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dragon-kites-art - 10/9/11


"A Dragon (Serpent) by Any Other Name" by Lord Archer MacRobert.


NOTE: See also the files: medievl-kites-art, Medievl-Kites-bib, paper-msg, medieval-tech-msg, p-cameras-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



A Dragon (Serpent) by Any Other Name

By Lord Archer MacRobert


The serpent kite is a pleasing kite to see in the sky. With its undulating movement the kite easily evokes images of a moving snake. As with many kites, the exact history of the serpent kite is unknown, and the casual statement “this is an old kite” is often heard. It is known that the earliest kites were made in the shape of animals and plants, so it isn't far fetched to presume the serpent is an old design.


The kite's shape is known by many Asian cultures. Examples of it exist in China, Thailand, Cambodia, and medieval Europe.


kiteModern serpent


Still, consider how Asian areas venerate dragons and other reptiles: In Thai culture, the snake, also called naga, represents the spirit of the snake and dragon, and it symbolizes longevity. The known history of kites in Thailand is centuries old. The first Thai sovereign state was founded at Sukhothai early in the 13th century, and one of its first leaders, possibly Phra Ruang or Sri Intratit, was a kite enthusiast. Surviving chronicles note that Ngao kites were a feature of a ceremony known as Mang, which was conducted by Brahmins priests who still conduct royal rites.


“The Ngao were similar to the Chula kites we know today except they were equipped with a humming bow in the nose. Although only this type is mentioned in surviving chronicles it is certain that other kinds of kite would have been flown during the Sukhothai period. This is a safe assumption as trade with China flourished in the 13th century and the Chinese would have brought paper to Sukhothai and, most likely, various forms of picture kites. Along with paper, it can be presumed that other kite shapes came to Thailand as well.



Ninth century Psalterium aureum showing a draco


According to Sim Sarak and Cheang Yarin, authors of Khmer Kites, a book about Cambodian kites and their history, the Khmer were flying kites by 400 B.C. (approximately the same time as the Chinese are presumed to have invented kites) Kites were flown during the harvest season. The Khmer fly a variety of kites that are too numerous to mention here.


About the same time the Chinese invented paper (ca. 100 A.D.), the Dacians of the Carpathian mountain regions, carried a windsock banner, called a draco (dragon in English), to war. About 200 years later, the Romans carried dracos during their battles. Over the next several hundred years, somehow, the draco was brought west.“ The continuity of the draco can be traced through its appearance in the Psalterium aureum, in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in the Chanson de Roland, where it is attributed to the pagans, in contrast to the flat banner of the Christians. In 1066 William invaded England to claim its throne. The event was immortalized on the Bayeux Tapestry. On the tapestry, a soldier is displayed holding a windsock banner. The Tartars are also known to have carried windsock banners in 1241 at the Battle of Wahlstatt. Less than 100 years later, Walter de Milemete's De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis Regum, included an unfinished illumination of a dragon kite. It is the earliest known illustration of a European kite. The drawing shows two men-at-arms holding the line on one page, and the kite flying over a city on the previous page. Hanging beneath the kite is what appears to be a burning explosive.


Still later, are two kites that Hart references. One is Konrad Kyeser's Bellifortis (1405 A.D.), it is our serpent kite. The other came a generation later with an anonymously written book on fireworks, the Vienna codex 3064. The codex has been dated ca. 1430.


“This illustration is intended to accompany a ten-line text written, like most of Bellifortis, in bad Latin hexameters. The text describes the structure and mode of flight: 'This flying dragon may be made with parchment for the head, the middle of linen, but the tail of silk, the colours various. At the end of he head let a triple harness [bridle] be attached to the wood, moved by the middle of the flail [-shaped reel]. Let the head be raised into the wind, and when it has been lifted two men may hold the head while a third carries the reel. It follows him while he rides [or, 'he follows it as he rides']. The movement of the line causes the flight to vary up and down, to right and left. Let the head be coloured red and made to look real, the middle should be moon-silver colour, the end of several colours.'”


Hart notes that Bellifortis' description is not a three-dimensional object, but it is very similar to the other kite described 25 years later in the Vienna codex 3064, a fireworks book that was written anonymously. Hart continues there is confusion

Kyeser's work. Kyeser describes a flat-shaped kite, while illustrations depict a three-dimensional object. Hart says this was common, as the intents of both writers and illustrators often clashed.



Bayeaux Tapestry man-at-arms with a draco


In the codex, the anonymous author gives a lengthy and detailed description of a plane-surface type kite. The writer was clearly a kite flier, as he gives instructions on how to construct, fly (and land!) the kite.

The codex author wrote:

Draco from Kyesers Bellifortis ca. 1405


“How you can make an artificial kite and how to handle it so that it hovers in the air and moves as if it were alive.


Take a piece of silk cloth of read, green, or other colour; alternatively the cloth may be of mixed colours, like a snake if you wish (my emphasis). The red colour, however, stands out much the best when it is seen in the air, and especially against the sun, as though it were something fiery. Or again you may take or prepare gilt cloth, so that it is bright and fiery. But in any case let it be of very lightweight cloth.


And have the kite cut out of the cloth and shaped according to the design of the figure drawn opposite, so constructed that it have a head made of a sheet of parchment which is fine but nevertheless strong enough to keep the face stiff. And the head should be of the same size as a broad sheet of parchment; the total length of the body behind the head, together with the tail, should be eleven ells; and the body at the sheet which forms the head should be as wide as the head; and in the middle, at the sides, there should be placed something billowing or wing-like, so that it have a dragon-like appearance. It is especially advisable, if the kite is to be exactly right, to make an incision two or three ells in lengths from the head down the middle of the back, and to sew in to the middle of it a piece of silk cloth a span and a half wide, more or less, and pointed at both ends like the [lower end of the] kite itself. Then, if the wind strikes it, it fills out in the manner of a sail and flies up more lightly in to the wind and takes on the shape of a raised body or back, which makes it much better and more lifelike, as you find in the figure given here.


[These and other details are not, in fact in the illustration.]


Nevertheless, if you do not make this insertion it will be quite adequate. And when the body has been made in this way, have the head painted with a striking dragon-like face on the parchment sheet, which should be kept quite bright and shiny by the use of light colours. And then sew the head on to the body and at each corner of the parchment make two or three little loops formed of three or four strands of thread, and let both sides of the head-sheet, where the loops are attached, be strengthened with little patches of parchment, so that the loops will be cut through it less. And then obtain small batons which have been cut and split from good new tough fir sticks, so as to be one finger broad and half as thick as a rye-stalk [?]. Place the batons crosswise over one another on the head and fix them in the loops so that in the middle they are bowed out form the face to a distance of two fingers' breadth; and at the middle of the cross they may be bound with another loop as a protection against the wind, as you find drawn in the picture. If the wind is very strong, and you think the head may bend too much and the batons weak, you may place another baton outside the kite, over the head-also [? held by] a loop-and across all this one [baton], or as many as my be needed, over the skull, from the middle of the head where it meets the back, as far as to the forehead. If the wind is still stronger, you make this baton thicker. Or if it is very strong indeed you may place a stick of a finger's breadth over the skull, from the back to the forehead, as stated before. After that you should make three loops between the eyes, from the forehead down to the nose, as is shown here. And push the string, from which you wish to fly the kite, through one or the other of them and tie it to the third, that is, the lowest, as you also find drawn. However, if the wind is too strong, put the string through the top-most and wind it around the middle one. If the wind is yet stronger, wind it on to the top one alone. If it is still too strong, however, place the thick stick over its head, as described before, and tie the string to the stick at the top of the forehead and let it fly as it will.



Pennon kite from Vienna Codex 3064 ca. 1430


The description, which includes tips on flying and landing the kite continue. Hart notes again written and illustrated descriptions conflict. He says and it's most likely that Kyeser intended a three-point bridle in his kite. The codex bridling are variations of two-points using the strength of the wind to determine which of three holes to use.


Hart is familiar with only two other representations of medieval kites that are similar to Vienna codex kite: the Milemete kite (1326), and a military standard shown in a Russian icon from the fourteenth century. The icon image is probably a pennon kite, according to Hart. The icon is from St. Nicholas' Church in Nizhni-Novgorod, and celebrates a battle between the Novgorodians and the invading Suzdalians. It's shape if is a kite – adds credence to the supposition that such kites were of eastern origin.


Our Project Kite


Our project kite is an eastern design, and is constructed of paper, bamboo and string. Four pieces of bamboo are needed for the “bones” or frame of the head. The paper used here is very lightweight but stronger than tissue paper. Mine came from a print shop, as the protective paper placed between unused aluminum printing plates. Each sheet is approximately 12-inches wide and 18-inches long. The intended size of the kite determines the number of sheets used. Twelve sheets of paper were used in the construction of my kite.






1. Four pieces of bamboo (3x 17-inches, 1x 38-inches). All lengths are slightly long the extra will make binding pieces together easier and it can be trimmed before the paper cover is attached. My bamboo came from an old tikki-torch split into narrow strips.

2. Twelve sheets of 12x18-inch paper

3. Thread or string. Cotton string was used.




1. A sharp knife, or a small hand plane (the hand plane is very useful at shaving bamboo to shape).

2. Scissors for cutting the paper and thread/string

3. Glue to connect paper together. I used white glue for ease of use and cleanup.

4. A pencil and a large needle

5. ruler or tape measure




1. Shape the bamboo, by shaving it down to strips approximately 3/16-inch wide, leaving the exterior layer/skin untouched. Growth nodules are removed to let bamboo pieces flex evenly in flight. The bamboo is shaped/thinned by shaving/trimming the inside portions of the bamboo. The longest piece must bend symmetrically.

2. Once pieces are shaped, the frame will be tied together with the string. One of the 17- inch pieces will be the spine, with the remaining short pieces being the ribs.

3. After tying the three smaller pieces together, tie the longer piece to them as shown in the picture.

4. Glue the knots to strengthen the frame.




1.              Six pieces were glued in pairs, side-by-side.  Those pairs were then glued together length-wise for the head the tail near the head.

2.              Glue the other six sheets in-line for the remainder of the tail.

3.              Determine the “top” and “bottom” of the now glued together pairs. Measuring across the “bottom” of the paper, find the center of the width, and mark the center with a pencil. The bam- boo spine will eventually be glued there when joining the frame and paper.

4.              Glue the “tail” pieces to the bottom of the joined pairs. Once the glue has dried sufficiently, lay the cover on a flat surface such as the floor. Using thread you will determine the shape of the tail. Lay string from the bottom of the “head” portion of the cover to the center of the tail, making a stretched triangle. Lay weights to hold the string in place, and trace along the string to create the tail shape. Cut off the excess paper with the scissors.

5.              Decorate the kite. Decorating the cover is easier while the paper is still separate from the frame. I used watered-down acrylic paints on mine after drawing on the pattern.




1. Taking your dried bamboo frame, trim off the excess bamboo.

2. Lay the cover face down and place the bamboo upon it so the outside face” of the spine will lay against the paper.

3. With your pencil, mark where the bamboo will be glued.

4. Apply white glue to the edge of the bamboo that will be laid against the paper. Place the bamboo on the paper and let dry.


Bridling the kite


1. Measure off a piece of string about two to three-times the diagonal length of the frame.

2. Using the needle make holes adjacent to the spine where it and the ribs intersect. Push the string through the holes and tie ends to the spine.




http://www.dancingfrog.net/thailand2002/spaulding.html">http://www.dancingfrog.net/thailand2002/spaulding.html website on Thailand kite history.


Kites, an historical survey. Clive Hart, Revised/expanded second ed. ©1982, Paul P. Appel, Mount Vernon, NY


The Penguin Book of Kites. David Pelham, ©1976, Viking Penguin Books, NY, NY.



Copyright 2011 by Mike Wilson, 124 N. Second, Osborne, KS 67473. <kitearcher at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org