A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.
—J. R. R. Tolkien
People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
We live in the golden age of dragons. The twentieth century witnessed the rapid ascent of these reptilian monsters in popular media and their momentum shows no sign of slowing down. In recent decades, readers have thrilled to the stories of heroes who sparred with weapons and words against dragons in the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, and J. K. Rowling. Through the magic of special effects, feature films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
(1958) and Dragonslayer
(1981) have allowed the viewer to experience wonder and awe at the might and majesty of these legendary creatures. Since the 1970s, tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) have introduced generations of aspiring adventurers to the perils and promises of doing battle with fire-breathing red dragons, poison-spewing black dragons, and lightning-shooting blue dragons. Building on the foundation of D&D, modern video games have gone one step further, allowing players to step into the role of fantasy heroes in imaginary worlds rendered in exquisite digital detail. Since the launch of World of Warcraft
in 2004, millions of gamers have fought cooperatively against dragons, whether venturing into the dark lairs of Onyxia and Nefarian or launching their assault against the undead frost wyrm Sapphiron in the floating necropolis known as Naxxramas. In the past decade, dragons have featured prominently as "bosses" in many popular video game franchises, including Dark Souls
, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
, and Minecraft
, the highest-selling video game in history. Most recently, the HBO series Game of Thrones
captivated television audiences worldwide and made one of its lead characters Daenerys Targaryen, "Mother of Dragons," a household name.
By any measure, dragons are currently the most popular mythological creature in the human imagination, but our infatuation with these creatures is deeply rooted in the distant past. From classical antiquity to the dawn of the modern age, stories about the menace and mystery of dragons have been told and retold in the heroic and historical literature of Europe and Asia. Ranging from ancient Greece and India to medieval Europe and China to the badlands of modern America, this anthology collects legends and lore about dragons and explores the meaning of these monsters in religious myths and popular folklore. While dragons are ubiquitous around the globe, their character and habitat differ considerably from place to place, from author to author. Modern storytellers have so successfully distilled the essence of the great wyrms of northern European literature sung in mead-halls a millennium ago that it is easy to lose perspective on the rich diversity of dragons in world literature. From the dark halls of the Lonely Mountain to the blue skies of Westeros to the hidden vaults of Gringotts Wizarding Bank, we expect dragons to be gigantic, reptilian predators with massive, batlike wings, who wreak havoc and ruin by breathing fire to defend the gold and other treasures they have hoarded in the deep places of the earth. But dragons are full of surprises. Indeed, many of the stories collected here defy these expectations about the appearance and character of these creatures, their habitat and diet, and their relationship to human beings. As we will see, every culture shaped its dragons according to its needs and fears.
Dragons have a long and storied history that dates back to the earliest human civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. In the ancient world, they took the form of enormous serpents ready to crush with their coils and kill with their venomous breath. They stood guard over sacred groves and springs, their watchfulness implicit in their name in ancient Greek (drakon
), which derived from the verb derkomai
, "to see." Roman encyclopedists like Pliny classified dragons as exotic fauna inhabiting distant lands, a tradition that persisted among medieval authors. The currency of dragons did not diminish with the arrival of Christianity, which transformed these winged giants from living perils into agents of an older evil and amplified their importance on a cosmic scale by depicting them as harbingers of the last days. Northern pagan cultures of medieval Europe nurtured their own traditions about the meaning of these great reptiles, from the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr of Norse mythology to the fire-breathing dragon of Beowulf
, the earliest extant poem in English literature.
Christian authors in premodern Europe were keenly interested in the natural history of dragons and ruminated at length on their diet and habitats. Borrowing from ancient authorities, medieval monks classified dragons as the largest of serpents, recounted their relationship with other animals (especially their enmity toward elephants), and recorded sightings of them as portents of evil tidings. Time and again, however, these natural explanations gave way to allegorical interpretations: dragons almost always represented the Devil in the medieval worldview. This interpretation was dominant in medieval Byzantium as well, but with some surprising differences. Like their western counterparts, medieval Greek authors were fascinated with dragons, but in contrast to the Latin tradition, they sometimes presented them as monstrous ogres rather than giant serpents. By the later Middle Ages, dragons featured prominently as the adversaries of Christian heroes in Arthurian legend, story cycles related to the crusades, and the lives of holy champions like Saint George and Saint Margaret.
Far from the world of medieval Europe, the literature of premodern Arabia, South Asia, China, and Japan presented an altogether different image of dragons. To be sure, eastern tales often depicted these creatures as fearful enemies to highlight the martial prowess of noble heroes, but in the Asian imagination dragons could also be vulnerable victims who recruited human allies to fight for them against even greater foes. In these stories, eastern dragons shared remarkable affinities with human beings by assuming the form of beautiful men and women and living in sumptuous dwellings with all the accoutrements of aristocratic life. Their attraction to humans could even lead to romantic relationships. Unlike the tales about their western cousins, legends about Asian dragons featured water rather than fire as a prominent motif. These eastern dragons controlled the flow of rivers, sometimes to the detriment of humankind; and they were often aquatic creatures themselves, who lived at the bottom of lakes and oceans. Moreover, as Chinese medical texts show, the body parts of dragons, particularly their bones, were highly prized for their curative properties, an aspect of dragon lore that held little interest for most European authors.
By the early modern period, dragons were on the wane in the western tradition. In literature, they retreated to the realm of allegory, like the serpentine adversaries in Edmund Spenser's poem The Faerie Queene
, which were metaphors for vices in opposition to the virtues of the knights who vanquished them. Drawing on the work of ancient and medieval authors, Renaissance polymaths treated dragons as living creatures, but they pushed their habitats to the unexplored places of the earth, like distant oceans or deep underground. By the late nineteenth century, the march of human progress had all but eroded the last refuges of the premodern dragon. It was at this moment, however, that a remarkable inversion occurred. In contrast to ancient and medieval literary traditions, for the first time European authors began to domesticate dragons in stories that depicted these creatures as friends to humankind rather than enemies, with children playing a leading role in these narratives.
Stories about dragons have endured in cultures around the globe for over two millennia, their appeal tenacious for several reasons. Rippling with power and snorting flames, dragons are the test against which we measure the limits of the heroes we venerate. Inhabiting the fringes of the world, first in distant countries and then in places deep below the earth, dragons mark the boundary between the known and the unknown. Providing a malleable template for mythmakers and storytellers, dragons persist in our imagination both as flesh-and-blood monsters and as powerful metaphors for sin and other destructive forces. By the dawn of modernity, dragons were already in full retreat before the advance of human knowledge, but the domestication of these monsters in children's literature gave them a new lease on life, ensuring their survival as friends and as foes for generations to come.
Monstrous Snakes in the Greco-Roman World
The prominence of giant serpents in the imagination of the ancient Greeks and Romans was inscribed in the heavens. The undulating chain of stars in the northern sky known as
Draco (Latin for
dragon) was among the dozens of constellations described by the Roman astronomer Ptolemy in the second century CE. Greek and Latin authors identified this celestial dragon with the serpentine monsters vanquished by their mythological heroes, especially Hercules, whose constellation stands in close proximity to Draco. The dragons of Greco-Roman mythology shared a number of attributes that remained remarkably consistent over centuries of storytelling. They were usually depicted as massive snakes inhabiting sacred groves in remote places, where they guarded treasure and promised a quick death to trespassers with their lethal venom and crushing coils. Their monstrous menace amplified the courage and strength of the heroes who vanquished them. But dragons were not confined to the realm of legend in ancient literature. Classical authors also wrote about them as natural creatures. Roman poets provided breathless accounts of encounters between Roman legions and deadly monsters in far-flung theaters of war, while naturalists collected information about their habitats and diet. Dragons were living and breathing monsters in Greco-Roman literature and history, but they were always a distant threat, their menace mitigated by time and space.
THE HYDRA OF LERNA
As a child, the demigod Hercules strangled with his bare hands two serpents sent by the goddess Hera to slay him in his crib, thus foreshadowing not only his heroic power but also his confrontation with the Hydra of Lerna, a reptilian monster with nine serpentine heads. As an adult, Hercules performed twelve difficult tasks in the service of King Eurystheus. The second of these labors was the slaying of the Lernaean hydra that ravaged the countryside in the western Peloponnese in Greece. The longest version of the story appears in
The Library, a compendium of ancient Greek legends compiled in the second century CE and attributed to Apollodorus of Athens. According to Apollodorus, this task was especially difficult because the hydra sprouted two heads for each one that Hercules smashed with his club. With the help of his nephew Iolaus, however, the hero managed to cauterize the hydra's severed heads with torches to prevent them from growing back again and eventually killed the beast. Later commentators complained that Hercules deserved no credit for this labor, because he enlisted his nephew's aid rather than defeating the hydra by himself.
As a second labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to kill the Lernaean hydra. That creature, bred in the swamp of Lerna, used to go forth into the plain and ravage both the cattle and the countryside. Now the hydra had a huge body with nine heads, eight mortal, but the middle one immortal. So, mounting a chariot driven by Iolaus, Hercules came to Lerna, and having halted his horses, he discovered the hydra on a hill beside the springs of the Amymone, where its den was located.
By pelting it with fiery arrows, he forced it to come out, and in the act of doing so he seized and held it fast. But the hydra wound itself around one of his feet and clung to him. Nor could he accomplish anything by smashing its heads with his club, for as fast as one head was smashed there grew up two more. A huge crab also came to the help of the hydra by biting Hercules' foot, so he killed it, and in his turn called to Iolaus for help, who set fire to a piece of wood and burned the roots of the hydra's heads with the brands, thus preventing them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, Hercules chopped off the immortal head and buried it and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus. But the body of the hydra he cut up and dipped his arrows in the gall. But Eurystheus said that this labor should not be reckoned among the ten because Hercules had not defeated the hydra by himself, but with the help of Iolaus.
MOTHER OF MONSTERS
A century after the fall of the Roman Republic, Lucan (3965 CE) composed the
Pharsalia, an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. The ninth book of the poem was set in Africa, where the Roman forces loyal to Caesar regrouped after the death of Pompey at the hands of the ruling pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII. Here the poet digressed to tell the story of the dreaded Medusa, a monstrous woman with snakes for hair, who lurked in the desert wastes of Libya. This fearful aberration, whose gaze turned people to stone, was defeated by the hero Perseus, who cut off her head with a magical sword. According to Lucan, the gore dripping from the Gorgon's severed head seeded the landscape of Libya with venomous serpents and winged dragons large enough to hunt elephants. This story was no idle distraction. Lucan's readers would have immediately recognized the parallels between Perseus's defeat of the Medusa and Rome's final conquest of the northern coast of Africa. In both cases, the heroes of reason and order triumphed over the forces of frenzy and chaos.
Why the air of Libya abounds in so many plagues and is fruitful of death, or what secretive Nature has mixed in its harmful soil, our study and toil to know has been to no avail, besides the story that has spread throughout the world beguiling it for centuries, in place of the true cause. At Libya's farthest edges, where burning earth meets the Ocean heated by the sinking sun, sprawl the wastelands of Medusa, daughter of Phorcys. No forest canopy covers them, no sap softens them. A harsh land, rough with the rocks of those who beheld the gaze of its mistress, in whose body Nature, being cruel, first gave birth to nasty pests. From her throat snakes poured their piercing hisses with trembling tongues, and flowing down her back like a woman's hair, they lashed Medusa's neck, which gave her pleasure. The serpents rose up straight above her brow, and viper venom streamed down when she combed her locks.
Poor Medusa, these are what she had that everyone was free to gaze at with impunity. For whoever feared that monster's face and gaping jaws? Whoever looked Medusa straight in the face did she allow to die? She snatched fates while they wavered, preventing fear. Limbs perished with breath still in them, shades did not escape but froze deep down in the bones. The Eumenides' hair would only stir up fury, Cerberos calmed his hissing when Orpheus sang, Amphitryon's son saw the Hydra he was beating. This
monster was feared by her own father, Phorcys, the waters' second power, and her mother, Ceto, and her sister Gorgons. She could threaten heaven and sea with uncommon sluggishness and cover the world with earth. Suddenly birds grew heavy and fell from the sky, beasts clung fast to rocks, whole tribes of Ethiopians living nearby were hardened into marble. No animal could endure the sight of her, and even her own serpents recoiled to avoid the face of the Gorgon. She turned Atlas, the Titan who holds up the Western Pillars, into rocky crags, and long ago when heaven feared the Giants rearing up on serpent tails in Phlegra, she turned them into mountains, and so the Gorgon on the breastplate of Pallas brought an end to that monstrous war of gods.
Here came Perseus, after his birth from Danae and the shower of gold, carried on the Parrhasian wings he got from Arcadia's god (inventor of the kithara and wrestling oil), swift and sudden he flew, carrying the Cyllenian saber—a saber already bloody from another monster, for it had killed the guardian of the cow that Jove had loved—and maiden Pallas helped her flying brother, getting from the bargain the monster's head. She instructed Perseus to turn round toward the sunrise once he reached the border of Libya, and to fly backward across the Gorgon's realms. For his left hand she gave him a gleaming shield of burnished bronze, in which she ordered him to watch out for Medusa, who turns things to stone.
The deep sleep that would drag her down into the eternal rest of death had not completely overwhelmed her. Much of her hair is awake and watching, snakes stretch out from her locks and defend her head, while some lie sleeping down over her face, shadowing her eyes. Pallas herself guides Perseus's trembling hand, and as he turns away she aims the shaky saber that Hermes gave him, breaking the broad neck that bore all those snakes.
What did the Gorgon's face look like then, with her head cut off and the wound from that hooked blade? I would imagine her mouth exhaled a mass of poison, and how much death poured out of her eyes! Not even Pallas could look, and they would have frozen the averted gaze of Perseus, if Tritonia had not shaken that thick hair and covered the face with snakes. So he grabbed the Gorgon and fled on wings to the sky.
He was about to change course and cut a shorter path through the air by plowing straight through the middle of Europe's cities, but Pallas told him not to harm those lands and to spare their peoples. For who would not gaze up in the sky at such a marvelous flight? He bends his wings into the west wind, heading over Libya, which sows and tends no crops and lies empty, exposed to stars and Phoebus: the beaten path of the sun furrows into it, burning out its soil. Nor does night fall deeper over the heavens of any land, obstructing the course of the moon if she forgets the slant of her wandering and runs straight across the zodiac signs, instead of fleeing north or south to avoid the shadow. Although that land is barren and its fields grow nothing good, it draws in the poison of Medusa's dripping gore, the dreadful dewdrops of that savage blood which heat gave strength, cooking it down into the stinking sand.
Here the gore first stirred a head out of the dust and raised up the neck of the asp, swollen with the sleep it gives. More blood fell there with a thick drop of poison, and so no serpent contains more of it. Needing heat, she doesn't pass into chilly regions and by her own will ranges the sands as far as the Nile. Nevertheless (when will our greed for profit give us shame?) Libyan forms of death are sought out here and we have made a commodity of the asp.
But the bizarre haemorrhois
unrolls its scaly coils and stops its victims' blood from clotting at all. And the chersydros
was born, it dwells among the Syrtes' pools and shoals, and the chelydros
, which draws a smoking trail, and the cenchris
, which always glides along in a straight line. The many markings on its belly are finer grained than the flecks of color in Theban serpentine. The ammodytes
look exactly like burned sand, and the cerastes
roves with curving spine. The scytale
is unique in shedding its skin even when there's frost; the dipsas
is hot and dry; the amphisbaena
is burdened with two heads, each trying to turn it. The natrix
pollutes its waters, the iaculus
has wings; the parias
is content to furrow a path with its tail, and the prester
opens wide his ravenous fuming mouth; the seps
corrupts the body, even dissolving bones. And raining hisses that terrify all other pests, harming without venom, the basilisk clears out all the rabble far and wide and reigns over desolate sands.
You dragons, too, who creep along in every land and are regarded as harmless spirits, gleaming bright as gold, scorching Africa makes you deadly. High in the air you mount on wings and hunt entire herds, winding your tails around enormous bulls, you lash them into submission. Not even elephants are big enough to be safe. You deal death to everything without resort to venom.
CADMUS AND THE DRAGON OF ARES
A colossal reptile played a pivotal role in the legend of the foundation of the city of Thebes in Boeotia (central Greece). As told by Ovid (43 BCE17 CE) in his epic poem of mythological stories called
The Metamorphoses, a Phoenician hero named Cadmus arrived in Greece in search of his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus. There Cadmus consulted the oracle at Delphi, who instructed him to follow a wild cow to the place where he would establish a new city. Unfortunately, the heifer halted near a spring sacred to the god Ares (Mars) that was guarded by a gigantic serpent. After vanquishing the monster with his iron javelin, Cadmus was instructed by the goddess Athena to sow the dragon's teeth into the earth "as the seeds from which his people would spring." Much to his amazement, dozens of warriors sprang up from the furrows and fought a pitched battle against each other until only five remained. These survivors made a truce and founded the city of Thebes with Cadmus. Tracing their descent from these mythical warriors, members of the Theban nobility allegedly bore a birthmark shaped like a spearhead. For his part, Cadmus was not so fortunate. Ares later transformed him and his wife into snakes in revenge for slaying the guardian of his sacred spring. This legend gave rise to the phrase "sowing the dragon's teeth," an expression that still refers to any action that leads to a troubled outcome.
Cadmus wandered over the whole world; for who can lay hands on what Jove has stolen away? Driven to avoid his native country and his father's wrath, he made a pilgrimage to Apollo's oracle, and begged him to say what land he should dwell in. This was Phoebus's reply: "In solitary pastures you will come upon a heifer, which has never felt the yoke, nor drawn the crooked plough. Go on your way with her to guide you, and when she lies down in the grass, there build your city walls, and call the place Boeotia."
Cadmus went down from the Castalian grotto: almost at once he saw a heifer walking slowly along with none to guard her. There was no trace of harness upon her neck. He followed her, keeping close behind, and offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving to Phoebus, who had directed his way.
They passed by the shallow pools of Cephisus and through the lands of Panope. When they had gone so far, the heifer stopped, lifted up her head, graced with lofty horns, and raising it towards the sky filled the air with her lowings. She looked back at the friends who were following her; then, sinking to her knees, lay down on her side in the tender grass. Cadmus gave thanks, kissed the foreign soil, and greeted fields and mountains to which he was as yet a stranger. Then, intending to offer sacrifice to Jove, he ordered his attendants to go in search of fresh spring water, for a libation.
There was an ancient forest which no axe had ever touched, and in the heart of it a cave, overgrown with branches and osiers, forming a low arch with its rocky walls, rich in bubbling springs. Hidden in this cave dwelt the serpent of Mars, a creature with a wonderful golden crest; fire flashed from its eyes, its body was all puffed up with poison, and from its mouth, set with a triple row of teeth, flickered a three-forked tongue. The Phoenician travelers entered the grove on their ill-omened errand and dipped their pitchers in the waters. At the sound, the dark gleaming serpent put forth its head from the depths of the cave, hissing horribly. The blood drained from the men's limbs, the jugs fell from their grasp, and they shuddered with sudden dread. As for the snake, it coiled its scaly loops in writhing circles, then with a spring shot up in a huge arc, raising more than half its length into the insubstantial air, till it looked down upon the whole expanse of the forest. It was as huge as the Serpent that twines between the two Bears in the sky, if its full length were seen uncoiled. Without a moment's pause the monster seized upon the Phoenicians, while some of them were getting their weapons ready, and some were preparing to flee. Others were too terrified to do either. With its fangs, its constricting coils, and tainted poisonous breath, it slew them all.
The noonday sun had reduced the shadows to their shortest. Agenor's son, wondering what was detaining his friends, went out to look for them. His shield was a lion's skin, his weapon a lance with shining point. He had a javelin too, and courage that was of more avail than any weapon. When he entered the grove he saw the dead bodies, and their monstrous foe, towering triumphant above them, the blood dripping from its tongue as it licked their cruel wounds. "My faithful friends," cried Cadmus, "I shall avenge your death, or share it!" As he spoke he lifted a great boulder in his right hand and hurled this huge missile with tremendous force. Towering walls with lofty battlements would have been shaken by the impact: but the serpent was unharmed. Protected by its scales as by a breastplate, and by the toughness of its black skin, it repelled the stoutest blows. But that same toughness was not proof against the javelin,which struck home in a coil in the middle of the creature's sinuous back: the whole iron tip sank deep into its belly. Maddened with pain, the serpent twined its head round to look at its back, and seeing the wound, bit at the shaft of the spear that was lodged there. By violent efforts it loosened the shaft all round, and just managed to drag it out: but the iron remained fixed in its bones. Then indeed, when this fresh irritation increased its normal savagery, the veins of the snake's throat filled and swelled with poison and white foam flecked its venomous jaws. Its scales rasped along the ground and its breath, rank as that from Stygian caves, spread foulness through the air. Now it coiled itself into huge spirals, now shot up straighter than a tree, or again, like a river swollen by the rains, swept violently along, its breast brushing aside the woods which barred the way. Cadmus drew back a little, received the onslaught on his lion's shield and, using his spear point as a barrier, blocked the threatening jaws. The serpent, in a frenzy, bit uselessly at the hard iron, and fastened its teeth on the point of the spear. Now the blood began to flow from its poison-laden throat, spattering the green grass. But the wound was a slight one, for the snake retreated from the blow, drawing back its injured neck; by yielding ground, it prevented the weapon from striking home, or entering more deeply. Meanwhile the son of Agenor kept pressing close, driving in the iron he had fixed in its throat; until an oak tree blocked the backward movement, and its neck was pinned to the trunk. The tree bent beneath the serpent's weight and groaned as the end of the creature's tail thrashed against its bark.
While the victorious Cadmus stood, eyeing the huge bulk of his defeated foe, suddenly a voice was heard. It was not easy to tell where it came from, but heard it was. "Son of Agenor, why stare at the snake you have slain? You, too, will become a serpent, for men to gaze upon." The colour drained from Cadmus' cheeks, and for a long time he stood panic-stricken, frozen with fear, his hair on end, his senses reeling.
Then Pallas, the hero's patroness, suddenly appeared, gliding down through the upper air. She told him to plough up the earth, and to sow the serpent's teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed, and after opening up furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete, and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem.
Cadmus was terrified at the sight of this new enemy and was about to seize his weapons: but one of the warriors whom the earth had produced cried out to him: "Don't take to arms! Keep clear of this family conflict!" With these words he drove his unyielding sword into one of his earthborn brothers, who was standing close at hand; then fell himself, pierced by a javelin thrown from a distance. The man who had killed him lived no longer than he did himself; he, too, gasped out the breath he had so lately received. The whole host fought madly in the same way, dealing each other wounds in turn. In the struggle which they had themselves begun, these shortlived brothers perished; until, of all the young warriors granted so brief a span of life, only five remained—the rest lay writhing on the bosom of their mother earth, which was all warm with their blood. One of the five survivors, Echion, flung down his arms, at the bidding of Pallas, promising to fight no more, and asking the same promise from his brothers. These were the companions with whom the foreigner from Phoenicia undertook the task of founding his city, as instructed by Phoebus's oracles.
THE DEATH OF LAOCOÖN
The Greek gods employed enormous serpents not only as the guardians of sacred places but also as the violent instruments of their will. Such was the case in the story of a priest of Neptune named Laocoön, as told by the Roman poet Virgil (7019 BCE). During their decade-long war with Troy, the Greeks sent a giant wooden horse to the gates of the besieged city. Laocoön warned his compatriots that they should not accept gifts from their enemies. He had good reason to be suspicious because the Trojan horse was, in fact, a clever ruse hatched by the cunning of Odysseus: dozens of Greek warriors hid inside with plans to attack the unwary Trojans and open their city gates under the cover of darkness. When Laocoön advised his people to burn the giant horse, the goddess Athena (Minerva), a staunch ally of the Greeks, sent two giant serpents to crush him to death before he could unmask their plans. With Laocoön silenced by the coils and venom of these monsters, the Trojans brought the giant horse into their city and thus precipitated its downfall.
"But a new portent strikes our doomed people
Now—a greater omen, far more terrible, fatal,
shakes our senses, blind to what was coming.
Laocoön, the priest of Neptune picked by lot,
was sacrificing a massive bull at the holy altar
when—I cringe to recall it now—look there!
Over the calm deep straits off Tenedos swim
twin, giant serpents, rearing in coils, breasting
the sea-swell side by side, plunging toward the shore,
their heads, their blood-red crests surging over the waves,
their bodies thrashing, backs rolling in coil on mammoth coil
and the wake behind them churns in a roar of foaming spray,
and now, their eyes glittering, shot with blood and fire,
flickering tongues licking their hissing maws, yes, now
they're about to land. We blanch at the sight, we scatter.
Like troops on attack they're heading straight for Laocoön—
first each serpent seizes one of his small young sons,
constricting, twisting around him, sinks its fangs
in the tortured limbs, and gorges. Next Laocoön
rushing quick to the rescue, clutching his sword—
they trap him, bind him in huge muscular whorls,
their scaly backs lashing around his midriff twice
and twice around his throat—their heads, their flaring necks
mounting over their victim writhing still, his hands
frantic to wrench apart their knotted trunks,
his priestly bands splattered in filth, black venom
and all the while his horrible screaming fills the skies,
bellowing like some wounded bull struggling to shrug
loose from his neck an axe that's already struck awry,
to lumber clear of the altar . . .
Only the twin snakes escape, sliding off and away
to the heights of Troy where the ruthless goddess
holds her shrine, and there at her feet they hide,
vanishing under Minerva's great round shield."
THE DRAGON OF BAGRADA RIVER
The forbidding and inhospitable terrain of northern Africa was the cradle of giant reptiles in the Roman imagination (see pp. 710). During the First Punic War against the Carthaginians (256241 BCE), Roman soldiers learned firsthand the hazards of campaigning in the African wilderness. At the outset of the war, the statesman and general Marcus Atilius Regulus led the initial assault on the city of Carthage. As his troops crossed the Bagrada River (the modern Medjerda River in Tunisia), they encountered a creature born of nightmares, a serpent of unrivaled size and strength that fell upon the Roman troops with lethal intent. In an act of exemplary heroism, Regulus rallied his soldiers to fight the monster and brought it low with a shower of spears and heavy blows from their catapults. In the sixth book of his epic poem about the Punic Wars (Punica), the Roman author Silius Italicus (ca. 28ca. 102 CE) captivated readers with his thrilling account of the battle told from the point of view of an eyewitness. While this poem was almost unknown in medieval Europe, the story of the dragon of Bagrada River was frequently retold by naturalists and historians in late antiquity, who claimed that the surviving soldiers brought the remains of this creature back to Rome, where they displayed in public both its jawbone and its skin, which allegedly measured 120 feet in length.
"The turbid stream of Bagrada furrows the sandy desert with sluggish course; and no river in the land of Libya can boast that it spreads its muddy waters further or covers the wide plains with greater floods. Here, in that savage land, we were glad to encamp upon its banks; for we needed water, which is scarce in that country. Hard by stood a grove whose trees were ever motionless and sunless, with shade dark as Erebus; and from it burst thick fumes that spread a noisome stench through the air. Within it was a dreadful dwelling, a vast subterranean hollow in a winding cavern, where the dismal darkness let in no light. I shudder still to think of it. A deadly monster lived there, spawned by Earth in her wrath, whose like scarce any generation of men can see again; a serpent, a hundred ells in length, haunted that fatal bank and the Avernian grove. He filled his vast maw and poison-breeding belly with lions caught when they came for water, or with cattle driven to the river when the sun was hot, and with birds brought down from the sky by the foul stench and corruption of the atmosphere. On the floor lay half-eaten bones, which he had belched up in the darkness of his cave after filling his maw with a hideous meal of the flocks he had laid low. And, when he was fain to bathe in the foaming waters of the running stream and cool the heat engendered by his fiery food, before he had plunged his whole body in the river, his head was already resting on the opposite bank. Unwitting of such a danger I went forth; and with me went Aquinus, a native of the Apennines, and Avens, an Umbrian. We sought to examine the grove and find out whether the place was friendly. But as we drew near, an unspoken dread came over us, and a mysterious chill paralyzed our limbs. Yet we went on and prayed to the Nymphs and the deity of the unknown river, and then ventured, though anxious and full of fears, to trust our feet to the secret grove. Suddenly from the threshold and outer entrance of the cave there burst forth a hellish whirlwind and a blast fiercer than the frantic East-wind; and a storm poured forth from the vast hollow, a hurricane in which the baying of Cerberus was heard. Horror-struck we gazed at one another. A noise came from the ground, the earth was shaken, the cave fell in ruins, and the dead seemed to come forth. Huge as the snakes that armed the Giants when they stormed heaven, or as the hydra that wearied Hercules by the waters of Lerna, or as Juno's snake that guarded the boughs with golden foliage—even so huge he rose up from the cloven earth and raised his glittering head to heaven, and first scattered his slaver into the clouds and marred the face of heaven with his open jaws. Hither and thither we fled and tried to raise a feeble shout, though breathless with terror; but in vain; for the sound of his hissing filled all the grove. Then Avens, blind with sudden fear—blameworthy was his act, but Fate had him in the toils—hid in the huge trunk of an ancient oak, hoping that the horrible monster might not see him. I can scarce believe it myself; but the serpent, clinging with its huge coils, removed the great tree bodily, tearing it up from the ground, and wrenching it up from the roots. Then, as the trembling wretch called on his companions with his last utterance, the serpent seized him and swallowed him down with a gulp of its black throat—I looked back and saw it—and buried him in its beastly maw. Unhappy Aquinus had entrusted himself to the running stream of the river and was swimming fast away. But the serpent attacked him in midstream, carried his body to the bank, and there devoured it—a dreadful form of death!
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the paperback edition from Penguin Classics.