The Persistence of Dragons
Today I have J.W. Golan here to tell you about the persistence of dragons. I am of course excited about anything related to dragons, and I pretty much drooled when he suggested this as his topic. Take it away, J.W.!
The world of mythology has reserved a special place for dragons. They have persisted across centuries of human myth and legend: from the creation mythos of Babylonia where the dragon Tiamat gave birth to a pantheon of deities; to the dragon Fafnir of Norse lore – recorded in legend thousands of years later. Moreover, in one form or another, dragons have appeared in the legends of nearly every civilization: from the Chinese dragons who were the emissaries of the gods and the embodied spirits of the rivers, lakes and seas; to the feathered snake god Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs – whose forebears dotted the architecture throughout mezoamerica. Across languages, centuries, and continents, dragons have held an important role in human storytelling. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien:
“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” The Tolkien Reader)
When certain elements reappear and persist across different cultures and across the centuries of human civilization, it’s usually a strong indicator that the element in question plays an archetypal role in the human consciousness. In other words, our human brains were pre-programmed to identify and anticipate certain archetypal characters or story elements. This is why, when we see these characters or stories on stage, in film or in literature, we instinctively know what we should expect. They form a tie between our shared human psyche and the stories we tell – a tie which was first identified by the Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung in the early 20th century.
But if the dragon forms a similar archetypal role in the human consciousness, then we must ask what role it is that the dragon fulfills and where in our human psyche does the need for that role arise? It’s easy to understand why the human brain would be pre-disposed to identify such roles as the mother and father figure, or the sage and the trickster. It’s easy to understand why we would have a preconceived, biological blueprint for what we should expect from such figures in our stories and lives. These blueprints, after all, help us to navigate the world into which we are born. But what role does the dragon fulfill?
There are two, common threads that underlie the depiction of the dragon throughout each civilization – from ancient times to today. The first, is its reptilian or serpent-like form. The natural human tendency to fear or at the very least respect snakes has been explained many times before. It is a natural fear that any arboreal species should have for one of its principal predators.
But there is another common thread that transcends all retellings of dragon legends – from ancient times to today: a sense of awe. Whether the dragon was feared as it was in Norse and other European mythologies or revered as it was in China or pre-Columbian America, the dragon was depicted as a creature of immense size and power. It was not merely that a dragon was larger than a horse or ox. Far more than that, it evoked a sense of respect and reverence even among those who feared them.
Of the Norse dragon Fafnir, for example, it was written;
“Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went.” (The Volsunga Saga)
Or when describing stories of the winged serpent Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs would relate:
“Quetzalcoatl – he was the wind, the guide and road sweeper of the rain gods, of the masters of the water, of those who brought rain. And when the wind rose, when the dust rumbled, and it cracked and there was a great din, it became dark and the wind blew in many directions, and it thundered; then it was said: ‘He is wrathful.'” (Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain)
Similarly, in Far East tradition, the dragons commanded the winds, the rain and the seas. In Tibet, dragons were depicted as the masters of thunder. In all of these instances, the dragon was portrayed as something more than just animal. They were the forces of nature embodied. A dragon was not just something larger than any animal which humans might encounter, they were something beyond the pale of humanity to tame or master. Even in those traditions where an evil dragon might be defeated by a victorious hero, the dragon was never depicted as something which might be subdued and muzzled. Even if it might be defeated, it could never be truly tamed.
So here we are, living in a modern world, with wonders which our ancestors from only a few generations past could never have imagined. And despite all of our technology, we continue to tell each other stories about dragons. Why is this? Why has the mythology of these mystical, magical creatures endured?
Archetypal theory suggests that the reason that certain characters and certain storylines have endured across the ages and across cultures and continents, is that our minds were pre-programmed to expect and embrace these characters and storylines. Our brains were pre-programmed with what a mother or father figure was expected to be, how a child coming to adulthood was expected to behave, or what an elderly sage was expected to embody. The fact that dragons have endured in our modern stories should tell us that our brains were hard-wired to recognize the role of dragons as well.
Perhaps, now more than ever, I would propose that we need to be reminded that there are things in the universe which we cannot tame. Things bigger than our ability to comprehend, and which, even if we might overcome them, we will never fully master. The dragons have been, and remain, all of this. Creatures of awe or reverence. A part of our own consciousness reminding us that the universe is bigger and more wonderous than we could possibly hope to fathom.