Maggie, the Dragon Slayer?
IN THE PROCESS of adaptation, hagiographic legends often changed, and it is interesting to study what authors omitted from or changed in their traditional sources. Various Lives of the virgin martyr St. Margaret (known as St. Marina in the East) reflect attempts to rein in the more outrageous aspects of her immensely popular legend.
A Middle English text composed between 1200 and 1230 tells this tale of Margaret’s encounter with a dragon:
He stretched himself and steered toward the meek maiden, and with his jaw gaping at her threateningly, he began to crane his neck and draw back as if he would swallow her completely. If she was terrified by that horrible demon, it was not much wonder! Her face began to grow pale, because of the horror that gripped her, and because of fearful terror, she forgot her prayer that she might see the invisible demon, nor did she think that her prayer was granted, but she promptly fell to the earth on her knees and lifted her hands up high toward heaven and spoke this prayer to Christ:
"Invisible God, full of every good thing, whose wrath is so fierce that the inhabitants of hell and heaven and all living things quake before it; help me Lord, against this terrible creature, so that it not harm me.”
And then she drew on herself from top to bottom and then across, the beloved sign of the dear cross that Christ rested on. At that moment the dragon rushed to her and set his horrible, greedy and huge mouth over the top of her head, and reached out his tongue to the soles of her feet, and swallowing, swung her into his wide belly—but for his evil fate, and to the glory of Christ. For the sign of the cross with which she was armed quickly delivered her and was instantly his slayer; his body burst open in the middle, and that blessed maiden came out of his belly all unharmed, without any stain at all, praising on high her Savior in heaven.
Jacopo da Voragine, writing later in the thirteenth century, renders the story quite differently:
[Margaret] prayed to the Lord, that He make visible her enemy who was fighting against her, and an enormous dragon appeared there, but when he came to devour her, she made the sign of the cross and he disappeared. Or, as one may read elsewhere, it opened its jaw over her head, and stretched out its tongue under her heels, and swallowed her up; but as it was trying to digest her, she defended herself with the sign of the cross and by the power of the cross the dragon broke open and the virgin came out from there. What is said, however, about the dragon devouring her and then breaking open, is considered apocryphal and frivolous.
Eventually, the Holy See judged everything about Margaret apocryphal and frivolous. Her cult was suppressed in 1969.
By Elesha Coffman
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #72 in 2001]
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