I collect dragons. Most of my hundred or so dragons are stuffed animals. Beyond that I have dragons made of wood, plastic, porcelain, composite, metal, and other materials. I have dragon jewelry, dragon pictures, and Lego dragons. Some are toys; some are distinctly not toys but decorative knick-knacks. I have books and movies about dragons. While I am partial to the Chinese dragons, most of my dragons are of the European (winged) variety. Dragons are considered mythical beasts, and so they are.
In 1611, when the King James Version of the Bible was translated, some mythical beasts were thought to be real. Maps of the oceans bore the legend, “Here be dragons.” The principal story of England was that of Saint George and the dragon. The tales of knights and chivalry often included stories of knights rescuing fair maidens from dragons. And, of course, every knight wanted to relieve a dragon of its hoard of gold and jewelry. These beliefs were fueled by travelers’ tales of fantastic beastsAaron cast down his rod and it turned into a dragon. such as the camel-leopard (giraffe) and the gigantic monitor lizard still known as the Komodo dragon. Because people still believed mythical beasts existed, it is not surprising that the King James Version of the Bible makes reference to dragons and other such beasts.
Even if you don’t count the symbols of the dragon in the Revelation, dragons are mentioned 22 times in the King James Version. Almost all are in the Old Testament, and are translations of the Hebrew word tannin.
Perhaps the most famous of the Old Testament references to dragons, because it has been incorporated in the hymn Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens Adore Him, is found in Psalm 148:7. “Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps.” This would accord with the old maps that put dragons in the oceans. So would the passage that reads, “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.” (Ps 74:13)
Other passages, though, hint that the dwelling of dragons is in desolate places. The prophets, particularly, speak of nations being destroyed and becoming dwellings of dragons. “And Babylon shall become heaps, a dwellingplace for dragons.” (Jer 51:37) Jeremiah says the same about Jerusalem (Jer 9:11), the cities of Judah (Jer 10:22), and Hazor (Jer 49:33) Malachi talks about “the dragons of the wilderness” (Mal 1:3) in relation to Esau. Isaiah predicts that Israel will return to her dwelling places and
the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. (Isa 35:7)
Moses spoke of dragons as of a venomous land animal. Of Israel’s enemies he said, “Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps.” (Deut 32:33)
Dragons are frequently associated with owls. Job was the first to say, “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.” (Job 30:29) But he was not the only one. Isaiah spoke of dwellings of dragons and of owls. (Isa 34:13; 43:20) So did Micah (1:8).
The translators of the King James Version also used the words whales (Gen 1:21; Job 7:12), sea monster (Lam 4:3), and serpents (Ex 7:9, 10, 12) instead of dragons in place of the same Hebrew word. The reference to serpents is when Moses was before Pharaoh and Aaron cast down his staff and it became a serpent. The Egyptian magicians did likewise, but Aaron’s serpent ate theirs. It would make an interesting translation to use the word dragon instead of serpent.
This shows a problem in understanding what type of beast (real, not mythical) was meant by the Hebrew word. More modern translations frequently say it is the jackal, but in places the same translators use whales, sea creatures, or serpents. It is impossible to accurately translate the word, because various contexts indicate different types of animal.
In the New Testament, dragon is exclusively used in the Revelation. It is a transliteration of the Greek word drakon, which we still use to indicate a dragon. The dragon primarily appears in chapters 12 and 13. It is specifically identified as a symbol of “the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world.” (Rev 12:9) He is unable to defeat the Messiah, so he causes the Roman government to wage war against the church, the followers of the Messiah. Ultimately the church is given victory over the dragon.
What is a cockatrice and why is it in the Bible? To start with, a cockatrice is an impossibility. It was believed to have the head of a rooster and the tail of a serpent. If that isn’t impossible enough, a cockatrice was hatched from a rooster’s egg. The gaze of a cockatrice would turn a person to stone, and the only effective way to kill one was with a mirror.
The creature was common in English literature even as late as William Shakspere, who was contemporary to the King James Version. The first use in English was in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible, where he used it to translate words later translated as dragon, viper, and fiery serpent.
In the King James Version it is used three times, all in Isaiah or Jeremiah, although the Hebrew word is translated once as an adder (Prov 23:32)
The prophets most commonly threatened to send cockatrices among the sinful people. (Isa 14:29; 59:5; Jer 8:7). The most quoted passage using the word, though, is of an ideal world.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. (Isa 11:6-10)
More recent English versions of the Bible use the terms cobra, viper, or serpent. Indeed, this is probably what was meant by the Hebrew word. It is different than a serpent, but probably a cobra or an adder, as the contexts bear out. Clearly the committee that translated for King James considered a cockatrice as fearsome as any cobra, which was not common in England.
We tend to think of a unicorn as a cute little horse with one horn on its nose. That image dates back at least to the Unicorn Tapestries, which were commissioned in France one hundred years before King James commissioned his translation of the Bible. Nowadays they are associated with glitter and rainbows.
The unicorn of the Bible was not very like those images. It does have a horn or horns (Ps 92:10). Its most prominent feature, though, is its strength. “He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” (Num 23:22; 24:8) It was not easily tamed. “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” (Job 39:9-10)
Modern translations use the term wild ox. Some scholars think this was the aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle. It was the largest species of ox, standing nearly six feet at the shoulders, and had heavy horns that spanned approximately that same width. By 1611 it was probably extinct in England, and so was replaced in the translators’ minds with the mythical unicorn.
The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. (Isa 34:14)
It is unclear why the translators chose to refer to the mythical satyr in this passage. The satyr was a man with the legs and feet of a goat. In that sense it agrees in part with other uses of the Hebrew word in the Bible. Most of the 59 uses of the word in the Bible are translated kid or goat. Most of those are used in the requirements for offerings, as listed in Leviticus or Numbers. These would include the two goats used on the Day of Atonement.
Twice (Lev 17:7; 2 Chron 11:15) the translatorsThe unicorn of the Bible was not very like the cute little horse with a horn on its nose. used the word devils. In both of those instances it referred to sacrifices to other gods, and probably meant goat idols.
Two other times the word is translated as hairy. In both of those instances it was descriptive of Esau, son of Isaac. Apparently Esau’s hair was wiry, like that of a goat.
The Bible mentions other beasts that may be considered mythical. There are several references to behemoth and leviathan, for instance. We don’t know for sure what those creatures were, although they are most commonly considered today to be the whale and the Nile crocodile. Except as directly related to the Bible, though, they do not appear in medieval bestiaries.
A study of these mythical beasts as mentioned in the Bible may be interesting in itself. It does, however, bring forth a discussion about difficulties in translating the Bible. Well, maybe not difficulties so much as idiosyncrasies. In translating the Bible, we must necessarily try to use words familiar to the intended audience, contemporary readers. Sometimes choices have to be made that may be confusing to readers of a later generation. The King James Version is over 400 years old. Many words used in its translation have shifted in meaning, spelling, and/or pronunciation over those four centuries. Many scholars consider the American Standard Version of 1901 to be the most accurate translation into the English language. However, after a mere 120 years the language of that translation seems stilted and even outdated. When asked what the best translation is, then, perhaps the best answer would be one in contemporary language, keeping in mind that even those translations will be outdated within a couple of generations.