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Ancient Faith and Fable

The Winged Dragon.[1]

In order to be successful in their efforts to govern the multitude, rulers have endeavored to instill all the visionary notions possible into the minds of their subjects.

The good people who read Virgil, or the Provincial Letters, do not know that there are twenty times more copies of the Almanac of Lige and of the Courier Boiteux printed, than of all the ancient and modern books together. No one can have a greater admiration than myself for the illustrious authors of these Almanacs and their brethren. I know that ever since the time of the ancient Chaldeans there have been fixed and stated days for taking physic, paring our nails, giving battle, and cleaving wood. I know that the best part of the revenue of an illustrious academy consists in the sale of these Almanacs. May I presume to ask, with all possible submission, and a becoming diffidence of my own judgment, what harm it would do to the world if some powerful astrologer were to assure the peasants and the good inhabitants of little villages that they might safely pare their nails when they please, provided it be done with a good intention? The people, I shall be told, would not buy the Almanacs of this new astrologer. On the contrary, I will venture to affirm, that there would be found among your great geniuses many who would make a merit in following this novelty. Should it be alleged, however, that these geniuses, in their new born zeal, would form factions and kindle a civil war, I would have nothing farther to say on the subject, but readily give up for the sake of peace my too radical and dangerous opinion.

Every body knows the king of Boutan. He is one of the greatest princes in the universe. He tramples under his feet the thrones of the earth; and his shoes (if he has any) are provided with sceptres instead of buckles. He adores the devil, as is well known, and his example is followed by all his courtiers. He one day sent for a famous sculptor of my country, and ordered him to make a beautiful statue of Beelzebub. The sculptor succeeded admirably. Never before was there seen such an interesting and handsome devil. But, unhappily, our Praxiteles had only given five clutches to his statue, whereas the devout Boutaniers always gave him six. This serious blunder of the artist was aggravated by the grand master of ceremonies to the devil with all the zeal of a man justly jealous of his master's acknowledged rights, and also of the established and sacred customs of the kingdom of Boutan. He insisted that the sculptor should be punished for his thoughtless innovation by the loss of his head. The anxious sculptor explained that his five clutches were exactly equal in weight to six ordinary clutches; and the king of Boutan, who was a prince of great clemency, granted him a pardon. From that time the people of Boutan no longer believed the dogma relating to the devil's six clutches.

The same day it was thought necessary that his majesty should be bled, and a surgeon of Gascony, who had come to his court in a ship belonging to our East India Company, was appointed to take from him five ounces of his precious blood. The astrologer of that quarter cried out that the king would be in danger of losing his life if the surgeon opened a vein while the heavens were in their present state. The Gascon might have told him that the only question was about the king's health; but he prudently waited a few moments and then, taking an Almanac in his hand, thus addressed the astrologer.

"You was in the right, great man! The king would have died held he been bled at the instant you mentioned; but the heavens have since changed their aspect, and now is the favorable moment."

The astrologer assented to the surgeon's observation. The king was cured; and by degrees it became an established custom among the Boutaniers to bleed their kings whenever it was considered necessary.

Although the Indian astronomers understood the method of calculating eclipses, yet the common people obstinately held to the old belief that the sun, when obscured, had fallen into the throat of a great dragon, and that the only way to free him from thence was by standing naked in the water and making a hideous noise to frighten away the monster, and oblige him to release his hold.[2] This notion, which is quite prevalent among the orientals, is an evident proof how much the symbols of religion and natural philosophy have at all times been perverted by the common people. The astronomers of all ages have been wont to distinguish the two points of intersection, upon which every eclipse happens, and which are called the Lunar Nodes, by marking them with a dragon's head and tail. Now the vulgar, who are equally ignorant in every part of the world, took the symbol or sign for the thing itself. Thus, when the astronomers said the sun is in the dragon's head, the common people said the dragon is going to swallow up the sun; and yet these people were remarkable for their fondness for astrology. But while we laugh at the ignorance and credulity of the Indians, we do not reflect that there are no less than 300,000 Almanacs sold yearly in Europe, all of them filled with observations and predictions equally as false and absurd as any to be met with among the Indians. It is surely as reasonable to say that the sun is in the mouth or the claws of a dragon, as to tell people every year in print that they must not sow, nor plant, nor take physic, nor be bled, but on certain days of the moon. It is high time, in an age like ours, that some men of learning should think it worth their while to compose a calendar that might be of use to the industrious classes by instructing instead of deceiving them.

A blustering Dominican at Rome said to an English philosopher with whom he was disputing:

"You are a dog; you say that it is the earth that turns round, never reflecting that Joshua made the sun to stand still!"

"Well! my reverend father," replied the philosopher, "ever since that time hath not the sun been immovable?"

The dog and the Dominican embraced each other, and even the devout Italians were at length convinced that the earth turns round.

An augur and a senator lamented, in the time of Csar, the declining state of the republic.

"The times, indeed, are very bad," said the senator, "we have reason to tremble for the liberty of Rome."

"Ah!" said the augur, "that is not the greatest evil; the people now begin to lose the respect which they formerly had for our order. We seem barely to be tolerated—we cease to be necessary. Some generals have the assurance to give battle without consulting us. And, to complete our misfortunes, even those who sell us the sacred pullets begin to reason."

"Well, and why don't you reason likewise?" replied the senator, "and since the dealers in pullets in the time of Csar are more knowing than they were in the time of Numa, ought not you modern augurs to be better philosophers than those who lived in former ages?"

[1] This dragon was of the same species, Draco Volans, as the savage reptile slain by St. George, the patron saint of England, or the sleepless dragon at Colchis, from which Jason rescued the golden fleece. The bible history abounds with allusions to dragons, and with prophecies of their coming exploits in the stellar spheres. These marvels may be considered, however, as more strange than credible, and more ancient than authentic—E.

[2] In Rev. XII: 3, 4, the Dragon is represented as deftly seizing one-third of the stars of heaven with his tail, and rudely wresting them in dire confusion from the celestial spheres.—E.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire