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Archive for October, 2012

After my last post, about the two-headed dragon in the movie Willow, I’m inspired to step back a millenium or two and spotlight another multi-headed horror, the Lernaean Hydra.

Hydra was born into a star-studded monster clan. Her parents were Typhon (a hideous deity imprisoned beneath Mt. Aetna by Zeus) and Echidna (a drakaina, or beautiful nymph with the tail of a serpent). Cerberus, Chimera, and Ladon (the dragon who guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides) were her siblings.

Legend describes Hydra as a gigantic water snake. Her most famous feature, of course, was that she had several heads. Accounts vary wildly, but nine heads is the number most commonly given. If that wasn’t bad enough, when one head was cut off, two more would grow in its place. And that’s not all! (chanelling Billy Mays here) Hydra was so poisonous that if her breath didn’t kill you, a stray drop of her blood would finish the job. Even stepping into her footprint could be fatal.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting more impressed with this dragon all the time. No wonder she’s so famous!

Oddly enough, like her brother, Cerberus, Hydra was also a guardian beast. An entrance to the Underworld was located beneath Lake Lerna, and Hydra was its guardian. She mostly stayed at her post, but occasionally did emerge to terrorize the countryside.

Hydra’s legend is part of a much longer myth cycle, the Twelve Labors of Hercules. I’ll tell her tale in my next blog post.

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I mentioned the movie Dragonslayer in my last post, and that brought to mind another great fantasy movie of the late 20th Century, Willow. Released in 1988, Willow was the brain-child of George Lucas (of Star Wars fame) filmed in collaboration with Ron Howard and a stellar cast.

Like Star Wars, Willow is populated by a set of stock characters who rise above their stereotypes due to enthusiastic performances from the actors. Val Kilmer is perfect as the swashbuckling swordsman; Warwick Davis is the humble dwarf who longs to be a wizard; and Jean Marsh is the wicked queen whose sorcery blazes even through a downpour. I wasn’t so amused by the two bumbling pixies, but who could forget the old wizard, played by Billy Barty, proclaiming “The bones have spoken!”

Did I mention there’s a dragon in there? A mighty nasty one, actually. The twist is that the would-be wizard, Willow, creates this menace himself when a spell goes awry. The dragon is sometimes referred to as “Sisbert” or “Eborsisk” (after a pair of film critics who had given negative reviews to Lucas’s other films). It has two heads, both ugly as sin, and both breathing fire if memory serves. Luckily for Our Heroes, Sisbert can’t fly; it stays in a castle moat and the two heads fight over the body of their victim. Still, it takes an army to keep the dragon busy until Kilmer gets the drop on it.

Willow did not enjoy the enormous commercial success of Star Wars, and was dismissed by critics. In my opinion, it was ahead of its time and thus not fully appreciated. More than 20 years later, this is still a really fun movie. I recommend it for all ages.

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The ancient Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda contains the earliest appearance of one of the most striking and popular images in Western dragon lore: the virgin sacrifice. You see this theme over and over. A young woman is chained to a rock and left for a dragon to devour. In Andromeda’s case, she is first stripped of her clothing, and by implication her social status and very identity. She is no one and nothing, just meat for the dragon.

Variations of this theme appear in other legends — the tale of St. George, for instance, although that princess gets to keep her clothes — and in modern fantasies. Some of my previous blog posts have reviewed movies (Dragonslayer) and books (Dragon Slippers) that carry on the tradition.

When an idea like this keeps repeating in stories over the ages, it seems to me that it must mean something. Sure, there’s the pure tittillation value of naked women in peril. And there’s the drama of sacrifice — something given up for the good of humanity. In these stories, after all, it’s usually a king giving up his daughter. What could be a more terrible sacrifice than one’s own child?

At the same time, we know from history that girls and women were not actually held to be all that valuable. Sons, now — they were very important. You never hear of kings sending their sons to be the virgin sacrifice. And there’s the question of appeasing evil in the first place. Do we really believe that evil can be bought off with a tasty snack?

So in these stories, the kings are doing a kind of end run. The sacrifice is valuable, but yet has no value. Andromeda might have been a princess, but really she was no one important. And the coda is that, even after Andromeda is saved by Perseus, the blame still falls on her mother, Cassiopeia, whose alleged arrogance first aroused Poseidon’s fury. Missing from the legend is any mention of King Cepheus (Cassiopeia’s husband and Andromeda’s father) taking a stand on the women’s behalf.

In contemporary thought, much is made of how insulting it is that these women are left out there, helpless until some man rescues them. That theme is stated explicitly in Shrek II, for instance.  Although in most modern tellings, the “helpless woman” almost always rescues herself, I’m still left with the puzzle behind it all:

What is it that we, as a culture, like so much about chaining women to rocks?

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In ancient times, the kingdom of Ethiopia was ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. The queen was  beautiful, but proud. She bragged that both she and her daughter, Andromeda, were more lovely even than the Nereids. These sea nymphs were famed for their dazzling beauty and served in the court of the sea god, Poseidon.

Upon hearing Cassiopeia’s boast, Poseidon became very angry. He sent a sea monster named Cetus to ravage the coast of Ethiopia as punishment for her vanity. Descriptions of Cetus vary, from a dragon-like monster to a whale with a dog’s head and massive tusks. Whatever its true form, Cetus caused tremendous flooding and devoured anyone he could catch.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia consulted an oracle of Apollo, who informed them that Poseidon’s wrath could only be soothed by the death of Cassiopeia’s much-boasted daughter. Thus Andromeda was chained to a rock near the sea to await her death-date with Cetus. Fortunately for Andromeda, a hero named Perseus found her before the dragon did.

Perseus was a son of Zeus, returning to Greece after slaying the dreaded Medusa. He had quite the gear on: a Sword of Adamant, loaned by Zeus himself; a Helm of Darkness, loaned by Hades, god of the dead; a mirrored shield, loaned by Athena, goddess of wisdom; and winged sandals, loaned by Hermes, messenger of the gods.

With such divine favor, it should be no surprise that Perseus made short work of Cetus. He wooed the beautiful Andromeda and married her over the objections of her previous betrothed, Phineus. Unlike a lot of the classic heroes, Perseus and Andromeda enjoyed a prosperous marriage. Their children ruled the kingdom of Mycenae, and the great hero Hercules was one of his descendants.

Unfortunately for Cassiopeia, Poseidon still held a grudge. He placed the proud queen in the stars, seated on her throne. But some sources say this chair actually was an ancient torture device, meaning Poseidon had consigned her to eternal agony.

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To recap, we were talking about what we all would like most about being a dragon. The possibilities were a) flight, b) scaly armor, c) fiery breath, d) long life and wisdom, or e) the hoard.

The winner, by a narrow margin, is flight! That sense of freedom just appeals to so many people, including myself.

Number two was fire-breathing. Interestingly, in the classic dragon tales like Fafnir, it’s the breath weapon that was most dreaded. Although Fafnir breathed poisonous gas rather than flame.

Somewhat to my surprise, nobody wanted to be rich or wise. The modern world is so commercial, I figured a lot of people would want the hoard. Perhaps we’re already wise — at least a little.

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I’ve had a few votes in on my informal poll, but not enough to reach a firm concensus. So let me expand on the options and say what I think are some advantages of each.

A) Flight. Besides the incredible fact of flight itself, you could swoop down on unsuspecting enemies. Or, if your enemies weren’t worth your time, you could fly away and let them chase you if they wanted.

B) Scaly armor. Sure, let those little creatures ping their arrows off you. That’s all they’d do — ping!

C) Breath weapons. When you get tired of the pinging, simply breathing out will take care of the problem. That would be pretty handy, you have to admit.

D) Longevity and wisdom. Obviously, nobody wants to die. I believe that wisdom is often overlooked. With long life comes the ability to savor lots of experiences. Wisdom helps you know the difference between idle amusements and significant achievements.

E) Hoard. Money is a big temptation for me. It is, as they say, always the right size.

F) Alien perspective. One comment suggested that dragons having their own priorities and take on life is worth considering, as well.

Anybody else have an opinion of the coolest thing about being a dragon?

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I’ve been quiet lately, and I have to apologize. There’s been some drama with my teenager at school, and it’s thrown me off a lot of things. So this time my post will get back to basics and ask everyone what would be the coolest thing about being a dragon.

We’ll put aside, for this post, the fact that dragons often die in the classic stories. It’s all about the advantages today.

Some possibilities: a) being able to fly, b) scaly armor, c) a deadly breath weapon, d) long life and great wisdom, or e) a big hoard.

I know where my vote would go, but how about the rest of you?

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