Dragons are universal. This may be a strange thing to say, since if there are any real dragons in our world they’re doing a pretty good job of hiding. Yet creatures identifiable as dragons figure into mythologies everywhere, and nobody knows why. There are theories: that flying reptiles represent a composite of beasts dangerous to humans; that farmers found dinosaur bones when digging their fields, and invented dragons to explain them; or that dragons represent a psychological force that is part of the human psyche.
That’s not what I think. I think dragons are real.
I’m not saying we have any lurking around Earth. But I think something of the force that links humans to our universe must involve huge, scaly, winged reptilian monsters who spew fire and ice–and, more importantly, who possess a dangerous kind of wisdom. Because unlike most scary predators, dragons speak. In fact, according to many traditions, they were the ones who taught us to use language.
It’s interesting to compare a few of the dragon legends that have developed independently in a wide variety of times, places and cultures:
DAMBALLAH WEDO–Damballah, the most important of all Vodou loas, is the African sky god who created the world from his coils. His wife is Ayida Wedo, the rainbow serpent. He’s associated with water and rain, through which he sustains the life he created. He can also appear in fire form. A god of peace and purity, he is able to grant wishes.
SHEN: Dragons have a huge tradition in China. One variant is the Shen, an aquatic creature who can not only shapeshift, but may change the appearance of things around it, creating mirages. This type of dragon is associated with shellfish, as so is often seen holding a pearl. All these details–water, shapeshifting, mirages, and the pearl that forms around a tiny speck of sand–point toward the idea of the dragon’s traditional symbolism as a creature of transformation.
QUETZLCOATL–Myths regarding a feathered serpent deity existed throughout ancient times in what is now Latin America. To us, the most familiar name for this deity is Quetzlcoatl. Older versions show him as a snake with feathers, though later on he’s often shown with some human-like features. He was a god of knowledge, crafts & learning, and of sky and air. As a leader of the priesthood, as he provides a shamanic connection to the underworld. Large temples and pyramids were dedicated to the worship of this flying serpent, the creator who defines the boundary between earth and sky.
RAINBOW SERPENT–Another primeval serpent is the Rainbow Serpent of aboriginal Australia, another creator god. According to myth, he lives in a pool of water, and from there heaves up the earth to create hills, valleys and other landforms. Rainbow serpent is the descendent of the celestial being visible as the dark streak through the milky way. In dry times he lives in a deep water hole, but he can move about through rain and other moving water, and especially the rainbow. As Rainbow Serpent travels about, he rewards good people with knowledge and punishes bad people through natural disasters.
LAC LONG QUAN–The founders of Vietnamese culture were the dragon Lac Long Quan and his consort, Au Co, the fairy daughter of the Air God. She bore him 100 eggs, which hatched into 100 sons. Dragons bring rain, prosperity and protection from foreign invaders. Ha Long Bay means “bay of the descending dragons,” and in this bay dragons defending the coast came down to the water, the fire of their breath creating the islands you can still see rising from the water today.
DRAKON–Our word dragon comes from the Greek drakon, probably from the verb drakein, which means to see clearly, or to catch a glimpse of something which flashes or gleams. The ancient Greeks didn’t necessarily view dragons as mythical. Travellers reported news of elephant-consuming dragons in Africa and India.
Y DDRAIG GOCH–The Red Dragon of Wales is the good dragon depicted on the Welsh flag, which by legend is also the standard King Arthur carried into battle. Legends of Y Ddraig Goch show him protecting the small kingdom of Wales from invaders. On the advice of the young Merlin, he was freed by King Vortigern in time to defeat the White Dragon of the Saxons, ensuring freedom for Wales.
Sure, there’s plenty of cultural diversity here, but we also see a lot of similarity. Dragon stories the world over feature water, transformation, wisdom, protection, rainbows… Almost as if people throughout the world were looking at the same thing from different angles.
Strange, yes–but it would be stranger still if all those people were looking, and there was nothing to see.
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