We have now reached a point where we must begin digging deeply into data, which will require a different reading style. Rather than continuous connected text, as in the preceding chapters, this chapter will provide a kind of encyclopedic text in which the reader moves from one element or trait in the ethnology of the dragon to the next, with areal documentation of each, punctuated by brief discussions that will be elaborated more fully in later chapters.
The major purpose of this chapter is to justify Table 1, which presents the geographical distribution of 27 draconic traits, all but one of which are found in at least two widely separated regions of the Earth (the reason for the one exception, the dragon as a sign of war, will be explained in Chapter 7). This can only be done by providing data that supports the statements made there. The presentation of data will follow the categories established in that table 1) = giver/withholder of rain, 2) = guardian of springs or other bodies of water, 3) = lives in caves, etc. However, before presenting the supporting evidence, a few words on the term ‘ethnology’ are in order.
One definition of ethnology is that it is the comparative study of cultures, or of selected elements of culture across a broad spectrum of sample units. It contrasts with ethnography, which is concerned with the firsthand holistic description of single cultures. Ethnology is thus inescapably concerned with history: why does a culture trait have the distribution it does? Is it best explained by diffusion across cultures in contact, by descent from an ancestral culture in which an arbitrary invention was passed on by inheritance, or by independent invention in cultures that are too widely separated and distinct from one another for contact to be seriously considered as a cause of similarity?
One useful way to characterize the difference between these two approaches is with the linguistic terms ‘diachronic’ (through time) and ‘synchronic’ (at one point in time). Diachronic studies attempt to understand how languages or cultures have changed or developed over time, while synchronic studies focus on the interaction of parts within a system that need not be related to any preexisting state.
Both ethnology and ethnography are branches of cultural anthropology, and cultural anthropology was the wellspring out of which such academic disciplines as folklore developed. Anthropology began as ethnology, for the simple reason that reliance on the reports of travellers and missionaries preceded the presence of professionally trained scholars in the field, where ‘in the field’ means living among the people whose culture is being described, an approach sometimes called ‘participant observation’. Although professionally grounded field studies of indigenous peoples were already underway in some quarters of North America by the 1850s, nineteenth century anthropological research was almost exclusively dominated by ethnology, and only around the First World War did ethnography begin to gain a foothold through the pioneering fieldwork of scholars such as Bronislaw Malinowski, who lived in the Trobriand Islands of western Melanesia and described the culture of its people in a number of seminal works, and of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, who worked in Sri Lanka, the Andaman Islands, and Australia.
Once the collection of data about traditional societies had become professionalized through detailed ethnographic studies, a tendency developed among anthropologists to eschew ethnology as a dated approach that lacks a trustworthy descriptive basis, and often focuses on what is sometimes dismissively called ‘conjectural history’. Others criticized it for having an elitist, ‘Europe at the top’ mentality in discussing levels of cultural evolution. There are many reasons to consider this attitude an overreaction, as much valuable work was done in the way of generalization about human societies through a broadly comparative approach, despite the varying quality of the data used. One need only think of E.B. Tylor’s theory of animism, published in 1871, which held that preliterate societies around the planet see nature as pervaded with spirits that are present in unusual natural phenomena, and that motivate many natural processes. Rather than the mechanistic approach to the physical world that we know through the labors of science, then, preliterate humans saw many inanimate phenomena as living things, an insight that still rings true today, even with the most up-to-date research methods and information.
A basic question that arises in doing ethnology is ‘What do we compare?’. Do we compare whole cultures, and if so, how can that be done? If not, do we compare single elements, or traits, of cultures, and if so what issues does this method of comparison create? This question has led to a split in the scholarly community that is in some ways reminiscent of political parties. To keep matters simple, let me call one side in this divide the Tapestry School, and the other the Necklace School. Members of the Tapestry School see a culture as being like a tapestry decorated with images woven of fine threads. Take out a thread to show to someone and it has no meaning, as it tells us nothing about the picture of which it was a part. Compare it with a similar thread from a different tapestry, and even if the two threads are identical this similarity has no significance, since they may have been parts of very different woven images. There is an implicit assumption in this approach that cultures are tightly interconnected sets of principles, values, and ideas that cannot be separated from one another without losing their fundamental integrity. A view of essentially this kind was first expressed explicitly in a paper originally published in 1896 by the pioneering field anthropologist Franz Boas, who maintained that “research which compares similar cultural phenomena from various parts of the world … makes the assumption that the same ethnological phenomenon has everywhere developed in the same manner. Here lies the flaw … for no such proof can be given” (Boas 1940:273 ff.).
On the other hand, members of what for convenience I call the Necklace School see cultures as more loosely associated collections of elements or traits that are more like beads on a string than like threads in a tapestry. Take a bead out of a necklace, and it is still a bead, and a recognizable part of a necklace. Compare it with a bead from a different necklace and its similarity or difference tells you which necklace it came from. The implicit assumption of this approach is that although cultures may have certain tightly interconnected organizing principles, many practices and beliefs are only loosely associated with these principles, and can easily be separated and compared across ethnolinguistic groups. The archaeological theorist Lewis Binford (1987:399), who represents this second position, responded to the above quotation from Boas with the remark that “To a scientist this is an intellectually strange conclusion to draw,” and as noted in Blust (1984:31 ff.) a position like that adopted by Boas and endorsed by later anthropologists such as Leach (1951) is hard to separate from a rejection of generalization in anthropology.
Although it became disfavored among the majority of anthropologists in part because the act of comparison requires that comparata be extracted from their contexts in particular cultures, ethnology never died—it simply became an adjunct to the primary focus on ethnography, and remained alive because of individual anthropologists who had an interest in broad generalizations about the nature of culture. In looking at the data collected here we must recognize that much of it was not collected by professional anthropologists, and that it is atomistic—that is, not embedded in a larger cultural matrix. However, the claim that decontextualized culture traits have no value because they lack a demonstrated connection with other parts of the culture from which they are extracted is a fallacy. Applying the same standard to such disciplines as historical linguistics or comparative anatomy would make it impossible to do any work in these well-established fields. For example, the genetic relationship of languages is commonly based on the recognition of cognate vocabulary, and this means extracting individual words or morphemes (the smallest units of meaning) from the larger contexts in which they occur (Greenberg 1957:35–45). English three: German drei, English thorn: German Dorn, or English path: German Pfad are non-controversial pieces of evidence for the common origin of English and German that would be inadmissible if isolated elements of language were rejected for comparative purposes. Similarly, the evolutionary identity of reptilian forelimbs to the wings of birds would be impossible to show if these organs could not be compared in isolation from the total anatomical structures in which they are found.
The present study thus uses large data samples that consist of decontextualized culture traits, in the tradition of the Human Relations Area Files as developed by George Peter Murdock (1967), or the Culture Element Distribution Studies, founded by Alfred L. Kroeber as part of the University of California Anthropological Records, and developed further by scholars such as Driver and Massey (1957), and Jorgensen (1974, 1980). In each of these studies culture traits are plotted by geographical distribution, and language family affiliation in an attempt to determine their causation.
To conclude, the comparison of isolated culture traits is not only a legitimate scientific enterprise,—it is required in most comparative work, since the comparison of total cultures would be as impossible as the comparison of total languages. In much the same way that comparative linguists or comparative anatomists draw their conclusions from data points that are extracted from larger contexts, the traits of dragons and rainbows that are documented here can be usefully compared, not so much for inferences about common history, as for inferences about common cognitive pathways by which human psychology has responded to the natural environment in a wide array of cultures around the world. Between these two extremes the comparison of culture complexes—conceptually integrated facets of a culture—is possible, but rarely attempted. An exception is seen in de Heusch (1982:34–75), where the rainbow, portrayed as a giant snake that holds back the rain in the dry season, and the lightning, representing the rainy season, and the mortal enemy of the rainbow, constitute an evolving mythic cycle in a number of Bantu-speaking societies across a broad swath of central Africa, as will be shown in Chapter 7.
This chapter and Chapter 7 concern the ethnology of the dragon and the rainbow respectively. Both are ‘data-heavy’, since it is necessary to establish a solid base of facts in order to justify the claims made in Table 1, and other claims that will follow. Too often in discussing the nature of the dragon statements have been made impressionistically, or without references that allow ready checking. I have made every effort to provide my sources to the interested reader. Data will be cited in the following format. First, all citations are assigned to major geographical regions, of which twelve are recognized, the six shown in Table 1, and six others that are added here as 7–12 to round out our global picture of the dragon as a universal human creation:
The ancient Near East
Central and East Asia
North America and Mexico
Central and South America
Mainland Southeast Asia
Insular Southeast Asia
New Guinea and satellite islands
Pacific islands (beginning with the Solomons chain)
First, for historical reasons Egypt is assigned to the ancient Near East rather than to Africa. Second, I give the name of the ethnolinguistic group in which a trait is found, each of which is classified by language family affiliation in Appendix. This citation feature is important in order to control for Galton’s Problem (ensuring that the units of comparison are historically independent), since language relationship can normally be established with confidence as indicating cladistic descent, whereas nothing similar exists for non-linguistic aspects of culture. Where a language is generally regarded by linguists as having no well-established relationships its affiliation is given as ‘Isolate’. Third, the location of the group is given. Fourth, the relevant information regarding a belief pattern is related, and finally the source of the data is given with page references for published material, and date of personal communications where it was still possible to do this. To illustrate:
1 Central and East Asia
“Like the Shintō dragon-gods the dragon in the Sacred Spring Park was believed not only to be able to make rain, but also to possess the faculty of stopping it, if it was pouring too abundantly” (de Visser 1913:161).
2 North America and Mexico
The Western Mixe of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, say that a snake with a red and green back resembling a mat lives in springs. River floods are caused by this snake (Beals 1945:94).
In the interest of accuracy, I cite material from most published sources verbatim, as in the above quotation from de Visser. However, since even a single sentence may contain information that relates to more than one trait, and since each trait is treated separately, some repetition is unavoidable. I have tried to keep this to a minimum, but have not been able to eliminate it entirely.
Finally, because of the inherent difficulty in several parts of the Earth of distinguishing dragon from Rainbow Serpent, and hence from the rainbow, I have chosen to restrict my citation of dragon traits to dragons that have no explicit connection with the rainbow. Where one and the same phenomenon is described as a water serpent in its terrestrial form, and as a rainbow in its celestial form, I normally treat it in Chapter 7 as a rainbow even though it may also appear as a serpent, and hence as a dragon. With these prefatory remarks we can now begin our global survey of the ethnology of the dragon following the order of traits cited in Table 1.
3 The Data
3.1 Trait 1: The Dragon Is Giver/Withholder of Rain
3.1.1 A Giver of Rain
184.108.40.206 South Asia
In India “The Nagas were water-deities .... There are supposedly four types of Nāga. There are the Heavenly Nāgas, who uphold and guard the heavenly palaces; Divine Nāgas who cause clouds to rise and rain to fall; Earthly Nāgas who clear out and drain off rivers; and Hidden Nāgas who are the guardians of treasure” (Allen and Griffiths 1979:42).
In India, as in China, the basic concept of a dragon was elaborated beyond the simpler forms that are commonly found in preliterate societies. Here, a division of labor is presented for the various types of nāgas, or water serpents, with only the Divine Nāgas being givers of the fertilizing rains that are critical to life in traditional agricultural societies.
220.127.116.11 Central and East Asia
In China “When black and yellow clouds covered the sky, and thunder and lightning raged, the ancient Chinese said, like those of to-day: “The dragons are fighting; look at their blood spreading over the sky.” And at the same time the heavenly dragons caused the rain to pour down upon the grateful earth” (de Visser 1913:38).
In China “the dragon belonged to the emblematic figures depicted on the upper sacrificial garment of the emperor. It is not to be wondered at that this divine giver of rain, at the same time symbol of a good sovereign and his blissful government, should be represented among the Imperial ornaments” (de Visser 1913:99).
“On Japanese prints the dragon is often accompanied by a huge spiral, representing the thunderstorm caused by him” (de Visser 1913:105).
With reference to the dragons of Japan at a period when the native Shintō religion was still more important than Buddhism, we read that the word tatsu meant ‘dragon’, and
the fact that the ancient Japanese had such a word indicates that they themselves knew a kind of dragon before they were taught by Koreans and Chinese about the existence of the Chinese dragons … These dragons were kami, gods, who lived in rivers and seas, valleys and mountains (in rivulets, lakes and ponds), bestowing rain upon their worshippers (de Visser 1913:154).
In medieval Japan various schemes were used to force a dragon to ascend and bring the desired rains. The Sacred Spring Park is said to have been an important place where Buddhist services were held to obtain rain. During one lengthy drought in 875 CE the Buddhist priests who had not succeeded in their prayers for rain were advised by an old man that people had earlier resorted to an unusual stratagem to achieve their ends: “In the pond of the Sacred Spring Park there is a divine dragon. Formerly in times of heavy drought the water of this pond was let out and the pond was dried up; bells and drums were beaten, and when (the dragon) answered (the request) it thundered and rained” (de Visser 1913:160). In other words, by depriving the dragon of the comfort of its terrestrial habitat where it slumbered underwater, it was forced to fly up to the clouds to assume its celestial role as a rainmaker.
18.104.22.168 North America and Mexico
As noted earlier, according to the Creek Indians of Georgia the horned snake called sint-holo (‘sacred snake’) “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” (Swanton 1928:251).
This is the only citation I have found which associates the horned water serpent of North America with the production of rainfall, and the context is one in which rainfall is produced not for the benefit of mankind, but rather to facilitate the translocation of the serpent itself.
22.214.171.124 Central and South America
Huxley (1979:9–10) reports a belief common to the Maya which shows close parallels to the Chinese notion that the dragon makes rain when it flies among the clouds at the start of the rainy season, but at other times sleeps in terrestrial water sources or in caves. This rain-making function takes place
when the Chacs, as the present-day Maya call the four Iguanas of the House, have deserted their pools and rivers during the dry season to sleep overlong in their caves in the hills, causing earthquakes as they toss in their dreams. They then surge out with their water jars, shouting at each other and causing storms whenever a female Chac collides with a cloud. Both sexes are imagined as having the body of a plumed serpent and a human head, which in the male is crowned with antlers.
Here the well-known Mesoamerican plumed serpent is portrayed as a provider of rain, bringing the dry season to an end as it leaves its pools or rivers to take up residence in the sky at the onset of the rainy season. The most important thing to note in this connection is that the plumed serpent—like the dragon in other regions—spends the dry season dwelling in terrestrial water sources, but the wet season flying in the sky. It is thus not only a creature that varies its residence at different times of the year, but one in which this variation is correlated with rainfall or drought.
In a brief comment on the Botocudo, or Krenak of eastern Brazil, Métraux (1963a:540) noted that these people believe “A great snake is lord of the water, signals to the rain, and makes it fall.” Nothing more is said, but even this limited statement reveals a belief in a supernatural serpent that guards water sources and causes the rain to fall at certain times of the year.
In summary, the dragon as a giver of rain is robustly attested in India (where the Divine Nāga has this function), in China, Korea and Japan, in Central America (specifically among Mayan-speaking peoples, although it may be more widespread, but unrecorded in this area), and in at least one tropical forest tribe in South America. There clearly was an indigenous dragon in Korea and Japan, but Chinese cultural influence in both areas was so dominant for over a millennium (from roughly the beginning of the Tang dynasty in 618 to at least the beginning of the Qing dynasty in 1644) that it is often difficult to separate indigenous from introduced elements of culture in these countries. However, it is unlikely that the Indian nāga is a borrowing from China, or that the very different Chinese dragon was borrowed from India, and the similarity of the Chinese and Mayan beliefs cannot seriously be considered a product of contact. A more marginal expression of this belief appears in the Creek Indian reference to the ability of the sacred snake (sint-holo) to produce rainfall in order to move from one stream to another.
3.1.2 A Withholder of Rain
The dragon is more sparsely attested as a withholder of rain. I have found a single mention in the literature on the European dragon, it is implied in Sumerian and Babylonian mythic accounts, and is a secondary phenomenon in Chinese traditions. In Japan, where desired rainfall sometimes came in unwanted quantities, measures were taken to compel the dragon of the Sacred Spring Park to withhold the rain to prevent flooding.
Although a connection with the weather is rarely mentioned for European dragons, early in the twentieth century Abbott (1903:261) recorded the following lines from a Greek-speaking population in rural Macedonia which, he says, “form the beginning of a song heard at Nigrita”:
Yonder at St. Theodore’s, yonder at St. Georges’sA fair was held, a great fair.The space was narrow and the crowd was large.The Drakos held back the water and the people were athirst,Athirst was also a lady who was heavy with child.
According to Lawson (1910:280) the term drakos “indicates to the Greek peasant a monster of no more determinate shape than does the word ‘dragon’ to ourselves. The Greek word however differs, and has always differed, from the English form of it in one respect, namely that it is often employed in a strict and narrow sense to denote a ‘serpent’ as distinguished from a small snake.”
126.96.36.199 Ancient Near East
As noted earlier, in the Babylonian creation epic the monster/dragon Tiamat, who “holds back the waters”, controls the release of rain from the sky, and must be slain with a thunderbolt to unleash it.
188.8.131.52 Central and East Asia
Although the great majority of ancient Chinese texts stress the role of the dragon as a beneficent being in bringing rain, and hence agricultural fertility to the human community, there are isolated passages which suggest that this relationship is sometimes reversed. According to one document translated as ‘Various divinations of farmers’ “when black dragons descend this means drought or at least not much rain, hence a proverb says: “Many dragons, much drought.” The descending of white dragons, however, was explained to be a sure sign of coming rain” (de Visser 1913:111).
With respect to ancient Japan, where flooding sometimes occurred as a result of excessive rainfall, we read that “Like the Shintō dragon-gods the dragon in the Sacred Spring Park was believed not only to be able to make rain, but also to possess the faculty of stopping it, if it was pouring too abundantly” (de Visser 1913:161).
184.108.40.206 Central and South America
Allen and Griffiths (1979:11) maintain that
In Central and South American mythology ‘the monster that kept back the waters’ is represented as a snake, and is shown in the company of the elephant-headed rain god. The Maya Codex Troana shows the elephant-headed god Chac standing on the head of a serpent as he himself pours water to the earth. In the Codex Cortes, the serpent is clearly seen to be restraining or holding back the waters.
Although its central claim about a serpent withholding the rains may be correct, this is a puzzling statement since there have been no indigenous elephants in the Americas for many thousands of years. It is apparently motivated by the depiction of an upright humanoid with a proboscis like that of an elephant.
Without question the most important point to take away from this section is the ambivalent nature of the dragon as either a giver of rain (normally positive), or a withholder of rain (normally negative). A number of writers have noted the ambivalent character of dragons in general, but have rarely if ever suggested an explanation for this trait in observations of the natural world. There is no obvious reason why such an ambivalence would be attributed to a mythological character if it were purely whimsical. However, as will be seen in Chapter 7, this is exactly the view that many tribal peoples have of the rainbow—some see it as a sign that rain is coming, while others (in some cases quite closely related) see it as a sign that the rain has stopped or will stop.
3.2 Trait 2: The Dragon Is a Guardian of Pools or Springs
As summarized in Table 1, the belief that dragons are serpent-like creatures that live in springs, ponds, lakes or rivers, and jealously guard their waters from human intruders is almost universal. In some areas, as China and Mesoamerica, there is a stated seasonality by which dragons inhabit ponds in the dry season, but ascend to the clouds in the wet season, where they stay for extended periods as producers of rain.
The mythology of Classical Greece treats us to some of the best-known examples of dragons guarding springs. In a well-known Greek myth King Cadmus, founder of the city of Thebes, has an encounter with a dragon that lives in a water-filled cave. This is how Ovid, in Book 3 of his Metamorphoses describes the event:
He was now going to offer sacrifice to Jupiter, and commanded his servants to go and fetch some water for the libation from the running springs. An ancient grove was standing there, as yet profaned by no axe. There was a cavern in the middle of it, thick covered with twigs and osiers, forming a low arch by the junction of the rocks; abounding with plenty of water. Hid in this cavern, there was a dragon sacred to Mars, adorned with crests and a golden colour (Riley 1919:84).
The servants were rattled, but Cadmus arrived in time to promptly slay the beast with a large rock. As will be seen shortly in discussing another trait of dragons, Ovid’s comment that this dragon was “sacred to Mars” is significant in showing a connection of dragons with war. On the same page Riley adds the following footnote: “Euripides says that the dragon had been sent there by Mars to watch the spot and the neighbouring stream. Other writers say that it was a son of Mars, Dercyllus by name, and that a Fury, named Tilphosa, was its mother.”
A little over a century ago at least one informant who was interviewed by a folklorist in the Greek-speaking part of rural Macedonia proclaimed “I myself remember seeing, as a child, monstrous horned snakes swarming on yonder plain. Where are they now?” Furthermore, in this district it was widely believed that “the drakos” (dragon) “haunts the wells (hence called ‘dragon springs’) and works mischief on the people by withholding the water” (Abbott 1903:260–261).
Freshwater springs seem to have been less important in northern Europe than in the Mediterranean region, so that in Norse mythology “dragons often lurk in the cold sea or in gloomy lakes, to be glimpsed or imagined amid storms or fogs” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:90).
In a massive study focused primarily on the dragon in classical Greek myth and literature, Fontenrose (1959:545–549) devotes an appendix (Appendix 6: ‘Dragons and springs’) to the question why dragons are so often seen as guardians of springs. Drawing on the ideas of Norman Douglas (1928), whom he quotes, he says “The dragon, I hold, is the personification of life within the earth—of that life which, being unknown and uncontrollable is eo ipso hostile to man.” Following this quotation Fontenrose (545) continues his endorsement of Douglas’s ideas:
He believes that the primordial dragon is the spring; for, he says, springs are called ‘eyes’ in Italy and Arabia; and the eye must be upon a head and the head upon a body; the snake suggested the proper animal shape for the spring to take because of his glassy eye, earth-dwelling habit, cold blood and tenacity of life: hence the dragon .... As springs flow night and day, so the dragons are sleepless. As earth’s children they guard the treasures within her. The spring-dragon easily becomes a river-dragon, who becomes hungry and spreads out over the land in floods. There are heavenly springs so that he becomes a cloud-dragon that can fall in ruinous thunderstorm upon the fields. A volcanic crater is a spring of fire; so he becomes a fire-dragon that flows forth in lava torrents, or whose poisonous breath becomes the noxious exhalations from volcanic fissures.
This remarkable chain of methodologically uncontrolled speculation is offered to explain various dragon traits without any consideration of the rainbow, which is mentioned nowhere in the book. There is, of course, a reason for this damaging omission: erudite though it is, this study is thoroughly Eurocentric. Since there is little evidence (at least in the literary tradition) for an association between dragons and rainbows in Europe, one must search elsewhere for connections, which Fontenrose is simply not interested in doing. Instead, he has found the sources for various draconic traits through a method that hardly differs from free association.
3.2.2 South Asia
The belief that the Indian nāga was a guardian of springs or other water sources is less developed than in some other areas. Allen and Griffiths (1979:42) state that “The Nāgas were water-deities. They were sometimes associated with sacred pools or wells, in which case they were presumed to live underwater at the base of an adjacent tree; and were sometimes sea-gods.” The association of nāgas with water is well-established, then, but most often they dwell in sumptuous palaces under the sea, rather than jealously guarding springs, waterholes or wells that humans might approach in order to drink.
3.2.3 Central and East Asia
The Chinese classics make it clear that although the dragon flies high among the clouds when it produces rain, it is not always in flight. Rather, the dragon “is a water animal, akin to the snake, which sleeps in pools during winter and arises in spring” (de Visser 1913:38). Its habits are thus seasonal, leading to its presence among the clouds during the rainy season, but to watery slumber at other times of the year. Detached from the natural world this trait may appear arbitrary, but we will see that it is based on meteorological processes that are universally available to human observation, and critical to human well-being.
In China, as in Europe, dragons may take up residence not only in natural water sources, but also in those created by humans, as wells. Most wells were safe sources of drinking water, but apparently not all, since “a ‘dragon-rearing well’ in a ‘dragon king’s temple’ was said to be inhabited by a dragon. Nobody dared draw water from this well, because, if one did so, strange things happened, and the person who had ventured to thus arouse the dragon’s anger fell ill” (de Visser 1913:133).
As already noted with regard to the dragons of Japan, when the native Shintō religion still dominated Buddhism, and hence embodied traditions that were indigenous rather than importations from China, dragons were regarded as gods (kami) that lived in rivulets, lakes and ponds, providing rains for the human community.
3.2.4 North America and Mexico
Among the Kato and Yuki Indians of northern California, “A horned and feathered water serpent dwelt in tule marshes, and young girls might be ravished if they approached such places” (Essene 1942:72).
To the Zuni Indians of western New Mexico “The Water Serpent is a collective being who may be found in every spring or body of water” (Wright 1988:153).
According to Grinnell (1972:1:97) the Cheyenne Indians of the Great Plains held that
In some bodies of water there are said to live great snakes. One underwater monster was the mihn, described as somewhat like a very large lizard, with one or two horns on the head, and often covered, or partly covered, with hair. Sometimes these monsters caught people who went into the water and swallowed them. The thunderbird has been known to kill these monsters.
The Gros Ventre/Atsina Indians of the northern prairies believed in a water monster called Baxʹaa, a name that reportedly also applied to the thunder. Yet, as stated by Kroeber (1908:278–281), “The water-monster is the enemy of the thunder .... It is long, snake-like and black, with a long head and turned-up nose and horns. It causes the death of all persons who drown.”
The Lakota of the northern plains of North America believed in the unktehi, mythical creatures that reside in swampy places. The exact body form of the unktehi is unclear, but it is presumably reptilian with mammalian additions, an inference that is supported by the mutual enmity between it and the wakinyan or Thunderbird:
They have four legs and horns which they can draw in or extend them to the skies. They have long hair on the neck and the head which is wakan (sacred). Their tails are strong, and they can shoot or strike with them, and they use their tails as men use their hands. They are always at war with the wakinyan (Walker 1980:108).
According to Gatschet (1899:257), the Potawatomi Indians of the upper Mississippi river and western Great Lakes region believed there was a huge serpent in Lake Manitou, an artificial lake created for them in northern Indiana as compensation for lands taken by white encroachment. However, this gift had unintended consequences:
When the government officers were about erecting the Potawatomi mills, the Indians strenuously objected to the erection of a dam at the outlet of the lake, lest its accumulated waters might disturb and overflow the subterranean abode of the serpent, the exasperated demon rush forth from its watery domain, and take indiscriminate vengeance on all those who resided near the sacred lake.
This example is particularly interesting, as the lake did not exist prior to a land treaty with the displaced Potawatomi, and was created in 1827 by the federal government of the United States to provide a sawmill for the resettled Indians as a source of income. The belief that it contained a horned water serpent therefore implies that these creatures could move over land from one water source to another.
Among the Yaqui Indians living near the Bacatete mountains in southern Sonora, Mexico, the yo aniya, the “ancient and honorable realm”, or world of respected spiritual powers, was experienced in various features of nature, “such as the springs on the eastern margin of the Bacatetes or in the very heart of the mountains, where, for example, snakes with rainbows on their foreheads lived and swam in the water” (Spicer 1980:64).
The Norwegian adventurer Carl Lumholtz, who explored portions of northern Mexico on foot and horseback toward the end of the nineteenth century was particularly impressed by the fear of water serpents among the Tarahumara Indians, living high in the mountains of southwestern Chihuahua:
The Tarahumares, another Indian tribe of Mexico, think that every river, pool, and spring has its serpent, who causes the water to come up out of the earth. All these water-serpents are easily offended; hence the Tarahumares place their houses some little way from the water, and will not sleep near it when they are on a journey. Whenever they construct weirs to catch fish, they take care to offer fish to the water-serpent of the river; and when they are away from home and are making pinole, that is toasted maize-meal, they drop the first of the pinole into the water as an offering to the serpents, who would otherwise try to seize them and chase them back to their own land (Lumholtz 1902:1:402 ff.),
As noted earlier, among the Western Mixe of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, it is said that a snake with a red and green back resembling a mat lives in springs, and drags unfortunate people down into the water. River floods are caused by this snake (Beals 1945:94).
Among the Chontal Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico it is believed that certain spirits connected with water are found in springs. They appear as snakes, and can be either male or female (Carrasco 1960:107–108).
3.2.5 Central and South America
As already seen, the Maya Indians of Yucatan and central America believed that the chacs, or ‘four Iguanas of the House’, which are lizard-like controllers of rainfall, desert their pools and rivers during the dry season and rise to the heavens, causing storms by the collision of female chacs with a cloud (Huxley 1979:9–10).
In describing the Arawak-speaking tribes of what is now Guyana, Farabee (1918:151) noted that each of the deep pools along the Essequibo river is inhabited by a spirit, or vidiu: “These spirits are thought of as great anacondas with large eyes as bright as the moon .... These spirits or vidius do not kill people or eat them. They simply swallow them without injury, and they live in the vidiu forever.”
The one region where a belief in the serpent guardian of springs appears to be absent is the Near East, and this may be because of the sacredness of springs and streams in traditional Semitic belief systems (W. Robertson Smith 1957:95 ff., 173 ff.). As Smith puts it with regard to all Semitic cultures, most of which exist in extremely arid environments (173):
The myths attached to holy sources and streams, and put forth to worshippers as accounting for their sanctity, were of various types; but the practical beliefs and ritual uses connected with sacred waters were much the same everywhere. The one general principle which runs through all the varieties of the legends, and which also lies at the basis of the ritual, is that the sacred waters are instinct with divine life and energy.
This attitude is clearly a product of the critical need for water to support life in a harsh desert environment, and it clashes with the idea that springs might be guarded by a dangerous creature that protects them against human intrusion. As Smith argues further, it was the location of precious water resources that determined the location of what eventually evolved into religious shrines in both the Judaic and Islamic traditions. Given the attitude of fear and even revulsion toward the Rainbow Serpent that is found in most cultures, it seems clear that a serpent guardian of springs in the torrid climate of the Arabian Peninsula and neighboring regions would conflict with the sense of reverence accorded to the life-giving waters of the unforgiving desert.
3.3 Trait 3: The Dragon Lives in Caves
The lair of a dragon is often said to be in a cave, but why? We will soon see that this apparently arbitrary trait has clear connections with other traits of dragons that derive from observations of the natural world.
As evidence that European dragons sometimes lived in caves, we have several reports from antiquity. As seen under trait 2), the first of these comes from the Roman poet Ovid, who described a violent encounter by King Cadmus of Thebes with the serpent of Mars, which was guarding a spring within a cave.
The second comes from the story of St. Simeon Stylites (390?–459), a Syriac monk renowned for a life of rigid asceticism which led him to live atop a series of increasingly more lofty pillars for 37 years to escape society and temptation. At one point in his life as an act of charity he reportedly rescued a dragon from a terrible accident in which a stake became embedded in its eye. After he helped to remove the stake “The dragon arose, adored for two hours, and then returned to his cave, completely cured” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:118).
Much later, in the sixteenth century, the British legend of the Loathly Worm of Northumbria describes the vindictive transformation of a beautiful young princess into a repulsive serpent that “crawls away to a cave at Spindleston Heugh,” where she remains thereafter (Newman 1979:123).
Finally, the mélusines and vouivres of French folklore, which combine “a woman’s seductive body and serpent tail” are often described as dragons, and “live in river caves, near watering-places, where they drown men and eat them” (Huxley 1979:13).
3.3.2 Ancient Near East
Among the Hittites, who ruled an empire centered on the Anatolian plateau in what is now Turkey from about 1850 to 1200 BCE, the demon Typhon was a half-human and half-reptile dragon who “lived in a cave which was connected by an underground passage with the cave of the gods” (Mackenzie 1913:260).
3.3.3 Central and East Asia
Traditional Chinese medicine makes much of ‘dragon bones’. As noted in chapter 2, these may be the bones of any number of real animals. However, so long as they were believed to derive from dragons the conclusion seemed to follow that dragons, although sometimes considered immortal, had limited lifespans. Li Shi-chen, the author of a classic Chinese medical work that referred to the use of dragon bones for medicinal purposes, “on comparing all the different views and tales, arrives at the conclusion that the dragon, although a divine being, certainly dies like other animals.” Dragon bones therefore belong to dead dragons, and “They come from (lit. are produced in) the valleys of Tsin land (Shansi province) and from spots where dead dragons are lying in caverns on the steep water banks of T‘ai Shan” (de Visser 1913:90–91).
3.3.4 North America and Mexico
The Seneca legend of the horned serpent of Niagara has already been related in discussing dragons and waterfalls. In at least one account he made his home in a cave behind Niagara Falls (Morgan 1954:151), and as also mentioned earlier, the sint-holo, or ‘sacred snake’ of the Creek Indians of Georgia was thought to live along big creeks or in caves (Swanton 1928:251).
3.3.5 Central and South America
Among the Maya it is believed that during the dry season the chacs (plumed serpents with human heads) “sleep overlong in their caves in the hills” before surging out at the change of the seasons to bring rain (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:9–10).
This account of where dragons live may appear to conflict with the widespread belief that they inhabit pools, rivers or lakes, but it has a clear basis in the observation of nature. As already seen in Chapter 3, dragons are associated with waterfalls in widely separated regions because they are identified with the rainbows produced in the rising spray on sunny days, and there is reason to believe that once exhaustive research is conducted it will be found that every major waterfall has its resident dragon in the mythology of local indigenous people. Rainbows are most likely to be produced in waterfalls of large water volume, since these give rise to ‘reverse rainfall’. Because of natural hydraulic erosion at the foot of the falls, major waterfalls are also more likely to produce caves behind the veil of water, and this is where the dragon is often reputed to live. Once an association was established between dragons and caves in this context, it was free to be extended to caves in general.
3.4 Trait 4: The Dragon Can Fly
Because they often possess conspicuous wings it is natural to assume that European dragons can fly, but artists’ portrayals rarely show them in any posture other than that of a land-based antagonist of human beings. In this respect they differ radically from wingless Chinese dragons, which are commonly depicted as flying among the clouds, and are rarely represented on the ground even though they are described in the Chinese classics as inhabiting watery domains on the Earth during the dry season. European dragons appear to fly when they are agitated, as in the year 1222, when “there were tumultuous riots in the city of London. Dragons were seen flying through the air. At the feast of St. Andrew there was terrible lightning and thunder; houses and trees were blown down, and there were bad floods” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:101). Given such portrayals, we must conclude that European dragons are capable of flight, even if they rarely undertake it.
3.4.2 Ancient Near East
In a picture showing the winged female dragon Tiamat from the Babylonian creation epic, we read: “The Babylonian god Marduk attacks his mother, Tiamat, the first dragon, with thunderbolts. Her defeat and death heralded the creation of Man, but not the end of dragons” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:15). Although there is no clear description of her flying, the mere fact that Tiamat has wings is an indication that she was capable of doing so.
3.4.3 South Asia
The Indian nāga is usually thought to be an enormous snake that resides in an undersea palace resplendent with jewels. According to one prominent researcher who refers to the jātakas (tales about the incarnations of the Buddha in both human and animal form before his enlightenment)
the Nāgas are always described as enormous serpents; sometimes, however, they appear in later Indian (i.e., Graeco-Buddhist art) as real dragons, although with the upper part of the body human. So we see them on a relief from Gandhara, worshipping Buddha’s almsbowl, in the shape of big water-dragons, scaled and winged, with two horse-legs, the upper part of the body human (de Visser 1913:6).
The same writer adds that the nāgas appear in three forms: common snakes guarding jewels, human beings with four snakes in their necks, and “winged sea-dragons, the upper part of the body human, but with a horned, ox-like head, the lower part of the body that of a coiling dragon.” Given this description, in which wings are mentioned, we must assume that at least some nāgas were able to leave their watery domain and fly.
3.4.4 Central and East Asia
The ability of the Chinese dragon to fly is hardly in need of demonstration, as this creature is commonly represented in art as suspended mid-air in a martial pose, or winding effortlessly among the clouds, despite the absence of any visible wings. In those rare cases in which it is not airborne it appears as a decorative piece on temple roofs, which it presumably has reached by its powers of flight. In addition, the Chinese classics say that the dragon has both an earthly and a heavenly life, the former as a guardian of springs, wells and the like, and the latter as a rainmaker. According to Allen and Griffiths (1979:36–37), in China “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.”
3.4.5 Central and South America
Opinion appears to be divided on whether the plumed serpent of Mesoamerica is capable of flight.
Although it has feathers, it does not have wings, and in most depictions, it is comfortably situated on the ground. An implicitly negative view appears in the following comment: “One South American statesman—now many years dead—told a journalist who was searching for a solution to his country’s problems that Latin America would discover and fulfil her true destiny only when the plumed serpent learned to fly” (Nicholson 1985:83).
Somewhat more ambiguous views have been expressed by other writers: “The dragon, or feathered snake of South America and Mexico is central to the mythology of the region—reptilian, powerful, possibly capable of flight, connected with fertility, with weather phenomena and the life force, the symbol of resurrection” (Allen and Griffiths 1979:59).
However, among at least some modern Mayan groups the feathered serpent is clearly thought to fly. To the Chortí of Guatemala, for example
Chicchan is the most important of the native deities and is generally thought of as a giant snake .... He may have the giant form of an ordinary snake, or his upper body may be that of a man while his lower body is that of a feathered snake .... Cloudbursts and violent rainstorms are caused by the swift passage of female Chicchan across the sky, the impact of her body against the clouds causing the rain to fall. The rainbow is the body of a Chicchan stretched across the sky (Wisdom 1974:392–394).
The most important lesson to draw from this section is surely that the dragon has a body that is essentially reptilian, but it is capable of flight. Although flying reptiles (the pterosaurs) co-existed with the dinosaurs long before humans entered the scene, no modern reptile flies (some can glide by launching themselves from heights, but true flight is unknown). By contrast, dragons are portrayed as reaching the clouds, where they trigger the onset of rain. Again, it is difficult to see why such a trait would be attributed to a purely imaginary creature, as opposed to a creature that was conceived to account for features of the natural world.
3.5 Trait 5: The Dragon Has Scales
This is perhaps a trivial point. Dragons, being basically modified snakes, are normally thought to have a scaly skin. We can therefore safely assume this is the case for all dragons, except those of Mesoamerica, where the scales have been replaced by feathers. However, this trait is more clearly represented in some geographical regions than others. The Chinese evidently paid more attention to the scales of the dragon than any other people. As will be noted elsewhere in connection with discussions of the sex of the dragon, in the Taoist metaphysics of China disagreements about whether the dragon was Yang (male) or Yin (female) were settled by at least some scholars on the basis of what amounted to mathematical principles:
Whether dragons derived from the Yang principle or from both was the subject of much learned debate in which the number of scales on a dragon was of great significance .... Some experts insisted that the scales of a true dragon numbered exactly eighty-one, equaling nine times nine. According to Chinese philosophy, the number nine is Yang .... Other experts, arguing that dragons were not purely Yang but a combination of the qualities of Yang and Yin, put the number of scales at 117, made up of 81 imbued with Yang and 36 (six times six) with Yin (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:52–54).
3.6 Trait 6: The Dragon Has Horns
European dragons are most commonly represented without horns, although these sometimes appear in pictures that emphasize its ferocity (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:188–189), or that stress its identity with Satan, when in combat with Christian knights (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:148).
3.6.2 Ancient Near East
As seen earlier, the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon has a four-legged dragon figure with what appears to be scaly skin on a dog-like body, and what looks like a single horn projecting vertically from its forehead (Ingersoll 1928:25).
Similarly, portrayals of the Babylonian god Marduk attacking his demonic mother Tiamat with thunderbolts, show her as a winged dragon with two short horns protruding from the sides of her head above her eyes (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:15).
3.6.3 Central and East Asia
According to traditional Chinese texts “the nine classic resemblances of the Chinese Dragon, or ‘lóng’ as it is called, are as follows: it has the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the ears of a cow, the neck of a snake, the body of a fish, the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, the eyes of a devil and the paws of a tiger” (Newman 1979:99). In most artistic representations of Chinese dragons, two horns (sometimes forked, like antlers) are clearly visible on the head (Huxley 1979:33, etc.).
3.6.4 North America and Mexico
All over North America the dragon is known as the horned water serpent because it is the guardian of springs or rivers, and has the body of a snake, with horns like a mammal. Numerous individual descriptions could be cited; the following are representative:
The Warm Springs Apache of New Mexico believe in a feathered, two-horned water serpent which they say is buffalo-like (Gifford 1940:77).
The mihn, or horned water serpent of the Cheyenne Indians of the Great Plains has already been described above (Grinnell 1972:1:97).
According to Gatschet (1899:259), the Creek Indians in the southeastern United States
believed in a miraculous horned snake, which at times appeared at the surface of water-holes, and whose horns, used as a war-physic, were prized higher than any other fetish within their knowledge ..... Fragments of the horns were carried along in the warriors’ shot-pouches on their expeditions, and the song-lines of the horned snake referred to all the manipulations connected with the capture of the snake’s horns.
3.6.5 Central and South America
It was seen above that among the Chortí Indians of Guatemala, Chicchan is the most important of the native deities, and in addition to being basically a snake or human-snake hybrid we can now add that “He is sometimes said to have four horns on his head, two small ones in front and two large ones at the back, the former having the luster of gold” (Wisdom 1974:392–394).
As noted earlier, among the Maya the chacs (four Iguanas of the House), which bring the rains at the end of the dry season “are imagined as having the body of a plumed serpent and a human head, which in the male is crowned with antlers” (Huxley 1979:9–10).
Likewise, it was already seen in connection with the conflict between the water serpent and the lightning among the Sumu Indians of Nicaragua, that this creature is said to resemble a large boa constrictor “with two horns on the head like a deer” (Conzemius 1932:169).
3.6.6 Insular Southeast Asia
To the Javanese of western Indonesia “the rainbow is a giant snake with two heads of deer or cows, one of which drinks from the Indian Ocean, the other from the Java Sea” (Hooykaas 1956:291). Here the reference to horns is not explicit, but is clearly implied by a visualization of the ends of the rainbow (or snake) as terminating in the heads of horned animals.
This feature seems to be missing from the Indian nāga, which is much more snake-like (specifically cobra-like) than most dragons. Again, we should take note of the fact that although the dragon’s body is essentially reptilian, its horns or antlers are characteristic of certain classes of mammals. Horns do not occur in reptiles, except for the minor protrusions on relatively small lizards (as the horned toad, or some chameleons), which make a poor model for the horns of dragons, and are not available as models in some parts of the world where horned dragons occur.
3.7 Trait 7: The Dragon Has Hair (Mane, Whiskers, Etc.)
Yet one more physical trait that the basically reptilian dragon shares with mammals is hair in the form of a mane, whiskers, etc. This trait varies considerably for dragons from different regions, but is almost always found on the face or neck.
Most European dragons are hairless, although somewhat obscure manes do appear in some artists’ conceptions (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:141, 179). The closest thing to a hairy European dragon is the problematic case of the Scottish nixie, or ‘water horse’, often treated as a type of dragon, although its body is essentially that of a horse, which therefore has a mane. According to Huxley (1979:19) “The same water-horses once roamed throughout France, where they were called dracs [dragons], and when not carrying off their victims they were being ridden by the mélusines [female spirits of sacred springs or rivers that were serpent or fish from the waist down].”
3.7.2 Ancient Near East
Whether the dragon of the ancient Near East had hair-like features is hard to determine, since the only evidence we have for this creature comes from limited literary documents written on clay tablets, or from rare sculptured portrayals such as the dragon of the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. Given the mammalian (sometimes described as ‘dog-like’) torso of the latter it is a reasonable guess that this dragon had hair, although it is far from conspicuous.
3.7.3 Central and East Asia
This physical trait is especially prominent in the Chinese dragon, which is often drawn with whisker-like projections curling off to the side of the face, a mane, or occasionally with a beard hanging from the chin (Allen and Griffiths 1979:38, 42, Huxley 1979:33, 61, 77, etc.).
3.7.4 North America and Mexico
As noted earlier, among the Lakota of the northern plains of North America the horned water serpent, or unktehi, is said to “have long hair on the neck and the head which is wakan (sacred)” (Walker 1980:108).
3.8 Trait 8: The Dragon Has Feathers
Since many dragons have wings, one might expect them to have feathers in the same locations, but this is not true. The feathered serpent concept appears to be a Mesoamerican invention, an overlay on the more general dragon theme that spread with other Mesoamerican cultural influences into the American Southwest, and possibly further north. It is likely that it also spread into parts of the American Southeast, as the lower Mississippi Valley, where the prehistoric mound-building cultures of North America made a landfall, spreading northward from there into the Tennessee and Ohio river valleys. However, the native people of the lower Mississippi Valley lost most aspects of their traditional culture before it was recorded (cf. Swanton 1911, which reviews the seventeenth century French literature on the Natchez and culturally similar peoples in considerable detail, but with no mention of local dragon beliefs as taking the form of either the horned water serpent or the feathered serpent). While the idea of a feathered snake evidently spread northward from its area of origin, it does not seem to have spread into South America.
3.8.1 North America and Mexico
As already mentioned in connection with the role of the horned water serpent as a guardian of springs, among the Kato and Yuki (Yukian) peoples of northwest California this creature was believed to have both horns and feathers (Essene 1942:72).
Based on the pioneering fieldwork of F.H. Cushing in the second half of the nineteenth century, it has been observed that the horned water serpent among the Zuni Indians of western New Mexico was conceived of “as a plumed or horned snake” (Hultkrantz 1987:97).
Among the San Carlos Apache of eastern Arizona, the horned water serpent is described as a feathered serpentine water monster with two horns; and, as already noted, the Warm Springs Apache of New Mexico add that it is buffalo-like (Gifford 1940:77).
Mexican and Mesoamerican cultural similarities in the American Southwest are clear enough that attributing this feature to diffusion from further south is not problematic. However, it is harder to apply the same explanation to a belief in feathered snakes among indigenous groups in northern California, particularly since this is unknown in central or southern California, or the Great Basin.
3.8.2 Central and South America
The figure of the plumed serpent is so pervasive in the art, architecture and mythology of Mexico and Central America that specific documentation seems superfluous. Allen and Griffiths (1979:57–58) note that
Various suggestions have been put forward to explain the origins of this particular composite dragon, who is perhaps best known as Quetzalcoatl of Mexico .... Quetzalcoatl is the Mexican equivalent of the Maya Kukulcan .... And so all over the Yucatan and Mexico the image of the plumed serpent persists. As one of the aspects of Kukulcan-Quetzalcoatl, he is the subject of monumental stone carvings around the pillars and along the walls of temples and pyramids, which were a source of great puzzlement to early archaeologists.
Among some modern Mayan groups the plumed serpent goes by other names. As already observed, for example, the most important native deity of the Chortí of Guatemala is Chicchan, who is sometimes thought of as an ordinary snake, but may appear as a composite figure with the upper body of a man and the lower body that of a feathered serpent (Wisdom 1974:392–394).
Traits 5–8 can be treated as a unity, since together they characterize the dragon as a chimera—a fanciful animal made up of the parts of disparate living animals. But, as noted earlier the dragon is not just an ordinary chimera. In most variations his basic body plan is that of a snake, hence a cold-blooded animal, and it is combined with horns, whiskers, a mane, feathers, etc., all of which derive from mammals or birds, hence from warm-blooded animals. This feature is critical, as it mirrors the common perception of the rainbow as blend of fire and water, hot and cold.
3.9 Trait 9: The Dragon Is Opposed to Thunder/Lightning or the Sun
The opposition of the dragon in its various areally-determined forms to thunder/lightning or the sun was discussed in Chapter 4, and need not be repeated in detail here. The relevant point to keep in mind is that the dragon, whatever the natural basis for its origin in human thinking, is incompatible with thunder or lightning on the one hand, and with the sun on the other. At first this might seem to put us in a quandary, since weather conditions could be divided into ‘sunny’ vs. ‘rainy’. However, a little thought will show that this is not the case, as will become apparent in considering the ethnology of the rainbow, a phenomenon that can occur only when sun and rain are in competition for control of the sky, and neither is dominant.
3.10 Trait 10: The Dragon Is Androgynous
One of the best-kept secrets of the dragon, rarely mentioned in the generalist literature, is its dual, or ambivalent sexuality. This is easily overlooked, since the well-known predations of dragons on young women in European dragon lore would predispose most observers to consider the dragon unambiguously male. However, its ambivalent sexuality emerges in unexpected contexts. This is treated at some length in Blust (2019), and will only be summarized briefly here.
Most portrayals of the European dragon in art and legend say nothing of its sexual ambivalence, and in fact commonly emphasize its menacing predations on young women, which might result in demonic pregnancy were it not for the timely intervention of knights like Saint George. However, the picture that emerges in European alchemy, is quite different. Here, as stressed by a few writers, like Jung (1968, 1970), the dragon played a symbolic role in portraying the philosophical concept of the conjunction of opposites, as stated in the following passage:
The two substances of Mercurius are thought of as dissimilar, sometimes opposed; as the dragon he is “winged and wingless.” A parable says, “On the mountain lies an ever-waking dragon called Pantophthalmos, for he is covered with eyes on both sides of his body, before and behind, and he sleeps with some open and some closed.” There is the “common and the philosophic Mercurius”; he consists of the dry and earthy, the moist and viscous. Two of his elements are passive, earth and water, and two active, air and fire. He is both good and evil.... Because of his united double nature Mercurius is described as hermaphroditic. Sometimes his body is said to be masculine and his soul feminine, sometimes the reverse (Jung 1970:217–218).
This dual gender is sometimes visually represented as a single body that is human at the top and serpentine at the bottom, and—more to the point—male on the right side and female on the left side facing forward (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:130).
To my knowledge this trait of the dragon does not otherwise surface in the European context. However, it is clear that its limitation to the context of alchemy does not in any way diminish its significance, since the same feature appears in other parts of the world.
3.10.2 Central and East Asia
Chinese preoccupation with the dragon idea has been so longstanding and convoluted that it is not difficult to find contradictory passages about the dragon in different texts. de Visser (1913:71–72) for example, includes a short section on differences between male and female dragons, citing a classical description which holds that “The male dragon’s horn is undulating, concave, steep; it is strong at the top, but becomes very thin below. The female dragon has a straight nose, a round mane, thin scales and a strong tail.” Despite this unambiguous distinction between male and female dragons, however, as noted in discussing its scales, Chinese philosophers in the tradition of Taoist metaphysics debated whether the dragon should be considered purely an embodiment of the yang (male) principle, purely of the yin (female) principle, or as a blend of the two, with some favoring the latter interpretation.
3.10.3 Central and South America
The male-female nature of the serpent/rainbow pair in the vodoun religion of Haiti, as this is celebrated in the annual pilgrimage to the Saut d’Eau waterfall on the La Tombe river has already been mentioned. While this is demonstrably a west African import to the Americas, it can be cited as a historically distinct example of the double gender of the dragon.
Most references to the plumed serpent of Mesoamerica do not mention its gender, and if they do, they speak of male and female chacs as physically distinct. However, Huxley (1979:9) gives a different picture in discussing the Celestial Iguana of the Maya, or Itzam Na:
Itzam meaning iguana and Na, house or woman—whose name also has to do with milk, dew, wax, resin and sap. Itzam Na is bisexual, the male principle in the sky ‘in the midst of the waves’ while his consort is the unfaithful Earth, goddess of weaving and painting, whose moon-lover yearly emasculates her spouse.
Huxley drew, at least in part, on the work of the Mayan specialists Herbert Spinden (1957), and J. Eric S. Thompson (1970), who themselves relied heavily on early Spanish sources, and the contemporary ethnography of Mayan-speaking peoples. The latter writer (1970:21) observes with respect to modern Mayan groups that
Among the Lacandon, Itzam Noh Ku, “Itzam the Great God,” is god of hail, lord of Lake Pelha in which he dwells, and according to a recent source, lord of crocodiles .... Itzam is a Pokom deity ... and among the Kekchi of the Alta Verapaz and southern British Honduras who claim him as both male and female, he is a world directional mountain deity.
These remarks are restricted to mythical creatures that most would consider dragons. However, when Rainbow Serpents are added in Chapter 7 we will see that the same duality of gender is found both in the classic Rainbow Serpent of Australia, and in the less well-known Rainbow Serpent of Bantu-speaking peoples across central Africa, where it is usually described simply as the rainbow.
3.11 Trait 11: The Dragon Is Colorful/Red
Comments on the color of the dragon vary. In most cases color is not mentioned, but if it is, there is usually an emphasis on the colors being prominent, or the dragon is described as ‘multicolored’. Occasionally the dragon is said to have the colors of the rainbow, even where a connection between dragons and rainbows is otherwise unattested (as among the Yaqui Indians of northwest Mexico, or the Creek Indians of the southeastern United States). Where a single color is chosen to describe the dragon, it is most often red.
In the Celtic dragon myths, “the fables of Merlin, Nennius, and Geoffrey describe it as red in color” (Gould 1886:197).
3.11.2 Ancient Near East
In the New Testament Book of Revelation as related by St. John the Divine the end of creation is described as beginning with a series of apocalyptic signs:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail flung a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.
Lehmann-Nitsche (1933:220) zeros in on this biblical text, and asks why the so-called ‘dragon of the apocalypse’ was colored red. He concludes that it represented the constellation Scorpio, in which the brightest star is Antares, a celestial body that appears reddish to the naked eye. Apart from his extremely narrow focus, the author of this piece appears to have no further interest in the dragon, and like any number of other studies, this one never considers more than one or two of the 27 traits summarized in Table 1, and so leaves most of what needs to be explained simply in limbo.
3.11.3 Central and East Asia
With reference to the Chinese dragon de Visser (1913:111–112) cites a passage from a literary text which describes the tower of a castle gate being struck by lightning, and subsequently it was seen that “There was a creature which embraced the eastern pillar. It had the shape of a dragon and a golden color; its legs were about three ch’ih long, and its breath smelled very bad.”
While this description refers to a golden color rather than red or the colors of the spectrum, other sources refer to the dragon as being multi-colored:
A dragon in the water, say the Chinese, covers himself with five colors (the rainbow), therefore he is a god. If he desires to become small, he assumes the shape of a silkworm, if he desires to become large, he lies hidden in the world. If he desires to ascend, he strives toward the clouds; descend, and he enters a deep well. He whose transformations are not limited by days and whose ascending and descending are not limited by time, is called a god (Huxley 1979:11).
Other early Chinese sources describe dragons of different colors. Referring to a text written during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), for example, de Visser (1913:87–88) states that during a violent storm “a herd of dragons appeared at the surface and entered the Han River. The big ones were several chang long, the small ones over a chang. Some were yellow, others black, red, white or blue, and they resembled cows, horses, donkeys or sheep.”
3.11.4 North America and Mexico
With regard to the ‘snake-man’ or ‘tie-snake’ in the folklore and mythology of many southeastern tribes, it is said that “not only is the water person a transformed human being, he is apparently an identifiable mythological figure. In three of the Creek texts it is a “tie-snake,” and three others make specific reference to his multicolored horns, a characteristic feature of the horned water serpent” (Lankford 1987:86).
As noted in describing dragons guarding water sources, among the Yaqui in northwest Mexico, “snakes with rainbows on their foreheads” were said to swim in certain springs (Spicer 1980:64).
3.12 Trait 12: The Dragon Guards a Treasure
This is a common theme around the world that takes somewhat different forms in different locations (gold in Europe, jewels in India, a pearl in China).
European dragons are often represented as guarding a treasure, which is usually gold, or something with the attributes of gold. In the story of Jason and the argonauts the treasure guarded by a dragon is the Golden Fleece, and in that of Heracles and the dragon Ladon it is the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides. In the Icelandic Völsunga saga, the Anglo Saxon Beowulf, and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied the Germanic dragon guards a hoard of gold. Given their other attributes there is no obvious reason why dragons should guard treasures, so this trait appears to be arbitrary, which clearly conflicts with its wide distribution.
3.12.2 South Asia
As noted earlier, in India, according to Allen and Griffiths (1979:42) there are four types of nāga, one of which (the ‘Hidden Nāga’) is the guardian of treasures. More specifically, Huxley (1979:62–63) says that the Indian nāga
owns the most precious of jewels, which the Chinese call ‘the pearl that grants all desires’, saying that it is certain to be found in a pool nine layers deep under the chin of a horse-dragon. The pearl controls the phases of the moon; the ebb and flow of the tide; rain, thunder and lightning; and the course of birth, death and rebirth. Such pearls are sometimes spat out by dragons, and may be used to illuminate a whole house (or a whole man); and if kept in the mouth, it is as though you were drinking the finest wine.
3.12.3 Central and East Asia
Chinese dragons are often depicted in iconography as either pursuing a pearl or carrying a pearl in the mouth (Allen and Griffiths 1979:39), and rarely as guarding a treasure as European dragons do. The quotation from Huxley in the preceding entry for South Asia applies here as well.
In addition, however, the cang long are said to have been guardians of hidden treasures, charged with the duty “to guard and watch over the heavenly wealth concealed from mortal eyes.” Although they are rarely, if ever, depicted in paintings, images of these dragons have been found on tiles and on light relief stone panels (Bates 2002:14–15).
As noted earlier, in Korea a terrestrial dragon was formerly thought to preside over mines and gems “and the intense regard for it is perhaps the reason why mines have been so little worked in Chosen, the people superstitiously fearing that disasters may follow disturbance of the metals which they believe are peculiarly the treasure of the jealous earth-spirit” (Ingersoll 1928:88).
3.13 Trait 13: The Dragon Has a Jewel or Other Valuable on Its Head
An apparent subtype of the treasure theme is that the dragon has a jewel in its head, or a horn that is precious. Here the treasure is part of the dragon’s anatomy, rather than a separate object or set of objects over which it stands guard.
According to Hogarth and Cleary (1979:121) some European dragons resembled those of India and China in having a precious gem called “dracontias” in their foreheads that had magical properties. This had to be removed from a living dragon, since on dying the dragon would deliberately spoil its magic. Few dared to do this unless they could first put the dragon to sleep.
A similar idea apparently is expressed by the vouivre, or wyvern of France, “who in addition to a woman’s seductive body and serpent tail has the wings of a bat and a large carbuncle between her eyes. This stone she takes out whenever she bathes, and should any passer-by chance upon her thus defenseless he may safely steal the stone, leaving her blind as a glass-worm” (Huxley 1979:13).
3.13.2 South Asia
Wilkinson (1959:794) glosses Malay nāga as ‘dragon; etymologically not a saurian but a huge snake with a horn and on its brow, a luminous bezoar with which it lights its way at night.’ This is clearly due to Indian influence, and although I have not found any explicit mention of a jewel on the foreheads of Indian nāgas, it is likely that this idea was introduced to Indonesia during the Indianization of Southeast Asia in the first few centuries CE, hence its inclusion in this section.
3.13.3 North America and Mexico
Over much of North America horned water serpents “were almost always spoken of as having something growing from the tops of their heads—a horn, or a pair of horns, or a jewel. ... This horn, or jewel, was regarded by the Indians as highly valuable.” In a story told by the Cherokee of Tennessee and North Carolina, it is said that
Once upon a time among the glens of their mountains dwelt the prince of rattlesnakes. Obedient subjects guarded his palace, and on his head glittered in place of a crown a gem of marvelous magic virtues. Many warriors and magicians tried to get possession of this precious talisman, but were destroyed by the poisoned fangs of its defenders. Finally, one more inventive than the rest hit upon the bright idea of encasing himself in leather, and by this device marched unharmed through the hissing and snapping court, tore off the shining jewel, and bore it in triumph to his nation (Brinton 1905:137).
In another myth told by the Cherokee a captured Shawnee shaman secured his release by slaying a giant horned serpent (uktena) and delivering the flashing “diamond” which adorned its forehead (traditionally this must have been some other stone) to his captors (Mooney 1970:299).
As noted earlier, the horns of the horned water serpent among the Creek Indians in the southeastern United States “were prized higher than any other fetish within their knowledge,” and fragments of them were taken on war expeditions for protection against attack (Gatschet 1899:259).
3.13.4 Central and South America
It was seen above that among the Chortí Indians of Guatemala, Chicchan, the major indigenous deity of this group, is a huge snake with “four horns on his head, two small ones in front and two large ones at the back, the former having the luster of gold” (Wisdom 1974:392–394).
3.14 Trait 14: The Dragon Lives in Waterfalls
Chapter 3 showed that the widespread connection between dragons and waterfalls has arisen spontaneously regardless of culture type because cataracts with large water volumes produce ‘reverse rainfall’ that generates rainbows on sunny days, and does so on a much more prolonged basis than is typical for rainbows produced by rainfall, where the delicately-balanced conditions for refraction of sunlight through water droplets exist for a much shorter time.
3.15 Trait 15: The Dragon Encircles the World
This theme appears in several guises, in each of which the dragon is an enormous serpent that encircles the Earth, biting or swallowing its own tail so as to form a circle. In the tradition of European alchemy this figure is known as the Uroboros or Ouroboros:
The best-known example of the dragon as an Ouroboros is undoubtedly the Midgard Serpent, described in the Eddas, Icelandic poetic epics written between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, which reflect the Scandinavian worldview at the close of the pagan period. In this conception of nature, the world was divided into upper and lower worlds in addition to the middle world in which we live. The Midgard Serpent (called “Great Beast” in Icelandic) separated the upper and lower worlds by encircling the globe with its tail in its mouth.
Similar types of circular dragons appear in European alchemy, as documented by Jung (1956) and other writers:
The alchemical dragon was often expressed as the Ouroboros, the circular serpent-dragon which bites its own tail, a symbol of unity and of the prima materia of the universe which is far older than alchemy and which may have had its origins in Egypt as Apophis, the encircler of the earth (Allen and Griffiths 1979:66).
3.15.2 Ancient Near East
With regard to ancient Egyptian mythology, we are told that “Another creature ... is the divine serpent Sito, reputed to encircle the world with its immense coils and also represented in several other mythologies. Sito is often merely depicted in the form of a circle, holding its tail in its mouth” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:19).
3.16 Trait 16: The Dragon Terrifies Young Women/Causes Demonic Pregnancy
This theme is so common in European dragon traditions, both classical and post-Christian, that it is somewhat surprising to find it absent in some other parts of the world. However, even where it lacks the prominent role it has in Europe, it appears occasionally in unexpected places, like China.
One need only open most well-illustrated popular books that treat European dragons to find full-page pictures of nude or semi-nude women being menaced by a ferocious monster who is pierced in the nick of time by a noble knight’s lance (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:76, 86–87, 141, 174, 180, Huxley 1979:47, the last two reproducing a painting of the ‘damsels in distress’ theme by the French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres).
This theme recurs in Celtic folk tradition, where we learn of “the many stories of women who conceive when bathing mother-naked in a dragon-haunted stream.” An example is seen in the Celtic princess Ness, who after a forced marriage and a visit to the river Conchobar to fetch water, “gave birth to the hero Conchobar, who came out of the womb with a worm (another word for a dragon) clutched in each fist” (Huxley 1979:12).
“There are many dragons in France known to have a taste for young children, which they eat, and virgins, which they ravish” (Huxley 1979:42).
3.16.2 Central and East Asia
Although Chinese dragons generally leave attractive women alone, there is an interesting twist on this theme, in which the dragon’s lust for female companionship is used to manipulate it into producing rainfall. One of the Chinese classics, the Wu tsah tsu
describes the remarkable way in which the people of Ling-nan caused rain. As dragons are very lewd and fond of women, a naked woman was placed on an elevated point in order to attract a dragon. As soon as there came one and flew around her, he was magically prevented from approaching her, so that his anger was aroused and heavy rains came down (de Visser 1913:120).
As seen in the preceding reference to Celtic beliefs, the idea that women may be impregnated by dragons so as to give birth to dragon-humans is also fairly widespread.
While a five-toed dragon symbolizes the Chinese emperor as a general artistic motif, the Chinese classics relate tales of more than one emperor who was fathered by a dragon and a human mother:
The emperor Yao was said to be the son of a red dragon, who came to his mother, bearing on his back the inscription “You also receive Heaven’s protection.” Darkness and wind arose on all sides, and the dragon touched her, whereupon she became pregnant and after 14 months gave birth to Yao in Tan. A similar story is told about Kao Tsu (B.C. 206–195), the founder of the Han dynasty. T’ai kong, his father, saw a kiao long (kind of dragon) above his wife amidst thunder and lightning and black darkness, while she was asleep on the bank of a large pond. She dreamt that she had intercourse with a god, and afterwards gave birth to Kao Tsu (de Visser 1913:123).
3.16.3 North America and Mexico
As mentioned in discussing Arthur Parker’s version of the Seneca legend of the horned water serpent of Niagara, while being purified in the women’s sweathouse on the advice of Hi”no the Thunderer, the heroine of the story gave birth to two young serpents who ran down her legs and slipped off her feet, a consequence of her unwitting marriage to the monster of Cayuga Creek.
It was seen in Chapter 1 that the Zuni Indians of western New Mexico believed that the horned water serpent “can bring rain and may impregnate bathing women” (Hultkrantz 1987:97).
Various legends of the Creek or Muskogee Indians of Georgia talk about the ‘water panther’ or ‘water tiger’ as a variant of the horned water serpent. In one of these stories
An unmarried woman in the town of Coosa went to draw water from the spring and was afterward found to be pregnant. Then her brothers and some of her relatives thought this was the offspring of a water tiger (wi katca), which the Muskogee now identify with the leopard, became angry with her, and wanted to kill it (Lankford 1987:94–95).
3.17 Trait 17: The Dragon Is Offended by Menstruation
A theme that recurs repeatedly among tribal peoples in South America and aboriginal Australia, but has not been recorded in the traditions of Europe, the ancient Near East, India or China, is that dragons in the form of the Rainbow Serpent are offended by menstruation, and the water holes that they guard must be avoided by young girls who have just experienced menarche. A very similar belief occurs in North America with a water serpent that has no overt connection with the rainbow.
3.17.1 North America and Mexico
An elaborate version of this theme is expressed in a story told by the Shawnee Indians of central and southern Ohio, about a one-horned snake called wewiwilemitá manetú, which in at least one version goes like this:
A young maiden who was “eating alone” (i.e., menstruating) saw a fawn who had one horn red and the other blue; it was lying in the waters of a lake, immersed up to the neck. The next time she saw it, it had become much larger, and was moving out of the watery element. The next time it appeared to her in the form of a snake. A fourth time the snake had disappeared from the lake, but the lake had increased in size, and its waters were hot and boiling. Having informed her father of the occurrence, he held council with the old men of the tribe, who agreed among themselves upon killing the snake, or trying to do so. For this purpose, they induced the young woman to go to the lake again, when her next courses should come on. Twelve old men accompanied her, singing and carrying a drum, taking along their shamanic “medicines” with them. They camped out that night, and next morning sent the girl into the lake to erect a tent-like structure or trestle in its midst. When they sang their magic songs many kinds of snakes appeared and laid their heads upon the (horizontal) cross-poles of the structure. The conjurers told them, “You are not the ones (wanted),” and the waters became excited and boiled. But when a certain snake came and put its head on the cross-poles, they said, “You are the one.” The girl was then ordered to enter the water again and to strike its surface four times with her underwear. This she did, and the effect on the snake was so weakening that it could be killed by the conjurer without any exertion (Gatschet 1899:256–257).
As will be seen in Chapter 7, the same theme of offending menstruation reappears in western North America in connection with the rainbow, where it has no overt connection with a water serpent.
3.18 Trait 18: The Dragon Is Connected with Hoofed Mammals
This next trait takes us into territory that is conceptually quite strange, but turns out to strengthen the connection between dragons and rainbows, as will be seen in Chapter 7. In several non-contiguous areas the dragon is conceived as part snake and part hoofed mammal. In Europe this appears only in the form of a horse that is behaviorally indistinguishable from a dragon, while in other parts of the world it is a chimera.
As noted earlier, the Scottish nixie, or ‘water horse’ (also called ‘kelpie’, or ‘water kelpie’) is often treated as a type of dragon, as it is reputed to seduce or devour young women. In some accounts this creature appears first as a handsome and polite young man, thereby duping his victims into believing they are safe with him. A clue to his true identity is that he may have hooves instead of feet, a trait that also links the nixie with Christian ideas of Satan. In at least one account the water horse and kelpie are distinguished: “Some writers speak as if the Water-horse were to to be identified with it, but the two animals are distinctly separate. The Water-horse haunts lochs, the Kelpie streams and torrents” (Campbell 1900:215). Like dragons elsewhere, the Scottish water horse is said by some to have the power to change its color and shape (Campbell 1900:204).
3.18.2 Central and East Asia
There is no need to repeat the ‘nine classic resemblances’ of the Chinese dragon, which were already mentioned under trait 6) in connection with the horns of the dragon. These link it, somewhat oddly, but in a way also found in other parts of the world, to camels, deer and cows (Newman 1979:99). However, the dragon is also linked, in widely separated regions, to hoofed mammals that lack horns, in particular horses.
As surprising as the Scottish nixie might seem, essentially the same link between dragons and horses is well-attested in East Asia. In his classic study of the dragon idea in China and Japan, de Visser (1913) dedicates a section to dragon-horses in China (56–59), and an entire chapter ‘The Chinese dragon and the dragon-horse as omens in Japan’ to the dragon-horse in Japan (146–151). As in Scotland, these animals live in rivers or other watery domains, and in typical florid Chinese style, they are described in minute detail. In a commentary called the Shui ying t‘u, written before 557 CE, the dragon horse in China is described as follows:
It is a benevolent horse, the vital spirit of river water. Its height is eight ch‘ih five ts‘un; its neck is long and its body is covered with scales. It has wings at its shanks, and its hair hangs down its sides. Its cry consists of nine tones, and it walks on the water without sinking. It appears at the time of famous sovereigns (de Visser 1913:57).
Whether the similar idea in Japan is indigenous or borrowed is moot, but various sources refer to the connection of dragons with horses as a well-developed concept in the Japanese islands. For example, in the Masu kagami, a text said to have been written in the period 1340–1350, the dragon horse is described as being able to cross broad rivers: “In 1221, when Hōjō Yoshitoki marched from Kamakura to Kyōto against the Emperor Juntoku, the rivers Fujigawa and Teuryūgawa (“Celestial Dragon-River”) were swollen by the rains to such a degree that even a dragon-horse could not have crossed them” (de Visser 1913:148).
Among other references to dragon-horses, or to the dragon and horse as interchangeable, is the Japanese aphorism
‘In heaven a horse is made into a dragon, among men a dragon is made into a horse.’ For the Japanese sacrifice horses at the spring festival, and also when the gods withhold the rain. They are sent to heaven, that is, so that they will become dragons and preside over the change of water into fire and fire back again into water: for the horse only has power over water because it is a solar animal (Huxley 1979:20).
3.18.3 North America and Mexico
The type of hoofed animal that a dragon is said to resemble varies with the local fauna. This can be seen with a report on the Umatilla Indians of eastern Oregon, who believed in a possibly double-headed serpent that was seen both in lakes and on the land. This creature, known as a ‘water elk’ in English despite its stated serpentine form was thus apparently a blend of snake and mammal (Ray 1942:255–256).
As mentioned previously, the Warm Springs Apache of New Mexico believe in a feathered, two-horned water serpent which they say is buffalo-like (Gifford 1940:77).
3.19 Trait 19: The Dragon Has Fiery Breath
One of the most conspicuous features of European dragons is that they breathe fire, a trait that assumes frightening proportions in some artistic portrayals (Hogarth and Cleary 1979: frontispiece, 188–189), and has been artificially reproduced in physical form at Universal Studios International in Orlando, Florida, where a dragon atop a three-story building spews out twenty foot long gas-fed flames every few minutes for the questionable entertainment of visitors.
3.19.2 South Asia
Few accounts of the Indian nāga mention it breathing fire but, surprisingly, this does appear in the Buddhist tradition of meditation and enlightenment. In one account the Buddha lived as a king of the nāgas before he was incarnated as a man. He is further said “to have been sheltered during the storm of his illumination by the seven-headed nāga, Mucilinda, who was the agent of that storm; and to have tamed a fire-dragon by making it enter his alms-bowl, as one of his first deeds when Awakened” (Huxley 1979:30).
3.19.3 Central and East Asia
Although Chinese dragons are rarely portrayed as breathing fire like their European counterparts, as mentioned in Chapter 1, this trait is reported in the Chinese classics, where we learn that “Dragon fire and human fire are opposite. If dragon fire comes into contact with wetness it flames, and if it meets water it burns. If one drives it away by means of fire, it stops burning and its flames are extinguished” (de Visser 1913:67).
3.19.4 North America and Mexico
The Shuswap Indians of central and southern British Columbia believed in a land serpent with a tongue like fire. This creature reportedly made furrows in the ground by crawling, and merely seeing it would cause illness or swelling of the body (Ray 1942:255–256).
Elsewhere in North America the horned water serpent was more commonly described as having fetid or poisonous breath, rather than breathing flames.
3.20 Trait 20: The Dragon Has Fetid or Toxic Breath
As just noted, in other contexts a dragon’s breath is described as toxic rather than fiery. The sixth century Gallo-Romance saint, Gregory of Tours related such as case:
There was in Paris a lady of high rank who had lived a very abandoned life, and had died in her sins. Being a Christian, and not excommunicated, she was buried in consecrated ground; but that same night a hideous and gigantic dragon came from a desert to Paris, hollowed out a great hole for his lair, and began to feed on the dead body. It did not devour it all at once, but returned again and again. As the breath of the monster infected the air, those dwelling near the churchyard were so greatly alarmed that they were forced to leave their houses, and St. Marcel was beseeched to come to the rescue (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:117).
In the Norse Eddas the hero Odin, who sallies forth against the forces of evil with the thunder god Thor at his side, is devoured by the monstrous wolf Fenrir, “and although Thor manages to slay the serpent of Midgard, he himself is overwhelmed by the monster’s toxic breath and staggers back only nine paces before falling dead in his tracks” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:93).
The British legend of the Loathly Worm of Northumbria relates that the heroine, a beautiful young princess named Margaret, is cursed by her jealous stepmother, who wishes that the princess be transformed into a ‘loathly worm’. The curse takes effect and we hear that “Margaret becomes a loathsome worm and crawls away to a cave at Spindleston Heugh. There she whiles her time as worms are wont: polluting the crisp Northumbrian breezes with her venomous breath and ingesting placatory tributes of milk volunteered by the terrified local populace” (Newman 1979:123).
Elsewhere we are told that “Whole tracts of countryside could be rendered uninhabitable and birds made to fall out of the sky by the very breath of a dragon. This problem was most acute in Ethiopia, where the great heat tended to make the dragons more poisonous than they were elsewhere” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:117). Despite the reference to Ethiopia this appears to have been a European tradition rather than an indigenous African one.
3.20.2 Central and East Asia
In the Chinese classics ‘dragon bones’ or ‘dragon eggs’ are mentioned more often than dragon breath, but there are occasional comments which correspond with descriptions of the dragon’s breath in other parts of the world. As noted earlier, with reference to a text on the History of the Sung Dynasty, we read the following passage:
In Ti Chen there fell a fire from the air upon the tower of the Northern gate of the castle. There was a creature which embraced the eastern pillar. It had the shape of a dragon and a golden color; its legs were about three ch’ih long, and its breath smelled very bad (de Visser 1913:111–112).
No explanation is given as to why, in some texts, the Chinese dragon breathes fire, but in others it produces fetid or toxic breath without flames. However, it must be remembered that the Chinese classics were produced over a number of centuries, and were written by scribes in different locations who were no doubt in each case influenced to some extent by local folk beliefs about the dragon, an important point to which I will return below.
3.20.3 North America and Mexico
It has already been observed that the Mohawk Indians of upstate New York believed in “a lake serpent called Onyare, whose breath, diffused through the air, brought on sickness” (Gatschet 1899:259).
“De Voragine tells of the city of Silene in Libya which was menaced by a dragon in a nearby lake with breath so foul that it poisoned the countryside” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:141).
3.21 Trait 21: The Dragon Causes Earthquakes
In their account of ‘medieval dragons’ in Europe, Hogarth and Cleary (1979:101) provide a selective chronology of reported dragon sightings ranging from 1170 to 1532. One of these, in 1274, states that “In the vigil of St. Nicholas there was an earthquake and thunder and lightning; a fiery dragon and a comet terrified the English.”
3.21.2 North America and Mexico
Among the Zuni Indians of western New Mexico “The Water Serpent is a collective being who may be found in every spring or body of water. Although there are variations in form, the commonest is the Plumed Water Serpent, present throughout the Pueblo world. These beings are the cause of earthquakes, floods, and landslides” (Wright 1988:153).
3.21.3 Central and South America
In discussing the relationship of fire and water in the Mayan conception of the forces that govern rainfall and its absence Huxley (1979:9–10) notes that
the dragon-lord of fire and time must not only live in the water but make it. His power, for a start, is usually embodied in a green or blue stone which, when hafted as an axe, was also the sceptre of Mayan kings. This can be used to call up the rain when the Chacs, as the present-day Maya call the four Iguanas of the House, have deserted their pools and rivers during the dry season to sleep overlong in their caves in the hills, causing earthquakes as they toss in their dreams.
Elsewhere, the same writer observes a similar connection with dragons in an unspecified ethnic group, which presumably is the K’iche’ Maya, where Huracán is the god of wind, storm, and fire. “The hurricane is named after Huracán, the dragon of the Caribbean who is also responsible for earthquakes” (Huxley 1979:74).
3.21.4 Insular Southeast Asia
The Mamanwa of northeast Mindanao in the southern Philippines, “think that earthquakes are made by a giant snake.” According to one informant the Earth rests on the back of an enormous python, and when it moves there is an earthquake (Maceda 1964:115).
3.22 Trait 22: The Dragon Causes Whirlwinds/Storms and Waterspouts
The creature Typhon has been described as a monstrous serpent, and the most dangerous creature in ancient Greek mythology. His identity as a dragon is clear not only from his physical description, but also from his association with destructive whirlwinds, and from the use of a thunderbolt to strike him dead, both of which are associated with dragons in other parts of the world:
Typhon, who is sometimes identified with the Egyptian demon-god Seth, manifested himself as a powerful and destructive whirlwind, now known as a typhoon .... From head to thighs he approximated human form, but sprouting a hundred dragons’ heads and numerous wings; his lower limbs were huge coiling serpents. So awesome was he that when the gods first saw him they all fled to Egypt and hid, in the guise of various animals. Zeus alone stood his ground against Typhon, first pelting the monster with the traditional thunderbolts and then closing in on him with a sickle made of adamant (a substance reputed to be as hard as a diamond) (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:68–69).
3.22.2 Central and East Asia
The recurrent association of dragons with unusual weather phenomena is further illustrated with respect to the Chinese dragon in the following quotation:
At the autumnal equinoxes many of them were believed to descend into the sea where, like the Indian nāgas, they dwelt in sumptuous ocean palaces. At the vernal equinoxes they arose from the waters and ascended into the sky. The tremendous disturbances caused by the swift emergence of these monsters caused typhoons and hurricanes along the coast (Newman 1979:101–102).
In a similar vein, a traditional Chinese belief held that it was unwise to keep dragon eggs, since they could hatch into a tiny snake or worm, and then very quickly expand to a full-sized dragon that would burst through the roof of the house in a thunderstorm on its way to the sky. “Whirlwinds and waterspouts are thus explained as a young dragon ascending to heaven” (Allen and Griffiths 1979:36). An identical idea is reported for Japan, where “the whirlwinds, called in Japan tatsu-maki or “dragon rolls”, which form waterspouts and carry heavy objects into the air, were looked upon as dragons winding their way to the sky amidst thunder and rain” (de Visser 1913:112). While this belief could be due to the influence of Chinese conceptions of the dragon, Japanese views of the dragon framed within the indigenous Shintō religion are much more likely to be native. In the Shintō conception, nature is pervaded by kami (spirits, gods), and in one account drawn from the classic text Nihongi, which relates how dragons were implored to bring rain in times of drought, it is said that the river gods (dragons) could also cause wind, and in one case made a whirlwind arise in order to submerge some calabashes (de Visser 1913:154).
3.22.3 North America and Mexico
The Shuswap Indians of central and southern British Columbia believed in dangerous beings in lakes that cause waterspouts and storms (Ray 1942:255–256).
The previously noted ‘water elk’ of the Umatilla Indians of eastern Oregon was thought to cause waterspouts and storms, and so was periodically propitiated (Ray 1942:255–256).
3.23 Trait 23: The Dragon Causes Floods
With reference to European dragons that needed to be slain, several saints, including St. Michael, “were reputed to have slain, tamed, or otherwise overcome this dragon or its progeny, in many of its manifestations, including flood, because the old association with water, and especially with inundation, remained unbroken” (Allen and Griffiths 1979:51).
As noted under trait 4), on the dragon’s ability to fly, in the year 1222, while riots took place in the city of London “Dragons were seen flying through the air. At the feast of St. Andrew there was terrible lightning and thunder; houses and trees were blown down, and there were terrible floods” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:101).
3.23.2 Ancient Near East
The Sumerians recognized a dragon-like monster called ‘Kur’, also known as ‘the monster who held back the waters’. Presumably in an attempt to release the life-giving rains he was killed, but “When Kur is slain the primal waters are no longer held in check and there are terrible floods” (Allen and Griffiths 1979:19).
3.23.3 Central and East Asia
“From older times high floods, tempests and thunderstorms have been ascribed by the Chinese to dragons fighting in rivers or in the air” (de Visser 1913:45).
One type of dragon, the jiao, from the period of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) is sometimes called the flood dragon, as it was thought to cause flooding (Bates 2002:13–14).
3.23.4 North America and Mexico
The Gros Ventre/Atsina of the northern plains believed in a large snake-like water serpent that could cause terrific floods (Kroeber 1908:281).
With reference to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Great Lakes region we are told that
The lake dragons of the North were more than just snakes. They were, like other dragons, variations on the theme of ‘snake’. They were immensely powerful, since they could overturn a boat or drag down a swimmer, and in a more magical way since they could create storms and dangers for those who crossed them. Like the Chinese dragons, they were water deities. They always lived in lakes and, because of their association with lightning, which is most in evidence in the time of the spring rains, they were believed to control the fertility of the vegetation … As the summer showers they were the emblems of fruitfulness but as the overwhelming rains and flood they were feared, and placated by offerings (Allen and Griffiths 1979:60–61).
With respect to the Zuni Indians of western New Mexico, it has already been noted in connection with earthquakes that the horned water serpent was also believed to cause floods and landslides (Wright 1988:153).
As observed under trait 2) the Western Mixe of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, recognize a snake with a red and green back resembling a mat that lives in springs, and is responsible for river floods (Beals 1945:94).
3.24 Trait 24: The Dragon Is a Sign of War
A belief that the dragon symbolizes war is widespread in Europe. Although this is not attested in the ancient Near East, India, China, or North America, in other areas, where dragon and rainbow are more difficult to distinguish, it will be seen that the rainbow has an identical association.
In describing the Greek legend of King Cadmus the dragon slayer, we are told that
Following the directions of the Delphic oracle, he came to a locality that was later to become the site of the city of Thebes. The only water available thereabouts came from a spring sacred to Ares, god of war. This spring was guarded by the son of Ares, a ferocious dragon (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:77).
In another passage by the same authors, we read that “The use of a dragon to intimidate enemies is often mentioned by classical writers. The army of the later Roman Empire used a draco as the standard of a cohort, roughly 500 men, while an eagle standard signified the larger formation of a legion (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:158). Ingersoll (1928:129) states that in addition to the Romans, “the Persians, Scythians, Parthians, Assyrians and even the Saxons” had dragon standards that they carried into war, and strikingly, “in the painting in the Vatican depicting Constantine the Great announcing to his soldiers his conversion to Christianity, a buoyant image of a winged, four-footed proper dragon is prominently displayed, floating from a lofty pike-head.”
A similar use of dragons as symbols of martial intent is equally well-attested in northern Europe, where “In England before the Norman Conquest the dragon was chief among the royal ensigns of war” (Anon. 2002). Much the same can be said of Roman and Celtic martial symbols on shields and banners. Moreover, the end of winter was a time “when the Vikings longed to go a-raiding, and the dragon heads on the prows of their long ships speak plainly of the appetites stirred up by the spring, which for them included slaughter, pillage and rape” (Huxley 1979:81).
3.25 Trait 25: The Dragon Causes Sickness, Disease or Trouble
This category is not always easy to distinguish from the effects of exposure to a dragon’s breath, but the following cases appear to be independent.
Among the many reports of dragon citings in medieval England, one that is said to have taken place in 1233 in southern England near the coast involved two huge dragons battling in the air until one was overcome and fled into the sea. To this description of physical combat between dragons it is added that social and political upheaval followed in the human community: “Moreover in this yeare great variance and strife rose betwixt the king and his barons …” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:101).
3.25.2 North America and Mexico
As mentioned earlier, the Shuswap of central and southern British Columbia believed in a land serpent with a tongue like fire, “and merely seeing it would cause illness or swelling of the body” (Ray 1942:255–256).
It was also noted above that among the Mohawk Indians of upstate New York the breath of the lake monster Onyare reportedly brought on sickness (Gatschet 1899:259).
3.25.3 Central and South America
The Toba Indians of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay have a myth about a young girl who became supernaturally impregnated by a snake while bathing in a waterhole that it guarded. The negative effects of contact with such a spirit water serpent could also be disease or death (Karsten 1964:54).
3.26 Trait 26: The Dragon May Have Human Traits
Occasionally, accounts of the dragon in different regions state that the dragon’s body is part human, part snake. Alternatively, the dragon may alternate between reptilian and human form, or between a hoofed mammal conceived as a dragon, and its human alter ego.
As noted already under trait 18), the Scottish water-horse, which is generally regarded as the manifestation of a dragon, may appear in either human or equine form. In some accounts this creature appears first as a handsome and polite young man, thereby deceiving his victims into believing they are safe (Campbell 1900:215).
With reference to modern Greek folklore Lawson (1910:280) has observed that
a Greek ‘dragon,’ in the widest sense of the term, is sometimes distinctly anthropomorphic in popular stories, and is made to boil kettles and drink coffee without any sense of impropriety. It is in fact only from the context of a story that it is possible to determine in what shape the dragon is imagined.
Citing an earlier source Abbott (1903:265) notes that in Russian folklore regarding dragons “the Snake sometimes retains throughout the story an exclusively reptilian character; sometimes he is of a mixed nature, partly serpent and partly man.”
In European alchemy dragons represented the conjunction of opposites, a concept visually depicted as a single reptilian body topped by male and female human heads (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:130).
3.26.2 Ancient Near East
The Hittite empire, which controlled the region of central Anatolia in what is now Turkey from about 1850 to 1200 BCE, apparently had dragon ideas similar to those of Egypt and Babylonia. The demon Typhon, who warred against the gods and was slain by the hero Tarku, “was half-human and half-reptile—the upper part of his body was that of a man and the lower that of a serpent” (Mackenzie 1913:260).
3.26.3 South Asia
According to de Visser (1913:6) the Indian nāgas appear in three forms: common snakes guarding jewels, human beings with four snakes in their necks, and “winged sea-dragons, the upper body human, but with a horned, ox-like head, the lower body that of a coiling dragon,” and Huxley (1979:28) states that “Nāgas are snakes, often pictured with a human body, who live at the top of the present Mountain of the Gods, Mount Meru, in a golden palace echoing with music, containing beautiful women, wish-fulfilling jewels, flowers and ambrosial refreshment.”
3.26.4 Central and East Asia
According to the classic Chinese text Shan hai king the god of Mount Chung is called ‘Enlightener of the Darkness’. “As a living being, he has a human face, the body of a snake and a red color” (de Visser 1913:62).
The Chinese classics refer to the khwei, described as “a class of one-legged beasts or dragons with human countenances, which were fancied in ancient China to be amphibious and to cause wind and rain” (de Visser 1913:110).
3.26.5 North America and Mexico
As already seen, the ‘snake-man’ or ‘tie-snake’ in the folklore of many tribes in the southeastern United States, as the Creek, is said to be a transformed human being who has become an identifiable mythological figure (Lankford 1987:86).
The most extreme expression of this shifting dragon/human identity is seen with Quetzalcoatl, identified with the Toltec civilization of central Mexico between 900 and 1200 CE. According to Sejourné (1956:25), who believes he was a real person, Quetzalcoatl was a culture hero who reigned as king in the city of Tollan, a leader who was followed almost like a prophet:
His historical reality seems to be established without doubt, since his qualities as leader are many times mentioned .... But the fame of Quetzalcoatl spread far beyond his ancient capital. In fact, he was the central figure in all Meso-american history. No other name, not even the most powerful emperor’s, is even distantly comparable to his … His essential role as founder of Nahuatl culture was never questioned by any of the historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who always state that, just as our era began with Christ, so that of the Aztecs and their predecessors began—at approximately the same time—with Quetzalcoatl. His image, the plumed serpent, had for pre-Columbian peoples the same evocative force as has the Crucifix for Christianity.
It is hard to test these claims without documents that separate history from mythology, but the simple fact is that a belief in the plumed serpent extends far beyond central Mexico to at least the American Southwest, and on to northern California, where both the Zuni Indians of western New Mexico and several Athapaskan-speaking peoples of northern California describe the horned water serpent as feathered. In Meso-America the name ‘Quetzalcoatl’ is inseparably associated with both the plumed serpent and the alleged founder of Nahuatl civilization. This raises a question about directionality: was the name of the great leader applied to the plumed serpent or vice-versa? Given the pattern seen in other parts of the world, it is extremely unlikely that the name of a real human being would be applied to a mythological creature. Rather, this would appear to be yet another example of the hominization of the dragon: a pre-existing mythical being of great spiritual power was, over time, treated as a human capable of leading men.
3.26.6 Central and South America
As noted already, for the classic Maya of central America the chacs, or serpents that control rainfall were “imagined as having the body of a plumed serpent and a human head, which in the male is crowned with antlers” (Hogarth and Cleary 1979:9–10).
Similarly, among the Chortí Indians of Guatemala, “Chicchan is the most important of the native deities and is generally thought of as a giant snake .... He may have the giant form of an ordinary snake, or his upper body may be that of a man while his lower body is that of a feathered snake” (Wisdom 1974:392–394).
This peculiar variation on the physical characteristics of dragons almost certainly results from the use of a traditional dragon idea in narrative contexts, where the storyline is supported by giving the dragon the ability to speak and interact with humans like one of their kind. This can be seen in very different oral traditions, from anthropomorphic characterizations of the dragon in European oral literature to the Seneca myth of the dragon of Niagara who tried to take a human wife, and—as will be seen—to stories of the Rainbow Serpent in both South America and aboriginal Australia.
3.27 Trait 27: The Dragon May Be Personified
As a subtext of the dragon sometimes being imagined with human traits, it is noteworthy that it can further be personified, that is, identified by an individualizing name, much as a person can. Again, this is particularly true in narrative contexts. Ironically, in China, where the dragon has overwhelming positive associations, it apparently is never given a name, whereas in Europe, where its associations are overwhelmingly negative, it can be a character in stories like any human being. Several examples stand out, although others may well exist:
In classical Greek mythology dragons not uncommonly bore personal names. Typhon, a hundred-headed dragon, was the son of the Earth goddess Gaea and Tartarus, god of the Underworld. When he tried to seize control of the cosmos from Zeus, he was defeated and banished to the Underworld.
Python was a huge dragon that guarded the sacred oracle at Delphi, and Ladon was the dragon that encircled the tree in the Garden of the Hesperides, guarding the golden apples before he was overcome by Heracles.
The dragon Fafnir, who also guarded a treasure, was killed by the hero Sigurd in the Norse Völsunga saga, and his equivalent Fafner in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied bore the same personal name.
As noted above, the purpose in giving dragons personal names in these cases is almost certainly because they figured in narrative tales that required repeated recitation, and so long as the same dragon was involved each time it was mentioned, it was clearly more convenient to refer to it by name rather than by a longer description.
3.27.2 South Asia
In the jātakas, or accounts of the incarnations of the Buddha, nāgas often play a part, and in some cases the nāga kings may be given personal names. Here the narrative context differs widely from that of classic European dragon tales (as opposed to folk varieties of the type described by Lawson above), where the dragon is almost invariably a mindless, implacable foe that must be killed for the story to end well. Rather, in the Indian tradition the nāgas are commonly integrated into the social and religious fabric of the society. In one such tale a nāga king named Pandara is deceived by a treacherous ascetic who wishes to prevent him from successfully combating a Bodhisattva in the form of the Garuda king. But in the end Pandara and the Bodhisattva become friends and join forces against the ascetic. Judging from the description of the story the nāgas have language and interact with humans, from whom they are not mentally very different (de Visser 1913:8). Despite this humanization, however, the nāga remains at least part serpent, and shares a number of properties that define dragons in other cultures.
3.27.3 Categories Revisited
At the end of chapter 1 it was noted that the issue of category formation would be addressed again in later sections. We have now covered enough material to do that.
In 2001–2002, during a sabbatical a year spent teaching at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan, I gave a talk which outlined the basic argument given in this book. There were perhaps 25 people in the audience, and when I finished one of them spoke up and said that she was happy to accept the argument for other dragons, but not for the Chinese dragon, as it is ‘different’. She was, of course, wrong. However, it is not hard to see why she felt the way she did. The Chinese dragon is different from many others, not least of all because of its extraordinary cultural elaboration, far exceeding that of any other known ethnolinguistic group. To take just the two best-known variants of the dragon idea, those of Europe and China, a detailed comparison reveals how differently the same basic original concept has been directed in its subsequent evolution as a result of cultural pressures that reflect the divergent histories of these areas.
In a small, but well-researched and carefully-written book on Chinese dragons, Bates (2002) has given readers a sense of how deeply the dragon idea has penetrated Chinese culture over the past three or four millennia. Bates begins by stating that “The dragon has been the symbol of China since ancient times and for many centuries has been considered immortal and omnipresent. It served as the emblem of monarchy and supreme power, yet the dragon has always belonged to the people” (Bates 2002: vii). He then proceeds by steps to describe the extraordinary vitality of this image in all aspects of Chinese culture. To begin with, there are many named types of Chinese dragons. Among those mentioned are the following, listed in the order they are cited by Bates:
Elongated, serpentine body with upturned nose during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BCE), but downturned nose during the Western Han period (206 BCE to 9 CE) and later. These had two legs, each with four claws, and were considered a symbol of peace and good fortune. In addition, “they abhorred anything unclean, and were fastidious in what they ate” (Bates 2002:7).
Elongated, serpentine body with upturned nose during the Western Han period and later, when they contrasted with kui dragons, which by then had downturned noses. Often used to indicate a wish for a noble son, and depicted facing a lotus or a lucky shou symbol of longevity (Bates 2002:8).
Used generally of hornless dragons (Bates 2002:9).
Hornless dragons, considered by the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE) to be immature, or young dragons (Bates 2002:9).
220.127.116.11 Candle Dragon (No Chinese Name Given)
Had a human face, the body of a snake, and red, staring eyes in the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1027–221 BCE). Does not eat, sleep, or breathe; wind and rain are at his bidding (Bates 2002:9–10).
18.104.22.168 Ying Long
A flying dragon, depicted in the Ming Encyclopedia, compiled between 1607 and 1609 CE (Bates 2002:10).
22.214.171.124 Fei Yü
A flying fish kind of dragon, embroidered on robes as a badge of honor (Bates 2002:10–11).
These combine a fish’s body with a dragon-like head. They are piao, or symbols of distinction, and often appear on honorary gates or archways. The story behind this type of dragon is that carp on the Yellow River must struggle tirelessly against the rapids to reach their spawning places, and these became symbols of “the long struggle of the literary scholar who eventually achieved success after much persistence and exertion .... Scholars who had passed examinations with distinction were often given gifts such as a plate decorated with one or more of these fish-dragons” (Bates 2002:11).
This type of dragon was found on a tile from what is thought to be a Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) tomb. It combines a long, curving body and horned head with an upcurving snout, and is sometimes called the flood dragon, as it was thought to cause flooding. This dragon was thought “to be a beneficent creature that exerted a restraining influence against the sin of greed. Because of this, jiao often appeared in a highly conventional form on ancient Chinese bronzes associated with the preparation of food” (Bates 2002:13–14).
126.96.36.199 Tian Long
Known as ‘heavenly dragons’, these were thought “to protect the mansions of the gods” (Bates 2002:14).
188.8.131.52 Shen Long
These ‘spirit dragons’ “had the duty of producing rain for the benefit of mankind” (Bates 2002:14).
184.108.40.206 Di Long
These ‘dragons of the earth’ had “the responsibility for marking out the courses of the rivers and streams” (Bates 2002:14).
220.127.116.11 Cang Long
These were dragons of hidden treasures, charged with the duty “to guard and watch over the heavenly wealth concealed from mortal eyes” (Bates 2002:14).
Apart from these various types of dragons with differing responsibilities, dragons of the cardinal directions were paired with colors or the seasons (or both): the Green dragon (also called shen long, or ‘spirit dragon’) was identified with the spring, the White dragon ruled the west and was connected with autumn, the Black dragon was connected with the north and winter, and both the Red dragon and the Yellow dragon were in the south, and “divided the duty of ruling the summer. These ancient allocations were officially sanctioned in 1110 during the Song captalised Dynasty for consistency, ok?Dynasty when these dragons were aggrandized by the granting of princely titles” (Bates 2002:17).
One could go on and on with descriptions of the Chinese dragon, but in the interest of space only a few additional examples are cited here. Dragons were often used as handles, as on bronze bowls (Bates 2002: plate 2). They were embroidered on imperial robes (which later were generalized to those of high government officials). They support astronomical instruments and stand guard in front of palaces (Bates: plates 6 and 7). They adorn the roofs of many buildings (Bates 2002: plate 8). They appear on stone carvings that serve as monuments honoring dragons for their service in protecting the city of Beijing (Bates 2002: plate 9). They appear in shrines, as one housing the imperial throne in the Manchu Imperial Palace in Shenyang (Bates 2002: plate 12). They appear on temple bells (Bates 2002: plate 21), and in many, many other contexts. And then “The dragon is usually credited with having nine sons and though they all possess some great talent, none of them perfectly resemble their ‘father’ ” (Bates 2002:43).
In short, anyone growing up in a Chinese culture will be surrounded with dragon images of all sorts from an early age, and in a wide variety of social contexts. It is instructive to compare this with the European dragon, which is well-known to everyone from an early age, but has almost no role in everyday life, being entirely a creature of fairy tales and paintings. It is all too easy to take these differences as showing that the Chinese dragon and the European dragon have sprung from unrelated sources of the human imagination. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The clues to common origin are everywhere, and—as will be stressed in a later chapter—the differences are entirely explainable as the result of cultural evolution.
In Europe the original folk beliefs and religion were swamped by Christianity, which on at least one level can be described as an imported Middle Eastern monotheistic creed that rejected all earlier religious or quasi-religious beliefs as ‘paganism’. As a result, the dragon became a symbol of the pagan past, and although, as noted in chapter 4, it survived in popular art for a short time in the stave churches of Norway (Lindholm and Roggenkamp 1969), it generally faded from recognition in everyday life and retreated to the realm of pure myth. By contrast, China never underwent a religious conversion that forced it to renounce its earlier beliefs. Buddhism, which was interested in personal enlightenment more than social reform, began as a monastic system that hardly touched the masses, and was easily integrated with beliefs in dragons, as was clearly the case in India, from whence it came. Equally important, in Europe Christianity and literacy were introduced as an inseparable unity, whereas China had a literate tradition long before the introduction of Buddhism. As a result, the dragon idea was free to play a role in all aspects of Chinese culture, and given the demonstrated Chinese aptitude for inventiveness and artistic excellence, it is not surprising that this should have produced such an exceptional wealth of details in relation to dragons. In short, dragons evolve no less than biological species, but their evolution is conditioned by culture rather than by nature.
3.28 Summary of the Ethnology of the Dragon
Some readers may wonder why it has been necessary to enter into so many details about traits of dragons that are shared in widely separated parts of the world. Why should we care that dragons are controllers of rainfall in the ancient Near East, India, China, Mesoamerica, and at least marginally in Europe? Why should we care that they are described as multicolored or red in at least Europe, the ancient Near East, China, northwest Mexico, and the Southeastern United States? Why should we care that they can fly almost everywhere they are found, or why they are considered bisexual in European alchemy, the Taoist metaphysics of China, and modern portrayals of the plumed serpent in Mayan-speaking Mesoamerica? The answer is clear: by carefully documenting those traits of dragons that cannot be dismissed as products of arbitrary imagination or of borrowing among peoples in contact, we zero in on a set of properties that must have a natural basis, and by doing that we are compelled to ask ‘What natural basis?’.
Some readers may also have noticed that one of the difficulties in writing Chapter 5 has been to discuss dragons in isolation from rainbows. This can be done with some success in areas such as Europe, the ancient Near East (for which we have little data apart from an epic poem recorded on fragmentary clay tablets), India, China, native North America and Mexico, and to some extent Central and South America. However, in other parts of the world, it is all but impossible to discuss concepts of the dragon without mentioning the rainbow, since the two are identified as one and the same thing. Most readers of this book are likely to have been raised in a tradition in which the dragon and the rainbow are so clearly separated that any connection between them may initially appear absurd. This is why, in order to understand the universality of the dragon idea, it is necessary to see how the vast majority of the world’s cultures understand rainbows.