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Here be dragons…
We all know what medieval cartographers did when they came to areas of the globe of which they knew little other than the fantastic tales of travellers. They left them blank apart from the cautionary text ‘Here be dragons..’. Except that they didn’t. Apart, it seems, from one exception.
However, we may still be able to find dragons on them. Medieval mappa mundi (maps of the world) are very differently laid out from modern maps, and are not what we would consider geographically accurate, but on one of them, the thirteenth century Ebstorf Map, a section corresponding to part of southern Africa showed several cocatrices. These were mythical beasts, resembling two legged dragons, supposedly hatched by a serpent from the egg of a cock, and with a deadly gaze or touch. So far, so mythical, but in the account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land by the fourteenth century Irish Franciscan Symon Semeonis, he described his passage along the Nile, in which river could be found a highly noxious animal, resembling the dragon, which devoured both men and horses, and which was commonly called a ‘cocatrix’ (i.e cocatrice). This, of course, was Crocodylus niloticus, the Nile Crocodile. The fifteenth century Castilian traveller Pero Tafur also mentions them, calling them “cocatriz”.
How doth the little crocodile…
Nile crocodiles were well known to the Romans. Pliny describes them in his Natural History (Book VIII Chapter 37), and they were also mentioned by Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus. Strabo mentions Souchos the crocodile god, and a papyrus found in a crocodile mummy at Tebtunis in Egypt indicates that during the visit to Egypt of the Roman senator Lucius Memmius he fed tidbits to the sacred crocodiles at the temple of Sobek. Crocodiles, and images of them, were not always confined to Egypt, either. Cassius Dio tells us that crocodiles were sacrificed in Rome after the dedication of the Forum of Augustus, and they are shown in the so-
On his way to the Holy Land via Egypt, the fifteenth century German pilgrim Arnold von Harff visited Rome. There, in the church of Santa Maria in Campitelli he saw what was said to be the skin of a dragon hanging in chains, which he believed “until I found it to be a lie”. Once in Egypt, he recognised it for what it was, a crocodile skin. A trade in crocodile skins had certainly been going on for at least sixty years, and probably a lot longer, as Pero Tafur, who travelled to Egypt from Venice, mentions seeing in the porticoes of the Doge’s palace “some skins of the beasts called crocodiles which the Sultan of Egypt sent as things most monstrous to the Seigniory.” He also mentions one of the two famous columns in the Piazzetta, not the one with the winged lion of St Mark, but the other with its statue that he describes as being “of Saint George with the Dragon”. The beast in question, which looks unslain but suitably cowed, has a dog-
The patron saint of Venice is, of course, Saint Mark, but he was not its first. Originally, Venice was firmly within the sphere of influence of Byzantium, and its first patron saint was Theodore of Amasea, particularly revered as a warrior saint and martyr in the eastern Christian church. Theodore was believed to have been a Roman soldier, as was Saint George, also a martyr, but depictions of Theodore slaying a dragon pre-
Hawk the Slayer
We are familiar with the Ancient Egyptian image of Horus spearing or harpooning a hippopotamus, representing the forces of chaos, and among the contents of the tomb of Tutankhamun was a small wooden statue showing him in the same pose. Hippopotami are not crocodiles, but the magical stelae particularly popular in the Ptolemaic period, known collectively as Cippi of Horus, show the youthful god grasping poisonous snakes and standing on crocodiles. Later, when Egypt was a Roman province, there are representations of a falcon-
Whilst Saint Theodore was, and still is, revered by the Eastern Christian churches, he was less well known in western Europe, but the cult of Saint George became well established, possibly because of its adoption by Crusaders who spread it on their return, including those from England. Unlike saints whose veneration, and the miracles associated with them, were linked to specific sites, George had no special centre in England, which helped him to become widely adopted there, eventually of course becoming the country’s patron saint. It is strange to think, however, that when we look at George and the Dragon on a pub sign, we may actually be seeing Horus and the Crocodile. Here be dragons indeed.
Until next time,
Ankh Wedja Seneb
1. Blake, Erin C. (1999). "Where Be "Here be Dragons"?". MapHist Discussion Group.
4. All Tafur quotes from: Letts, Malcolm, trans. & ed. The Pilgrimage of Arnold von Harff London, Hakluyt Society 1946.
5. Kuehn, Sara: The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art (2011).
7. Anthony Sattin The Pharaoh’s Shadow Indigo 2001 p. 197
See also: https://reliquarian.com/2013/03/23/saint-
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