The Holy Scripture and the Beast
From the entire Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, is the one that acquaints us with the figure of the dragon (Gr. δράκων), while also clearly suggesting the necessity of a challenging symbolic-spiritual exegesis of this malevolent figure in the visions of Saint Apostle John. The inexhaustible richness of the Hole Scripture contains many other references to the monstrous beings described in great epics, both older and more recent, such as Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings.
Like in the Book of Revelation, in some biblical texts, the dragon is a creature that must be understood allegorically. An explicit example of this is found in the book of the great prophet Ezekiel, where God Himself says, “I am against Pharaoh, the great dragon that lies in the midst of his rivers” (Ez. 29:3). As we can see, a historical figure that repeatedly appears in the trials of the Jewish people, the ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh, is identified with the terrible being. The same type of interpretation can be found in the Book of Esther, chapter 10. Here, Mordecai identifies himself, allegorically, along with Haman, the advisor to the Persian king Ahasuerus who had planned the destruction of the chosen people, as the “two dragons” (δύο δράκοντες) in a premonitory dream.
In other places in the Bible, however, dragons are presented as real biological entities, serpentine, aquatic, or aerial, mentioned alongside other carnivorous creatures like lions. Regarding the resemblance to serpents, we recall that in the Greek text of the Bible, the Septuagint, the creature into which Moses’ staff transformed was not called a serpent, as it appears in most modern translations and in Saint Jerome’s Vulgate, but explicitly δράκων, i.e., “dragon.” It is clear from such biblical episodes and from the ancient translation that identifies the dragon with the serpent that these two beings have a similar appearance.
Beyond all the story’s details, it is certain that the biblical text presents us with a flesh-and-blood dragon, as we find in the stories, folklore, and myths of different epochs and locations.
The Book of Daniel presents an episode that, even if it can be interpreted allegorically, refers to a tangible and real dragon:
“And there was a great dragon in that place, and the Babylonians worshipped him. And the king said to Daniel: Behold thou canst not say now, that this is not a living god: adore him therefore” (Daniel 14: 22-23).
Invited to join an idolatrous cult, the prophet will deny the divine nature of the creature, proposing instead to the king a peculiar act of bravery: he will kill the monster “without sword or club.” What the story continues to describe falls into the category of countless ancient legends that depict various cunning methods to slay a dragon.[i] Daniel will use “pitch, fat, and hair,” a mixture that, when formed into lumps, will be swallowed by the beast, ultimately causing it to “burst asunder.” Beyond all the story’s details, it is certain that the biblical text presents us with a flesh-and-blood dragon, as we find in the stories, folklore, and myths of different epochs and locations.
Saint Augustine and the literal interpretation of the sacred texts
For the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the historical existence of such creatures, like that of giants, did not pose any problem. Here is what the most influential Doctor in Latin, Saint Augustine, says in his commentary on Genesis:
“Dragons, it is said, being without feet, lurk in caves and move through the air, and although it is easy to see them, there is mention of such beasts in the work of pagan writers as in our own sacred books.”[ii]
In his commentary on Psalm 148, we can read a similar description rooted, without any doubt, in the author’s strong belief in the unmistaken truth of the sacred books of the Bible:
“Dragons live about the water, come out from caverns, fly through the air; the air is set in motion by them: dragons are a huge kind of living creatures, greater there are not upon the earth.”[iii]
Visibly inspired by these Augustinian commentaries, Saint Isidore of Seville will include the dragon in the category of serpents – alongside the basilisk, viper, and asp. The description he has left us in his monumental work Etymologiae (i.e., The Etymologies) is full of very interesting details:
“The dragon is the largest of all the snakes, or of all the animals on earth. The Greeks call it δράκων, whence the term is borrowed into Latin so that we say draco. It is often drawn out of caves and soars aloft, and disturbs the air. It is crested, and has a small mouth and narrow pipes through which it draws breath and sticks out its tongue. It has its strength not in its teeth but in its tail, and it causes injury more by its lashing tail than with its jaws. Also, it does not harm with poison; poison is not needed for this animal to kill, because it; kills whatever it wraps itself around. Even the elephant with his huge body is not safe from the dragon, for it lurks around the paths along which the elephants are accustomed to walk, and wraps around their legs in coils and kills them by suffocating them. It is born in Ethiopia and India in the fiery intensity of perpetual heat.”[iv]
We could invite many more authors to this true colloquium of the Holy Fathers. Without exception, they will all demonstrate one thing: they took the veracity of sacred texts very seriously. Since these sacred texts of the Bible assert the existence of dragons, they are worthy of belief. Some of them, like Saint Augustine when discussing the existence of giants, even invoked evidence of a paleontological nature. Some mentioned deposits of gigantic bones that they had heard about from credible sources, or, more rarely, that they had seen themselves. So, not just stories but also, as one might say today, “scientific” proofs.
For us, Catholic believers, just like for Saints Augustine and Isidore of Seville, the mysterious creatures of the Bible are not merely “stories” or “myths.”
The change of perspective and historical revisionism
Under the pressure of the evolutionary paradigm, our traditional Christian culture has long been expelled from public universities and schools. In the best case, the perspective of Saints Augustine and Isidore of Seville is viewed with indulgent superiority, even by certain “Catholic” theologians, clergy, or laypeople who believe it can no longer be supported without intellectually compromising oneself. The dogma of biblical inerrancy is also treated with disdain by those who tell us that the Bible is full of “myths” (a synonym, for them, with “lies”). All of history has been rewritten to confirm the materialistic-evolutionist view of the world and humanity. The fate of fossil deposits known since ancient times has also been sealed. Without exception, today they are all interpreted in accordance with the new “meta-narrative” that dominates the minds of the wider public. Shortly, it is that story with catastrophic explosions and dinosaurs whose extinction is attributed, in the style of some “apocalyptic” movies, to the impact of an asteroid on our planet. What is interesting, however, is the fact that today’s scientific discoveries involuntarily confirm the narratives of the ancients.
In the early ’90s, an independent researcher and graduate of Princeton University, Adrienne Mayor, embarked on an extensive investigation into ancient testimonies recorded by authors such as Pausanias, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Pliny. She succeeded in demonstrating the fertility of an interdisciplinary endeavor in which fields such as folklore, history of religions, ancient history, paleontology, and cryptozoology converged. After more than ten years of research, the results were synthesized within the covers of a substantial volume titled The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press, 2000). Highly praised by critics in publications like the New York Times, London Review of Books, Science, Newsday, and Natural History, the paleontological evidence described in Adrienne Mayor’s book supports and confirms the authenticity of Greco-Roman antiquity myths. Of course, the only thing the author does not support is the interpretation that the ancients and later patristic and scholastic authors attributed to these fossils.
First and foremost, Adrienne Mayor takes seriously all the claims from ancient sources that indicate the discovery of giant fossils thousands of years ago. In the eyes of the contemporaries of Aristotle or Herodotus, these remains had the status of irrefutable evidence confirming the existence of fabulous beings such as giants or Cyclopes depicted in ancient pagan or Judeo-Christian texts. Simultaneously investigating paleontological discoveries in areas overlapping ancient Greece and Rome, Mayor argues that all classical testimonies point to territories that coincide with significant deposits of dinosaur-era animal bones discovered in modern times.
As a logical consequence, what the ancients would have considered – erroneously, according to the evolutionary perspective – as remnants of fabulous beings from their own myths are, in fact, nothing more than the remains of dinosaurs. Although it may seem to implicitly credit the veracity of mythology and its content, in reality, Adrienne Mayor does nothing more than applies the same evolutionary framework that is hostile to revealed biblical texts. She seeks the truth of ancient myths in the realm of nature as understood today, believing that all ancient beliefs were the result of “mystical” interpretations erroneously applied to “scientific” facts. In other words, what Mayor inadvertently demonstrates could be summarized in the words of the mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré: the perspective (i.e. mental framework) creates the phenomenon. Fully aware of the value of this hypothesis, we can in turn ask why the perspective could not be reversed in favor of that supported by Saint Augustine and Isidore of Seville.
Could it be that today’s paleontologists are the ones who make a mistake by filtering the phenomenon through the lenses of their evolutionary perspective? Could the dinosaurs be their “inventions” meant to reinterpret traces from the past, adapting them to an evolutionary viewpoint? But what if all the fossils of so-called “dinosaurs” are indeed just traces of creatures that extend beyond our current horizons? For example, why couldn’t we entertain the possibility of the actual existence of giants? (Who knows how many such pieces of evidence, already discovered, have been categorized as “genetic anomalies”!) Of course, “official” science tells us that no “traces” or “evidence” have been found to prove this. But what if they have been found – but were misinterpreted and reassembled into the illusory form of an invented species of dinosaur? Who can demonstrate that today’s evolutionists have consistently and reliably provided the truth about humanity’s distant history? On the contrary, in recent times, the evidence suggesting that numerous traces from the past have been and are being suppressed when they cannot be interpreted according to the evolutionary “dogma” has been multiplying.
However, the essential factor lies in the “lenses” we use to view and interpret the ancient texts: instead of shaping minds through the materialistic-evolutionary paradigm, for us, the only perspective truly worthy of belief is that of the Tradition of interpreting sacred texts passed down to us by the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
The Return of the Wandering Dragon
Exiled in the sacred texts of the past or in the legends destined for oblivion, dragons have surprisingly returned to our cultural imagination thanks to the stories of one of the most widely read authors of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien. The public’s interest in the mythical creatures of the Bible has grown exponentially. Observing this interest, proponents of evolutionism themselves have addressed the issue of the historical existence of dragons, only to convey to us once again the interpretation that tells us that all the large-sized bones discovered actually belong to dinosaurs. This “strategic” approach is best seen in a production – Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real – by the Discovery channel in the year 2004.
Aware of the immense success of dragon stories, the producers at Discovery made efforts to exploit the “trend” whose main premise, the veracity of the existence of dragons, they did not want to directly contradict. Thus, through the voice of the host – Peter John Hogarth (does this name suggest something to you?) – they seemed to cater to the passion for dragons of young enthusiasts thirsty for the fantastic, while through the voice of the guest professor, they continued to promote evolutionary ideas. All within the context of a show whose marketing campaign was led, side by side, by Conan the Barbarian and Charles Darwin.
Setting aside the fantastical and scientific tribulations of improvised “dragonologists,” it is worth reminding ourselves, for our edification, of the results of a study applied to the image of the dragon in folk literature undertaken by a formidable scholar of fairy tales, Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp. In a monograph that still serves as a model today, The Historical Roots of the Fantastic Tale,[v] Propp addresses the challenging issue of the portrayal of the dragon, stating a significant conclusion:
“In a fairy tale, in a true Russian folk tale, the dragon is never described.”
Propp’s observation applies to all ancient cultures: the deeper we delve into the oldest sources to capture the image of dragons or other “supernatural” (actually, “preternatural”) creatures, the more keenly we sense the profound silence filled with mystery that surrounds their physical appearance. The only thing preserved in most sources is their resemblance to the serpent. Citing scholars such as Bölsche, Siecke, Hambly, Mähly, or Küster, who have dedicated well-documented monographs to the image of dragons in various cultures around the world, Propp rejects the kind of theories that equate ancient mythological beings with the so-called dinosaurs – inventions of a secular science that, imprisoned by evolutionary optics, fail to understand anything from the ancient religious sources.
For us, Catholic believers, just like for Saints Augustine and Isidore of Seville, the mysterious creatures of the Bible are not merely “stories” or “myths.” Even though we can accept their symbolic-allegorical significance in certain contexts, we also acknowledge that their real existence in the ancient world is by no means excluded. However, the essential factor lies in the “lenses” we use to view and interpret the ancient texts: instead of shaping minds through the materialistic-evolutionary paradigm, for us, the only perspective truly worthy of belief is that of the Tradition of interpreting sacred texts passed down to us by the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church. This is why the importance of the discussion about the significance and value of Tradition can never be emphasized enough.
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[i] This topic is an extremely vast one, addressed by many scholarly experts in the history of religions, classical philology, or mythology. For example, the Indo-European specialist Calvert Watkins published a substantial and sophisticated monograph titled How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics in 1995 at Oxford University Press.
[ii] Saint Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Volume 1, Books 1-6, Translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, New York: Paulist Press, 1982, p. 83.
[iv] The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, O. Berghof, with the collaboration of Muriel Hall, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 255.
[v] The massive monograph was published in 1946 in Leningrad. Unfortunately, we have not identified any existing English translation of it.