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?


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