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st. John Damascene on Dragons

by Rev. Timothy Alferov (Russia)

      The most interesting essay by St. John Damascene (VIII AD) "On Dragons and Ghosts" (The Works of St. John Damascene, Moscow, 1997) was very recently translated into Russian for the first time and published by "Martis" Publishing House in Moscow. Fr. Maxim Kozlov, the translator and author of the commentary, draws readers' attention "not so much to the scientific views of the Father, which naturally have the seal of the epoch and are primarily of interest of the historians of science, as to the very methodology of his thought and to the consistent soberness of mind when it comes to the evaluation of the world phenomena; the soberness which is in striking contrast with the boundless mysticism and search of the mysterious peculiar to the false religiousness" (italics mine - Rev. T.).
      St. John Damascene's epistle is about dragons. Before citing his words, let us concentrate our attention on the translator's commentary. Two things are immediately evident. First, judging from the lines in italics, Fr. Maxim considers St. John Damascene's scientific views on the issue to be at least archaic. In other words, he definitely considers the accounts of the meetings of people and dinosaurs described by St. John Damascene not to be authentic. Second, Fr. Maxim absolutely rightly frees the Father from any suspicions of the inclination towards "mysticism and search of the mysterious".
       In fact, St. John Damascene is an author of the greatest intellectual and spiritual power, so it is clear that he is an absolute stranger to any gullibility or fable-telling. Moreover, what the epistle in question has for its direct object is the exposure of fables and superstitions of all sorts. So St. John Damascene was an absolutely reliable witness who, in addition, had in his possession all the scientific knowledge of his epoch. Let us remember, for instance, that quite a good few of his classical book "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" is devoted to purely scientific data. The science in those times was descriptive by nature. It did not penetrate into the essence of things but recorded the natural phenomena rather accurately. Thus, if we deal with a well-educated scholar of that epoch, who was also independent of any hoaxes, we have every reason to consider his evidence before trying to judge the extent of its scientific reliability.
       "Some people contrive", St. John Damascene says, "that dragons can both take the human form and turn into serpents, sometimes small, sometimes huge, differing in body length and size, and sometimes, as was already stated above, having turned into people, start to associate with them, appear to steal women and consort with them; so we would ask [those who tell such stories]: how many intelligent natures did God create? And if they do not know the answer, we will respond: two - I mean angels and humans... So He created the two intelligent natures; but if a dragon changes its form while associating with people, becoming at one moment a serpent, at another a man... so it follows with all possible clarity that dragons are intelligent beings exceeding men greatly, which has not [ever] been true, and never will be."
       "Let them also say who in particular tells about it [a dragon - Rev. T.]? For we trust the teaching of Moses, and, more exactly, the Holy Spirit, having spoken through [the prophet]. This [teaching] reads: And God brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever [Adam] called every living creature, that was the name thereof (cf. Gen. 2:19). Hence, a dragon was one of the animals (italics mine - Rev. T.). I am not telling you, after all, that there are no dragons; dragons exist but they are serpents borne of other serpents. Being just born and young, they are small; but when they grow up and get mature, they become big and fat so that exceed the other serpents in length and size. It is said they grow up more than thirty cubits; as for their thickness, they get as thick as a big log. Dio the Roman (ab. 155 - ab. 236 - Rev. T.) who wrote the history of Roman empire and republic, reports the following: one day, when Regulus, a Roman consul, was fighting against Carthage, a dragon suddenly crept up and settled behind the wall of the Roman army. The Romans killed it by order of Regulus, excoriated it and sent the hide to the Roman senate. When the dragon's hide, as Dio says, was measured up by order of the senate, it happened to be, amazing, one hundred and twenty feet long, and the thickness was fitting to the length."
       "There is one more kind of dragons; those have wide head, goldish eyes and horny protuberances on the back of the head. They also have a beard [protruding] out of the throat; this kind of dragons is called "agaphodemons" and it is said they have no faces. This dragon is a sort of beasts, like the rest of the animals, for it has a beard, like a goat, and horn at the back of its head. Its eyes are big and goldish. These dragons can be both big and small. All serpent kinds are poisonous, except dragons, for they do not emit poison."
       Thus, the main purpose of the ancient author is to persuade his readers that dragons are real leaving creatures and not mythical personages like ghosts, werewolves and so on. Dragons are absolutely real animals, though sometimes big and frightful, which produce a terrible impression upon people and, moreover, very rarely appear in their presence. All those circumstances conditioned on various fables concerning dragons and their turning into humans. Nevertheless, apart from the fabulous descriptions of dragons' appearances, even in those times there were quite plausible descriptions, including, as we can see, such details as the colour of eyes. In other words, St. John Damascene turns from the language of fables to the language of science: dragons are not werewolves but animals! To confirm this idea, he describes their birth and development, size and behaviour, refers to the fact of catching the dragon and measuring his hide. It is evident that neither St. John Damascene nor, all the more, Dio the Roman would have tried to support a fabrication with the reference to the Roman consul and senate.
       But what if some other animals, known to science, were meant under the name of "dragons"? It seems highly improbable. Instead, two very likely descriptions of dinosaurs were given. The image of the dinosaurs with bony protuberances on the head, a horn on the back of the head and a horny jut under the jaw ("beard") is well-known not only to the scientists, but also to the general public. It should be kept in mind that no paleontology existed in those times, so it is obvious that St. John Damascene used the evidence of the people who had eye-witnessed those monsters. Otherwise, how could he guess their characteristic features so precisely?
       "The tale is also told", St. John Damascene continues, "that dragons can be driven away by thunder; as if a dragon goes up (probably, into the air - Rev. T.) and gets killed. When I heard this I laughed! Is it possible to see a dragon now a human-like and intelligent creature, now a serpent; now a rebel against God, now a being pursued by Him? Ignorance is truly an unreliable thing." Then St. John Damascene describes the effect of thunder and lightning and points out that a lightning can kill both people and animals. Perhaps some dragons were also killed this way; that is why such a legend could appear.
       The author's tone in the passage above shows quite clearly that he is glad to expose and, moreover, ridicule any fable, any hoax. Nowadays he would not take the UFO stories seriously; if he talked to the "eye-witnesses" of such phenomena, he would easily see that those people were deceived by demons. But in this text he neither denies the fact of dragons' existence nor imputes to them any features of demonic activity. It means that we can without any prejudice accept St. John Damascene's evidence for the co-existence of people and dinosaurs, and that the latter appeared on the Earth not millions of years ago but during the biblical history.
       "We harm ourselves most of all", St. John Damascene adds up, "when we ignore reading of the Holy Scriptures and studying them according to the Word of our Lord". If only our scientists would listen to 
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