DEFINING DRAGONS: THE MODERN MIND VS. THE MEDIEVAL MIND

If you were to look up a dictionary definition of the word dragon, you might find something along the lines of, “a dragon is a fire breathing, mythical reptile-like creature invented by people living in the Middle Ages which symbolized evil and/or chaos.” But, what exactly IS a dragon? Is it an actual creature which has DNA? Or is it merely a fanciful invention of a pre-scientific people to help make sense of the world they lived in? The question of exactly how to define dragons could also be asked of any number of other creatures: from cows and dogs to horses, and platypuses. In his book, Kant and the Platypus, Italian philosopher Umberto Eco explores this strange intersection between words and reality. In the opening lines he highlights the philosophical problem modern thinkers have in adequately defining things. He writes,

So, what’s this book about? Apart from the platypus, it’s about cats, dogs, mice, horses, but also chairs, plates, trees, mountains, and other things we see every day, and it’s about the reasons why we can tell an elephant from an armadillo (as well as why we normally don’t mistake our wife for a hat). This is a formidable philosophical problem that has obsessed human thought from Plato to present-day cognitivists, and it is one that Kant not only failed to solve but didn’t even manage to solve express in satisfactory terms.[1]

 

Defining dragons, or anything else for that matter, may seem a trivial matter, but it gets at the heart of what separates humans, as rational creatures made in God’s image, from animals. In his book, Socratic Logic, philosopher Peter Kreeft tells us that, “Definition is crucial to logic. For a definition tells us what a thing is; and if we do not know what a thing is, by the first act of the mind, we cannot know what to predicate of it in the second act of the mind, and thus we have no premises for our reasoning (the third act of the mind).”[2]

The ancient and the medieval mind intuitively knew how to define things both real and imaginary (such as dragons, etc.), and they understood their significance in a hierarchically structured and ordered universe as the product of a divine Mind or Architect. In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis highlights the difference between a modern thinker and a medieval thinker in a theoretical conversation on the laws which govern the movements of the planets.

The question at once arises whether medieval thinkers really believed that what we now call inanimate objects were sentient and purposive . . . If we could ask the medieval scientist ‘Why, then, do you talk as if they did,’ he might retort with the counter-question, ‘But do you intend your language about laws and obedience any more literally than I intend mine about kindly enclyning? Do you really believe that a falling stone is aware of a directive issued to it by some legislator and feels either a moral or a prudential obligation to conform? We should then have to admit that both ways of expressing facts are metaphorical. The odd thing is that ours is the more anthropomorphic of the two.[3]

Expressing a similar sentiment in, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, Owen Barfield says that,

When we are disputing about the proper meaning to be attached to a particular word in a sentence, etymology is of little use. Only children run to the dictionary to settle an argument. But if we would consider the nature of meaning, and the relation between thought and things, we cannot dispense with etymology.[4]

Whether fire-breathing dragons exist in reality (although they very well might!) may appear to be irrelevant in the imaginations of ancient and medieval thinkers, the modern mind is limited by its strict adherence to scientific taxonomy, and it can neither tell us what a dragon is, nor what it symbolizes. As G.K. Chesterton observes in The Everlasting Man,

We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy, . . . the whole trouble comes from a man trying to look at these stories from the outside, as if they were scientific objects . . . But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false.[5]

Having divorced the imagination from a numinous understanding of the cosmos, thinkers since the Enlightenment have exchanged a theologically charged universe for a more profane, sterile one which is no longer “charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say.

Contrary to what modern thinkers might imagine, medieval thinkers and writers were not naïve rustics who saw everything through the lens of the fantastical or the imaginary. As Lewis states,

At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer or a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight. Though full of turbulent activities, he was equally full of the impulse to formalize them . . . The perfect examples are Summa of Aquinas, and Dante’s Divine Comedy; as unified and ordered as the Parthenon or the Oedipus Rex, as crowded and varied as a London terminus on a bank holiday.[6]

The purpose of this article is to serve as a modern introductory bestiary – a guide to dragons, serpents, and mythical creatures as they were understood in the ancient and medieval worlds. It is specifically written for a modern audience in mind who tend to be predisposed to the idea that dragons don’t exist, or that they are not real. To that end, we will look at dragons, not as “sterile idols with no life in them,” as Barfield would say, but as they have been understood, symbolized, and organized in the medieval mind, the ancient mind, to ancient biblical writers, and consequently in the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis.

Before Aristotle, before Linnaeus and the invention of modern taxonomic systems, ancient and medieval thinkers organized reality in the form of the list or catalogue. It is the simplest practice, but one that has endless and profound possibilities and applications.[7]

THE LIST AND THE DRAGON: ORDERING REALITY

Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have been making lists. In the Garden of Eden, Adam named (and by implication), listed the animals,. . . “and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.”[8] In ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of writing, scribes organized knowledge by writing thematically organized lists of words. In the early 2nd millennium B.C., a collection of cuneiform tablets called the Urra hubullu appeared as a proto-encyclopedia and was arranged by topics. Written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, the Urra hubullu was a lexical list of both domesticated and non-domesticated animals, including birds (tablets 13-15).[9] These tablets are now located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, ironically the birthplace of the modern Encyclopedia which was inspired by thinkers of the French Enlightenment such as Diderot and Voltaire.

In ancient Mesopotamia, animals and their representative symbols were used extensively in the very first writings by known humans known as pictographs. In the late fourth millennium B.C. at ancient Uruk (Mesopotamia) the world’s first pictographic tablets appeared in the archaeological record.[10] These clay tablets with their “picture-words” were precursors to cuneiform (or, wedge shaped writing) which would eventually be used to record the world’s very first literature —The Myth of Atrahasis, The Enuma Elish, The Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. Some of these early pictographic signs morphed into cuneiform script, as Assyriologist Seton Lloyd remarks:

Some signs used in the Protoliterate script have a recognizable equivalent in the developed cuneiform of later times, and their meaning is accordingly known. Animals such as sheep, and goats and cattle and donkeys could have all been expected. Words connected with hunting and fishing also occur, while commerce is implied by the names of merchants.[11]

Early cuneiform tablets listing words, food, commodities, business transactions, and animals were only the beginning.[12] The ancient and medieval worlds, which gave rise to Western Civilization, have, in their foundations, utilized the simple list to order reality and imbue logical structure onto the world. Homer’s Iliad, one of the seminal works of literature in the Western mind, dedicates three-hundred verses listing all the Greek ships sailing to Troy. In his brilliant volume, The Infinity of Lists (2009), Umberto Eco explores humanity’s proclivity to list, organize, and catalogue with a dazzling array of examples in literature, art, and early science. The function of the list can be as wide and varied as the number of lists, and catalogues themselves. One of the many functions of the list according to Eco, was to convey a sense of the infinite. Eco writes:

At one point, Homer wants to give a sense of the immensity of the Greek army and an idea of the mass of men the terrified Trojans see spreading out along the sea shore. At first he attempts a comparison: that mass of men, whose arms reflect the sunlight, is like a raging fire raging through the forest. It is like a flock of geese or cranes that seem to cross the sky like a thunderclap. But no metaphor comes to his aid, and he calls on the Muses for help: “Tell me, O Muses who dwell on Olympus, you who know all . . . you who were the leaders and the guides of the Danae; I shall not call the host by name, not even had I ten thousand tongues or mouths,” and so he prepares to name only the captains and the ships. It looks like a shortcut, but the shortcut takes him three hundred and fifty verses of the poem. Apparently the list is infinite, but since he cannot say how many men there are for every leader, the number he alludes to is still indefinite.[13]

The infinite variety of lists, catalogues, and litanies throughout history is staggering, but of all the lists which have appeared throughout human culture, perhaps the medieval bestiary (pronounced “best-iary”) has been one of the most inspiring to writers, poets, and artists. As Lewis brilliantly observes, “Aristotle, indeed, had laid the foundations for a genuinely scientific zoology; if he had been known first and followed exclusively we might have had no Bestiaries.”[14] It is in the medieval bestiary that the dragon, as it is known in many great works of literature and poetry, first appears.

THE MEDIEVAL BESTIARY, LEWIS, AND TOLKIEN

Most scholars believe that the medieval bestiary owes its origins to a second century Greek text called the Physiologus (or “Naturalist”).[15] The text, from an anonymous author from Alexandria, Egypt, presents pointedly Christian allegories to natural phenomena, especially to animals. For example, “The pelican revives her dead chicks by piercing her own breast and pouring her blood on them, a reflection in the animal world of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.”[16] “The English word ‘bestiary’ and the phrase ‘Book of Beasts’ comes from medieval book inventories, in which this type of book was sometimes identified in Latin as liber bestiarium.”[17]

In Northern Europe, the bestiary was one of the most popular illuminated book types beginning from about 1180 to 1300. The medieval bestiary was not, of course, a book of modern scientific taxonomy or zoology, but a guide intended to teach Christological, theological, and moral truths from the animal kingdom. A few of the most well-known bestiaries from that time include, the Aberdeen Bestiary (early 12th Century), the Ashmole Bestiary (late 12th early 13th Century), the Northumberland Bestiary (ca. 1250-1260), the Rochester Bestiary (ca. 1230-1240), and the Worksop Bestiary (ca. 1185).

Influenced by the Physiologus text, medieval bestiary writers divided their works by animal types (i.e., real creatures, the dog, the eagle, the horse, etc. and imaginary creatures, such as the griffin, the unicorn, the siren, etc.), and their associations with Christian virtues and vices. It is not surprising then, that dragons were identified with the devil and evil by bestiary writers. A typical example of the time is the “dragon” entry in MS 764 (manuscript 764), part of the medieval bestiary collection located at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University:

The dragon is like the devil, the fairest of all serpents, who often leaves his cave to rush into the air; the air glows because of him, because the devil rises from his abyss and transforms himself into an angel of light, deceiving fools with hopes of vainglory and human pleasures. The dragon has a crest because the devil is the king of pride; its strength does not rest in its teeth but in its tail, because having lost all power, the devil can only deceive with lies. It lurks on the paths which elephants use because the devil lays the coils of sin in the path of all who make their way towards heaven and kills them when they are suffocated with sin.[18]

 

Of all archetypes and symbols of evil and chaos, Lewis thinks that the medieval dragon is the best one in all western civilization. In The Discarded Image, Lewis’s work on the medieval world, he writes,

Phaedrus (first century A.D.) was, in intention, merely writing Aesopic fables. But his dragon (iv, xx) — a creature born under evil stars, dis iratus natus, and doomed to guard against others, the treasure it cannot use itself — would seem to be the ancestor of all those dragons whom we think so Germanic when we meet them in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. The image proved so potent an archetype that it engendered belief, and even when belief faded, men were unwilling to let it go. In two thousand years western humanity has neither got tired of it nor improved it. Beowulf’s dragon, and Wagner’s dragon are unmistakably the dragon of Phaedrus.[19]

 

It is not surprising, then, to find in many of Lewis’s fictional works (especially in Narnia) direct and indirect influences from the medieval bestiary. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is a veritable goldmine of bestiary references (Aslan, a lion, Mr. Tumnus, a mythical faun, half-human, half-goat, the Beaver family, etc.).[20]

EUSTACE BECOMES A DRAGON

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Scrubb, cousin to the Pevensie children, transforms into a dragon from having covetous thoughts in his heart after discovering an enormous hoard of gold left by a dragon. Brilliantly employing the function of the medieval bestiary, Lewis uses the Eustace-dragon episode as a powerful moral-theological object lesson. When he stumbled upon the gold, something happened which internally manifested itself outwardly in Eustace’s appearance.

The dragon face in the pool was his own reflection. There was no doubt of it. It moved as he moved. It opened and shut his mouth as he open and shut his. He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.[21]

Having lived as a dragon for a brief period, he was eventually “healed” by the Christlike Aslan in a manner reminiscent of Christ’s healing of the man born blind by putting mud on the man’s eyes and instructing him to wash in the Pool of Siloam.[22] In describing to Edmund how Aslan had healed him, Eustace explained:

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff [the dragon skin] right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the three other times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a switch and smaller than I had been.[23]

TOLKIEN’S DRAGONS

Unlike Lewis, Tolkien’s incorporation of dragons into his epics, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is much more complex and nuanced, and conveys more Old Testament apocalyptic overtones. In fact, it would be safe to say that the dragons described by Tolkien are of the most complex and most well developed in all of modern literature. His rich and historically formed thinking can be glimpsed in his essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In this case, Grendel, the dragon of Beowulf:

 

Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who have yet been caught by the fascination with the worm . . . Beowulf’s dragon, if one wishes to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon. There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind . . . in which this dragon is a real work, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, non the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspects of all of life).[24]

It is in the deep history of Middle-earth, that we find Tolkien’s dragons. In the The Hobbit, Smaug appears, and in the Silmarillion and Quenta Silmarillion, a type of dragon called the “Fire Drake;” dragons such as Ancalagon the Black and Glaurung. Of the two, Ancalagon the Black is the most powerful and interesting. In Middle-earth, in the year 587, we are told,

Morgoth unleashed the winged dragons, which he had been hiding in Angband. Ancalagon was among them, and their attack drove back the forces of the Host of the Valar, as they came with thunderbolts and fire storms.[25]

The Silmarillion records the following about Ancalagon:

But Eärendil came, shining with white flame, and about Vingilot were gathered all the great birds of heaven and Thorondor was their captain, and there was battle in the air all the day and through a dark night of doubt. Before the rising of the sun Eärendil slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragon-host, and cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin.[26]

 

Alluding to his great power, in the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf mentions Ancalagon, noting that not even his fire was hot enough to harm the One Ring.

Your [Frodo’s] small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary gold. This Ring has already passed through it unscathed, and even unheated. But there is no smith’s forge in this Shire that could change it at all. Not even the anvils and furnaces of the Dwarves could do that. It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough; nor was there any dragon, not even Ancalagon the Black, who could have harmed the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, for that was made by Sauron himself.[27]

A BIBLICAL BESTIARY OF DRAGONS, SACRED SNAKES, AND DEMONS

To the modern mind, the ancient biblical world likely appears even more strange than the medieval one.[28] Whereas the medieval mind symbolized dragons as the personification of chaos and evil, in the ancient world, dragons were the embodiment of gods involved in acts of creation and destruction. In ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of Abraham, the concept of the dragon has its roots in the primordial chaos of the universe before creation, in the dragon Tiamat.

TIAMAT – THE FIRST RECORDED DRAGON IN HISTORY

The story of Tiamat was first recorded in an ancient cuneiform text called, Enumma Elish, after the first two words that appear; “when on high.” The poem has also been called “The Epic of Creation.”[29] The Hebrew book of Genesis also has a similar title: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית, berē(ʾ)·šîṯʹ, or, beginning, what comes first; starting point, or “in the beginning.” In Mesopotamian myth, the dragon Tiamat is closely connected to chaos and to the chaotic salty waters of the sea, and perhaps even a vague allusion to the great flood mentioned in Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 6-10. It appears that dragons have been connected to chaos ever since. The Enuma Elish and Tiamat are part of a larger body of creation stories called cosmogonies which tell about the origins of the cosmos (and cosmic order), and theogonies which give the origins and relationships of the gods. In the Enuma Elish (or, Epic of Creation), as well as other ancient theogonies, one god rules over the cosmos imposing his rule and order over it. In the Enuma Elish, Tiamat gives birth to the first gods, including her husband Apsu (symbolized by fresh waters). Other gods created by Tiamat become jealous of Apsu and plot to kill him and usurp his throne. After doing so, Tiamat becomes enraged at them and takes the form of a sea dragon to avenge her husband’s death. Tiamat is then slain by the god Marduk, and with her blood he created the cosmos, monsters and the very first dragons.[30]

DRAGONS AND SERPENTS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT: COMPARATIVE OR POLEMIC?

The opening books of the Old Testament Pentateuch plunge the reader into a world of talking serpents, shepherds’ staffs turning into hissing cobras, poisonous serpents killing Israelites in the desert, and Moses making a bronze serpent and fixing it on a staff. In the book of Job, large sea dragons (leviathan) are described, and in the book of Revelation, a ten-headed dragon rises out of the sea to wreak havoc on the earth. To best understand the meaning of the dragon-serpent imagery in the Bible, we need to understand the cultural world and historical context of the Old Testament writers (specifically, Moses in the Pentateuch). There are primarily two approaches scholars have taken when it comes to understanding the historical and cultural world of the bible: the comparative approach and the polemical approach.

The comparative approach recognizes that various cultures which populated the ancient world can be, and indeed are, very different: the Egyptians are not like the Hittites, the Assyrians are not like the Romans, and so on. However, throughout a study of the ancient Near East, scholars have also discovered many similarities and commonalities between cultures as well. When it comes to the Old Testament, comparative scholars, such as John Walton, focus on the similarities between the biblical writers with the cultures in which they are situated historically.[31] One of the driving questions of the comparative approach is, “What exactly is the relationship between the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern cultures and literature?” Did the biblical writers borrow, utilize, or outright copy or steal themes and concepts from neighboring Near Eastern cultures? How are they alike? How are they different? Between those last two questions, comparative scholars tend to focus more on how the biblical writers utilize terms and cultural concepts which other cultures also used, focusing primarily on the similarities. The ultimate goal of Old Testament comparative scholarship, however, is to understand the original historical context of Scripture – which is a foundational principle in sound hermeneutics.

Another approach which brings even more illumination to what the biblical writers are attempting to communicate (especially when it comes to dragons and serpents), and it is called the polemical approach or polemical theology. Polemical theology, according to John D. Currid,

is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical writers take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world. Polemical theology rejects any encroachment of false gods into orthodox belief, there is an absolute intolerance of polytheism. Polemical theology is monotheistic to the very core.

The primary purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the world view of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near East.[32]

Whereas the comparative approach focuses on the similarities between other ancient Near Eastern cultures with the biblical writers and how they employed images of serpents and dragons, the polemical approach emphasizes how they are radically different. The difference between the two approaches can be especially seen when it comes to understanding the significance of the serpent in the Pentateuch. To fully understand this, a basic understanding of how ancient Egyptians understood snakes and serpents and utilized them in their culture is necessary.

THE SERPENT IN ANCIENT EGYPT AND THE PENTATEUCH

When the Greek writer Herodotus stated that “Egypt is a gift of the Nile,” it was no exaggeration. Most Egyptians lived along the narrow, fertile banks of the Nile which flows northward and empties into the rich Delta and eventually the Mediterranean. The ancient Egyptians called their country KMT, or Kemet – “the black land,” referring to the dark alluvial soil which was the result of the annual flooding of the Nile.[33] The desert, they called Dashre, or “the red land.” The largest percentage of landmass in Egypt is desert, to the west of the Nile lies the Libyan desert, and to the east, the Arabian. Not surprisingly, Egyptians interacted with all sorts of animals who also lived along these marginal zones near rivers and deserts (jackals, hippos, crocodiles, and snakes, etc.). Snakes were common in Egypt, and it seems as though the ancient Egyptians were both terrified by them because of their venomous bites, but also intrigued by them for their ability to strike fear. Not surprisingly, archaeologists have discovered numerous spells and charms in ancient texts called The Pyramid Texts with the purpose of warding off snakes and their venomous bites.[34] Naturally, this resulted in the worship of many varieties of snakes as gods in ancient Egypt.[35] Many snake cults in Egypt date back to their earliest history in the predynastic (ca. 3,000 B.C.) and early dynastic periods (ca. 2920-2575 B.C.). In Egyptian mythology, Apophis (a serpent god) was one of the main enemies of Horus, Re, and Osiris, three foundational gods in the Egyptian pantheon.

Throughout its history the image of the serpent-dragon would evolve to become the very national emblem of ancient Egypt itself. Because Egypt was understood by the Egyptians as a unity of desert land (Dashre), and the fertile Nile valley (KMT), their tutelary gods were consequently, the goddess of upper Egypt, Nekhbet symbolized by a vulture, and Wadjet, the goddess of lower Egypt, symbolized by a cobra. The two gods could be found on the very crowns of the pharaoh’s, and were thought to imbue him with magical powers. As Near Eastern scholar Henri Frankfort remarks:  “The crowns, then, were objects charged with power and were, in fact, not always distinguished from the goddesses themselves, as is shown by a collection of hymns addressed to the crowns.”[36] To wear the cobra (Wadjet) crown of lower Egypt, then, was to be a representative of the (snake) goddess on earth. In fact, according to the Pyramid Texts, as a new pharaoh was coronated and epithets were recited by both the priest and new pharaoh, “one phrase spoken by the king indicates that the coronation, his assumption to royalty, is like a rebirth of kingly power and, at the same time, a rebirth of the goddess (‘when thou art new and young’). The goddess is simply the personification of power of royalty, ‘The great magician,’ and hence is immanent in the crown.”[37]

Additionally, the serpent goddess Wadjet, of upper Egypt was most often one of the five royal names given to the pharaoh. From about the Middle Kingdom onwards in ancient Egypt, royal pharaonic names contained five titles, or five names (with variations over time). For example, a pharaoh from the 18th dynasty, Thutmose IV, is also titled, “as the Two Ladies, that is, the vulture and cobra representing Upper and Lower Egypt.”[38] With this understanding of the deep connection of the serpent goddess in Egyptian culture and national identity, we can now begin to see how the biblical writers (i.e., Moses) employed and utilized the polemical use of serpent imagery to highlight Yahweh’s confrontation between himself and the Egyptian gods and to pharaoh.

THE TRANSMOGRIFICATION OF MOSES’S STAFF INTO A SNAKE

One of the very first confrontations between Moses and pharaoh is the episode of Moses’s staff turning into a serpent.[39] Interestingly, two Hebrew words for serpent are utilized in the pericope: tannin and nāhāš. Some Hebrew scholars hold that the biblical author utilized the word tannin when they wanted to portray a larger reptile like a dragon or crocodile.[40] “The Septuagint translates tannin into the Greek drakōn (“dragon, large reptile”), it also applies to drakōn to numerous instances of nāhāš (eg., Job 26:13; Isa. 27:1, Amos 9:3). If anything, the Septuagint supports the idea that the two Hebrew words are often being used synonymously.”[41] As was indicated above, the polemical angle and ironic imagery of this episode is powerful. When Moses and Aaron cast down the staff which transformed into a poisonous serpent, they utilized the very emblem of Egypt and royal pharaonic authority as a cosmic confrontation between God and Egypt. As Old Testament scholar, John Currid states:

When Moses and Aaron flint the rod-snake before Pharaoh, he was directly assaulting that token of Pharaonic sovereignty – the scene was one of polemic taunting. When Aaron’s rod swallowed the staffs of the Egyptian magicians, Pharaonic deity and omnipotence were being denounced and rejected outright. Pharaoh’s cobra-crested diadem had no power against Yahweh. Its magic was wanting and weak. It afforded no protection in the face of the reproach of the Hebraic God. Clearly, Yahweh alone was in control of the entire episode.

In addition to the polemical use of the Egyptian serpent (nāhāš) imagery in Exodus, it is utilized again in Numbers, to illustrate God’s salvation through grace and faith.

THE SERPENT IN THE WILDERNESS: SYMBOL OF EGYPT, SLAVERY, AND DEATH

From a study of Egyptian culture and history, it is clear that the imagery of the venomous serpent played a vital role in Egyptian national identity, religion, and as an emblem of royal pharaonic power. After their miraculous deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites became very discouraged and began to complain and speak out against Moses and against God.[42] They desired to return to Egypt where the food was plentiful. So, in an ironic twist, God grants their wish and sends them “Egypt” in the form of “fiery serpents,” who begin to bite and kill them. God’s solution to their plight was probably one of the strangest episodes in the Old Testament, when it is divorced from its historical-Egyptian context. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and place it on a staff (a pole), so that “everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when it looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”[43]

In a well-known (New Testament) conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus actually refers to this episode when Nicodemus asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”[44] Jesus pointed Nicodemus to this exact event in Israel’s history. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”[45] The implications of Christ’s statement are staggering. In Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace turns into a dragon, Aslan scratches the scales off and has Eustace bathe in water, but in the New Testament Christ literally becomes a serpent/dragon for those whom he loves. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For He [God] made Him who knew no sin [Christ] to be sin for us [a serpent, the very emblem of evil], that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”[46]

THE GREAT DRAGON OF REVELATION & EUCATASTROPHE OF CHRIST’S SECOND COMING

At the beginning of time in the book of Genesis, Eve is tempted when Satan (in the form of a serpent) tempts her in the Garden. After bringing chaos, sin, and death into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the world was changed and paradise lost. In the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament we see the end of the dragon and the chaos and death he has been sewing since the dawn of human history. Among Christians today there is a wide variety of views on eschatology [end times]. What Christians through the centuries are in agreement on is the fact that Christ will indeed return (physically and bodily) to destroy evil and bring everlasting peace. As the Nicene Creed states:

He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end
.

The final act of history will be a cosmic confrontation with the ultimate dragon (Satan) and will come to an abrupt end when Christ returns. The best way to understand this is through Tolkien’s trope of the eucatastrophe. Tolkien brilliantly uses the eucatastrophe throughout his Lord of the Rings trilogy and Middle-earth legendarium.[47] Tolkien coined the term from two Greek words – Greek ευ- “good” and καταστροφή “sudden turn.” A eucatastrophe, then is when things look their absolute worst, like all hope has been lost, there is a sudden turn for the good. The book of Revelation paints a picture of a world that has been ravaged by “the great dragon – the beast.”[48] In a flash, when the world is plunged in darkness Christ will return, defeat the dragon and bring peace to the world.

Until then, there are dragons in both literature and reality. It is good to know that they do indeed exist, that they can be defeated, and one day ultimately will be. For as G.K. Chesterton writes:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.[49]


Citation Information

Ted W. Wright, “Dragons, Snakes and Demons: A Medieval and Biblical Bestiary for Modern Minds,” An Unexpected Journal: Dragons 5, no. 1. (Summer 2022), 93-117.


Endnotes


[1] Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1997), 1.

[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 123 (emphasis mine).

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 93-4.

[4] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York: Harcourt, 1965), 116.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, Reprinted 1993), 101, 103, 105.

[6] Lewis, The Discarded Image, 10.

[7] Aristotle’s text, the Categories in his major work on logic, the Organon (or “Instrument”) is perhaps one of the most robust and deeply philosophical works attempting to order reality – https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/categories/ Also see, W. Norris Clarke’s, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2001), and James V. Schall’s, The Order of Things (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

[8] Genesis 2:19-20 (ESV) [emphasis mine]

[9] “Lexical Lists,” Wikipedia, accessed, April 17, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lexical_lists.

[10] See, Seton Lloyd, The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Stone Age to the Persian Conquest (New York: Thames  and Hudson, 1978), 55-56. Also, Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, Third Edition (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 66-83.

[11] Lloyd., 56

[12] For an excellent introduction, see, Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor, Cuneiform (London: The British Museum Press, 2015). Also see, Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson, Editors, The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[13] Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists (New York: Rizzoli, 2009), 17.

[14] Lewis, The Discarded Image, 147.

[15] The historical roots of the medieval bestiary can also be traced back to Pliny’s Natural History (1st. Cent.), and Isidore of Seville’s, Etymologies (ca. A.D. 600-625). For more on this see, Elizabeth Morrison, Editor, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World (Los Angeles, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019).

[16]Elizabeth Morrison, Book of Beasts, 5.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764, Translated and Introduced by Richard Barber (Woodbridge: UK, 1993), 183-184.

[19] Lewis, The Discarded Image, 147-148.

[20] For an in-depth examination of Lewis’ use of the medieval bestiary see, Petra Pugar, “Iconographies of Bestiaries in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia,” Unpublished Master’s Thesis. 2015-2016, University of Zagreb, Croatia.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York: Harper Collins, 1980), 91.

[22] John 9:1-17

[23] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 109.

[24] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Translated by Seamus Haeney, Editor, Daniel Donoghue, Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Norton Critical Edition (New York: H.H. Norton & Company, 2002), 113-114.

[25] As quoted from Tokien’s Quenta Silmarillion at, http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Ancalagon (accessed, 30 May 2022)

[26] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Edited by Christopher Tolkien, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), 252.

[27] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), 67 [emphasis mine].

[28] For instance, see John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 47.

[29] Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), esp. 228-38.

[30] Ibid., 249-277. Incidentally, Marduk becomes one of the chief gods in Mesopotamia.

[31] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).

[32] John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton: IL: Crossway Books, 2013) 25.

[33] See, Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (London: Oxford University Press, 1976 reprint), 27.

[34] See, Peter F. Dorman, “The Origins and Early Development of the Book of the Dead,” in Foy Scalf, Editor, Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt (The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: The Oriental Institute Museum Publications 39, 2018), 29-39. Also, E.A.W. Budge, Egyptian Magic (Evanston, Il.: University Books, 1958 reprint).

[35] John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 88.

[36] Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 107.

[37] Ibid.

[38] For much more detail on this see, Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell), 16-19.

[39] Exodus 7:8-13

[40] For example, Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1983), 94.

[41] John Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, 87.

[42] Numbers 21:4-5 (NKJV)

[43] Numbers 21:8-9 (NKJV)

[44] John 3:3 (NKJV)

[45] John 3:14-15 (NKJV)

[46] 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NKJV)

[47] “Eucatastrophe,” Tolkien Gateway, accessed May 15, 2022, http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Eucatastrophe

[48] See Revelation 17-19

[49] G.K. Chesterton “Tremendous Trifles, Book XVII: The Red Angel” (1909), accessed June 1, 2022, https://gutenberg.org/files/8092/8092-h/8092-h.htm.