Scales and Tails: Medieval Mythical Creatures in the Story of St John

Museum of the Order of St John Nancy Mavroudi, Museum Assistant

Did medieval dragons and elephants co-exist, and were they a popular attraction among the Knights of St John? Did the Knights hunt unicorns and chase dragons? What strange animals did they come across in their journeys, and how did these creatures shape their traditions and narratives?

The story of the Order of St John includes many fascinating creatures whose presence has been inscribed in the Order’s tradition deeply enough to define its emblems and historical narrative. Lions and unicorns, dragons and elephants; all seem to have a place in this story whose origins touch upon the mythical and the magical.

 

Lion

One of the first records of the lion as the main character in stories in Western oral tradition is Aesop’s fables, a series of short moral stories involving talking animals dating back to the sixth century. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century, also mentions the lion and describes its cycle of life. The lion is, of course, very prominent in the Bible, where it is often used as an allegory for Jesus Christ; it is an imposing, territorial and protective animal which has, however, a caring, fair and nurturing nature.

Medieval bestiaries, directories of real or imaginary animals often described allegorically, usually start with the description of the lion, as it was perceived as the king of beasts. These illuminated manuscripts of the thirteenth century are full of colourful illustrations along with comments on the beasts’ appearance, behaviour, and attributes, all shaped by the popular imagination of the time and by the traditions of the past.

Picture of two lions with their cubs on an illustrated manuscript.
Bestiary, 13th century. British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 6r.

 

According to most medieval bestiaries, a lion only kills to feed itself, is not aggressive or unpredictable but instead has a noble, fair nature, and has the ability to bring back to life its dead cubs by breathing or roaring over them. These similarities between the Christian tradition on the one hand, and medieval imagery and popular discourse on the other, demonstrate some obvious instances of negotiation between the two and are also inscribed upon the material culture of the time.

Perhaps the most obvious example is heraldry, where the attributes the lion was given in the bestiary are similar to those it is meant to represent in heraldry. The decorations on the various medieval banners, coats of arms, shields, and insignia of the time were meant to mirror the qualities their medieval owners would have aspired to. An association with the lion would link an individual to nobility, braveness, justice, forgiveness and avoiding unreasonable killing, which would perhaps have a special meaning in a medieval context.

Coat of arms featuring three lions on an illuminated manuscript.
Royal Arms of England. BL Royal MS 14 C VII f.53.

The first lion to appear on official royal arms was in about 1195, when King Richard I (also known as the “Lionheart”) added the lion to his banners in its finalised form with three identical lions passant guardant, facing the observer.

The lion is also particularly prominent on the Order’s insignia, and was added to the eight-pointed cross of the Hospitallers when Queen Victoria granted St John its Royal Charter on 14 May 1888. The lion was one of the Royal Beasts on the Queen’s arms, thus the addition served as a link between British Royalty and the Order of St John. The lion also appears on several coats of shields of the Order’s Grand Masters.

Eight-pointed cross with the lion in the top left and bottom right segments, and the unicorn in the top right and bottom left segments.
The eight-pointed cross, the emblem of the Order of St John.

 

Shield of arms of the Grand Prior of the Order of St John featuring heraldic lions
Shield of arms of the Grand Prior of the Order of St John since 1974, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Museum of the Order of St John.

 

Unicorn

Its etymology comes from the Latin ‘unicornis’, which is a direct translation of the ancient Greek μονόκερως (monokeros), meaning single horn.

A creature with one horn appears numerous times in the Bible; in Psalms (21:21) the author prays for their salvation and safety from “the mouth of the lion and the horn of the one-horn creatures”.  From Ctesias and Aristotle we also learn that the medicinal properties of a unicorn’s horn were a topic of discussion in ancient times, as well as its fierce and untamed nature, and the fact that it would rather die than be held captive. Medieval bestiaries described the unicorn as extremely wild and strong, with its horn offering purification and healing, as well as death to its enemies.

Through Roman intermediaries these narrations and traditions from antiquity reached medieval authors in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. Travellers like John Mandeville, helped to shape and were in turn shaped by the popular medieval imagination and representation of mythic creatures. Medieval travel guides and memoirs, like the ones describing the many religious pilgrim routes, were now a newly (re-)founded medieval genre quite popular with their medieval audience. Through their presence in travel guides and memoirs, as well as bestiaries, unicorns moved beyond their actual (or mythical) signification; they became themselves a motif, a signifier of a genre than was now flourishing, thus relating more to text than to beast.

Two of these guides, Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam by B. Von Breydenbach and Viaggio de Venetia al Santo Sepolchro by Noe, are on display in our medieval gallery and contain the narrations of pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, as well as illustrations of places, monuments, people, and animals they encountered, including a medieval unicorn.

 

An illustration of a unicron.
B. Von Breydenbach. MOSJ.

 

Illustration of a unicorn.
Noe. MOSJ.

 

Like the lion, the unicorn was Queen Victoria’s royal beast, featuring on coats of arms, shields, and on insignia, adopted by the Queen in 1873 and by the Order in 1888. However, the unicorn was already part of the Royal Arms hundreds of years before Queen Victoria, when King James IV of Scotland (I of England) introduced the unicorn into Scotland’s arms in 1603, after he inherited the throne from Queen Elizabeth and replaced the Tudor’s red dragon. Its emblematic origins, however, are still in many ways a mystery.

Yet, the interpretation of the unicorn becomes more meaningful once examined in its medieval context; seen outside its modern perception, and where political ideology and religious mythology converge, associating a family or a nation with its age-old symbolic value, the unicorn would have represented a fierce warrior, an icon that many would have desired to adopt.

On a less symbolic level, some theories tend to treat the unicorn as an animal that might have existed, and several real animals have been associated with the unicorn in an attempt to explain its mythological origin as a result of its similarity to them. For example, the narwhal, with its long ‘unicorn-like’ horn, has often been associated with the unicorn, especially given the flourishing of sea travel in medieval times, and the consequent numerous opportunities to encounter these sea creatures during sea explorations and expanding trade routes. In other instances, the unicorn’s resemblance to the ox or the Indian or African rhino has often served as an explanation for its appearance in travel guides and memoirs.

 

 

Dragon

Its etymology comes from the Greek word δράκων (drakon), which means a big serpent. The concept of dragons has been present in almost every major ancient cultural tradition, and the West is no exception; its religious and historic narratives are, in fact, dominated by this creature. In Revelations, the drakon is the ancient serpent equated to the devil. This religious narrative reccurs in the Cappadokian story of St George slaying the dragon, a story originating in the East which became Westernised during the Crusades, retold by knights and artists until it was infused in popular culture and representation.

Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian in the first century, narrates an interesting story whose thematic echo and protagonist shaped the story of St John in the centuries following the Crusades. Diodorus narrates what is basically a story of colonisation of the Greek island of Rhodes involving, however, an invisible dragon:

[W]hen the land of Rhodes brought forth huge serpents, it came to pass that the serpents caused the death of many of the natives; consequently the survivors dispatched men to Delos to inquire of the god how they might rid themselves of the evil. And Apollo commanded them to receive Phorbas and his companions and to colonize together with them the island of Rhodes – Phorbas was a son of Lapithes and was tarrying in Thessaly together with a considerable number of men, seeking a land in which he might make his home – and the Rhodians summoned him as the oracle had commanded and gave him a share in the land. And Phorbas destroyed the serpents, and after he had freed the island of its fear he made his home in Rhodes; furthermore, since in other respects he proved himself a great and good man, after his death he was accorded honours like those offered to heroes.  (Library of History Book V.47-67, 5.58.4-5, trans C.H. Oldfather)

 

Illustration of the port of Rhodes.
Medieval Rhodes. Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam. MOSJ.

Alluding to Diodorus Siculus, the story of a knight of St John slaying a dragon in fourteenth century Rhodes is almost identical. As the Ottoman empire expanded Westward after the fall of Jerusalem, the knights who were defending the Hospital in the Holy Land fled to Cyprus and then Rhodes, where they built fortresses to defend themselves. Dieudonne de Gozon, a Frenchman from Gascony, was allegedly a knight in Rhodes at a time when a big serpent was tormenting the island and had killed many locals. Although the Grand Master of the Order had ordered his knights to stay away from it, Gozon disobeyed him and killed the dragon; the poet and historian Friedrich von Schiller in his ballad “Der Kampf mit dem Drachen” (The Fight with the Dragon) provides a rather eloquent narration of the battle between the two. Gozon eventually became a Grand Master, and was known as ‘Draconis Extinctor’ from this point on. According to authors around this time and medieval travellers’ memoirs, these were the very words inscribed on his tomb in Rhodes. The travel guides in our collection, written in Latin and in vernacular Italian, also confirm the deep roots of this tradition, since they treat the incident as a historic fact.

 

Illustration of a knight fighting a dragon.
Friedrich Von Schiller, Der Kampf mit dem Drachen.

Phorbas and Gozon are, in many ways, the protagonists of a narrative of colonisation, where an external agent occupies a land with the intention to liberate the locals from a tyrannical force enhanced with archetypal symbolism to signify ‘evil’. What can be more justified than killing a ‘satanic’ serpent after all? However, there is probably more to the origins of the dragon tradition in the story of St John in Rhodes.

Illustration of a serpent.
Noe. MOSJ.

Considering the geographical and environmental patterns of the morphological variation of certain animal species, particularly local serpents, may add a dimension to this story that goes beyond its symbolic connotations. The area around Rhodes, including the nearby island of Samos, has been known as a natural habitat of extraordinary, and often oversized, lizards and other relevant species since ancient times. Even today, a visit to the Local History Museum or even a wonder in the local area in the summer where one might see lizards of great size sunning themselves on the side of countryside roads, will prove this to be true.

What is more, Rhodes was a port with high traffic, a point of reference for both pilgrims and traders who were travelling to and from the East. Ships would have docked there daily and it is highly likely that animals might have boarded the ship, in cages or as ‘free-riders’. As Cairo was often on the pilgrim route to the Holy Land connecting it to Rhodes, it is quite plausible that a crocodile or any other serpent non-native to the land may have boarded one of these connecting ships.

 

Elephant

Although elephants were not protagonists in the story of St John and, unlike the lion and the unicorn, have not made it to the coats of arms of the Grand Masters or of members of the Order since medieval times, their presence in stories bestiaries, and travel guides was quite prominent, and the knights were fascinated by them.

The depiction of elephants was heavily dominated by illustrations of the animal carrying a castle on its back. In medieval bestiaries they were described as a dragon’s worst enemy, along with the unicorn, and they were said to live for three hundred years.

A war elephant, carrying a tower on his back
Noe. MOSJ.

Looking at the facts behind the myths we can see that although war elephants were not widely used in Europe and the Crusades, they were in fact used in the East, particularly in India, and their riders’ seats may have given the appearance that they were carrying a castle on their shoulders. According to some sources, the first elephant noted in English history was an elephant captured and kept in the Tower of London in 1255  which was presented as a gift by King Louis of France to King Henry III. Another famous elephant that could have fascinated the knights might have been a war elephant allegedly captured in the Holy Land by Roman emperor Frederick II who launched the Sixth Crusade with the support of the Hospitallers and the Templars. It is therefore possible that fascination with the East, and the extensive travelling that the Crusades had encouraged, might have led to an enriching of the already colourful narration of the encounters in the East with elements that would have captured the knights’ and travellers’ fascination. Naturally, an elephant would have been a sight to behold!

 

SOURCES:

Gozon the Dragonslayer. museumstjohn.org.uk/wednesday-talks-gozon-the-dragon-slayer/

The Elephant at the Tower.  blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/05/the-elephant-at-the-tower.html

The Lion and the Unicorn. http://museumstjohn.org.uk/the-lion-and-the-unicorn/

The Medieval Bestiary. bestiary.ca/index.html

The Scotsman. scotsman.com/heritage/people-places/why-is-the-unicorn-scotland-s-national-animal-1-3953188

Riley-Smith, Johnathan. The Hospitallers.

Riley-Smith, Johnathan. The Knights of St John in Jerusalem and Cyprus.

Why is There a Unicorn on the British Pound. mentalfloss.com/article/64902/why-there-unicorn-british-pound-coin

Winick, D. Stephen. stevewinick.com/unicorns

 

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