The central thesis of this book can be stated in four words:
Dragons evolved from rainbows
While this is both accurate and concise, it is apt to strike most readers as bizarre, facetious, or just plain outrageous. The reason for this likely reaction is simple: few Westerners realize how radically the conception of the rainbow in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in pre-Christian Europe, differs from that in the vast majority of the world’s traditional cultures. As will be seen, nearly all attempts to understand why a belief in dragons is found in many parts of the world, despite the lack of evidence that such a creature ever existed, start with reports of dragons themselves. While this may seem reasonable, explorations of the subject adopting this approach have almost invariably ended in speculative dead-ends, even for accomplished scholars. Searching for the origin of the dragon idea by studying beliefs about dragons without exploring the ethnology of the rainbow simply generates far more questions than answers.
The fields of anthropology and folklore began in the nineteenth century with broadly comparative perspectives. For reasons that need not concern us here, this approach became disfavored, and even tainted in some quarters with the result that the editor of one prominent journal recently told me with respect to the topic of this book “we aren’t interested in universals.” Yet the belief in dragons IS a culture universal, as it has either been inherited from the dawn of human consciousness, or has arisen repeatedly in different parts of the world for what are demonstrably similar reasons. To suppress interest in such a basic question in folklore studies because the study of culture universals is out of fashion seems perverse to anyone who believes that an interesting scientific question remains interesting, whether or not it happens to agree with contemporary fashions. Basic scientific questions are timeless, and if they have not previously been answered adequately, then the time to address them is NOW.
One of the consequences of the loss of faith in broad comparative studies in both anthropology and folklore is that many topics that could profit immensely from focused cross-cultural attention have been completely neglected as unworthy of study by the very community of scholars that should be devoted to them. One need only consider the fundamentals of the ethnology of albinism, crystals, mushrooms, pointing, and many other topics to see the potential yield of insights that has been largely overlooked as a result of the adoption of restrictive approaches to the study of culture, and in particular to the study of non-Western belief systems. While some of these topics have received passing attention, as with Lévi-Strauss (1976b) for the ethnology of mushrooms, or Kita (2003) for the ethnology of pointing, after a century and a half of scholarship in cultural anthropology and folklore there has been no dedicated study of the ethnology of albinism, of crystals, and most to the point, of the rainbow.
The worst possible reaction to this longstanding neglect would be to assert that the topic has no value, and therefore would yield no new information or insights into the nature of culture or of the human mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once one begins to seriously investigate the ethnology of the rainbow the trail of facts leads inexorably not just to the appearance of dragons, but to naturalistic explanations for some of their most puzzling traits: why are they associated with waterfalls and caves in many parts of the world? Why do they fly? Why do they breathe fire? Why do they guard treasures? Why do they also guard springs? Why are they considered hermaphroditic in cultures that otherwise have little in common, such as imperial China and aboriginal Australia? In short, a concentrated attempt to understand the ethnology of the rainbow leads us, unsuspecting, into a rich and detailed explanation for why the dragon idea is universal.
The book is organized into two major divisions: Part I, ‘Dragons’, and Part II, ‘Rainbows’. It concludes with two chapters that sum up the multiple points of agreement between traditional animistic beliefs about the rainbow, and beliefs about the dragon.
Chapter 1, ‘What, if anything, is a dragon?’ addresses one of the most basic questions in dragon research: what qualifies as a dragon, and what does not? I take the position that all categories have variable members, and what matters in defining category membership is a set of overlapping shared features, or traits that distinguish objects that belong to a category from those that do not. One of these traits is that all dragons are chimerical—that is, composed of the parts of different animals. While this is also true, e.g. of unicorns, kirins, and some other fabulous creatures, dragons are unique in combining the parts of cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals, as in all cases they are essentially snakes that have hair in various forms (whiskers, mane, etc.), horns, or other traits of mammals, or that have feathers, which links their cold-blooded reptilian body to warm-blooded birds. Dragons are, in effect, contradictory, as they are formed by what might be called a fusion of opposites. It concludes with a table showing the geographical distribution of widespread draconic traits over six major regions of the Earth: Europe, the ancient Near East, South Asia, Central and East Asia, and aboriginal North and South America.
Chapter 2, ‘Why dragons? Theories from A to Z’, surveys theories of the dragon. Without attempting to be exhaustive, it shows that no previous theory is generalizable to dragons as a universal category, or comes even close to accounting for the distribution of traits that will be outlined in chapter 1, and discussed in detail in subsequent chapters. Rather, every published theory leaves masses of relevant detail unexplained.
Chapter 3, ‘Dragons and waterfalls’, selects one particular trait—the demonstrated tendency (it may, in fact, be invariable) for every major waterfall to have a resident dragon, and shows that this striking association is found in at least Southeast Asia, Australia, North America, and several disconnected parts of both South America and Africa.
Chapter 4, ‘Dragons and thunder/lightning’, selects another particular trait—the widely-attested conflict between the dragon and thunder or lightning. Like the association with waterfalls, the global distribution of this initially puzzling trait turns out to be physically transparent when considering the nature of weather phenomena everywhere on the planet, and the ways that preliterate peoples might plausibly have interpreted them.
Chapter 5 provides a more general ethnology of the dragon, touching on each of the other traits in Table 1, providing explicit documentation for them, and in many cases discussion for why they exist. In the interest of accuracy, material is frequently quoted from primary sources, and since more than one trait is often cited in a single sentence, some duplication is unavoidable. Every effort was made to keep this to a minimum, but it could not be eliminated completely, and it may not be entirely a disadvantage that certain key ideas are reinforced through repetition. This concludes Part I of the book, which is concerned with the dragon as an independent entity.
Part II begins with Chapter 6, ‘What, if anything, is a rainbow?’, which attempts to disabuse readers of the idea that the Western, or even more narrowly, Judeo-Christian view of the rainbow is typical of the world’s cultures. It provides a brief demonstration that the rainbow is viewed in most parts of the traditional world as an animate being of menacing character. It then uses an analysis of names for the rainbow to indicate that there is a range of views about the nature of the rainbow, although the notion that it is an enormous snake that drinks water from the earth and sprays it out to make the rain, or that drinks up the rain to make it stop is clearly dominant, and without question is the idea that has the longest history in the cognitive development of our species.
Chapter 7 provides a more general ethnology of the rainbow. It is the longest and internally most complex chapter of the book, which concludes with two sub-topics, namely the ethnology of sunshowers (rain when the sun is shining), and a brief look at the rainbow taboo (RT), the culture universal that started me on this long journey. Although sunshowers are difficult to separate from rainbows in the natural world, their separate treatment here is justified by the fact that they have been treated as distinct in the world of culture, where certain seemingly arbitrary beliefs are associated with this phenomenon across a broad swath of the Earth’s surface. Again, because of the high priority placed on documentary evidence, this chapter includes much quoted material, and is therefore subject to the same limitations and potential objections as Chapter 5 (i.e. that a certain amount of repetition could not be avoided). Because of its marginal relationship to the origin of the dragon idea and its fundamental importance as a culture universal in itself, the RT is treated at greater length in Blust (2021).
Chapter 8, ‘A glimpse of the glory’, relates to the physics of the rainbow and similar optical phenomena. It begins with a transformative personal experience, and then suggests how seeing circular rainbows, or glories might have influenced certain perceptions of the dragon, in particular the uroboros (dragon encircling the world, or forming a circle by swallowing its own tail).
Chapter 9, ‘Connecting the dots’, returns to Chapters 5 and 7, on the ethnology of the dragon and the ethnology of the rainbow respectively, and explicitly marks those traits of dragons that correspond exactly, or nearly so, to globally attested traits of the rainbow. A number of these are readily explainable as products of animistic thinking, while others are not. However, in either case multiple agreements linking the two categories provide a trail of evidence that the dragon in cultures that no longer connect it with the rainbow must have originated as the Rainbow Serpent.
Chapter 10, ‘Conclusions’, provides a few remarks about why it has taken so long for anyone to see what now seems so hard to deny, namely that dragons evolved from rainbows through the concept of the Rainbow Serpent, and that the Rainbow Serpent itself came into being as the result of a prescientific attempt to explain the causality and nature of the rainbow. Unlike the rain, which is simply the familiar substance, water, falling from the sky, the rainbow—a visually spectacular display that is here now, but gone a minute later—is a phenomenon that continues to puzzle children, or adults in traditional societies today, and that clearly puzzled our distant ancestors in the dawn of our emergence as a thinking species.