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Angels, putti, dragons and fairies: believing the impossible

Publication date: Dec 23, 2009 11:34:47 AM

Professor Roger Wotton, UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment, uses sources from folklore and the Bible to explore the deep-rooted human need to portray figures of religious and mythological significance as having the ability to fly and examine how these images have been created in a new paper published in Opticon1826.

Professor Wotton highlights how angels, putti, dragons and fairies are shown in representational arts as having wings and thus the power of flight. Paintings, sculptures and cartoon films then place these flying beings in situations or landscapes that make them more real to us. Professor Wotton highlights how angels and putti have bird-like wings, fairies have wings like those of damselflies or butterflies, and dragons have wings that resemble those of bats.

He says: "With few exceptions, the wings are present in addition to fore-limbs, so their origin is puzzling. Even more puzzling is the flight mechanism which requires powerful muscles to allow flapping together with a lightening of the body to reduce the force needed to remain airborne. However, there is little sign of lightening in angels, fairies or dragons, and putti all seem to be carrying excess weight. Clearly none can fly.

"Why do we need these images? Clearly, they provide a link to other worlds and the ability to receive messages from these places. This has religious significance and overcomes our feeling of being alone. Making the images attractive and human (angels, putti and fairies) or grotesque and reptilian (dragons) adds to the notion of these other worlds being good or evil."

Professor Wotton argues that myths based on flying could stem from out-of-body experiences that may occur near death, or when conditions are conducive to hallucination, possibly induced by drugs, fear, exhaustion, rapid breathing, sensory deprivation or by combinations of these. "Many of us have also had dreams where we are able to fly; these dreams are interpreted by Jungian analysts to mean liberation. As flying dreams are usually pleasant, it is a short link to associate them with a world of good spirits, especially in the state of half-wakefulness during which such dreams are most clearly recalled. It is then only one further step to associate these feelings with those of other-worldly significance.

He concludes: "The question then arises as to why we accept images of winged putti, dragons and fairies when they are impossible and obviously stem from the artists’ imaginations. There must be very few who still believe in these images, although there was a much greater belief in earlier times when mythical views were more apparent. But what of angels? Their religious origin brings a much stronger hold and they exist for followers of the Judaeo-Christian religions. It is unclear, however, how many actually believe representations in works of art to be accurate. Some probably do."

Note for Editors

Professor Wotton’s paper "Angels, putti, dragons and fairies: believing the impossible" can be found online at