Slaying the Dragon

In that day, the Lord will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.

-- Isaiah 27:1

 

slaying Apep

Get back! Crawl away! Get back from me, you snake! Go, be drowned in the Lake of the Abyss, at the place where your father commanded that the slayings of you should be carried out. Be far removed from that abode of Re wherein you trembled, for I am Re at whom men tremble; get back, you rebel, at the knives of his light. Your words have fallen because of Re, your face is turned back by the gods, your heart is cut out by Mafdet, you are put into bonds by the Scorpion-goddess, your sentence is carried out by Maat, those who are on the ways fell you. [Book of the Dead Spell 39]

 

Slaying Set
© Photo copyright S.R. Snape in Stephen Quirke, ed. The Temple in Ancient Egypt, Plate 47

Though generally revered elsewhere in ancient Egypt, at Edfu and Dendera the crocodile is the subject of ritual slaying in temple scenes. The rituals of these "anti-crocodile" cults are an easy fit into the story of Horus and his struggle for kingship against Seth. The final destruction represents victory over chaos and evil. The scene above (from the exterior of the Edfu naos, east wall, first register) shows the king driving his falcon-headed spear into the head of a crocodile as Horus extends to him a khepesh sword. The king is wearing a hemhemty-crown, worn for war and destruction. The relief is accompanied by a text to be spoken:

I hold my harpoon! I grasp my spear-shaft! Heir of the Lord of Mesen am I! I embark on my boat near the Lake of Horus and I drive back the steps of all "Those who are in the water." [...] the "hidden ones," I cut to pieces "Burning Mouths."

Slaying Set

The "burning mouths," or more literally "hot mouths," originally referred to venomous serpents that bite with fiery poison. Horus of Edfu (right) is depicted standing atop a crocodile, spearing it in the head. The accompanying text reads:

And behold, the enemies of Re having transformed themselves into crocodiles and hippopotamuses hurled themselves into the water. And while Re-Harakhti was seated [in his boat] and sailing over the water, the crocodiles and the hippopotamuses came nigh, and opened wide their jaws in order to destroy their enemy Re-Harakhti. Then Horus Behedety made haste and came up, with his followers behind him, armed with metal weapons, each one by name having an axe, a spear, and a chain in hand. They speared the crocodiles and the hippopotamuses, and there were brought in forthwith six-hundred and fifty-one rebel-fiends, and they were slain opposite to the city of Edfu.

Herodotus noted that "For some of the Egyptians the crocodile is sacred; but for some it is not -- in fact, they treat it as an enemy." (History 2.69) Strabo wrote of Dendera, "where the people, as compared with the other Egyptians, hold in particular dishonor the crocodile and deem it the most hateful of animals. For although the others know the malice of the animal and how destructive it is to the human race, still they revere it and abstain from harming it, whereas the Denderans track them down and destroy them in every way." (Geography 17.1.44) He added that Apollonopolis (Edfu) "also carries on war against the crocodiles." (17.1.48) Plutarch reported that "In the town of Apollonopolis it is an established custom for every person without exception to eat of a crocodile; and on one day they hunt as many as they can, and, after killing them, cast them down directly opposite the temple. And they relate that Typhon [Seth] escaped Horus by turning into a crocodile, and they would make out that all animals and plants and incidents that are bad and harmful are the deeds and parts and movements of Typhon." (Isis and Osiris, 50)

Seth was originally a defender of Re: he is depicted in the bow of the solar bark spearing Apep. He was a major god, not a devil, and he was called the "Son of Nut." His dispute with Seth was resolved with a contract satisfactory to both parties. "Seth continued to embody the forces ranged against life in the desert, and his anarchic physical power was even harnessed to the cause of good, as he wielded his scepter on the prow of the sun god's boat against the ultimate enemies of order, the chaos beyond creation." (Quirke, The Cult of Ra, p. 38) "Seth is often included in the crew of the sun-boat; and this proves yet again that he was considered not to be essentially evil but rather to personify the element of strife and conflict which is discernable in the universe." (Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods, p. 389) His demonization in about Dynasty 20 associated him with the serpent, the enemy of Re. "In the age of Saites and Persians, the myth of Horus and Seth was taken up and rewritten. The framework of the legal dispute was retained: Seth is arraigned and found guilty; he is punished, and the lament of his cities is described in terms of political defeat." (Assman, The Mind of Egypt, p. 389) The result becomes demonization rather than reconciliation.

In the Book of Gates, Apep is depicted as a crocodile. In the scene below, he is being attacked by the abebutiu, the "harpooners" of Re. In temple rituals, wax images of Sethian crocodiles were made and "gashes were made in his back, his skull was smashed, his vertebrae were severed with a knife, his legs were cut off, and the figure was reduced to a ruin. Then a fire was kindled, and the fragments of the crocodile were cast into it, and men defiled them with urine and crushed them into nothingness with their left feet." (Budge, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt, p. 127) Apep was identified with many forms of serpent-monsters, and so had as many names as Re. His weapons were clouds, mist, rain, thunder, darkness, and eclipses. The weapons that defeat him were the shine and heat of the sun, and darts and spears of light.

slaying Apep

The serpent god Apep is the antithesis of the sun-god, a deity of darkness opposed to the light of Re. He was the type of all calamity and moral evil. His loud roar resounds through the Underworld. In the daily cycle, it was the task of Re to defeat Apep before he could rise anew in the morning.

The Greeks gave the name of their own god Typhon to the Egyptian Seth. Hesiod wrote:

Typhoeus, mighty god, whose hands were strong
And feet untiring. On his shoulders grew
A hundred snaky heads, strange dragon heads
With black tongues darting out. His eyes flashed fire
Beneath the brows upon those heads, and fire
Blazed out from every head when he looked round. [Theogony, 820 ff.]

Typhon was an enemy of the gods, and Zeus rose against him in a great and furious battle. Typhon was defeated and Zeus reigned triumphant. In a similar manner, in the apocryphal coda to the Old Testament book Daniel, History of Bel and the Dragon (c. first century BC), Daniel slew "a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped." (v. 23) And so the dragon had become a type for evil, for the enemy of God, and a battle with the dragon became a struggle of good over evil, of life over death.

The archetypical dragon story likely had its roots in the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda:

Arriving in Ethiopia, which was ruled by Cepheus, Perseus found the king's daughter Andromeda exposed as prey to a sea monster; for Cassiepeia, the wife of Cepheus, had claimed to rival the Nereids in beauty, boasting that she surpassed them all. The Nereids were enraged by this, and Poseidon, who shared their anger, sent a sea-flood and a monster against the land. Now Ammon [an oracle in Egypt, at Siwa] had prophesied deliverance from this calamity if Cepheus' daughter Andromeda were offered as prey to the monster, and compelled by the Ethiopians, Cepheus had done so and tied his daughter to a rock. As soon as Perseus saw her, he fell in love, and promised Cepheus that he would destroy the monster if he would give him the rescued girl as a wife. When oaths had been sworn to this effect, Perseus confronted the monster and killed it, and set Andromeda free. [Apollodorus, Library, II.4]

"Perseus and Andromeda" by Joachim
Wtewael, 1611, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Perseus

The dragon tale is found throughout the world, often in the form of a folktale. Frazer wrote:

The story varies in detail from people to people, but as commonly told runs thus. A certain country is infested by a many-headed serpent, dragon, or other monster, which would destroy the whole people if a human victim, generally a virgin, were not delivered up to him periodically. Many victims had perished, and at last it has fallen to the lot of the king's own daughter to be sacrificed. She is exposed to the monster, but the hero of the tale, generally a young man of humble birth, interposes on her behalf, slays the monster, and receives the hand of the princess as his reward. In many tales of the monster, who is sometimes described as a serpent, inhabits the water of a sea, a lake, or a fountain. In other versions he is a serpent or dragon who takes possession of the springs of water, and only allows the water to flow or the people to make use of it on condition of receiving a human victim. [The Golden Bough, I.135]

The Christian cult of Saint George had its origins as early as AD 313 as there is no mention of him before this time. The historical martyr George was likely a victim of the Christian persecutions under the emperor Licinius, AD 308-24, though many sources put his date of death at AD 303 under Diocletian. George is said to have been born in Cappadocia of noble Christian parents. Upon the death of his father, George accompanied his mother to Palestine, her homeland. Being strong and robust, he became a soldier and rose to a high rank in the army. When the emperor began his war against Christianity, George resigned his commission and appeared before the king to plead for his fellow Christians. Unmoved, the king cast him into prison in Diospolis (Lydda) where he was tortured. Unwilling to renounce his devotion to Jesus Christ, George was beheaded.

By the fifth century, the story of Saint George had been embellished with extravagances and incredible marvels. He was put to death by dismemberment, burial, and fire, each time to become resuscitated by the power of God. He caused dead men to come to life, wholesale conversions, the instant and divine destruction of armies and idols, and hewn beams to sprout leaves.

It was not until the 12th or 13th century that the dragon element was added to the story. This concept might have originated from older texts describing the governor Dadianus as a "dragon:"

Now there was a young man whose name was George, the sun of truth and the glorious star betwixt heaven and earth; he was a tribune in the imperial army, and came from Cappadocia. And when he had served his time as tribune and acquired much wealth, he came to the governor Dadianus and wished to be made a count by him. When Saint George had come to the city and saw the frenzied idolatry of the governors and that they had forsaken God, he straightway decided to give up his rank of tribune, saying, "I will become a soldier of my Lord Jesus Christ the King of heaven." And when he had distributed all his wealth and given what he had to the poor, he rushed into the presence of the governors and cried out, saying, "Cease your frenzy, O governors, and proclaim not to be gods the things which are not gods; let the gods who have not made heaven and earth perish ! As for me, I will worship one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit." The dragon looked at him, and said, "Every person who has gone forth from the benevolent guidance of the gods perishes, and as for us, we worship things which are beneath the heavens, for the gods Fire and Sun appear to us as mighty beings; know now that thou hast not only despised us, but thou hast also despised the righteous gods. Offer sacrifice then to the gods and to Apollo who is the saviour of the whole world, and be convinced that the gods who thou humblest know those who honour and obey them, and know how to punish those who disobey them. And now, tell me from whence thou comest? what is thy name? and for what purpose hast thou come hither?" Saint George answered, and said, "The chief name which I bear is Christian, I am by birth a Cappadocian, I was a soldier in a famous company, and I performed my duties of tribune satisfactorily in Palestine where it served. Who are the gods whom thou wouldst force me to worship, O king ?" The governor said to him, "I desire thee to worship Apollo who hung out the heavens, and Poseidon who made fast the earth." Saint George answered and said, "Neither for thy sake, O evil dragon, nor for that of the governors thy companions will I speak about the righteous ones and thy dead god, but for the sake of these multitudes here present. Whom wouldst thou compel me to worship, O king? Peter the chosen one of the Apostles, or Apollo who corrupts the whole world? To which of these would thou have me offer sacrifice? to Elijah the Tishbite who was an angel upon earth and who walked upon earth and was taken up to the gates of heaven, or to Scamandros the sorcerer who worked enchantments by fire and who led many people astray, who committed adultery with Timetia (Demeter?), who begat Saar and Sarphat the ophani of the warrior of the city of Pontus, whose deeds were evil and who were cast into the abyss of the sea? Tell me, O king, to which of these wouldst thou give judgment? to Samuel who prayed to God, or to Poseidon the destroyer of the ships of the sea? to Antaeus and Herakles, or to those of the Martyrs and Prophets who wear crowns? Tell me, O king, to which of these wouldst thou give judgment? to Jezebel the slayer of the prophets or to Mary the Virgin the mother of my Lord Jesus Christ? Be ashamed, O king, for the things which thou worshippest are not gods, but deaf idols." [The Passion of St. George (BHO 310); translation by E.A.W. Budge, 1888, 203-35]

By 1275, the story of Saint George and the dragon had become the story that was popularized in church iconography. From The Golden Legend, or Lives of the Saints by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa:

George was a knight, born in Cappadocia. Once he came in to the province of Libya, to a city called Silene. By this city was a pool or a pond like a sea, where dwelt a dragon that poisoned the country around. One time the people gathered to slay him, but when they saw him they fled. And when the dragon came near the city he poisoned the people with his breath, and so the people of the city gave him, every day, two sheep to feed him, so that he should do no harm to the people. And at length, when the sheep failed, a man and a sheep were taken. Then an ordinance was made in the town that one should be taken from the children and young people of the town by lot, and every one as it fell, were he gentle or poor, should be delivered when the lot fell on him or her. So it happened that many in the town were then delivered, until at length the lot fell upon the king's daughter. The king was sorry, and said unto the people: "For the love of the gods take gold and silver and all that I have, and let me have my daughter." They said: "How sir! You have made and ordained the law, and our children are now dead, and you would do the contrary. Your daughter shall be given, or else we shall burn you and your house."

When the king saw he could no more do, he began to weep, and said to his daughter: "Now shall I never see your marriage." Then he returned to the people and demanded eight days' respite, and they granted it to him. And when the eight days were passed they came to him and said: "You see that the city perishes." Then the king arrayed his daughter as a bride, and embraced her, kissed her, and gave her his benediction. After, he led her to the place where the dragon was.

When she was there George passed by, and when he saw the lady he demanded her to tell him what she was doing there, and she said: "Go your way fair young man, that you not perish with me." Then said he: "Tell me why you are here and why you weep, and fear nothing." When she saw that he would persist, she told him how she was delivered to the dragon. Then said George: "Fair daughter, fear nothing for I shall help you in the name of Jesus Christ." She said: "For God's sake, good knight, go your way, and abide not with me, for you may not deliver me." As they spoke together, the dragon appeared and came running to them. George was upon his horse, and he drew out his sword and, making the sign of the cross, rode hardily against the dragon that came toward him, and smote him with his spear, seriously injuring him, and threw him to the ground. He then said to the maid: "Give me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon, and be not afraid." When she had done so the dragon followed her, now a meek and gentle beast. She led him into the city, and the people fled by mountains and valleys, and said: "Alas! Alas! We shall all be killed." Then George said to them: "Fear nothing, believe in God, in Jesus Christ, and be baptized, and I shall slay the dragon." Then the king was baptized and all his people, and George slew the dragon and smote off his head, and commanded that he should be thrown in the fields. They took four carts with oxen and took him out of the city.

The image of Saint George slaying the dragon is then not a literal depiction of a supposed historical event, but symbolic of the victory of St. George, the embodiment of Christian faith, over evil and the forces of the devil, the enemy of God, the dragon. Some extend the imagery to include the princess bride as representative of the Church, the Bride of Christ. Many images include the hand, or angel, of God in the sky as it guides the battle below.

"St. George and the Dragon" by Sodoma,
c.1518, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Saint George

For a comprehensive examination of dragon history and lore, see Tim Spalding's excellent website, Dragons in Art and on the Web.

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