Monthly Archives: August 2015

Dragons Everywhere! Part 1: The Dragons of Wales

medieval_dragon

Medieval Dragon

At their most typical, dragons tend towards multi-limbed varieties; the most typical variation being four legs and pair of wings. Others tend towards a pair of wings with one or no pairs of legs (wyverns) or no legs or wings (worms). Whatever their configuration, two things are certain about dragons: (1) they are reptilian and (2) they are magical.

medieval_dragon

Legends of Dragons – Red Dragon of Wales

So whatever lizard, snake, crocodile, or basilisk you encounter in the course of your day, be assured that unless you observe them doing magical things they are unlikely to be true dragons. For example, Drac’o Volans, the flying “dragon” of Southeast Asia, was mistakenly designated as a “dragon” despite its lack of  magical properties…  that we know of. (The flying dragon to the left, is however, the flying dragon of Wales, so chosen because William Morris was of Welch descent).  So too the draconist must take care in handing out the designation “draco” as new varieties of flying reptiles are encountered.

winged_dragon

Winged Dragon of Southeast Asia

At any rate,  many draconids with configurations other than as described above also exist. Moreover, it is important for draconian scholars to understand that the definition allows for non-flying varieties. Here I introduce some from an authoritative bestiary of dragon types with their accompanying legends. It’s important to note that unless a dragon bears its own myth and legend, it’s unlikely we have ever heard about them. While that is also true for many things, it’s also poignantly true for dragons.

The Red Dragon of Wales

William Morris Tile: Red Dragon of Wales from the Coat of Arms o

The Red Dragon of Wales

Two of the most famous dragons are described in Geoffrey de Monmouth’s history; and since this story includes the great magician Merlyn, the story is obviously true.

When the warlord Vortigern usurped the throne of Roman Britannia, he promptly caused the building of a great tower. Despite having hired the greatest of Roman architects, no matter what structure was built it would be torn down by the next day. Having heard of a young magician who seemed to understand architecture (the reader will recall that  Merlyn would later build Camelot), Vortigem consulted with the magician on how to solve this dilemma.

The young Merlyn explained that all attempts to build a tower would fail as long as two dragons were fighting under the ground. As the builders dug deeper into the earth, to their amazement they discovered that Merlyn was right, a red dragon and a white dragon were fighting in a subterranean pool underneath the location. Now liberated from their watery tomb, the two dragon continue their fight until the red dragon defeated the white dragon.  Merlyn explained that the red dragon represented forces that would overthrow Vortigern. As it turns out, Uther Pendragon, the legitimate heir to the Emperor Constans in Britain and Arthur’s father, raised a dragon banner and overthrew the tyrant. Ever since then the Red Dragon has been the standard of Wales and its most readily recognizable symbol, especially since it appears on the Welsh flag and on license places.

Welsh_dragon

The standard rendering of the Red Dragon of Wales. Cymru is what the Welsh call their country.

Strangely enough, there are no more dragons in Wales. Here is the story about the last one. This is a story about a “worm,” as wingless, legless dragons are typically called. But let the reader be warned, as the Lambton family learned, that they are magical nevertheless.

The Lambton Worm

lambton_worm

The Lambton Worm

John Lambton was a rebellious fellow who skipped church one Sunday to go fishing. While enjoying this break from devotion, he fished out a small dragon no larger than his thumb (some say it was much bigger). An old man passing by saw this and told the recalcitrant John that he had caught the Devil. John believed him and threw the creature down a well. In order to make up for his rebelliousness, John then left for the Crusades, forgetting all about the dragon.

Lambton Worm

Cigarette card from the Churchman Legends of Britain series, early 20th century

As the years passed, the dragon grew larger and poisoned the well, because that is what worms magically do when left in water.  The villagers noticed that livestock were missing and in the process of looking for the missing livestock, discovered the traks of the dragon all over a nearby hill.  Alas, John’s family became destitute as the dragon ravaged the Lambton estate.

Many years passed.  John returned from the Crusades and was distraught to learn of the troubles at home. Upon consulting a witch, he learned that  he was the one responsible for the Worm and therefore it must be he who would kill it.  But the witch also warned him that because of the dragon’s magic, John must also kill the first living thing he encounters after killing the dragon or else the Lambton family would be forever cursed! So John told his family that upon killing the dragon, he would sound his horn three times, after which they must release a hound for John to kill and ward off the dragon’s curse.

John fought the dragon near a river and cleverly chopped it into pieces so that it could not heal itself (this is also part of the worm’s magic) and in so doing, he vanquished the dragon. However, on sounding his horn three times, his family members were so happy that the dragon was vanquished that they forget to free the hound. Instead they all ran out to John to congratulate him on their newfound freedom. The first person John saw was his father, who of course John could not bear to kill. This is why all the Lambton’s seemed to die either tragically or in battle from then on.

Welsh Wyverns (Gwiber)

wyvern

Wyvern

Although some scholars claim that Wyverns aren’t dragons, people who have experienced them know better. This was especially true for the people of Emlyn, a town in Wales. On a fine summer’s day, and for no apparent reason, a two legged dragon, that is to say a wyvern, landed the town’s tower breathing smoke and fire and making threatening glances at the townsfolk.  After some minutes of this, the wyvern promptly went to sleep. This was, as you might imagine, very disturbing for the townspeople.  The mayor called a meeting to decide what to do as the wyvern slept. One soldier devised a plan to lure the gwiber (which is Welsh for wyvern) off the tower in order to kill it. He floated a large red cloak down the river and asked the townsfolk to wake the wyvern up. Most of the townsfolk were not soldiers and their courage failed them.  They refused to wake the wyvern.  So the soldier climbed the tower and stabbed the gwiber in the belly and then ran away to safety!

On waking, the gwiber saw the cloak floating down the river and rushed off to attack it and tore the cloak to shreds. Alas! the gwiber had been so wounded by the stab in the belly that she lost so much blood and then died. The gwiber turned over on its back and floated down the river,  its venomous blood turn the river red, killing all the fish in the river. Despite the loss of the fish, the townspeople were overjoyed at the death of the dragon and celebrated. No one knows what became of the soldier who ran away after stabbing the dragon, but no dragon has ever been seen in Wales again.

For more on Dragons and Wales

Where most of the images here come from

Another great resource for Dragon images.

A brief history of Wales

“Here be Dragons!”, a novel about Wales in the 13th Century

Where to get a Welsh Flag

 

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Edward Burne-Jones – Days of Creation Angels : Oh the Intrigue!

 

Introduction

Pre-raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was fascinated with two mythic subjects: Sleeping Beauty and the Days of Creation.  He revisited subjects over and over spanning a period of decades and across several media: in oil and gouache, and in designs for stained glass, tile.
http://williammorristile.com/burne_jones_days_of_creation_angels.html

Days of Creation Art Print with restored fourth angel

Days of Creation Art Print with restored fourth angel

The Days of Creation, done in oil and gouache and gold paint is considered one of his greatest works.

Nearly all mythologies have a creation story, one that tells us where humankind comes from and lays the scene for our place in the world.  When this plays out in art, it can be particularly fascinating.

The History

Burne-Jones Days of Creation painting has a colorful history, one with bigger-than-life friends, their children. It is a story with crime and mystery, and a hero’s journey of getting back to wholeness and completeness.

In 1870, Burne-Jones designed six stained glass windows for Morris & Co.; these were installed in the west window of All Saints Church. This was very early  in a period during which Burne-Jones withdrew from exhibition, a period that would last seven years.  Days of Creation designs were thereafter executed in stained glass, in oil, gouache and gold paint.  Additionally,. cartoons were made for tile. Morris and Co. later created tiles based on the original cartoons, but those executions differ considerably from the original designs and appear to have been derived more from the stained glass implementation as an intermediary step.  A later ceramic version made by Morris & Co ceramic workshops in Birkenhead for the Dyfrig Chapel at Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, was completed after Burne-Jones’s death in 1898 by Harold Rathbone.

In 1871,Burne-Jones began  work on a study for the Days of Creation oil and gouache panels. He worked on the angels off and on through 1876.  The series consists of six panels, one for each day, with an angel at rest seated at the bottom of the sixth panel for the seventh day.

Days of Creation Angels complete

Days of Creation Angels on Tile, including restored fourth angel

Jenny, William Morris’s elder daughter who was 15 at the time the series was completed, was the primary model for the angels, although her younger sister, May, also appears in some panels. The last of the Days of Creation panels was completed in 1876, the same year that Jenny’s life was changed forever when her health began to deteriorate giving way more and more to epileptic seizures.  Jenny and her father were very close; Jenny had just passed her Cambridge Local examinations and would most likely have attended one of the women’s colleges at either Oxford or Cambridge, had her health permitted it.

Each angel panel  is approximately 42 inches.  A custom frame was designed by Burne-Jones specifically to hold all six angels.

1934 photo of framed Days of Creation

1934 photo of framed Days of Creation

It was shown in May 1977, as the central piece at his celebratory comeback show at the Grosvenor Gallery in London.  The painting met with rave reviews.  Oscar Wilde detailed his visit in an article for the Dublin University Magazine:

The next picture is divided into six compartments, each representing a day in the Creation of the World, under the symbol of an angel holding a crystal globe, within which is shown the work of a day. In the first compartment stands the lonely angel of the First Day, and within the crystal ball Light is being separated from Darkness. In the fourth compartment are four angels, and the crystal glows like a heated opal, for within it the creation of the Sun, Moon, and Stars is passing; the number of the angels increases, and the colours grow more vivid till we reach the sixth compartment, which shines afar off like a rainbow. Within it are the six angels of the Creation, each holding its crystal ball; and within the crystal of the sixth angel one can see Adam’s strong brown limbs and hero form, and the pale, beautiful body of Eve. At the feet also of these six winged messengers of the Creator is sitting the angel of the Seventh Day, who on a harp of gold is singing the glories of that coming day which we have not yet seen. The faces of the angels are pale and oval-shaped, in their eyes is the light of Wisdom and Love, and their lips seem as if they would speak to us; and strength and beauty are in their wings. They stand with naked feet, some on shell-strewn sands whereon tide has never washed nor storm broken, others it seems on pools of water, others on strange flowers; and their hair is like the bright glory round a saint’s head.

Days of Creation Angels, the third and fourth day

*The Fourth Day was cut from its frame during a dinner party in Dunster House at Harvard University in 1970 where the entire series on loan from the Fogg Art Museum. It has never been recovered. The restored fourth angel is derived from black and white platinotypes done by Frederick Hollyer at the end of the nineteenth century, 1934 photos from the Harvard Art Museums archives, and extrapolated from the description of Oscar Wilde and other critics of the day.

 

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