On the Impurity of Dragon-kind

Before I begin, I feel that I should mention the people who made it possible for me to stand before you now. Unfortunately neither my mother nor my father can be here with me today, but my Uncle Matthew and Aunt Bess are, and I thank them both for all their hard work. For most of my life I’ve been, as they put it, “a little heathen”: I’ve known hardly anything about Scripture, and I only went to assembly at school out of duty. When I turned thirteen my mother was too busy preparing for her work in Akhia to arrange any kind of ceremony or celebration for my passage to adulthood. My aunt and uncle are the ones who noticed that lack, and insisted I come with them to services here at the Langley Square First Nakhonian Assembly-House.

This is a very different place from what I’m used to—I was raised in the Harmonist tradition, inasmuch as I can say I was raised religiously at all—but I have learned a great deal since I began coming here. I particularly have to acknowledge Magister Broughton, who has put so much effort into instructing me these past six months. Little heathen I might have been, but my mother has taught me to respect scholarship, and thanks to the magister I now have a much better understanding of our Segulist faith. I hope I will demonstrate that understanding to all of you today, and especially to him.

Most boys in my position—or rather, most newly-minted young men—choose to discourse upon a familiar subject, such as the origin of our sacred holidays. But as many of you know, my mother is Lady Trent, the dragon naturalist. As such, I find myself drawn instead to a passage from the Book of Priests, on the impurity of dragon-kind.

My apologies, Magister Broughton. I know that isn’t the topic you and I discussed when I first told you I wanted to have a proper ceremony for my adulthood. But you told me I should look for a topic that speaks to me, and while I told you at the time that was the Sabbath and its obligations, I’ve come to realize this one is much more important to me. In fact—although I know nobody expects a fifteen-year-old boy to do original work in any scholarly field, religious or otherwise—I do have an insight I’m eager to share with everyone today. It may not be an answer, but it should at least leave everyone with interesting new questions.

Scripture has a great deal to say on impurity and unclean creatures. Early in the Book of Priests it declares, “This shall be the law for you unto the last generation, to distinguish between pure and impure, clean and unclean, and that you should teach this to all your children.” Magister Immanuel Drucker, the founder of the Nakhonian tradition, interprets this as a command to all faithful Segulists, but especially to men of a priestly line. My mother, as Magister Broughton has so often reminded me, is born of such a line, and as her firstborn son, certain responsibilities accrue to me—at least as Nakhonian tradition counts such things. Because of that, and because of my mother’s work, I feel a particular obligation to consider these laws closely.

Dragons appear toward the end of the passage that describes which animals are considered pure and impure. In the Revised Samuel translation it says, “These are the animals whose flesh shall not pass your lips, and whose carcasses you shall not touch with any part of your body or any thing belonging to you, because they are unclean; they are an abomination to you, and the khirosh with them.” I’m afraid six months of study isn’t enough to make me fluent in the original Lashon, but I went looking and discovered that most authorities agree the word khirosh refers to the dragon commonly known today as the Akhian desert drake. We call it that because of its modern habitat, but other references to the khirosh make it clear that such creatures were once widespread throughout southern Anthiope. That makes sense: our early Segulist ancestors were most likely to write about the creatures around them.

The question then is whether the unclean status of the khirosh extends to all draconic creatures, or only to the Akhian desert drake. To answer this, we have to consider what the reason is for declaring the khirosh impure. Is it, as Amos ben Osher suggested, because they “crawl on their legs” but also fly? But as Magister Drucker points out, that passage in the Book of Priests refers specifically to insects. Dragons may have six limbs, and sparklings may be small enough that they were once considered insects, but my mother has proved this is not the case. By contrast, Ganix Aritza counts the desert drake among land creatures, because it lairs in caves, and therefore it’s impure because it doesn’t chew the cud or have any hooves at all, cloven or otherwise. (I have to admit I’m not at all convinced by his argument. I was always taught to be rigorous in my thinking, and I don’t think caves are good enough reason to count flying creatures as belonging to the land.) And then Rafal Piotrvich Gomónka says that dragons and other creatures like snakes are unclean because their scaled nature means they belong to the same category as fish, but they don’t have fins or live in the water. Apparently he’s never heard of coral reef snakes, or other species that do live in the water.

I’m familiar with questions like this already because dragon naturalists have similar debates. What counts as a proper dragon, and what doesn’t? Most Anthiopean scholars take their cues from Sir Richard Edgeworth, whose book A Natural History of Dragons lays out six characteristics required for something to be considered a true dragon: four legs, flight-capable wings, a ruff behind the skull, bones that break down after death, egg-laying, and extraordinary breath such as fire or ice or noxious gas. All of that describes an Akhian desert drake very well, and in fact Edgeworth was a devout Segulist, who was probably thinking about the Book of Priests when he put together his list. But he wrote his book on the basis of travelers’ reports and the like: he never saw a living dragon in the flesh, at least not one he would consider to be a true dragon.

Magister Broughton probably approves of that. I haven’t been able to find out whether Edgeworth came from a priestly line, but as the magister has said over and over again since I began attending assembly here, dragons are impure, and touching their dead bodies—as my mother has done many times—defiles a person.

If Sir Richard Edgeworth is right, and if his criteria match what the writers of the Book of Priests intended, then some draconic creatures may be pure. Bulskoi wyverns, for example, have only two legs and fly, so they’re shaped more like birds, and Scripture doesn’t list them among the impure birds. On the other hand, they do have scales, so if the issue is that they’re conceptually related to fish, then they’re unclean.

That doesn’t really solve the problem, though, because there are draconic creatures that don’t have scales. When I traveled around the world with my mother, she studied a quetzalcoatl in Coyahuac, and that has feathers. It doesn’t fly—in fact, it doesn’t even have wings—but drakeflies do. My mother was the first Anthiopean to describe those, when she visited the Moulish jungle. They have six limbs, but it’s four wings and only two legs, and I haven’t been able to find any magister or priest or other Segulist scholar who’s rendered an opinion on where those fit into religious categories. Are they birds? Insects? Dragons? Something else? There is no tradition to guide us.

These are difficult questions to answer because our ancestors who wrote the Book of Priests had never seen a drakefly or a quetzalcoatl or even a wyvern—much less things like the dragon turtle I swam with in Va Hing. They didn’t write down laws for creatures they didn’t know about. And so we have to try to reason out what the Lord intended.

But our ancestors did know about sea-serpents. Those appear in the Book of Creation, on the fifth day: “Therefore the Lord made the great serpents of the sea, and countless living beasts, which swarmed upon the earth and in the waters and through the air, in all their various kinds; and He saw that it was good.” I spent a whole week reading about that, because magisters and priests have been debating for thousands of years what it means to say that the Lord “saw that it was good” when “all their various kinds” presumably includes the impure beasts as well as the pure ones. There are scholars who say the impure beasts were made at a different time, and others who say that “good” and “pure” aren’t the same thing, and so on. I could spend this entire sermon talking about nothing but that, and I still wouldn’t get through it all.

Instead I’m going to point out something else, which is that the molikshim hayam—translated in the Revised Samuel version as “the great serpents of the sea”—also appear in the Book of Trials, as a sign of blessing on Hazael. He touched the head of one, and Scripture tells us again that this was “good in the eyes of the Lord.” Not contaminating at all.

But aren’t sea-serpents dragons?

Part of the reason my mother went on that voyage around the world was to look for an answer to that question. Which Magister Broughton very much disapproves of, because she went to many countries where the people aren’t Segulist, and do things like eat pig meat. It’s true my mother drank a broth made with pig meat—but that was because she was sick, and too delirious to know what she was being fed, and I was too worried she was going to die to ask questions of the doctor, plus I didn’t speak Sengtal—

Sorry. That wasn’t part of what I planned to say today. I got distracted.

The point is that most magisters and other writers have concluded one of two things: either that sea-serpents aren’t dragons and therefore aren’t unclean, or that sea-serpents are dragons and the phrase molikshim hayam should be translated some other way, like “great whales of the sea.” But the word moliksh is etymologically related to the one for “snake,” and the description in the Book of Trials sounds a lot like a sea-serpent. So whales don’t seem very likely.

And sea-serpents are dragons. My mother is sure of it. She may not be a magister—especially since Nakhonian Assembly-Houses like this one don’t allow women to set foot within the house of learning—and she would be the first to agree that she doesn’t know much about Scripture, but she knows dragons better than anyone in the world. And her research in Akhia has uncovered something very interesting.

If I tried to explain developmental lability to you in detail, we would be here all day. I promise I will keep this brief, especially since Magister Broughton has gone to such lengths to impress on me the importance of this moment and my responsibilities as the son of a priestly line, which I have neglected for so long. But ours is a faith that prizes learning and intellectual debate, isn’t it? Developmental lability is something all scholars going forward will need to grapple with—including Magister Broughton.

What it means is that dragons can change. So can all creatures, through evolution—but with dragons it’s faster, and it happens in the egg. The environment they incubate in changes the creature that emerges. Sometimes in bad ways, and they don’t survive, but some of them have good mutations, and they survive and pass those mutations along to their offspring.

I can see some of you are frowning in confusion. Let me put it this way, then: you could take the egg of an Akhian desert drake and, within a few generations, turn its offspring into sea serpents.

You could take an unclean creature and turn it into one the Lord considers a blessing.

Sorry—everyone—excuse me—I’m not done yet. I’m sure you’ll want to have lots of conversations about this afterward. But I would like to finish first, if I may?

The categories of other creatures may be fixed, more or less; I don’t know how long it would take to produce a breed of camel that has a cloven hoof, but it would be a very long time. Longer than Segulism has been around. But draconic species have changed more quickly than that. It’s entirely possible—even likely—that the creature referred to as a khirosh isn’t the same thing as the desert drakes we have today, because the climate of southern Anthiope was different when the Book of Priests was written. And because dragonbone disintegrates after death if you don’t preserve it, we don’t even have a good fossil record to consult to tell us whether they had two legs or four, scales or feathers, or anything else.

What we do know is this: that the defining characteristic of dragons is developmental lability. Sea-serpents have it, and they are good in the eyes of the Lord. And sea-serpents can be turned into other kinds of dragons.

I won’t be here next week, Magister Broughton—nor any week after that—so let me close by addressing a few of the things you’re probably going to say then. I imagine you’ll talk about impurity and how good things can become polluted, like a person can become polluted by touching the carcass of an unclean animal—the way my mother has done many times in the course of her research. But the Book of Priests says that uncleanness only lasts until evening. It doesn’t taint a person forever, even if she’s from a priestly line, much less threaten to taint her son if he doesn’t repudiate her and all her work. I searched, and I couldn’t find anything in Scripture or in the writings of reputable magisters to support that idea.

Also, I think the unique nature of dragons has something very interesting to teach us. The Lord looked upon a creature that is capable of this type of tremendous change, and He saw that it was good. A blessing, even. If I were to go into religious scholarship, I might explore this idea that the Lord approves of change—that He thinks it’s a wonderful thing. Changes like women traveling the world and being natural historians instead of staying home their whole lives to raise children.

Ethan ben Shelah once said, “Tradition is the preservation of fire, not the worship of ashes.” We Magisterial Segulists may not focus our worship on the literal fire of the Temple in Haggad, but the spiritual fire of our faith still burns within us. At least, it does within me.

Thank you, Uncle Matthew and Aunt Bess, for bringing me here and fanning the spark of that faith. And thank you, Magister Broughton, for teaching me so much—even if the lesson I learned wasn’t the one you intended. If you’d like to continue this debate, then you can send your reasoning and references to me, at my mother’s address. I look forward to reading them.

A peaceful Sabbath to you all.

 

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. Her collaborative novel Born to the Blade, written with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, was recently published by Serial Box. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and more than fifty short stories. For more information, visit swantower.com or her Patreon at patreon.com/swan_tower.

 

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