It’s no secret that many people who love the Middle Ages also love dragons. We find dragons in literature like the Old English poem Beowulf, Norse sagas, saints’ lives, romances, Arthurian legends, even historical chronicles. We also find dragons in modern fantasy literature inspired by medieval culture, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (and the television show Game of Thrones), and on and on.
But few people know that dragons also appear in biblical apocrypha, particularly the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
It’s come to my attention through several GoT convos that not everyone knows there are dragons in Christian apocrypha. So, PSA:— Janet Spittler (@JanetSpittler) May 22, 2019
There are dragons in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Intro to this awesome text by @b_hawk is here: https://t.co/QxhksuAA91
Much of Pseudo-Matthew relates events leading up to the birth of the Virgin Mary and her life growing up, as well as events surrounding her giving birth to Jesus and his early life. Toward the end of this apocryphal gospel, events take a turn when Mary, Joseph, and Jesus have to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of all children age two and under (which I’ve written about before). Along the way, the Holy Family encounter some interesting things. In chapter 18 the story takes this turn:
And when they arrived at a certain cave, so that they might cool off in it, Mary climbed down from the mule and sat and was holding Jesus in her lap. Now, there were three male servants making the journey with them, and one maidservant with Mary. And behold, suddenly many dragons came out of the cave, and when the servants saw them they cried out.
Then the Lord, although he was not yet two years old, roused himself and, standing on his feet, stood before them. Those dragons, indeed, worshiped him, and when they had finished worshiping him, they went away. Then was fulfilled what was said by the prophet who wrote the Psalms, saying, “Praise the Lord from the earth, dragons and all the depths.” [Ps 148:7]
Now, he himself—the Lord Jesus Christ, still a small child—began walking along with them so that he not weigh them down. But Mary and Joseph were saying to each other, “It would be better if those dragons were to kill us than to hurt the child.”
But Jesus said to them, “Do not consider me to be a small child; for I always was and am the perfect man, and it is necessary that I make tame every kind of wild beast.”(Adapted from my forthcoming translation with commentary, The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary.)
Obviously this episode is meant to show us what a total baller Jesus was even as a toddler.
The story also links Jesus’ actions to the the Psalms as a way to show his fulfillment of prophecy. It also aligns the dragons in Pseudo-Matthew with other biblical serpents and dragons, like the story of Bel and the Dragon in Daniel (considered considered deuterocanonical by some).
One connection to late antique and medieval culture that comes to mind in these episodes is the Physiologus, which contains descriptions and allegorical moralizations of different beasts. This popular work was composed in Greek, likely between the second and fourth centuries, was translated into Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Latin in the following centuries, and translated into many European and Middle-Eastern languages throughout the Middle Ages. It was a popular work throughout the global Middle Ages.
The main point of the Physiologus was to offer moral lessons through the symbolism of certain creatures. Much of the symbolism hinges on Christian ideals. For example, the dragon is allegorically likened to the Devil because of associations with the serpent in Genesis 3. The dragon and Devil are also linked through the common symbolism of strength, deceit through lies, and especially pride.
An outgrowth of the Physiologus tradition were the many encyclopedic books known as bestiaries, or compendia of beasts. (In fact, this is a major basis of J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which features as a textbook in the Harry Potter book series.) One particularly famous example is the twelfth-century Aberdeen Bestiary (available to view online with transcriptions, translations, and commentary). This manuscript was produced in England, beautifully decorated with illustrations and illuminations throughout.
The description and information about the dragon in the Aberdeen Bestiary is especially worth some attention. The text begins by stating that “The dragon is bigger than all other snakes or all other living things on earth.” It also relates: “The dragon, it is said, is often drawn forth from caves into the open air, causing the air to become turbulent.” The connections to the dragons emerging Pseudo-Matthew is easy to see. The Bestiary (like the Physiologus) also poses connections between the dragon and the Devil:
The Devil is like the dragon; he is the most monstrous serpent of all; he is often aroused from his cave… emerging from the depths, he transforms himself into the angel of light and deceives the foolish with hopes of vainglory and worldly pleasure.
Given that the dragons confront the Holy Family and Jesus subdues them in Pseudo-Matthew, it seems likely that the episode was meant to be an allegory for Jesus’ ultimate defeat of the Devil.
And let’s face it: Jesus dealing with dragons is also just a cool story.