Chapters 7 – 9

Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll



KOREA CAME very early in Oriental history under the influence, if not under the domination, of China, and a cult of the Dragon has existed there since antiquity. Dr. William E. Griffis, in his valuable book Corea, the Hermit Nation, has this to say of its presence there under the local name riong; and some absurdly extravagant legends might be quoted.

“The riong [Li Lung?],” Dr. Griffis writes, “is one of the four supernatural or spiritually endowed creatures. He is an embodiment of all the forces of motion, change, and power for offence and defence in animal life, with the mysterious attributes of the serpent. There are many varieties of the genus Dragon. . . . In the spring it ascends to the sites, and in the autumn buries itself in the watery depths. It is this terrific manifestation of movement and power which the Corean artist loves to depict–always in connection with waters, clouds, or the sacred jewel of which it is the guardian.”

There is also a terrestrial dragon, which presides over mines and gems; and the intense regard for it is perhaps the chief reason why mines have been so little worked in Chosen, the people superstitiously fearing that disasters may follow disturbance of the metals which they believe are peculiarly the treasure of this jealous earth-spirit.

“All mountains are personified in Korea,” we are told by Angus Hamilton, and are “usually associated with dragons. In lakes there are dragons and lesser monsters. . . . The serpent is almost synonymous with the dragon. Certain fish in time become fish-dragons; snakes become elevated to the dignity and imbued with the ferocity of dragons when they have spent a thousand years in the captivity of the mountains and a thousand years in the water. All these apparitions may be propitiated with sacrifices and prayers.”

The most important of Korean heights are the Diamond Mountains, where the mines of the country are most extensively worked, to the trepidation of the populace who anticipate that some day a dreadful retribution will fall on the impious foreign exploiters of their mineral veins. “One dizzy height is named Yellow Dragon, a second the Flying Phenix; and a third, the Hidden Dragon, has reference to a demon who has not yet risen from the earth upon his ascent to the clouds.”

Mr. Hamilton gives a description of the temples of Yu-chom-sa in the Diamond Mountains. Of one of them he says: “The altar of this temple is adorned by a singular piece of wood-carving. Upon the roots of an upturned tree sit or stand fifty-three diminutive figures of Buddha. The monks tell an old-world legend of this strange structure. Many centuries ago fifty-three priests, who had journeyed from far India to Korea to introduce the precepts of Buddha into this ancient land, sat down by a well beneath a spreading tree. Three dragons presently emerged from the depths of the well and attacked the fifty-three, calling to their aid the wind dragon, who thereupon uprooted the tree. As the fight proceeded the priests managed to place an image of Buddha on each root of the tree, converting the whole into an altar, under whose influence the dragons were forced back into their cavernous depths, when huge rocks were piled into the well to shut them up. The monks then founded the monastery, building the main temple above the remains of the vanquished dragons.”

Apart from any historical suggestions which this interesting story may contain, one notes that the exorcism of the threatening demons was accomplished in just the same way as Christian monks did by a show of the Cross, as we shall see when we come to consider the dragon-lore of mediaeval Europe.

Whatever is most excellent the Koreans compare to the divinely virtuous Dragon. A ‘dragon-child’ is one that is a paragon of propriety; ‘a dragon-horse,’ one having great speed, and so on to indicate the superlative. A common proverb, “When the fish has been transformed into the dragon,” means that a happy change has taken place. This embodiment of good nature and good luck is, of course, simply the Chinese lung, friendly and worthy of respect and worship.

It appears, however, that Buddhistic travellers and missionaries from cobra-worshipping India, corrupted this gentle faith long ago by the introduction of the Hindoo doctrines and practice of naga-worship, inculcating a system of diabolism that filled the land with fear and defensive magic: the cheerful old dragons of the past became horrid snakes, lurking in every pool, and filling the seas with terror. A Korean book describes an exorcist of nagas who went with his pitcher full of water to the pond inhabited by a naga, and by his magic formulae surrounded the reptile with a ring of fire. As the water in the pitcher was its only refuge the naga turned himself into a small snake and crept into the pitcher. Whether the exorcist then killed him the story does not reveal; but in the tale Visser finds evidence of the nagas “not only as rain-gods, but also as beings wholly dependent on the presence of water and much afraid of fire–just like the dragons in Chinese and Japanese legends.”

Hulbert, author of The Passing of Korea, describes things and ideas as they were before the modernization of the country by the Japanese. He informs us that every Korean river and stream, as well as the surrounding oceans, was formerly believed to be the abode of a dragon, and every village on the banks of a stream used to make periodic adoration to this power. The importance of paying so much formal respect to it lay in the fact that this aquatic dragon had control of the rainfall, and had to be kept in good humour lest the crops be endangered by insufficient showers; furthermore it was able to make great trouble for boatmen and deep-sea sailors unless properly appeased. Hence not only the villagers and farmers, but the owners and masters of ships desiring favourable weather for their voyaging, made propitiatory sacrifices–not alone the important war-junks, but the freight-boats, fishermen, ferry-boats, etc., each conducting its own kind of ceremony to ensure safety. In all cases it was addressed as tribute to a water-spirit.

The ceremony, at least when held on land, was performed by a mudang (a professional female exorcist) in a boat, accompanied by as many of the leading persons of the village as were able to crowd in with her. “Her fee is about forty dollars. The most interesting part of the ceremony is the mudang’s dance, which is performed on the edge of a knife-blade laid across the mouth of a jar that is filled to the brim with water.” Even more elaborately nonsensical was the ceremony on a ferryboat–a great institution in a land without bridges, as Korea used to be.

Mr. Hulbert says that not until the beginning of the reign of the present dynasty was the horrible custom of throwing a young virgin into the sea at Py-ryung, as a propitiatory offering to the demon of the ocean-world, discontinued. “At that place the mudang held an annual seance in order to propitiate the sea-dragon and secure plenteous rains for the rice-crop and successful voyages for the mariners.” With the change of the royal house a new prefect was appointed to the district, who had no faith or sympathy with either the theory or its frightful demands. He attended the next seance, where he found three mudangs dragging a screaming girl towards the seashore. Stopping them he asked whether it was really necessary that a human being be sacrificed. They answered that it was. “Very well,” he said; “you will do as an offering.” Signing to two policemen they tied and hurled one of the mudangs into the waves. The dragon gave no sign of displeasure, and a second, and after her the third, were ‘sacrificed’ without any visible response from the demon the people had been taught to fear. This demonstration ended the practice and the profession of the mudangs together.



WHEN IN September, 1923, Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was on his way to visit the camps of the Third Asiatic Exploring Expedition, conducted by Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews, aided by a staff of expert assistants, he halted for the night at a frontier Chinese village. Strolling about the station in the early evening, as he relates in the Museum’s magazine Natural History (May-June, 1924):

I suddenly noticed a small group of men in the darkness pointing toward Andrews and myself. I asked Andrews to listen to what they were saying, and it was here that I learned the Chinese designation of our party, for the words were:

“There go the American men of the dragon hones!”

I was delighted with this Chinese christening, because it seemed to me both a tribute to the valour of our men and a wonderfully apt designation of the main objective of the Third Asiatic Expedition as it impressed itself upon the Chinese. For what purpose were we in Mongolia? Obviously enough to the Chinese mind to collect the bones of dragons–the dragons which for ages past had ruled the sky, the air, the earth, the waters of the earth, and which even today are believed in implicitly by the Chinese. Of course we should find small bones corresponding to small dragons, large bones corresponding to remains of large dragons–also of vast dragons, some of which, according to Chinese myth, leave their tails in the eastern part of the desert of Gobi while their heads rest on the slopes of the Altai Mountains, four hundred miles distant!

Here is the sum of the paleontology and zoology of the native Chinese–the dragon and the phenix.

The ‘dragon bones’ were the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals for which the men of science were searching the deserts of Mongolia, the discovery of which, then and since, have added vastly to the sum of paleontology and increased the world’s knowledge of and interest in China and Central Asia, and in their inhabitants and history. Incidentally these explorations have illuminated certain obscurities in the broad and antique myth now engaging the reader’s attention.

Fossil bones have long been known to the Chinese, although almost nobody, even the wisest, had any just notion of the sort of creatures they represented. One may find in every apothecary’s shop their fragments, or the powder made by crushing them, but rarely can a druggist tell you whence they came, for the wholesale dealers are loath to reveal trade-secrets. They offer them as the bones of dragons which, when properly administered, must have strong curative virtues; the source of supply is, in their view, unimportant either for trade or healing the more mystery about it the better. As everybody believes this, not suspecting any magic in the matter, the demand is so extensive that an immense supply of bones is annually gathered and dispensed.

Various theories exist among the people, however, as to the nature of these bones. It was generally agreed in the past that they were the cast-off skeletons of living dragons which had sloughed away their bones as well as their hides–once in a thousand years according to one authority; but some persons, with less credulity even in those ancient days, pronounced them the bones of dead dragons. This was much nearer the truth, for we now know that they are the fossilized skulls and limbs of real animals of long-past eras; and in our own time it has been soberly argued that from these fossils has been built up the whole fabric of faith in the reality of dragons past and present.

From this universal faith has arisen the popular trust in the therapeutic value of these mid-Tertiary fossils. According to the Pen-ts’ao Kang-Muh, the best source of information as to medical practice among the ancients, and extensively quoted by Visser, from whom I borrow again, the best bones are those having five colours, corresponding to the five visceral parts of the human body, namely: liver, lungs, heart, kidneys and spleen. White and yellow specimens rank next in healing value, and black ones are poorest, while those gathered by women are useless. Thin, broad-veined bones are regarded as female; those coarse and with narrow veins as male.

The preparation of the bones for administration in medicine is described as follows by Lei Hiao: “For using dragon’s bones first cook odorous plants; bathe the bones twice in hot water; pound them to powder, and put this in bags of gauze. Take a couple of young swallows, and after having taken out their intestines and stomach, put the bags in the swallows and hang them over a well. After one night take the bags out of the swallows, rub the powder, and mix it into medicines for strengthening the kidneys. The efficacy of such a medicine is as it were divine.” An author of the Sung dynasty recommends that the bones are to be soaked in spirits for one night, then dried on the fire and rubbed to powder. Another authority warns the people that some bones are a little poisonous, and in preparing and using them iron instruments and utensils should be avoided, because, as is well known, dragons dislike iron.

The list of illnesses curable by means of dragon-bones is a long one. Their curative power is attributed to the strong yang virtue in the bone, which makes yin demons abandon those portions of the body in which they have been trying to establish themselves. The teeth and horns of dragons are especially good for diseases developing madness, or difficulty in breathing, or convulsions, also for liver diseases. A Sung physician explains that, because the dragon is the god of the Eastern Quarter, his bones, horns and teeth can conquer any disorganization of the liver.

A book of the ninth century carries the information that when dragon’s blood enters the earth it becomes amber; and in the Pen-ts’ao Kang-Muh you may read: “Dragon saliva is seldom used as a medicine. . . . Last spring the saliva spit out by a herd of dragons appeared floating [on the sea]. The aborigines gathered, obtained and sold it, each time for 2000 copper coins.” Another treatise, written in the Sung period, instructs us that the most precious of all perfumes is seadragon’s spittle, which is hardened by the sun, floats, and is blown ashore by the wind in hard pieces. This may be amber, or ambergris. Another source of perfume is the froth produced by fighting dragons.

From the same book, says Visser, we learn that anciently, at least, dragons’ blood, fat, brains, saliva, etc., were also deemed useful as medicines, but how obtained is not clear from the classics. “Perfumes were made from the spit; hence it was asserted that fighting dragons might be smelt. An old emperor used dragon’s spittle for ink for writing on jade and gold. Having got a quantity of saliva he mixed it with the fruit of a herb which bore flowers in all four seasons. This produced a red liquid which penetrated into gold and jade.”

Many more particulars as to this medicinal use of the bones are given by H. N. Moseley in his book Notes of a Naturalist on the Challenger.

When, early in the present century, the Geological Survey of China was organized, little more was known of the geology of that country than its broad outlines. Well aware that thousands of fossil skeletons of the utmost importance to science were being ground to powder and swallowed by millions of people daily, it was plain that the discovery of the sources of supply would lead to the paleontological knowledge so much desired; but between general ignorance and the jealousy of wholesale collectors and merchants of the bones it was difficult to learn where the fossils were found. Therefore when, in 1921, Professor Osborn and Mr. Walter Granger sought to co-operate with the China Survey, all the Director of the Survey could say was that he had been told that at a place in eastern Szechuan a short distance above I-chang, on the Yangtse River, many fossils had been excavated for the medicine dealers. Mr. Granger went there and finally learned that the spot was near a small village called Yin-ching-ao, twenty miles from the town of Wan Hsien, and there Granger made his residence. He described the situation in Natural History, for May-June, 1922, as follows:

The fossils at Yinchingkao occur in pits distributed along a great limestone ridge about thirty or forty miles in length and rising ibove our camp more than 200 feet. These pits are the result of the dissolving action of water on limestone, and some of them have a depth of one hundred feet or more. They are of varying sizes averaging say six feet in diameter, and are filled with a reddish and yellowish mud, which is, I take it, disintegrated limestone. The fossils are found imbedded in the mud at varying depths, usually below twenty feet. A crude windlass is rigged up over the pit, and the mud is dug out and hauled to the surface in scoop-shaped baskets. At fifty feet it is dark in the pit, and the work is done by the light of a tiny oil wick. . . . The excavation has been going on for a long time–possibly for several generations. Digging is done only in the winter months.

The excavation of the pits is opening up just now on a large scale, and in the coming month will probably give us about all we can take care of. The fauna is Stegodon, a primitive elephant, Bison, Bos, Cervus, Tapirus, Sus, Rhinoceros, besides many small ruminants, several carnivores, and many rodents; no horses, queerly enough.

The natives in taking out the bones used no care to preserve them whole; they knew they were destined to be pulverized for medicinal purpose, so why be careful. Each day’s ‘catch’ was brought down to the village and piled up in a corner of the digger’s house to await the coming of the buyers, who from time to time visited the village and collected the stock, paying about $20 a picul (133 lbs.). One can imagine the heartsick emotions of a paleontologist exploring an unknown fauna, as he viewed these local heaps of fragments of skulls and skeletons, or the many tons of them heaped in the warehouses at I-chang–how he would pick out teeth and recognizable pieces and attempt to interpret them. By careful watching, instruction and rewards to the diggers, however, many skulls and other parts were procured uninjured, and so on this and subsequent visits a valuable collection was gradually accumulated, and divided between the museums in Peking and New York. As the report of such operations rapidly spread, it is not surprising that the wondering Chinese dubbed the American scientific staff “Men of the Dragon Bones.”



“HAVE You seen the dragon?” asks Mr. Okakura in The Awakening of Japan. “Approach him cautiously, for no mortal can survive the sight of his entire body. The eastern dragon is not the gruesome monster of mediaeval imagination, but the genius of strength and goodness. He is the spirit of change, therefore of life itself. . . . Hidden in the caverns of inaccessible mountains, or coiled in the unfathomed depths of the sea, he awaits the time when he slowly arouses himself into activity. He unfolds himself in the storm-clouds; he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpools. His claws are in the fork of the lightning, his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rain-swept pine-trees. His voice is heard in the hurricane, which, scattering the withered leaves of the forest, quickens a new spring. The dragon reveals himself only to vanish.”

Joly continues these impressions thus: “The dragon is full of remarkable powers, and seeing its body in its entirety means instant death; the monster never strikes without provocation, as, for instance, when its throat is touched. The Chinese emperor Yao was said to be the son of a dragon, and several of the other Chinese rulers were metamorphically called ‘dragonfaced.’ The emperor of Japan was described in the same way, and as such [in old times was] hidden by means of bamboo curtains from the gaze of persons to whom he granted audiences to save them from a terrible fate.

Let me insert here two remarkable paragraphs from Dr. William E. Griffis’s standard work on old Japan, say previous to fifty years ago:

Chief among ideal creatures in Japan is the dragon. The word ‘dragon’ stands for a genus of which there are several species and varieties. To describe them in full, and to recount minutely the ideas held by the Japanese rustics concerning them would be to compile an octavo work on dragonology. . . . In the carvings on tombs, temples, dwellings and shops–on the government documents–printed on the old and the new paper money, and stamped on the new coins–in pictures and books, on musical instruments, in high relief on bronzes, and cut in stone, metal and wood,–the dragon (tasu) everywhere “swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail,” whisks his long moustaches, or glares with his terrible eyes. The dragon is the only animal in modern Japan that wears hairy ornaments on the upper lip. . . .

There are many kinds of dragons, such as the violet, the yellow, the green, the red, the white, the black and the flying-dragon. When the white dragon breathes the breath of its lungs goes into the earth and turns to gold. When the violet dragon spits, the spittle becomes balls of pure crystal, of which gems and caskets are made. One kind of dragon has nine colours on its body, and another can see everything within a hundred ri; another has immense treasures of every sort; another delights to kill human beings. The water-dragon causes floods of rain; when it is sick the rain has a fishy smell. The fire-dragon is only seven feet long, but its body is of flame. The dragons are all very lustful, and approach beasts of every sort. The fruit of a union of one of these monsters with a cow is the kirin; with a swine, an elephant; and with a mare a steed of the finest breed. The female dragon produces at every parturition nine young. The first young dragon sings, and likes all harmonious sounds, hence the tops of Japanese bells are cast in the form of this dragon; the second delights in the sound of musical instruments, hence the koto or horizontal harp, and suzumi, a girl’s drum, struck by the fingers, are ornamented with the figure of this dragon; the third is fond of drinking, and likes all stimulating liquors, therefore goblets, and drinking-cups are adorned with representations of this creature; the fourth likes steep and dangerous places, hence gables, towers, and projecting beams of temples and pagodas have carved images of this dragon upon them; the fifth is a great destroyer of living things, fond of killing and bloodshed, therefore swords are decorated with golden figures of this dragon; the sixth loves learning, and delights in literature, hence on the covers and titles of books and literary works are pictures of this creature; the seventh is renowned for its power of hearing; the eighth enjoys sitting, hence the easy chairs are carved in its images; the ninth loves to bear weight, therefore the feet of tables and hibachi are shaped like this creature’s feet,

Marcus Huish gives a description of the figure that has become conventionalized among the artists of Japan in the following terms, which show that it differs markedly from the Chinese convention: “A composite monster with scowling head, long straight homs, a scaly, serpentine body, a bristling row of dorsal spines, four limbs armed with claws, and curious flamelike appendages on its shoulders and hips. The claws are usually three on each foot, but are sometimes four or even five.” A famous print by Ichiyusai Hiroshige shows a dragon in a cloud about Fuji, which has three bird-like toes and claws on every foot.

I have underscored the item of the row of spines along the ridge of the back, for that is a special characteristic (sometimes a double row, as in those turned about the bronze drum at Nara), and significant in relation to its history; and in general its figure is more distinctly that of a serpent than is the typical dragon of China. Its name in Japanese is Tatsu, the equivalent of the Chinese Lung; and in both countries it serves as one of the signs of the zodiac in the place occupied by Leo in the European symbols of the sun’s stations in its apparent annual circuit of the heavens. It also represents the four seas which, as in the Chinese cosmogony, limit the habitable earth, and are ruled by four dragon kings. “The snake,” says G. E. Smith, “takes a more obtrusive part in the Japanese than in the Chinese dragon, and it frequently manifests itself as a god of the sea. The old japanese sea-gods were often female watersnakes. The cultural influences which reached Japan from the south by way of Indonesia–many centuries before the coming of Buddhism–naturally emphasized the serpent form of the dragon and its connection with the ocean. But the river-gods, or ‘water fathers,’ were real four-footed dragons identified with the dragon-kings of Chinese myth, but at the same time were strictly homologous with the naga-rajas or cobra-kings of India.”

Joly describes the four ‘dragon kings’ recognized in Japan as follows:

Sui Riu–a rain-dragon, which when in pain causes reddish rain, coloured by its blood.

Han-Riu–striped with nine different colours; forty feet long; can never reach heaven,

Ka Riu-scarlet; fiery; only seven feet long.

Ri Riu-has wonderful sight; can see more than 100 miles.

The dragon queen is occasionally shown in art dressed in shells, corals, and other marine attrihutes.

The Chinese winged dragon ying lung (rare in decorations) is the hai riu of the Japanese, and is shown with feathered wings, a bird’s claws and tail, and a dragon’s head; it is also called tobi tatsu and sachi hoko. Children are told of a dragon with a fish’s body clothed in large scales; it is called maket-sugo, and may be a nursery version of the Chinese carp-and-dragon story. The dragon of good luck is fuku riu, contrasted with which is one of bad luck. It is popularly believed that dragons may breed by intercourse with earthly animals as a cow or mare, and in folklore a special name is given to each kind of hybrid so resulting. Joly, whose interest in this subject is in explaining its symbolism in art, says that a dragon ascending Fuji in a cloud is symbolic of success in life; that one issuing from a hibachi has the proverbial significance of “It is the unexpected that happens”; and that in connection with a tiger, usually drawn near a cave or some bamboos, the dragon in the sky above represents the power of the elements over the strongest animals. (We have seen hitherto that the tiger is the antithesis of the dragon in many situations.) Joly concludes: “As an emblem the dragon represents both the male and female principles, the continual changes and variations of life, as symbolized by its unlimited powers of adaptation, accommodating itself to all surroundings.”

A Japanese myth represents Susan-o-no-o-no Mikoto as an ‘impetuous’ man who killed an eight-headed dragon, or snake, by making the brute drunk with eight cups of sake (one for each head), and then cutting off all the heads at once. (Eight is a number of great significance in Buddhistic mysticism.) From the tail he drew a marvellous sword, later consecrated to and preserved in the temple of Atsuta. A sword got from a dragon figures, by the way, in several other legends; and various dragons are common ornaments of sword-guards and netsukes, presumably with symbolic intent.

Another version of this story runs thus: A man came to a house where all were weeping, and learned that the last of eight daughters of the house was to be given to a dragon with seven (?) or eight heads, which came to the seashore yearly to claim a victim. He changed himself into the form of the girl, and induced the dragon to drink sake from eight pots set before it, and then slew the drunken monster. From the end of its tail he took out a sword which is supposed to be the Mikado’s state sword. The hero married the maid and with her got a jewel or talisman, which is preserved with the royal regalia. Another prize so preserved is a mirror.

Commenting on these tales from Japanese folklore, Dr. G. Elliot Smith expresses the opinion that the appearance in them of a seven-headed monster adds to the probability of their importation from the West, and regards it as a reminiscence of the Egyptian Seven Hathors myth. “The seven-headed dragon is found also in the Scottish dragon-myth, and the legends of Cambodia, India, Persia, western Asia, East Africa, and the Mediterranean area. . . . In southern India the Dravidian people seem to have borrowed the Egyptian idea of the seven Hathors. . . . There is a close analogy between the Swahili and the Gaelic stories that reveals their ultimate derivation from Babylonia. In the Scottish story the seven-headed dragon comes in a storm of wind and spray. The East African serpent comes in a storm of wind and dust. In the Babylonian story seven winds destroy Tiamat. . . . But the Babylonians not only adopted the Egyptian conception of the power of evil as being seven demons, but they also seem to have fused these seven into one.”

Foremost, however, among Japanese dragon-legends is that of Riujin and his submarine palace Ryugo-Jo. His messenger is Riuja (or Hakuja), a small white serpent with the face of an ancient man. To the anger of this dragon-king of the sea we owe the boisterous waves. Joly instructs us that he is usually represented by artists as a very old, long-bearded man with a dragon coiled on his head or back. Some say that a man named Hoori once visited the sea-god’s palace and got a wife whom he brought ashore and married in earthly fashion; but as soon as the first baby came the wife became a dragon again and sank under the surface of the sea. Other tales are told of visits of this submarine ruler of storms, some of which deal with marvellous gems romantically recovered.

This brief sketch indicates that the dragon is a different affair in Japan from what it is in China, despite a superficial similarity. In both countries the learned and more or less modernized top-crust of society is, or pretends to be, unaffected by this superstition–if it be permissible so to designate it–but this unbelieving class is far broader and deeper in Japan than in China, although still finding in the dragon of tradition an art-motive which is more than merely effective in decoration, for it is instinct with an antique sentiment which all cannot help feeling. This sympathy and sense of symbolism, fostered by the romantic wonder-tales of childhood, in which the dragon figured, is perhaps stronger in sensitive Japan than among the more matter-of-fact Chinese; while faith in the actuality of dragons and the reality of their powers and divine influence is much stronger among the latter people than in Japan.

I shall quote here a paragraph illustrating this point from that most delightful book, John La Farge’s An Artist’s Letters from Japan. The author is speaking of what he saw at Nikko when visiting the splendid temple built by the Tokugawa rulers in memory of the great shogun Iyeyasu, who died in 1616, and was buried and deified on the Holy Mountain of Nikko. It is entered by the gate called ‘magnificent,’ above which is an ornate balcony.

The balcony is one long set of panels–of little panels carved and painted on its white line with children playing among flowers. Above, again, as many white pillars as below; along their sides a wild fringe of ramping dragons and the pointed leaves of the bamboo. This time the pillars are crowned with the fabulous dragon-horse, with gilded hoofs dropping into air, and lengthy processes of horns receding far back into the upper bracketings of the roof. Upon the centre of the white-and-gold lintel, so delicately carved with waves as to seem smooth in this delirium of sculpture, is stretched between two of the monster capitals a great white dragon with gilded claws and gigantic protruding head. But all these beasts are tame if compared with the wild army of dragons that cover and people the innumerable brackets which make the cornice and support the complicated rafters under the roof. Tier upon tier hang farther and farther out, like some great mass of vampires about to fall. They are gilded; their jaws are lacquered red far down into their throats, against which their white teeth glitter. Far into the shade spreads a nightmare of frowning eyebrows, and pointed fangs and outstretched claws extended toward the intruder. It would he terrible did not one feel the coldness of the unbelieving imagination, which perhaps merely copied these duplicates of earlier terrors.

An interesting legend, which has been made the theme of a popular Japanese play, is related by Arthur D. Ficke in his Catalogue of colour-prints, 1920. In the tenth century the monk Anchin, having repulsed the amorous advances of an infatuated girl Kiyohime, fled from her wrath and hid in the shadows beneath the great bell that hung in the grounds of the temple at Dojoji, in the Province of Kii, near Kyoto. She, having procured the aid of evil spirits, pursued him; and transforming herself into a dragon she touched the enormous bell, which at once fell to the ground covering the unfortunate priest. Thereupon the revenged dragon-woman curled her fiery length about the bell and, lashing it into a white heat with her flaming body, she consumed her reverent lover and perished herself as the bell collapsed in a molten flood.

The prevalence of the Shinto doctrines in Japan has weakened, no doubt, the more corrupt and superstitious features of mediaeval Buddhism, and the natural gentleness and sensitiveness to beauty in the Japanese have freed them from the grossness and terror belonging to such ideas and rites as came with the horrible naga-cult imparted to their ancestors by early travellers and emissaries from India. Relics of this ancient demonism remain, however, in both their literature and their antique art. The emphasis put in the legends on the sea-god in his submarine palace, and his attendants of both sexes, their ability to become humanized and to mate on shore with human beings, show distinctly an Indian origin.

Climate also has had an effect here as elsewhere on men’s views of life. The dragon in northern and central China, at least, is primarily a rain-god, as it was in Mesopotamia and in the valley of the Indus, where drouths were dreaded. In Japan, on the contrary, rain was rarely lacking in agriculture, so that prayers for it were seldom necessary–often, rather, were petitions that its excess should cease. Hence among landsmen the principal motive for prayer and sacrifice to sky-dragons, at any rate, disappeared; while the scarcity of dangerous snakes destroyed the fear of and consequent veneration for serpents, so that actual naga-worship probably never took a strong hold of the people. What held most firmly and longest was the notion of a sea-god, for the Japanese have ever been mariners, and all seamen are inclined to love mysteries and to deify the wondrous phenomena of the ocean.

NEXT: Chapters 10 – 12