One of the most widely read and translated texts during the Middle Ages was the Physiologus, a moralized “encyclopedia” that contains descriptions of 49 animals, both real and mythic. These descriptions were paired with Biblical scripture to illustrate a specific Christian teaching, and in some cases the descriptions of the beasts were changed to further exemplify the teaching (who knew the Panther was a friend to ALL animals?). While the original Physiologus was written in Greek sometime around the 2nd century and has been translated into a number of languages (Arabic, Provençal, Old Norse, and Russian just to name a few), today I’ll be looking at the Old English version. The Old English Physiologus is interesting in that it selects only three creatures (the panther, the whale, and the partridge) from the original forty-nine.
While the Old English Physiologus may not boast a specific poem dedicated to the dragon, this scaly reptile does make its appearance in “The Panther.” The panther is described throughout the poem as a marvelous animal: rare, gleaming, and splendid. He is a friend to all other animals, except the dragon. In fact, the panther works against the dragon and its assumed wickedness. This is fitting, for the end of the poem notes that God himself casts out the dragon:
55 Swā is Dryhten God, drēama Rǣdend,
eallum ēaðmēde ōþrum gesceaftum,
duguða gehwylcr būtan dracan ānum,
āttres ordfruman— þæt is se ealda fēond
þone hē gesǣlde in sūsla grund,
and gefetrade fȳrnum tēagum,
55 Such was this creature is the Lord our God,
Giver of joys, to all creation kind,
To men (each and every people) being ant, save alone to him,
The dragon, author of all wickedness (source of poison),
Satan (—), the ancient adversary (enemy) whom,
Fettered with fire, shacked with dire constraint (forced into punishment),
Into the pit (chasm) of torments God cast down.*
*This translation is from Cook’s 2004 edition (see below). The words in parentheses are alternative translations I might use.
Sound familiar? The dragon, here, is often understood to be Satan; Cook even adds the name “Satan” into his translation. The panther, as a gleaming creature fighting against the “ancient enemy” and “source of poison,” is understood as Jesus Christ. I don’t disagree with this understanding (it is a moralized Christian encyclopedia, after all), but I do think the poem’s dragon is interesting to think through alongside other Old English texts.
The dragon figures represented in the Old English corpus are very diverse. For instance, the dragons in Maxims II seem to be part of the natural world, but danger is unmentioned; the dragons in Wonders of the East, however, are most definitely natural and dangerous. The famous fiend in Beowulf displays very animalistic and natural tendencies, but it faces off against a human hero and, like this dragon, has been understood by critics as a representation of Satan himself. While there is a consistent thread amongst these beasts, they differ from text-to-text.
In the Old English Physiologus, specifically, both the panther and the dragon cause their reader to question their own place in the universe. The text is religious in that it is meant to demonstrate Christian values; it thereby supports some heavy self-reflection on how you are (or aren’t) meeting these ideals. Not only that, but both the panther and the dragon are pretty marvelous and fantastic beasts, unlikely to be witnessed by insular audiences. It is miraculous creatures like this that have us questioning the limits of creation.
I also believe this text is one of those magical moments where history and literature converge, a place where the Old English translator referenced natural histories (like Pliny and Isidore, who, in turn, used the original Physiologus as a source for their own works) to endow its dragon (and panther) with a sense of wonder while also negotiating the fragile space between pagan traditions (like those at work in Beowulf) and Christian ones. These authors (and translators) are still answering the age old question: where does science fit into faith?
Where to read it:
The Old English Physiologus: Text and Prose Translation (2004), translated by Albert Stanburrough Cook (Old English and Modern English) via this PDF file.
To compare to another modern English translation, check out Aaron Hostetter’s work at The Old English Poetry Project.