Chapters 1 – 3

Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll

(Please read the Introduction first)



TODAY a solar eclipse is slowly darkening my study window, and when I step out of doors to watch it I hear a man say: The Dragon is eating the Sun.

No dragon exists–none ever did exist. Nevertheless a belief in its actuality has prevailed since remote antiquity, and has become a fact of historic, social, and artistic interest. Millions of persons to-day have as firm a faith in its reality as in any fact, or supposed fact, of their intuition or experience. As an element in the ancient Oriental creation-myths it is perhaps the most antique product of human imagination; and it stalks, picturesque and portentous, through mediaeval legend.

The dragon was born in the youth of the East, a creature engendered between inward fear and outward peril, was nurtured among prehistoric wanderers, and has survived in the hinterlands of ignorance and superstition because it embodied the underlying principle of all morality–the eternal contrast and contest between Good and Evil, typified by the incessant struggle of man with the forces of nature and with his twofold self. In the East the dragon, like the primitive gods, was by turns deity and demon; carried westward, it fell almost wholly into the latter estate, or was transformed into a purely allegorical figure; and it has its counterpart, if not its descendants, in the religious faith and rites of every known land and all sorts of peoples.

The dragon is as old as the sensitiveness and imagination of mankind, and doubtless had assumed a definite shape in some crude, material expression as long ago as when men first began to paint, or to carve in wood and on stone, marks and images that were at least symbols of the supposed realities visible to their mental eyes.

It is needless to repeat that the phenomena of nature must have appeared to primitive man as an immense, contradictory, insolvable mystery, a mixture of light and darkness, sunshine and storm, things helpful to him contending, as if animated, with things harmful, life alternating with death and decay. This is an old story, but it is plain that, in common with the more intelligent animals, man’s predominant sensation was fear–fear of his brutish fellows, dread of the jungle and its beasts and ogres, of the desert and its burning drouth, of the wind and the thunderous lightning; most of all terror of the dark, peopled with spirits good and bad. Against the unknown and therefore frightful shapes and noises of the night, the shrieks of the gale, awe of the ocean, the flickering lights and sickening miasma of the bog–all to his half-awakened mind evidence of animate beings above his reach or understanding–man knew of but one defense, which was humble propitiation and neverceasing payment of ransom. Ghosts blackmailed him throughout his terror-stricken life. The only friendly things in nature were sunshine and water–most of all gentle, nourishing rain: what wonder then that the most beneficent spirits and primary deities in all the primitive cults of Europe and Asia, at least, have been those connected with fresh waters. When one attempts to trace to its birth the creature or concept of which we are in search, one is led backward and backward to the very beginning of human philosophy. That origin seems to rest in the earliest discoverable traces of human thought on this earth, when paleolithic man cowered over woodland campfires or watched by night beside Asiatic rivers, now dry, now mysteriously overflowing, or made magic in some consecrated cave; and when wonder was rising slowly–oh, so slowly–in his brain into the dignity of reasoning. These are really very interesting facts, and they appear to have been true during thousands of bygone years. The strange, half-human figures painted on the wall of a cave in southern France by a Magdalenien artist in the Old Stone Age, and labelled ‘Sorcerer’ by archaeologists, may easily be construed as an attempt to portray an ancestral dragon. Let us try to find the origin of this thing, and to discover not only its meaning, but how or why the Dragon came to be of its present form. It is doubtless a long and complicated story, but there is no call to apologize for either its length or its absurdities.

We have seen that the notion embodied in the word ‘dragon’ goes back to the beginning of recorded human thoughts about the mysteries of the thinker and his world. It is connected with the powers and doings of the earliest gods, and like them is vague, changeable and contradictory in its attributes, maintaining from first to last only one definable characteristic–association with and control of water. This points unmistakably to its birth in a land where water is the most important thing in nature to human existence–the essential requisite, indeed, for life and happiness. Such are the conditions in the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates, precisely the regions in which, first of all, mankind began to establish a settled existence and to lay the foundations of civilization in agriculture. The success of agriculture was made possible by the invention of irrigation, through which man obtained command of the water-supply for his fields, and outwitted, so to say, the eccentricities of the rainfall. In timely showers to the right amount, in living streams and their vernal overflows that leave new soil, the rainfall is a blessing; but in the lightning-darting storm, in excessive floods, it may, and sometimes does, become a curse. Primitive men, unlearned in the natural laws by which we now account for the weather, imagined its varying moods to be the result of supernatural powers struggling somewhere in space, on one side for good conditions, on the other towards destruction and chaos; and they invented wondrous and complex stories to explain it. Every change in the weather was attributed to the gods. When rains were favourable, good gods got the credit; when prolonged drouth or devastating storms assailed the locality, men told one another that malignant spirits were at work.

Supreme among the earliest known divinities of Egypt was Re (or Ra). Associated with him was a feminine deity, Hathor, the ‘great Mother,’ or source of all earthly life. At enmity with Re was a formless being, Set. As Re grew aged mankind (created by Hathor) showed signs of rebellion, instigated by Set, and a council of the gods advised that Hathor be sent down to earth to subdue her insurgent progeny. She complied, received the additional epithet ‘Sekhet,’ acquired the ferocious lioness as her symbol, and went about cutting throats until the land was flooded with blood. Alarmed at the destruction of his subjects, which threatened to be total, Re begged Hathor-Sekhet to desist. She refused, whereupon Re caused to be brewed a red liquor, a draft of which subdued Hathor’s maniacal rage, and so a remnant of mankind was saved. From that bloody time Hathor’s reputation fell to that of a malignant spirit, for she, who theretofore had been a beneficent ‘giver of life’ had shown herself, in the avatar of Sekhet, a demon of destruction. In this skeleton of a legend we have the kernel of Egyptian mythology and religion. Re fades out and Osiris appears, an earthly king deified as a sort of water-god, who becomes more definitely a personification of the Nile in its beneficent aspect. Hathor becomes his consort Isis, and they produce a son Horus whose symbol is a falcon, sometimes accompanied by serpents, and who carries on Re’s feud with Set (subsequently murderer of Osiris) under various warrior-methods, such as driving to battle in a chariot drawn by griffins (perpetuated in the Greek gryphon)–perhaps the most primitive incarnations of the dragon. Set is a water-devil whose followers take the form of crocodiles and other dangerous creatures of the great river; and later we read of a gigantic snake-like reptile Apop, which apparently was that long-lived old monster Set, and which later was known among the gods of Greek Olympus as Typhon, a snake-headed giant. Apop had a corps of typhonic monsters at his call. A host of fabulous monsters seem to have been derived, with more or less claim to true ancestry, from these prehistoric creatures of the Egyptian imagination.

While this epic or drama of the development of the human intelligence was in progress in Egypt, exhibiting the Celestial triad at the basis of all cosmic mythology, a similar development of legendary history was proceeding in Mesopotamia. “The Egyptian legends cannot be fully appreciated,” we are told, “unless they are studied in conjunction with those of Babylonia and Assyria, the mythology of Greece, Persia, India, China Indonesia and America.” We do not find in the opening chapters of the history of either Egypt or Mesopotamia the characteristic dragons we shall encounter later; but we do discover there the germ and its raison d’etre of what later became the conventional forms and properties of the Chinese ‘lung,’ the hydras and giants of Greek myth, and the hero-stories of mediaeval St. George. “Egyptian literature,” Professor G. Elliot Smith assures us, “affords a clearer insight into the development of the Great Mother, the Water God and the Warrior Sun God, than we can obtain from any other writings of the origin of this fundamental stratum of deities. And in the three legends: The Destruction of Mankind, The Story of the Winged Disk [symbol of Horus], and The Conflict between Horus and Set, it has preserved the germs of the great Dragon Saga. Babylonian literature has shown us how this raw material was worked up into the definite and familiar story, as well as how the features of a variety of animals were blended to form the composite monster. India and Greece, as well as more distant parts of Africa, Europe and Asia, and even America, have preserved many details that have been lost in the real home of the monster.”

Physical conditions were much the same in Mesopotamia as in Egypt. Like the Nile, the Euphrates was a permanent river, flowing from the Armenian mountains through a vast expanse of arid, yet fertile, land to the great marshes (now much reduced) at the head of the Persian Gulf. It rose to full banks, or over them, in early summer, fed by melting snow, and the annual inundations along its course were of the highest benefit and importance to the agriculturists settled at least six or seven thousand years ago in its lower basin. As population and tillage increased, irrigation–popularly believed to have been introduced by the gods–became more and more a necessity, and this need of abundant and well-regulated water influenced the local religion, the features of which we have learned from the engraved seals, inscribed tablets, and other evidences exhumed from the ruins of temples and royal houses.

The primitive theory of world-creation and the theogony of these pre-Babylonians are similar to those of Egypt; and the Sumerians, the earliest known permanent residents in the Euphrates Valley, were perhaps allied racially with the men of the Nile country–certainly there was communication between them long before the date of any records yet obtained. There is evidence, moreover, that the peoples whom we know by the earliest ‘civilized’ remains thus far discovered were preceded in the valleys of both the Euphrates and the Nile by a population far more primitive, which was displaced–in the case of Sumer, presumably by immigrants from southern Persia; for probably the culture represented by Susa is older than that of the cities of Sumer. Both peoples conceived the earth to be an island floating on an infinite expanse and depth of water which welled up around it as an ocean, often imaged forth as an encircling serpent, on whose horizon rested the dome of the sky. At first “darkness was upon the face of the deep,” yet the great primeval gods were even then alive,–indistinct, fickle, anthropomorphic originators and representatives of natural phenomena.

The Babylonian god with which we are most concerned is Ea, who seems to stand in about the same relation to the Sumerian myth of creation as did Osiris to the Egyptian. Among the oldest pictures that have come down to us is one of a creature called Oannos–a human figure whose body, from the middle down, is that of a fish. Perhaps it is meant for Ea, who otherwise is represented as a man wearing a fish-skin, as a fish, or as a composite creature with a fish’s body and tall. Ea was a water-god, personifying and governing all the waters on the earth, above or under it, including rivers and irrigation canals; nevertheless, although regarded as primarily a personification of the beneficent, life-giving powers of water (as in producing and sustaining crops), he was also identified with the devastating forces of wind and water, as in storms. As Osiris was confusingly reincarnated in Horus, so the earlier Enlil was absorbed in Ea, and gradually Ea in his son Marduk, when he became a sun-god, the slayer of Tiamat the water-demon. Tiamat, chaos personified (with just such a troop of malignant subordinates as attended Set), came out of the murky primeval ocean on purpose to baulk in their creative plans the well-intentioned gods of the air who gave the land the blessed rains on which the people depended for life and happiness. Tiamat was feminine; and this she-dragon, a counterpart of Harbor, heads a long line of ‘demons,’ good and bad.

The word ‘dragon’ as we see it written to-day calls to mind the grotesque, writhing figure of Chinese or Japanese ornament; but in this treatise we must accept the term in a far wider scope, as representing supernatural powers in any sense, yet not invariably hateful. As to the matter of sex, demon-women arose very early to vex the sun-gods of Egypt, but they soon became changed in sex, and dragons have been masculine ever since.

What happened to Tiamat is variously explained. Dr. Hopkins’ summarizes her history, gathered from the tablets and seals recovered from the ruins of Nippur and elsewhere, thus:

Chaos bred monsters, and then the divine Heaven and Earth, as Anshar and Kishar, ancestors of Anu, Enlil, and Ea, prepared for conflict, to maintain order. . . . The eleven opposing monsters of Chaos are created by Tiamat and headed by Kingu, to whom Tiamat gives the tablets of destiny and whom she makes her consort. The peace-loving gods seem to fear; they send a messenger to Tiamat, “May her liver be pacified, her heart softened” [apparently without effect]. . . . At any rate, we next see Bel-Marduk, at the command of his father, going joyfully into battle after preparing for the conflict by making weapons, bow, lance, club, lightning-bolt, storm-winds and a net wherewith to catch Tiamat. The gods get drunk with joy, anticipating victory and hailing Marduk as already lord of the universe. On Storm (his chariot) he rushes forth, haloed with light, from which Kingu shrinks. Him follow the seven winds. Tiamat, however, fears him not, but when Marduk challenges her, she fights, “raging and shaking with fury,” yet all in vain. For Marduk stifles her with a poisonous gas (‘evil wind’), and then transfixes her, also taking the tablets from Kingu and netting the other monsters. But Tiamat he cuts in two, making one half of her the sky.

What was Tiamat like in the opinion of the people to whom these fanciful accounts of the work and adventures of the gods in bringing order out of chaos were as ‘gospel truth’? The most ancient representation of her is an engraving on a cylinder-seal in the British Museum, which shows a thick-bodied snake, the forward third of its body upreared and bearing two little arm-like appendages, its tongue extended and its head crowned with one goat-like horn. If this portrait is really intended for Tiamat, it shows a queer relationship between this sinister sea-demon and the fish-god Ea, who also appears to have been part antelope (gazelle or goat), as is shown by antique pictures of him as a combination of antelope and fish, whence a ‘sea-goat’ came to be the vehicle of Marduk.

The tradition of Marduk’s titanic battle with Tiamat seems to have been preserved in the famous story in the Apocrypha of Bel and the Dragon. In the time of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying of Judah into captivity, an unconverted Jew named Daniel had risen, with the cleverness of his race, to be the king’s favourite and prime minister; and he was naturally hated by the ecclesiastics of the Court, who were justly incensed that a foreigner who persisted in the worship of Yahweh should be so greatly honoured. Scholars disagree as to whether he is the same Daniel who had similar distinction and troubles according to the Book of Daniel, or another man, or whether either of them ever had an existence–but this does not concern us. Among several circumstances not included in the canonical Bible, but narrated in both the Vulgate and Septuagint versions, the one most pertinent to our theme is that in Babylon a huge dragon was worshipped and fed by the people. Daniel refused to pay it homage, and told the king that if permitted he would kill the monster without using any weapons, and so free the populace from its exactions. His majesty consented, whereupon Daniel made a bolus of indigestible materials, mainly pitch (but some say it was a ball of straw filled with sharpened nails), and threw it into the reptile’s maw. It was promptly swallowed, wherefore the monster presently ‘burst’ and died. (One commentator notes that in Hebrew writing the word for ‘pitch’ looks much like that for ‘tornado,’ recalling the ‘great wind’ by which Marduk put an end to Tiamat.) The ungrateful populace, enraged at this Herculean feat demanded Daniel’s death, and the king reluctantly cast him into a den of lions kept as royal executioners, where he stayed a full week unharmed, but likely to starve to death–as also were the lions, inhibited by magic from their prey. On the seventh day another Jew, Habbakuk, was cooking dinner for his harvest-hands on his farm somewhere in the country, when he was lifted up by an angel (as once happened to Ezekiel) and carried to the capital with a quantity of provisions to feed the unfortunate reformer. Daniel was thereupon restored to liberty and power as chief magician, and the famishing lions were fed with humbler priests.

Very ancient Babylonian drawings show Tiamat harnessed to a four-wheeled chariot in which is seated a god who, in the opinion of Dr. William Hayes Ward, we may call Marduk. She is drawn as a composite and terrifying quadruped with the head, shoulders and fore-limbs of a lion, a body covered with scaly feathers, two wings, the hind legs like those of an eagle, and a protruding, deeply forked tongue like that of a snake. In another glyph a goddess sits on a similar beast, holding the ‘lightning trident.’ A third cylinder-design exhibits such a beast standing on its hind legs and with open mouth over a kneeling man. A curious feature of all these representations is that a second, smaller dragon always appears, running along on all fours like a dog, the meaning of which remains unexplained. Another figure, reproduced by Maspero, and said to represent Nergal, an underworld agent of war and pestilence, shows him accompanied by many ‘devils’ combining horrid animal and human features, and also Nergal’s consort Ereskigal, a serpent-wielding queen, the ugliest picture of a woman imaginable. Nergal has here the body, fore-limbs and tail of a big, square-headed dog, four wings, the under and foremost two being small and roundish, while the posterior pair reach back beyond the creature’s rump like the shards of a beetle; the body is scaly, and the hind legs have the shape of an eagle’s. Perhaps what follows will help us to interpret this ugly composition.

All these art-efforts and their like belong to the earliest period, when southern Babylonia was in possession of the Sumerians. Later a different (Semitic) people from the north and west of them became occupants and rulers of Mesopotamia, and we find among their relics at Nineveh and elsewhere seal-cylinders bearing pictures of the conflict between the warrior-god, Bel-Marduk, and the evil genius of the universe, in which the latter is always being struck at, put to flight or killed.

Afterwards in Assyria such figures were grandly drawn, always with a serpentiform head surmounted by two sharp horns, as in that alabaster slab found in the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nimrud, where a storm-god, wielding tridents, fights the traditional monster. “The horned dragon,” says Jastrow, “from being the symbol of Enlil . . . becomes the animal of Marduk and subsequently of Ashur as the head of the Assyrian pantheon.” These horns long persisted as a royal mark in memory of the fact that Enlil, as Ea, and afterward Marduk, subjugated Tiamat, showing that the conquering dynasty of Ashur assumed their glory and attributes as part of the spoil.

In subsequent and more cultured times an artistically conventionalized image, retaining all the essential elements required by religious tradition, was devised to represent the Evil Spirit, as is shown by the really elegant coloured and glazed tiles that ornament the exterior walls of the magnificent Gate of Ishtar, the approach to the sacred area of Marduk’s temple in the ruins of ancient Babylon, an approach built by Nebuchadnezzar four hundred and seventy-five years before the Christian era. Here the dragon reaches its glorification in Assyria, as, in another way, it attained artistic eminence in China and Japan; yet here too it holds tenaciously to the original conception, even then thousands of years old, so impressive and persistent was the underlying reason therefor.

The very earliest representation known, the model so closely adhered to, is the simplest of all, and in its simplicity best reveals its mythical origin. It is an outline cut on an archaic seal found at Susa, in Persia, which unites the head, wings and feet of a bird (the falcon of Horus) with the lioness of Hathor-Sekhet.

Now it is not necessary to assume that ordinary folk in the towns and gardens and pastures beside either of the two great rivers had a full knowledge, or a lively comprehension, of such ideals and co-relations of gods and men as we have traced. The plain farmer, if given by some priest or sheik such an image as a worshipful object, would probably take it to represent a union of his two worst pests–the lion and eagle that ravaged his herds and preyed on his lambs, while his wife would think of it as a combined jackal and hawk, and treasure it as a charm against their raids upon her chicken-yard. The mystical allegory worked out by the philosophers of the time probably escaped them, and still more likely escaped the busy citizens of Memphis, Nippur, or Susa; yet apparently this philosophy is the principle that has vitalized the persistent, although highly variable, idea which is the soul in the dragon.

“The fundamental element in the dragon’s powers,” declares Professor Smith, “is the control of water. Both the benevolent and the destructive aspects of water were regarded as animated by the Dragon, who thus assumed the role of Osiris or his enemy Set. But when the attributes of the Water-God became confused with those of the Great Mother and her evil Avatar, the lioness (Sekhet) form of Hathor in Egypt, or in Babylon the destructive Tiamat, became the symbol of disorder and Chaos, the Dragon became identified with her also.” This means that all these primeval ‘gods’ were in nature both good and bad, could be either saints or devils; and certainly they played contradictory roles in an amazing way–were dragon, dragon-slayer and the weapon employed, all in the same personage. This wonder-beast ranges from Western Europe to the Far East of Asia, and, in the view of a few extremists, even across the Pacific to America. “Although in the different localities a great number of most varied ingredients enter into its composition, in most places where the dragon occurs the substratum of its anatomy consists of a serpent or a crocodile, usually with the scales of a fish for covering, and the feet and wings, and sometimes also the head, of an eagle, falcon, or hawk, and the fore-limbs and sometimes the head of a lion. An association of anatomical features of so unnatural and arbitrary a nature can only mean that all dragons are the progeny of the same ultimate ancestors.”



ON THE assumption, which seems fair, that the historic traces of the dragon have led us back to Egypt and Babylonia–and very likely would lead us much farther could we penetrate the obscurities of a remoter past–it is fitting to inquire next how we may account for its presence and varied development elsewhere. Two theories oppose one another in respect to the fact that this and other myths, prejudices, and customs that appear alike, not to say identical, are encountered in widely separated regions, often half the globe apart. One theory explains it on the principle of the general uniformity of human nature and methods of thought, that is, namely: that peoples not at all in contact but under like mental and physical conditions will arrive independently at much the same conclusions as to the origin and causes of natural phenomena, will interpret mysteries of experience and imagination, and will meet daily problems of life, much as unknown others do. This is the older view among ethnologists, and in certain broad features it finds much support, as, for example, in the almost universal respect paid to rainfall and the influences supposed to affect this prime necessity.

Contrary to this view, most students, possessing broader information than formerly, now believe that such resemblances–strikingly numerous–are not mere coincidences arising from a postulated unity of human nature, but are the result of a spread of travellers and instruction from centres where new and impressive ideas or useful inventions have arisen. One of the foremost advocates of this theory of the geographical dispersion of myths and culture, as opposed to local independence of origin, is Professor Smith, quoted in the first chapter, whose books have been of much use to me in this connection. The theory does not deny the occasional independent rise of similar notions and practices here and there, but asserts that it alone accounts for all the important cases, particularly the central nature-myths, of which this of the dragon is esteemed the most important. The doctrine derives its main strength from its ability to show that in the very early, virtually prehistoric, times much closer contact and more frequent intercommunication than was formerly known or considered probable existed among primitive peoples all over the inhabited world. Assuming that at the dawn of history the most advanced communities were those of Egypt and Mesopotamia (with Elam), which were certainly in communication with one another both by land and by sea forty or fifty centuries before Christ, let us see how widespread, if at all, was their influence.

That the Egyptians were building large, sea-going ships as early as 2000 B.C. is well known. In them they traded with Crete and Phoenicia (whence the Phoenicians probably first learned the art of navigation) and with western Mediterranean ports. They sailed up and down the Red Sea, exploring Sinai and Yemen; visited Socotta, where grew the dragon-blood tree; went far south along the African shore; searched the Arabian coast, gathering frankincense (said to be guarded in its growth by small winged serpents); and made voyages back and forth between the Red Sea and the ports of Babylonia and Elam on the Persian Gulf. What surprise could there be were records available that these Egyptian mariners or those in the ships of the people about the Gulf of Persia sometimes continued on to India. Indeed Colonel St. Johnston elaborates a theory that not only the Malay Archipelago but the islands of the South Pacific, especially Polynesia, were colonized prehistorically by a stream of immigrants from Africa and India, who crept along the shore of the Indian Ocean, and from island to island in the East Indies, gradually reaching Australia and going on thence to the sea-islands beyond; and he and others believe that they carried with them ancestral ideas of supernatural beings, whence they made for themselves fish-gods and sea-monsters which some ethnologists regard as not only analogues, but descendants, of dragons. It is stoutly held, furthermore, that the religion of the half-civilized tribes of Mexico owes its characteristic features of serpent-worship and dragon-like symbols to the teaching of Asiatic visitors reaching middle America via Polynesia; but this is disputed, and I shall be content to avoid this controversy–also as far as possible serpent-worship per se–and confine myself to continental Asia and Europe.

The southwestern part of Persia, or Elam, was inhabited contemporaneously with early Babylonia, if not before, by a people of equal or superior culture, and holding a like religion. Their capital, Susa, was the most important city east of the lofty mountains between them and the valleys of Mesopotamia, and attracted traders and visitors from a great surrounding space. Most numerous, probably, were those from the north, from Iran, the country about the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains–inhabited by a race that used to be called Aryans; but many came also from Turanic nomads wandering with their cattle in the valley of the Oxus and eastward to the foot of the Hindoo Koosh, and still others from the eastern plains and coast-lands stretching to the Indus valley.

We may suppose these herdsmen and hunters to have been very simple-minded and crude, and their only semblance of religion to have been the rudest fetishism, animated by fear of ghosts and magic. Only the most enterprising among them, or prisoners of war brought back as slaves, would be likely to visit the more educated South, but there they would hear of definite ‘gods’ with stories behind them of the creation of the world, the gift of precious rain, and of unseen beings of immeasurable power; and they would learn the reason for representing these divine heroes in the forms they saw inscribed on monuments and temples, or in little images given them, thus getting some notion of the philosophy of worship. They would talk of these things by the camp-fire, when they had returned to Iran or Bactria or the Afghan hills, along with their tales of the civilization in Susa, and gradually plainsmen and mountaineers would grow wiser and more imitative. Sailors and merchants also carried enlightening information and ideas, crude as they may seem to us, into the minds of the natives of the shores of India and along the banks of the navigable Indus, whence this news from the West percolated into the more or less savage interior of the peninsula. Later we shall meet with some results of this slow and accidental propaganda.

Meanwhile, a stronger influence was affecting the North Persians. Soon after we first become acquainted with the Sumerians settled in Ur and other places on the lower Euphrates, we learn that they were conquered by Semitic tribes from the West, who created the Babylonian empire. After a while this was overthrown by still more powerful forces higher up the river, until finally the Assyrians became rulers of the whole valley, and ultimately of all Asia Minor north of the Arabian desert. The ancient gods received new names, but the old ideas remained. The antique dragon still stood at the gates of the Assyrian king’s palace, and Ea, the fish-god, reappeared on the shores of the Mediterranean as Dagon of the Philistines. But this is running ahead of my story.

North of Assyria, among the mountains of Armenia, dwelt the Medes, a nation of uncertain affinities, but apparently well advanced towards civilization even in the earlier period of Babylon’s history. They were not, at least primitively, influenced much by the sea-born myths of their southern neighbours, but held a religious creed combined of sun-worship and reverence for serpents–a conjunction which has had many examples elsewhere.

There was born among them, according to good authorities, about a thousand years before Jesus, a man of good family, now called Zoroaster; but others believe he arose in Bactria, and probably at a much older time. He became the founder of a sect holding far higher ideas than those of any of the religious leaders about them. His sect was called Fire-Worshippers, because it kept fires burning perpetually on its altars as a symbol of the pure life believed to be received constantly from the supreme source of life and prosperity, Ormuzd, the All-Wise. It was thus a reform movement rather than a new religion, and inherited a stock of Medic practices and Vedic legends. Its founders and early communicants were evidently in close contact with the people of northern India many centuries before the era of Buddha or Christ, and were trying to elevate religious ideas which were based on faith in the endless conflict between powers classed as helpful to man or injurious to his interests, so that the same gods might be good at one time and bad at another. “Zoroaster established a criterion other than usefulness to determine whether a power was good or bad, by making an ethical distinction between the spirits.” Thus the old nature-gods were still recognized but re-classified on a new spiritual and ethical basis; yet they shrank into subordinate rank beside the Wise Spirit Ormuzd, who was in no sense a nature-god but “spirit only and withal the spirit of truth, purity, and justice.” These refined ideas gradually sank, however, into the meaner old religion that underlay them; and in opposition to Ormuzd, the personification of All Good, arose a host combined of all the old malicious spirits and influences (demons), led by a supreme personification of Evil called by Zoroaster Lie-Demon, who afterward “becomes the Hostile or Harmful Spirit, Angra Mainyu, Ahriman” of Persian writings. “Among the beings opposed to Ormuzd a conspicuous place is taken by the dragon, Azhi Dahaka, whose home is in Bapel (Babylon) a ‘druj,’ half-human, half-beast, with three heads. . . . This dragon creates drouth and disease.” Here we have recovered the trail of the figure we have been studying, and find him travelling eastward with the mark of Babylon still upon him.

The most ancient writings that have come down to us are the Vedas-poems, fables, and allegories recorded in ancient Sanscrit perhaps a dozen centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. They picture weather phenomena as a series of battles fought by a god, Indra, armed with lightnings and thunder, against Azhi, the evil genius of the universe, who has carried off certain benevolent goddesses described allegorically as ‘milch-cows,’ and who keeps them captive in the folds of the clouds. This fiend was described as a serpent, not because that reptile in life was subtle and crafty, but because he seeks to envelop the goddess of light, the source of the blessed rain, with coils of clouds as with a snake’s folds. In the Gathas and Yasnas, or earliest sacred writings of Persia, preceding the Avesta, the ‘Bible’ of the Zoroastrians, it is asserted that Trita smote Azhi before Indra killed the “monster that kept back the waters.” It is a theory of many primitive peoples that an eclipse of the sun or moon means that a celestial monster is swallowing the luminary: the Sumatrans say it is a big snake. Even at this day in China “ignorant folk at the beginning of an eclipse throw themselves on their knees and beat gongs and drums to frighten away the hungry devil.” The moon and rainfall are very closely connected in many mythologies.

The forms and characters in which the sky-war appears are almost innumerable as one reads the mythologic narratives of India and Persia; even the summary sketched in his Zoological Mythology (Chapter V), by Angelo de Gubernatis, is bewildering in its changes of persons and scenes and methods, involving an exuberance of imagery in which may be discerned the roots of many an attribute characterizing the dragon-stories of long-subsequent times, such as their guarding of treasure, or kidnapping of women, or the grotesque horror of their appearance. And it was all a matter of weather and of the preciousness of rain in a thirsty land!

Superstition went so far as to imagine that human beings of malignant temper might adopt the character and functions of these celestial mischief-makers. It is related in the book Si-Yu-Ki, written by Hiuen Tsang, the famous Chinese traveller of the 7th century A.D. (Beal’s translation), that in the old days, a certain shepherd provided the king with milk and cream. “Having on one occasion failed to do so, and having received a reprimand, he proceeded . . . with the prayer that he might become a destructive dragon.” His prayer was answered affirmatively, and he betook himself to a cavern whence he intended to ravish the country. Then Tathagata, moved by pity, came from a long distance, persuaded the dragon to behave well, and himself took up his abode in the cavern.

Having interpolated this incident, it may be pardonable to give another, extracted from the Buddhist Records, illustrating how Buddhist influences tended to modify the fierceness in Brahmanic teachings when they had penetrated the minds of Hindoos dwelling in the valley of the Indus, where, probably, the doctrines of the gentle saint began first to get a foothold in India. The lower valley of that river was visited in 400 A.D., by the Chinese traveller Fa-Huan, who reported that he found at one place a vast colony of male and female disciples:

A white-eared dragon is the patron of this body of priests. He causes fertilizing and seasonable showers of rain to fall within this country, and preserves it from plagues and calamities, and so causes the priesthood to dwell in security. The priests in gratitude for these favours have erected a dragon-chapel, and within it placed a resting-place for his accommodation [and] provide the dragon with food. . . . At the end of each season of rain the dragon suddenly assumes the form of a little serpent both of whose ears are edged with white. The body of priests, recognizing him, place in the midst of his lair a copper vessel full of cream; and then . . . walk past him in procession as if to pay him greeting. He then suddenly disappears. He makes his appearance once every year.

Let us now return to our proper path from this Indian excursion. The Persian Azhi, or Ashi Dahaka, is described in Yasti IX as a “fiendish snake, three-jawed and triple-headed, six-eyed, of thousand powers and of mighty strength, a lie-demon of the Daevas, evil for our settlements, and wicked, whom the evil spirit Angra Mainyu made.” Darmesteter asserts that the original seat of the Azhi myth was on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. He says that Azhi was the ‘snake’ of the storm-cloud, and is the counterpart of the Vedic Ahi or Vritra. “He appears still in that character in Yasti XIX seq., where he is described struggling against Atar (Fire) in the sea Vourukasha. His contest with Yima Khshaeta bore at first the same mythological character, the ‘shining Yima’ being originally, like the Vedic Yima, a solar hero: when Yima was turned into an earthly king Azhi underwent the same fate.” He became then the symbol of the enemies of Iran, first the hated Chaldeans and later the Arabs who persecuted the Zoroastrians. A well-known poem of Firdausi relates the legend of how Ahriman in disguise kisses the shoulders of Zohak, a knight who is Azhi in human form, from which kiss sprang venomous serpents. These are replaced as fast as destroyed, and must be fed on the brains of men. In the end Zohak is seized and chained to a rock, where he perishes beneath the rays of the sun. “Fire is everywhere the deadly foe of these ‘fiendish’ serpents, which are water-spirits; they are ever powerless against the sun, as was Azhi, lacking wit, against Ormuzd.”

Such were the notions and faiths regarding dragons as expressed in the earliest written records we possess of philosophy and imagery among Aryan folk; and they floated down the stream of time, remembered and trusted as generation after generation of these simple-minded, poetic people succeeded one another and gradually wandered away from their northern homes to become conquerors and colonists in Iran and India. Let us note certain stories in modern Persian history and literature exhibiting this survival of the ancient ideas.

In his narrative of his travels in Persia, published in London in 1821, Sir William Ouseley relates that in his time there stood near Shiraz the remains of a once mighty castle called Fahender after its builder, a son of the legendary king Ormuz (or Hormuz). This prince rebelled against his brother on the throne and took possession of Fars, with help from the Sassanian family, long before the founding of Shiraz in the 7th century A.D. The castle was repeatedly ruined and repaired as the centuries progressed, and local wiseacres maintain that in it are buried royal arms, treasures, and jewels hidden by the ancient kings, and these are guarded by a talisman. “Tradition adds another guardian to the precious deposit–a dragon or winged serpent; this sits forever brooding over the treasures which it cannot enjoy; greedy of gold, like those famous griffins that contended with the ancient Arimaspians.”

This term ‘Arimaspian’ seems to have been a name among the more settled people of Persia for the more or less nomadic tribes of the plains and mountains west of them, who in subsequent times, nearer the beginning of our era, are seen following one another in great waves of conquering migration from the steadily drying pastures of what we now call Kurdistan westward to the steppes of southern Russia. The earliest of these known as a definite nation were the Cimmerians, who perhaps reached their special country north of the sea of Azov by migration across the mountains of Armenia and the Caucasus. These were followed and replaced by the Scythians, and they in turn were driven out or absorbed by the Sarmatians. The area they occupied successively north of the Black Sea has been explored by Russian archaeologists, who find that during several centuries previous to the Christian era a substantial though crude civilization existed there, and the worship, or at least a respect for, the snake-dragon prevailed among these peoples. The writings of Prof. M. Rostovtzeff make these investigations accessible to English readers. The dragon-relics discovered make it evident that the notions relating to this matter preserved among the barbarians and peasantry of north-central Europe, which we shall encounter later, were largely derived from these proto-Russians, especially the Sarmatians; and also that they influenced the ideas of the dragon that we shall find in China, with which these early people of the western plains were in constant communication by way of Turkestan, Thibet and Mongolia.

Thus Osvald Siren, author of Chinese Art, in speaking of very early Chinese sculptures, and especially of dragon-figures, remarks:

It seems evident that these dragons are of Sarmatian origin. Their enormous heads and claws are sometimes translated into pure ornaments; their tails into rhythmic curves like the ornamental dragons on the runic stones in Gotland. These two great classes of ornamental dragons, the Chinese and the Scandinavian, are no doubt descendants from the same original stock, which may have had its first period of artistic procreation in western Asia. The artistic ideals of the northern Wei dynasty remained preponderant in Chinese sculpture up to the sixth century (A.D.).

In his famous epic the Shah Nameh, translated by Atkinson, Firdausi describes the wondrous adventures of the Persian hero Rustem, who like Hercules had to perform seven labours. At the third stage of this task he was alone in a wilderness with his magical horse Rakush, and lay down to sleep at night, after turning the horse loose to graze. Presently a great dragon came out of the forest. “It was eighty yards in length, and so fierce that neither elephant nor demon nor lion ever ventured to pass by its lair.” As it came forth it saw and attacked the horse, whose resistance awakened Rustem; but when Rustem looked around nothing was visible–the dragon had vanished and the horse got a scolding. Rustem went to sleep again. A second time the vision frightened Rakush, then vanished. The third time it appeared the faithful horse “almost tore up the earth with its heels to rouse his sleeping master.” Rustem again sprang angrily to his feet, but at that moment sufficient light was providentially given to enable him to see the prodigious cause of the horse’s alarm.

Then swift he drew his sword and closed in strife
With that huge monster.–Dreadful was the shock
And perilous to Rustem, but when Rakush
Perceived the contest doubtful, furiously
With his keen teeth he bit and tore among
The dragon’s scaly hide; whilst, quick as thought,
The champion severed off the grisly head,
And deluged all the plain with horrid blood.

Another hero of popular legend woven into his history by Firdausi was Isfendiar (son of King Gushtask, himself a dragon-killer), who also had to perform seven labours, the second of which was to fight an enormous and venomous dragon such as this:

Fire sparkles round him; his stupendous bulk
Looks like a mountain. When incensed his roar
Makes the surrounding country shake with fear,
White poison foam drips from his hideous jaws,
Which, yawning wide, display a dismal gulf,
The grave of many a hapless being, lost
Wandering amidst that trackless wilderness.

Isfendiar’s companion, Kurugsar, so magnified the power and ferocity of the beast, which he knew of old, that Isfendiar thought it well to be cautious, and therefore had constructed a closed car on wheels, on the outside of which he fastened a large number of pointed instruments. To the amazement of his admirers he then shut himself within this armoured chariot, and proceeded towards the dragon’s haunt. Listen to Firdausi:

. . . Darkness now is spread around,
No pathway can be traced;
The fiery horses plunge and bound
Amid the dismal waste.
And now the dragon stretches far
His cavern-throat, and soon
Licks the horses and the car,
And tries to gulp them down.
But sword and javelin sharp and keen,
Wound deep each sinewy jaw;
Midway remains the huge machine
And chokes the monster’s maw.
And from his place of ambush leaps,
And brandishing his blade,
The weapon in the brain he steeps,
And splits the monster’s head.
But the foul venom issuing thence,
Is so o’erpowering found,
Isfendiar, deprived of sense,
Falls staggering to the ground.
As for the dragon–
In agony he breathes, a dire
Convulsion fires his blood,
And, struggling ready to expire,
Ejects a poison flood.
And thus disgorges wain and steeds.
And swords and javelins bright;
Then, as the dreadful dragon bleeds,
Up starts the warrior knight.



AT A very early period northern India acquired a mixed population composed of Conquerors and more peaceful immigrants from the west and north, which became amalgamated with whatever remained in the previous inhabitants; and an antique form of Sanscrit spoken by the invaders became the general language. They appear, as far back as they can be traced, to have been an agricultural and cattle-breeding people, using horses, settled mainly in towns and villages, and considerably advanced towards civilization. Their religious ideas, at least within the millennium next preceding the beginning of the Christian era, as we learn from the Vedas, were expressed in a mythology of nature-gods related to the sun and sky and, especially to the weather as affecting grass and crops, with which was mixed a very ancient and fetishistic serpent-worship. In short these ancestral Hindoos much resembled in ideas the people of Elam and Chaldea with whom they were already in communication, but far exceeded them in their reverence of serpents–naturally, perhaps, as these are more numerous and dangerous in India than in Mesopotamia.

Their particular object in serpent-veneration was the deadly cobra, called naga; and every one of these hooded reptiles was regarded as the living incarnation or representative of a great and fearful company of mythological nagas. These were demi-gods in various serpentine forms, uncertain of temper and fearful in possibilities of harm, whose ‘kings’ lived in luxury in magnificent palaces in the depths of the sea or at the bottom of inland lakes. They were also said to inhabit an underworld (Patala Land), and were believed to control the clouds, produce thunderstorms, guard treasures, and do weird and marvellous things in general. Many feats were attributed to them which could be performed only by beings having human powers and faculties, whence they were said to assume human form from time to time; and stories are told in the writings of ‘naga-people’ appearing mysteriously and then escaping to the depths of the ocean–probably developed from incidents in which wild strangers had raided the coast and when discovered had fled over the horizon in their boats. The ruder tribes, which were most addicted to cobra-worship, and were despised by the Brahmanic class, were known as Naga men or simply Nagas. This cult persists in remote districts to this day, and is especially vigorous in the rough country of northern Burma and Siam, where temples of snake-worship are yet maintained. Doubtless it formerly prevailed beyond India all over the Malay Peninsula and among the unknown aborigines of China.

It must be remembered in connection with these facts that the semi-civilized inhabitants of the Northwest were largely a maritime people. Living along the great Indus River they early took to the sea and became daring navigators, voyaging far eastward on both plundering and trading expeditions. The civilization of both Burma and Indochina, according to Oldham’s investigations, is shown by history as well as legend to be owing to invaders from India, who introduced there not only ideas of a settled life and trade, but taught the notions of naga-worship, and later Buddhistic doctrines and practices throughout southern China, Java, Sumatra and Celebes. Buddha himself refers to such voyages, in which no doubt religious missionaries sometimes participated.

Mingled with this was direct reaching from Babylon and Egypt, as has already been mentioned. “Within twenty years of the introduction of the Phoenician navy into the Persian Gulf by Sennacherib traders from the Red Sea arrived in the gulf of Kiao-Chau, and soon established colonies there.” This was in the middle of the sixth century B.C. “They came on ships bearing bird or animal heads and two big eyes on the bow, and two large steering-oars at the stern–distinctly Egyptian methods of ship-building.”

Into the Vedic civilization of northern India, was introduced, about the seventh century B.C., the more spiritual and unselfish cult of Buddhism. Its most difficult problem was the overcoming of cobra-worship, and as this proved impossible, the Buddhists were compelled to be content with trying to improve the worst features of ophiolatry among the Naga tribes; but this conciliatory attitude seems to have led to a weakening and corruption of the gospel preached by Buddha and his first apostles. Legends, though conflicting, indicate this. It is related, for example, that a naga king foretold the attainment of Gautama to Buddhahood; and the cobra-king who lived in Lake Mucilinda sheltered Lord Buddha for seven days from wind and rain by his coils and spreading hoods, as is represented in many antique pictures and sculptures. At any rate a schism developed over this matter, resulting in the southern Buddhists teaching less strict doctrine with reference to the old beliefs, which became known as the Manhayana school.

The nagas’ ability to raise clouds and thunder when out of temper was cleverly absorbed by this school into the highly beneficent power of giving rain to thirsty earth, and so these dreadful beings became by the influence of Buddha’s ‘Law’ blessers of men. “In this garb,” as Dr. Visser’ points out, they were readily identified with the Chinese dragons, which were also beneficent rain-gods of water”; and it was this modified, semi-Hindoo, Manhayana conception of Buddhism, with its tolerance of serpent-divinity, which was carried by wandering missionaries and traders during the later Han period into China and eastward.

Visser ascertained, in his profound examination of this serpent-cult, that in later Indian, that is Greco-Buddhist, art, the nagas appear as real dragons, although with the upper part of the body human. “So we see them on a relief from Gandahara, worshipping the Buddha’s alms-bowl in the shape of big water-dragons, scaled and winged, with two horse-legs, the upper part of the body human.” They may be found represented even as men or women with snakes coming out of their necks and rising over their heads, which recalls the prime fiends of Persian legend, and also the prehistoric pictures of the more or less mythical Chinese sage Fu Hsi.

The four classes into which the Indian Manhayanists divided their nagas were (quoting Visser):

Heavenly Nagas–who uphold and guard the heavenly palace.

Divine Nagas–who cause clouds to rise and rain to fall.

Earthly Nagas–who clear out and drain off rivers, opening outlets.

Hidden Nagas–guardians of treasures.

This corresponds closely with Professor Cyrus Adler’s list (Report U. S. National Museum, 1888), of the four kinds of Chinese dragons: “The early cosmogonists enlarged on the imaginary data of previous writers and averred that there were distinct kinds of dragons proper–the t’ien-lung or celestial dragon, which guards the mansions of the gods and supports them so that they do not fall; the shen-lung or spiritual dragon, which causes the winds to blow and produces rain for the benefit of mankind; the ti-lung or dragon of the earth, which marks out the courses of rivers and streams; and the fu-ts’ang-lung or dragon of hidden treasures, which watches over the wealth concealed from mortals. Modern superstition has further originated the idea of four dragon kings, each bearing rule over one of the four seas which form the borders of the habitable earth.”

In a Tibetan picture referred to by Visser nagas are depicted 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. This shows how a queer mixture of Chaldean, Persian and Hindoostanee elements reached Tibet by very ancient caravan roads north of the Himalayan ranges; and it throws light on one possible origin of the four-legged figure adopted by the Chinese, especially in the northern marches of the empire where the inhabitants were open to Bactrian, Scythian, and other western influences.

That composite animal-form of the rain-god of the Euphrates people, the horned sea-goat of Marduk (immortalized as the Capricornus of our Zodiac), was also the vehicle of Varuna in India, whose relationship to Indra was in some respects analogous to that of Ea to Marduk in Babylonia. In his account of Sanchi and its ruins General Maisey, as quoted by Smith, states that: “As to the fish-incarnation of Vishnu and Sakya Buddha, and as to the makara, dragon or fish-lion, another form of which was the naga of the waters, the use of the symbol by both Brahmans and Buddhists, and their common use of the sacred barge, are proofs of the connection between both forms of religion and the far older myths of Egypt and Assyria.” Havell is of the opinion that the crocodile-dragon which appears in the figure of Siva dancing in the great temple of Tanjore, may have been older than the eleventh century when the temple was built. “In the earlier Indian rendering of this sun-symbolism, as seen in the Buddhist ‘horse-shoe’ arches,” says Havell, “the crocodile-dragon, the demon of darkness, who swallows the sun at night and releases it in the morning, is not combined with these sun-windows until after the development of the Manhayana school.”

Sun-worship, serpent-worship, phallicism, and dragons are inextricably interwoven in Oriental mythology.

It is in the Indian makara, I think, that we have the ‘link’ between the Western conception and that of the Chinese as to the shape of this fabulous water-spirit. Yet, all the makaras of Vedic myth are simply a crocodile in simple form, or else are variants of Marduk’s sea-goat with two front feet only, varied according to the head and body into antelopes (blackbuck), cats, elephants, etc., all carrying fish-tails. The Chinese dragon, on the other hand, has nothing of the fish about it, but is wholly serpent, except its horned and fantastic head and the fact that it invariably possessed (crocodile-like) four legs and feet which are quite as like those of a bird as like those of a lion. There is evidently some significance in the bird-like feet. Can they be a relic of the introduction ages ago of the Babylonian or Elamite figure of the rain-god, composed by joining the symbols of Hathor-Sekhet and Horus? That is to say, do they possibly represent the long-forgotten falcon of the bright son of Osiris?

“In Chinese Buddhism,” Dr. Anderson informs us in his celebrated Catalogue, “the dragon plays an important part either as a fierce auxiliary to the Law or as a malevolent creature to be converted or quelled. Its usual character, however, is that of a guardian of the faith under the direction of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, or Arhats. As a dragon king it officiates at the baptism of the Sakyamuni, or bewails his entrance into Nirvana; as an attribute of saintly or divine personages it appears at the feet of the Arhat Panthaka, emerging from the sea to salute the goddess Kuanyin, or as an attendant upon or alternative form of Sarasvati, the Japanese Benten; as an enemy of mankind it meets its Perseus and Saint George in the Chinese monarch Kao Tsu (of the Han dynasty) and the Shinto god Susano’no Mikoto. When this religion made its way into China, where the hooded snake was unknown, the emblems shown in the Indian pictures and graven images lost their force of suggestion, and hence became replaced by a mythical but more familiar emblem of power.”

It was mainly–but not altogether, as we shall see–from Indian sources that the now familiar four-footed dragon of China became conventialized through its applications in the several arts of decoration and devotion; and it seems a fair inference that the aggressive Buddhist influence of the early centuries of that sect led Chinese artists to change the smooth, well-proportioned ch’ih-lung of their forefathers, chin-bearded like the ancient sages, into a sort of jungle python with the horrifying head and face characteristic of the countenances of antique Buddhistic images of their demons. To understand how inhumanly terrible these caricatures of malignant beings in the guise of humanity may be, one need only glance at drawings of the temple images exhumed by Sir Aurel Stern from the sand-buried Indo-Chinese cities of Turkestan, which flourished about the time of which I am speaking.

Buddhist artists, at first probably aliens, would be likely to depict the dragon head and face in their attempts to portray the chief ‘demon’, as they mistakenly regarded the friendly Chinese divinity, after the same horrifying fashion. Then, to impress the people of the North, who saw few dangerous snakes, but who did know and fear tigers and leopards, the artists equipped their frightful-headed serpent with catlike legs, bird’s feet, such tufts of hair as decorate and would suggest a lion, and a novel ridge of iguana-like spines along its backbone.

The fully realized dragon, then, as we see it in bronzes or sprawled across a silken screen, is an invention of decorative artists striving, during the last 2000 years, to embody a traditional but essentially foreign idea.

NEXT: Chapters 4 – 6