the magic of his sword skills. Taking an ancient sword, he kills her, and chops off the head of her dead son. Her sexuality and identity as a mother is not as important as her character as an enemy and there is some debate over the identity of the mother character in Beowulf. Could the poet have just mean Beowulf’s kin and kind who turn on the hero who has slain their leader?

The idea of a female dragon enemy has been attractive to illustrators and re-tellers of the poem. Illustrations show her repeatedly as sexualised. In 2007, beautiful Angelina Jolie plays her as a shape shifting lizard, covered in gold, wearing high heels and with a whiplash tail. She seduces and threatens, the dragon characteristics shed in favour of a malevolent Eve merged with the serpent, the devil and woman in league against man.

The dragon has been adopted as a symbol of national resistance and Celtic power. My friend, Welsh poet Brett Evans, makes laser cut dragons to decorate houses for those who wish to announce their allegiance.  The key battle is a dream from Welsh mythology, witnessed by King Vortigern. A red dragon defeats the white, foretelling the ultimate defeat of the English by the Welsh, as explained by Merlin. Y Ddraig Gogh, the red dragon is popularly understood to be the battle standard of King Arthur in his resistance against the Jutish, Angles and Saxon invaders.

In the Mabinogion the king of Britain digs a pit in the centre of Britain, fills it in mead and the two dragons fall in and are covered with cloth. The dragons fall asleep and are imprisoned, still wrapped in their cloth, their backs forming the green fields and the hills.

 This mingling of beasts from opposing sides, buried alive together, is a very poignant myth to me. It is the laying to sleep of ancient divides in order that we can live together without violence erupting every day. It is a symbol of survival after conflict. Reconciliation, multi-culturalism, all these approaches are ways of going on, even going forward, without being caught up in revenge and a cycle of retribution.

Many people today are getting their DNA tested in an effort to identify themselves. So far, I have declined although I find the migrations of people and family stories, near and far in history, fascinating. I do know much of my recent family history, which is fascinating and romantic, involving a published Scottish poet, a leading musician of the earliest days of the BBC and the Earnshaw family of the Howarth area who inspired the name of the anti-heroine of Wuthering Heights and East Prussian (Jewish?) sailors and immigrants. Perhaps that makes me lucky. It leads me away from the need to identify my origins as I already have an interesting mirror for myself of the paths leading back in time. But I also think that these tests are too reductive. So many discussions are not suggested in these rough percentages.

For example, we talk little about the genetic difference between female and male. In an oft-invaded island like the UK, the female line often stretches back to the subjugated more indigenous group whereas the male line is more often related to the conquerors. The dragons, who are symbolically two tribes locked in eternal combat, have to lie down together to avoid the continuation of conflict. The red and white dragons, sleeping beneath the earth is for me, so potent in so many ways, and has so much resonance for how we live. We could do more to celebrate the Celtic heritage that is here in all these islands. Here’s my suggestion for how to go forward – let’s all learn some Welsh at primary school, not just in Wales, and celebrate our hidden histories, our hidden identities, our inner dragon.

Jude Cowan Montague is an artist and broadcaster. She produces 'The News Agents' for Resonance FM, a weekly show experimenting with international story and the arts. She worked at Reuters Television News for many years as an archivist and this has informed her poetry and some of her art. She's an award winning printmaker and a composer. Her graphic memoir 'Love on the Isle of Dogs' is available from Central Books.

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