How’s this for a renovation? This is part of the second and third floor exterior of Casa Batlló in Barcelona. The building was already 27 years old when architects Antoni Gaudí and Josep Maria Jujol began work in 1904, and over a two year period they transformed the formerly ordinary structure into what the locals now call the Casa dels ossos (House of Bones). It does look bony and organic, doesn’t it? When viewed as a whole from without, the building takes on a shape reminiscent of a dragon especially at the roof where it curls and ripples with scales made of ceramic tiles. There’s also a turret and cross on the roof, to represent the sword of St. George (patron of Catalonia) plunged into the dragon’s back.
Dragons are one of the oldest mythic animals in human story traditions. Some theorize it began with the imaginings of primitive people who first discovered the bones of dinosaurs. As tribes and cultures evolved, dragons took on a complex and vibrant symbolism. They were big. They were masters of the four ancient elements of earth, air, water and fire. They came to represent the primal force of nature itself, fearsome in strength and temperament, hidden in unseen caverns. They often guarded a treasure which could only be recovered through bravery by defeating the dragon in combat, or by stealth in outwitting it. We master the force of our own primitive nature by brawn and brain, and both ways require courage and the use of inventive technology. This is the struggle we all go through toward moral and spiritual maturity.
The epic struggle between the civilizing force and the primitive nature is universal, so dragon lore emerged in many cultures, with differences based on each culture’s emphasis upon different elements of the myth. European dragons are fierce reptiles that must be subdued, driven away or killed. Chinese dragons, however, are wise, jubilant and more serpentine. To prevent a Chinese dragon from tricking us with magic we must make alliances with them. In the East, the upper and lower natures must be in balance, in harmony. In the West, the upper nature must be in control of the lower.
The Western dragon myths began in Greece. The English word dragon derives from two Greek words, each one describing an important symbolic aspect. The first is drákōn, meaning huge serpent OR water-snake. There are water-dragons too, like the one that’s supposed to be living in Loch Ness. The other word is drakeîn, a verb that means “to see clearly”. In order to see clearly, to grow wise, we must acknowledge our dual nature, the dragon and our inner hero who struggles with it.
Myth, legend and folklore all feature tales of heroes and dragons. Gilgamesh, the hero of an ancient Babylonian epic, slays the reptilian Khumbaba in a forest. The second of twelve labors Hercules must perform is to slay a multi-headed beast whose blood is deadly. This hydra is an early dragon. The third monster battled by Beowulf is a dragon, and he dies from their combat. In the Teutonic tradition we have Siegfried who slew Fafnir, and French bards wrote of Tristan, who killed an Irish dragon to win the hand of Isolde.
Dragons are part of the Arthurian legends too. The Historia Brittonum from the 9th century has drawn attention because it is the earliest source presenting King Arthur as a historical figure, and is the source of stories repeated and embellished by later authors. According to legend, when Vortigern fled into Wales to escape the Anglo-Saxon invaders, he chose a high hill-fort for his retreat. Each day his men would work until nightfall to construct fortifications but the next morning they would find the masonry collapsed. Vortigern was advised to seek the help of a young boy born of a virgin mother. The boy brought to the king was called Myrddin Emrys (Merlin Ambrosius). Vortigern’s councilors told him to kill the boy to appease supernatural powers preventing him from building his fortress. Merlin dismissed their advice and explained that the hill fort could not stand because a hidden pool beneath it contained two dragons locked in combat. He explained that the White Dragon of the Saxons would soon be defeated by the native Red Dragon. The Saxons failed to subdue these early Britons, and their descendants adopted Y Ddraig Goch as the Flag of Wales. This dragon shows up everywhere in Wales, including towels, watches and china. Here it is at the petrol station:
Have you defeated your dragons, or made allies of them?