Sir John Mandeville in his medieval work Travels, written approximately 1366, chronicles his voyages to the East. As an English knight who left England around 1322 he journeyed to Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey He describes the Tower of Babylon as being "…full of dragons and great serpents, and full of dyverse venymous beasts all about." Today, it is commonly accepted that Sir John did not write Travels, as it was the practice of unknown writers to credit well-known individuals in hopes of gaining monetarily from their efforts. Travels was certainly one of the most popular books of the late Middle Ages, indeed hundreds of medieval manuscript copies of it have survived to the present day. 5
Dragons were also subject of controversy. Scholarly debates would occasionally climax in all out brawls when one side would insist that dragons had their offspring by laying eggs and the other side would ague that dragons gave birth to their young like mammals!
The monetary cost of having a dragon dwelling nearby was financially devastating to the community! It was said the appetite of a dragon was such that one could devour countless cattle, sheep and maidens. There is a report that Pope St. Sylvester kept a dragon and that it eat 6000 people a day. 6
There is a fresco, painted by Italian painter Maso Di Banco cira 1340, that depicts a scene known as the "dragon miracle" set in Rome in the ruins of the Forum Romanum. It shows Pope Sylvester putting chains on a dragon then turning to the dead Magi and raising him from the dead. Emperor Constantine and his companions look on in astonishment! 7
So heavy was the demand for dragons among European alchemists and among Ethiopians that a minor trade war erupted in the thirteenth century. Dragon meat was a delicacy to Ethiopians.
Inevitably, the growing demand for dragons and their derivatives led to commercial conflict. In the thirteenth century, Friar Roger Bacon complained that "it is certain" that Ethiopian sages were coming to Europe, to "those Christian lands where there are good flying dragons", and luring dragons from their caves, saddling them, and then riding them back to Ethiopia where they would be butchered and eaten. A century later, European merchants, having belatedly grasped the commercial possibilities of the dragon trade, had established their own agents locally to acquire dragons for export to Ethiopia. It can be assumed that they advertised European dragons as a superior breed, and charged accordingly. And thus the systematic slaughter of dragons began, and decimated their numbers in both Europe and Africa.
For those that believe that this is just an ordinary friar reporting this, note that Friar Roger Bacon was a true science pioneer and admirer of Thomas Aquinas. Bacon is famous for stating, "Mathematics is the door and the key to the science". He came to the conclusion that one of the best ways to verify one's theories was to test them through experiment. In thirteenth century Europe the Roman Church didn't eagerly accept experimental evidence. Church doctrine dictated that the power of reason could only be used as a tool when equally infused with the wisdom of God. The Church was the absolute authority on all things, scientific or not. The Inquisition punished those with new scientific ideas with imprisonment, torture or death. 8
One of the earliest works of English literature is the classic tale of Beowulf. It is one of the most valuable single treasures of English literary history and today is housed in the British Museum. One of the main characters of this poem is the dragon Grendel. He is described as being a fiend of hell and a monster grim. 9
Speaking of bad press, the above paints a rather poor picture of the dragon Grendel. I would rather think of dragons as the one that was portrayed in the movie Dragon Heart with Sean Connery's English accent and sense of humor. Another movie classic featuring a very aerodynamic dragon was Dragonslayer.
Ok, but what do we know about the origins of dragons? Believe it or not the same clay tablets and copper seals that tell us so much about the Sumerians and the origins of the Christian and Jewish Bibles, tell us also about the birth of dragons!
Seven clay tablets that were unearthed by archeologists form a single narrative known as the Babylonian Creation Epic. It describes how the Gods were born and man created.
As in the Bible, it starts, "In the beginning…" and states that there were neither land, Gods or men, and that only two things existed: Apsu and Tiamat.
Apsu was male and represented fresh water and the void in which the world would be created.
Tiamat was female and was the opposite of Apsu. She represented salt water as well as chaos.
Some say the battle of the sexes has been going on since the beginning of time. The descriptions of Apsu and Tiamat would certainly support that contention!
Tiamat is described as being like a monster with a serpentine body complete with scales, legs and horns protruding from her head. She is known as the first dragon of history!
No description of Apsu is available. 10
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