Sunday, September 11, 2022

End of Civilization

 Rereading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, I noticed an off-hand comment of Crake I hadn't before. There is no second chance for civilization. History is full of stories of empires rising and falling and rising again. So it seems natural to assume that if civilization collapses, people will eventually pull themselves back together and rebuild. Probably faster than last time, because of the residual knowledge preserved in writings and artifacts, and maybe in lore. But there's a key problem.

All the easily accessible deposits of coal, oil, and gas have been used. There is more in the ground. Some say a lot more, some say not much more, but it doesn't matter. At this point, it takes an advanced technical society to get it. No one is going to invent hydrofracking if they don't already have sophisticated technology built on ample energy supplies. You don't start drilling for oil on the ocean bottom. If you need to move a mountain to get at a coal bed, you need earth-moving machinery.

Atwood posits that this is even true for metals. Sources of iron and copper are no longer sitting on the surface, easily found. In order to sink a mine five hundred yards into the earth, you need to already have metal tools. There will be salvage metal available, of course. That may be enough to get metal-working going again. But I don't see any way around the energy bottleneck.

The mythology is wrong. Empires rise and fall and rise again. Civilization rises, endures for a time, and then passes away.

Humans have trod this earth for 50-150,000 years (counting from "Behavioral Modernity"). Civilization has only existed for 5,000 of those years. For the first 2-4,000 years, it was an oddity, practiced only in certain regions where the available resources were ideal. It's only in the last 1,000-1,500 years that civilization has been extensive around the globe.

Enjoy it while we've got it. It may never come again.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Vive la Free Press


NOTE: This was a collaboration between me and Isabelle, written some years ago. She was no older than 12. Most of the plot is her genius, I contributed mostly prose, historical context, and clever French names.


Vive la Free Press

by Eugene and Elizabeth Fairfield

Daring Palace Robbery

PARIS FREE PRESS--A daring robbery took place late last night at the royal palace. The thief scaled the palace wall, despite pouring rain, and entered through a fourth-story window directly into the queen's bedchamber. The queen herself was sleeping after her usual nightly debauchery, and old Louis the Umpteenth had moved to the opposite end of the palace, saying, "She shakes the whole foundation when she snores."

Eluding palace guards, the thief made his or her way down to the kitchens and exited by the service door.

The thief passed up countless valuables, including the queen's carelessly heaped diamond necklaces, all purchased with the onerous taxes paid mostly by the working poor. The only items missing were from the royal pantry, including flour, german chocolate, evaporated milk, coconut, pecans, eggs, butter, and baking soda.

Publicly, palace spokesman Oral Le Bruyant denied the robbery had taken place, but posters are appearing around the city, describing the thief as "male, or else female, of indeterminate height and weight, with hair of an indistinct color, and wearing wet clothing." A reward of 50,000 livre is offered.

The thief, who prefers to remain anonymous, said only, "I was hungry," a phrase echoed by many in this oppressed country.

Hungry Thief Strikes Again

PARIS FREE PRESS--For the second day in a row, a robbery took place in the royal palace. The thief outsmarted palace staff by entering this time by the kitchen door. Flummoxed guards explained, "He was supposed to try to get out this way."

The thief opened the royal counting house, ignored several sacks of gold that had been plundered from the hard-working people of the country, and stole a quill pen. He or she then worked through the palace, lifting several 10-inch round cake pans, a knife sharpener, some musical instrument cleaning supplies, and a roll of twine, before exiting through the royal dog flap.

Palace spokesman Oral Le Bruyant just about had a coronary, saying "When will you idiots get it through your thick heads? There was no robbery!" Wanted posters continue to appear throughout town, increasing the reward to 100,000 livre.

The only evidence discovered was a travel brochure the thief had dropped, entitled, "Paris on £10 a Day." A high-placed official said, "Clearly, the thief is a foreigner, probably a kraut."

Said the thief, "I'm not a kraut, but the queen is."

Police suspect the thief is staying in one of the low-rent boarding houses mentioned in the brochure. Needlessly destructive raids are planned for later tonight.

Police Raids Thwarted By Mass Protest

PARIS FREE PRESS--Forewarned by clever journalists, the people turned out in huge numbers to defend their dwelling places. Police descended on the neighborhood, intent on "clobbering some of the unwashed," in the words of one unidentified officer. They were turned back by crowds approaching 200,000 strong.

Police Chief Brute Le Téméraire attempted to deny responsibility, saying, "We weren't raiding the neighborhood. We got a call that there was a riot in the area."

Organizers of the protest, who forgot to give their names, said, "Oh, that's likely."

Hungry Thief Can't Be Stopped!

PARIS FREE PRESS--cleverly disguised as the queen herself, the Hungry Thief slipped into the palace, and made off with some loose change and a bottle of vanilla extract.

"I suspected something was up," said a palace guard, now relieved of duty, "because the queen didn't have her usual lack of personal hygiene."

Said the thief, "There are limits to what I will do."

Palace Spokesman Oral Le Bruyant screamed incoherently, but careful listeners agree he was probably saying repeatedly, "There was no robbery!"

Police Chief Brute Le Téméraire sent a letter to Free Press offices, saying, in part, "If you insist on publishing slander and lies, we will shut you down. See if we don't."

Palace Crackdown on Free Expression

THE PEOPLE'S UNDERGROUND PRESS--Palace Police ruthlessly attacked the offices of the Paris Free Press, destroying property valued at under £200,000, and writing nasty words on the walls. Everyone present was arrested and dragged off to jail, where someone was heard to laugh wickedly and say, "You'll never see the light again!"

Police Chief Brute Le Téméraire said, "We didn't write those words. They were already there when we arrived."

Warned by watchful citizens, the Free Press staff had already fled the building, taking with them a small printer and many cases of type. The only one left in the building was the paper's mascot, Mittens.

Editors of the Free Press are continuing to publish from an undisclosed location.

Inauguration Party Tonight--Public Invited

PARIS FREE PRESS--Habile Le Faim will be inaugurated as our new president tonight, in a gala celebration certain to please.

"The people made this happen," said Le Faim. "So everyone is invited."

Outraged over many abuses under the old monarchy, in particular the crackdown on the Free Press, not to mention the mishandling of beloved Mittens, angry people stormed the palace last week and overwhelmed the guards. Mittens was unharmed but shaken by her harrowing ordeal.

Palace spokesman Oral Le Bruyant was heard saying, "But... but... but... this was all nonsense!" just before he was tossed out on his derrière.

The king and queen had no comment, due to the large number of socks stuffed in their mouths.

Organizers say the Inauguration will feature many wonderful foods, especially german chocolate cake, in honor of the departing queen.

In other news, the editor of the Free Press, who coincidentally is also named Habile Le Faim, has left the paper, saying he or she will "just be really busy with some new responsibilities I have to take on."

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Aragorn and Frodo

 I just watched Aragorn vs. Toxic Masculinity, which is a wonderful discussion of Aragorn as a quintessentially masculine character who is simultaneously tender and affirming. I've had the thought that Aragorn's greatest, defining moment in the movie comes at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, when he meets Frodo in the woods, at the Breaking of the Fellowship.

If you recall, Boromir has just tried to take the ring by force. Aragorn has sought Frodo to ensure he is safe, but when Frodo sees him, he backs away. "Can you protect me from yourself?" he asks. 

Aragorn is caught between two destinies: the Ranger and the King. The Ranger is all he has ever been, the man who works in the shadows, fights evil, defends the weak, and stays apart from the affairs of men and kings. Royalty is his heritage, but the last man to claim this heritage, Isildur, was destroyed by the temptations of power. If Aragorn could have his way, he would stay the Ranger. He fears the kingship, and the temptation it entails. He joined the Fellowship to do good as a Ranger, not a king. 

In the book, it is clear that both destinies stay with him on the journey with the Fellowship. Once they draw near to Gondor, Aragorn knows he must choose: turn right, to Gondor, and become king; turn left, to Mordor, remain the Ranger. When Gandalf falls in Moria, Aragorn is left as the leader of the Fellowship. His destiny is now clear: he must choose the path he wanted to choose, be the Ranger, lead Frodo to Oroduin.

There on the banks of the Anduin, Frodo throws this destiny into doubt. If he goes with Frodo, he could be a risk to the quest. Frodo has determined that he must go alone. In the movie, Frodo makes one last effort to avoid his fate. He offers the ring to Aragorn. Will you go, instead of me, and destroy the ring? The offer is probably the cruelest thing Frodo could have done to Aragorn. "Here," he has said. "You can escape from the destiny you fear. All you have to do is take the thing that is the source of all you fear."

But it is mercy, as well. Frodo's offer makes plain to Aragorn: the path of the Ranger is not free of temptation, it is not clear, it is not easy. When Aragorn refuses--an act few people in Middle Earth are capable of, to refuse the ring of power--it is not just his fear of temptation. He sees that this one before him, this hobbit Frodo, might be the one who can do this deed. There is something else that Aragorn can do, instead. He can be the king of men.

He folds Frodo's hand over the ring, and pushes it away, and says only, "I would have gone with you all the way. Into the very flames of Mordor."

Moments later, an army of Orcs appears, and, while Frodo flies, he turns and salutes them with his sword. He is ready. He cannot bring the ring to Mordor. His destiny is to stand and do battle.

Aragorn never forgets this moment on the banks of the Anduin. After the Seige of Gondor, when he stands as the hero of the hour, when he has rode into battle under the flag of the kings of Gondor, still his thought is with the hobbit he had pledged to protect. So he conceives the maddest of all strategies: a suicide assault on the gates of Mordor, to create a distraction, and give cover for Frodo's mission.

The purpose of his mission is never forgotten. When they are surrounded by the hosts of Mordor, and he has made his rousing speech--"On this good earth, I bid you stand! Men of the West!"--he then turns, and says quietly, "For Frodo." 

The final moment, of course, comes at his coronation. Sauron is defeated, Aragorn is crowned king, and he is finally reunited with his elven princess. As he is walking through his people, and all our bowing before their king, he meets Frodo and his companions, and says, "My friends. You bow to no man." He drops to his knees before them, and all Gondor sees their king kneel. Most have no idea why, but if their king is kneeling, they all fall to their knees. All Gondor kneels to four hobbits from the Shire. Because Aragorn knows that what he has done, becoming king, that was actually the easier path than the one he had intended. It was Frodo made Aragorn king. Then he went on to save all Middle Earth.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Inka Argus--Sample chapter


I first realized something was wrong when I didn't hear a clarinet. I know, most of the time, not hearing a clarinet is not a cause for concern, especially if you live in the Old City. Wagon wheels, trolleys, factories, shopkeepers shouting their wares, beggars shouting at shoppers, policemen shouting at beggars. There's always a lot of noise, and most of the time, none of it is a clarinet. But I was on Stuffschert Boulevard, at four in the afternoon, just past the west side of the Downtown Crossing station, and at that particular place at that particular time, there was always a clarinet playing.

I looked both ways up the street. I even went down into the underground station, and checked both corners of both platforms. I got ugly looks from the stationmaster, who thought I was trying to jump the gate for a free ride, but I didn't find a clarinet player.

His name was Clarence. I never knew his last name. He was shortalmost as short as me, which is short for a thirteen year-old girl. He always wore the same too-large twill pants held up with suspenders, and a flat cap on his greasy curls. He was half blind, and half deaf, and every day, from seven in the morning until seven at night, he stood on that street corner and played for all he was worth.

I once wondered why the police didn't call him a nuisance and drag him away. He only knew about half a dozen songs—"The Bugle Call Rag," "St. Louis Blues," "In the Mood," and "The Saints Go Marching In"—which he played in continuous cycle, all day, every day. So, of course, I looked into it. Apparently, this was tried, some ten years ago, before I was really interested in anything other than lunch and thumb sucking. Seven times they locked him up, once for thirty days hard labor. The moment they let him go, back on the street he went.

If it were hot like today, he would open his shirt and roll up his sleeves. If it were icy cold and snowing, he would wear a scarf and a worn-out coat with only one button. If it were raining, he would wear a plaited reed mat tied on his head, sticking out more than a foot in front to make a little roof for his instrument. Two summers ago, when the hurricane hit, the police had to lock him up to keep him off the street. Last winter, in the Valentine's Day Blizzard, a local parson just about dug him out of the snow and dragged him to the parsonage. There are only three things you can count on in this world: death, taxes, and Clarence.

A tall bearded man, wanting to be elected, or wanting to say something to those that were, was standing on a soap box and shouting about letting women vote or banning alcohol or passing a law against the 72-hour work week or all at once. Gentlemen and clerks tried not to look at him, or at the beggars who dogged their steps, and the beggars tried not to look at the police who eyeballed them.

No Clarence.

Then I saw someone I knew, an old panhandler called Robin, who was carrying a box and a fiddle in a sack. He stopped, right in the center of the street where Clarence would have played, and put his box down. He was wearing two pairs of shoes, which would have been odd enough by itself, but the second pair was wrapped around his knees.

"Robin." I approached him. "What are you doing?"

He grinned at me, showing his remaining teeth, which were mostly on the left side of his face, owing, he said, to an angry cannibal with a large stick. The story of how he avoided getting eaten, if a cannibal had knocked his teeth out, was long and varied, and never made much sense, however he told it. There are three kinds of people on the street: my people (the ones I can talk to, and trust most of the time), the Other People (who I'll talk to, but only a fool would trust), and the Wrong People (who I don't talk to, and don't ever let find me alone). Robin was one of the second group.

"Watch," he said. He opened the back of his box, which I now saw had two holes cut in the top. He stepped into these holes, and closed the back behind him, so it looked like the shoes on his knees were standing on the box. "Pretty good, eh?"

"Are you supposed to be a dwarf?" I asked. "You don't look anything like one. Your arms are too long."

"Nay, then," he said, affecting an accent I couldn't quite place. "I'm an old sailor-man, a vet'rin of the navy, see? I was cursed by a witch docker on the Ivory Coast, weren't I? Took me legs off, and put me feet back where me knees should be."

"Uh..." I said, not sure what else to say.

"Zac'ly. Was there ever a more pitiable sight, than a vet'rin, misshapen by 'is service to 'is country?"

"That's... quite a story," I said.

"Now don't you go writin' 'bout this in that rag o' yours, this 'ere idea is my inter-leck-chool property, see? I'm not givin' it away for less than five dollars." He took the fiddle and bow out of his sack and let the sack fall to the ground.

I tried not to laugh. "Don't worry, I won't write it up. But Robin, why are you setting up here? This is Clarence's corner."

"Who? I don't see nobody 'round 'ere."

"Clarence always plays here," I said.

"Law o' the street, love. 'E ain't 'ere, I am, it's my corner."

Technically, Robin was in the right, there. But I doubted most folk would pounce on Clarence's corner the moment he disappeared, and Robin's ridiculous accent was irritating me.

"Well, you let him have it when he comes back," I said.

"Beat it," Robin said, which I should have expected.

I gave up on him, and looked up and down the street again. There was no sign of Clarence, but I did see a cabby I knew. He was the driver of the cab that had taken me from the orphanage when I was nine, a middle-aged African man who has always recognized me ever since. To me, he couldn't have seemed more wonderful if he had wings and drove a golden chariot. He was the man who took my little hand in his gloved hand like I was a lady, and carried me away. I will always remember him. Even if he didn't have a mechanical left arm, mostly hidden inside his sleeve, except for the hum and whir it made when he moved it, and of course the wire that came out from under his jacket to the battery he carried slung over one shoulder. To him, though, I should have been just another fare. Yet he never forgot me.

"Mr. Alemu!" I called to him.

He smiled at me brightly. "Miss Inka."

"Mr. Alemu, have you seen Clarence?"

He shook his head sadly. "No, miss, he has not been here for three days. Only the fiddle man."

I wanted to ask him where Clarence could have gone, but there was no reason he'd know. It was just strange. "When you saw him last, did he look sick?"

"Ah, miss, it is hard for me to say. Mr. Clarence has always looked sick to me. If I see him, shall I tell him that miss is looking for him?"

"No," I shook my head. "No, Mr. Alemu, I'm just worried."

"Hey, charcoal!" the driver of the next cab in line called. "Are you going to take this fare or should I?"

A pair of rakish-looking men wearing pork pie hats with bright hat bands and no waistcoats were watching us, hips thrown out and lopsided grins on their faces.

"Go on," I whispered to Mr. Alemu. He took my hand in his and kissed it quickly. I could feel the metal fingers through the glove, but the touch was soft and gentle.

I strolled away, passing the next cabby on the far side of his horse. He was a round little man with hair so blond he hardly had any eyebrows.

I waited until two very fine gentlemen were headed his way, then I shouted at him. "You watch your mouth! Tub o' lard!"

"Eh? Come here, you!" He started to come after me, but his horse was in the way, and before he could get around he noticed his fare.

I skipped off a few yards while he tipped his hat to the gentlemen. Then I took a straw out of an inside pocket on my vest, and blew an orange pip at his horse's end just as he was reaching for the cab door. The horse nickered and started off down the cobbles without him. I ran the opposite way. I don't like it when people insult my friends.

One of the curious things about life is how hard it is to tell when what you're doing is going to matter. I'd created an enemy in a big fat cabby, but I've never seen him since. On the other hand, just looking for a homeless guy no one cared about got people killed.

>>The full story is on Amazon, in paperback and ebook.>>

Saturday, December 05, 2020

On Human Nature

Some time ago my faith in the essential goodness of human beings took a fatal blow.

I've long wondered what the human animal would look like, if I could divorce myself from my innate bias, from centuries of thought that strove to separate humans from other animals, to make us something special. I think I was in a symposium on neuropsychology. Researchers had shown images of faces to people while scanning their brains, and they discovered that when people saw faces that looked "different," they had an immediate fear stimulus in their midbrain. I don't recall precisely how the researchers defined "different," race was a factor, but the important thing was that everybody had an immediate, pre-rational perception of "the other" as a threat. This was followed in microseconds by activation of their cortex, which allowed rational thought to discard this feeling, which is why so many of us are not overtly racist. But the research was disturbing: at our core, humans are hardwired to view "the other" as a threat.

From this disturbing thought, I considered dogs and cats. Dogs are hierarchical and territorial. Cats have hierarchy and territory as well, but not in the same way. Cats have "time share." The dominant cat gets to sit where it wants when it wants. Sometimes, even, the overcat may prevent the other from using a preferred spot just because. But there is no question of "obedience" among cats. The undercat is free to do anything it wants, so long as it stays out of the way of the overcat. This is why it's so damn hard to train a cat to do anything. If you can get them to want to do it, they'll do it. But they won't do it to please you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are hardwired to please. They want--they need--the approval of the overdog. So dogs will obey. 

I don't think anyone will debate whether humans are more like dogs or cats. There's a reason why dogs were domesticated in the stone age, millennia before any other animal, whereas cats were only "partly domesticated" in Ancient Egypt. If humans were like cats, we'd insist that we get to spend our money first, but after we've bought what we wanted, we'd expect others to spend our money. Humans expect their underlings to obey. We like to please others. We are totally dogs, not cats. 

We are, by our nature, territorial, and hierarchical. But...

That sounds so cynical and pessimistic. That sounds like we are condemned to war and injustice.

There is a difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that everything will work out for the better. Hope is the courage to work for the good, in spite of the possibility it will not come. 

This is where I find myself. I can no longer believe in the essential goodness of humanity. But neither can I resign myself to wickedness. Microseconds after the midbrain registers fear of the other, the rational brain moves to counter. Reason is part of our nature, too. I won't surrender hope for justice and goodness. I just don't believe that it will be easy.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Why is it dragons that are everywhere? Part 1

The other day, listening to NPR, I heard the claim made that "almost every culture in the world has a story about dragons." This was followed by brief pondering about why there are stories about dragons in every culture.

Now, if there is one phrase that fills me with debunking urgency, it is "almost every culture in the world." Almost every claim along these lines is only true if you force the rest of the world to be Western. Every culture worships God in their own way, if you pretend that Buddha, coyote, science, and the Way are gods.

The other offense committed by such claims is the narrow definition of "World" usually used. Typically, it mostly covers the 3 continents of the Old World, with Asia represented by Mesopotamia and Africa by Egypt. In other words: Western Civilization and its ancient foundations. Not too infrequently, however, China is thrown into the mix, to represent the remaining 3/4 of the world.

China, of course, brings me back to dragons. If there's one thing fixed in the American consciousness, it's that the Chinese are into dragons. Or, at least, they are into a magical creature whose name we translate into English as "dragon." Allow me to illustrate the similarities between the Western dragon and the Chinese lóng in a table:

body shapelizardsnake
flies withwingsmagic
natureevilgood fortune
eats maidensyesno
guards treasureyesno
combination of many animalsnoyes
can change into a humannoyes

As you can see, the resemblances are striking, especially in the way they are not there. In fact, there are really only three ways these creatures are alike:
  1. They both have reptilian bits.
  2. They are both big.
  3. They are both called "dragon" in English.
In other words, saying that both Chinese and Western mythology includes dragons is much like saying that both Chinese and Western cooking are based on ground beef, as long as you translate "mĭfàn" as "hamburger."

This suggests an obvious answer to why their are dragons in "all" cultures: because it would be really odd if there weren't stories about reptiles. Except maybe among the Inuit.

I could rest my case there. But what of the rest of the world? In its grossest simplicity, any claims to "all cultures," or even "most cultures," must include a few broadly defined regions:

1) Europe
2) Classical Antiquity (Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.)
3) South Asia
4) East Asia
5) Central and North America
6) South America
7) Subsaharan Africa
8) Australia and Oceania
These are huge regions covering immense diversity. "Europe" must embrace Celtic, Germanic, Latin, Greek, and Slavic mythologies--and those are much more alike than the Abenaki, Lakota, Navajo, Tlingit, and Inuit of North America, to name just a few. But lets just consider those eight regions. We've already dispensed with 1 and 4. Are there "dragons" in the remaining six?


Why Is It Dragons that are everywhere? Part 3

Having crawled the world over (or a minimal selection of it), I am now prepared to pronounce my judgement on dragons:

If you define a dragon as any large creature or being with a serpentine or lizardly bodypart, then it is true that you can find tales of dragons anywhere. Having said so much, you really haven't said much of anything.

If you refine the definition to something more meaningful, the number of dragons drops considerably.

Dragon as Monster

Working definition: A dragon is a serpentine monster, not a divinity, whose role in stories is an adversary to human beings, kidnapping or eating them or their cattle. It may or may not breathe fire.

By this definition, the following qualify as dragons:
  • The Western Dragon
  • Bida of West Africa
One could admit as a "quasi-dragon" the boi-tata of Brazil, but really this is an analog of the will-o-wisp. The function in the story is more important than whether or not the creature has scales, IMO.

This does not approach any sort of cultural universal

Dragon as Divine Adversary

A unique god, goddess, or semi-divine being who is an adversary in stories.

This includes

  • The Hindu Virtra
  • The Mesopotamian Tiamat
  • The Egyptian Apep
  • The Christian Beast
I resisted including the Western dragon on that list, because most of the time it is a monster, or at best a minion of hell, not a unique being. But at times it is associated with the devil, and so is not just an adversary, but The Adversary. Undeniably, the Beast from the Book of Revelations fits into this category.

The category could be stretched to include the Hebrew Leviathan, since there is some talk of God destroying Leviathan, but not really the Midgard Serpent, who is no adversary. Not qualifying also would be South Africa's Monhonye, because he is not divine, and he is overcome through marriage, not battle.

This is an interesting category, but it appears restricted to neighboring cultures, especially since the Christian Beast seems more the heir of Classical roots than the Germanic monsters.

Dragon as Spiritual Being, Non-Adversary

A serpentine being or beings who are divine, semi-divine, or at least spiritual, and do not take on a role as an adversary.

This includes
  • The Chinese lóng and relations across East and Southeast Asia.
  • The Philippine bakuwana.
  • The Aztec Quetzalcoatl and relations among the Mayan.
  • The Incan Amaru.
  • The West African Aida Hwedo and Haitian cousin Ayida Wedo.
This is a broad definition, but it covers enough ground to have at least a bid for universality. If the question of "adversary" were removed (combining this definition with the previous), the case would be even better, hitting all the big cultural areas. However, at this point we've defined dragon as "any partly serpentine creature of partly divine nature, or better," which is so loose it is no longer surprising. Many cultures across the world have "snake" somehow worked into their cosmology. I'm shocked. :|

Dragon as Heraldic Motif

A serpentine being who is use as a symbol of the ruling class, or a symbol of their power.

A surprising category, but one with broad representation that is at least worth some note. It's also the only definition that gets the lóng and the Western dragon both firmly in the club. This definition would include:
  • The Western dragon
  • The Chinese lóng
  • The Mesopotamian Mushussu
  • The Incan Amaru
  • The Aztec Quetzalcoatl
That misses Subsaharan Africa and Oceania, but is otherwise pervasive. It's possible that I missed dragon-king symbols in Oceania and Subsaharan Africa, but by its nature this dragon would be expected to appear only in places with strong imperial governments, especially monument-building governments. That rules out Australia, nearly all of North America, and South America outside of the Andes. The only major monument-building empire that doesn't have a serpentine symbol I know of is India. Oceania, the Zulu, the kingdoms of the Sahel and Niger region, and the Mississippi culture to my knowledge left fewer monuments.

Of course, there are other creatures that are nearly as well represented in the same countries, such as big cats (lion, tiger, and jaguar), eagles, and the overlapping category of hybrid beasts. This observation may explain away some of the excitement at this discovery: most every imperial, monument-building culture used a powerful predator as a symbol of their strength. Hmm. Not so surprising after all.

Why Dragons?

This brings us finally around to my titular question. I cleverly phrased it not "Why are dragons everywhere?" but rather "Why is it dragons that are everywhere." We could run around global mythology and find genus Panthera everywhere, or eagles. We could ask "Why does every culture have gryphons?" and then define as a gryphon any spirit, monster, or god that is a hybrid of animals. We could ask "Why always thunderbirds?" and define thunderbird as any spirit, monster, or god that is partly an eagle or hawk or at least feathered. We could even ask "Why always basilisks?" and assemble the same darn list I just did. But nobody does.

Perhaps it's a linguistic accident. Perhaps early explorers translated lóng as "dragon," based on its serpentine shape, its prevalence in heraldry, its dramatic presentation (clouds and lightning!). This is truly a poor translation, implying a sameness between two radically different creatures, worse than calling a whale a "fish." Once "dragon" was stretched to such an absurd length, it was easy to see them everywhere.

Or perhaps dragons sit on a supreme plane in contemporary mythology. That is to say, they appeal to the contemporary imagination. Perhaps because of the liquidity of their definition. Few dragons appear in contemporary fiction as maiden-eating monsters. Many are befriended or ridden. I think the American mind likes reinventing dragons as less than wicked, if not genuinely good. The outwardly bad, or the misunderstood, the underdog triumphant. But to really understand what put dragons on a pedestal, I think you need look no further than Smaug.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Smaug is far beyond the whimpering lizard in the Rafael's painting of Saint George and the Dragon. Smaug would find Saint George barely a mouthful.
Rafael's dragon
Related image
Tolkien's dragon

Smaug, as Tolkien created him, is so mighty he will banter with a thief in his treasure room, just for the entertainment. What other creature from fiction or mythology can compare with Smaug, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities? He set the standard. Oh, the dragon-lóng mixup is older, of course, and that no doubt played a role. But Smaug brought the enormity of dragons into the contemporary mind, I maintain, where we have done enormous violence reinterpreting him with our favorite theories.

Beneath every ridiculous trend, maybe there is something mighty and true. A toast to Smaug!

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Why is it dragons that are everywhere, Part 2

We left off in Part One with the conclusion that the "dragons" of Europe and China are alike only in the English word used for them. To continue our exploration of the belief in the pervasiveness of dragons, I set off on a search for dragonness in the other major regions of the world..

East and Southeast Asia

Speaking very generally, the ryujin of Japan, the yong of Korea, and the con rong of Vietnam are all very similar to the Chinese lóng. If you consider that the "ryu" of "ryujin" is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character "lóng," you can see that even their names are derived from Chinese.

Let's summarize our two base creatures:
  • a dragon is a monster with fiery breath that guards treasure. In tales it is an adversary and is defeated by a hero.
  • a lóng is a celestial being, a hybrid of a handful of animals. It can sometimes take human form, and in tales it brings fortune and power
So, to give short shrift to a very diverse region that includes three ancient civilizations and more languages than all of Europe, onward...

South Asia

Hindu mythology contains an epic battle between Indra and a giant serpent named Virtra. Virtra stops up all the water in the rivers in India, so Indra kills him. Virta is
  • Like a dragon: an adversary who is defeated by a hero.
  • Like a lóng: takes human form
Virtra introduces some new features of dragonness: he is a singular being. There aren't any other virtras lying around. His battle is cosmological in scale. Saint George saved a village or a kingdom. Indra saved the whole world. Oh, and, direct result of being singular: Virtra is dead. He belongs entirely to the past. These three features take him way out of the realm of either dragons or lóng.

Naga on the other hand, are a race of cobra-like creatures that can at least be compared to dragons.
  • Like a dragon: they may guard treasure. Although they associate with water rather than fire, and have a poisonous bite rather than fiery breath, those are reasonable analogs.
  • Like a lóng: take human form, more celestial being than monster.
I'll need to read more and confirm this, but I don't believe that naga are the leading players in their stories, filling the role of an encounter along the way, or such. But that's just a guess at this point.

Classical Antiquity

Mesopotamia (Iraq) gave us the mighty Tiamat. Her reputation as "Queen of the Dragons" is largely the creation of E. Gary Gygax and the original Dungeons and Dragons game. But in "real life" her role is even more impressive, as wells as a new feature: she helped create the universe.
  • Like a dragon: in some tales could be contrived as an "adversary."
  • Like a lóng: definitely more celestial being than monster. In fact, a better description would be primordial being or even a god.
  • Like Virtra: singular, has an epic battle to lose, and she's dead.
Mesopotamia also gave us mushussu. From what I've found, they are mostly known from iconography, so details are scant. They appear to be a race, but with little in common with dragons. 
  • Like dragon: not much
  • Like a lóng: symbolize power, a hybrid of a few animals, only one of which is a snake.
Egypt gave us Apep, which appears modeled after Tiamat. Apep is a singular primordial being with an epic battle to lose, a little more of an adversary.

Israel gave us Leviathan, who is more akin to the Midgard Serpent of Scandinavian fame than to the dragon. Dragons are big, like whales are big. Leviathan is big, like mountain ranges are big. One source gives its size as being "300 miles," and this would be at a time when "300 miles" could be a month of traveling. We'll call this epic size.
  • Like a dragon: hot breath
  • Like a lóng: more a being of nature rather than good/evil
  • Like Virtra: singular, except that Leviathan is still alive.

Central and North America

It is almost ridiculous to consider this region as a single group. There is a greater difference in the languages from Maine to California than there is from Spain to India. It is also home to three great civilizations, including one of perhaps just three civilizations in the world to invent written language without at least knowing that someone else was doing it. It was not easy to discover dragon-like creatures in American mythology, since it is so often overlooked by those who claim universality. Those who don't, generally don't see dragons in American mythology. But this is what I found:

The Aztecs gave us Quetzalcoatl, a god that is serpentine in shape, except when he takes human form. He is singular but very much present. He symbolizes power, so he seems to resemble the lóng in a number of ways. But I think being a supreme deity does kind of knock one into a different mythological category. Plus, Quetzalcoatl is covered in feathers, so he is the only alleged dragon that does not have scales.

The Mayans gave us Kukulkan and Gukumatz, both of which resemble Quetzalcoatl, as far as I can find.

I'm still hunting for something north of the Rio Grande.

South America

Another broad region. Geographically it includes the tallest mountain range outside of the Himalayas, the largest rainforest on Earth, the driest desert, and the largest (by volume of water) river. The Amazon is so much bigger than other rivers that it would take the eight largest rivers on other continents to equal it. The Madeira dumps more water into the Amazon than the Mississippi, Yellow, and Nile rivers put together can dump into the ocean. But what about dragons?

The Inca gave us the amaru which has some similarities with the lóng. It is a race of spiritual beings, and a hybrid of animals. It occupies places of respect in iconography. I will need to find more mythology about the Amaru, but certainly this is the closest we've come to a cross-cultural analog. It is, however, like the lóng, not the dragon.

The Tupi people of Brazil give us the boi-tata. It is a serpentine monster that lives in a hole in the ground. It does not fly, or breathe fire, but at least its eyes are fiery. This might be a reasonable analog for a dragon, except it has an entirely different role in stories. Rather than marauding through villages, the boi-tata tricks people in lonely places into thinking that its eyes are the lights of someone's campfire. The boi-tata is not a dragon: it is a will-o-wisp.

The Guarani people of Paraguay give us teju jagua. It lives underneath fruit trees, and lives on the fruit. It can be a protector. Sometimes, teju jagua are known to guard treasure, but that's probably their only claim to dragoness.

Subsaharan Africa

Africa, of course, is the second largest continent in the world, and not by a little. The Sahara desert is such a barrier to life, however, that the continent is really split in two. North Africa is oriented toward the Mediterranean, and so becomes part of Classical Antiquity. Egypt fought with Assyria, Carthage with Rome. The Sahel, the Congo, the Kalahari, these are something else entirely. 

So different, in fact, that our first stop looking for a Subsaharan dragon is mostly found in the Caribbean: Ayida Wedo is a singular rain goddess among the African expats of Haiti. She is clearly related to (not just similar to) Aida Hwedo of the Dahomey people in West Africa. Both are known as "rainbow serpent." Aida Hwedo, however, like Tiamat, has a role in the creation of the universe. He also is of epic size, being responsible for holding up the world. Ayida Wedo, on the other hand, lives in the sky. Both are probably more like Tiamat than a lóng, but they are both alive

Also in West Africa, the Ghana people have a story about Bida. Bida was a monster who lived in a well, and would make gold rain down on the people, if they gave him 10 maidens to devour. This sounds rather dragonish, and his role in the story is to be slain by the hero. However, his is a singular tale. Bida is dead, now and you don't have to worry about him. Also, the hero of Bida's tale is the bridegroom of the last sacrifice. The heroes of many Western dragon tales are saints and knights, characters who have their own story cycles. Still, Bida is reasonably close to a dragon.

There appears to be a legend of a dragon in the Congo called Mokele-Mbebe. However, it was seized on in the 20th century by people who thought they could prove it was a living dinosaur, which they thought would somehow disprove evolution. It is therefore well beyond my patience to sift through all the keen debates like, "Is it a sauropod or another kind of dinosaur?" to find out what the actual folktale is. Let this be a cautionary tale: Yes, Virginia, there are stupid questions. Onward...

From the Shangana (Tsonga) people of South Africa we have the Masangi, who lives in a hole in the ground inside his hut. Masangi is a snake, but he is also a healer. His story is that he looks like a monster, but is not. The villagers must overcome their fear of his appearance to get his healing. Like Bida, he is a singular character in a singular tale. He is not a dragon.

Similarly, from Lesotho, we find Monyohe. A little more monstrous than Masangi, he withholds rain and causes a drought. Another singular character in a singular tale, but it's a recognizable archetype. Like Beauty and the Beast, his monstrous appearance is dispelled with the promise of marriage. As my daughter might say, "This tastes like 'not a dragon.'"

Australia and Oceania

Lastly, from the Philippines, we have bakunawa. Bakunawa swallows the moon during an eclipse. So he's a singular divine being who explains natural forces.