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Archive for March, 2014

Last time I mentioned Drakaina, dragon-like beings of Greek lore who are part woman and part snake. Possibly the most famous drakaina of legend is Lamia, the star of a lengthy poem by John Keats.

Lamia’s tale is a little bit complicated. The original character was one of Zeus’s lovers who had the misfortune to fall into Hera’s clutches. In some variations, Hera killed Lamia’s children. Lamia went mad and became a cannibal who preyed upon children. In other versions of the tale, Hera cursed Lamia into the form of a monstrous snake with a woman’s head, and Lamia devoured her own children. Also as part of this curse, Lamia was unable to close her eyes. She could never have rest, and this contributed to her madness.

These legends were passed down through Roman and into Medieval times. Lamia became a class of creature rather than an individual. Mothers told their children a lamia would get them if they didn’t behave, just as they might have said a witch or a goblin.

However, Lamia’s torment was not entirely forgotten. During the 1800s, in the Neoclassical and Regency periods, her tale was often repeated in paintings, poetry and drama. Of all these, the most influential edition was by John Keats, whose epic poem, “Lamia,” was written in 1819 and published in 1820.

Keats’s style is very different from what we consider good poetry nowadays. He’s lush and florid, giving so many details that it slows the narrative pace and in many places forcing his rhyme. Here’s an example, from Book I of “Lamia.”

She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.

In Keats’s telling, the god Hermes is roaming on Crete in search of a gorgeous wood nymph when he hears Lamia bewailing her cursed state. Lamia may originally have been some sort of nymph herself, for she has magical and prophetic powers. Indeed, she foresaw that Hermes would come to Crete and waited there for him. Lamia offers to tell Hermes where the nymph is — if he will restore her to her original form. Hermes does so and goes off to dally with the nymph.

After writhing in agony, Lamia finds herself once again a lovely woman. She goes to find a man named Lycias, who she has watched with her magical powers for many years. Lycias immediately falls in love and takes Lamia to his home town, Corinth. Lamia uses her magic to construct a lavish palace, where the two live happily. They plan to marry, but alas, Lycias has a mentor named Apollonius who sees Lamia as she truly is. Lamia, foreseeing doom, wants to cancel the wedding, but Lycias persuades her of his love. Apollonius reveals Lamia at the wedding. Lamia vanishes with a shriek and Lycias falls dead, apparently of a broken heart.

This rendition was widely acclaimed. It influenced the work of Edgar Alan Poe and many others. Even into modern times, Lamia appears as a character in books like Rick Riordan’s Olympian series and the Neil Gaiman comic, Sandman. The original D&D game included lamia as a type of monster that charms and devours unsuspecting men.

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Greek myth includes a number of dragons, primarily as guardian beasts but also as the lethal foes of heroes. I mentioned Hydra quite some time ago, but actually she is just part of a larger tradition.

Drakon is the Greek word for these monsters. As you can tell, it’s a precursor to the English word “dragon.” In the most ancient tales and artwork, drakon appear to be simply giant serpents. As time went on, the bards buffed up their dragons with poisoned breath, multiple heads, and other exotic features. But did you know they have a separate word for a female dragon?

These are the Drakaina. Unlike the menfolks, drakaina are only part snake. They are also part woman, so a typical drakaina has the head and torso of a beautiful woman but the tail of snake from about her hips down. It’s one of those horrific juxtapositions the Greeks were so fond of in their fantastic bestiary.

The drakaina concept appears visually very similar to India’s Nagas, a supernatural race of snake/human crossbreeds with incredible magical powers. Most of the Greek drakaina don’t seem to share this aptitude, but the most famous of them certainly did. I’ll tell her story in my next post.

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Here is the dragon that guards the entrance to Merlyn’s, a comic and gaming shop in my home town.

Merlyn's Dragon

This big boy is about 8 feet tall, made of foam rubber with a solid rubber exterior. It’s been in the shop for at least ten years, long enough that nobody remembers who made it, although I’m told the shop owner won it as a prize in a contest. Due to its age, it’s becoming a bit tattered around the wingtips and feet, but it’s still an imposing and atmospheric addition to the shop.

Do you have a local game shop that’s special in your memory? When I first moved here, in the early ’80s, Merlyn’s was the only game shop in town. Everyone who played D&D went there for supplies and friendship. Merlyn’s also ran Game Faire, a weekend-long gaming event that was the first thing resembling an SF convention.

The genre community has grown, and there are several competitors now. I like them and shop there, too, but Merlyn’s is my favorite. Places with a history should be treasured and supported, even guarded like a dragon’s hoard. Don’t you think?

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I have some exciting news. Masters of Air & Fire, the middle grade fantasy novel I podcasted because I’d give up on selling it, will finally be published! Sky Warrior, the publisher of my fantasy novel The Seven Exalted Orders, will shortly be sending me a contract. If they follow their usual marketing, Masters of Air & Fire will be an e-book first, and a print book if sales warrant.

In essence, Masters of Air & Fire is a family drama where the family happen to be dragons. Three young wyrmlings are orphaned by the eruption of their volcanic home and must struggle to find their place in the world. Not only do they strive against each other, determining which of them is in charge, they also run afoul of some small, hairless, alien creatures called humans.

Some of the humans seem friendly. But do they have dark intentions toward the wyrmlings? Other humans are hostile, until the wyrmlings see them as captives with a shared purpose. Deciding which humans to trust is a major challenge of the book. The question of humans domesticating dragons is a sore point for me, and I enjoyed exploring that.

What makes my dragons different, you may wonder? Besides that I call them ‘wyrms’ rather than dragons, that is. I was really interested in examining the fearsome legendary dragon in a more vulnerable position. As kids who haven’t grown their scales yet and could be lost and scared. I tried to create a credible society among gigantic predators who mostly live alone once they reach adulthood.

I also tried to give them a different physical presence than other stories, with patches of color-changing skin that they use to express emotion and communicate over distances.

Once I have a firm publication date for Masters of Air & Fire, I’ll share that with you. For now, if you want to check out the podcast edition, it’s still up on my web site. I hope you’ll check it out.

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Of course, I can’t leave this topic without looking at the Book of Revelation, where we find some of the most striking, horrific, extravagant and surreal images in all the world’s literature. This book recounts a series of prophetic visions, received by St. John on the island of Patmos.

St. John recounts that he heard a voice commanding him to “write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches.” Turning, he found an angel standing behind him. St. John collapsed in awe but was raised to his feet and given the mission to write down what he will see.

St. John recorded many famous images and prophecies in the Book of Revelation, including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Seven Seals being opened. There are also many lengthy passages describing how Satan assumed the form of a dragon.

Revelation 7
1 And a great portent appeared in heaven,
A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet,
And on her head a crown of twelve stars.
2 She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth,
In anguish for delivery.
3 And another portent appeared in heaven;
Behold, a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns,
And seven diadems upon his heads.
4 His tail swept down a third of the stars in heaven,
And cast them to the earth.
And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child,
That he might devour her child when she brought it forth.
5 She brought forth a male child,
One who is to rule the earth with a rod of iron,
But her child was caught up to God and to His throne.
6 And the woman fled into the wilderness
Where she had a place prepared by God,
In which to be nourished for 1,260 days.

Enraged, Satan/the Dragon attacks heaven and a full scale war breaks out. Having lost, the dragon searches in the wilderness and finds the woman, who flees on eagle’s wings. The dragon finds her again and tries to sweep her away with a flood, but the earth opens and swallows the flood. Thwarted, Satan goes to the shore and summons the famous Beast.

Revelation 13
1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea,
With ten horns and seven heads,
With ten diadems upon its horns
And a blasphemous name upon its heads.
2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard,
Its feet were like a bear’s,
And its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.
And to it the dragon gave his power
And its throne and great authority.

4 Men worshipped the dragon,
For he had given his authority to the beast,
And they worshipped the beast, saying,
“Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

The Beast’s rule was despotic and all-encompassing. Everyone on earth had to be marked with the sign, 666, and no one could buy or sell without this mark. All people worshipped the Dragon and the Beast through plagues and disasters, or they would be killed.

But, in the end, that male infant grew to manhood. He came back from heaven at the head of an army, which ultimately overthrew the diabolic rule. The Beast was “cast into a lake of fire that burns with brimstone.” All who worshipped him were slaughtered. As for the Dragon, it was chained and sealed in a bottomless pit, “that he should deceive the nations no more.”

Whew! This is heavy reading, with a grandeur of scale seldom matched even in the Bible. It’s no wonder so many writers draw inspiration from imagery in this part of the Bible. If you prefer your dragons unrepentantly evil, you’ll find that in the Book of Revelation.

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Continuing my thread about dragons in the Bible, I come to the story of Moses, as related in the book of Exodus. Moses had been living as a shepherd in the land of Midian when the Lord appeared in the form of a burning bush. His command? Tell the Pharaoh of Egypt to release the Hebrews from bondage. Moses had grave doubts.

Exodus 4
1 Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say ‘The Lord did not appear to you.'”
2 The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.”
3 And he said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it.
4 But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand, and take it by the tail.” So he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand.

As the story continues, Moses and his brother, Aaron, do present themselves to Pharaoh and beg for their people to be released. Pharaoh demanded proof of the Lord’s command before he agreed to anything.

Exodus 7
10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord commanded; Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent.
11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts.
12 For every man cast down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

Again, I want to acknowledge the scholarship of Paul Phelps from the New Earth Inheritance web site. Phelps’s contention is that two different words are used in the bible, nakhash for snake and tannin for dragon.

In the first instance, when Moses’s staff turned to a snake, the text gives the word nakhash. But, Phelps says, why would Moses flee after he had been a shepherd and must have seen many snakes? By contrast, when Aaron throws down his staff before Pharaoh, the word used is tannin. Aaron’s staff didn’t turn into a snake, but a dragon!

Obviously this is much more impressive and would also explain why Aaron’s rod could devour the others. I think we also shouldn’t overlook that the cobra was a symbol of Pharaoh’s power, so to have it swallowed up would have been a dire warning.

There’s just one more stop on our tour of biblical dragons. I’ll bet you can guess what it is. Check back Saturday for the big finale!

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I neglected to mention, in my last post, that much of my material comes from the interpretation of Paul Phelps on the New Earth Inheritance web site. This especially includes the linguistic information for today’s post.

Last time, I detailed that God created dragons along with all the rest of life, although he seems to have regarded them as a crowning achievement. Based on linguistic evidence, it appears that dragons (tannin) lived in the Garden of Eden along with every other creature. Although, in the Genesis account, Eve is tempted by a serpent (nakhash), Phelps contends that the two words actually describe the same beast in different forms.

According to this interpretation, Satan took on the guise of a dragon in order to tempt Eve, because the dragon was so impressive and persuasive. The text of Genesis 3:1 states that “the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature the Lord God had made.” As we all know from Bible lore, Eve was indeed deceived, and she in turn deceived Adam into eating the forbidden fruit.

Once God discovered that his beloved couple were no longer innocent, a famous round of finger-pointing ensued. Adam said it was Eve’s fault, and Eve blamed the serpent. Here’s what happened next, from my copy of the Bible (Revised Standard Edition).

Genesis 3
14 The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
Cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals.
Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

So it appears that the dragon was transformed by God’s curse and became the lowly serpent, hated and feared by generations. Indeed, the mighty had fallen!

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