BOOK TALK: Dragons

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.

JRR Tolkein

Dragons or large serpent-like creatures are so common in mythology and folklore that we should suspect that there are some grains of truth behind them that we have lost sight of – something more than just imagination and fairy stories. Modern dragon lore is mainly fantasy – few of the people who write about them have ever encountered even one little dragon. Apart from occasional tales of sea serpents no reliable reports of dragon sightings have reached Euroamerica in the past eight hundred years, but early in the seventeenth century some European naturalists were still writing about them as if they were common knowledge.

Dragon Festival During Nighttime

Apart from the Jungian interpretations there are several academic theories about the origin of dragon myths but they do not really explain very much. In fact most of them are pure pseudoscience – speculations that are impossible to prove or disprove – which is a feature they have in common with an even greater number of non-academic theories.

The problem for non-Jungians is that whatever explanations they attempt must be limited to a one-level materialistic cosmology – that is the scientific paradigm – and dragons do not fit well into that structure. With that restriction, the difficulties center on the fact that there is a lot of similarity in the stories – some aspects of dragons or dragon-like creatures are the same wherever the stories occur – but there are also a lot of local variations. For example, the dragons of the three adjacent islands of Java, Bali and Borneo differ in form and in their roles in the respective cultures, but all are quite clearly dragons.

White Dragon Statue

It helps to reduce the confusion if we emphasise the distinction between mythology, mysticism and fantasy. The symbol of the Ouroborus, for example – a dragon with its tail in its mouth – occurs in Egypt from around 1600 BCE, and from further south in Africa and from Australia from even more ancient times. It also occurs in alchemy and esoteric traditions. It has a huge number of mystical interpretations including the life force of the universe, the world soul, eternity, everlastingness, the cycle of the seasons, primal unity, and many other types of cycles and renewals. In Norse mythology, Ouroborus appears as the giant serpent Jörmungandr, and in some Toltec and Aztec images Quetzalcoatl is sometimes shown as an Ouroboros, though he is more commonly represented by an Amphiptere – a winged serpent. The Ouroborus has always been just a mystic symbol – nobody has ever suggested that it corresponds to an actual animal – so we can ignore it and the many symbolic variants.

For the same reason we can ignore the Naga – in the oldest versions usually shown as a serpent with the head and upper torso of a human, or in Buddhist iconography as a multiple-headed variety of serpent or dragon. Again, these are primarily mystical symbols rather than mythical creatures. One unusual variant discovered in Veracruz, Mexico, has seven serpent heads attached to a human body – but again it is very obviously a spiritual symbol.

We also ignore fantasy creatures such as the Amphisbaena, which has two heads, one in the usual position and the other at the end of its tail. Stories of the amphisbaena may have originated in Africa but they were embroidered and made into fantasies by medieval European writers of bestiaries.

Dragons are the most noble of all animals, and being thus only slightly below the level of human beings they tend to be judged by human standards. Consequently, there are good and bad ones among them. Like humans also, stupid dragons tend not to prosper, so dragon intelligence generally ranges from ‘cunning’ at the lower end of the ethical scale, to ‘wise’ at the higher end.

The main division of dragon-kind is between European and Asian species. There are also several other kinds such as sea serpents and several poorly documented types in the Americas and Africa. Quetzalcoatl, in Mesoamerica, is represented as the Feathered Serpent. All Earth-bound dragons have scales, and dragons that do not have scales can usually fly.

Black Dragon Statue Near Brown Building

Since dragons are also forces of nature, the relationship between humans and dragons depends largely on the attitude of the humans. If humans try to live in harmony with nature, in the Daoist fashion, then Asian dragons are generally benevolent, but Nile-Oxus and European dragons are considered malevolent since the habit in those regions has been to destroy anything that cannot be dominated, and dragons were therefore considered to be evil because they fought back.

The stories about dragons reflect this difference of attitudes. Since all stories about dragons were written by humans, rather than by dragons, in the European stories humans are given the heroic roles and the dragons are the bad guys. European stories tend to praise dragon-killers rather than give a fair presentation of the case for the dragons. There are many such dragon-haters, including Perseus, Herakles, Jason, Utter Pendragon, Beowulf, Siegfried, Deodatus de Gozon, Keresaspa (Avesta tradition), dozens of Christian saints, plus the dewa Indra and the archangel Michael. There are even a few gods, who should know better. Draconicidal gods, including Marduk, Ra, Thor, and the Phrygian god Sabazios, tend to specialize in conquering dragons of primal chaos such as Tiamat and Jörmungandr that are far too big and powerful for ordinary demigods or heroes to handle. Even gods do not always do very well in such battles, but those that conquer their dragon and survive usually get promoted in the pantheon.

Draconicide is one of the most short-sighted fantasies of the collective imaginations of the Nile-Oxus, European and Christian cultures. It is typified by the killing and dismemberment of Tiamat by Marduk, and is equivalent to the ultimate act of environmental destruction – the complete elimination of one of the fundamental forces of nature.

This is an excerpt of HORATIO’S WORLD. Now available on Amazon.

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