So there’s this huge elephant in the room.
And it’s being throttled by the most magnificent dragon.
It is mediaeval, part of a bestiary, and a familiar image in mediaeval manuscripts. When you do a search for ‘dragon’ with any of these manuscripts, this is what comes up: a large lizard with two legs and a tail to vanquish whole fortresses.
Thing is this: when you look at mediaeval representations of dragons: count the legs:
Do you make it the same number as I do?
Yet two legged dragons have their own separate name. They are a sub-species of dragon, current folklore says. Two legged dragons are called wyverns.
This distinction between dragons with two legs and four legs: it is absorbing. And I would like someone who really knows to tell me which came first in folklore: the two-legged or the four legged?
I have a very good reason for enquiring. For in my potterings about London I have come across these creatures which guard the City:
Popular myth, not to mention the City of London itself, in its guide to its arms, styles this a dragon. Online I have heard it referred to just as often as a griffin. Magnificent creature, whatever he is. I have heard his kind referred to as ‘supporters’ – those which hold up a central shield in a coat of arms. He has been part of the city’s arms for centuries, he and a mirror image.
Most coats of arms – including that of Wales – shows this form of dragon. four legs, stocky griffin-like stance. It has become a familiar form.
But from what I can dig up, he is not with what a dragon looked like to our mediaeval forebears. And in a modern context, look at Smaug, a long, lizard like creature. Or just check out the definition of a dragon from Mirriam Webster: “an imaginary animal that can breathe out fire and looks like a very large lizard with wings, a long tail, and large claws…”
Like a lizard with wings.
When did the dragon rampant make an appearance? And more importantly, where did he come from?
Back to one of my old obsessions. A creature I have seen all over and believe I can identify. Here he is, a gargoyle at Christ Church College, Oxford:
Here he is on silverware, two sauceboats dating from about 1740-50 from an old English family, the Champneys – you can read more about him here:
Here he is up in the gods, in the bell tower of St John The Baptist Church, Cirencester, famed for its mediaeval art:
And then, there is the story at Winchester Cathedral.
The painting is currently inaccessible – they’re using the Lady Chapel, where it is situated, to look at Kings’ bones – but it’s one of a number of panels illustrating miracles performed by the Virgin Mary.
So there was this painter, painting a picture of the Virgin, and Satan was so red-furious that he took the ladder and shook it, in the hope the artist would break his neck.
But Mary held the painter up so he could finish the work.
And here is a picture of Satan rattling that ladder:
Ring any bells?
Could it be that this dragon-like creature was singularly representative of the Prince of Darkness himself?
Is it heretical, I wonder, or possibly treasonous,to make a link between Satan and the dastardly griffin-dragon of the City of London?
Mediaeval Manuscript images from the collection at the Bodleian Library
41 thoughts on “Dragons, Wyverns and Lucifer in General”
Years ago, Kate, I used to think of them all as being the same creature, dragons, wyverns and griffins, but now I know they’re not. Sometimes the distinction is very clear, other times not so, but I now like to think that whenever I see one when out and about I can tell what it is, rather than it just being a dragon. Statues, gargolyes and paintings, I mean, not real ones…
It is wonderful to know the difference. I fancy these four legged dragons started off as something quite diabolical, and my collection of little Lucifers grows…
There are definitely quite a few images around. Glad that you were able to catch them all 🙂
Not all, by any means, Stephen 🙂 This country is peppered with them, and I feel I have only scratched the surface! Each one teaches me something new about this particular creature. Splendid malevolence, he has.
Not all as in complete 🙂 but all as in all that you did. I guess the jet lag is affecting my grammar.
Ah, Kate, you’ve stepped into the morass that is dragonlore: you’ll never extricate yourself! I’ve several books on the topic and the subject is a confused neverending story: don’t get me started! Great pics by the way — the Fleet Street figures are easy to miss unless you look up, aren’t they?
They are. Most cool, when you do, though. Can you recommend a dragon lore book to start with? I need something which traces the changes in the portrayal of dragons across Europe.
A slim but useful volume that I can recommend is
Carl Lofmark (edited by G A Wells) A History of the Red Dragon (Welsh Heritage Series No 4, Carreg Gwalch 1995, ISBN 0863813178).
Though ostensibly about the Welsh dragon, there’s useful discussion on origins and its travel through time and space across Europe.
A former correspondent, Alastair McBeath, is knowledgeable about the relation of meteors to dragons seen in the sky. You might be able to download a PDF from this link (it’s an introduction to Eastern European lore on this subject), or I could send it to you separately. The article cites the Lofmark book I mention above.
Whatever you do don’t look out Explore Dragons, which I reviewed rather unfavourably.
Hope that helps, Kate!
OK, that link didn’t link. This one should:
Click to access nph-iarticle_query
I’ve just reviewed the Lofmark book in time for St Davids Day — if that’s of any help, Kate!
Thanks Chris, I’ll take a look 🙂
Actually, I think the elephant is winning- it looks distinctly smug,
and the dragon is baffled….
Now that you mention it, Jan, your interpretation seems entirely reasonable. Poor dragon. What should he do next? Awkward….
When I went all dragonological with one of my books, and studied dragons, wyverns, gryphons and the like, I came to the conclusion that wyverns predated dragons. In envisaging a flying mythical monster, the first steps would have been bird-like, my logic tells me; thus the two-legged avian ones. Then the four-legged reptilian or animal versions would have been a later refinement.
That’s borne out by the evolution of some old dinosaurs into birds, Col. I’m with you on this!
That, or convolution! 😉
I would call the four-legged creature rampant a griffin or gryphon, which is supposed to be a lions body and an eagle’s head. I’d never heard the difference between dragons and wyverns before, but counting the gargoyles as well I’m struck as I visit these images you’ve posted by how often we see them sporting faces that much resemble dogs. This is even in line with classic Chinese depictions of dragons, especially the festival costumes that you might see in a movie.
You’e right, Rob. There is a marked similarity to the Chinese dragons. Back to study the images again…
William & Mary just adopted the Griffin as its mascot:
And, of course, there’s the Griffin of Gryffindor at Hogwarts:
What a wonderful creature to choose for a mascot, Nancy! And JKR has plundered the vaults of folklore and mythology for her books. Rich pickings indeed.
I like the gryphon (?) in the belltower at St. John the Baptist’s in your picture. His body looks like a crouching lion, he has talons, lovely wings and a face like a mastiff or disgruntled bear with little ears. The proportion in some of those medieval depictions is bizarre. I see that wyvern or dragon up there and he is the same size almost as the two pigeons, unless they are giant pigeons. I don’t know where the artists and sculptors came up with these alligator-looking faces.
Nor me, Gale, and I find it really absorbing that the same creature seems to pup up all over the place and people never quite recognise or name him. I feel sure there is more to his history than we yet know.
Whadda guy 😀 There is something of the worldweary mafioso in his eyes.
I’ve always imagined Satan as a dragon and as a midget who wears a very, very tall top hat. Those two don’t go together, do they? But I can totally see the dragon connection from the painting at Winchester.
I like the midget idea. That really appeals.So many tales about this personification of evil. I wonder if the Trace will bring forth a legend or two in that direction.
Really interesting Kate. My first car was a Vauxhall Wyvern, it had a wonderful crest on the steering wheel with a Wyvern waving a flag. I think Vauxhall still use this image on some cars. I wonder what the historical link is?
Such handsome cars, Geoffrey. Popular myth has it that the wyvern connection stems from the griffin on Vauxhall’s car badge.
If you suppose that finds of dinosaur bones gave our ancestors evidence of dragons and early artists then used the bones to craft their depictions, then likely large raptors were the basis of wyverns, whose wings were modified arms, and with hind legs. Dragons with four legs are strictly mythical since no earthly creatures except bugs have so many legs, arms and wings. And bugs have more than four limbs. It’s an interesting dilemma to consider dragons. The idea that dragon lore originated to explain meteors is even more fantastic a supposition. Could meteors be so frequent that early man saw so many that stories were needed to explain them? Perhaps the modern UFO sightings are just dragons…
What a wonderful thought, Brenda: and then, what a terrible one. These creatures have done nothing in our tales but terrorise men and eat princesses. And be Satan’s pet, if I’m not much mistaken. A reprise of the dragon’s rule might sprout more problems than solutions…
We might unite against a common enemy. Dragons are the bogey man used to control kids and justify strong men having arms, just like political issues are these days. Wow, I’m tired. I’m so direct when I’m tired. LOL Great writing, Kate! Warmly, Brenda
What wonderful and interesting questions, Kate. I think I have probably referred to some dragons as griffons (gryphons) when indeed they were not. And perhaps the other way around! You have a very strong, discriminating eye for the detail, now you’re just looking for the information to put the questions to rest. I have a beautiful old candle holder that is in the form of a griffon…or so I’ve said. Now I need to clarify that for myself!
I’d love to see a picture of that one of these days, Debra!
I find dragon myths fascinating Kate. Strange how the Aryan religions of the East and the monotheistic religions of the middle East adapted the (even older) serpent/dragon myths differently! When i researched for a post I wrote a while back on the serpents of IndoChina, I found references to Hava or Eve’s Hebrew name to have its root in Hiya or serpent!! The grotesque animals in European mythology were possibly propagated by these evolving newer religions to underscore the point. The dragons in the herald evolved from the original rampant lions as late as the 16th century. Could very well have originated as a symbol of protection, rather than that of evil. Just a thought 🙂
What a fabulous comment Madhu, and if you had the link for that post of yours I’d love to read it. A dragon as a symbol of protection? Certainly a possibility. When I see these images though, their seem to be less protectors than wielders of a slightly ruthless power. Those ones from St John’s in Cirencester? They hang menacingly off the walls at crazy angles. In truth, I am not sure I should like to be alone with them.
As I am sure you know the Eastern version are more often serpent (Satan?) than reptile. Interestingly I can find no accurate information as to whether Native Americans had dragons. The Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl which resembles the Asian flying serpent but was not called a dragon. Thank you. I know where I will be procrastinating today!
😀 Every look at dragons has me asking more questions, Robert. And interesting about Eastern dragons – I must go and have a look at some.
This is an intriguing post.
I suppose the dragon traditionally represented that aspect of the world which remained unknown and fearsome. So it was really never about whether it had two or four legs or whether it had to do with the ultimate evil that resided in the the Nether-world. It was but a visualisation of what we need to be afraid and wary of.
Interestingly somewhere along the way the dragon transcended to also represent evil power. The words ‘Dragon heart’ might have come from here.