By Susanne Iles
The dragon plays an integral role in the creation mythologies of many world cultures. As the messenger between Heaven and Earth, the dragon helps form the framework for our temporal and spiritual existence. By way of example, the ancient symbol of the dragon Uroboros swallowing its tail, illustrates the cosmogenic circle of the alpha and the omega – the beginning and end, creation and re-creation.
Most humans have lost sight of the magical cycles of nature and creation, of the ability to create and of thought made manifest. Modern society has attempted to separate this mystical energy from its traditional sacred and ethical roots; thus cursing mankind with a sense of profound isolation and detachment. No longer do we feel a part of that which is sacred.
By rediscovering the magic of the dragon we can begin to find our common origins and recreate the link between Heaven and Earth. Passion, reverence and enchantment for this world and each other can be reclaimed by reconciling the spiritual and earthly realms, moving us closer to our own creation of a world of tolerance and shared wisdom.
Our ancestors’ convergence of their spiritual and physical existence was tantamount to survival. Their creation beliefs helped maintain respect for life and its lessons and gave the Unknown form through poetic oral traditions, art, music and ritual.
To illustrate the mythic origins of creation and the dragon’s role, the legends of Tiamat, Quetzalcoatl, Itzpapalotl, Nü-Kua, Aido Hwedo and the Rainbow Serpent, will reveal the magic of the dragon, the beliefs of our ancestors and the path to our own creation.
The dragon Tiamat is regarded as the mystery of Chaos, primal and uncontrollable, passionate in her unchecked creative energy. She is the frightening Unknown of “formless primordial matter”1 sacrificially recreated as the very beauty of Earth itself.
In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the creatrix of the celestial and earthly realms as a result of her violent demise. She is the primordial mother of all and the personification of the saltwater ocean2 – chaos embodied in the form of the ancient Divine feminine. Her union with Apsu, the personification of fresh water, created the first gods Lachmu and Lachamu (ie. silt) who, in turn, created a race of deities.
The “Enuma Elish” is an epic poem of creation written around 2000 B.C. The legend is inscribed on seven clay tablets and is approximately 1000 lines. It is said to be a chant to welcome the Babylonian New Year.3 The story unfolds with Apsu growing increasingly upset at the antics of their unruly children. Apsu decides to kill them, much to Tiamat’s despair, but his plan is revealed and the deity named Ea kills him in his sleep. In a rage over the death of her husband, Tiamat vows to kill her descendants and creates an army of monsters in her grief. She assigns the god Kingu as her consort and convinces him to lead her army into battle.
The young gods became frightened and realized they were no match for the powerful Tiamat. They persuaded the god Marduk to champion them by promising him many things, including making him their supreme god and ruler of the universe.
Marduk kills his ancestor Tiamat by filling her with the winds and striking her vulnerable body, splitting her “like a shellfish in two parts.”4 With her upper half he constructed the arc of the sky; with her lower limbs he created the Earth. Her arched tail became the wheel of Heaven, from her water came the clouds and her tears became the source of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Kingu also perished at the hand of Marduk, his blood and bones becoming the first humans.
The Tiamat myth personifies man’s fear of the Unknown and the primal knowledge chaos can quickly turn to destruction. Early man was aware destruction and creation go hand and hand, but with the sacrifice of the Ego it has the capacity to become transformed into something poetic, beautiful and sustaining. Although man’s physical form is created from the blood and bones of Kingu to remind us of our common and humble origins, we carry within us the breath of transformative spirit. Just as Tiamat’s body became the life sustaining wellspring, our primal passions can be forged into positive creative energy if we so choose.
“….I shall leave my song-image on Earth. My heart shall live, it will come
Quetzalcoatl is another dragon-being who, through self-sacrifice, organized the cosmos and formed a world nourishing both man’s physical and spiritual life. He created the fifth cycle of mankind by using the ancestor’s ashes and bones to give their bodies form. Knowing humans must be connected to Heaven and the essence of the Divine for their survival, he used his own blood to animate them and thus became humanity’s protector.
Also known as the “Feathered Serpent,” Quetzalcoatl is the ancient cultural hero among the Aztec, the Toltec and other Middle American peoples. Legends attribute him with being the son of the virgin goddess Coatlicue and is often described as having light hair and skin. As the father of culture, Quetzalcoatl introduced agriculture (ie. the growing of maize), the calendar, monotheism, music and dance, arts and crafts.6 Varying stories show him to be a gentle deity who requested the end of human sacrifice, accepting butterflies and serpents instead. In his dragon form he ruled the wind, the rain and the fertility of the Earth, the cycles of human sustenance. As a celestial and terrestrial being he was man’s magical connection to the mysteries of Heaven and the sacred earthly realm.
When he was driven away by war he promised to return to his people one day. Some accounts have him leaving in a dragon boat or on a raft of serpents. Some believe he sacrificed his human body and flew off into the sky to become the bright planet we know as Venus.7 By sacrificing himself and empowering mankind, Quetzalcoatl left behind a legacy of knowledge, culture, and the secrets of creation and rebirth, gifting man with the potential for greater enlightenment.
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow…”8
We are introduced to death in the guise of the dragon Itzpapalotl. She is the ancient Chichimec representation of Mother Earth in her mortuary phase symbolizing the world’s cyclical changes – the rhythms of the seasons and agriculture. Also known as “Obsidian Knife Butterfly,”9 a goddess of creation and transformation, Itzpapalotl is shown wearing butterfly wings to indicate her shamanic and transformational powers. Her appearance as a dragon with butterfly wings symbolizes the human fear of death, yet provides hope for a gentle sleep, transformation and rebirth. The emerging butterfly represents the human soul and its journey heavenward. Her hands and feet are depicted alternately as jaguar10 or eagle claws, as she grips the corners of the sky with her hands. Her fierce countenance expresses the darker aspects of nature found in drought, floods, storms, disease or death. Another face of Itzpapalotl is one of great beauty showing her gift of kindness through release of suffering, transformation of the soul and the fostering of new growth in spring.
Itzpapalotl teaches us although natural law in all its beauty and destruction must prevail, it is not final. We are taught death can be overcome and our spirit transformed into a life everlasting.
In the beginning, according to Chinese mythology, there was a cosmic egg filled with the darkness of chaos. A giant named P’an Ku was formed in the chaos and he slept, while developing, for eighteen thousand years. When he awakened he broke the egg and the darkness poured out, as well as the light which had been hidden by the chaos. The dark pieces fell and created the Earth, while the bright fragments joined together and floated up creating the heavens. Fearing chaos would return if the brightness above fell into the darkness below, P’an Ku made it his mission to keep the sky and Earth apart until he was certain the world was safe.11
Tens of thousands of years passed until P’an Ku was sure his task was complete, with everything in place as it should be. He sunk down to the Earth in exhaustion and died. His expired breath became wind and clouds. His body and limbs formed the mountains and hills, while the blood flowed as streams and rivers. The hair took root as vegetation and his teeth fell to the Earth as precious jewels. By bringing order to chaos and sacrificing himself in the process, the giant P’an Ku created the foundation for all life.12
The dragon goddess Nü-Kua emerged from the heavens to see the remains of P’an Ku. Described as a beautiful creature, half-woman half-dragon, she roamed the Earth and marvelled at its beauty. Lamenting the world had no one but herself to enjoy it and its offerings, she decided to create humans so P’an Ku’s sacrifice was not in vain. Scooping up clay she lovingly made scores of men and women and lined them up in front of her. As perfect as her creations were, they were inanimate. Her heart reached out and she picked
them up. One by one she breathed her Divine breath into their bodies, whispering the secrets of love and creation into their ears inspiring them to populate the Earth and create on their own.13
Nü-Kua is also credited with teaching people art and passion, in addition to the importance of irrigation and agriculture. Her male consort Fu Xi, who was also half-dragon, later taught the skills of hunting, fishing and tending of flocks. He was a teacher of music and is credited with introducing the eight diagrams from which the I Ching was developed.14
Upon realizing we have been animated by the Divine breath and given the gift of creation, we are empowered to evolve spiritually while still maintaining respect for the body of P’an Ku, our earthly home.
Human “…consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and farther away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.”15 It is our duty to recreate the bridge if we are to evolve. In West Africa the tribal peoples were aware of this rift and incorporated the dragon, Aido Hwedo, into their creation myths as the co-creator of the physical world.
Before the Earth was formed the genderless Creator God, named Nana-Buluku by the Fon people of Dahomey, created a companion dragon called Aido Hwedo who was both male and female.16 It was a dragon able to move with ease between Heaven and Earth who carried the Creator in its mouth. They travelled together into the physical realms to create the world as we know it. Each night when Aido Hwedo and the Creator rested, the dragon’s dung piled high making mountains filled with hidden treasure, nourishing the Earth so plants and great trees could grow. As the dragon writhed back and forth across the face of the Earth, it carved twisting valleys and coursing waterways. With the Creator’s direction (ie. the Word) and the dragon’s actions, the Earth was formed through hard work and spirit, the very essence of co-operation and co-creation.
When the work was finished the world was bountiful, but heavily laden with trees and large animals, mountains and villages. The Creator feared the Earth would collapse under its own weight. Aido Hwedo offered to support the world by coiling under it in a circular fashion, its tail in its great mouth. The Creator knew Aido Hwedo detested the heat and created a great cosmic ocean for it to sleep in. Red monkeys who lived in the sea were directed to attend to Aido Hwedo’s needs by feeding the dragon iron bars whenever hunger came. In this myth it was important for the monkeys to keep the dragon eternally fed, otherwise it would start to eat its own tail and the world would surely be destroyed.
Like the red monkey’s with the iron bars, we must remember our responsibility to nourish the link which bridges our transcendent and physical natures. When spirit and action meet our world can begin to heal and sustain itself.
The Rainbow Serpent
The Australian Aboriginal people believe the universe has two aspects – the physical world in which we live and another connected world from which it is derived called the Dreamtime.17
One of the most important dragons of creation mythology is the Australian Rainbow Serpent, its symbol being the rainbow bridging Heaven and Earth. Given the Dreamtime is connected to our world, the creation story of the Ancestors and their mythical past is simultaneously the creation of the present and our future.18 According to Aboriginal cosmology the link must be maintained if our future is to be made manifest.
There are as many legends of the Rainbow Serpent as there are tribes of people, but the common elements can be found as follows.
The All-Mighty Creator formed the Earth and the heavens. However, at the time of creation the Earth in the Dreamtime was flat, colourless and desolate. The Rainbow Serpent descended from the sky and moved over the face of the Earth creating deep valleys and rivers, nourishing the planet and giving it form. Some legends tell the story of the Rainbow Serpent populating the world with plants, humans and animals.19 Other versions tell of the great serpent calling out to all the living creatures of the planet to come out of hiding and enjoy the land. The wise serpent taught them the laws of community, structure, ethics and respect.
By embracing our mythical past and remembering the wisdom of our ancestors we can re-create the sacred trust between Heaven and Earth to ensure a future for humankind.
Creation is not a solitary act, nor is one of stillness.
Dragon legends support our understanding of creation forged by our ancestors and their beliefs. Lessons of self-sacrifice and transformation can be found in many of the dragon myths, including the legends of Tiamat and Quetzalcoatl. In addition, Quetzalcoatl shared his wisdom to empower humankind. The dragon Nü-Kua gifted us with the delights of love and passion, making the act of creation joyful. Both Aido Hwedo and the Rainbow Serpent remind us our past, present and future are interconnected and interdependent. All of these legends of the dragon found in worldwide creation mythology substantiate the strength and foundation of our very way of being, now and in the future.
By rediscovering the magic of the dragon we can bridge the widening gap between Heaven and Earth, embrace the beliefs of our ancestors and forge the path to our own creation and wholeness – not isolation and detachment. By choosing to open the lines of communication and communion, like the dragon once did, we gift ourselves with the capacity to create our own destiny and reclaim the sacred in our lives.