In modern American culture a dragon is often considered a stereotypical creature. It’s bulky, four legged, evil as sin and smart as a whip. They breathe fire and fly around on bat like wings, snatching livestock, maidens, and gold. The dragon eventually runs a foul with a hero (usually a knight of some sort) who slays them with wit and might. This is the general depiction of dragons carried over from early European and Nordic mythology. But in ancient times, a dragon stood for something a little different. Many East Asian and Early American (North, Central, and South) cultures developed myths about dragons that were nearly opposite of those from those in European storytelling that have been so ingrained in today’s society. The mythological creature, the dragon, developed in ancient European culture as a metaphor of the harshness and complications presented by life. In other cultures, the dragon represented the boons that life, nature, and wisdom have to offer man. The death of the dragon at the hands of a hero is often used to demonstrate the strength of mankind to persevere and overcome adversity, but can also mean a furthering of man’s own destruction caused by poor decision making and greed. In both ways and all ways, the dragon represents something more powerful than man and worthy of respect.
A man can be both the Hero and the Serpent.
The myth of the Feathered Serpent or Precious Twin, Quetzalcoatl, is Aztec in origin. In his myth, he is god of intelligence and self-reflection, also a primordial god of creation associated with the morning star. It is said that Quetzalcoatl descended “after the last world was destroyed, [and] he went to the land of the death and created our current world using his own blood to give new life to bones.” (Voorburg) He is often depicted as a man with a serpentine head covered in feathers, indicating that he can fly. Quetzalcoatl is very different from European myths in that the dragon is bringing life instead of representing evil. He is also half man, indicating that he may serve a dual purpose, because he is depicted as two creatures. Quetzalcoatl can be considered a bringer of death as well as life, a sort of rebirth, because he can travel into the afterlife and interact with the dead. He brought forth the present world from the ashes of the old. He would certainly be capable of taking it away. Quetzalcoatl, in this sense, represents a dragon of self-sacrifice in reproduction and bringing new life.
Dragons as Helpers for Man
Asian dragons are often depicted as long and snakelike, with large horns and facial whiskers, sort of like a mustache. They are much more sleek and streamlined than the European dragons. Asian dragons are linked with “the masculine principles [often] of heat, light, and actions.” (AMNH) Different countries within the Eastern areas attribute different strengths and meanings to dragons:
- Vietnam– Ha Long bay was created by a dragon that protected the country in ancient times
- China– Dragon lived at the bottom of a clear running springs and would grant protection
- 3. Japan– during drought monks would pray to the dragon that lived in the pond at Shinzen’en , the imperial garden, to ask it to bring rain. (Scott)
In these cultures, the dragon was the symbol of spring. They also stood for wisdom, new life, and strength. These boons they would grant upon men they deemed worthy. Unfortunately, the dragons in the ancient Americas were not so friendly.
Native American Dragons
The Iroquois tribe, specifically, told tales of Oniare. He lived in the Great Lakes and capsized canoes. Sometimes his tales included poisonous breath. Oniare was decidedly evil, though he occasionally would spare travelers who made offerings to him. Maxa is the name of an ancient dragon myth rooted in the Lenape tribe. He was “an underwater, horned serpent that lurks in lakes and eats humans.” (Lewis) The most European type dragon from the Native American myth (at least in character) was Uktena of the Cherokee tribe. The dragon was a horned serpent and the very first Uktena was made from a transformed man who failed an assassination attempt on the sun. Thus, the race was started by the folly of humans. Most of the other Uktena tales have to do with heroes killing them as malevolent and deadly monsters.
These dragon myths show how the Native American people possessed of a weary understanding of water, either too much or too little. The knowledge and integration into cultural beliefs indicates a very strong tie to the land and natural surroundings, as well as a great reverence for pregnancy and birth. All mammals come from water and are made mostly of the element. Additionally, the heroes starting to kill the dragons shows a wish to better oneself, and thus humanity, through the removal of evil. Evil in fire breathing serpent form, such as the Europeans saw in their nightmarish myths.
Dragons as Evil Against Man
A most famous and long lived dragon enters the picture at the end of Beowulf, the epic Early English poem. The dragon is at the end of the story as a final adversary worthy of the great hero. It protects a gigantic horde of gold and magical items, puts up a mighty fight, but is eventually slain by Beowulf. He, in turn, is mortally wounded in the fight and later dies, thus granted the best death within the Early European/Nordic belief system, death in battle.
The dragon of this tale clearly represents all a lifetimes worth of dysfunctions, inabilities, and insecurities, piled into one terrifying deathtrap. The dragon is everything that can, does, or will hurt a person, including internalized emotional pain. Beowulf’s ability to slay the creature proves his ultimate manhood and cemented him an eternity of immortality. The slaying of the dragon represents a cultural reverence of strength, cunning, and noble sacrifice. A slightly more recent, though no less powerful, myth also venerates such qualities, though in a slightly different manner.
The myth of Saint George – patron saint of England- starts with him as Christian soldier in the Roman army of Emperor Diocletian. George (who was not yet a saint) refused to denounce his religion and make tribute to the Roman/pagan gods when his employer ordered it. Because of his refusal, George was tortured and eventually beheaded as punishment. He was later canonized as a saint because of his great sacrifice and devotion to Christianity. In his depictions, he is often seen slaying the dragon with a woman watching from the background. The dragon is interpreted as both Satan and the monsters from his life story, or sin. The woman is often considered the love of god or courage in faith. This religion-based myth represents the Christian beliefs in strength of conviction conquering evils, as well as the protection of the weak. The dragon had, by this point, become the ultimate evil with nothing more loathsome or terrible.
Dragons evolved on their travels through human history, from the Aztecs to Saint George, from a God to a demon. They moved from representing the bringing of life, reproduction, and all strong human traits, to being the evil embodiment of human sin and self-loathing. The dragon, though all the myths, signified something naturally existing to influence human kind, be it the elements or human frailty. The serpent started as the helper of man, but is now depicted and continues to carry the stigma of human’s bane. The dragon has been vilified and manipulated, which makes one’s wonder about the villainy and sway of man on all those naturally existing influences that act upon himself.
Sarah Ockershausen Delp
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