Dragons Around the World (Part 1)
Author: Deleios Cherchenuit
This article will have two parts, because much has to be said about the mighty Dragons. Wise and helpul in some cases, cruel and greedy in others, Dragons are depicted in many ways around the world: snakes, wyrms, nagas, hydras, even crocodiles in some cases. In these two articles, I will teach you more about the Dragons around the world.
Dragons of Babylon, Sumeria, and the tale of the creation of the world.
Tiamat is the name given to the World Dragon in the early myths of both Sumer and Babyon. Tiamat was a female who embodied the power of salt water and chaos. Her body was huge and serpentine, including a long coiling trunk and a skin impervious to weapons. She had a head capped by two massive horns with a long tail lashing from her hindquarters.
According to the myth, Tiamat and her consort Apsu (who was the spirit of fresh water and the void) created first the heavens, and then the world. The two progenitors contained the seeds of life for all living things and after they made the world, gave birth to the gods. Among them Marduk, the most powerful and fiercest and Ea, who had the most convenient ability to see the future.
Fearing Ea's power, Apsu decided to destroy him. However, Ea's power warned him and he was able to trap and kill his father. At this, Tiamat flew into a terrible rage and vowed to destroy Ea. Once again, Ea's ability warned him, but as everyone knows, you can't deal with your mom's wrath, and he saw that he would not survive a battle with his mother. He gathered all the other gods together and begged Marduk to battle with Tiamat. Marduk agreed on the condition that were he to win, he'd be hailed by all as supreme lord of the creation.
Tiamat created many monsters and other Dragons to help her in the fight, but Marduk trapped them in a net, then killed Tiamat with his bow that could shoot bolts of lightning. He then slashed her body into pieces. One part he cast into the heavens, forming the Milky Way. From the rest he formed the firmament that makes up the landscape humankind first came to know. Human beings themselves were formed from the pieces of Tiamat's monsters, slain and dismembered in the battle.
Early Egyptian Dragon Myths
Apep was known as the mightiest enemy of Ra, the Egyptian sun god. He was said to be a great snake and was sometimes referred to as a Dragon, greedy and covetous. Some descriptions claimed that Apep was as long as the height of eight men, and that his head was made out of flint. He lived in the underworld and his believers imagined that he battled the sun every day, leading to nightfall and the hours of darkness. His roar was viewed as the cause of earthquakes and thunderstorms and he would occasionally attack Ra during the day light, thus causing a solar eclipse. However, he was promptly driven back by Ra's guardians such as Nehebkau, who was depicted as a massive serpent with arms and legs of a human. Nehebkau was said to be so massive that the entire world rested upon him, with his body coiled so that his tail was held within his mouth.
Eventually, Apep's image evolved to become Set, the god of evil in the late period of ancient Egypt even though interestingly, in some representations, Set is shown as a protector of Ra against Apep.
Another Dragon, Denwen, was a serpent creature with a body made of fire. He was so dangerous and imposing that he almost ignited a great fire that was set to consume all the gods of the pantheon. He was said to be twarted by the pharaoh, thus justifying the monarch's right to rule.
Dragons of Greek Mythology
The modern word "dragon" traces its root to the Greek "drakon". Generally, the Dragons of Greek myth serve as adversaries to heroic humans or demigods. The dragons of Greek myth are generally viewed as remnants of the rule of the elder gods, such as the earth-mother Gaia.
One of the many offspring of Gaia is a huge serpent, usually with legs and clawed feet. He's known by the names Drakon, Draco, Pytho, or Python. He was master of the Delphic oracle, the very center, or navel, of the world. That navel was represented at Delphi on the slopes of Mount Parnassus by a large rock called the Omphalos. Drakon entwined himself about the Omphalos and protected it in his mother's name. He remained an immortal guardian of a most sacred site for ages.
And as often in Greek myths, it all starts with Zeus who can't keep his ... "urges" under control. He impregnated the goddess Leto with twins, the gods Apollo and Artemis. Hera, Zeus' wife, understandably angry with her husband's behavior, assigned Drakon to leave Delphi and pursue Leto, hoping that this way Leto would not be able to give birth under the light of the sun.
Still, the twins were born and once he came of age, Apollo decided to take vengeance against Drakon, who had returned to Mount Parnassus. Apollo attacked Drakon, who retreated to the oracle of Gaia at Delphi, but that didn't stop Apollo who killed him with a barrage of arrows, then buried him under the great rock of Omphalos. In acknowledgment, the priestess who presided over the oracle was often called Pythia.
The Hydra of Lerna
The well known Hydra (which dwelt in the marshes of Lerna, near the city of Argos), with its multiple reptilian heads swaying on long, serpentine necks is a classic form of the Dragon. In the Greek myth of Heracles (Hercules), Heracles is commanded to slay the Hydra. The Hydra was the spawn of Typhon and Echidna. Typhon was the most deadly monster in Greek mythology, the largest and more fearsome of all, with a hundred dragon heads. Echidna was half nymph and half snake. To make it more fun, Hera trained the Hydra to be a challenge to Heracles.
The Hydra's poisonous presence was lethal, his breath powerful enough to kill anyone. His blood was toxic as well and he would grow back two heads to replace each one that was destroyed. Only the Hydra's central head was mortal.
Protected by Athena (and a cloth not to breath the poison), Heracles and his nephew Iolaus sought the Hydra. When Heracles sliced a head, Iolaus instantly cauterized the wound with a burning torch. When only the central head remained, Heracles struck it with a golden sword, courtesy of Athena. Yet the head wouldn't die. Heracles finally tossed it in a deep hole, tossing many rocks on top of it and burying it.
Interestingly enough, Heracles would face another Dragon, Ladon, who was the guardian of the Garden of Hesperides, for one of his tasks. To defeat Ladon he simply used arrows dipped in the Hydras blood, effectively poisoning Ladon this way. That seems like cheating, but nobody seemed to care back then.
Note: the original poetry is unclear about the number of heads of the Hydra, defining it as "more heads than the vase-painters could paint", which I find very funny.
In both Testaments of the Bible, Dragons are held up as evil. Satan himself was described as one. Biblical Dragons are not described as wyrms in the classic medieval sense (with wings, fire breath, etc...) but rather as serpents or crocodiles. Variations include the basilisks and sea monsters, such as the Leviathan.
Dragons of Hebrew Myth
The book of Isaiah describes a Leviathan or sea Dragon, called Tannin. This Dragon is compared to another sea monster called Rahab, mentioned in the Book of Psalms.
Job speaks of a creature whose "breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth", the traditional image of a Dragon.
The Dragon of Revelation
Among the most vivid images of the Book of Revelation (the last book of the Biblical New Testament) is one describing a massive red Dragon wreaking great destruction. The serpent's tail sweeps a huge number of stars out of the skies and sends them crashing to earth. The Dragon gathers allied angels and wages war against Archangel Michael. Finally the Dragon ("that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world") is expelled from heaven and sent to earth as punishment.
Dragons of Early Christian Myth
The Dragon and St. George
One of the most famous tales is the one of St. George, set up at the beginning of the 4th century. George was a soldier in the Imperial Guard of the Roman Empire, which he left after a law decreeing that Christians should face the death penalty was passed by Emperor Diocletian. George donned armor and hoisted a shield emblazoned with Christian cross, and returned to his native Cappadocia (central Turkey). He journeyed until he finally came to the city of Silene, in Lybia.
In a lake by the city dwelt a venomous and deadly Dragon. The king had been forced to negotiate terms with him, and the people had to sacrifice to him two sheep every morning. When all the sheep had been given up, a child chosen by lottery would be given up, until fate decided that child would be the king's daughter. The princess was taken from the city and tied to the rock beside the lake, awaiting her fate.
It was then that George appeared, and offered to save her. The Dragon reared out and attacked. George hoisted his lance, charged, and pierced the creatures breast, wounding him but not mortally. He then took a belt and wrapped it around the Dragon's neck, subduing it. George preached to the people of the city that in exchange for their baptism he would slay the beast by lopping off his head. According to the legend, it took four massive oxcarts to haul the Dragon's remains from the city.
Saint Patrick and the Snakes of Ireland
Since it is only a few days after Saint Patrick's Day, I had to mention his tale, even though actual Dragons aren't involved. During one of his fasts on a mountain, Patrick was attacked by snakes. In his righteous fury, he called upon the force of the Lord, and drove all the snakes across all the width and breadth of Ireland into the sea, where they drowned.
Dragons of East Asia
Dragons of East Asian culture are powerful and capable of doing a great deal of damage, they are however not regarded as the greedy, destructive, and wicked wyrms that are featured in European myths and even can befriend humans.
Dragons of China
Chinese Dragons are described as sharing nine features: a head of a camel, a scaly body like a carp's, horns upon his head like a stag, eyes like a rabbit, ears like a bull, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, paws of a tiger, and finally claws of an eagle.
Chinese Dragons can be petulant and proud, but are not described as purely evil. They often are associated with water; each of a seas along the coast of China is credited with having a specific Dragon residing there. Chinese Dragons are described as having great power over water.
When a Chinese Dragon reaches 1,000 years of age, he can grow wings if he wants. They then emerge from his flanks and look like branches. However, they are not necessary to fly as all Chinese Dragons can fly, no matter if they have wings or not.
Many Chinese people believed that people were distant descendants of Dragons, through the goddess Nu Kua, who was half mortal and half Dragon. Chinese emperors were long hailed as being the sons of Dragons. Yellow Dragons with five claws are typical imperial symbols and only the emperor could bear them.
The different types of Chinese Dragons are:
- The Tien-lung, the celestial Dragons that hold the highest places in the Dragon hierarchy. These Dragons are rare, and thought to be benign.
- The Shen-lung, or spiritual Dragons. They control wind and rain, and can bring storms upon the world. They're described as having scales of azure. Because of their powers, people were talking great care to avoid offending a Shen-lung.
- The Fut-lung are the Dragons of the underworld. They are guardians of treasures, and volcanic eruptions were supposed to be caused by Fut-lung erupting from the earth. Each Fut-lung holds a valuable pearl as a talisman, which plays an important role in many Chinese tales.
- The Ti-lung were called earth Dragons although they were actually masters of water. They watch over rivers, lakes and streams.
One of the Chinese legends showing how valuable a Dragon pearl is tells about Hai Li Bu. Hai Li Bu was a kindly man who one day while walking came across a goose bullying a small snake. He chased the goose away, and it turned out the small snake was the daughter of the Dragon King. To reward him, she handed him a pearl giving him the ability to understand the speech of animals, but he were not to talk of it, or he would be turned into a stone.
Hai Li Bu enjoyed listening to the animals until one day, when the birds talked about a terrible flood threatening Hai Li Bu's village. Hai Li Bu warned the inhabitants to escape and when the waters retreated, all that was left of Hai Li Bu was a stone statue.
One legend has it that Buddha called all the animals in the world to journey to him. Only twelve could make it, among them the Dragon, who became one of the signs of the Zodiac.
Dragons of Japanese mythology can either be evil like the Dragons of European lore or friendly like their Chinese counterparts.
Ryujin, the god of Sea, was viewed as the divine master of the ocean surrounding Japan. He had a huge mouth, capable of swallowing large ships and whales, and could create whirlpools when opening it under water. His scales, horns, and tongue were a beautiful deep blue color. He could shapeshift into human form and his daughter was the mother of Jimmu Tenno, the first emperor. So it was said that Ryujin was the ancestor of the entire line of Japanese rulers. Even though Ryujin was generally benign, he could send fierce storms when angry.
One story illustrates both Ryujin's temper and power. One day, he suffered from a quite unpleasant rash, and ordered one of his servants, a jellyfish, to bring him a monkey's liver, which was an ingredient to a remedy. The jellyfish accosted a monkey at the seashore, and asked for his liver. The monkey, however, claimed that it was stored in a jar in the forest, and offered to go and fetch it. The jellyfish agreed and of course, the monkey never returned. When the jellyfish return to his master's palace to admit his failure, Ryujin flew into a rage and smashed the jellyfish so hard that all of his bones exploded. And that is why, friends, jellyfish have no bones.
And here comes the end of our first part, I hope you liked it. Don't miss our next issue, with Nagas, Nordic Dragons, and more! See you next month!
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