Chapter 4 Dragons and Thunder/Lightning

In: The Dragon and the Rainbow
Robert Blust
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Some readers may have noticed another association between dragons and a feature of the natural environment that has turned up more than once in earlier discussions, this one highly negative. In the Babylonian Creation Epic the hero Marduk destroys his dragon mother Tiamat (a four-legged non-human mammal with wings, body scales, horns and fangs) by attacking her with what are described as thunderbolts. Unlike the Chinese dragon, which generally provided the fertilizing rains, the Babylonian Tiamat was said to ‘hold back’ the heavenly waters, and by killing her Marduk released these waters for the benefit of mankind.

In a similar vein, Hogarth and Cleary (1979:27–29) observe that among the Canaanites, southern relatives of the Phoenicians who inhabited the ‘Land of Israel’ before the arrival of Abraham, the most prominent figure in their mythology was the god Baal, meaning ‘The Lord’. However, they then add that Baal’s proper name—presumably as opposed to his title—was Haddad, which meant ‘Thunderer.’ According to one passage of the epic, he

… will send abundance of his rain
And he will utter his voice in the clouds,
He will send his flashing to the earth with lightning.

What is most relevant to the topic at hand is an episode in the life of Baal in which he reportedly fought and slew a monster so obviously dragon-like as to recall the Mesopotamian Tiamat:

… thou didst smite Lotan the Primeval Serpent,
And didst annihilate the Crooked Serpent,
The close-coiling one of Seven Heads …

Given this observation it is of no small interest that in the story of the dragon of Niagara his enemy, the hero Heʹ-no is described as a keeper of the thunderbolts, and is known as a ‘Thunderer’. In the account given by Morgan the horned water serpent is struck dead by a thunderbolt, while in the first of Parker’s two versions it is killed by the Thunderer’s arrows. Since the story repeatedly describes the lightning that was flashing at this time, we can feel confident that a ‘thunderbolt’, or the ‘arrow’ of the Thunderer was a lightning bolt. These accounts of dragons on different continents suggest, then, that there is a fundamental antipathy between dragons and thunder or lightning.

This antipathy is in fact expressed widely in North America through the opposition of the horned water serpent and the Thunderbird. In a brief survey of its occurrence among Algonquian-speaking peoples, who were once spread over much of the northeastern quadrant of the United States and adjacent parts of Canada, Chamberlain (1890) repeatedly returns to the characterization of the Thunderbird as a great bird that flies in the sky flapping its wings to produce the sound of thunder, while flashing lightning from its eyes. As he notes with regard to the Cree of central Canada (1890:51) “The Crees believe that certain divine birds cause the lightning by the flashing of their eyes, and with their wings make the noise of thunder. The thunderbolts are the invisible and flaming arrows shot by these birds.” He then adds (1890:51–52) “that the Ottawas believed the thunder was a great bird which flapped its wings on high over the earth to guard its inhabitants and to prevent those evil monsters hidden in the bowels of the earth from coming forth to injure them.” Although the reference to “evil monsters” is non-specific, he immediately follows this with a comment (1890:52) on the Ojibway, who “consider the thunder to be a god in the shape of a great eagle that feeds upon serpents, which it takes from under the earth.” Finally, in a passing aside on the similarity of this belief among Siouan-speaking peoples, Chamberlain adds (1890:54) that “With the Tetons the snake appears as the enemy of the thunder.”

A very similar account of the Thunderbird myth appears in McClintock (1941), based on his personal experience among the Blackfoot of southern Alberta. Again, thunder is described as produced by a great bird flying with the clouds, and lightning by the flashing of its eyes. And like Chamberlain, he notes that the Thunderbird feeds on serpents.

The Mohawk of upstate New York believed in a lake serpent called Onyare which, according to Gatschet (1899:259)

traversed their country, and by coiling up in dominant positions near the pathways or trails interrupted communication between the settlements of the Iroquois. Onyare’s breath, diffused through the air, brought on sickness; it was finally with its brood destroyed by thunderbolts, or compelled to retire into deep water.

Speaking generally of Native American peoples indigenous to the southeastern United States, Lankford (1987:77) observed that

many aspects of the Thunderbird belief, which are held by so many tribes over such vast distances and across all known cultural boundaries, suggest that this is a body of mythology which is ancient in North America. The tension between the Thunderbirds and the Underwater Serpents is a dualism of ancient origin, and it is still present in the lore of the Southeast. It may be that the much-debated “forked-eye design” of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex should be seen as a convention denoting lightning, and all who wear it as Thunderbirds, or related to that function.

The latter reference is to a debated artistic motif found on shell engravings from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma, which suggests to some that the idea of the Thunderbird and its use of ‘thunderbolts’ to combat the horned serpent was also present in prehistoric mound-building cultures (Phillips and Brown 1984).

According to Swanton (1928:251), among the Creek Indians of Georgia there was a belief in a horned snake called sint-holo (‘sacred snake’), which

lived along big creeks or in caves … These snakes often moved from one stream to another, and it was claimed they could make it rain in order to raise the rivers so that they could leave their hiding places with more facility … The sint-holo is said to have made a noise like thunder. Once a hunter discovered a sint-holo fighting with the Thunder … My informants knew nothing about the thunderbird, nor any story bearing on the rainbow.

This inherent conflict between thunder/lightning and the horned serpent is clearly apparent in the broad picture of North American cultures, although particular belief systems may have altered it in surprising ways. With reference to the Blackfoot, for example, McClintock (1941:166) notes that “The symbolizing of lightning by the serpent is a twin myth and also the natural evolution of the Indian’s method of reasoning backward from effect to cause. He sees the resemblance in the lightning’s sinuous motions, quickness, and fatal stroke, to similar qualities in the serpent.” This interpretation, of course, reverses the far more common idea that the lightning is a ‘thunderbolt’, that is, an arrow shot by the Thunderbird to destroy the horned water serpent. Here, in a novel twist the weapon used to kill the serpent has become the serpent itself. It should not be surprising that we find some contrary interpretations of the relationship between thunder/lightning and the dragon in particular cases, since once these elements, drawn from the natural world, have become part of myth, they are subject to the storyteller’s individual elaborations and alterations.

It seems clear that the Thunderbird belief across North America is a mythic attempt to account for the nature of thunder and lightning, both of which can be intimidating when experienced at close quarters, and which have negative associations as forces of destruction, but positive associations as forces that bring the fertilizing rains. What is less visible at this point in the North American tradition of dragons, is whether the horned water serpent is also a mythic attempt to account for some complementary aspect of nature. Given the pairing between thunder and lightning with the horned water serpent, which Lankford (1987) describes as a “dualism of ancient origin”, it is likely that the horned water serpent myth reflects some property of nature that is closely bound in an antagonistic manner to the natural forces that produced the myth of the Thunderbird.

Although the Thunderbird myth is generally regarded as confined to North America, the opposition of thunder/lightning to a horned serpent has also been reported from Central America. Conzemius (1932:169), points out that the Sumu, or Sumo Indians of Nicaragua believe in a creature they call waula, which is described as a large boa constrictor “with two horns on the head like a deer.” He adds that the Ladinos call the creature mazacuate, from the Mexican (Aztec) mazatl ‘deer’, and coatl ‘serpent’. This dangerous beast is said “to inhabit certain lagoons in the pine ridges, far away from the nearest Indian village”, and it is maintained that “Man has no power to kill such a boa constrictor, as bullets have no effect on it; it can be destroyed only by a stroke of lightning.”

Within Europe the opposition of the dragon to thunder and lightning is largely concealed in the literature and art describing that part of the continent which had already become Christian. Here, as is well known from the story of Saint George and the dragon, and many similar depictions, the dragon is opposed not by a god of thunder, but by the lances of Christian knights who confronted them as symbols of Europe’s pagan past. Nonetheless, despite the cultural overlay produced by the introduction of Christianity, this more ancient antagonism does show up in several interesting ways. Writing of folk traditions in southern Greece at the turn of the twentieth century, Abbott (1903:261–262) relates a tale about a wedding party that was stopped on its way to the house of the groom by a dragon that blocked the path and held it at bay even though the dragon happened to be lame. Fortunately, the quick-witted bride thought of a means of escape, declaring:

Bride: I am Lightning’s child, Thunder’s grandchild.

I am the Hurler of Thunderbolts, she who flashes and booms,

Once when I flashed I burnt up forty Dragons,

One was left, a lame one: can that be your lordship?

Dragon: I am he.

Bride: Stand aside, friends, that I may flash and burn him up.

Dragon (frightened): Come, pass on; come, go your way; good luck to your wedding.

Taken alone this can easily be overlooked as a quaint folk belief in one small corner of Europe, but in a theoretically focused comparative context we see the same antipathy between dragons and thunder or lightning here as in the Babylonian story of Marduk and Tiamat, the Canaanite story of the conflict between Baal and the ‘primeval serpent’, the Thunderbird throughout North America, or—as will be shown in Chapter 7—the lightning and the rainbow over much of Bantu-speaking central Africa.

Allen and Griffiths (1979:22–24) note the common confrontation of a storm-god and the dragon in the mythologies of the ancient Middle East. According to them “This confrontation is frequently between a monster and a storm-god who is armed with thunderbolts or lightning shafts. Indra appears armed in this way, as do the Sumerian gods and the rain-god of the Mayas.” Shortly after this they note that in the mythology of the Hittites, an Indo-European-speaking people who inhabited the Anatolian plateau of modern Turkey at the start of the second millennium BCE, the dragon Illuyankas is similarly confronted by the Hittite storm god, who initially suffers a reversal, but then takes revenge upon the monster with thunderstorms and lightning.

Norse mythology provides another perspective in which the relationship between dragons and thunder or lightning is reminiscent of beliefs from other parts of the world, although it is elaborated through an extremely intricate narrative tale. Since Christianity diffused into Europe from the south, Scandinavia was the last part of the continent to renounce its pre-Christian polytheism. With regard to the unique stave churches of Norway, many of which, ironically, predate the arrival of Christianity, Lindholm and Roggenkamp (1969:48) note that “The pagan world of heroes, gradually sinking into the twilight of the gods, went hand in hand for several centuries with a form of Christianity not yet grasped intellectually. Sigurd, the conqueror of the dragon, and the risen Christ—both had their appropriate place in the stave churches.” To this Allen and Griffiths (1979:51) add:

The place of the dragon was the inferior one; he was clearly the degenerative and negative force, dragging men down, which must be overcome if the message of the risen Christ was to be understood in any way, intellectually or emotionally. The doors of stave churches are so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time, so that entry into the body of the church has to be a thoughtful and personal experience. And the door frames tend to be carved with a multiplicity of dragons and snakes, perhaps, Lindholm suggests, as a reminder of the tangled thoughts and lower, dragon-nature that should be overcome on entering the church.

For this and other reasons we can plausibly suppose that folk belief in Scandinavia remained conservative even after most parts of Europe were Christianized, and this is seen clearly in the Eddas, the most important literary documents from Scandinavia in the medieval period.

The Eddas are two lengthy Old Icelandic poems on mythical and religious subjects that are often divided into the Elder, or Poetic/Verse Edda, probably composed in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, and the Younger, or Prose Edda, probably written in the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries. In examining these documents it is easy to become lost in a maze of irrelevant detail, so I will try to limit myself to the most important features they contain with regard to the relationship of dragons to thunder and lightning.

Among other things, the Eddas describe the mythical worldview of pre-Christian Iceland, in which a number of gods with human foibles were ultimately descended from the supreme god Odin and his wife Frigg. Most important of these for our purposes was Thor, the thunder god, who is generally depicted as wielding a mighty hammer (the blows of which produced thunderclaps). The world itself was divided into three parts, an Upper world, a Lower world, and the Middle world in which we live. Separating upper and lower worlds was an enormous reptile, the Midgard Serpent, or Jörmungandr (“Great Beast”), which encircled the world holding its tail in its mouth. This peculiar trait, which the psychologist Carl Jung called the uroboros (circular serpent devouring itself), will be revisited in a later chapter.

European dragons are sometimes individuated, with personal names and in some cases genealogical histories, as with the dragons Typhon, Python or Ladon in classical Greek mythology, or Fafnir in the Norse Völsunga saga, and its equivalent, Fafner, in Wagner’s version of the Middle High German Nibelungenlied story. The Midgard Serpent is no different, as it is named and said to be one of three children of Loki, the Norse God of mischief and the giantess Angrboða. Despite this divine parentage from gods that resembled ordinary humans, the Midgard Serpent was nonetheless clearly a dragon. The primary difference between it and the more conventional dragons of Beowulf or the Nibelungenlied was size: the Midgard Serpent enveloped the planet in one enormous coil. Much of this was under water, and hence unseen, and its presence there helped to explain tidal waves and other violent events at sea.

To move to the heart of the matter, Thor, the thunder god, is said to have had a particular hatred of the Midgard Serpent, and he was eventually (in the course of a long, involved story) able to fish it up from the depths when it took a bull’s head used as bait, and was hooked. Although Thor was unable to kill it in this struggle, the reader is told that he will ultimately do so at Ragnarök, the final battle of good and evil at the end of the world, when Heaven, Earth and the Underworld will be destroyed (the ‘twilight of the gods’).

A similar use of thunderbolts to kill malevolent chimerical serpents appears in the dragon traditions of the Indian subcontinent. As related by Hogarth and Cleary (1979:44–45), who describe several different serpent myths in India

Another Indian myth in the tradition of dragon-slaying involves a clash between the demonic dragon Vritra and the god Indra. Vritra, the “Enveloper” or “Obstructor,” is depicted as a limbless cloud serpent, writhing about the mountain tops and holding the waters of heaven in its belly. Indra is a weather god who rides the skies in a chariot and is armed with the rainbow and the lightning. He launches a thunderbolt at Vritra; the dragon bursts asunder and the pent-up waters stream down freely across the thirsty land, bringing new life to all.

These writers speculate that this legend is especially pertinent to India, because it is “a parched land.” However, this statement is true only of parts of India (mostly the northwest), yet the relationship between thunder/lightning and the dragon appears everywhere to be the same. First, thunder and lightning are produced by a divine or semidivine agent in the sky, and they are used to combat a dragon which resides in watery domains below. Second, the dragon is commonly seen as ‘holding back’ the rain, which can only be released by striking the monster dead with a thunderbolt. The Indian tradition in fact seems to be a blend of several diverse elements, some of which appear to be mutually incompatible. The fact that Indra “is armed with the rainbow and the lightning” is particularly odd. Lightning would form a potent weapon against an adversary, since it can strike with deadly force (as humans have occasionally found when surprised by a lightning strike that left them unconscious), but the rainbow offers no such power as a weapon, and in this description it must be regarded as an enigma.

In other versions it is not the storm god Indra who combats the water-controlling dragon, but rather the Garuda—a gigantic celestial bird connected with the deity Vishnu. As Allen and Griffiths (1979:43) put it, in Vedic India “The Garuda was a gigantic divine bird who became the steed of Vishnu. In Vedic times the Garuda was entirely eagle, although he was represented in partly human form later. Garudas lived on snakes and were therefore the deadly enemies of the Nāgas.”

This relationship of enmity or opposition between thunder/lightning and the dragon is far less apparent in China. However, it is not absent. Allen and Griffiths (1979:36) note that “Floods were caused by dragons fighting in the water and storms by dragons fighting in the air. Lightning was heavenly fire sent to stop the dragon fights, for dragons fear fire.” Moreover, as noted by de Visser (1913:83) large boats which were used by the emperors for pleasure trips, often were painted with the emblem of a bird “not to denote their swift sailing, but to suppress the water-gods” (and so prevent disasters caused by drowning, flooding, waterspouts and the like).

This passage raises another point that deserves attention. Although the usual explanation for thunder among North American Indians was the flapping of the wings of the Thunderbird, the Seneca legend of the dragon of Niagara describes Heʹ-no, the slayer of the horned serpent, only as a ‘Thunderer’, with no explicit reference to his appearance. This characterization seems to be nothing more than a personification of the thunder in almost human form, and it shows how a basic idea can assume variant forms in different mythic traditions. In the Hindu tradition Indra is the god of thunder, lightning, storms and rain, and he is opposed to Vritra, the cloud serpent, much as the Thunderbird is opposed to the horned water serpent in aboriginal North America. The chariot of Indra is drawn by the Garuda, usually described as a huge bird or bird-like creature that was the deadly enemy of the serpentine nāgas that guarded earthly waters, making the similarity of these geographically widely separated belief systems even more striking.

Finally, the use of a bird emblem on imperial pleasure boats in China “to suppress the water-gods” shows how the elements of thunder and lightning that are normally associated with a celestial bird in other cultures can be symbolized by a bird even though the association of a bird or bird-like creature with thunder and lightning is rarely, if ever, mentioned in references to the Chinese dragon. Hogarth and Cleary (1979:126) bring up a similar point in connection with the European dragon, where we rarely hear of this connection: “Wise consumers of dragons’ blood could protect themselves by a simple test: due to the natural antipathy between dragons and eagles, the blood of a dragon would not mix with that of an eagle.”

In another of those curious cross-overs, Allen and Griffiths (1979:36–37) say

The Chinese classics teach that the dragon is thunder, and also that he is a creature of the waters who rests in pools in the winter and rises in the forms of rain clouds in spring. In the autumn, the dry season, he sinks back into the pools where he sleeps as he waits for the spring … Always it is made clear that the dragon must fly up to the sky before the rain can fall to earth and so, in times of drought, various methods were employed to persuade, or even to frighten, the dragon into leaving his pool and rising in the form of a cloud. Sometimes gongs were beaten, so that the dragon, although deaf, would respond to their vibration … At the water festival on the fifth day of the fifth month, dragon boat races were deliberately organized in such a way that they seemed to represent fighting dragons in the hope that this would precipitate a real dragon fight with its accompanying heavy rains.

These writers also claim that the dragon could be raised from his sloth “with effigies of the Garuda”, evidently by frightening him into vacating the comfort of the pool he was guarding. This is surprising, since the Garuda is part of Hindu cosmology rather than traditional Chinese culture. However, similar ideas evidently penetrated insular Southeast Asia from India at an early time. I was once given a wood-carving by the Berawan people of northern Sarawak on the island of Borneo. It consists of a single piece of wood which terminates at one end with the head of a horned dragon, and at the other end with the head of a hornbill, a crested bird with a prominent beak. The celestial bird/terrestrial dragon motif was thus neatly represented in a single body with two heads, representing the same kind of dualism expressed in the Thunderbird myth of North America.

Any one of these confrontations between a dragon and thunder/lightning might be regarded as contrived for entertainment, but the pattern that emerges from an overview of widely distributed beliefs suggests that this recurrent association is rooted in basic relationships in the natural world to which all humans have access. In connection with this observation, it is worth noting that in some traditions the dragon is also opposed to the sun. Cotterell (1989:120 ff.), for example, reports with regard to the Chinese lóng (dragon), that there was “some form of antagonism between dragons and the sun.” Initially this may seem contradictory—what could be more different than a stormy sky with thunder and lightning, and a sunny sky without rain? However, the common element shared by these opposed weather conditions, namely the absence of a competition between sun and rain, evidently was hostile to the survival of the dragon, just as it is hostile to the production of rainbows (rainbows cannot appear in sunny skies without rain, or in thunderstorms). As we will see in later chapters, the dragon’s existence in the minds of those who created it depended on a delicate balance of opposed forces that were capable of rapidly changing, and this provides an observational basis for understanding why dragons have been considered crossculturally ambivalent—intransigently negative in Europe, and North America, but overwhelmingly positive in China (Allen and Griffiths 1979:9).

To summarize, dragons are reported as enemies of thunder or lightning, sometimes portrayed as birds, in at least the following locations:

  1. The Fertile Crescent, in the ancient Babylonian creation epic, where they are slain by ‘thunderbolts’ (= lightning).

  2. The Canaanites in ‘the Land of Israel’, where they are slain by lightning.

  3. Throughout North America and parts of Central America, where they are opposed to the Thunderbird.

  4. In southern Europe, where they are slain by ‘thunderbolts’ (= lightning).

  5. In India, where the thunder god Indra slays them with ‘thunderbolts’ (= lightning); in other accounts it is the Garuda, the celestial bird that draws the chariot of Indra, that is the mortal enemy of the nāgas.

  6. In the Anatolian plateau of Turkey, where the Hittite storm god confronts them with thunder storms and lightning.

  7. In Scandinavia, where the thunder god Thor is the mortal enemy of the Midgard Serpent.

  8. Looking forward, in Chapter 7 we will see that the lightning and the rainbow are mortal enemies in the mythology of many Bantu-speaking peoples across central Africa, where again the rainbow is seen as a giant serpent.

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