This is one of the more peculiar 'stories' from the Bible's Book of Revelation:
Verses taken from Chapter 12 verses 1-9 and 13-17 and Chapter 20 verses 1-3
A great sign was seen in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
And another sign was seen in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads.
His tail dragged a third of the stars from heaven and threw them to the earth; and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her child as soon as it was born.
And she gave birth to a son, a male, who was to lead all nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.
Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that she might be nourished there for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, and their place was no longer found in heaven.
So the great dragon was cast down, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who leads the whole world astray; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast down with him.
When the dragon saw that he was cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle so she could fly into the wilderness, to her own place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, away from the face of the serpent.
So the serpent cast water out of his mouth like a river after the woman, to cause her to be carried away by the torrent. But the earth helped the woman; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the river that the dragon had cast out of his mouth.
And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to wage war against the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, who had the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
And he cast him into the abyss and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he could not lead the nations astray any longer, until the thousand years were finished.
This story is hard to reconcile with both its immediate and its wider context.
- If it refers to the events of the 'end-time' and the coming of the Beast, then it seems difficult to reconcile the course of events told here with the account, also in the Book of Revelation of the coming of the Antichrist and the events which herald him.
- The alternative seems to be that this is a retelling of the myth of the Fall, in which case it seems to provide an alternative account to the Book of Genesis.
- Emanuel Swedenborg provides a third possibility in Apocalypse Explained and Apocalypse Revealed - he suggests that the story is a metaphor for a future struggle for the heart of the Christian church - the coming of an amazing new knowledge and understanding (the woman clothed with the sun) of God and spirituality, and a struggle by dark forces (the great red dragon) to seize that knowledge for personal gain.
- A fourth possibility, of course, is that John of Patmos, also known as St. John the Divine, had ingested some very interesting psychedelic herbs and was, as he might have said in a different century, just "calling 'em as I see 'em."
Also: The name of two pen and watercolour pictures painted by William Blake c.1805, inspired by the abovementioned story.
The pictures both depict an anthropomorphic dragon, muscular and masculine, and a woman with fiery blonde hair and yellow robes. The dragon is given most of the demonic attributes of Satan, for example horns, a tail and wings (but, curiously, not cloven feet), and the woman is depicted as an angel (in the second picture she is given golden wings).
The pictures can be seen at:
- ('the devil is coming down') http://www.apocalyptic-theories.com/gallery/womanandbeast/blakedragon2.html
Both pictures are dominated by darkness and the colours of fire - red, orange and yellow. In the first, the dragon is standing above the woman, who is lying on the ground, and in the second he is flying above her. In both there is the sense of immense power and dynamism from the form of the Dragon, and great vulnerability and feeling from the Woman, a polarity which gives great sexual tension as well as religious intensity to the images.
The first picture was used by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, the first of his 'Hannibal Lecter' trilogy, out of which the film Manhunter was made. The killer in Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde, is obsessed with the picture, tattooing himself to look like the Great Red Dragon and becoming 'possessed' by the Dragon's spirit when he kills.
Personal note: I'm fascinated by this strange progression of the image through works of art in different eras. The process is made unusually clear by which a potent image from the visions of one person can transmit itself through creative minds across time and space, forming new connections and associations on the way, yet somehow always retaining its essential characteristics.