Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Did Dragons Walk Among Us? (Do They Still?) Part 3

Virtually every culture on earth has an oral tradition of encounters with large, strange beasts—creatures different from those we know. Were they dragons? Why don’t we still have dragons among us? Or do we? Will we ever know for sure?

Part 3

Dragon slayers become saints

In the Western world, where dragons were “evil,” dragon killers have been celebrated, and several made into saints. The western church had no fewer than 40 dragon-slaying saints, the best known being Saints George, Michael, Catherine, and Margaret.

St. George died circa 303 AD, was first identified as the patron saint of England in the 14th century, and is thought to have been martyred for his Christian faith.

He was a popular saint in many parts of Europe. About 20 countries, provinces, and cultural groups have claimed him as a patron saint. Nearly 100 wall paintings are known, invariably depicting him in combat with a dragon.

St. George allegedly killed more than one dragon. Of particular note is one he battled in Libya. It ate from flocks of sheep until the sheep population was depleted; then children were sacrificed, two per day, chosen by lottery. In time, the lot fell upon the king’s daughter. As she went to her fate, George happened by, saved her, and told the village his faith in God had helped him defeat the dragon. The village converted to Christianity.

In Medieval times, the dragon was considered a symbol of paganism and non-Christian beliefs, even of evil or the Devil. Often places associated with the killing of a dragon have become sanctified; sometimes a church is built on the spot.

The gargoyle—gargouille in French—began as a dragon that “gargled” (spouted water) in an attempt to flood a French city. An archbishop disempowered the beast using the sign of the cross, and the gargoyle became a sign of protection that has adorned churches and other buildings since the Middle Ages.

It is possible that George’s connection with the dragon, which seems to have appeared long after his lifetime, is a metaphorical depiction of the defeat of the heathen emperor. Hero rescuing maiden from dragon could symbolically represent a Christian hero rescuing the Church from the Devil.

Dragon tales sometimes stretch credibility

Many dragon stories defy probability. Of these, many have Christian themes blended with magic. The influence of the contemporary belief system is also evident.

In Brent Pelham, England, the Devil demanded the soul of a knight who had killed a dragon, but the knight was saved by being buried half in, half out of holy ground. In Wormesgay, England, St. Guthlac intervened to help a knight kill a dragon by blinding the monster with a lightning flash, enabling the knight to reach a vulnerable spot (a wart).

St. Margaret of Antioch, daughter of a pagan priest, was thrown out of her father’s house for embracing Christianity. She was imprisoned for refusing to marry the prefect and devoured by a dragon in her cell, but the cross she held punctured it from the inside and she emerged unharmed. (She was later beheaded.)

France’s aquatic dragon, Tarasque, lived near the Rhone River and sank boats in order to feast upon their passengers. St. Martha used her cross and holy water to lead it to a nearby village where it was put to death.

At Spindleston Heugh in England was a maiden transformed by sorcery into a dragon. Her brother came to kill her, but she persuaded him to kiss her; thus the spell was broken. At Long Witten, an invisible dragon lurked near a well; a knight used magic ointment to see it, and killed it with his lance. In Penmynnedd, Wales, a dragon was lured into a pit containing a bronze mirror, and it exhausted itself to death by fighting its reflection.

Many dragons are said to have guarded treasure. Since only humans use currency, it’s a curious attribute for a dragon to value precious metals and gems.

Modern dragons

In January of 1909, over 100 witnesses in at least 30 towns in the New Jersey-Pennsylvania area reported seeing the “flying devil.” Various witnesses claimed it had a piercing scream and glowing red eyes.

In the 1950s through the 1970s, a bipedal reptilian creature, nicknamed the Loveland Frog or Lizard Man, was reported in Ohio, New Jersey, Kentucky, and South Carolina. Witnesses say it was over seven feet long and ran at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. At about that time appeared Mothman, a creature resembling a bird, but missing its head, with red eyes where its shoulders should be. This one flew after the fleeing witnesses at up to 100 miles per hour. (Mothman became the inspiration for the 2002 movie The Mothman Prophecies.)

Mexico and Puerto Rico have Chupracabra—“goat sucker.” Mongolia has the Death Worm, which is two to four feet long and kills its victims with venom or electric shock.

And of course, Nessie sightings continue to appear up to the present.

Recent Nessie developments

In the early 1930s, a new road was built around Loch Ness; thereafter the frequency of sightings increased. There have been about 3,000 sightings since 1933. Until that time, stories of the monster had circulated mostly locally.

In 1933, 50 sightings of Nessie were reported. On 22 July, 1933, a London couple was driving down the road when a large, cumbersome animal crossed the road in front of them, perhaps 20 yards from the water. This incident was unusual because it was the first recorded sighting of Nessie on land. The report appeared in the Inverness Courier, and then in the Scottish national newspapers. After this, interest in Nessie grew internationally. Three more important sightings occurred in 1934. One of these produced a photograph taken along the new road by a London surgeon, and a privately funded investigation led by Sir Edward Mountain resulted in five shots of Nessie.

During World War II, the Navy secured the Loch area. In May 1943, a member of the Royal Observer Corps saw a monster raise its head from the water and then submerge again.

A huge underwater cavern has been discovered in the Loch and named “Nessie’s Lair.” George Edwards, a local tour boat operator and member of the Auxiliary Coastguard, has seen many strange shapes on the loch over the years; he believes there must be more than one creature, and that this “new” cavern could lead to a network of caves. Experts call his findings “the most significant in years.”

The number of sightings has decreased recently, despite that the loch has been watched more closely and that increasingly more people carry cameras and video recorders. This does not necessarily suggest that Nessie is less likely to be real. It more likely suggests that the population of creatures is declining.

Conclusion

Whatever their identity, dragons have undeniably secured their place in our cultural history. Are they real or not? Arguably, the truth about dragons is inextricably intertwined with the fate of the dinosaurs. Virtually no reasonable doubt exists that dinosaurs once lived—only whether or not they coexisted with humans.

But the fact that so many tales of human-dragon interactions have endured through the ages is too compelling to ignore. I propose this as a definition of dragons: dinosaurs that have co-existed with humans. As such, either they are real, or they are not. But, since one can never prove a universal negative, we can say with certainty only one of two things—either they are real, or they might not be.

The fact that no dragon has ever lent itself to modern scientific examination means little. Obviously, these relics from antiquity are not well suited to 21st-century life. If we accept that most of the dinosaurs died in a flood, or the Great Flood, it is not surprising that the numbers of those few survivors are dwindling.

And of course people feared and hated them. Antediluvian dinosaurs of the carnivorous persuasion ate each other. Postdiluvian ones, having fewer menu selections, naturally resorted to eating livestock—and, when necessary, humans. Flying dragons? Why not? Arhchaeopteryx and Pterosaurs flew.

Why were dragons of the Far East revered instead of feared and hated? Perhaps, by fluke of geography or some other factor, herbivorous dragons tended to settle there. The fact that dragon tales overlap with fantasy makes them no less likely to be true, just as the certainty that reindeer don’t fly and fat guys can’t go down chimneys doesn’t mean that there was never a real person named St. Nicholas who gave gifts to children.

Why in particular are Medieval and Renaissance times linked with dragon activity? Maybe dragons were enjoying a resurgence in population at that time; maybe, because of the prevailing social-cultural-religious climate, humans in Western civilization needed something big and bad to conquer.

To believe, or not to believe? Given the evidence, we have ample reason to believe in dragons.

About The Author

Lisa J. Lehr is a freelance writer with a specialty in business and marketing communications. She holds a biology degree and has worked in a variety of fields, including the pharmaceutical industry and teaching, and has a particular interest in Christian tradition. She is also a graduate of American Writers and Artists Institute (AWAI), America’s leading course on copywriting. Contact Lisa J. Lehr Copywriting www.ljlcopywriting.com, Lisa@ljlcopywriting.com for help with your business writing needs.

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