Monday 7 November 2011

Dragons In Greek Mythology

Dragon Facts- Dragons in Greek Mythology

The very first mention of a “dragon” in Ancient Greece is derived from the classic Iliad where Agamemnon is described as having a blue dragon motif on his sword belt and a three-headed dragon emblem on his breast plate. Keep in mind however, that the Greek word used in this context could also mean a “snake.”

The English word Dragon is derived from Greek word “Drakon”, meaning dragon, and serpent of huge size or water –snake. Greek word Drakon also carried the meaning in context of, “To see” or “the one with the deadly glance.”

In “The Life of Apollonius of Tyana” (217 A.D. Flavius Philostratus ) the translation in part states: “In most respects the tusks resemble the largest swine’s, but they are slighter in build and twisted, and have a point as unbranded as sharks’ teeth.”

Now in the Greek legends of the Phoenician prince Cadmus and Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece the dragon’s teeth plays an important role. The most memorable moment in the movie version of this fable (Jason and the Argonauts 1963) is when the dragon’s teeth, thrown on the ground, convert into formidable fully armed seemingly invincible skeletal warriors. The audiences, including me were paralyzed with fear, for how can you kill that which is not made of flesh? Jason and his group eventually overcame with the aid of Medea, who provided them with the means to resist fire and steel.

Here’s a synopsis of this story:

Pelias , a king of Iolcus in Greek mythology was the son of Tyro and Poseidon. Now Tyro was married to Cretheus and had three sons by him: Aeson, Pheres and Amythaon. Unfortunately she loved not her husband but Enipeus, a river god who had refused her advances. Poseidon, who had lusted after Tyro, one day, disguised himself as Enipeus and the product of their union was Pelias and Neleus, the twin boys. One version states that Tyro left her sons to die, through exposure, but they were found by a herdsman and raised as his own. When they reached adulthood, Pelias and Neleus found Tyro and killed their stepmother, Sidero, for having mistreated her. At one point trying to escape her pursuers, Sidero had hid in a temple to Hera, but Pelias uncovered her and brought about her demise, incurring in the process Hera’s eternal wrath. Pelias was rather ambitious (power-hungry) and wished to gain dominion over all of Thessaly. To reach his goal, he had to dispose of his would be rivals. So he banished Neleus and Pheres and locked up Aeson in the Iolcus’s dangeouns. While there Aeson married and had several children, go figure, the most famous of them being Jason. Wishing to protect Jason from Pelias, she smuggled him out and Jason was trusted to the care of Chiron the centaur, on Mount Pelium. There he was well looked after and educated. Meanwhile Pelias still fearful of being overthrown, during a consultation of an oracle, was warned to be wary of a man wearing one sandal.

Some years later, Pelias was holding the Olympics and according to custom, was offering a sacrifice by the sea in honour of Poseidon. Jason, who was among the countless summoned to take part in the sacrifice, in his haste to reach Iolcus, lost one of his sandals in the flooded river Anaurus. (Hera had disguised herself as an old woman, whom Jason helped across the river, during which he came to lose his sandal.) Now when Jason entered Iolcus , he was announced as a man wearing one sandal. Asked by the king what he would do if he was confronted with the man that would be his downfall, Jason responded that he would send the man in a quest to retrieve Golden Fleece. Pelias agreeing with this sent Jason on the same quest. Now this was a seemingly impossible task, for the Golden Fleece hung on an oak tree, at Colchis, in a grove, sacred to Ares, the God of War, and further, was guarded by a fierce dragon.

A sturdy ship called The Argo was constructed to hold fifty men. These fifty men that joined Jason on this impossible quest were called the Argonauts. Reaching their destination, Jason requested the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis, Aeetus. His majesty demanded that Jason first yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls to a plough and sow the dragon’s mouth shut. No one has ever been successful at this prior. But the king’s daughter Medea, smitten with Jason, and possessing magical powers, aided Jason in this impossible task. She cast a potent spell to put the dragon to sleep, enabling Jason to retrieve Golden Fleece from the oak tree. Jason, Medea and the Argonauts were soon on their return journey to Thessaly.

During Jason’s absence meanwhile, Pelias disposed of Aeson and Promachus. One version is that Pelisas believing that Argo had sunk related this to Aeson and Promachus, causing them to commit suicide by drinking poison. More likely however, they were both murdered by Pelias.

When Jason, Medea and the Argonauts returned, Pelias , going back on his word, adamantly refused to relinquish the throne to Jason. Medea using her powers and trickery had Pelias’s own daughters the Peliades, murder their father. You see, Medea had told them prior to this that she could turn and old ram into young ram by cutting up the old ram and boiling it. During the demonstration, a live, young ram, proving this point had jumped out of the pot. The girls therefore were coerced to cut their father into pieces and throw them into the pot, in the same expectation that he would re-emerge young and rejuvenated. Pelias, who had been a willing participant, did not survive the ordeal however. Being an accessory to this crime, Jason was denied a kinship. Pelias’son Acastus reclaimed the throne and drove Jason and Medea to Corinth.


In the story, Cadmus (who’s supposed to be the spreader of literacy and civilization) had supposedly killed the sacred dragon that guarded the spring of Ares. The goddess Athena instructed him to sow the teeth, from which sprang a group of formidable warriors called the “Spartoi”. When it was time to get away, he threw precious jewel into the midst of the warriors, they coveting the gem and wanting the stone for themselves, turned on each other, providing the hero and the five survivors to escape and found the city of Thebes.

The classical legends of Cadmus and Jason have later still, on more serious note, have given rise to the phrase "to sow dragon's teeth." This metaphor is used in reference to – an action that would fuel disputes, or foster unintended dire consequences.

Sunday 6 November 2011

European Dragons- An Introduction

European Dragons - General introduction

Dragons in European mythology and folklore are almost always portrayed as being malevolent (with some exceptions such as The Red Dragon of Wales).

Photo by Geordie Michael

They are depicted as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and usually possessing scaled or feathered bodies. Dragons can have any number of legs: none, two, four or more. Often they have a hard, armoured hide and possess wings; though they rarely fly. They are endowed with large eyes adept at diligently watching treasures. Some myths portray them with row of dorsal spines. They live in underground lairs or inaccessible caves.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

The word dragon entered the English language in the early 13 the century (the usage lasted till 18th Century) from Old French dragon, which in turn comes from Latin draconem (nominative draco) meaning “huge serpent”.

You may wonder what it was that inspired dragon myths in the first place? Here are some possible explanations:

It could be that the whole mythology of European dragons stemmed from a cult of snakes; as folklore and mythological accounts of dragons often shared similar traits with huge snakes inhabiting nearby rivers or the sea. Also the Nile crocodiles in ancient times enjoyed a much larger range, with some even able to swim across the Mediterranean Sea, they could have been spotted in the southern parts of Europe. These supposed wayward crocodiles could have easily been the budding source for dragon myths.

Another possibility could be that many tales about dragons, monsters and giant heroes might have been spun from the accidental discoveries of the skeletons of whales, as well as dinosaur or mammalian fossils that could very well have been mistaken for the bones of dragons and other mythological creatures. Case in point: A discovery in 300 B.C. in Wucheng, Sichuan, China, was labelled as such by Chang Qu.

In Australia, stories of such creatures may have referred to land crocodiles, Quinkana, a terrestrial crocodile which grew to 5 to 7 metres long. Today the Komodo monitor lizard Varanus Komodoensis, is known in English as the Komodo Dragon.

Anthropologist David E. Jones, in his book entitled An Instinct for Dragons explored the hypothesis that humans have inherited instinctive reactions of fear when it comes to large cats, birds of prey and most certainly, slithering snakes. Dragons have the same characteristics that are combinations of all three. This would account for similar features been attributed to dragons appearing in various cultures throughout the world. The influence of drugs used in many religious ceremonies may also have vastly contributed to the fantastic, exaggerated imagery.

In any case, in various cultures around the word, Dragons often held major spiritual significance.

Incidences of a monstrous serpent opponent always overcome by a heroic deity had its roots in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, including Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. The Chaoskampf motif entered Greek mythology and ultimately Christian mythology, although the serpent motif may already be part of prehistoric Indo-European mythology as well, based on comparative evidence of Indic and Germanic material. Presumably the accounts of spitting cobras may have evolved into the myths of fire-breathing dragons. In the New Testament, the Devil, in his battle against Archangel Michael, takes the form of a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.

In modern times Dragon images have evolved to depict a huge fire-breathing lizard or snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs or a huge, scaly, horned dinosaur-like creature with leathery or bat-type wings growing from its back, four legs and a long muscular tail. Sometimes they have feathered wings, crests, fiery manes, with ivory spikes running down their spine and various exotic colorations.

A dragon like creature with no front legs is known as a wyvern. This is after the discovery of pterosaurs that walked on the ground. Some Dragons have been portrayed since, without front legs and using the wings as front legs Pterosaur-like when on the ground.

More recently depictions of dragons have been a bit kinder, perhaps a result of the heightened interest in dinosaurs. Who doesn’t like dinosaurs? Their cousin the Dragons, benefiting from this popularity, now are depicted as the guardians and friends of humans, with evil dragons (for we must have them also) as a misunderstood anomaly. They are now represented as intelligent creatures who can talk and possesses (or be under the spell of) potent magic. A dragon’s blood also has magical properties, for example in the opera Siegfried dragon’s blood let Siegfried understand the language of the Forest Bird. In most fables the dragon inhabits a cavern or a castle filled with gold and treasure. The dragon is often associated with a great hero who at first tries to slay him, is eventually won over and quickly develops into reciprocal bond, with the hero often seeking help or receiving advice from the Dragon.

Though they are grouped together under the dragon label, many cultures have varying descriptions and stories about them. Bad dragons still persists in some fables. These ones not only breathe fire but they can also be poisonous, such as the one depicted in Beowulf.

Beowulf, the oldest extant heroic poem in English literature, is usually credited as being the first one to explore the concept of a dragon slayer; though in fact the legend of the dragon slayer had already existed in Norse and Icelandic sagas, such as the tale of Sigurd and Fafnir. The poet of Beowulf would have had access to similar stories from Scandinavian oral tradition. The dragon fight occurring at the end of the poem, symbolizes Beowulf’s stand against evil and destruction, and as the hero, he knows that failure will bring destruction to his people after many years of peace.

J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit has expanded on Beowulf’s dragon, clearly demonstrating the lasting impact of Beowulf poem. There is a slight variation however. The dragon fight ends Beowulf, whereas in The Hobbit Tolkien uses the same dragon motif (namely the dragon’s love for treasure), to trigger a chain of events that form the narrative of the book.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Eastern Dragon

The Eastern Dragon

The Eastern dragon is not the gruesome monster of European medieval imaginings. He is in fact, the very embodiment of goodness: nobility, veracity, kindness, strength, change and life itself. He wields the power of transformation, and the gift of rendering himself visible or invisible at will. He lies hidden in the deepest caverns of the most remote mountains, or lays coiled in the abysmal depths of the vast oceans. There he waits for spring when he ascends to the towering, lofty clouds to wash his golden mane in the brewing turbulence of the impending storms. HIs thundering voice is heard far and wide in the wake of rising winds that scatter debris and thrash the branches of trees newly laden with leaves. His claws are in the forks of lightening and after a good downpour his scales glisten on the myriad surfaces of the land. Thus, by the moisture that is spring, he heralds the awakening and the return of nature’s energies.

Then in the autumnal equinox he once more returns to the mountain caverns or the depths of the ocean and there he lays hidden to re-emerge once more in spring. That is why the dragon is seen as a symbol of renewal and spring.

Brief History:

In the In 200 A.D., the Shuo Wen dictionary had stated that among the 369 species of scaly reptiles, such as fishes, snakes and lizards, the dragon is considered the ruler. It could be that Chinese dragon is merely a modified form of the alligator that to the present day is infrequently spotted in the Yangtze River. The emergence of alligators from hibernation coincides with the arrival of spring, when the dragons are supposed to be exerting their influence. This fact however has not been verified.

Another possibility is that lamas and Chinese Buddhists could have incorporated the dragon (whose body seems to be distinctly serpentine, head made up of parts of various other animals, teeth of a mammalian carnivore, legs and claws those of a bird) with the mythical serpents of Indian myth.

In various parts of Northern China, fossil remains of Stegodon, Mastodon, Elephants etc., have been occasionally unearthed fostering this belief. The discovered bones are oftentimes identified as “Dragon’s bones” and the fossil ivory is called “Dragon’s Teeth”.

There are believed to be three major Eastern dragons:

· Lung, which is the most powerful and inhabits the sky.

· Li, which is hornless and lives in the ocean

· Chiao, which is scaly and resides in marshes and makes its den in the mountains.

Of the three, Lung is the only authentic species and is described as such:

It has nine resemblances: It has the head of camel, the horns of a deer, eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, neck of snake, belly of a frog, scales of a carp, claws of a hawk and palm of a tiger.

There is a ridge of scales along its back, eighty-one in number. The scales on the head are disposed like the ridges in a chain of mountains and those on the throat lie towards the head. It has whiskers on each side of its mouth and a beard under its chin. When a bright pearl is placed hanging under its chin, he becomes unable to hear; which is also the reason why deaf persons are sometimes called lung.

It is said that the dragon’s voice is like the jingling of copper pans; and when a breath emerges from the mouth, it resembles a cloud, sometimes changing into water or fire.

To the ancients water-spouts were thought to be a living dragon, and swelling waves were enchanted by the dragon that is said to possess the power of raising great waves to injure men and boats.

The round red object which seems to be the constant appurtenance of the dragon is variously described as the sun, the moon, the symbol of rolling thunder, the emblem of the dual influences of nature and the pearl of potentiality (the loss of which betokens deficient power). The Chinese imperial coat of arms from the Han to the Ch’ing dynasty consisted of a pair of dragons fighting for a pearl.

There is some interesting lore about this pearl:

A Minister of State-Chi Liang, Marquis of Sui- when he was visiting abroad, took a stroll one day and happened to come upon a wounded snake. Taking pity, he at once administered some medicine to the wounded creature and so saved its life. Some years later when he was again abroad, strolling in the evening he chanced on the same snake. This time the snake was holding a brilliant pearl in its mouth. When he accosted it, the snake is said to have addressed him: “I am the son of His Majesty the Dragon and, while recreating myself, I was wounded. I’m indebted to you sir, for the preservation of my life and hence brought this pearl in recompense for your kindness. “

The Minister accepted the pearl and presented it to his Sovereign, who placed it in the Palace hall where by its influence the night became as day

The End.