July 24, 2012

Kircher's Dragons

        "There is a great deal of debate among writers with regards to dragons: do animals of this sort actually exist in nature, or, as is often the case in many other things, can they only be found in fables and fairy tales? And we also were stubbornly undecided for a long time as to whether these animals have ever in fact existed. At last, however, it was necessary for us to set aside our doubts… Because monstrous animals of this kind (i.e., dragons) quite often make their nests and rear their young in underground caverns, we assert with a solid basis that they are a verifiable kind of subterranean species, in accordance with the worthy topic of this book."  The book in which this assertion was made was 1664's Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher.  Back in April I introduced you to Athanasius Kircher, and promised you a post on his stories and prints describing dragons.  Well, here it is at last.
        Kircher brought plenty of evidence to support his belief in dragons, ranging from the testimony of the Bible and lives of assorted saints, up to contemporary accounts, including the following:  "In 1660, in the month of November, a Roman named Lanio was in the coastal marshes trapping birds. Instead of finding birds ran into a dragon about the size of a very large vulture…  When the hunter realized that he had used up his supply of ammunition, he cut its throat, and it died. After he had returned home on
that same evening, he died himself, either from the toxicity of the creature's blood, or from the virulence of its breath…  It occurred to a certain very curious person, who had been informed of the incident by a relative of the deceased hunter, to go to the location where the struggle had taken place. There he found the rotting body of the dragon. So that he could in all truthfulness bear witness to the matter, he brought back the dragon's head to the city…  This head was very carefully examined and I received the report that it was indeed a true dragon, with a double row of teeth just as one can find in a snake's mouth. The dragon itself was bipedal; and it had the bizarre feature of webbed feet, like those of a duck."
        Kircher includes verbatim another account which he received personally from the Swiss prefect Christopher Schorer, who wrote, "During the year 1619, as I was contemplating the serenity of the nighttime sky, to my great astonishment I saw a brightly glowing dragon fly from a large mountain cliff (which is commonly called Mount Pilate), to another cave on the opposite cliffside (commonly called the Flue Cave) with a swift flapping of its wings. Its body was quite large; it had a long tail and an extended neck, while its head displayed the toothsome mouth of a snake. As the creature was in the midst of flight, it spewed out sparks from its body, not unlike the embers which fly when smiths beat glowing iron. It was after I had observed all of the details that I knew it rightly to be a dragon from its bodily motions, by which I could discern the arrangement of its limbs. I write this to Your Reverence, lest you doubt that dragons truly exist in Nature."
        Switzerland, it seems, was a hotbed of draconic activity for centuries.  Kircher mentioned several incidents there, including a dragon who swallowed a knight whole, a dragon whose dripping blood killed the knight who had just killed it, and The Astounding Story of Victor, the Man Who Lived with Two Dragons for Six Months.  This one is a lot of fun.  Victor, a man of Lucerne, became lost in the wilderness and after nightfall fell into a pit from which it was impossible to climb.  Instead he followed a passageway into the mountain and was horrified to enter a chamber occupied by two hideous dragons.  The dragons wrapped their tails and long necks around him, but did him no harm.  So Victor remained with the dragons "from the
sixth of November all the way to the tenth of April. And how do you suppose that he was able to eat during this time? Listen, and be astounded. He observed that the dragons ate no other food throughout the winter season except a salty liquid exuded from the walls of the pit. And so, inasmuch as he was bereft of everything necessary to survive, he followed the example of the dragons. He set about licking and lapping up the liquid himself, and thus revived by this sort of food, he was able to live for half a year. During the equinoctial sun, from which he felt the air to grow a little warmer, the monsters also seemed to feel that the time was at hand for them to come out of their underground lairs to look for food. One of them swiftly flew upward from the muddy pit ahead of the other with a great flapping of his wings; and when the second dragon began the same ascent, Victor, seeing that this was his best chance for freedom, seized the tail of the beast, and was carried away from the pit."  Needless to say, his family and friends were quite astounded by his account when he found his way back to Lucerne.  (Alas, the salty liquid of the cave had made his stomach unfit for ordinary food, and he died two months later.)
        And of course adding greatly to the charm of Kircher's accounts of dragons are the illustrations.  Alas, as is all too often the case, I can find no artist's name to whom I can give credit for these wonderfully detailed depictions.  Mundus Subterraneus was illustrated with both woodcuts and copper engravings, but these are engravings, which enables finer detail, but has more of a look of drawing than carving.  I'd love to know how much direction the artist got in these pictures, whether he was working from someone else's sketches, and how strictly Kircher was overseeing the designs.  I would think they'd have been fun, but perhaps this artist didn't care about dragons as I do!
[Pictures: Dragon of the Isle of Rhodes;
This little dragon… was caught… by Pope Gregory XIII;
Victor escaping from the pit on a dragon's tail, all copper engravings from Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher, 1665 edition.
The English translation of Kircher I've quoted here was done by Darius Matthias Klein, and I found it at the Christian Latin blog.  Many thanks!  You can read Kircher's entire chapter on dragons there.

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