Sunday, May 20, 2012

"DRAGON": A Morass of Confusion (at least to me).

I rather like the idea of "Dragon". I've read Tolkien, CSLewis, McCaffrey. LeGuin, Rowling. All rollicking good "easy" romantic reading. In all of those modern popular dragon stories the dragons are big reptiles with wings and [I believe in all] four legs, fly about and spout fire from their mouths. Most of which is entirely preposterous vis-a-vis every biological and physical principle. So, I say to myself: if there are or ever were dragons, they were/are paranormal and in their "Magonian-Faerie Way" non-residents. But they are the furthest edge of Cryptozoology, so like most of that I once collected a file [now, as usual, back in Michigan where I can't get at it]. [By the way, Mother's care is weighing a bit again on me, and my "free time" in the evenings is minimal --- so who knows how long it will take me to get through this topic].

An attempt to study the Dragon has, for me, been nearly impossible. I believe that this is because there is no singular definition of what we're even talking about. When I do my feeble messing about in the literature, I run across firmly stated use of the term "dragon" applied to a huge number of tales, wherein the entities involved may have very little common characteristics and certainly are at least clearly not the same thing. For me to feel that I'm making any progress on a topic, I need to have a better idea of what I'm really researching. That means taking a big pile of what are to me different things, and separating them, and calling them different things. And I am aware that few will like this idea, but it's all I can do.

Look at the table above: all of those "categories" of beasts have had representatives called "dragons" by someone. I don't get it [scientifically anyway --- there are historical and linguistic reasons for lumping some unlike things together, but that doesn't mean we have to continue the confusion]. Pliny in his Natural History talked of the "draconids" of Africa and of India. Whether they were real or not [great snakes battling elephants are pretty hard to buy], he clearly describes them as great big snakes. Rather than call them Dragons then, I'd rather call them Great Big Snakes [brilliantly creative, eh?] and get them out of the Dragon discussion.

Same with Sea Serpents or Sea Monsters. If that's what they're described as, let's call them that. Big land-walking [part-of-the-time]  reptiles --- hmmmm, how about Big Land Reptiles? If we want "dinosaurs" to fit into cryptozoology discussions, let's call them Dinosaurs and not Dragons. Pterodactyls et al? Thunderbirds? Sound like perfectly good concepts to me. Now, large flying reptiles with wings and legs --- THAT's close enough for me. Add fire-breathing and we have two classes of Dragons that might sensibly be studied. I'll call them, "Minor Dragons" [without fire] and "Major Dragons" [with]. As I've said, I know no one else will think this useful, but at least it is the basis for this post.

When I look for support for a concept which seems on the surface ridiculous, I'm hoping for one of two things: 1). encounter stories which have some real credibility; or 2). a very rich folklore tradition beyond the mere fairy tale type literary invention. UFOs get away with just the first since the mountain of well-researched incidents is so large. Faerie encounters get away with both elements working pretty strongly in their favor. Sea serpents, similarly. What about Dragons?

Let's begin a shallow search [I apologize upfront folks for not being able to really get after this topic, but maybe you can fill in the blanks].

What did St. George Fight?

From the illustration above it's pretty clear that he fought a Dragon. But he didn't. St.George is walking along minding his saintly business in pre-seventh century Libya when he comes to the city of Silene. By the city is a lake, and inhabiting the lake is a "dragon" [not]. This evil beast bears plague and when it ventures out of the lake, carries sickness to the city. To get it to at least stay in the lake, the citizens have been feeding it sheep. The dragon-not has tired of a sheep-only diet and is rampaging again. The people decided, in one of those ultimate bonehead decisions that only humans could come up with, to feed it their children --- yep, not the adults, no sirree bob, not them. The king's daughter gets chosen in her turn, and is ready for sacrifice. "And then along came Jones [St.George]".

St. George charged the thing and lanced it. Using the daughter's girdle as a leash [and the Sign of the Cross] she and he led the wounded monster into the city. He gave them an offer they couldn't refuse: if they'd all become Christians, he'd slay the dragon-not right there. They did and he did. [this is not the high point of my Catholic faith in terms of conversion mechanisms]. They buried the dragon-not and built a church on top. A healing spring flowed out and it was miracles galore.

George fought a Lake Monster, not a dragon. Despite the painting ... and later quite entertaining Hollywood take-offs.

What did Perseus Fight? 

Well, you folks are already ahead of me on this one. It's pretty obvious that the St. George story is the wonderful old Perseus and Andromeda legend from Greece isn't it? I always liked this tale as it gave me the chance to pretend that I was some kind of hero ready to defend the beautiful lady in distress [forgive me, ladies, it's an instinct, and not the worst one we guys have]. Anyway, under very similar circumstances to the St.George tale, the beast emerges from the ocean to devour Andromeda, and Perseus swoops in on Pegasus and dispatches it. He does such an admirable job that everyone gets to be immortalized in the Heavens because of it.

But Perseus fought a Sea Monster, not a Dragon.

What did Columcille [Columba] confront?

Everyone knows this one, too. St. Columcille is wending his way from Iona towards northern Scotland trying to wrest the people away from the colleges of the Druids [in a remarkably peaceful but philosophically combative journey] and he comes to the River Ness. There a huge Water Serpent has risen up and is threatening mayhem to the locals in a nearby boat. Columcille addresses the Serpent and in the Name of the Cross commands it to leave. This "Image of the Devil" [as the early Christians liked to view it] submerges under the waters and goes away. Everyone is of course impressed.

Columcille confronted a Lake or Sea Monster, not a dragon.

What did Marduk fight?

Well, Marduk didn't fight a Dragon either. The oft-labeled "dragon" Tiamat was a deity who represented something primordial in the forces of Nature. At the deepest level, Tiamat was one of the two great original realities [Chaos], the other being Abzu, I believe, representing Order. In that, the ancient Sumerians were absolutely brilliant intuitives, as this is in essence what philosopher-theologians now see as the Chaos from which the Order-Giver [God] brought forth the Universe. In the old Mesopotamian myth, forces of Order must fight Tiamat and the forces of Chaos, Order [led by Marduk] triumphing. Tiamat, when portrayed at all, is not at all dragonish. Sometimes, as above, she is more of a winged mixture of many animals --- but the etching is deceptive. Wings never appear on the early Tiamat.

Using the cylinder seal representations as a guide [and this is the reason for this post: I was reading the very first copy of Scribner's Magazine, January 1887, and therein was an article analyzing several hundred such seals], and there was the clear evidence that Tiamat and other Sumerian deities were Not pictured with wings until well over a thousand years later in the later Babylonian and Assyrian empires.

Tiamat was pictured rather more interestingly --- as a horned sea serpent with TWO front legs! This is the description of a primitive whale or Zeuglodont. How in the world would they have come up with this had they not seen one??

Well, whether the Sumerians had encountered Zeuglodonts or not [I, of course, like that idea], Marduk fought a sea serpent / sea monster, not a dragon.

I'm going to call it a "Part One" now. Old man is tired, both back and head. Whenever I get to Part Two, I'm going to try to find some real dragons or at least some wings somewhere, and if lucky some fire.

Till then, blessings.


  1. Prof've you noticed how very Marduk-like you yourself are?

    I too understand those two terms Tiamat and Abzu as technical terms of their day with multiple levels and applications of meaning.

    Abzu to me then represents (amongst other things) the creative abyss/void or realm of infinite POSSIBILITIES out of which anything and everything has the ultimate possibility of eventually emerging: meaning anything can happen - which is good.

    Tiamat on the other hand represents the realm of infinite ACTUALITIES or the chimaeric chaos which'd result if EVERY possibility tried to manifest at the same time (AKA Eternity [of eternities] amongst other names): meaning because EVERYTHING's happening NOTHING can happen - which is bad.

    So when you do your categories of 'dragons' smiting you're actually symbolically recapitulating the act of bringing existence into actuality.

    ...seems the Sumerians weren't the only brilliantly intuitive ones.

    (Always assuming I'm not talkin' a load of b*ll*cks meself!).

    1. If the dragon is the pervading form, assigned by the group-mind, to something beyond comprehension and powerful, which amounts to a huge dose of that "unknown-ness" people fear so, then perhaps it is a metaphorical device (only). However, etymologically the word dragon had an original meaning of "from Greek drakon (genitive drakontos) "serpent, giant seafish," apparently from drak-, strong aorist stem of derkesthai "to see clearly," from PIE *derk- "to see." Perhaps the literal sense is "the one with the (deadly) glance."
      One with the deadly glance is my clue. It is the eye that sees through. That is (one of) the power of the dragon - to know. The association of dragons as wise bears relevance.
      However, alanborky's reference indicates a much more primal being, a force of universal-size nature. These were creators (or destroyers) and hence had to possess immense power (and knowledge).
      With such dragons constantly popping up in creation myths, this seems to bear out the primal or god-like nature of the dragons. But if what a dragon stands for -its metaphor is at stake, perhaps saint George, or any of the other heroes were killing belief systems. Here the emphasis is on system, or set of rules that guide behaviour. If a dragon religion or its priests demand human sacrifice, I can see how the 'primitive' mind can make of the god such priests worship as dragonic.
      Ran out of steam here, thanks for the prompt to philosophise. And BTW, Lujan Matus wrote another book called “Whisperings of the Dragon” –in a Oriental sense of the dragon, which has had a profound impact on my way of seeing reality.



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