Prologue: From Nature to Culture in Two Steps

In: The Dragon and the Rainbow
Robert Blust
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In conversational settings many people have expressed interest and excitement about the ideas presented in this book. However, when forced to delve into the factual basis of the argument, few have had the patience or dedication to get beyond reading a select chapter or two, and with such a limited basis they have not truly understood what the book is about. To cite an especially egregious example, one disappointed reader who reportedly read the Preface, Introduction, two other chapters and the Conclusion said he had hoped to find “some general insight into how humans think”, apparently oblivious to the fact that this is the central thesis of the explanatory sections. To make matters worse, he also wondered why I had not mentioned “the concepts of Yeti, Bigfoot, Chupacabra, crop circles and maybe UFO s,” assuming implicitly that the topic was fantasy rather than an attempt to address a recalcitrant scientific problem, revealing a total lack of engagement with the actual material. This prologue is intended to remedy that problem by laying out the main features of the story in two parts: 1. From rainbow to Rainbow Serpent, and 2. From Rainbow Serpent to dragon.

1 From Rainbow to Rainbow Serpent

Mythologists and folklorists have long been familiar with what the British social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1926) called ‘the rainbow-serpent myth of Australia’. Briefly, the Rainbow Serpent myth holds that the rainbow is an enormous spirit snake that controls rainfall while in the sky, and in its terrestrial manifestation guards waterholes against the intrusion of humans. As noted by Buchler and Maddock (1978), and by Radcliffe-Brown himself, there is considerable elaboration upon this basic pattern in one society or another across the landscape of Australia, but these two traits are among the most constant. Because of its immense spiritual power the Rainbow Serpent figures in the initiation rites of adolescent males in the transition from boyhood to manhood, and it is nearly always inimical toward women or adolescent girls, especially when they are menstruating.

To Radcliffe-Brown this belief complex, which is widely shared in varying form over much or all of the continent, was a distinctive marker for the Australian cultural province—one not known in the same or a similar form anywhere else. Some writers, as Mead (1933) and Brumbaugh (1987) have argued that a similar set of beliefs is found in at least some parts of highland New Guinea, but these attempts to extend the documentation of the Rainbow Serpent myth beyond Australia have not been generally accepted, and standard encyclopedias of folklore and mythology to this day continue to state that the Rainbow Serpent myth is a uniquely Australian cultural phenomenon.

This book directly challenges what has been essentially a longstanding academic myth by documenting beliefs about the rainbow in tribal societies around the planet that are very similar in detail with the celebrated Rainbow Serpent myth of Australia. Far from supporting the claim that this belief-complex is peculiar to one continent, the ethnographic record shows that it is a culture universal that is more prominent in some areas and less so in others. A comprehensive review of the evidence strongly suggests that the Rainbow Serpent myth has existed since the origin of modern humans, and that its prominence in Australia is a product of cultural conservatism, not of a unique development in situ, as has been maintained, explicitly or implicitly, for generations.

The ethnographic data supporting this position is given in the following pages, particularly in Chapters 6 and 7. Suffice it to say for now that the reader must be willing to recognize a view of the rainbow in most tribal societies that is not only radically different from his own, but one that is strikingly similar across continents. Few readers will be mentally prepared for accounts of “a hungry, meat-eating Rainbow” (Uduk, Sudan), a rainbow that can “eat or suck the blood” from a person without him or anyone else noticing it (Tarahumara, northern Mexico), or for conceptions of the rainbow as “a giant snake with two heads of deer or cows, one of which drinks from the Indian Ocean, the other from the Java Sea” (Java), or “a dragon that drinks water from the sea and sprays it out as rain” (Chinese of Lanzhou, Gansu province). These snapshots, from Africa, Mexico, island Southeast Asia and northern China are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, for they are fragments of a much larger picture of the human past that this book strives to restore for readers living in the digital age through interviews with the last adherents of a nearly bygone view of a world run by powerful spirits rather than by the laws of physics.

2 From Rainbow Serpent to Dragon

It is only fair to ask why human beings in widely-separated parts of the Earth would choose to see the rainbow as an enormous spirit snake. To answer that question we must recognize how rapidly the human experience has changed over the past few thousand years. It is common knowledge that this change has been cultural rather than biological, since the modern human brain has existed with little identifiable change for at least the past 100,000 years. With fully modern brains preliterate humans had the same intelligence, curiosity and need for explanation as any literate person today. What they lacked was scientific knowledge, the product of a gradual accumulation of insights into the workings of nature that was made possible after the advent of writing.

Anyone who has worked with modern tribal peoples will immediately confirm my claim that—despite their lack of scientific understanding—preliterate peoples were and are capable of highly accurate observations of the natural world. Where their thinking differs most markedly from that of most readers of this book is with regard to notions of causality. It is easy enough for someone with no understanding of science to describe what s/he sees in the world about him in considerable detail, but it is far more difficult for that person to explain why the observations take the form they have. With regard to rainbows in particular, it was an intellectual challenge for premodern humans (and their preliterate descendants today) to explain why rainbows appear only when the sun and rain are, so to speak, competing for control of the sky. Other explanatory challenges followed from this primary question. Where is the rainbow when it is not in the sky? How does it rise skyward when the rains begin? What is its shape when it is on the Earth? To modern humans equipped with physical explanations for such optical phenomena these questions may seem trivial or contrived. They are not. These are questions that cried out for answers, and human beings with the same brain power as us, but lacking scientific knowledge, strove to answer them as best they could.

In an animistic world—the universal world of preliterate humans—nature was pervaded by spirit presences that made their existence known in striking natural phenomena. These could be almost anything outside the realm of ordinary experience, from mountain peaks that stand out sharply from their surroundings, to mushrooms that seemingly spring up spontaneously overnight after a summer rain, to a whirlwind racing across the desert sands in ghostly attire. The rainbow, which inspires awe in most children at first exposure, surely stands pre-eminent among these manifestations of nature, and it is hardly surprising that preliterate peoples would conceive of it as a powerful spirit. Given its shape and coloration, it is also easy to see why in most places where snakes are found it was viewed as an enormous spirit snake that drinks water from the earth and spews it out to cause the rain, or that drinks the rain and makes it stop. These explanations drew upon a wider pool of beliefs about nature in which anything out of the ordinary was a manifestation of unseen spirit forces, and they did so in a way that gave consistent, satisfactory accounts of otherwise mysterious observations.

Whether this view of the world is one that originated once with the appearance of modern brains, and was passed down through countless generations until it finally yielded to scientific inquiry, or whether it was repeatedly reinvented in remarkably similar ways throughout human history will perhaps forever remain an unanswerable question. However, what does seem clear is that once a universal foraging lifestyle began to yield in favored areas to agriculture, and the subsequent, seemingly inevitable development of urbanization and literacy, the animistic hold on the human mind began to undergo a transformation. This transformation into a world governed by physical law did not happen instantly or uniformly in all domains of life. Indeed, many modern peoples who profess adherence to a major world religion that eschews the belief in nature spirits still cultivate folk beliefs that go under the general heading of ‘superstitions’.

Once competition arose between explanations of natural phenomena based on physical forces rather than spirit powers the belief in the Rainbow Serpent began to suffer a gradual erosion. Rainbows were products of natural forces or of the will of a supreme deity, rather than spirit snakes that could fly to the sky, guard earthly waterholes or springs, and change size or shape in dramatic ways. But, like much that happens in such transformations, elements of the old way of thinking lingered on as independent beliefs. The rainbow was now a manifestation of physical law or divine intervention, but the serpent form that characterized it in the human mind for much of human history persisted as an independent creature with many or most of the traits that it had had as the Rainbow Serpent. In effect, the serpent idea that was now decoupled from the rainbow was what Tylor (1871) called a ‘survival’ in culture, that is, an element of belief or behavior that had originated in a culturally supportive context that changed, leaving it as a relic of an earlier conceptual system.

Tylor’s theory of survivals has had a long history of both support and criticism (Stocking 1987, 1995). Like any idea that was once influential and then came under fire, it has undeniable merits, but in many cases was overplayed. However, certain widespread practices clearly support it. Why, in many cultures, does a sneeze evoke a wish for good health? The widespread traditional belief that the breath represents the life-force or soul implies that a sneeze is a moment of vulnerability, and that the one who sneezes should be offered support from those around him. This explanation is fully supported in cultures that still maintain a belief in the breath soul, but is not available in those that have lost it. Rather, in the latter expressions such as ‘Bless you!’, or ‘Salud!’ are now meaningless relics from an earlier conceptual system in which they had a serious function. They are what Tylor (1871) rightly called ‘survivals’.

How can we tell that the dragon idea is a survival from an earlier stage in which it was the Rainbow Serpent? Dragons have many traits cross-culturally that appear arbitrary until they are seen as continuations of beliefs about the rainbow. Why do they fly? Why, in China and Mesoamerica, are they controllers of weather? Why do they guard springs, wells and the like? Why do they guard treasures? Why do they breathe fire? Why are they associated with major waterfalls such as Niagara, Iguassú and others across the planet? And why, in disparate cultural traditions, including the Rainbow Serpent complex of Aboriginal Australia, European alchemy, the Taoist metaphysics of China, and the plumed serpent complex of Mesoamerica, are they considered androgynous? These and other questions receive generally straightforward answers from the ethnology of the rainbow, something that would be totally unexpected if the dragon idea had no such history. It is time now to tell the story of how rainbows became dragons.

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