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.