Monday 3 February 2014

Saint George’s Dragon

The story of Saint George and the dragon ("The Legend of Saint George") dates back to about 300 AD Libya, and the version most commonly repeated is recorded in the 13th century Golden Legend. Though St. George is a venerated Christian hero and the patron saint of England, to be honest, I’ve always felt a little sorry for the dragon.

Saint George and the Dragon

Both George (according to Paul Newman, his real name was Nestor) and his dragon were displaced and doomed characters. George was originally from the otherworldly region of Cappadocia in present day Turkey, so Libya was a long way from home. And while we’re never told where the dragon came from, it can’t have always haunted the lagoon near Silene, or presumably no city would have grown up there.
Strange natural rock formations in Cappadocia, George's
homeland. Dragons would love this place.
  Image copyright Rosemary Drisdelle

The dragon was no fire breather, but rather, it had breath so foul that it poisoned the air for miles around. Perhaps this had something to do with living in a stagnant lagoon, which seems an unhealthy place for a dragon. Understandably, the people of the city were anxious that the creature with the dreadful breath be kept as far away as possible, and so they delivered sheep to the dragon, and when the flocks ran low, they sacrificed first men, and then children. (In Silene, winning the lottery was not like we experience it today: their lottery winners got fed to the dragon).

The dragon must have known it couldn’t last forever – at two children a day, even a fairly large city will start to empty its schools pretty quickly. And so the day came when a lottery winner was someone that no one really wanted to part with: the king’s daughter. 

The Death of the Dragon

A depiction of the battle between
Saint George and the dragon, on a
church in Egypt. Image copyright
Rosemary Drisdelle

Delivered to the dragon in wedding finery, the princess might have been a challenging mouthful, but the poor dragon never got to find out. In the nick of time, the heroic George appeared and immediately recognized an opportunity to convert an entire city to Christianity without bloodshed – or at least without human bloodshed.

In minutes, George accomplished what an entire city could not: he battered the dragon into submission. Numerous works of art depict the battle, with many showing George mounted on a horse, driving his spear down the dragon’s throat.  Thereafter, George had the princess lead it into the city like a dog on a leash, and in exchange for the Christian baptism of more than 30,000 people, he slew the dragon and beheaded it.

The Death of Saint George

That George could get close enough to subdue a large dragon (the story relates that four ox carts were needed to take away the remains) in spite of its noxious breath seems a bit of a miracle, so its not surprising that the hero went on to escape death by poisoning, swords affixed to cart wheels, and immersion in molten lead. The dragon might find it satisfying that George was finally successfully beheaded.

The legend has it that after the death of the dragon, a fountain in Silene ran with water that could heal the sick, but whether this was due to George’s deeds, or some magic of the dragon, I couldn’t say.


Newman, Paul. The Hill of the Dragon. Bath: Kingsmead Press, 1979

The Legend of Saint George. Abstracted from The Golden Legend; or, Lives of the Saints, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First edition published in 1470. Translated into English by William Caxton, first edition 1483.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Prideth – Unhappy Dragon of Pern

On Pern, a golden egg in a clutch of dragon eggs
foretells the arrival of a queen dragon.
Image by Nevit Dilmen; CC BY-SA 3.0
Decades after Anne McCaffrey started writing them, the Pern books are still among the most popular in dragon fiction. Development of dragon characters, however, wasn’t McCaffrey’s focus, at least in the early books.

Dragon Characters of Pern

If the dragons of Pern have rich inner lives, that’s hidden from the reader. Typically, we get only brief and limited telepathic conversations between the dragons and various humans; dragons don’t have (dragon) family ties, personal ambitions, or possessions of their own. A Pern dragon exists only in the context of its rider from day one.

The dragons of Pern are devoted to their riders, and we do get the impression that the dragon-human relationships work: not all the humans are nice people, but typically whatever they are up to, their dragons are up to as well. In that respect, Prideth stands out from the rest: she was not in accord with her rider Kylara. Prideth may simply have made the wrong choice on hatching day.

Manipulating a Dragon Hatchling

It wasn’t Prideth’s fault: she was manipulated her entire life, beginning even before she hatched. Her rider Kylara failed to impress a dragon at the first hatching she attended, but Weyrleader F’lar thought she had the qualities of a strong Weyrwoman. As the next hatching approached, he deliberately exposed the incubating queen dragon egg to Kylara: “F’lar… had Lessa persuade Ramoth to let Kylara near her precious golden egg.”1

Trying to influence the outcome when the egg hatched – controlling whom the hatchling chose – broke tradition, but it apparently worked. In the event, “the young queen burst from her shell and moved unerringly for Kylara.”1 Unfortunately, impression was the beginning of a short and unhappy life for Prideth.

Though we can’t be sure things would have unfolded differently if F’lar hadn’t interfered, it’s implied that the manipulation worked, but it would have been better if it had not: F’lar “regretted … that he had ever suggested to Lessa that she pressure that female into being a Weyrwoman.”2 Kylara was much too selfish and greedy to make either a good Weyrwoman, or a good dragonrider. 


Prideth's Story

Prideth first appears in Dragonflight, but her story is told in Dragonquest, the second volume of The Dragonriders of Pern series. We watch as she voices, first mild dissatisfaction with Kylara spending too much time at holds where there were no other dragons, then stronger disapproval of Kylara’s selfish handling of fire lizards. Kylara’s disrespect for other riders and the resulting squabbles cause Prideth great distress, until the ultimate betrayal, when Kylara knowingly puts Prideth in jeopardy in order to pursue her own selfish  and petty ends.

Strangely, despite the lack of depth of character in this dragon, the reader is left feeling that Kylara’s punishment, though devastating for the Weyrwoman, was nowhere near harsh enough.

1 Dragonflight. 1989. Ballantine Books. Page 187, 188.
2 Dragonquest. 1980. Ballantine Books. Page 155.

Saturday 31 August 2013

Strabo – Where Did Terry Brooke’s Dragon of Landover Get His Name?

A statue of Strabo the geographer stands
in Amaseia. This looks like a place where
you might meet a dragon. Image by Erturac.
CC BY-SA 3.0.

Is Strabo, Terry Brook’s dragon of Landover, named after the Greek historian and geographer Strabo of Amaseia? Other main characters in the Landover books aren’t named after ancient scholars so there’s no compelling reason to assume that he is. On the other hand, there is a long tradition of dragons in Greek mythology. Brooks’ Strabo is very very old, and Strabo of Amaseia lived about 2000 years ago, so in that sense, the name fits.

Strabo, the Geographer of Landover

Does Strabo of Landover have anything in common with Strabo of Amaseia other than being ancient? The dragon could, indeed, be considered a bit of a geographer. Capable of moving about quickly and searching the whole of Landover from the air, he is also uniquely capable of moving between worlds through the fairy mists. He probably knows more geography than any other inhabitant of Landover.

Strabo of Amaseia, likewise, was aware of lands outside the boundaries of his native Pontus (in present-day Turkey), and his work Geographia is a vital ancient reference of the geographical knowledge of his day. Delightfully, the Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford, 1996) relates that he understood “the lack of profit to be had from lands on the fringes of the inhabited world.” Here, man and dragon would agree: Strabo the dragon greatly resents being forced to hunt on the fringes of Landover instead of taking his pick of the livestock that graze the Greensward.


Strabo Means Cross-eyed 

Interestingly, the name Strabo was used by the Romans to describe people who were cross-eyed, or whose eyes didn’t otherwise coordinate with each other (strabismus). I don’t think Brooks’ Strabo has this problem (one can’t help wondering whether a cross-eyed dragon would be more comic or terrifying).

The term strabo, however, also gave rise to the Latin phrase inter caecos regnat strabo. The phrase is roughly translated as “the person with poor vision has power among the blind.” Strabo the dragon may have his weaknesses, but he is the last dragon standing.

Pompeius Strabo, a Roman Traitor

There was another Strabo who was, without question, more like a dragon than Strabo the geographer, and that was the Roman Pompeius Strabo, father of Pompey, who lived a little earlier. This Strabo seems to have turned on everyone, including his own commanders and relatives, and didn’t hesitate to play both sides of a conflict for his own gain – a strategy any treacherous dragon would admire. In a sense, he was more treacherous than Strabo of Landover, because the dragon actually has a code of honor and always keeps his promises.

Pompeius Strabo had power but he was not well liked. “His death,” according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, “was thought fit punishment and his body was dragged through the streets.” No one in Landover, of course, expects to like Strabo: after all, he’s a dragon with no loyalty to anyone. He may not have been named after either Strabo of Amaseia or Pompeius Strabo, but in many ways, he lives up to the name.

The fire springs, Strabo's home in Landover, seems like the magic kingdom's
version of Hell. Landover has an even worse Hell however: Abaddon and its
demons. Image by Sébastien Morin: Pîton de la Fournaise, Reunion Island
(France). CC BY-SA 3.0. 


NNDB: Tracking the Entire World. “Strabo.” Accessed Aug 30, 2013. 

Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A. Eds. 1996. Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monday 17 June 2013

Are Dragons Traitors?

What is the worst crime you can commit? Murder? Torture? Treason? In a discussion of American traitors over the last few centuries, Michael Streich points out that "In Dante’s Inferno, Brutus and Judas Iscariot occupied the lowest tier of torment" ("Treason in America - An Overt Act Giving Aid and Comfort to the Enemy," Decoded Past, June14, 2013.). And right in the middle of the inferno - or Hell - is Satan, the ultimate traitor.

In the center of the lowest level of Dantes Inferno, Satan,
lies with half his body trapped in ice. He has three faces,
six wings, and fur (all features of various dragons). This
image shows an engraving by Gustave Dore.
I'd argue that by their vary nature, all crimes boil down to treason - betrayal of someone - in one way or another. From that point of view, Dante has it right: treason is surely the central idea of evil, and of Satan.

It's interesting, but not surprising, that Dante Alighieri's description, and Gustave Doré's depiction of Satan in Dantes Inferno are distinctly dragon-like. In fact, Western dragons are typically evil and often represent the devil. In A Study of Dragons East and West, Qiguang Zhao writes "The Western idea of the dragon as a symbol of the satanic in nature is very very old" (Peter Lang, 1992).

The only thing that seems out of place here (with both Western depictions of dragons, and classic descriptions of Hell) is that the fire is missing. Even the word inferno conjures up a blast furnace, but in Dante's center of Hell, it's all ice.

Fire and ice aside, are dragons traitors? They can be cunning and deceptive, and in that sense they can be described as treacherous, but one might argue it's a human's mistake to trust them in the first place.

The typical evil dragon is solitary, selfish, and without remorse. It has no loyalty or solidarity with anyone, and no one expects it to be merciful. It is amoral. These dragons are deadly but they can't be treacherous for they have no one to betray.

In contrast, lots of dragon stories, old and new, depict dragons who have relationships with humans, from the Colchian dragon who guarded the golden fleece for Aeëtes, King of Colchis, to the dragon steeds of Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels. Some are basically evil; some are not, but typically these dragons don't willfully betray their human counterparts.

Clearly, dragons aren't necessarily traitors, so they don't live up to the Western idea that they represent the devil (or at least Dante's devil). Perhaps the entity in the center of the inferno is the ultimate sinner, the ultimate traitor, and the ultimate (evil) dragon, but like the entities in the nine levels of Dante's Inferno and in the world above, there are many degrees and variations of each.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Oar Fish - Sea Serpent (Dragon) + Parasite

Have you ever seen an oar fish? I bet you haven't, but the oar fish might be the basis for a lot of sea serpent stories (and sea serpents are dragons: many of the early dragons of mythology lived in the ocean).

The oar fish is long and thin, like a serpent. It has a delicate undulating fin running along its back that is mesmerizing to watch. It has a plume (that is NOT the correct scientific term I'm sure) streaming from the back of its head that is lacy and elegant and, when you see it close up, colorful. It has large shiny eyes and a flexible snout that looks for all the world like it's breathing air. The oar fish typically hangs vertically in the water, looking up, but can also hold itself horizontal to have a good look at you, before slithering away through the depths. It is beautiful. Beautiful.

Until now, almost no one has seen a healthy oar fish in its natural environment, but now you can, and this one also has a parasitic copepod, making it all the more delightful to me. This video, released by marine biologist Mark Benfield, held me spellbound. The really good footage starts about half way through, but for me, the tantalizing process of getting up close built suspense and made the film that much more amazing and satisfying.
I found this here: Netburn, D Ethereal, 8-foot-long 'sea serpent' caught on video  (June 10, 2013).
Los Angeles Times: Science.

It made my day.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Why The Colchian Dragon?

Why name this blog The Colchian Dragon? The Colchian Dragon is a beast of Greek mythology. It guarded the golden fleece, sought after by Jason and his Argonauts and it never slept. In many versions of the tale, the key to defeating the Colchian dragon was not to kill it, but to lull it to sleep - a humane and peaceful solution.

Carving of Jason with his prize, the golden fleece. Cesi Collection; Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen CC BY 2.5.

While thinking about a name for the blog, I wanted something that would encompass my many interests: parasites (worms), dragon fantasy (wyrms), science, history. Fiction and non-fiction. Oh, and public speaking:

...he saw the maiden [Medea] take her stand, and heard her in her sweet voice invoking Hypnos, the conquerer of the gods to charm him... the giant snake, enchanted by her song was soon relaxing the whole length of his serrated spine and smoothing out his multitudinous undulations... (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 121 ff) 

An example of rhetorical excellence if ever there was one!

I think the Colchian dragon is a fitting figurehead for all these themes, and readers will find them scattered through my posts. 

Parasite enthusiasts, visit my website Rosemary Drisdelle
Follow me on Twitter @rdrisdelle

My nonfiction book - a natural and social history of parasites - is Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests, published by the University of California Press, 2010.