Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Dragons and Wyverns

It cannot be said that I'm totally wasting my time dashing all over the place, because I am actually learning a thing or two. For example, here we have my previously visited tympanum from Harnhill.

I've been reading John Vinycomb's 'Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art', which you can download from Project Gutenberg. And so my previous confusion about our reptilian friend's lack of back legs is explained - he's not a dragon, he's a wyvern. Wyverns only have two legs and a nice tapering tail. There's even something called a lindworm which doesn't have any legs at all, but it can have optional wings, which probably makes up for the limblessness a bit.

I had childishly found it quite amusing that St Michael appeared to be wearing one of my dreadful school uniform skirts, unflatteringly flared and knee length. But, it turns out this is also totally deliberate. It suggests Michael is an Archangel. I think it's a bit of a management position if you're an angel.

Here's the relevant bit from the bible. It's from Revelation, which is a particularly Imaginative book if I recall correctly.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

So in this case, 'dragon' has rather negative connotations, it represents evil and bad behaviour, and various other saints can be found poking or standing on the creatures - St Margaret, St Andrew, St Sylvester - and St George of course.

But when you're British, you know it's not all black and white like this. Dragons have their positive connotations too. It's interesting to look at how dragons were viewed in the era when the tympanum was carved. Check out the wyverns on the Bayeux tapestry - they're right by the bit you may be familiar with, where Harold has got an arrow in the eye. There's a wider image here in which you can see the red wyvern being held up, and a lighter one being trampled. These excellent (perhaps hollow) banners were those of the Saxon army. So the Saxons obviously viewed dragons positively. Perhaps when I've seen dragonlike creatures on carvings like that at Colerne, it shows that they weren't all evil and naughty at all.

Dragon banner - Harold Rex interfectus est

Of course, the dragon is famous today for being on the Welsh flag. And this connection with the Celts can be proved to go back to 800 AD, since an allegorical tale of red and white dragons can be found in the Historia Brittanum (look at section 42 ). The dragons represent the native peoples and the Saxon incomers. Of course, it's possible (nay, likely) that dragons were important symbolically before this too.

To add to confusion, the Normans seem to have seen themselves as dragons too - there is a 12th century poem by Stephen of Rouen called Draco Normannicus.

And much later on, Henry VIIth, the first Tudor king, had a dragon as one of his emblems, because he was trying to convince everyone he was the right man for the job, ruling over both England and Wales. He claimed uninterrupted descent from the Princes of Britain - people (or legendary figures) like King Arthur and Cadwallader.

So in short, everyone likes to have the dragon as their symbol. And that is because dragons are excellent, and not just symbols of evil and badness. Anyone who has been brought up on Ivor the Engine and little Idris must agree.

saint and wyvern image © Rhiannon 2014

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