NOTE: The main purpose of St. John Damascene is to persuade his readers that dragons are real living creatures and not mythical personages like ghosts, werewolves and so on. To confirm this idea, St. John describes their birth, development, size, behavior, and refers to the catching of a dragon and the measuring of his hide.
Some people contrive 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. 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. 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 (A.D. 155 – 236) 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 dragon; 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.
The tale is also told that dragons can be driven away by thunder; as if a dragon goes up 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.
We harm ourselves most of all when we ignore reading of the Holy Scriptures and studying them according to the Word of our Lord.
Holy Scriptures, Church Fathers and Mythological Creatures
St. John Damascene is not the only Church Father to write about dragons (or other mythological creatures).
In his Commentary on Job, St. Ephraim the Syrian writes, “The Behemoth is a dragon, that is, a land animal, just as the Leviathan is an aquatic sea animal.”
St. John Chrysostom writes in his Commentary on Job, “If God has created these two enormous beasts, He did so in order that you might know that He may create all of them according to their own type. But God does not do so because creation is oriented to provide what is useful to you. Notice how these beasts preserve their proper laws: they haunt that part of the sea which is not navigable. But one may ask, ‘What is their use?’ We ignore what is the mysterious utility of these monsters, but, if we went to take the risk of an explanation, we may say that they lead toward the knowledge of God.”
Incidentally, the existence of dragons, or at least the early Orthodox Christian belief in the existence of dragons, is validated by the Synaxarion accounts of Apostle Philip (May 3rd), St. Marina of Antioch (July 20th), St. Samson of Dol (July 28th), St. Martha of Bethany (July 28th), St. George the Great Martyr (April 23rd), St. Theodore the Great Martyr (Feb. 17th) and dozens of other saints.
During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, while St. Barsanuphius of Optina was stationed as a priest for the military hospitals in Manchuria, he wrote the following in his cell notes: “…I will note, incidentally, that I also happened to hear from soldiers that stand post at the Hantaza Station, 40 miles from Mullin, that two years ago they often saw an enormous winged dragon creep out of one of the mountainous caves. They have not seen it since that time, but this proves that the tales of the Chinese and Japanese about the existence of dragons are not at all fantasies or fables, although the learned European naturalists, and ours along with them, deny the existence of these monsters. But after all, anything can be denied, simply because it does not measure up to our understanding…” (pp. 232-33). [Note: Essentially, the hearsay of some soldiers was enough to validate the existence of dragons for St. Barsanuphius].
The unicorn (Hebrew reem; Greek monokeros) is mentioned nine times in the Old Testament. St. Athanasios the Great gives a description of unicorns in his Commentary on the Psalms:
“The unicorn received one horn from nature” (Ps. 91:10 LXX). “The unicorn is the beast which is invincible on account of the sharp horn upon his forehead, by which he kills all other beasts” (Ps. 77:69 LXX).
The “satyr” is also mentioned in the Old Testament. In Greek and Roman mythology, the satyr (or “faun”) was said to be a half-man/half-goat creature. This is also how it appears in the Hagiographical account of St. Anthony the Great which was written by St. Athanasios the Great.
The above icons show St. Anthony the Great with the Satyr (l) and with the centaur (r). This fresco is in the katholikon of St. Demetrios Skete, Mt. Athos.
The “cockatrice” (Hebrew tsepha; Greek basiliskos) is mentioned five times in the Old Testament. In English mythology, the cockatrice is a snake hatched from a cock’s egg.