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.