Beowulf and Fire-Breathing Dragons

Picture by John Howe

I am currently reading Gulp: Adventure on the Alimentary Canal, a book by Mary Roach. She also authored my favorite non-fiction book Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. (Reluctant readers love Stiff.)

In Gulp. Roach touches on the possible origins of legends of fire-breathing dragons, which immediately make me think of Beowulf. I love the epic poem.  In grad school we were given the task of translating it in my Old English class. In my Beowulf in Context course, we studied a plethora of sagas and mythic tales that gave us a broader understanding of the text.

TANGENT: The few times I’ve had the opportunity to teach it, I have tried to make the poem as concrete as possible.  I play the Radiohead lyrics of “Climbing Up The Walls” (which is about a serial killer) alongside the first descriptions of Grendel coming through the darkness.  I think it helps the students see the possible interpretations of the evil monster.

NOW WE ARE BACK: I will quote the passage below, but I feel like I need to prep you with the context of the quote first.  Mary Roach has been taking me on a journey from the lips through the digestive tract.  In this chapter we take a break from the colon to talk about gas.  She consults Stephen Secor, of the University of Alabama.  He has done some research on the expulsion of hydrogen gas from snakes as the exhale.  So here is the quoted passage (Roach, 230):

Roll back the calendar back a few mellennia and picture yourself in a hairy outfit, dragging home a python you have hunted.  Hunted is maybe the wrong word. The python was digesting a whole gazelle and was in no condition to fight of flee. You rounded a bend and there it was, Neandrethal turducken. Gazython. The fact that the gazelle is partially decomposed does not bother you. Early man was a scavenger as well as a hunter. He was used to stinking meat And those decamp gases are key to our story. Now I will turn over to Secor.

“So this python is full of gas. You set it down by the campfire because you’re going to eat it. Somebody kicks it or steps on it and all this hydrogen shoots out of its mouth.” Hydrogen, as the you and I of today know but the you and I of the Pleistocene did not know, starts to be flammable at a concentration of 4 percent.And animal at a concentration of about 10 percent. Secor made a flamethrowery whoosh sound. “There’s your fire-breathing serpent. Imagine the stories that would generate. Over a couple thousand years, you’ve got yourself a legend.” He did some digging. The oldest stories of Fire-breathing dragons come from Africa and south China: where the giant snakes are.


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