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Zoology and Mythology: Looking at Angels, Fairies and Dragons

By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 23 November 2011

From a very young age, each of us learns about winged creatures such as angels, dragons and fairies. But how many of us stop to ask exactly how these creatures are able to fly in the first place?

This was precisely the question that Professor Roger Wotton (UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment) sought to answer in his witty, playful lecture, Zoology and Mythology: Looking at Angels, Fairies and Dragons, on 16 November.

Saint George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello

Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the Dragon, about 1470 © The National Gallery

The lecture, as Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research) explained in the introduction, was the 15th Annual Robert Grant Lecture, a series that commemorates Robert Edmond Grant, who was UCL’s (and England’s) first professor of comparative anatomy and gives his name to the Grant Museum of Zoology.

Professor Wotton began by describing Grant’s unorthodox teaching methods, such as illustrating his lectures with his own specimens and giving zoology lectures to arts students and those on comparative anatomy to medical students.

Professor Wotton then adopted a similarly interdisciplinary approach by dedicating a large proportion of his own lecture to examining depictions of angels, fairies and dragons in art in terms of comparative anatomy.

Visual art, he argued, makes supernatural subjects appear real – placing them in familiar landscapes and often surrounding them with human beings – and in many paintings, angels, fairies and dragons are portrayed with naturalistic wings.

However, as a biologist, he felt compelled to pose the following questions: what kinds of wings, how did they arise and how are they used?

Using examples of Renaissance art, he demonstrated that angels have bird’s wings and that, rather than evolving from their forearms, these wings are additional to them and somehow attached to their backs.

Fairies on the other hand have insect wings like those of damselflies or butterflies – as seen in Victorian paintings and the notoriously faked photographs of the Cottingley Fairies.

When exploring representations of dragons, he, again, stayed true to his scientific rigour and used Paolo Uccello’s painting of Saint George and the Dragon to show that there is a distinction between wyverns – reptiles that have wings derived from forelimbs – and true dragons, who have wings in addition to four limbs.

In both cases, their wings resemble those of a bat’s – though quite why those of Uccello’s wyvern have French air force roundels on them, he wasn’t able to say.

Having established the various wing types, he demonstrated categorically that each creature lacked the correct anatomy for flapping flight.

Angels don’t have the all important flight muscles in birds – the Mary Poppins-esque supracoracoideus and pectoralis major that are familiar to anyone who’s ever cooked a chicken breast; dragons are similarly deficient and lack a second pectoral (shoulder) girdle to support their wings; while fairies would need to have a vibrating thorax in order to fly – something that would prove extremely painful and impractical.

Interestingly, he pointed out that there is actually no biblical evidence that angels have wings. In the King James Bible, seraphim are described as having six wings and cherubim seem to be winged as well, but there is no mention that angels have wings, merely that they are able to fly.

So where does the idea of winged angels come from? Angels with bird wings are found in seventh-century works such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Professor Wotton argued that these representations have come from Greek mythology, where Nike, goddess of victory, and Eros, god of love, are depicted with bird wings.

Folklore, he said, has also strongly influenced our ideas about flying beings and gave an entertaining whistle-stop tour through some of the ambiguous meanings assigned to them in English folklore.

So, while angels are usually shown with dove or swan wings, symbolising benevolence, some birds such as owls or nightjars have more complex associations with witchcraft or blood-sucking, and seagulls represent the souls of drowned sailors.

Equally, while we would expect the wicked reputations of dragons to be related to their bat wings, it was much more surprising to learn that butterflies are bad omens in folklore, so fairies are perhaps not as demure and feminine as we might first think and Victorian paintings imply.

Professor Wotton concluded his lecture by addressing the question of why we envisage that these creatures have the ability to fly – arguing that it seems to address an innate human need.

In particular, he suggested that these winged creatures extend our memories of flight from dreams, hallucinations and near-death experiences.

Whatever the cause of it may be, this psychological need is deep-rooted and evident in Charles Bonnet Syndrome, where people who have recently become visually-impaired see images of flying creatures, and in people experiencing acid trips, who feel a sense of being empowered to fly – often with lethal consequences.

Ben Stevens is Content Producer (Editor) in UCL Communications & Marketing.

Watch Professor Wotton talk on this subject in a Lunch Hour Lecture from last year on YouTube.

2 Responses to “Zoology and Mythology: Looking at Angels, Fairies and Dragons”

  • 1
    Graziella Morace wrote on 25 November 2011:

    Dear Ben Stevens,
    thank you very much for this report of Prof.Wottons’ lecture! I had the information about it, but I could not come, as I live in Rome, Italy. I was curious to know the content of the lecture and from your report I could know it.
    It was a pity not to be present!
    Kind regards,

  • 2
    Symbolseeker wrote on 26 November 2011:

    It is true that symbols depicting mythological and magical beasts do not follow the rules of science and anatomy. These symbols have a long and prestigious past, one that carries with it pieces of human history preserved in folklore, fairy tales, and mythology – oral traditions that depend on the memorable nature of the characters and stories to survive time. After decades of researching (comparative symbology) I have been able to place these symbols in proper historic context and decode some of the origins of these fantastic creatures. http://www.whiteknightstudio.com

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