Tag Archives: Dragon

Beautiful Beast

Like most kids in America I grew up with some form of Disney. We couldn’t afford to see many movies, but those we could often originated from the acknowledged master of childhood viewing. When I became a parent I naturally turned to Disney as one of the components of constructing a happy environment for my own child. Who doesn’t want better for their children then they had themselves? This was, however, in the days of VHS tapes. Disney frustrated more than one attempt to see a movie that was currently “locked in the vault”—a marketing tool used to glut the already overflowing coffers on demand. The heart wants what the heart wants, as the saying goes, and you knew that if you didn’t purchase the movie when it was available you might never see it again. Regardless, Disney does produce memorable work.

One movie that we missed until the vault unlocked was the animated Beauty and the Beast. We didn’t want to send the message that girls should be the captives of men, but Belle is a strong character, and we eventually realized that withholding much of childhood culture would isolate our daughter from what everyone else knew. Old habits die hard, as Disney knows. Our daughter is now grown, but a new Beauty and the Beast is in theaters and what was once vault material has softened into nostalgia. Recently I’ve begun to notice differences between original films and remakes when it comes to religion. In the new Beauty and the Beast there are only a couple of such instances, but they did make me wonder. In the opening sequence, as Belle is returning her book to Père Robert, a large crucifix stands in the background. Indeed, the camera keeps Belle off-center so as to make the cross obvious in the scene. Clergy and books make sense, and, of course, Belle offers to sacrifice herself for her father—a biblical trope.

When Gaston riles up the angry villagers, Père Robert is once more shown, objecting to the growing violence. Then, unexpectedly, as the castle transforms at the end, a gold finial of Michael the archangel slaying the dragon appears atop one of the towers. Again the symbolism is clear as the beast has allowed Gaston to escape, but the 45-inspired antagonist, unwilling to let grudges go, shoots the beast anyway. As the movie opens the famous Disney castle shows itself topped with that same finial. Is there a deeper message here? It’s just a children’s movie after all. Yet Père Robert is black and there are two interracial couples in the film. We should be, if I’m viewing this correctly, entering into a more tolerant and accepting world. Prejudice has no place in fantasy. Or reality. There are dragons to be slain here. If there is a deeper conscience at play it’s likely only to be found locked away in a vault.

Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

Google Me This

Technology frequently flummoxes me. Although I use it daily, it changes more swiftly than I can hope to. Working for a British company, for example, my computer seems to be a loyalist. It supposes that it is in the United Kingdom even as it sits on my desk in New York. I’m told this has something to do with a mystical key called an “IP address.” When I search Amazon, prices come up in pounds. When I google something, I’m told that European laws restrict certain searches. And, interestingly, I discover that Google’s icons of the day have a British theme.

GoogleI’m assured Google is a fun place to work. One of those enlightened companies that believes reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of employees leads to good results. Were that all companies so enlightened. In any case, the famous Google logo is often decorated with a commemoration of the day. This past week, two such icons appeared on my UK searches. The first commemorated Nessie with something like the 81st year of her appearance. The icon puckishly showed Nessie to be a fake, a submarine actually piloted by aliens. Later that same week, on St. George’s Day, a dragon appeared on the icon. I began to wonder about this reptilian connection. If lake monsters are real, many make the claim that they must be plesiosaurs, their dinosaur cousins that most resemble them. St. George, clearly a character cut from the same cloth as Hadad, slays a dragon—an equally mysterious reptile.

We tend to associate dragons with evil, although in world mythology they appear equally as often as harbingers of good. Human interaction with reptiles has always been fraught. Somewhere along our evolutionary track we must’ve shared a common ancestor with them. Even today some responses, such as fight or flight, are referred to as those occurring in the “reptilian brain.” In Genesis 3 the serpent slithers in. According to Revelation, at the other end of the canon, the snake is still there at the end. It was only happenstance that Nessie and George’s unnamed monster appeared in the same week, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a deep connection between them and us. We can’t seem to get away from them, even should we flee across the ocean.

See Serpent

GreatNewEnglandSeaSerpentSeeing, it is said, is believing. I have a feeling that this truism may have become effaced somewhat in this age of deft photo manipulation and apps that are marketed to insert ghosts and UFOs into any picture. Nevertheless, anyone who has seen anything genuinely puzzling knows that it creates a lasting impression. A world without mystery, although a capitalist’s dream, is a nightmare for everyone else. So it was, now that October is here, I settled down with J. P. O’Neill’s The Great New England Sea Serpent. I found O’Neill’s book in a used bookstore a few weekends ago (appropriately water-damaged), and since I have a fascination with the ocean and monsters, this seemed like it would appeal to both of my avocations. It did indeed. O’Neill isn’t a sensationalist writer, but rather she is a normal person with normal jobs who has an interest in strange animals. Beginning in 1751 and up to three-quarters through the twentieth century, people had been spotting a classical sea serpent along the New England coast, and occasionally on ocean voyages across the Atlantic. Of course, we’re told, sea serpents don’t exist.

The Great New England Sea Serpent is a compendium of sightings from many reliable witnesses over the centuries. Of course, to many it is impossible. To me this appears to be the same kind of arrogance we apply to the universe—if we haven’t catalogued it by now, it doesn’t exist—to suggest there are no monsters of the deep. As any oceanographer will tell you, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own oceans. If you turn your globe (or app) just right, there are views of our planet where virtually no land is visible. We are a watery planet. Even with current technology, the deep ocean is difficult, and very expensive, to explore. Who knows what might be lurking there right off the bow? O’Neill’s account is full of old salts and snarky journalists, but at the core of it all is a humility in the face of the largeness of the sea. What do we really know?

Of course, there is a fear of literalism. The Bible (and other ancient texts) take sea monsters for granted. Leviathan is a dangerous beast and, no matter what the pundits say, is no crocodile. And yet, for the past several decades the reports of the New England beast have dried up. Where has our beloved sea serpent gone? I have to wonder with both our polluting our oceans and our increasingly efficient (and massive) ships, if we haven’t simply forgotten that ancient maps used to leave space for dragons. Our great ships, guided by GPS, and our oceans running a temperature, are sure signs that greed has surpassed wonder. Have we, in our self-centeredness, slain the last of our dragons? O’Neill, please understand, does not call them dragons. Hers is a sober and straightforward account. But when October comes I just can’t help but hope there are still some monsters out there, deep under the waves.

Apples and Evil

I’m not really a mall person. Since I’m not really a techie either, however, I find myself in malls where Apple Stores are located when I can’t get by without a little help from my friends. So it was that I spent several hours at a mall earlier this week. While there I browsed an oriental imports store—the kind of place with a no-frills, I-might-be-gone-tomorrow kind of feel to it. In the front window they showcased a display of swords. Since dragons are a major motif in Chinese folklore, the transition to medieval images of dragon-slayers seemed to be at play here. I am not certain of the last time an actual dragon was reported in central Iowa. One of the swords had a Latin inscription along its blade. My Latin is very rusty, but I did recognize the word “God” amid the fantasy spell. The connection between religion and violence was facing me in that unused (I hope) weapon.

Religion often serves as an outworking of human violent tendencies. Our violence is, no doubt, a product of our godless evolution. As we ascended the tree of life that gave us birth, some other creatures on that tree thought we were tasty. In an unintentional effort to defend ourselves, we grew larger and larger brains that gave us the edge as predators. As a collective, humans tend to be overachievers. We’ve whittled away most of our large predators to the endangered list so that we might shop with relative comfort. If there is guilt about it, we can always blame God.

Evolution did not endow us well with body armor or sharp teeth and claws. People seem to have evolved mostly for running away—that’s what our physiognomy suggests. Among the earliest of weapons was the blade. To be effective a blade must have reach. The sword, the favored weapon of the Bible, grew until weight and balance became optimal. To harm another person you had to be close enough to look that person in the eye. If we look we find another person like us, and we need an excuse for our violence. Religion is readily farmed as the ground for justifying such violence, for religions combat evolution and any differences of opinion. What I was seeing through this mall window was a cross-section of the human story. The sword was ornamental and had clearly never been used. Unfortunately, such weapons are rare. Rarer than my trips to the mall, Apple Stores notwithstanding.

Life Without Dragons

Every now and again, the great cosmic spheres align in their eternal turning and something just right clicks into place on our little planet. Such a juxtaposition must have recently occurred, for just when my worry about dragons had been reaching a crescendo, I received an offer for “dragon bane,” a beautifully crafted double-axe in the Minoan tradition, for only $39.99. The double-axe, or labrys, actually predates the Minoans, probably originating in ancient Sumer. The dragon predates even that.

Labrys dragon style

I’ve posted on the origin of dragons before, but of all mythological creatures dragons are perhaps the most tenacious. In various guises they reappear when we thought that they were gone. They are among the most ancient of feared creatures. Representing the untamed, indeed untamable areas of life, the dragon is the perfect symbol of chaos. Dragons are the disorder against which gods always struggle. Metaphorical dragons are always more troublesome than physical ones.

Although the idea of being a sword-swinging hero out to vanquish the forces of evil is an appealing one, I know that I won’t be purchasing this collectable. I have too much respect for dragons to see them slain by gods or mortals. What would life be without our dragons?

Origin of Dragons

The ancient Greeks often take the credit for concepts they borrowed from the Ancient Near East. When casting about for the origin of dragons, a staple, if unstable, element of ancient Semitic myths, the credit often lands in ancient Hellas. Those of us influenced by western culture prefer the Greek versions of myths because they tend to be (mostly) coherent and do not have large gaps like those scrawled on fragmented clay tablets. Also, the word “dragon” traces it etymology to ancient Greece where it apparently derives from the verb drakein, “to see clearly.” Often commentators suggest that the rationale for the name is that dragons guard treasure and need to see clearly to do so.

Babylonian dragon

Babylonian dragon

Dragons, however, actually first appeared, like so many western civilizations concepts, in Sumer. In the ancient world, what we would recognize as dragons are always associated with water. Water is an uncreated element, existing as the primordial substance from which everything emerges. It is personified as a dragon that must be subdued for creation to take place. Images of the dragon from somewhat later time periods in Mesopotamia already depict the familiar form we still recognize as draconian.

Marduk astride Tiamat

Marduk astride Tiamat

The Bible has its share of dragons as well, although they never actually existed. Tannin, whose name probably relates to serpentine features, is regularly cited as a biblical dragon. Leviathan, as described in Job 41, has scaly skin, lives in the water, and belches fire (perhaps having taken lessons from televangelists). These characteristics probably played into modern conceptualizations of the dragon. Fire breathing, however, is first attested with Humbaba, the Cedar Forest guardian of the Gilgamesh Epic. Humbaba is not a dragon, but he may be the ancestor of our fire-breathing Leviathan. Some ancient iconography may also show fire projecting from the mouths of dragons as well.

Humbaba (center) on a bad day

Humbaba (center) on a bad day

Traditional Mesopotamian dragon

Traditional Mesopotamian dragon

I would even venture to suggest that the origin of the name dragon could go back to ancient West Asia. The idea of seeing clearly reminds me of the ancient cherubim. According to Ezekiel, they are full of eyes. This complements their role as guardians of the thrones of ancient deities. Cherubim are Mischwesen composed of lions, eagles, humans, bulls, or any other spare parts lying around. In my imagination it doesn’t take much to shape them into dragons, the original watchers.

A true cherub

A true cherub

No matter who coined the word, dragons have been with us from the beginning of human civilization and continue to live on in popular culture. Maybe they are, like the unruly waters, truly uncreated.