“The Panther” and the dragon

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.

Detail of a panther, miniature. Harley 4751, British Library. England S. Late 12th-early 13th century.

Harley 4751 is a medieval bestiary, or a book full of descriptions (both written and visual) of real and mythical beasts. These descriptions often had a moralizing tone, similar to that of Physiologus. In fact, Physiologus is considered a predecessor to and inspiration for medieval bestiaries.

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,

biþeahte þrēanȳdum;

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.

Maxims II and the marvelous middangeard

There’s a fantastic and interesting genre of Old English poetry known as wisdom or gnomic poetry. Written by unknown authors, these poems list small bits of wisdom on everything from human behavior and societal roles to religious expectation to descriptions of flora and fauna. Here are a few of my favorite gems from the so-called Maxims:

Fidelity is typically in a warrior, wisdom is in a man.  (Translated by Stanley Greenfield & Richard Evert)

The tree shall suffer the loss of its leaves upon the earth, and lament its branches. (Translated by W.S. Mackie)

 A shameful man must go in the shadows, the light suits a brighter man. (Translated by Aaron K. Hostetter)

I envision this scribe is surrounded by, and perhaps inspired by, all the creatures around him as he writes (maybe) gnomic verse.

British Library, Arundel 16, f.2. A detail of a historiated initial. Life of Saint Duncan, by Osbern, last quarter of the 11th century or first quarter of the twelfth century. SE England (Canterbury).

There are two famous sets of these Old English wisdom poems, Maxims I (dated to around the 7th or 8th century) and Maxims II (around the 11th century). Despite sharing a name, the two poems are found in completely separate manuscripts and don’t seem to be connected beyond their content—but even that varies. There are, for instance, no dragons in Maxims I.

Maxims II’s dragon appears briefly in a list of where particular things and creatures can be found:

25 …Sweord sceal on bearme,

drihtlic isern.      Draca sceal on hlæwe,

frod, frætwum wlanc.      Fisc sceal on wætere

cynren cennan.      Cyning sceal on healle

beagas dælan… (ll.25b-29a)

  25                     […The sword shall (be) in the breast,

noble iron.         The dragon shall (be) in the barrow,

old, proudly ornamented. Fish shall (be) in the water,

bears his kind.                The king shall (be) in the hall,

bestows rings.]

These are my translations of the Old English, but many other scholars have translated them as well, differing slightly in each rendition. Stanley Greenfield and Richard Evert, for instance, add “typically” in their 1975 translation (as in, “The dragon, old, proudly ornamented, is typically in the barrow”) whereas Albert Cook lyrically translates this line as “The dragon shall dwell on the mound, old, and proud of his treasure” (1902). The verb sculan, which appears in each of the sayings, can mean must or should as well as shall. These different meanings can cause significant differences in how we understand this poem.

No matter how we translate it, though, we have a dragon, which lives in or on some sort of hill, and guards his treasure. This is right on the par with Beowulf’s dragon in the Old English epic, Beowulf: the dragon hides in a mountain, surrounded by its gold, until a thief awakens it and thereby unleashes its wrath. In Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (c.600-625), dragons (sometimes) live up in the mountains as well. There seems to be a somewhat common belief about these scaly beasts that indicates there’s something simultaneously reachable and unreachable about dragon-inhabited lands. We know where and how to find dragons (on the edges of our maps), but that does not mean the journey will easy.

When I think of a dragon “proudly ornamented” with his hoard, this is what comes to mind: a fierce and fashionable dragon proud of his golden accessories.

In actuality, this is an illumination of the constellation “Draco” from the British Library’s Arundel 66, f. 33. SE England (London), 1490.

This edge-of-the-maps conversation adds to my interest in how Maxims II positions its dragon. In his research into Maxims II and the Menologium as relating to their manuscript companion Orosius, Kazutomo Karasawa suggests that Maxims II may be viewed as “the laws of the natural world and humanity” (borrowing this specific phrase from M.J. Swanton’s work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). If we view the poem from this perspective of natural order, it not only places dragons within our world as real and identifiable beings, but it also might give us insight into how Old English scholars were engaging with the environment in all forms of literature.

Additionally, we might be able to consider the dragon a marvel, comparable to the manmade and natural wonders listed throughout the poem. Wondrously-wrought halls, massive armies, and strong river currents inhabit this poem. Another frightening beast, a þyrs (defined by the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as “a giant, an enchanter, a demon”) is mentioned. All these things sceal exist just as God ordains. By placing these little and big marvels alongside one another, Maxims II manages to highlight the everyday miracles that happen in our fair middangeard (middle-earth, world), including beasts that live on the margins.

Where to read it:

The Old English Poetry Project (under Maxims II) translated into Modern English by Aaron K. Hostetter.  

Select Translations from Old English Poetry (small sections under “Gnomic Verses”) translated into Modern English by Albert Cook (1902) via the Internet Archive.

or, an Old English edition via online by the Internet Sacred Texts Archive.