Dragons of Ancient Asia

Kinryuzan Sensoji Temple, located in Asakusa, Tokyo is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. Dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of compassion, the temple is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world with over 30 million annual visitors. Kinryuzan means the ‘Golden Dragon Mountain’. Legend has it that the Sensoji Temple was founded in 628 AD after two fishermen fished a gold statuette of Kannon from the Sumida River. Although the understandably confused fishermen tried to put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Therefore, the Sensoji temple was built nearby for the goddess represented by the statue found by the fishermen.

Cloudy Sensō-ji.jpg
By jreysp – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The original temple was completed in 645 AD, however, the current temple was actually built in 1958. To commemorate its rebuilding, the temple authorities initiated a tradition named the Kinryu-no-mai (the ‘Dance of the Golden Dragon’) which continues to this day. The legend behind the dance is that when the temple was founded the goddess Kannon took on the form of a golden dragon, descended to earth and created a forest containing 1,000 pines in one night, symbolizing abundance, prosperity and longevity.

The dragon is an important figure in folklore throughout Asia. In China, dragonlore has existed independently centuries before the introduction of Buddhism. The Shang and Zhou dynasties (16th – ninth centuries BC) produced jade and bronze pieces depicting dragon-like creatures. In India, pre-Buddhist snake-like creatures known as the Naga were incorporated into the Buddhist mythology. The Naga are among the eight legions of deities who worship and protect the Dharma. Even before the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Guatama) attained enlightenment, the Naga King Mucilinda protected Siddhartha from wind and rain for seven days. This motif is often found in Indian Buddhist art, represented by images of the Buddha sitting beneath Mucilinda’s hood and coils. By the ninth century AD, the Chinese had also incorporated the dragon into Buddhist iconography as a protector of the Buddhist law. These traditions were soon adopted by the Japanese Zen temples who had dragons painted on the ceilings of their assembly halls.

Pillar with Naga Mucalinda protecting the throne of the Buddha. Railing pillar from Jagannath Tekri, Pauni (Bhandara District). 2nd-1st century BCE. National Museum of India.

To provide a rough idea of the very ancient figure of the dragon, it is useful to remember that, at around 1800 BC, the celestial indicator or the pole star was not the modern-day North Star (Polaris) but rather the Thuban, a star in the constellation of Draco, or Dragon. Thuban served as the pole star from 3942 BC to 1793 BC, during the creation of some of Egypt’s largest pyramids. The name Thuban comes from the Arabic word ثعبان (thuʿban, serpent). Angkor Wat, the great Khmer Buddhist shrine, was also built in alignment with this celestial formation. 

The transition from one ruling celestial system to another is marked in the mythologies of the world through accounts of displacements of the evil draconian monster by the newer deities. For example, the fall of the early Mesopotamian heavenly serpentine mother, Tiamat, by the hands of the divine hero Marduk; the overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian gods in Greek mythology; or the Asuras by the Devas in Indian mythology.

In Asia, the dragon is usually described as having the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a hare, scales of a carp, paws of a tiger and claws of an eagle. It has whiskers, a bright jewel under its chin and the ability to ascend to heaven at will. The dragon has the ability to expand or contract its body, as well as the power of transformation and invisibility. The breath of the dragon can turn into clouds producing either rain or fire. During the pre-modern dynastic periods in China, the flying dragons that lived in the skies were often associated with the rulers of China and used as a symbol of imperial rule. The Qing government (1636–1912) utilized the image of the dragon as its imperial symbol. In Japan, Emperor Hirohito (1901 – 1989) claimed descent from the daughter of Ryujin, the Sea Dragon King.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi Tamatori escaping from the Dragon King.jpg
Tamatori escaping from the Dragon King, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1844

The dragon’s cult is apparent in megalithic monuments and places of worship all over the world. Large stone-shaped whale figures have been found in the highlands of the Caucasus (an area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, mainly occupied by Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and south western Russia), where the people practiced rituals, petitioning for the desired weather. In contrast to the image of the dragon in Asia, which combined different characteristics of many different animals, the Georgians believed that the dragon is a winged creature with a body comprising of only two animals, the snake and the whale. However, the symbolism remains similar to the Asian dragon.

In Georgia, the dragon is related to the first forces of the universe and thus holds special knowledge as the creator of the sea and earth. Its connection with water gives the dragon a great significance as, in the cosmogony of many cultures, water gives birth and beginning to the world and the life it holds. Therefore, agrarian traditions worship water patrons and petition for desired weather for the fertility of their lands. In both China and Japan, the dragon is also closely associated with rain and fertility. In the Georgian dragon’s body, water is represented by the body part of the whale.

The Asian dragon, albeit a little more confusing, also combines body parts from animals from the sky (eagle), earth (camel, hare, deer, tiger) and water (carp). Therefore, through the simpler combination which makes up its image, the Georgian dragon illustrates a dragon’s connection to the earth with a serpent, to water (underworld) with a fish, and to the skies (heaven) with a bird. The dragon is also the bearer of fire. Therefore, apart from its formidable physical power, the dragon also possesses great wisdom arising from the knowledge from those worlds which its body parts represent.

Dragons in Asia are rarely depicted as cruel. Although they may be fearsome and powerful, the dragons are equally considered just, benevolent, as well as bringers of wealth and good fortune. As in the western culture, there are still legends of various immortals battling against evil dragons, but in Asia dragons are generally to be respected, feared and petitioned as one would ask for favors or leniency from a just and honest ruler. The concept of the dragons living in the sky relate them to heavenly creatures, and therefore they were employed as a symbol of imperial power. It is for this reason that the dragon symbol is the sign of authority, woven into the robes of nobility and the imperial family.

During the Heian Period of Japan (794 – 1185 AD), two Buddhist temples named Toji (East Temple) and Saiji (West Temple) shared the control of Japan’s religious domain. This led to a power struggle between the two temples and the origin of an interesting legend. Envious of the monk Kukai (774 – 835 AD) for his fame as head of Toji Temple, a priest named Shubin from Saiji Temple used a charm to entrap the dragon king Ryujin in a jar, thus causing an extensive drought. Challenged by Shubin to a contest, Kukai dispelled Shubin’s curse and set Ryujin free, releasing the rain and breaking the drought.  

Sai-ji viewed from the south in a miniature model of historical Heian-kyō

In the Japanese creation myth, seven generations of gods emerged after heaven and earth were formed. There were 12 gods in these seven generations. Two of these gods served as the initial individual gods while the other ten emerged as male-female pairs consisting of either couples or siblings. Other gods and goddesses came into being from these deities, along with various creatures that served as their guardians, messengers, warriors or enemies. The Japanese dragons occupied a unique space in this divine hierarchy as their role seemed to be more flexible than a typical deity. Apart from signifying wisdom, success and strength, they also served as water deities who ruled the oceans, fought with other gods and shapeshifted into humans if they wish to do so, thus having a closer relationship with people on earth compared to other deities.

The dragon king Ryujin’s palace is said to be located at the bottom of the sea, near the Ryuku Islands in Okinawa. Guarded by dragons and built from red and white coral, the palace is full of treasures. The crowning jewel of the collection of treasures is the Tide Jewels, which control the ebb and flow of tidal waters. When the Empress Jingu (169 – 269 AD) planned an invasion of Korea, she prayed to Ryujin and sent Azumi-no-isora, the god of the seashore, to the dragon king’s temple to request the Tide Jewels. The dragon king gave the Tide Jewels to Azumi-no-isora to present to the empress. With the magic jewels in hand, Empress Jingu then set sail with her fleet to Korea. When she saw the Korean fleet sail out to confront them, Jingu quickly threw the Low Tide Jewel into the sea. The tide receded immediately, forcing the Korean fleet to land on the nearest beach. As the Koreans jumped out of their vessels onto the land, Jingu threw the High Tide Jewel into the water, resulting in a tidal wave which drowned all the Korean soldiers. The Japanese fleet was carried by the tidal wave to the Korean coast, into the harbor, ensuring their victory.

Later, years after the empress had returned the Tide Jewels to the dragon king, the empress and the dragon king appeared to have maintained their relationship as Ryujin personally presented the Tide Jewels to the young prince Ojin, son of Empress Jingu.

Kaiserin Jingū.jpg
Empress Jingū. From the serie: Stories of one hundred famous heroes by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1844

For a normal human being, spending a day in the dragon king’s palace is the equivalent of 100 years on earth.  There is a legend of a young fisherman named Urashima who had caught a turtle in his nets. As turtles are said to live for thousands of years, Urashima thought it best to set the creature free. He was unaware that this turtle was Oto-hime, the dragon king’s daughter in disguise. After revealing her identity, the princess invited the young man to her father’s court where she married him. After spending only three days in the palace, Urashima felt a strong desire to visit his aging parents. He emerged from the sea to head to his parent’s home. However, when he returned to his land, Urashima discovered that 300 years had passed.

Knowing that all his loved ones had long since died, Urashima was stricken with grief and wished to return to this dragon wife. But in his desire to visit his parents, Urashima did not think about how he intended to return to his wife Oto-hime. Not knowing how to return to the dragon palace, Urashima opened the Tamake Bako (Box of the Jewel Hand) that he had in his possession. His wife had given the box to him before he left to allow him to go back to his village. However, she had warned him never to open the box. When Urashima opened the box hoping to find a way back to Oto-hime, he immediately lost his youth, became a wrinkled old man and fell dead upon the ground. 

Another daughter of the dragon king plays a major role in the mythical origin of Japan’s First Emperor. Ryujin’s daughter Toyotama-hime married a hunter named Hori-no-Mikoto who then lived with her in her underwater kingdom. After living in the palace for three years, the couple went up to the land to live there together. Upon her pregnancy, Hori built his wife a hut where she could deliver their child. The princess asked her husband not to witness the birth of their son, Ugayafukiaezu, but Hori’s curiosity led him to spy on his wife. However, when he peeked through the door of the room where his wife delivered their child, Hori saw a crocodile-like creature cradling his son. Apparently, it was necessary for Toyotama-hime to shapeshift to her divine form in order to give birth and she did not want her husband to see her in her divine state.

Hoori meets Toyotama —illustration by Evelyn Paul, c. 1912

Toyotama-hime caught Hori spying on her and felt betrayed. Unable to forgive her husband, she decided to leave him with their son and returned to the underwater palace. However, she did not completely abandon her husband and son. She sent her sister, Tamayori-hime, to Hori to help him raise their son Ugayafukiaezu. When he came of age, Ugayafukiaezu married his aunt Tamayori-hime. The couple produced four children. Their youngest son, Jinmu Tenno, later became the first human emperor of Japan. Incidentally, Hori himself was the child of Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of the goddess Amaterasu. Thus, Hori and his descendants could trace their line back to Japan’s earliest gods and goddesses.

Despite the dragon’s perceived wisdom and nobility, one can still find some stories of malevolent dragons. Nure-onna (Wet Woman) is described as a creature with a woman’s head and a snake’s body. She was a monstrous being who fed on humans. She carried with her a small baby-like bundle which she used to attract potential victims. When a well-intentioned person offered to hold the baby for her, the bundle became incredibly heavy in the person’s arms and prevented the victim from fleeing. Nure-onna then used her long, snake-like tongue to suck all the blood from her victim’s body. In other stories, a Nure-onna simply needed solitude as she washed her hair on the riverbank, not to be bothered by anyone.

“Nure-onna” (ぬれ女) from the Hyakkai-Zukan by Sawaki Suushi.

Another dangerous female dragon was Kiyo-hime. She was the beautiful daughter of a landlord or village headman. Her family was quite wealthy and was in charge of entertaining and providing traveling priests with lodging. One day a handsome priest named Anchin fell in love with Kiyo-hime. However, remembering his position, the priest repressed his urges and decided to refrain from meeting with her again. This sudden change of heart was not taken well by Kiyo-hime, who pursued the priest in rage. The two crossed paths at the Hidaka river where Anchin asked for help in crossing the river from a boatman. He also instructed the boatman not to allow Kiyo-hime to take a boat in order to give him time to escape. When she realized Anchin’s plan, Kiyo-hime jumped into the Hidaka river and started swimming towards his boat. As she swam, she transformed into a large dragon. Anchin ran into a temple seeking sanctuary. The priests at the temple hid him under a bell. However, Kiyo-hime was able to find him through his scent. She coiled around the bell and banged on it loudly with her tail and exhaled a large amount of fire which melted the bell and killed Anchin.

Japan also has stories of dragon-slayers. Yamata-no-orochi was an eight-tailed, eight-headed dragon who devoured one of the daughters of the kunitsukami, the two earthly gods, every year for seven years. One day, the god of sea and storms Susanoo, was expelled from the heavens due to his tricks towards his sister Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. Near the Hii River in Izumo, Susanoo found the weeping kunitsukami. The couple would soon have to sacrifice their last daughter, Kushinadahime. In exchange for her hand in marriage, Susanoo offered to help save Kushinadahime. When the kunitsukami agreed, Susanoo transformed their daughter into a comb and tucked her into his hair. He told the kunitsukami to prepare eight sakés and fill eight large tubs with the alcohol.

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, woodblock print by Toyohara Chikanobu

When Orochi crawled towards the kunitsukami’s land, Susanoo saw that the dragon’s size was so large that he spread over eight valleys and eight hills. Upon reaching the saké tubs, Orochi drank all the saké, got drunk and fell asleep. Susanoo took this opportunity to slay the dragon and chopped it into small pieces. As Susanoo split the dragon’s tail open, he found a sword inside. He later gave this sword to his sister as a symbol of their reconciliation. This sword, along with a mirror and jewel, were later considered to be the imperial regalia of Japan.

Another dragon-slayer was Agatamori. Mizuchi was a water-bound dragon that dwelled in the Kawashima River who killed passing travelers by spewing out venom. Agatamori went to the river and challenged the dragon. When Mizuchi accepted his challenge, Agatamori cast three bottle gourds into the pool of the river. The bottles remained afloat on the surface of the water. He told Mizuchi to make the gourds sink. If Mizuchi could not make the three gourds sink, Agatamori would slay him. The dragon shapeshifted into a deer to sink the calabashes. However, he was unsuccessful. Thus, Agatamori slayed the dragon as well as other water dragons at the bottom of the river. The dragons’ blood turned the river red. Since then, the Kawashima River was referred to as the Pool of Agatamori.

Black Dragon Statue Near Brown Building

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