Friday, August 10, 2018

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!

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