The Lady and the Dragon, Part I

One thing I have realized this month, with its emphasis on humanoid dragon girls, is the fevered power of female sexual imagination. For most of the Western world dragons have been long been creatures of evil and corruption, yet modern artists are making them over into blazing paragons of female beauty. How I would have loved to see this in my childhood! I had always liked dragons, to the extent of identifying with these creatures in make-believe games. And why not? They were singular and powerful. That artists are now making the fantasy come alive has been a revelation.

I can tell you back then it was not kosher to be in love with dragons the way these artists are today. Sure, there were dragons around. The association of the dragon with evil was beginning to soften in the 1960s, with the children’s song Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Paul and Mary, and Ollie the dopey one-fanged dragon from the puppet show Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Cecil the Serpent helped as well; he was dragon-like in appearance if not exactly a dragon. Disney too contributed sympathetic dragons, such as the title character of The Reluctant Dragon. But, these were all male. Female dragons were left out of the mix, save for Maleficent’s magnificent transformation in Sleeping Beauty.

Where did this association of female dragons with evil come from?

In the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Serpent, the tempter, is never explicitly defined as Satan in the text. A Jewish text written later in the 7th century, Alphabet of Sirach, identifies the Serpent as Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who left him for expecting her to “lie beneath” him during sex (that is, be subservient) to him. Seeking revenge on God and Adam, the story goes, Lilith turns herself into a serpent to tempt Eve into corruption. Many Medieval paintings of Eden reference this legend, giving the Serpent a woman’s head. I can see why. Visually, it’s more interesting. Genesis also hints the Serpent loses its legs over the incident, so in addition to having a woman’s head, the Serpent has two or sometimes four limbs and becomes a lizard-like or dragon-like creature. Adding to the confusion, serpent and dragon are often used interchangeably in the Bible as synonyms for evil, so Serpent-Lilith becomes a female dragon. To make things even more complicated, the original story may have been written as satire, not religious dogma… the early Medieval equivalent of Woody Allen!

Adam and Eve committing original sin, detail from The Virgin of Victory, 1496, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), tempera on canvas, 280×166 cm.

Serpent-as-Lilith has a woman’s face here, but her hair is more stylized, like a sculpture of the Green Man motif common on European fountains.

In this illustration from a Medieval Book of Hours Serpent-as-Lilith has breasts, a scaled body, and two clawed feet, giving her a wyvern-like appearance. Again her lower body seems very sculptural, like what is termed a Grotesque in Baroque art.

The Serpent has become a strange cockatrice-like monster in this German depiction, but with Lilith’s head. Clearly the artist was using artistic license.

Hugo van der Goes, The Fall of Man and The Lamentation

Hugo van der Goes, The Fall of Man and The Lamentation, 1470 – 1475

Lilith has become a platypus-like creature in this luscious, yet awkward, rendition by Hugo van der Goes. Or maybe an otter? She’s kind of endearing.

The meaning of the artwork is all too clear. “Bad” women corrupt as dragons poison and corrupt, as dragons were wont to do in the ancient world. “Bad” means disobedience. “Good” women are pure, ignorant, and should be obedient to men, even if Eve wasn’t in this case. Some artists took things further by depicting Lilith with black hair (non-white) and Eve with blonde hair (white and pure.) C. L. Moore’s classic short story “Fruit of Knowledge” uses this trope. It’s available to read online.

And why did Adam have two wives? Because there were two Genesis stories of Mankind’s creation! Because the Bible was the literal word of God, they both had to be true, right?

Getting back to Lilith, scholars have traced her origin to ancient Mesopotamia, where the lilitu were female demons. The goddesses of Tanit, Astarte, Innana and Ishtar, belonging to nations of pagans that were enemies at one time of the Jewish people, were also incorporated into her character, and so begins the strong-woman-as-demon trope… blah blah blah virginwhorecakes.

But Lilith has had the last laugh. A series of influential music festivals has been named after her! All Eve has is a douche and a forgotten brand of cigarettes.

Burney Relief, Southern Mesopotamia, 1800 - 1750 BCE

Burney Relief, Southern Mesopotamia, 1800 – 1750 BCE

The goddess depicted on this plaque may be Lilith, Ereshkigal, Ishtar, or Inana; no one knows for sure. She has a dragonlike appearance almost akin to a modern Dragon girl, though her feet and wings are actually thought to be avian, perhaps those of the owl with which she is associated. Still it’s a powerful image, full of female power… and supremely predatory.

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  2. […] were very few mass-produced dragon depictions in popular culture. Most of the ones I referenced in Parts I and II of this series were oil paintings intended for the nobility or wealthy merchants, or in […]

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