Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll
THE DRAGON’S PRECIOUS PEARL
A MOST curious, interesting, and at the same time obscure feature of this whole baffling subject is that of the so-called Pearl which accompanies the dragon in pictures and legends from the earliest times, and is common to the religious traditions of the whole East–India, China and Japan. Necklaces of pearls are a regular part of the regalia of naga-queens in their submarine palaces; and we read often in the old Vedic books of a magical ‘jewel of good luck,’ which was in custody of the naga-maidens but was lost by them through terror of their monstrous enemy, the bird garuda. There are traces of it in early Taoism, but it is best preserved in Buddhism as the jewel in the lotus, the mani of the mystic, ecstatic, formula Om mani padme hum–the “Jewel that grants all desires,” the ‘divine pearl’ of the Buddhists throughout the Orient. Koreans commonly believe that the yellow (chief) dragon carries on his forehead (as also in Japan) a pear-shaped pearl having supernatural properties and healing power. In China alone, however, is this mystical accessory of the dragon made a significant part of pictures and decorative designs. Some say that originally every proper dragon carried a pearl under his chin; others that it was a special mark of imperial rank. A sixth-century writer asserts that such pearls are “spit out of dragons like snake-pearls out of snakes,” and have enormous value.
This extraordinary gem is represented as a spherical object, or ‘ball,’ half as big, or quite as large, as the head of the dragon with which it is associated, for it is never depicted quite by itself. The gem is white or bluish with a reddish or golden halo, and usually has an antler-shaped ‘flame’ rising from its surface. Almost invariably there hangs downward from the centre of the sphere a dark-coloured, comma-like appendage, frequently branched, wavering below the periphery. A biologist might easily at first glance conclude that the whole affair represented the entry of a spermatozoon into an ovum; and the Chinese commonly interpret the ball with its comma-mark as a symbol of yang and yin, male and female elements, combined in the earth–which seems pretty close to the biologist’s view. Such is the Dragon-Pearl.
In purely decorative work, where the figure of a dragon is writhing in clouds or adapting its lithe body under an artist’s hand to the shape or purpose of a piece of porcelain, a bronze article, or a silken garment, the pearl may be drawn close to the dragon, or wherever convenient. When, however, it is desirable to express the significance of this sacred adjunct of dragonhood, it is treated with strict attention to reverence and tradition. Then are pictured celestial dragons ascending and descending through the upper air, tearing a path, perhaps, through swirling mists and shadows, “in pursuit of effulgent jewels or orbs that appear to be whirling in space, and that were supposed to be of magic efficiency, granting every wish.” A passion for gems is a well-known characteristic of these beings, and that it has ‘always’ been so is shown by a fable recorded by Joly. T’an T’ai Mieh Ming, a disciple of Confucius, was attacked, at the instigation of the god of the Yellow River, by two dragons seeking to rob him of a valuable gem; but T’an T’ai slew the dragons and then, to show his contempt for worldly goods, threw the treasure into the river. Twice it leaped back into his boat, but at last he broke it in pieces and scattered the fragments.
Can these be the two dragons so often depicted facing one another in the air, and apparently rushing, as if in eager play, toward a pearl floating like an iridescent bubble between them? Nothing in the decorative art of China has occasioned more guessing and controversy than this. An eighteenth century vase described by Chait is “decorated with nine dragons (a mystic number) whirling through scrolled clouds enveloping parts of their serpentine bodies in pursuit of jewels of omnipotence, which appear in the midst of clouds as revolving disks emitting branched rays of effulgence.” Ball points out that in books issued under imperial auspices “two dragons encircle the title, striving . . . for a pearl.” Japanese designers like to form the handles of bells, whether big temple-bells or tiny ones, of two dragons affrontes, with the tama between them. One Japanese carving represents a snake-like dragon coiled tightly around a ball, marked with spiral lines, illustrating devotion to the tama. “A great ball of gilded glass,” writes Visser, “is said to hang from the centre of the roof of the great hall of the Buddhist temple Fa(h)-yu-sze, or Temple of the Reign of Law, while eight dragons, curved around the ‘hanging pillars,’ eagerly stretch their claws towards the ‘pearl of perfection.’ . . . Dragons trying to seize a fiery ‘pearl,’ which is hanging in a gate, are represented twice in the same temple. . . . We may be sure that the Chinese Buddhists, identifying the Dragon with the Naga, also identified the ball with their cintamani or ‘precious pearl which grants all desires.'”
In these and many similar examples we, as outsiders, may grasp little of the significance or symbolism in this conspicuous ‘ball’ or ‘pearl,’ but we may approach an understanding of it through Dr. De Groot’s investigation of Chinese religion.’ He describes the ceremonial dress of the Wuist priests as having a “broad border of blue silk around the neck stitched with two ascending dragons which are belching out a ball probably representing thunder.” De Groot explains further that “the ball between two dragons is often delineated as a spiral,” and adds that ‘in an ancient charm . . . a spiral denotes the rolling of thunder from which issues a flash of lightning.” In Japanese prints a dragon is frequently accompanied by a huge spiral indicating a thunderstorm caused by him. Are the antler-shaped appendages rising above the ‘ball’ intended to represent lightning-flames?
Dr. Visser discusses this hypothesis at length, pointing out that the whole attitude of the two dragons in such art-productions displays great eagerness to catch and swallow the gleaming sphere. This attitude and avidity become clear, Visser thinks, when one sees a Chinese picture like that in Blacker’s Chats on Oriental China, of two dragons rushing at a fiery spiral ball above the legend: “Two Dragons Facing the Moon.” Sometimes two dragons confront each other, each having a flaming pearl floating just in front of their faces.
There is nothing absurd about this suggestion of swallowing the moon. Celestial dragons are, in reality, personifications of clouds; and among the most primitive and widespread impressions respecting lunar eclipses is the notion that a monster is devouring the moon. Dark and writhing clouds advancing as if alive, and finally extinguishing its light, might easily suggest a similar thought; and it was a matter of early experience that after these hungry cloud-dragons had completed their feast, fertilizing rain usually blessed the thirsty fields and pastures, so that the dragons got the credit. Hence artists liked to represent these public benefactors playfully contending for the opportunity to devour the ‘queen of night’ and so produce a crop-saving fall of showers for which they (the dragons) would enjoy grateful appreciation. Incidentally, artists note that a pair of their graceful figures make a well-balanced composition. The moon and water are closely connected in all mythologies; hence the moon is closely linked with fertilizing agencies in general. Faith in the moon’s influence on the weather lingers strongly in the mind of rural communities even in these progressive United States of America; and it is easy to believe that the dragon-thanking agriculturists and shepherds of China felt assured that the rain-giving will and power of their celestial friends were refreshed by frequently absorbing this bright and stimulating object in the sky.
That these reflections are not ‘all moonshine’ is shown by evidence in the writings of the old philosophers of the East, who assure us that the actual mundane pearl taken from the oyster in whose shell it is formed beneath the salt waters is the “concrete essence of the moon” distilled through the system of the mollusk–an emanation from the moon-goddess herself. “The pearls found in the oyster,” as one student interprets it, “were supposed to be little moons, drops of the moon-substance (or dew) which fell from the sky into the gaping oyster. Hence pearls acquired the reputation of shining by night, like to the moon from which they were believed to have come.” All this tends to demonstrate that the theory that the moon is the mani, the ‘pearl of great price,’ the divine essence of the gods, is not unreasonable; and its probability is reinforced by the stated fact that in both Chinese and Japanese dictionaries an ideograph combined of elements meaning respectively ‘jewel’ and ‘moon’ is defined as ‘moon-pearl.’
I am inclined to regard this as a better explanation of the puzzling object so constantly associated with dragons in Chinese decorative art than is the ‘thunder’ hypothesis. At the same time it is to be noted that the spiral character of the ‘pearl,’ and of the ‘tag’ that springs from its centre, is the widely recognized symbol for thunder; while the antler-like appendages indicate accompanying lightnings; therefore the identification of the ‘pearl’ with the moon need not preclude its co-association with thunderstorms, for the dragon is a rain-controller, and in a fair sense is the deity heard and seen in thunder and lightning, who is in particular the storm-god of sailormen.
In Japan, whose dragon-mythology has been strongly tinctured with Indian notions, as we have seen, the pearl appears mainly in connection with mythical tales of the ocean–a very natural connection. In the Nihongi, an ancient Japanese historical work, it is related that in the second year of the Emperor Chaui’s reign (A.D. 193) the Empress Jingo-Kogo found in the sea “a jewel which grants all desires,” apparently the same lost by the frightened Naga Maidens. She also obtained from the submarine palace of the dragon-king the ebb-jewel (kan-ja) and the flood-jewel (man-ja), by which she was able, on at least one important occasion, to control the tides; they are described in the Nihongi as about five sun long, the former white and the latter blue–the colour of the east, whence rain comes; and the moon is controller of the oceanic tides!
Japanese legends relating to this matter, as briefly given by Joly, in his elaborate work on the legendary art of Japan, are connected with the mythical character Riujin, the ruler of the waters of the globe, whose home is beneath the sea, or in deep lakes, and who is represented as a very old man bearing a coiled dragon on his head or back. Riujin carries the divine jewel tama, esteemed as a symbol of purity and usually shown in Japan on the forehead of the dragon; also the jewels of the flowing and the retreating tides, which he gave to Jingo-Kogo, Hikohodermi, and others.
In representations of Hendaka Sonja, one of the worshipful sixteen arhats, special disciples of Buddha, “he is generally shown,” Joly tells us, “with a bowl from which issues a dragon or a rain-cloud. He holds the bowl aloft with his left hand and with his right carries the sacred gem. Sometimes he is shown seated on a rock, the dragon occasionally aside, and crouching to reach the tama.”
Another legend relates that Riujin once captured from the Chinese queen, the daughter of Kamatari, a most precious jewel, which later was recovered from Riujin by a fisher-girl, wife of Kamatari, who went to the dragon’s submarine palace and got possession of the gem. She immediately stabbed her breast and hid the jewel in the wound, then floated to the surface and was found by Kamatari, the jewel guiding him to her by the dazzling light it shed from the concealing wound that became fatal to the heroine. Such stories are logical if the ‘jewel’ (tama, pearl) is identified with the moon.
Now it may well be asked: how is it that, granting the fondness of dragons for gems and the identity of the several gems and jewels mentioned in myths and ceremonies, they all trace back in significance to the pearl? Well, the pearl is an excellent image in miniature of the full moon; it, like the moon, represents water, and is a part of the history of the sea and sea-wanderings. Hence pearls were regarded as in the special possession of the sea-gods and water-spirits; and these beings were often pictured in forms far more fishy, or crocodilian, or shark-like, than were the terrestrial, serpentine dragons. But Japanese mythology includes also an earthquake-fish (Namazu) like an eel, with a long, attenuated head and long feelers on both sides of the mouth, which stirs about underground, thus causing earthquakes.
“The cultural drift from West to East, along the south coast of India,” Dr. Smith reminds us, “was effected mainly by sailors who were searching for pearls. Sharks constituted the special dangers the divers had to incur in exploiting pearlbeds to obtain the precious ‘giver of life.’ But at the time these great enterprises were undertaken in the Indian Ocean the people dwelling in the neighbourhood of the chief pearlbeds regarded the sea as the great source of all life-giving, and the god who exercised these powers was incarnated in a fish (ancestor of Dagon). The sharks therefore had to be brought into this scheme, and they were rationalized as the guardians of the storehouse of life-giving pearls at the bottom of the sea. . . . Out of these crude materials the imaginations of the early pearl-fishers created the picture of wonderful submarine palaces of Naga kings in which vast wealth, not merely of pearls but also of gold, precious stones, and beautiful maidens, were placed under the protection of shark-dragons.”
THE DRAGON INVADES THE WEST
AN ENTIRELY new field of research lies before us in the West–in Europe. There the word ‘dragon’ is as familiar as in China, but its form and connotations are decidedly different. Certainly civilization began much farther back in time in Egypt and Iraq, India and China, and the object of our curiosity took form in the Orient long before its image appeared in the West, but was it invented anew in Europe, or was it brought in? If imported, whence? and how?
The earliest traces of European civilization belong to Greece, and the oldest indication of the Mediterranean man’s thoughts about great mysteries is given in the hero-tales that have come down to us from that history-laden peninsula and its islands. These ancient and cloudy myths imply that “in those days” the earth was possessed by a race of Titans, giants huge and fierce, whose bodies below the waist were supported by a pair of thick serpent-tails instead of legs, reminding us of those pictures of mythical forerunners of Chinese tribes engraved on the tombs of the ancestors of the Wu family in Shantung; and the Titans’ wives were the Lamiae–abominable hags. The chief God of that time was Ophion, the Great Snake; and it is difficult in studying these primitive fables to distinguish between the ‘giants’ of some stories and the ‘dragons’ of others: they seem to be the same. It was the task of newcomers, heroes bringing foreign gods, to conquer the giants and to enthrone on Olympus wholly human figures of power in place of the monstrous Ophion and his reptilian hosts. Saturn and Neptune (himself half man, half fish), and after them Zeus the sky-god, struggled for mastery of the world, and famous deeds against giants and dragons were performed by the Olympian heroes before Greece was rid of them.
Now, if all this ophidian prehistory was an original conception of the primitive inhabitants of eastern Greece, where the incidents seem to have been laid, and was remembered in tradition and folklore down to the time of Homer, the fact is remarkable, because no real serpent exists on the coasts or islands of the Agean Sea, or on the mainland of Greece, that has large size or would inspire either fear or respect worth mention. The only venomous snake thereabout is the small viper common all over the warmer half of Europe. Are we not, rather, considering dim, distorted recollections Of serpent-worshipping aborigines, for whom, if needed, there had been no lack of teachers during unnumbered previous centuries? Long before the days of Homer and Hesiod, or of the annalists and singers of Palestine, Egyptian and Syrian navigators were sailing about the Aegean Sea and between India and Egypt. They brought ideas from the East as well as goods. Nomadic ‘Aryan’ tribes were migrating with their flocks back and forth, as the seasons and pasturage changed, all over the plains between Thessaly and the highlands of Scythia and far Bactria. When they met other migrants and related tales of scenes and adventures in far countries, they told of strange gods and demons–half-human serpents often gigantic and terrible. With the dramatic sense strong in all primitive story-tellers, they garnished their reports with marvels undreamed-of by their listeners, and to be effectively enlarged when retold by the shepherds and fishermen of Macedonia, or among the Attic hills, or in the ‘isles of Greece.’ From such narratives, probably “all made out of the carver’s brain,” were developed the queer and often horrid conceptions that took shape in the mythology of almost prehistoric Greece, and afterward these were seized upon as ‘material’ in symbolic art and epic poetry.
The oldest definite traces of the dragon in Europe are in the Greek legend, preserved by Homer and Hesiod, of Cadmus and his band of adventurers–probably some long-remembered incursion of raiders from the eastward; and, judging by his fancied presentment on a vase exhumed at Palermo, he was a wholly human warrior, and not at all like Cecrops, the mythical founder of Athens, a being whose body terminated in the shape of a fat and scaly serpent. As Seiffert condenses the legend, Cadmus, having been led by a magic cow to a spot in Boeotia where he was thus impelled to plant his intended colony, proposed to dedicate the site at once by the sacrifice of a (or perhaps the) cow–a distinctly Aryan proceeding. Therefore he sent his companions for the necessary pure water to a near-by spring, where all were immediately slain by a huge serpent, the dragon-guard of the fountain. This incident is quite in accord with Asiatic ideas of the time regarding dragon-serpents’ functions. As soon as Cadmus learned of the slaughter of his comrades he rushed to the spring and killed the dragon; then, at the command of an invisible voice (some say of Athene), he drew out its teeth and ‘sowed’ them over the adjacent ground. A host of armed men immediately sprang up, each from one of the broadcast teeth, who instantly began to fight and slay one another until only five remained alive. These survivors then quieted their fury and helped Cadmus build a stronghold, which finally developed into the city of Thebes. The five naturally became the ancestors of the Theban aristocracy, and one of them, Echion, called ‘the serpent’s son,’ married Cadmus’s daughter Agave. After many troubles King Cadmus retired to Illyria, where at last he and his wife Harmonia were changed into snakes, died, and were carried by the gods to the place of the blest. This denouement is very inconsistent, but it shows how the “trail of the serpent” lies over every incident and fancy in that fantastic infancy-story of Hellas.
One cannot gather from the writings of the early poets and chroniclers any distinct idea of the traditional or supposed appearance of the monsters with which the sun-gods were incessantly battling, except that whenever a chance glimpse is permitted one sees the serpent-likeness. Such was Python, half man, half snake, as some say, which haunted the caves on Mt. Parnassus, particularly that cleft in the rocks, originally called Pytho, where afterward was established the Delphic oracle. Apollo seized the place just after his birth, slaying Python with the first arrows from his infant bow; and in later times a festival was held there every year at which the whole story was represented in pageantry–the prototype of similar historic festivals celebrated during the Middle Ages in Europe and not yet quite obsolete.
Python was one of the offspring of Typhoeus and Echidna, themselves apparently son and daughter of Tartarus (underworld) and Gaea (earth). Echidna was part woman and part snake, and her brother-husband is identified with the Typhon of Egyptian mythology, otherwise Apop, one of the forms of wicked Set and a sort of duplicate of the Persian Azhi-Zohak, since he also is a gigantic demon, and has snakes sprouting from his shoulders. This diabolical pair further afflicted the world by engendering, in addition to Python, the three-headed dogs Orthos and Cerberus, the lion of Namaea, the Lernean hydra, the guardians of the orchards of Hesperus and of the Golden Fleece in Colchis, and perhaps other monsters of fable.
The most notable, perhaps, of this horrid brood was Hydra, a water-fiend that infested the region about Lake Lerna, near Argos, where it devastated the country of cattle and sheep, and whose breath even was a deadly poison. All accounts agree that it was an enormous water-snake with many heads–a hundred according to Diodorus, fifty says Eumenides, but the accepted opinion is that its heads numbered nine, one of which was believed to be immortal. To destroy this dreadful creature was thought worthy to be one of a dozen or so ‘labours’ assigned to Heracles (as tests of manhood?) by the Delphic oracle; and it was the only feat of the lot that he could not accomplish without help, because whenever one of the hydra’s heads had been amputated two new ones would sprout in its place unless the wound were scarified by fire. Having scared the hydra out of its lair among the reeds by shooting at it fiery arrows, Heracles hewed at its heads, and as fast as he cut them off his nephew and charioteer, Iolaus, seared the bleeding stumps with a burning-iron. The hydra having at last been totally decapitated, the heroes piled a huge stone on its ‘immortal’ head and so prevented resuscitation of the evil.
A later and lesser sort of hydra was the chimaera, of which we may read in the Iliad, and which appears on the monuments “with the body of a serpent terminating in a head, and having two other heads as well, one a lion’s in the usual place, the other a goat’s rising out of the centre of the body. No one could overcome the chimaera, and it caused the death of many men by the fire it exhaled, until at last Bellerophon slew it.”
The hydra seems to me a mere extravagance of the serpent-cult, not at all different from the Hindoos’ many-headed nagas, and probably akin to them in history. Again, is the chimaera anything but a caricature of Marduk’s sea-goat? The inference seems irresistible that the religious notions of the aborigines of Macedonia and prehistoric Greece were derived from India, by way of the wandering ‘Aryans’ of Thrace and the northern plains, tinctured with somewhat of the mythology of Egypt and Chaldea.
It has been said that the hydra was copied from the poulpe, or octopus, which infests the rocky shores and shallows of the eastern Mediterranean, but this seems to me improbable, however much the octopus may be recognized in certain other aspects of the myths and conventional designs characteristic of the Mediterranean region. More logically this repulsive cephalopod might well be regarded as the parent of the marine monster Scylla, finally exterminated by Heracles. She is described by Homer as dwelling on a tall rock in the sea where the lower half of her body is concealed in a cavern, whence she reaches out six long necks, each bearing a horrid head with three rows of teeth closely set (like the suckers of the cuttle), by which she catches fishes and other marine creatures, and snatches men off passing ships. (In later times she personified one of the two great perils in the navigation of the Strait of Messina.)
It is needless to catalogue all the misshapen and fearful monsters recorded in the legends found in the writings of Homer and Hesiod, and revived by Ovid and the later poets and artists of Greece and Rome. Heracles, Perseus, Theseus and other heroes arose to kill them off when a developing civilization and humourous skepticism required their extinction. Meleager freed the peasantry from the ravages of a gigantic boar. Heracles slew the huge Nemaean lion, dispersed the man-eating Stymphalian birds, and overcame in amazing battles several giants, such as Cacus and the river-god Achelous, who nearly escaped by transforming himself into a snake; and captured the Island of the Hesperides from the hundred-headed serpent Ladon, protector of the golden apples that Gaea had cultivated as a wedding gift for Hera when Zeus should marry her in this garden of the gods. Ladon, expelled from earth, was set up in the sky by Juno as the constellation known to us as The Serpent. Extremely ancient is the tale of the Argonauts, which has so many features in common with that of Cadmus, and records Jason’s final achievement of their purpose by vanquishing the dragon that held the post of custodian of the coveted golden fleece, and who was the last of the progeny of Echidna and Typhon. Finally Perseus, by conquering a prodigious sea-serpent, rescued the forlorn but interesting maid Andromeda, and thereby became the remotest ancestor of all the redoubtable ‘Saint-Georees’ whose adventures are in store for us. Trail of the serpent again!
Perseus became the son of Zeus and Danae, after Zeus had visited her in the guise of a shower of gold poured into her lap. He had many adventures, including the killing of Medusa, the chief of the snaky-locked Gorgons, but the heroic incident that interests us most is his saving of Andromeda. This unhappy maid was a daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia had boasted herself fairer than the Nereids, whereupon Poseidon, the sea-god, to punish this profanity, sent a flood to overwhelm the land and a sea-monster to consume the people. The oracle of Ammon promised riddance of the plague should Andromeda be thrown to the monster (represented in a sculpture of the classic period, preserved in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, as a big, pike-like fish); Cepheus therefore felt compelled to chain his daughter to a rock on the shore, convenient to the marine ‘dragon’ when the tide rose. In this distressful situation Perseus appears, full of gallantry, destroys the approaching monster, and having thus rescued her and freed the threatened country, obtained the girl as his wife. The legend of Heracles and Hesione is virtually the same.
These ‘snake-stories’ and other figments of the imagination of a rude and adventurous people would have been forotten long, long ago, had not their dramatic possibilities been seen and utilized by the early bards to enrich the more or less rhythmical stories they chanted in village huts and by the shepherds’ camp-fire, not to mention their use by the early vase-painters. Considering these matters in his valuable treatise on modern Greek folklore, Mr. John C . Lawson has distinguished several kinds or classes of genii visible in the fables and folk-tales of the Hellenic people past and present.
The third class of genii [he remarks], is terrestrial, inhabiting mountains, rocks, caves, and other grim and desolate places. These genii are the most frequent of all, and are known as dragons. Not, of course, that all dragons are terrestrial; the dragon form has already been mentioned as among the forms proper to the genii of springs and wells. . . . The term drakos or drakontas indicates to the Greek peasant a monster of no more determinate shape than does ‘dragon’ among ourselves. The Greek word, however, . . . is often employed in a strict and narrow sense to denote a ‘serpent’ as distinguished from a small snake (phodi). On the other hand a Greek ‘dragon’ in the widest sense of the word 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 the story that it is possible to tell in what shape the dragon is imagined; in general it is neither flesh, fowl nor good red devil; heads and tails, wings and legs, teeth and talons, are assigned to it in any number and variety; it sleeps with its eyes open, and sees with them shut; it makes war on men and love to women; it roars or it sings; . . . it is the dragon above all other supernatural heings, who provides the wandering hero of the fairy-tales with befitting adventures and tests of prowess.
Now, a striking feature of this whole race of prehistoric Greek ‘dragons’ is that they have no lizard-like, four-footed body, no kindliness of disposition, and nothing to do with rainfall or productivity of the soil. The exception to complete dissimilarity with the Chinese variety is that some of them have the office of guardians of women and treasure. On the other hand these fierce and horrid ‘Pelasgian’ creatures of a lively imagination portray, far more evidently than do the Oriental ‘dragons,’ the fears and emotions of a people half-savage, it is true, yet possessed of an alertness of mind very different from the rather bovine and ‘single-track’ mentality of the Hindoos and Chinese. The varied personages and adventures of the Greek hero-stories appeal in one way or another to us as they did to the men of antiquity (and as the Oriental ones do not); and this must account both for their seizure and preservation for us by the poets and artists between us and them in time, and for their present power to move us as symbols of things we feel and understand, though long disregarded as facts. A similar quality of dramatic reality belongs to much of the Persian mythology, and this strengthens the theory that Greece derived these notions from the prehistoric men of central Asia overland, rather than from Asia Minor by way of the Aegean islands, or to any great extent from Egypt by way of Crete–the latter in later times the channel of an invigorating influence.
Yet one cannot be sure that the Egyptian demonology did not tincture the superstition of the earliest Greeks, for prehistoric sculptures exhumed in Crete show water-demons of queerly changed crocodilian aspect with strange mammalian heads, and distinctly four-legged, which might have served as prototypes of the forms later developed in western Europe.
The Hittites and Phoenicians do not appear to have had in their history or religion any proper dragons, for their fiendish Moloch was certainly not of that (Chaldean) race; hence nothing of the sort has been revealed in Carthage or in the remains of other Phoenician settlements on the shores of the Mediterranean.
All the foregoing matter is mythical or legendary. We get upon fairly firm ground of fact about fifteen centuries before the Christian era, when invaders from the north penetrated the Epirus, expelled or subdued the barbarous ‘Pelasgians,’ and established themselves as settlers and rulers. These conquerors, known henceforth as Achaeans, were Nordic tribes of somewhat superior physique and culture, speaking an Aryan dialect out of which the Greek language developed. With their advent the history of the country begins, and the aboriginal stories of dragons, giants, and incredible heroes fade rapidly into folklore and become merely literary and artistic materials. Camps and caves are replaced by substantial buildings, and these become improved into the splendid edifices of the Golden Age of Greek art. It is noteworthy at this point to remark that from the very beginning in megalithic or ‘Mycaenian’ structures the ornamentation of neither temples, official buildings, nor private houses had any suggestion of the ancient serpent-cult, unlike what has happened in China and Japan, where images of dragons and snakes meet the eye in every city and village and keep alive their sacred and symbolic significance. Even statuary and decorative designing among the Greeks almost completely ignored this temptingly useful material, evidently rejected on grounds of good taste because of the unpleasant suggestions involved in everything reptilian. The horrifying figures of the Laocoon form a notable exception, but there the terrible serpent is an image of a real snake, not one derived from a myth.
When, in its decadence, Greece sank into the Roman empire, its legends were absorbed along with its lands, but the Romans were a very hard-headed people (apart from their day-by-day watching for omens), and having thrown away long before such antique lumber as dragon-tales–if ever they had any–they were not inclined to adopt any new ones from a neighhour’s garret, save as here and there a small and picturesque bit might be worth saving as a ‘museum-piece’ of folklore or poetry. They still held to some relics of serpent worship, such as the attribution of snakes to Apollo and to Aesculapius, and their connection with the cult of the Lares, or household gods, under the impression that these house-haunting mouse-hunters were guardian spirits, whence images of them were hung up in shrines–for luck! But Lares were not dragons. The nearest approach to our subject appears to be the fable of the basilisk or cockatrice, and that I judge to be of Egyptian origin, and made up of travellers’ tales about spitting vipers; at best this undesirable creature was nothing but a venomous serpent endowed with supernatural qualities.
That they knew in Rome what a proper dragon looked like is plain from the engravings that remain of the standard of one of the legions in the Roman army. The Rev. J. B. Deane, whose old book bears the appearance of patient care, assures his readers that at the time when Rome was growing up the warriors of the Persians, Scythians, Parthians, Assyrians, and even the Saxons, “had dragon standards”; he explains also, quoting Latin writers of the age of the Caesars, that in the army of Marcus Aurelius, and afterward, flag-like images woven into the shape of a traditional dragon, were carried by each of the ten companies (cohorts) in a regiment (legion), whose regimental standard represented an eagle. Later, the dragon emblem was taken from the regular army and, in its Parthian form, was adopted as the general standard for the Auxiliary Corps. Thus in time it became the ensign of the emperors of the West whose troops were wholly Auxiliaries; and 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.
With the ‘decline and fall’ of Rome, then, knowledge of the dragon might have disappeared from the western world forever had it not been revived at the last gasp, as it were, in the interest of Christianity and in the person of His Eminence the Devil.
THE ‘OLD SERPENT’ AND HIS PROGENY
IT is difficult to determine whether the Hebrews, as we know them in the Bible, believed in the actual existence of what we call a ‘dragon,’ at least as resident in Palestine. “Hebrew theology,” Geiger concludes, “had no demonology or Satan until after the residence at Babylon. . . . The account of the Garden of Eden dates from a time subsequent to the captivity”; and this eminent expositor assumes that Satan came from the Zoroastrian conception of Arhiman, “the evil serpent bearing death.”
The features of the original Sumerian, of pre-Sumerian, myth of the struggle of Marduk with Tiamat had become considerably modified by that time even in Babylonia. Dr. Ward mentions a cylinder on which Bel-Marduk is depicted as chasing and killing the Evil One–an unmistakable serpent. “This,” Dr. Ward thought, “is convincing proof that in the region where it was made the spirit of evil was conceived as a serpent, as it is in Genesis, and also in Job 26:13 and Isaiah 27:1.” Job calls it a ‘crooked serpent,’ and Isaiah declares that in due time the Lord of Israel “shall punish the leviathan, that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the leviathan that is in the sea.”
Most of the allusions in the Old Testament appear to be allegorical or poetic, ‘dragon’ merely serving with the owl, raven, and other creatures of the Syrian wilderness as an expression for desert desolation. The prophets and bards, addressing a people fond of figurative speech, were no doubt confident their allusions and metaphors would be understood, even when a devouring, malignant, and unearthly agent of evil was meant, as in the frightful visions limned by the excited author of the Book of Revelations. Take, for example, John’s vision in Patinos of dragon-horses (Rev. 9:17) whose heads “were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone . . . for their power is in their mouth and in their tails, for their tails are like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.”
Then there is that powerful modern picture in enduring phrases: “There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out and his angels were cast with him.” Milton in next describing Satan’s return to Pandemonium, changed to a dragon, finely distinguishes this hellish monster from the snaky tribe out of which it has grown, in these verses from Paradise Lost (10: 519):
For now were all transformed
Alike, to serpents all, as accessories
To his bold riot. Dreadful was the din
Of hissing through the hall, thick-swarming now
With complicated monsters head and tail,
Scorpion, and asp, and imphishaena dire,
Cerastes horned, hydrus and ellops drear,
And dipsas (not so thick swarmed once the soil
Bedropt with blood of gorgon, or the isle
Ophiusa); but still greatest he the midst,
Now dragon grown, larger than whom the sun
Engendered in the Pythian vale on slim,
Huge Python; and his power no less he seemed
Above the rest still to retain.
The figures of metaphor chosen by St. John show that he knew the traditionary characteristics (largely derived from India) of these reptilian ogres, and counted on the public’s familiarity with them. No doubt he had often heard or read dozens of legends about them–such tales, for example, as the following one recounted in the long story about Job by Thal’labi, who died in 1035 A.D. It is a part of the Book of the Stories of the Poets, from which it was quoted into the American Journal of Semitic Languages (vol. 13, p. 145). God is haranguing the fretful job:
“Where wast thou in the day when I formed the dragon? His food is in the sea and his dwelling in the air; his eyes flash fire; his ears are like the bow of the clouds, there pours forth from them flame as though he were a whirling wind-column of dust; his belly burns and his breath flames forth in hot coals like unto rocks; it is as though the clash of his teeth were sounds of thunder and the glance of his eye were the flashing of lightning; armies pass him while he is lying; nothing terrifies him; in him there is no joint . . . he destroys all that by which he passes.”
The rendering by the English word ‘dragon’ in the authorized version of the Bible of both the two similar words tan and thanin is explained by Canon Tristram in his authentic Natural History of the Bible. “Tan,” he announces, “is always used in the plural for some creature inhabiting desert places, frequently coupled with the ostrich and wild beasts.” The Prophets and Psalmist abound in such references, and hear their cries from the most desolate haunts they are able to picture to their minds. “I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the ostriches,” exclaims Micah, remembering nocturnal voices that had echoed in the desert from ghostly ruins and perilous wastes–voices of real animals such as jackals, whose mournful howlings disturb the nervous and superstitious, or owls, always troublesome to timorous souls.
The writer of the article ‘Dragon’ in the Jewish Cyclopedia informs us that in the Septuagint version the word signifies a dangerous monster whose bite is poisonous. This accords with the Hindoo definition of a naga, which designates a venomous snake alone, a cobra. Such monsters must be imagined, says this Hebrew commentator, as of composite but snake-like form, and always as at home in water, even in the waves of the sea (Psalms 48: 7), where they were created by God with the fishes. “In the beginning of things YHWH overpowered them in creating the world. It is clear that this story, which is found only in fragments in the 0. T., was originally a myth representing God’s victory over the seas.”
The hot and arid country of the Holy Land was particularly favourable to serpent life. Several venomous species were present then as now, lurking not only in thickets and hedges (Eccl. 10: 8), and among rocks, but even in and about the rude, stone-built, dark houses of Judean villages, where they crept in search of mice, insects, etc. Amos alludes warningly to the danger in leaning against a house-wall lest an unseen serpent bite the lounger. Men saw the snake crawling in the dust, and held as a fact that it had been cursed in Eden (Genesis 3:14) to travel forever on its belly as a mark of degradation; only wondering why, instead, the good Lord had not removed altogether so dangerous a pest from his chosen people. Add to this power for harm its traditional history as something impious, and nothing seems more natural to a zoologist or an anthropologist than that this sly reptile should typify the unseen and dire influences that we name Eblis, Satan, the Devil, the Old Serpent, and so forth, and should become the prototype of the Dragon of Biblical and hence of modern legendary love, almost independently of Far Eastern notions.
Faiths, traditions, and figures of speech relating to these matters were an important element in the Christianity brought to Rome by early Jewish propagandists of the new religion, a striking novelty in which was the doctrine of punishment after death for wickedness wrought in life. No longer were men taught that when life ceased their spiritual selves were transported to another world more or less like this one; on the contrary they were sternly warned that if they died in their sins they went to a place of eternal suffering, in charge of a supreme torturer, who daily went roaming about on earth in ingenious and subtle disguises, tempting men to put themselves everlastingly in his power. He was called chiefly ‘Satan’ and ‘Devil.’ Both these names were terms taken from Oriental languages, and naturally soon came to be concretely represented by the figure of the Eastern dragon, with whom the populace, grown acquainted with Oriental things by the empire’s conquests in Asia Minor and Persia, was vaguely familiar.
To fully identify this dragon of tradition with the Devil of the Bible, and so increase the terror of his power, was easy to the zealous, if not over-wise, ministers of Chistianity, and evidence of their success is found in the many representations in mediaeval religious art to be seen in ancient books and manuscripts, numerous examples of which have been copied into Carus’s History of the Devil and other similar treatises.
“Set,” remarks Dr. G. E. Smith, “the enemy of Osiris, who is the real prototype of the evil dragon, was the antithesis of the god of Justice; he was the father of falsehood and the symbol of chaos. He was the prototype of Satan, as Osiris was the first definite representative of the Deity of which any record has been preserved. . . .
“The history of the evil dragon is not merely the evolution of the Devil, but it also affords the explanation of his traditional peculiarities, his bird-like features, his horns, his red color, his wings and cloven hoofs, and his tail. They are all of them the dragon’s distinctive features; and from time to time in the history of past ages we catch glimpses of the reality of these idetitifications. In one of the earliest woodcuts found in a printed book Satan is represented as a monk with the bird’s feet of the dragon. A most interesting intermediate phase is seen in a Chinese watercolor in the John Rylands Library (at Manchester, England), in which the thunder-dragon is represented in a form almost exactly reproducing that of the Devil of European tradition.”
Here we have the genesis of the figure of Mephistopheles! In the oldest version of the Faust legend (sixteenth century) Mephistopheles, the servant-devil, sends Faust through the air whithersoever he wishes to go, according to their compact, on a carriage drawn by dragons, not by wafting him on a magic cloak, as is the more modern rendering.
Dr. Smith continues: “Early in the Christian era, when ancient beliefs in Egypt became disguised under a thin veneer of Christianity, the story of the conflict between Horus and Set was converted into a conflict between Christ and Satan. M. Clermont Ganneau has described an interesting bas-relief in the Louvre in which a hawk-headed St. George, clad in Roman military uniform and mounted on a horse, is slaying a dragon which is represented by Set’s crocodile. But the Biblical references to Satan leave no doubt as to his identity with the dragon, who is specifically mentioned in the Book of Revelations as ‘the Old Serpent, which is the devil and Satan.'”
As Greco-Roman-born civilization gradually displaced savagery and barbarism throughout Europe, the idea expressed by the modern term ‘dragon’ spread with it in two streams and with two meanings, but lost much of its religious significance.
The eldest of these streams, derived from a prehistoric Asiatic source, was carried westward in that steady movement of eastern tribes which began to be felt along the Danube about ten thousand years ago, and slowly pressed forward to the Atlantic coast. This Neolithic current of rude, yet superior men and women, brought with it, along with certain arts and customs of a settled life, faith in and awe of a more or less demonic serpent connected with the guardianship of springs, rivers, and waters generally, but which was not much concerned with rainfall, for these early invaders of central Europe had little reason for anxiety as to sufficient rain for their simple gardening or pasturage. Later came invasions of Europe by ruder migrants from Scythia. Sarmatia, and other oriental tribes and regions.
The other stream of ideas proceeded at a later time from Christianized Italy by means of Roman soldiers (who carried an image of the dragon on their lances), or by wandering missionaries of the Church inculcating among the peoples north of the Alps religious creeds and allegories in which the dragon became a symbol and representative of the Biblical devil, and hence of all enemies of ‘the true faith,’ especially heresy and heathenism. Archaeologists find that all over eastern Europe, even to within historic times, reverence was paid to serpents, partly in a worshipful way, partly with superstitious dread–a universal characteristic of primitive religions which reached its highest development in the tropics, where great and formidable snakes inspired just respect. This prevailed, as we know, among the plainsmen of southeastern Asia and on the Russian steppes, but affected very little the tribes of the forested country west of Russia.
Hence in Europe the presentation of the dragon as the Spirit of Evil and Anti-Christ, in a garb borrowed from Hebrew imagery and the visions of the Book of Revelations, easily superseded aboriginal notions yet, especially in the north and in the mountainous eastern borderland, was never wholly freed from them.
In his Zoological Mythology Angelo de Gubernatis presents many facts of modern Balkan and Russian folklore showing coordination with Hindoo theology. A story from Serbian folktales quoted in Frazer’s Folklore in the Old Testament tells how a human giant of great ferocity, the owner of a mill, was wheedled by a woman until he revealed where his strength lay–as follows:
Far in another kingdom, under the king’s city, is a lake; in the lake is a dragon; in the dragon is a boar; in the boar is a pigeon, and in the pigeon is my strength.” A prince, whose two brothers the ogre had killed, learned this fact from the woman and made his way to the lake, where, after a terrible tussle, he slew the water-dragon and extracted the pigeon. Having questioned the pigeon, and ascertained from it how to restore his two murdered brothers, to life, the prince wrung the bird’s neck, and no doubt the wicked dragon [of the mill] perished miserably at the same moment.
Craigie, writing of Scandinavian folklore, says that stories of dragons that fly through the air by night and vomit fire are fairly common in Norway and Denmark, and are not unknown in England. “In various places all over the country there are still shown holes in the earth out of which they are seen to come flying like blazing fire when wars or other troubles are to be expected. When they return to their dwellings, where they brood over immense treasures (which they, as some say, have gathered by night in the depths of the sea), there can be heard the clang of the great iron doors that close behind them.”
Not only do these fiery, long-tailed dragons fly about, but terrestrial ones still brood over piles of gold coins in mounds and beneath churches. When they appear, as they sometimes do, various recipes exist for forcing them to reveal or even to shower down their gold, but the conditions accompanying these instructions are usually impossible to fulfil. The ‘lindorms’ and ‘king-vipers’ mentioned by Craigie are said to be serpents, usually of great size, that do various sorts of mischief, one kind having ghoulish habits; and these malicious beings are almost always connected in some way with imaginary bulls–an association constantly observed in serpent-myths, and undoubtedly indicating a phallic significance.
Frazer quotes (Balder, Vol. 1) a mediaeval writer who recorded that in some parts of Europe on Midsummer Night it was the custom to burn bones and filth to make a foul smudge, because this smoke drove away “certain noxious dragons which at this time, excited by the summer heat, copulated in the air and poisoned the wells and rivers by dropping their seed into them.”
Grimm adds such items of Teutonic lore as follow. The dragon lives 90 years in the ground, 90 in the lime-tree, and 90 more in the desert, sunning his gold in fine weather. Heimo finds a dragon in the Alps of Carneola, kills it and cuts out its tongue, and with the tongue in hand finds a rich hoard. The swords of Sigurd and of Alexander (the Great?) were tempered in dragon’s blood, which when eaten confers a knowledge of the language of birds, which are messengers of the gods. Dragons are hated; but it is a German saying that a venom-spitting dragon can blow its poison through seven church-walls but not through knitted stockings.
Such are dozens of living northern stories and fancies, traceable back into an almost forgotten antiquity.
Very old and primitive is the Teutonic tale of the dragons of the Underworld which come flying toward the shades of the dead, trying to obstruct their advance when on their way to the realm of a blissful eternity. There were also dragons on earth as well as beneath it; and one of these has survived to serve on the operatic stage wherever Wagner’s Nibelungen series is produced. This is the story as recited in the Saga of Volsung–a German epic of unknown authorship produced about the end of the 12th century: The great god Wotan (or Odin) is possessed of a vast treasure which is committed by the gods into the keeping of two giants. One of them, Fafnir, kills his brother in order to get possession of all the wealth, and then transforms himself into a dragon to guard it. Wotan wants to recover his treasure. A knight, Siegfried (Norse, Sigurd) forges a magical sword out of the pieces of his father’s sword ‘Nothing.’ Wotan and his brother Alberich come to where the dragon Fafnir is watching over the stolen money and jewels, including a magic ring belonging to Alberich to which a curse is attached. Siegfried approaches the horrid lair, whereupon Fafnir comes out, and in the fight that ensues Siegfried slays the beast by aid of his magic sword. The king tells the hero about the ring, and Siegfried goes and gets it, but its possession insures him constant trouble and unhappiness. Everyone regards this ‘dragon’ as a demon in serpent form, and he is always so represented on the operatic stage, and in the illustrations accompanying the tale in the many books in which it has been recounted in prose and verse, for it is the favourite hero-myth of the Germans.
In the Norse saga of King Olaf the hero ploughs the northern seas in his viking boat and surprises and seizes the great freebooter Raud, who has been ravaging the shores of Norway in his ‘dragon-boat.’ That craft is destroyed, and Olaf then instructs the shipwrights to construct for his majesty a ‘serpentboat’ twice as big. These were Norse sea-boats having tall figureheads of serpent-dragon form, in regard to which much that is entertaining is written in old books.