Close your eyes and imagine a familiar scene, that of St. George slaying the dragon. In your mind’s eye picture the dragon. What gender is it? A ridiculous question? One could be forgiven for thinking so, imagining a fire-breathing, mythological and neutrally gendered dragon, as indeed is depicted in the vast majority of images and narratives that feature the scene. What, though, if one discovered a significant amount of images where the dragon had been given a gender?
In her contribution to Pawns or Players – Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women [Four Courts Press 2003], Dr. Samantha Riches outlines a significant and intriguing tradition of gendering dragons. She chanced upon her first example while researching for her PhD. Examining a sculpted altarpiece, of English origin but currently in Normandy and dating from roughly 1480, she noticed something strange in one of the subjects depicted, a scene showing St. George and the Dragon. “I noticed that there was something odd about the dragon,” Dr. Riches explains to Three Monkeys Online. “It appeared to be a female dragon, as it had an obvious orifice which seemed to equate to female genitalia. My initial thought was that this was the work of a 1960s permissive society restorer, or that it had been done as some kind of joke. I imagined a falling out between the carver and the head of the workshop. Perhaps this was the very last panel that had been carved, and it would have been too late to change it. As far as I knew at the time, it was a unique representation, but after I shared this information with various colleagues one of them came forward with another example that she had just come across, an image of St George and another apparently female dragon from a Dutch manuscript of around the same date. Since then they’ve come thick and fast, and I now have over fifty representations.
I tend to find that when I talk about my research, people suddenly think ‘goodness, I’ve never considered this idea before’, then they’ll come back to me with examples they’ve found. Other variations on the theme are depictions of dragons with breasts or dragons depicted with dragonlets, though these are much less common than dragons with female genitals. Someone also sent me details of a dragon with male genitals, again linked to St. George. It’s been very much happenstance the way it’s developed, rather than having set out to selectively research something on monsters, or gendered monsters”.
Riches is a leading expert on the cult of St. George, having also published St. George; Hero, Martyr and Myth [Sutton 2005]. Before delving into the significance of gendering monsters, it is perhaps worthwhile to briefly discuss the development of the cult of St. George. “The first thing to say is that the dragon story is a relatively late addition to the legend of St. George. His cult dates from the fourth century, but it’s not until about the eleventh century that dragons are mentioned in more than a metaphorical way; the dragon-slaying story really took off when it was mentioned in the version of the life of St George included in the Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives compiled in the late thirteenth century which circulated throughout Europe. Originally St George was venerated as a martyr, and the idea of him as a martyr continues to be important, certainly in the Orthodox Church, right through to the present day.
For much of the history of his cult the motif of dragon slaying was almost incidental, but in the Western cult in particular, it has grown in importance since first appearing in the high medieval period. It popularity seems to lie in the fact that it’s such a useful motif, because it can be interpreted very simply as good overcoming evil. It’s also a form of Christ overcoming the Devil: St George’s emblem, the red cross, is an obvious clue to this. There’s an argument that the legend of St. George and the dragon arose because there was some early Christian iconography in which Christ was depicted as a soldier overcoming the Devil in the form of a dragon, and that this later was reinterpreted as St. George overcoming the dragon. He had already been identified as a soldier by the time of the Crusades. Not a soldier related to dragons, but rather as the head of a heavenly host at various sieges such as Antioch and Jerusalem . He’s one of a number of eastern saints who are identified as soldiers, but he then takes on this life of his own in relation to the dragon, once that myth is established, and he becomes really the only one to make it into Western Christian thought. Other soldier saints like Mercurius and Demetrius are really only significant in Orthodox Christianity. The reason that St George took off in England seems to be that he was useful to the monarchy as a recognised symbol of authority. He probably ended up as the English patron saint by accident: he has no particular link with England, but he increasingly acted as the patron saint of the English monarchy from the thirteenth century, and they enforced him, particularly in the fifteenth century, onto ordinary people. He was popular as well with the political elite in England during this period. They held parades on St. George’s Day — there are records of these ‘Ridings’ in a number of cities and town in England from the fifteenth century onwards, and there are even references to a Riding of St George in Dublin (something which would tend to indicate the imposition of a certain kind of ‘English’ ruling class value system). The local worthies, members of the guild of St. George, paraded on the day, re-enacting the battle with the dragon. The local hoi polloi would have to come out and watch. We’ve records of fines being levied against those who didn’t attend, so it was about reminding you of your place in society, very much about exalting the status quo. George and the dragon are handy for that kind of symbolism because it’s clear who is good and who is evil.”
Now that one has an idea about St. George, let’s return to his adversary, the dragon – or more precisely the gendered dragon. “It seems to be particularly popular with German reformers,” explains Riches, “so artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Martin Schongauer, artists particularly associated with the Reformation movement, use it quite a lot. The whole argument here is that St. George represents chastity and the dragon represents untrammelled female sexuality, and hence when he overcomes the dragon, it seems to be suggesting that female sexuality is only acceptable under certain circumstances, such as when it is confined within the limits of marriage. The role of the rescued princess is pivotal in this reading: she ‘chooses’ to be with St George rather than the dragon, and in some late medieval versions she is offered to him as a bride. He refuses, by virtue of his status as a figure of chastity, but her future role is clearly indicated: she will be a ‘good’, safely-married woman, not a dangerous, single, sexual female like the dragon. This relates to a topic that the German reformers were very keen on: they seem to have had a clear agenda about the family and particularly women’s place in society, especially in the light of the closure of convents and the dispersal of former nuns. Having said that, I do think that the body of evidence indicating German Reformation artists’ interest in St George and the feminised dragon is also an accident of survival. These artists tended to make engravings, and one can have multiple copies of an engraving made, and in consequence the likelihood of one of them surviving to the present day is quite good compared to something unique like an artefact made in stained glass or sculpted wood, which as a fragile one-off is much less likely to survive.”
Indeed Riches’ research has found examples of the gendered dragon outside of the Reformation’s sphere of influence, both in terms of date and geography. To be precise, she has found examples that pre-date the Reformation. “The earliest one that I’ve got is in an anonymous German painting, where the artist is known simply as the Master of the Upper Rhine, so it can’t be dated securely. I’ve seen dates as early as 1415 put on this, as well as the 1490s, but either way, I think we can be reasonably certain that it pre-dates the Reformation. So what we’ve got is somebody somewhere in fifteenth-century Europe deciding it would be quite fun to have a female sexualised dragon with St. George, as a way of highlighting his chastity perhaps, and it would probably have gone into a written narrative of his life, and circulated throughout Europe in that way, and then we have different artists picking up on this motif”.
There are cases, Riches is quick to point out, where the gendering of the dragon is apparently motiveless. “It’s nice to set up a big political agenda, suggesting that it’s all to do with gender issues and the subjugation of women, but I’m really hesitant about applying that to more than a small proportion of the images. The only written narrative that I’ve got where the dragon is female is from 1515, which is relatively late compared to when the images start to appear, and there’s no particular reason in the narrative for the dragon to be female. There are no female genitals mentioned, no baby dragons or breasts. It’s just consistently referred to as female.” In many narratives the dragon is referred to as male by default, in the absence of a neuter gender. “Sometimes the dragon is referred to as ‘it’, but usually it’s a ‘he’, and there’s this one instance where it’s a ‘she’, which clearly stands out as a conscious gendering. It’s an English version of the legend, translated from Latin, but the Latin, as far as I can work out, doesn’t have a gender attached to the dragon. So it was something the translator, Alexander Barclay, added. He also enormously expanded the legend, but it is unclear why he included this female aspect. Probably by that point it had become just another variant that one can have. With the story of St. George, do you want the dragon to have wings? To be female? To breathe fire? It’s just another option. For example, there’s an English copy of the Golden Legend with a woodcut illustration of St George that includes a feminised dragon, for no reason at all as the dragon is not described as female in the text. The opposite of that is the Barclay narrative of his life, which is also illustrated with a woodcut. Despite the fact that the dragon is explicitly referred to as female in the narrative, it is not demonstrably female in the picture. I think it’s about different possibilities being presented to the patron who is paying for the work, and also the artist’s personal whim..”
That, though, is not to say that the act of gendering the dragon is always devoid of political resonance. In 1552, as Riches points out in ‘Hyr wombe insaciate: the iconography of the feminised monster’, Peter Gottland, a German engraver, created an image, Allegory of the Triumph of the New Faith over the Old, depicting St. George as the infant Christ, and the dragon as a composite but obviously female beast, wearing the Papal tiara on one of her many heads. The significance of the feminisation is that it forms one aspect of denigrating the dragon, and the Roman Catholic Church it signifies in this image. “I do think that the German reformers found it appealing from a political point of view, but that doesn’t mean they exclusively depicted female dragons,” says Riches. “You also get images of dragons with St George from this time where gender isn’t apparent at all. But they do use the motif repeatedly, and I think it may well have fitted their world view.” Another striking example of a monster being depicted for a political purpose, from the same period, is the ‘Papal Ass’, a supposedly real beast that had been found floating in the river Tiber. “Images of the Papal Ass were used by both sides in the debate about the Reformation, but the Protestant camp particularly seemed to like it. It’s clearly open to a political reading based on negative connotations of female sexuality: it is a very base creature. People blanch still when they see the image. It’s a very potent creation, where the artist(s) put in practically everything they could think of to make the creature look bad (for example, the basic image created by Wenzel of Olmutz, c. 1500 shows the monster as a composite of different mythological and real animals, with humanised breasts and a swollen belly, but in some depictions it is also shown defecating). It’s similar in concept to the vogue in the seventeenth century for stories of women giving birth to rabbits, omens in the sky and that sort of thing. You can put on them the interpretation that you want. The initial understanding of the Papal Ass was that it was a warning from God about the faults of the city of Rome. That then turned into a warning on the faults of the Church. So it depends upon whether you’re looking at it as a reformer or a Catholic. It can read as a warning against Martin Luther, or about the Pope. What you have basically is an image upon which you can map meaning. In the same way the German reformers seem to have been using St. George and the feminised dragon, mapping something that was already established in the community at large onto a particular image, using it in this more overt political way.”
In many of the images of St George and a feminised dragon the gendering is anything but casual, with the eye cleverly being drawn from St. George to the dragon’s sex, as Riches explains. “The images are quite carefully constructed. The dragon is always on its back, it’s always facing away from St. George, and it’s in a position of maximum exposure. The idea of subjugation and the use of phallic weaponry are very, very strong. Having a pseudo-phallic pointer, for example a broken lance, highlighting the orifice is very common. In one example there’s a femur in place of the lance, giving the idea that the dragon has been eating people but also drawing your eye to the dragon’s genitals. Indeed the tail in itself can work in this manner. The images are cleverly constructed and remarkably consistent, with clear potential for reading meaning into the pictures. The dragon is invariably shown the position for having sex in a humanised way, i.e. face-to-face, rather than in the ‘bestial’ way, with her back to the male. She’s effectively saying to St. George, ‘don’t kill me, have sex with me’, and he’s responding ‘no’. This seems to underline her sexuality and depravity, and equally highlights his chastity.”
Of course there is a strong tradition of associating female sexuality with sin and evil. One only needs to look to the book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve to realise this. An extraordinary engraving by Lucas Cranach the Elder, created in the early sixteenth century, couldn’t be clearer about this. “That image is, I think, demonstrating why the feminised dragon is a logical move,” Riches explains. “Because the serpent has been given a voice, which is clear in the Biblical description of the episode, it has been shown with a partly human body, and then the next step along is to make it female. There is a lot of evidence that for medieval and early modern people evil is strongly associated with women and their sexuality, and the sexualised femininity of this serpent is very apparent . It’s a great image because you’ve got the serpent effectively being a mirror image of Eve, and it’s really underlining who the one at fault is here: Eve is understood as far more culpable than Adam. In contemporary religious thought. It’s a very sexual image, with the apple aligned with the breasts, and presented with the same size and shape as well”.
While Cranach’s image is amazing in its level of detail, it’s not unique. “They’re not usually as overt as that,” Riches clarifies, referring to depictions of the snake in the Garden of Eden. “Having a feminised serpent, in the sense of it clearly having the head of a woman, is very common. Often it will be shown with a wimple, or long flowing hair. To take it to the extreme of sexualisation, as Lucas Cranach has done, is much less common”.
One of the dilemmas that faces the artist choosing to relate sin to the female body is that female sexuality is also, obviously, the source of that holy state – motherhood. While we’ve seen that the depiction of female dragons is relatively common, images which make the dragon a mother are much more rare and problematic. “The baby dragon is quite unusual,” agrees Riches, perhaps because it undermines the comparison between Christ overcoming the Devil and St George fighting the dragon: if the dragon can produce dragonlets there can logically be others, an earlier brood, already on the loose in the world, so the ‘once and for all time’ aspect of Christ overcoming one adversary is lost. However, the motif of the dragon as mother does occur occasionally. Riches discusses another extraordinary image, that of St. George Fighting with the Dragon (c.1515), by Leonard Beck. “The exciting thing here is that it brings everything together. Up until the point that this painting came to my attention I had found only a few pictures with baby dragons, and there was nothing explicit in these other image to allow an identification of the adult dragon as female other than the stock idea of the ferocity of the defending mother – such as the tigress defending her cubs — and the implication that a single parent must be female because male animals procreate and run away. However, in the Beck image the dragon is explicitly female. You’ve got clear female genitals and the baby dragon depicted together. Beck is clearly working with the idea of the dragon as a mother, and that’s something that seems to relate to a cultural formula found, for example, in the early medieval saga Beowulf. In this story the hero, Beowulf, overcomes the monster Grendel. Grendel, though, has a mother, who comes onto the scene once her son has been dispatched. The mother is a vision of absolute awfulness, and one of the awful things about her is that she is able to propagate, to produce more evil. So again there’s a negative idea here about female sexuality: it’s able to produce more of itself, and specifically it can create, or spawn, evil. That aspect of sexuality is something that seems to be more easily mapped onto the female body than the male. Logically of course there’s no difference, both are able to propagate, but it’s about setting up this oppositionality between St. George, who is clearly male and chaste, and the dragon. The opposition has to be female, sexual, and even better, with the ability to produce more evil, making his job even harder.”
So, motherhood is not always to be exalted? “It all depends upon who the mother is,” Riches responds. “Certainly Grendel’s mother is an example of the bad mother. You’ve got the example of the Virgin Mary, who is the ultimate good mother, but of course she’s a mother who hasn’t had sex, putting her beyond the bounds really of what someone can aspire to.”
In fact, the original altarpiece that led to her interest in the depiction of dragons appears to construct an opposition between the Virgin Mary and the dragon. “In the altarpiece the image of St. George overcoming the dragon is placed immediately above the Annunciation – the moment when the Virgin is told she will give birth to the Son of God. The dragon is placed in a weird position, reared up on its back legs at the side of the scene, rather than lying on its back as almost all feminised dragons are depicted. My reading of this is that it allows the dragon to be shown almost directly above the Virgin Mary, who is upright, kneeling at her prayer desk as is common in Annunciation scenes. So you’ve got this oppositionality between the good mother, the non-sexual mother, the height of what could be aspired to, set against the bad, evil, nasty, bestial, sexual mother”.
The phenomenon of gendered monsters also exists outside of Christian culture. One example is Tiãmat, a dragon-like female spirit that is part of the Babylonian creation myth and associated with the idea of chaos. “It’s hard to be sure about this,” says Riches cautiously, “because we’re venturing out of respectable historical research at this point, but I was very taken by the idea of Tiãmat and the idea of feminised monsters being right there from the earliest records of human civilisation. This primary female monster is linked to ideas of chaos and fecundity and all those things that we see in St. George’s dragon as well. It is widely recognised that one of the formative elements for his legend is Perseus and Andromeda, and that whole set of classical myths of the hero who overcomes the monster to save the girl. If you’re going to read those into this apparently archetypal Christian myth, then why not look at other versions of stories about heroes and monsters. It’s very striking that the idea of the hero and the monster seems to be common to all cultures, and the story of the hero overcoming the monster to rescue the girl is in nearly all recorded cultures. It seems that the story of St George and the dragon can be understood as one, relatively modern, form of some very ancient ideas about gender roles, monsters and sexuality”
Dr. Samantha Riches is author of St George; Hero, Martyr and Myth (Sutton, 2000), and ‘Hyr wombe insaciate: the iconography of the feminised monster’, a contribution to Pawns or Players – Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women (Four Courts Press 2003).