Updated: Jan 15, 2021
Written by Sharon Khalifa-gueta
Keywords: Game of Thrones, women, dragons, the motif of “the woman and the dragon”
Daenerys Targaryen’s metamorphosis into the mother of dragons at the end of season one of Game of Thrones unites her with ancient Great Goddesses and dangerous feminine figures all at once. It is a magnetic scene where women feel elevation – but why?
In the last episode of the first season of the popular series Game of Thrones, which followed George R. R. Martin’s book A Song of Ice and Fire, Daenerys Targaryen, goes through a metamorphosis. Her beloved husband Khal Drogo has passed away, while she, in a desperate attempt to save him, lost her unborn baby. His wedding gift to Daenerys – three ancient dragon-eggs, are placed on his pyre, and the witch who failed to save him is screaming in the background, being burned alive. Suddenly, Daenerys walks into the fire as if longing to die with her lost husband. When the fire dies, we are surprised to discover that Daenerys possesses her ancestors’ powers and was not harmed by the fire. Even more surprising is the miraculous hatching of three baby dragons from the eggs; revived by this fire and her intervention (figure 1).
Figure 1 – The birth of the dragons, Game of Thrones (season 1: chapter 10), HBO Production (June 19, 2011).
At this moment, Daenerys is transformed from the traditional maiden sold into marriage, a foreign wife, a descendant of a lost civilization, into “Mother of dragons” and a ruler in her own right, whom the Dothraki tribe bows to. The addition of three tiny dragons throws her crowd and the viewers into a structure of power and domination that completely changes her character and our attitude towards her. This scene upholds a concept of women’s power imprinted in the motif of “the woman and the dragon” which goes back millennia.
The History of the Motif of the Woman with the Dragon
In her chapter “Woman with Dragon: Daenerys, Pride, and Postfeminist Possibilities” film scholar Rikke Schubart sees the transformation moment as the trial of Daenerys’s character. She also writes that “Martin’s novel is, as far as [she] knows, the first text to establish a positive relation between a heroine and dragons”. However, there are in fact numerous of positive representations in ancient and medieval art of women with dragons. In my work I analyze images of women with dragons from the Greco-Roman and Egyptian eras to the Early Modern era, where in almost all women and dragon encounters are positive, and there are hundreds of them. Dragons, which originated from serpents, were not perceived as evil in antiquity, yet male mythological characters usually find themselves in combat with them. When transforming the sentence “man and dragon” into “woman and dragon” a different meaning emerges; women do not fight dragons! Women communicate, collaborate, strive to union, and are assimilated to dragons, some of them are fused with dragons. But the core of their interaction is a holy scenario (figure 2).
Figure 2 - The Goddess Hygieia Feeding the Holy Dragon, Roman marble statue,
copy of a Greek statue of the 3ed century BC, Hermitage Museum,
Sant-Peterburg (1st century AD).
I examined the images of women such as Andromeda, Medusa, the Pythia (Apollo’s temple at Delphi priestess), Medea, the Hesperides, the Furies, Eve, Lilith, Saint Margaret, and more. Goddesses such as Athena, Demeter, Wadjet, Hathor, Hygieia, and Gaia also have positive relationships with dragons. There were several goddesses who were mothers of dragons, and riding the dragon is a constant formula to present female power related to fertility. Women were constantly associated with and allegorized as dragons, as both posed as adversaries to men.
Images such as Medea and Saint Margaret were embedded with both positive and negative meanings. This ability to represent a sophisticated meaning in one image is what modern artists of fantastic art inherited when re-formulating the motif of “the women and the dragon.” The motif has positive aspects of holiness, rejuvenation, protection, healing, and associations to great goddesses and, at the same time, has negative aspects such as being witches, murderous, temptresses, and emotionally uncontrolled women.
The modern images of women and dragons are invested with these ideas but are also reacting to a changing attitude toward women in the twentieth century. The neo-classicist artist of the fantastic who drew inspiration from ancient and Early Modern artistic traditions also pondered the meaning of the motif. Paintings of women with dragons from the 60’s and until today, such as Boris Vallejo’s Flight of the Dragons (figure 3), Julie Bell’s Golden Lover (figure 4), Rowena Morrill’s Vision Tarot (figure 5), among others, show women erotically posed with dragons, collaborating with them, hybridize with them, but rarely fighting them.
Figure 3 – Boris Vallejo, Flight of the Dragons, oil on canvas, 1970s.
Figure 4 – Julie Bell, Golden Lover, oil on canvas, 1992.
Figure 5 – Rowena Morrill, Vision Tarot, oil on canvas (1970-1990)
The Union Between a Woman and a Dragon
The erotic tension between woman and dragon and the holy union of them was transmitted in the motif’s image from antiquity to today. The modern images that depict the motif have meanings that elevate women. Their union with the dragon re-claims women’s source of strength, it recognizes their wisdom, and it reconnects them to elevated knowledge. Women’s union with dragons is thus a symbol of power. The dragon is the guardian of a sacred object or location, hence the female body is transformed into a sacred object in modern paintings. The woman’s body becomes the forbidden fruit, enjoyable to the eye but forbidden to touch without permission.
When Martin wrote Song of Ice and Fire, he was familiar with the tradition of this motif. Although a consensus has been established among fantastic writers that the Medieval period is the reference of this genre, almost all fantastic literature depicts women in a different manner than they are historically documented to be at the Medieval period. Fantastic women are differentiated from Medieval women in many ways; they are active, opinionated, free to move outdoors, and are not looked down on as ignorant and replaceable wombs, all atypical to women during the Middle Ages. Martin’s description of Daenerys as her brother’s property to be sold is nonetheless accurate to Medieval and Early Modern state of mind in Europe. Nonetheless her transformation breaks the boundaries of patriarchal social structure, because not being harmed by fire and being united with dragons elevates her to a goddess’ or saint’s level.
The naked Daenerys with dragons continues a long tradition of fantastic art iconography of erotic women reclaiming their power and reuniting with the dragon, a symbol of Great Goddesses. The scene with Daenerys shows respect for the female body and elevates her figure to the level of a goddess. At the same time this image challenges the stereotype of a woman in power as a threat to the patriarchal order in Westeros. In the HBO series, the Dothraki bow to Daenerys, proving that this iconography places her outside the patriarchal order they grew up in. The motif of a woman with dragons is a power figure with long symbolic roots that both the author and the showrunners knew as something that affect the audience and is connected to a mental concept of something so powerful that it should be bowed to.
The iconology of the scene presents one small dragon in Daenerys’s arms, one on her shoulders and the third dragon climbing up her thigh. Although she is naked, she is covered in ashes, and her upright pose is not erotic; she does not initiate desire and titillation. Even though she looks fragile and her dragons are tiny, she is transformed into a power figure. She is a Phoenix rising from the ashes to reclaim its golden glory. The tiny dragons are a paradox; they can harm no one, they pose danger to no one, yet they generate transformation into a power structure, which occurs in the mind of the viewer. Daenerys materialized her inner self outside, like a fertility goddess or rather, the mother of a God, giving birth to a being that was assumed to have vanished from the world.
Daenerys’s metamorphosis scene is an example of the motif of “the woman and the dragon” and reveals how deeply rooted and coded with meanings of divine power, and danger, this motif is.
To conclude, the codified structure of the motif of “the woman and the dragon” refers to the connection between women and their inner power; a well-known meaning in antiquity that have endured into our time. Women have the power to rise from ashes like the Phoenix, and to restore past glory. The motif offers hope that it is in our power to restore the world, if we will wisely reconnect to our genesis powers withing. Furthermore, Daenerys’s image suggests not to be afraid of the power of the dragon within but to learn to communicate with it.
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Bynum, Caroline W. (1987) Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Carroll, Shiloh (2018) Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. DS Brewer, Woodbridge, UK.
Dinshaw, Carolyn, and David Wallace (2003) The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Kessler, Herbert L. (2009) “Christ the Magic Dragon,” in “Making Thoughts, Making Pictures, Making Memories: A Special Issue in Honor of Mary J. Carruthers,” special issue, Gesta, 48/2, pp. 119–34.
Khalifa-Gueta, Sharon., “The Dragon and Femininity in Saint Margaret Paintings by Raphael and Titian,” PhD, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2020).
Palumbo, Donald (ed. 1986) Eros in the Mind’s Eye: Sexuality and the Fantastic in Art and Film, Greenwood, New York.
Schubart, Rikke (2016) “Woman with Dragon: Daenerys, Pride, and Postfeminist Possibilities,” in Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (eds) Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones and Multiple Media Engagements, Bloomsbury Academic, New York.
Flight of the Dragons, copyright Boris Vallejo, 2021
Caduceus, copyright Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, 2021
Leap, copyright Julie Bell, 2021