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Monday, December 14, 2015

MONSTROPEDIA A Brief History of Dragons by Simon E. Davies


A dragon is a mythical beast which is typically depicted with large, serpentine traits and is one of the most recognisable creatures of world mythology. The oldest recorded image of a dragon can be found in Australia, where a great and powerful beast, known as the ‘Rainbow Serpent’, was linked to the creation myth of the aborigine (Dream Time). Pictures of this serpent can be found on rock art (e.g. Arnhemland), and dates from between 8000 BCE – 20,000 BCE.

This is the only Stone Age reference known to depict a dragon. The next motif appears in China during the Neolithic, at around 6000 BCE. A series of jade totems were found, linked to the Yangshao and Hongshan culture, that were carved into the shape of a coiled serpent with wings. Early Chinese myths speak of dragons that helped to bring rain to the early farmers of China, such as the great Yinglong.

While the dragons of the east were regarded as powerful deities who held sway over the forces of nature, the dragons of the west were depicted as more cruel and monstrous. The Egyptian serpent, known as Apep, was said to reside in the darkness below the earth. Egyptian texts from the Eighth dynasty, (2200 BCE), say that every night, he attacked the sun god Ra as he passed through the twelve gates of the underworld.

Another terrifying dragon to appear in early mythology was Kur, the serpent under the mountain, who features in ancient Sumerian texts (2100 BCE). Kur was a stone like dragon, who abducted the goddess Ereshkigal into the underworld, which eventually became her home. Her brother Enki tried to save her, but Kur proved too formidable an enemy.

Even in south Asia, the dragon took on an antagonistic role. The great serpent Vritra was described as the personification of drought in Hinduism. He was identified as one of the Asura (an underworld demon), and described as a great snake, who blocked the course of India’s life giving rivers. It was the god of thunder, Indra, who used his powers to slay the great serpent, restoring life to his followers.

Not all dragons were evil, however. Some performed important duties for the gods, such as the Colchian Drakon from Greece. This huge beast guarded the Golden Fleece in the sacred garden of Ares. Legend says it never slept (making it the perfect sentinel). It was eventually slain by the heroes Jason and Medea, who stole the Golden Fleece to prove Jason’s right to the throne of Thessaly.

Although the dragon is found abundantly in Eurasia and Africa, there are very few references to it in the Americas. There is one great serpent in Mesoamerica that does fit the bill however. Quetzalcoatl is a Feathered Serpent, one of the major deities of the ancient Mexico. Depictions of this god can be found as early as the 3rd century CE, in the Teotihuacán civilization. He was associated with the elements of earth and water, bringing fertility to the lands. He also resided over the arts and crafts, and was a patron of the Aztec priesthood, inspiring learning and knowledge.

In the West African religion of Vodou, Ayida-Weddo is regarded as a serpent god of fertility, associated with rainbows, wind and water. He is known to his followers as the "Rainbow Serpent". Although the earliest known references of Ayida-Weddo come from the Fon people at around 500 CE, it is believed the worship of this snake is connected with the rainbow snake of Australia. This would suggest that at some point in ancient history (probably the middle stone age), their ancestors were one and the same.

The Japanese dragon was known as Nihon no Ryū. It is likely the legends of this mythical beast were imported from China and Korea, as the Japanese stories and depictions of the dragon seem very similar in style. Like the Asian dragons, the Japanese Nihon no Ryū water depicted as a benevolent creature, associated with water and rainfall.

Back in the West, the Red Dragon of Wales, known as 'Y Ddraig Goch', appeared on the national flag during the 9th century CE. The oldest recorded use of the dragon to symbolise Wales is in the Historia Brittonum, written around AD 829, but it is popularly supposed to have been the battle standard of King Arthur and other ancient Celtic leaders. In the Mabinogion (welsh mythology), there is a story about a red dragon fighting with an invading White Dragon.

In Slavic mythology, the word “zmey” is used to describe a dragon. In Russia and Ukraine, a particular dragon-like creature, the Zmey Gorynych, has three heads. It has a great green body and walks on two back paws, its two front paws much smaller and curled. The beast is renowned for its ability to spits fire. Russian dragons usually have heads in multiples of three. Some have heads that grow back if every single head isn't cut off or the headless neck isn't covered immediately in ash or burnt.

The last dragon on this list is the great Jörmungandr, also known as the “Midgard Serpent’. He is depicted as a colossal snake that lives in the ocean surrounding Midgard. He is so enormous that his body forms a circle around the entirety of the Norse Cosmos. Jörmungandr is the child of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. It is said Jörmungandr will be killed by Thor at Ragnarok, but Thor will only walk nine paces before dying himself, of the serpent's poisonous venom.

The common features that unite all these mythical beasts of world mythology are their association with water and fertility. In the Stone Age and Neolithic era, it seems the dragon was revered as more benevolent creatures, bringing abundance and prosperity to its people. However, during the Bronze / Iron Age, the dragon became a more sinister creature, that was often slain by a heroic warrior or god, returning the world to order.


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