Year of the Dragon

Queen B is finally celebrating The Year of The Dragon one month late with this scaly menagerie from past sales. We have two ‘flavors’ here; Asian and European, which evolved separately but oddly are both believed in local folklore to be the adult, all-grown up form of a smaller aquatic animal. In Asia, it’s the brave carp who metamorphosizes into a mighty dragon, in Europe it’s a blind, delicate cave salamander, the olm, that shockingly turns into a menacing man-eater. 

This glorious 4′ long hand-painted dragon is Asian: sinuous, and able to fly without wings. Asian dragons are elemental spirits personifying nature, i.e. sky dragons, water dragons, and in 2024 it’s the year of the Wood Dragon, which brings change and abundance. The dragon is one of 12 symbols of the Chinese Zodiac used throughout Asia, and the only one that is a mythical animal. The Chinese zodiac uses 1 sign per year in 12-year cycles. The other signs are the Monkey, Ox, Snake, Rooster, Tiger, Horse, Dog, Rabbit, Goat, Pig, and Rat. Those born in the year of the Dragon can be charismatic and powerful leaders but may also be unpredictable or selfish. 

This gawain (a Ming Dynasty invention made up of tea bowl, saucer and lid) shows another aspect of Asian dragons. The dragon on the lid symbolizes the Emperor (or “Male”) while the phoenix on the bowl symbolizes the Empress (or “Female”) so these make a nice wedding gift. 

These 2 vintage Beanie Babies handily show the difference between east and west: a long-bodied, bearded Asian dragon vs. the heftier, winged western dragon. Toy-maker Ty Warner debuted Beanie Babies at the World Toy Fair in New York City in 1993 and has since put out at least 12 different dragons. The western dragon here is “Scorch”, while the Asian is “Zodiac”. Ty even made one named “Y Ddraig Goch” (The Red Dragon) taken from the classic flag of Wales. 

These artworks depict Christian saints fighting western dragons. On the left is a hand-painted, gilt Eastern Orthodox icon of Saint George and on the right is a poster by prolific PNW-born, California-based graphic artist David Lance Goines, whose work you may recognize from wine and beer labels. Goines passed away last year but his estate maintains a website selling his art.

Saint George was a real Greco-Roman soldier who died a Christian martyr. He is the patron saint of knights, soldiers, scouts and archers, and (unsurprisingly) protects against snakes. Saint Michael is the patron saint of military, police, firefighters and others in dangerous jobs. He is the Archangel who leads God’s army in the fight against the devil, which brings us to an odd European folk tradition: in many old texts, especially those for children, the word “dragon” was substituted for the scarier and more powerful “devil”, so if you survey paintings of St. Michael you’ll find just as many where he is fighting the actual devil as the more metaphorical dragon. To distinguish one dragon-fighting saint from another, human St. George must attack from horseback while the powerful archangel, with his angelic wings, just tramples Lucifer underfoot.

Note that the western dragon of earlier centuries is pretty small! They’ve undergone a vast inflation possibly due to changes in our experience of animals. With modern paleontology we can easily picture huge real-life dinosaurs, while at the same time we hunt much less so we probably underestimate how ferocious a fight Saint George’s little dragon could put up. Thus poor fantasy knights now take on beasts the size of Argentinosaurus! Happy (late) New Year!