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TOM SHIPPEY SUMMARIZES it well in “Don’t Lie on Your Gold,” the London Review of Books, June 9, 2022: “Who wouldn’t want a friend that could hoard treasure, breathe fire, and fly?” He’s referring, of course, to dragons in his review of Daniel Ogden’s scholarly The Dragon in the West: From Ancient Myth to Modern Legend.
Daniel Ogden is Professor of Ancient History at Britain’s University of Exeter; he previously taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. LRB cites that Tom Shippey’s Beowulf and the North before the Vikings is coming out later this year. Both, evidently excellent sources for these tidbits appearing in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, together with my usual Internet sleuthing and personal encounters, of which more anon.
Whence the Dragon? Shippey writes, “Ogden is concerned mostly with the question of where this unlikely concept came from. The author of two books on the dragon in antiquity, he is particularly good on ancient Greece and Rome. Drakontes figure widely in Greek myth. Cadmus of Thebes sowed dragon’s teeth, which sprouted as armoured warriors. The Golden Fleece was guarded by the Colchian dragon. According to Hesiod, the apples of youth were guarded by the dragon Ladon, until he was killed by Hercules.”
Cartographical? “Here be Dragons” comes to mind as describing terra incognito. And, indeed, according to gislounge.com, “The Hunt-Lenox Globe of circa 1510 bears the phrase ‘HC SVNT DRACONES’ (here are dragons) near the coast of eastern Asia. Now housed in the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL), the Hunt-Lenox Globe is a small globe about 5″ in diameter.”
Gee, wouldn’t it be cool to have “Here be Dragons” appear on classic-car nav systems?
Dragons in Our Psyche? By contrast, Shippey also cites Carl Sagan’s view that dragons are a projection of dinosaur memories that lurk somewhere in our DNA.
St. George and the Dragon. Each year on April 23rd, the English celebrate St. George as their patron saint. According to the Independent, “St. George was a Roman soldier born in what is now modern-day Turkey in around 280 A.D. and died there around 303…. The myth of St. George slaying a dragon originally appeared in stories told by the mediaeval Eastern Orthodox Church which were brought back to Europe by the Crusaders in the 10th and 11th centuries.”
Shippey recounts “the image of St. George as a knight on a rearing horse, trampling a dragon and spearing it with his lance. In the Miracula Sancti Georgii, a twelfth-century Latin version of a lost Greek text, George finds a maiden tied up as a sacrifice for a dragon; he defeats the dragon, tames it and leashes it with the maiden’s girdle before executing it in public with a sword (rather unsportingly).”
The Germanic Dragon. Shippey writes, “The most important development in Ogden’s account of the Middle Ages, however, is the emergence of the ‘Germanic dragon’, as seen in the final part of Beowulf, and the story of Fáfnir in The Elder Edda (later incorporated into the Nibelung legend).”
Fafnir, with one spelling or another, positively litters SimanaitisSays: There’s the Fafnir bearing, the Fafnir automobile, and Fasolt’s brother Fafner, these two giants stiffed by Wotan in Das Rheingold and Fafner transforming into the dragon slain by you-know-who in Siegfried.
“When Germanic dragons aren’t flying,” Shippey says, “they lie on their gold.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, dragons experience a change of personality in China, the Magic Kingdom, and Sixties Pop. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022