Vegder's Blog

March 2, 2016

Not Quite the Zodiac – Part Seven, sub 1: the dragon – 龍


This painting is attributed to Chen Rong (陳容: date of birth unknown, he died after 1262) and is in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It was painted in the 13th century during the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋時代: 1127-79). I was looking at it one day when the curator of Chinese art came into the room. He saw me and we started talking about this painting. He told me that in the museum they referred to it as ‘the board of directors meeting because there was so much back biting going on. Amazing how a painting created in China 700+ years ago could be applicable to today’s human nature. Some things never change.

Hokusai (北斎: 1760 – 1849) hanging scroll from the collection of the Freer Museum of Art.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread! (Note: I have a new modus operandi. I insert pictures and add text later. So please come back soon and often. The subject of dragons is the most daunting of the topics I have chosen to work on so far and there will be tons of information, speculation and obfuscations in the near and distant future. I didn’t really chose to work on dragons – not that I wouldn’t have anyway at some point – but I was forced to do so once I made the mistake of trying to tackle the East Asian Zodiac. As you will see what I mean in the days and weeks to come. This time I have bitten off a bit too much, but I will do my best to serve both you and myself. Join me please. Thanks!)

The four ling (靈) – “The male and female phoenixes, and the male and female unicorns were all in the marshes beyond the city walls; the tortoise and the dragon were in the ponds of the Imperial Palace.” This is according to the Book of Rites, the Li ki which also states that the azure dragon is a symbol of spring when the rains will come. Elsewhere, it is noted that the birth of great sages and Emperors is preceded by the appearance of azure dragons. That was ‘true’ in the case of the birth of Confucius whose mother saw them in a dream before giving birth.

For whatever reason, Western dragons tend to be a lot more threatening as a rule. You know, damsels in distress, the consumption of human flesh, etc. Just look at the next two pictures and you will see what I mean.

Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (1562-1638)
Two Followers of Cadmus devoured by a Dragon
National Gallery of Art, London

The curatorial files of the National Gallery gives this information about this spectacularly gruesome painting:

This gruesome episode comes from the story of Cadmus which is told in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (III: 1-151). Cadmus
was sent by the Delphic oracle to follow a cow and build a town where it sank from exhaustion. The cow stopped on
the future site of Thebes, and Cadmus, intending to sacrifice it, sent his followers to get water from the neighbouring
well of Ares. They were killed by the guardian of the well, a dragon who was the son of Ares. Cadmus then killed the
dragon and on the advice of Athena sowed its teeth in the ground, from which sprang up armed men who slew each
other, with the exception of five who became the ancestors of the Thebans.

1588 Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) print after the painting by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem

But first a few words from our sponsor or A brief explanation of the jumbled appearance of this page – Like I said, the subject of dragons is far too large to deal with in a single post, a single day, a single moment.. maybe even a single lifetime. That is why I have decided to make this first post on dragons, the Zodiac and non-Zodiac kinds, a hodgepodge of dragon imagery. Later post will be approached more surgically with a particular emphasis on specific cultures, periods or genres, like say, ‘Dragons in Japanese woodblock prints’ or even more precisely ‘Dragons as portrayed on the robes of figures in Japanese woodblock prints’ or… ad infinitum, ad nauseum. That is why this page is meant to be constructed as a large introductory teaser for what is to come. All of it fascinates me. I hope it will do the same for you.

It all starts with the taotie (aka t’ao t’ieh) – There is a creature which appears on the earliest Shang dynasty ritual bronzes. Look at hu featured below. Above the base where the form bulges outward you will see something that looks like a face, with two bulbous eyes, immediately above hooked fangs, curled horns above and a nose line ending in moderately prominent nostrils. But looks can be deceptive. A closer examination and you will notice that there is no lower jaw, no chin, no tongue. There is no there there. Not only that, but the face you think you are looking at is actually two different animals seen in profile that are basically butting heads. Their separate images come together and form a new creature, the taotie – the forerunner, the precursor of the dragon. A proto-dragon, so to speak.

Nelson_Shang_Hu_7bShang dynasty, ritual bronze hu, 12th to 11th century B.C.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

One major source says that the earliest reference to dragons in China is from the I Ching (易経). The Encylcopedia Britannica notes: “The main body of the work, traditionally attributed to Wenwang (flourished 12th century bc), contains a discussion of the divinatory system used by the Zhou dynasty wizards. A supplementary section of “commentaries” is believed to be the work of authors of the Warring States period (475–221 bc) and, as a philosophical exposition, represents an attempt to explain the world and its ethical principles, applying a largely dialectic method. For this the work came to have great importance in the history of Chinese philosophy.”

The key here is the reference to Wenwang. The Britannica continues: “Wen was the ruler of Zhou, one of the semibarbaric states on the western frontier of China, long a battleground between the civilized Chinese and nomadic invaders. At some point he had assumed the title Xi Bo (“King of the West”) and had begun to threaten the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 bc). Soon thereafter he was captured and imprisoned by Zhou (or Zi Zhou), the last Shang ruler. During the three years of his imprisonment, according to tradition, he wrote the Confucian Classic Yijing (“Book of Changes”); the eight trigrams (bagua) on which the Yijing divinations are based, however, were probably conceived much earlier. Wenwang gained his freedom when the people of Zhou paid a ransom of a beautiful girl, a fine horse, and four chariots. He returned to Zhou, where he spent the rest of his life remonstrating against the cruelty and corruption of his age. Upon his death, his son and successor, Ji Fa, destroyed the Shang and founded the Zhou dynasty.”

The key here is the reference to the Shang dynasty.

Nephrite bi (Ch. 璧), 6 1/2″ in diameter. Eastern Zhou dynasty, 4th to 3rd century B.C.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

There are a number of things to keep in mind when looking at ancient jades and nephrite objects. 1) They were not carved. They were abraded. These minerals were too hard for the tools they had back then. And, it is possible that even when tools with greater strength and density had been created craftsmen continued to work in the older more traditional ways. For me, this is an interesting point and principle which applies to other fields too. For example, prior to a certain age gems were not ‘cut’, i.e., faceted, like the ones we see today. Gems like emeralds, rubies and sapphires  were simply rounded off through abrasion and were referred to as cabochons.

2) The circle was considered as a symbol for the sky, the heavens. Within the circle was a smaller circular entry to the highest heavens, a place where the gods reside. The symbol of the earth was a square. It has been suggested that priests/shamans would wear these bi hanging from a cord worn around their waists. They would then raise them toward the heavens and speak or pray to the gods through the hole in the center. Another myth said that a carp which was capable of leaping through the hole in the center of the heavens would automatically be transformed into a dragon. It is believed that the attempts of fish to leap up waterfalls was the source of this concept.


Berthold Laufer wrote in 1912: “The definition that the jade disk pi symbolizes Heaven, is first given by Chêng K’ang-ch’êng of the second century A.D. in his commentary to the Chou li…”

Jade bi were also found in great numbers in Liangzhu graves: for example, Tomb M20 has over forty, and Tomb T23
has nearly three dozen.
Bi vary in size and thickness; most are undecorated and fairly uniform like those from Tomb 14,
but examples from Tomb M22 have two spiral forms resembling eyes that straddle the edge. Often
bi disks are positioned
under the body, but the significance of this is not known. Solar symbolism seems inherent in the circular form of the
bi shape;
the design of an unbroken circle also connotes eternity, which later people interpret as a representation of heaven, an
association that is reinforced by the immutability and permanence of the jade medium. 

This is quoted from: Chinese Religious Art by Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky, pp. 19-20.

Eastern Han dynasty – 100 to 200 A.D.
Freer Gallery of Art
The curatorial files note: “Disks such as this, created from pale green nephrite of
exceptional quality, are extremely rare and have been found only in royal tombs.”

In the Shang Shu (Ch: 尚書), an ancient text which is known by various titles including the ‘Book of Documents’, 8th to 5th centuries B.C., the dragon is acknowledged as one of the “six symbolic figures painted on the upper garment of the Emperor.” It is important to remember that this was compiled before Buddhism became an important factor in Chinese society in the late 3rd century B.C. This was even before the time of the Guatama Buddha, the Historical Buddha, in India.

Count yourself lucky if you have never seen this vase shown below before. Or, count yourself lucky if you have.

Why are you lucky if you haven’t seen it before? Well, I’ll tell you. It is because you are now getting to see for the first time and it is one of those marvels of human creation that is nonpareil. There is nothing like it anywhere else. It stands alone. Why? Because it comes from a pottery works in China that is said to the longest existing ceramics manufacturer anywhere in the world. And unlike most of the greatest Chinese ceramics, the porcelain ones made at  Jingdezhen for the imperial court, the Cizhou pieces were potted almost exclusively made for the common man, the lower ranks of society. Another difference with Cizhou ware is that this is stoneware and this  particular vase is an exception out of the millions of… no… maybe tens or hundreds of millions of pieces they made. And on top of that it even breaks one of the cardinal rules that separates all traditional pure art from craft work: it is a signed piece. We know the name of the maker. That was unheard of. Early craft pieces were never signed. We don’t know the names of the greatest Chinese architects, or embroiderers, or metalsmiths, or carvers, et al, but we know the name of for this one vase. No one else ever signed their work. No one else ever left their name behind. Only true artists like poets, painters and calligraphers did that. But this piece is different. The name appears on of one of the lotus flower petals near the base.

How was the design created? Well, as I recall, it was coated all over with a black slip and then covered with a white slip. Then the artist cut away the white slip to reveal the dragon below. Much like Michelangelo who said he only released his figures like the David or the Pieta from their blocks of marble. They were already in there just waiting to be set free. The technique here is referred to as sgraffito. A great word. How many words do you know that begin with the letters ess, gee and ahhr all in a row? Not many, I bet.

Cizhou (磁州窯) dragon vase from the collection of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.
It dates from the 12th century.

“The most abundant and universal stonewares of northern China. The name Cizhou itself comes from a kiln area in southern Hebei province,  famous for this style of north Chinese decorated stoneware.” The white slip was made from the same kaolin that was used to make higher-fired porcelains. Kaolin (陶土) was the secret ingredient in the making of porcelain and when it was finally rediscovered in Europe, almost a thousand years after it was first used in China, it was referred to as the arcanum or ‘secret ingredient’ only to be revealed on pain of death.

Dragons on inrō (印籠) – 

I believe this inrō takes as its subject matter a work by Hogen Eisen.
It is from the Havemeyer bequest and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

19th century carved ivory inrō
Metropolitan Museum of Art

19th century inrō from the Havemeyer Bequest, Metropolitan Museum of Art

How can you tell the difference between adult and baby dragons? At least as far as East Asian dragons are concerned. I’ll tell you.

As we all know there are some camels with one hump and some with two. There are African elephants and Indian elephants. There are a whole slew of salamanders of different species in Mexico alone. That is why I think it is important that you understand how you can visually identify baby dragons  vis-à-vis the adult ones.

Baby dragons (Ch: 螭 or chi) do not have horns, do not chase flaming pearls and their tails are split and tendril-like. Adult dragons have horns, do chase flaming pearls nearly of the time – the flaming pearl of wisdom – and have a single tail. Young dragons, somewhat older than babies, do start to grow horns.

Asian_Art_Museum, Seattle, celadon_charger_with_baby_dragon_7b
Celadon charger with a low-relief image of a large baby dragon amid clouds.
Photo credit to my buddy Evan Black, who came through in a pinch.
Asian Art Museum, Seattle

Dragons on Imperial Chinese court robes 

Late Qing, 1900-15, semi-formal robe (jifu) – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Another late Qing jifu from ca. 1890 to 1905 – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Yellow is the Imperial color – There was a hierarchy of colors at the Chinese imperial courts – even under different dynasties. Yellow was the highest rank reserved specifically for the emperor and his family, red was next, followed by blue. Each of these colors was believed to have mystical powers traced by to ancient times, superstitions and belief systems. “Yellow was an imperial color in both the Ming and Qing, an important rank signifier for the emperor and members of the upper nobility. The particular shade and type of yellow dye differed in the two dynasties. The Diangonkaiwu cautions dyers to be careful in dying imperial yellow (zhehuang), because if the threads are not dyed properly, the finished textile will look like a more common yellow after it is woven. The document refrains from describing the process for producing Ming imperial yellow, merely noting, “Manufacture not explained.” The Bencaugangmu explains that the Ming imperial reddish yellow was made from the wood of a zhe tree related to the mulberry (Cudrania triloba). The same text says that the buds of the huai or Japan Pagoda tree (Sophora japanica) produce a very bright yellow. Cammann suggests that this might be the source of the Qing imperial yellow (ming huang), a much brighter yellow than the Ming imperial reddish yellow. The golden yellow (jin huang) used for the robes of the Qing imperial princes was dyed with wood chips from a sumac tree, huang lu or lu mu (Rhus cotinus), with potash made from hemp straw as a mordant. Other yellow dyes commonly employed on official garments included those made from gardenia hulls (Gardenia florida) and the inner bark of the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense).” [Just as a note: this is a quote from a book by a woman and friend I admire immensely, Mary M. Dusenbury. The book is Flowers, Dragons and Plum Trees: Asian Textiles in the Spencer Museum of Art.]

Uncut cloth meant for an Imperial Court robe.
Musée Guimet

In Family and Kinship in Chinese Society it says: “The names of the emperor’s lineal descendants were officially recorded on yellow paper; the names of his collateral agnates, on red paper… Yellow, the imperial color, is of a higher order than red, and red in turn is of a higher order than blue.”

The Dragon of the Apocalypse 

In Revelations 12, as translated in the King James Bible it says:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun,
and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:

And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon,
having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth:
and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, f
or to devour her child as soon as it was born.

And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron:
and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

Fresco scene from the Apocalypse in the Baptistry, Padua.
Painted by Giusto de’ Menabuoi (1330-1390).

St. Marguerite of Antioch – In one early version of the legend dating from ca. 1130-40. “Margaret, having promised her virginity to God, refuses the advances of Olybrius, the pagan provost of Antioch. He jails her. In her prison cell Margaret is attacked, then devoured by a dragon. She makes the sign of the cross, the dragon bursts open, and the maiden is released, only to discover a demon, bound hand and foot… Olybrius, his further propositions spurned, eventually beheads the martyr.”

In another version she is first tortured and was then devoured by the dragon but held up a cross and the dragon burst open freeing her unharmed. In yet another version it says: …”but the cross she carried in her hand so irritated his throat that he was forced to disgorge her” and then adds that she is patroness of childbirth. fills out the rest of the story for us: “The next day, attempts were made to execute her by fire and then by drowning, but she was miraculously saved and converted thousands of spectators witnessing her ordeal-all of whom were promptly executed. Finally, she was beheaded. That she existed and was martyred are probably true; all else is probably fictitious embroidery and added to her story, which was immensely popular in the Middle Ages, spreading from the East all over Western Europe. She is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and hers was one of the voices heard by Joan of Arc. Her feast day is July 20th.”

Note that this version of Marguerite’s cross irritating the throat of the dragon lines up most closely with the image shown below.

Workshop of Agnolo Gadi, ca. 1390 – St. Marguerite (aka Margaret or Marina) appearing from the jaws of the dragon
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gog and Magog 

The people of Gog and Magog examining the cadaver of a dead dragon
by Salmâni Mohammad Tousi (14th century)
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Gog and Magog are mentioned in  1 Chronicles 5, Ezekiel 38, Revelations 20 and the Quaran. They are the peoples of the who are to overrun Israel according to the Jews or the allies of Satan who will fight the battle of the end times. One myth even has them walled up in the north by Alexander the Great. Good walls make good neighbors – until they don’t, of course.

Jason being swallowed by a dragon 

Etruscan scarab – the beetle is on the other side – ca. 480 to 450 B.C.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Illuminated manuscript page from ca. 1250 from Germany in the Victoria and Albert Museum

Mughal Bahram Gur (Bahram V) killing the dragon. From the Haft Paikár in the Xamsa of Niẓámí.
British Museum – ca. 1610

The curatorial files state:

Although many illustrators of the ‘Seven Princesses’ section of Nizami’s Khamesh concentrated on portraying Bahram Gur
visiting the princesses in their different pavillions, other artists preferred to show him in his heroic role of hunter, ‘par excellance’,
slaying dragons, lions or less ferocious animals such as wild asses and deer. 
Bahram Gur slays a dragon

Bahram Gur was a Sasanian ruler who reigned from 420-438 AD. His reputation as a kind monarch as well as an exceptional
lover and huntsman gaiend
 [sic] him particular admiration among later Persian poets and writers. Here, he is portrayed as a heroic
dragon slayer in an illustration of the epic poem, the Haft Paykar (The Seven Portraits) written by the great Persian poet Nizami.
(b. 1141AD). The dragon in this painting is derived from well-established Persian, Chinese and Indian conventions, including its
scaly pink-spotted hide, fire spouting wings, sharp pointed fans and in this case its fiery breath.

Bahram Gur freeing a man from the inside of slain dragon.
Mughal 19th centry – Freer Gallery of Art


Illuminated manuscript page by Jean Pichore, ca. 1504).
Ariadne abandoned by Theseus – Bibliothèque nationale de France

Have you ever seen a more bizarre representation of this story? That is, if you have ever seen one at all. This is from Ovid’s Hesiods. Here is a translation from 1907:

BEASTS of the most savage nature have proved more mild and gentle to me, than you; nor could I have been intrusted to more faithless hands. The epistle which you now read, Theseus, is sent to you from that shore, whence your ship, leaving me behind, was borne by the spreading sails; where soft sleep, and you also, who barbarously watched the opportunity of my slumbers, fatally betrayed me.  …half awake, and still in slumber languidly reclining, I stretched my arms to grasp my Theseus. No Theseus was there: I suddenly pulled back my hands, and then tried once more to find him. I wandered with my arms over all the bed: still no Theseus was there. Fear instantly shook off sleep: I started up in a consternation, and headlong threw my limbs fiom the deserted bed. Forthwith my breast resounded with the repeated strokes of my hands; and I tore my hair, as yet disheveled from sleep. The moon shone: I looked round if I could discern any thing besides the shore. My eager eyes found nought to look at but the shore…. Meanwhile the hollow rocks over all the shore resounded the name of Theseus to my incessant cries. As often as I named you, the place re-echoed the sound: the very place seemed willing to alleviate my wretched lot. Near the spot was a mountain, whose top was thinly covered with tufted shrubs; and where a steep rock, undermined by the beating waves, impended. I mounted the ascent: my passion gave me strength; and thence with wide prospect I surveyed the mighty deep. Hence (for the winds also were cruelly unkind) I could observe your sails full-stretched by stiff southern gales. I either saw, or, when I thought I saw, remained cold as ice, and half-dead with concern. Nor did grief long permit this indolent respite: I was roused by that sensation; I was roused, and in a loud complaining strain called upon Theseus: “Whither do you fly? Return, perjured wretch, change your course; the ship has not her complement.” Thus I complained: I made up in shrieks what was wanting in articulate sounds, and mingled my words with repeated blows upon my breast. My hands, waved high in the air, made signs, that, if you could not hear, you might at least perceive me. I also held out a white robe upon a long pole, to admonish you of her whom you had left behind. But, alas! I soon lost sight of you; it was then I began to weep; my tender cheeks had hitherto been stiffened with grief. What could my eyes do better, after ceasing to behold your sails, than help me to bemoan my forlorn state? Sometimes I wandered solitary, with my hair disheveled, like the raving priestesses inspired by the Theban God. Sometimes, fixing my eyes upon the sea, I silently seated myself upon some pointed rock, cold and senseless as the stone whereon I sat. Often I repair to the bed which once sheltered us both: Alas! it will never more exhibit the once happy lovers. I kiss the print left by your dear body, and love to repose myself upon the spot which your dear joints have warmed.

Nakasaina Sonja is one of the 16 Japanese Buddhist rakan or arhat –

In the image below Nakasaina Sonja is cupping the head of a dragon which has mysteriously arisen from his begging bowl. In India one of the variations on his name is Nāgasena. Some sources say it means ‘dragon army’. [More to follow later. Be patient, please.]

BM_Kuniyoshi_arhat Nakasaina Sonja_dragon_7b
Kuniyoshi print of the arhat Nakasaina Sonja with the dragon which has emerged from his bowl.
British Museum

St. George and the Dragon 

Musée national de la Renaissance, Château d’Écouen
16th century anonymous grisaille painting from the Champagne region of St. George slaying the dragon

A 1472 Carlo Crivelli painting of St. George
with a very dead dragon lying behind him.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yongzheng (Ch. 雍正: 1722-35) period, Qing dynasty, meiping (Ch. 梅瓶) vase – Victoria and Albert Museum

The curatorial files say of this vase:

This graceful meiping (‘prunus vase’) is decorated with two swirling dragons rising above breaking waves into the clouds and was probably made for the imperial court. Both the shape and the decoration have a long history in China, the meiping making its appearance in the eleventh century and the dragon can be traceable to Neolithic times.

The special feature on this vase is that the white background to the dragons has been over-painted with yellow enamel, a colour combination requiring a second firing. First the cobalt-painted porcelain was covered with a clear glaze and fired at a high temperature (between 1280 and 1350 °C). Yellow enamel was then applied over the white areas of the design and the piece was given another firing at about 700-800 °C. This temperature maximized the intensity of the colourant (iron oxide) and was just high enough to melt the enamel and fuse it to the glazed porcelain below.

From fifteenth century four types of monochrome porcelains were required by the court for ritual use – blue, yellow, red and white. Yellow was the only one that could not be produced at high temperatures, and although the twice-fired method sounds complicated, it guaranteed a good yellow colour. Having taken this step, Jingdezhen potters then quickly realized the decorative potential of painting polychrome designs in low-temperature enamel colours onto pre-fired porcelains ware. This made possible the multitude of polychrome-painted wares that followed, among them famille verte and famille rose.

Liu Bang kills a white serpent 

Ryūhō is the Japanese name for Liu Bang (劉邦: 247-195 B.C.). He rose from being a peasant to a general and eventually to the Emperor of China. “As emperor he was called Gao Zu and was the founder of the Han Dynasty.” While the text refers to his killing a white serpent it was produced in the Year of the Dragon. “The four characters before Hokkei’s signature say that the picture was drawn in Kasuza Province by lantern light.”

Hokkei (1780-1850) surimono of a Chinese warrior, Ryūhō, about to slay a dragon.
Harvard Art Museums

Dragons in silver and gold 

Late Meiji silver punch bowl by Tsunenori

It’s alive! It’s alive!

Kanamono by Moritoshi (盛壽: 1834–1896). It represents an artist whose painting of a dragon has come to life.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Harvard Museums – Hokkei surimono

St. Augustine of Canterbury and the Devil –

A little background first, with a cautionary note at the end: Augustine, as a young boy went to Rome and entered the monastery of St. Andrew in Rome, where he took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He eventually rose to office of prior, one step below the abbot. The founder of the monastery was a Roman nobleman who had taken vows himself and in time, at the age of 50, became Pope Gregory. He had seen English children for sale as slaves in the Roman marketplace. So, he decided to send a mission to Britain to bring it into the folds of the mother church. To lead the group he sent Augustine and forty monks. But all of these missionaries were fearful about going. So, Gregory made Augustine an abbot so he could compel the others to join him. They arrived in the spring of 597 and king Æthelberht of Kent (ca. 560-616), a pagan married to a Christian Frank, Bertha, came to greet these men. He invited Augustine to come to his capital at Canterbury, to establish his church there and to feel free to convert anyone he wanted to convert. Among those who went over to Christianity was Æthelberht himself and was followed by many of his subjects in this act. Gregory was so pleased with Augustine’s success that he raised him to the level of archbishop. Hence, Augustine was the first Archbishop of Canterbury and had become the leader of the church in England. Not all of his bishops chose to follow Augustine’s leadership. The Welsh bishops were among this group. But undaunted, Augustine carried on and founded the first school in England. Later, knowing that his life was coming to an end, he consecrated one of his assistants as the second Archbishop of Canterbury. On May 26, 604 died and was buried in what is now the portico of Canterbury Cathedral.  Æthelberht  was also made a saint for his accomplishments.

Now for the cautionary note: None of the information provide above is set in stone. Much of it is debated and variant dates and such are offered by different experts. For example, some believe that  Æthelberht had already converted to Christianity before Augustine’s arrival there. Canterbury already had a church before 597. It was dedicated to St. Martin of Tours (ca. 315 – ca. 395/402).

Michael Pacher painting of the Devil holding the Book of Vices for St. Augustine
Alte Pinakothek, Munich


What is with that book? One day Augustine was out walking and ran across the Devil holding a book. Intrigued, the future saint, asked him what was in the book. The Devil said that it contained a list of all of the sins of each man alive. Augustine asked if he could see his page and the Devil complied. However, the page was almost totally blank except for one brief entry. Augustine had forgotten one day to “…repeat the office of complin.” Now, we have to stop here and explain just exactly what that means. ‘Complin’, or ‘compline’ as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, is “A service of evening prayers forming part of the Divine Office of the Western Christian Church, traditionally said (or chanted) before retiring for the night.” According to the etymology it comes from a root word in Old French for ‘to complete’.  Anyway, Augustine seeing this ducked into a nearby church and said his ‘complin’ and went back to the Devil to see if anything had changed. And it had. Augustine’s page was now totally blank, flawlessly clean. The Devil was furious. He had been tricked. He said to Augustine: “You have shamefully deceived me. I regret I ever showed you my book…” My source continues: “And so the devil disappeared in high dudgeon.” Don’t you just love that? High dudgeon, indeed.

In Carlisle Cathedral in England there is a painted panel of this same meeting of Augustine and Satan. It has a crude, unsophisticated, Gothic charm.


One more interesting thought about St. Augustine and his ties to the devil, but this time a dragon 

There is an interesting page from an illuminated manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It is by Willem Vrelant (before 1410-1481) and shows the baptism of St. Augustine. This time the dragon appears at the top of the page as an aesthetic device. The marriage of the two motifs is somewhat ironic – or as some would see it, prophetic.


Dragon DNA, a critical study 

You may ask yourself why I would include a picture of St. Augustine of Canterbury and the Devil in a post on dragons. Well, I’ll tell you. The most recent scientific research indicates that the genetic differences between dragons and devils is less than that of homo sapiens and other primates. As we now know, humans share 99% of their genetic makeup with chimpanzees and bonobos, and 98% with gorillas. Devils and dragons are much, much closer to each other. Just look at the pictures above. How could one ever think otherwise? It is a scientific fact. It is irrefutable. This settles this issue forever. But, comments are relished and I look forward to hearing any other (ignorant) opinions. Feel free to join in the debate – even if it is a settled matter – an established fact. All ye of little faith…

One other point that hasn’t been properly looked into yet and that we need to dig a little deeper as to whether or not dragons and devils interbred, like humans and neanderthals did. We can only assume that they did, but with some degree of certitude based on a couple of different character traits. 1) Devils are devils and they would probably do everything and anything available and 2) dragons just look naturally horny. What other conclusion could we possibly come to? Of course they did, but that is just my opinion.

Remember: Come back soon.
I don’t think you will be sorry.

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