BIRTH OF THE DRAGON
TODAY a solar eclipse is slowly darkening my study window, and when I step out of doors to watch it I hear a man say: The Dragon is eating the Sun.
No dragon exists–none ever did exist. Nevertheless a belief in its actuality has prevailed since remote antiquity, and has become a fact of historic, social, and artistic interest. Millions of persons to-day have as firm a faith in its reality as in any fact, or supposed fact, of their intuition or experience. As an element in the ancient Oriental creation-myths it is perhaps the most antique product of human imagination; and it stalks, picturesque and portentous, through mediaeval legend.
The dragon was born in the youth of the East, a creature engendered between inward fear and outward peril, was nurtured among prehistoric wanderers, and has survived in the hinterlands of ignorance and superstition because it embodied the underlying principle of all morality–the eternal contrast and contest between Good and Evil, typified by the incessant struggle of man with the forces of nature and with his twofold self. In the East the dragon, like the primitive gods, was by turns deity and demon; carried westward, it fell almost wholly into the latter estate, or was transformed into a purely allegorical figure; and it has its counterpart, if not its descendants, in the religious faith and rites of every known land and all sorts of peoples.
The dragon is as old as the sensitiveness and imagination of mankind, and doubtless had assumed a definite shape in some crude, material expression as long ago as when men first began to paint, or to carve in wood and on stone, marks and images that were at least symbols of the supposed realities visible to their mental eyes.
It is needless to repeat that the phenomena of nature must have appeared to primitive man as an immense, contradictory, insolvable mystery, a mixture of light and darkness, sunshine and storm, things helpful to him contending, as if animated, with things harmful, life alternating with death and decay. This is an old story, but it is plain that, in common with the more intelligent animals, man’s predominant sensation was fear–fear of his brutish fellows, dread of the jungle and its beasts and ogres, of the desert and its burning drouth, of the wind and the thunderous lightning; most of all terror of the dark, peopled with spirits good and bad. Against the unknown and therefore frightful shapes and noises of the night, the shrieks of the gale, awe of the ocean, the flickering lights and sickening miasma of the bog–all to his half-awakened mind evidence of animate beings above his reach or understanding–man knew of but one defense, which was humble propitiation and neverceasing payment of ransom. Ghosts blackmailed him throughout his terror-stricken life. The only friendly things in nature were sunshine and water–most of all gentle, nourishing rain: what wonder then that the most beneficent spirits and primary deities in all the primitive cults of Europe and Asia, at least, have been those connected with fresh waters. When one attempts to trace to its birth the creature or concept of which we are in search, one is led backward and backward to the very beginning of human philosophy. That origin seems to rest in the earliest discoverable traces of human thought on this earth, when paleolithic man cowered over woodland campfires or watched by night beside Asiatic rivers, now dry, now mysteriously overflowing, or made magic in some consecrated cave; and when wonder was rising slowly–oh, so slowly–in his brain into the dignity of reasoning. These are really very interesting facts, and they appear to have been true during thousands of bygone years. The strange, half-human figures painted on the wall of a cave in southern France by a Magdalenien artist in the Old Stone Age, and labelled ‘Sorcerer’ by archaeologists, may easily be construed as an attempt to portray an ancestral dragon. Let us try to find the origin of this thing, and to discover not only its meaning, but how or why the Dragon came to be of its present form. It is doubtless a long and complicated story, but there is no call to apologize for either its length or its absurdities.
We have seen that the notion embodied in the word ‘dragon’ goes back to the beginning of recorded human thoughts about the mysteries of the thinker and his world. It is connected with the powers and doings of the earliest gods, and like them is vague, changeable and contradictory in its attributes, maintaining from first to last only one definable characteristic–association with and control of water. This points unmistakably to its birth in a land where water is the most important thing in nature to human existence–the essential requisite, indeed, for life and happiness. Such are the conditions in the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates, precisely the regions in which, first of all, mankind began to establish a settled existence and to lay the foundations of civilization in agriculture. The success of agriculture was made possible by the invention of irrigation, through which man obtained command of the water-supply for his fields, and outwitted, so to say, the eccentricities of the rainfall. In timely showers to the right amount, in living streams and their vernal overflows that leave new soil, the rainfall is a blessing; but in the lightning-darting storm, in excessive floods, it may, and sometimes does, become a curse. Primitive men, unlearned in the natural laws by which we now account for the weather, imagined its varying moods to be the result of supernatural powers struggling somewhere in space, on one side for good conditions, on the other towards destruction and chaos; and they invented wondrous and complex stories to explain it. Every change in the weather was attributed to the gods. When rains were favourable, good gods got the credit; when prolonged drouth or devastating storms assailed the locality, men told one another that malignant spirits were at work.
Supreme among the earliest known divinities of Egypt was Re (or Ra). Associated with him was a feminine deity, Hathor, the ‘great Mother,’ or source of all earthly life. At enmity with Re was a formless being, Set. As Re grew aged mankind (created by Hathor) showed signs of rebellion, instigated by Set, and a council of the gods advised that Hathor be sent down to earth to subdue her insurgent progeny. She complied, received the additional epithet ‘Sekhet,’ acquired the ferocious lioness as her symbol, and went about cutting throats until the land was flooded with blood. Alarmed at the destruction of his subjects, which threatened to be total, Re begged Hathor-Sekhet to desist. She refused, whereupon Re caused to be brewed a red liquor, a draft of which subdued Hathor’s maniacal rage, and so a remnant of mankind was saved. From that bloody time Hathor’s reputation fell to that of a malignant spirit, for she, who theretofore had been a beneficent ‘giver of life’ had shown herself, in the avatar of Sekhet, a demon of destruction. In this skeleton of a legend we have the kernel of Egyptian mythology and religion. Re fades out and Osiris appears, an earthly king deified as a sort of water-god, who becomes more definitely a personification of the Nile in its beneficent aspect. Hathor becomes his consort Isis, and they produce a son Horus whose symbol is a falcon, sometimes accompanied by serpents, and who carries on Re’s feud with Set (subsequently murderer of Osiris) under various warrior-methods, such as driving to battle in a chariot drawn by griffins (perpetuated in the Greek gryphon)–perhaps the most primitive incarnations of the dragon. Set is a water-devil whose followers take the form of crocodiles and other dangerous creatures of the great river; and later we read of a gigantic snake-like reptile Apop, which apparently was that long-lived old monster Set, and which later was known among the gods of Greek Olympus as Typhon, a snake-headed giant. Apop had a corps of typhonic monsters at his call. A host of fabulous monsters seem to have been derived, with more or less claim to true ancestry, from these prehistoric creatures of the Egyptian imagination.
While this epic or drama of the development of the human intelligence was in progress in Egypt, exhibiting the Celestial triad at the basis of all cosmic mythology, a similar development of legendary history was proceeding in Mesopotamia. "The Egyptian legends cannot be fully appreciated," we are told, "unless they are studied in conjunction with those of Babylonia and Assyria, the mythology of Greece, Persia, India, China Indonesia and America." We do not find in the opening chapters of the history of either Egypt or Mesopotamia the characteristic dragons we shall encounter later; but we do discover there the germ and its raison d’etre of what later became the conventional forms and properties of the Chinese ‘lung,’ the hydras and giants of Greek myth, and the hero-stories of mediaeval St. George. "Egyptian literature," Professor G. Elliot Smith assures us, "affords a clearer insight into the development of the Great Mother, the Water God and the Warrior Sun God, than we can obtain from any other writings of the origin of this fundamental stratum of deities. And in the three legends: The Destruction of Mankind, The Story of the Winged Disk [symbol of Horus], and The Conflict between Horus and Set, it has preserved the germs of the great Dragon Saga. Babylonian literature has shown us how this raw material was worked up into the definite and familiar story, as well as how the features of a variety of animals were blended to form the composite monster. India and Greece, as well as more distant parts of Africa, Europe and Asia, and even America, have preserved many details that have been lost in the real home of the monster."
Physical conditions were much the same in Mesopotamia as in Egypt. Like the Nile, the Euphrates was a permanent river, flowing from the Armenian mountains through a vast expanse of arid, yet fertile, land to the great marshes (now much reduced) at the head of the Persian Gulf. It rose to full banks, or over them, in early summer, fed by melting snow, and the annual inundations along its course were of the highest benefit and importance to the agriculturists settled at least six or seven thousand years ago in its lower basin. As population and tillage increased, irrigation–popularly believed to have been introduced by the gods–became more and more a necessity, and this need of abundant and well-regulated water influenced the local religion, the features of which we have learned from the engraved seals, inscribed tablets, and other evidences exhumed from the ruins of temples and royal houses.
The primitive theory of world-creation and the theogony of these pre-Babylonians are similar to those of Egypt; and the Sumerians, the earliest known permanent residents in the Euphrates Valley, were perhaps allied racially with the men of the Nile country–certainly there was communication between them long before the date of any records yet obtained. There is evidence, moreover, that the peoples whom we know by the earliest ‘civilized’ remains thus far discovered were preceded in the valleys of both the Euphrates and the Nile by a population far more primitive, which was displaced–in the case of Sumer, presumably by immigrants from southern Persia; for probably the culture represented by Susa is older than that of the cities of Sumer. Both peoples conceived the earth to be an island floating on an infinite expanse and depth of water which welled up around it as an ocean, often imaged forth as an encircling serpent, on whose horizon rested the dome of the sky. At first "darkness was upon the face of the deep," yet the great primeval gods were even then alive,–indistinct, fickle, anthropomorphic originators and representatives of natural phenomena.
The Babylonian god with which we are most concerned is Ea, who seems to stand in about the same relation to the Sumerian myth of creation as did Osiris to the Egyptian. Among the oldest pictures that have come down to us is one of a creature called Oannos–a human figure whose body, from the middle down, is that of a fish. Perhaps it is meant for Ea, who otherwise is represented as a man wearing a fish-skin, as a fish, or as a composite creature with a fish’s body and tall. Ea was a water-god, personifying and governing all the waters on the earth, above or under it, including rivers and irrigation canals; nevertheless, although regarded as primarily a personification of the beneficent, life-giving powers of water (as in producing and sustaining crops), he was also identified with the devastating forces of wind and water, as in storms. As Osiris was confusingly reincarnated in Horus, so the earlier Enlil was absorbed in Ea, and gradually Ea in his son Marduk, when he became a sun-god, the slayer of Tiamat the water-demon. Tiamat, chaos personified (with just such a troop of malignant subordinates as attended Set), came out of the murky primeval ocean on purpose to baulk in their creative plans the well-intentioned gods of the air who gave the land the blessed rains on which the people depended for life and happiness. Tiamat was feminine; and this she-dragon, a counterpart of Harbor, heads a long line of ‘demons,’ good and bad.
The word ‘dragon’ as we see it written to-day calls to mind the grotesque, writhing figure of Chinese or Japanese ornament; but in this treatise we must accept the term in a far wider scope, as representing supernatural powers in any sense, yet not invariably hateful. As to the matter of sex, demon-women arose very early to vex the sun-gods of Egypt, but they soon became changed in sex, and dragons have been masculine ever since.
What happened to Tiamat is variously explained. Dr. Hopkins’ summarizes her history, gathered from the tablets and seals recovered from the ruins of Nippur and elsewhere, thus:
Chaos bred monsters, and then the divine Heaven and Earth, as Anshar and Kishar, ancestors of Anu, Enlil, and Ea, prepared for conflict, to maintain order. . . . The eleven opposing monsters of Chaos are created by Tiamat and headed by Kingu, to whom Tiamat gives the tablets of destiny and whom she makes her consort. The peace-loving gods seem to fear; they send a messenger to Tiamat, "May her liver be pacified, her heart softened" [apparently without effect]. . . . At any rate, we next see Bel-Marduk, at the command of his father, going joyfully into battle after preparing for the conflict by making weapons, bow, lance, club, lightning-bolt, storm-winds and a net wherewith to catch Tiamat. The gods get drunk with joy, anticipating victory and hailing Marduk as already lord of the universe. On Storm (his chariot) he rushes forth, haloed with light, from which Kingu shrinks. Him follow the seven winds. Tiamat, however, fears him not, but when Marduk challenges her, she fights, "raging and shaking with fury," yet all in vain. For Marduk stifles her with a poisonous gas (‘evil wind’), and then transfixes her, also taking the tablets from Kingu and netting the other monsters. But Tiamat he cuts in two, making one half of her the sky.
What was Tiamat like in the opinion of the people to whom these fanciful accounts of the work and adventures of the gods in bringing order out of chaos were as ‘gospel truth’? The most ancient representation of her is an engraving on a cylinder-seal in the British Museum, which shows a thick-bodied snake, the forward third of its body upreared and bearing two little arm-like appendages, its tongue extended and its head crowned with one goat-like horn. If this portrait is really intended for Tiamat, it shows a queer relationship between this sinister sea-demon and the fish-god Ea, who also appears to have been part antelope (gazelle or goat), as is shown by antique pictures of him as a combination of antelope and fish, whence a ‘sea-goat’ came to be the vehicle of Marduk.
The tradition of Marduk’s titanic battle with Tiamat seems to have been preserved in the famous story in the Apocrypha of Bel and the Dragon. In the time of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying of Judah into captivity, an unconverted Jew named Daniel had risen, with the cleverness of his race, to be the king’s favourite and prime minister; and he was naturally hated by the ecclesiastics of the Court, who were justly incensed that a foreigner who persisted in the worship of Yahweh should be so greatly honoured. Scholars disagree as to whether he is the same Daniel who had similar distinction and troubles according to the Book of Daniel, or another man, or whether either of them ever had an existence–but this does not concern us. Among several circumstances not included in the canonical Bible, but narrated in both the Vulgate and Septuagint versions, the one most pertinent to our theme is that in Babylon a huge dragon was worshipped and fed by the people. Daniel refused to pay it homage, and told the king that if permitted he would kill the monster without using any weapons, and so free the populace from its exactions. His majesty consented, whereupon Daniel made a bolus of indigestible materials, mainly pitch (but some say it was a ball of straw filled with sharpened nails), and threw it into the reptile’s maw. It was promptly swallowed, wherefore the monster presently ‘burst’ and died. (One commentator notes that in Hebrew writing the word for ‘pitch’ looks much like that for ‘tornado,’ recalling the ‘great wind’ by which Marduk put an end to Tiamat.) The ungrateful populace, enraged at this Herculean feat demanded Daniel’s death, and the king reluctantly cast him into a den of lions kept as royal executioners, where he stayed a full week unharmed, but likely to starve to death–as also were the lions, inhibited by magic from their prey. On the seventh day another Jew, Habbakuk, was cooking dinner for his harvest-hands on his farm somewhere in the country, when he was lifted up by an angel (as once happened to Ezekiel) and carried to the capital with a quantity of provisions to feed the unfortunate reformer. Daniel was thereupon restored to liberty and power as chief magician, and the famishing lions were fed with humbler priests.
Very ancient Babylonian drawings show Tiamat harnessed to a four-wheeled chariot in which is seated a god who, in the opinion of Dr. William Hayes Ward, we may call Marduk. She is drawn as a composite and terrifying quadruped with the head, shoulders and fore-limbs of a lion, a body covered with scaly feathers, two wings, the hind legs like those of an eagle, and a protruding, deeply forked tongue like that of a snake. In another glyph a goddess sits on a similar beast, holding the ‘lightning trident.’ A third cylinder-design exhibits such a beast standing on its hind legs and with open mouth over a kneeling man. A curious feature of all these representations is that a second, smaller dragon always appears, running along on all fours like a dog, the meaning of which remains unexplained. Another figure, reproduced by Maspero, and said to represent Nergal, an underworld agent of war and pestilence, shows him accompanied by many ‘devils’ combining horrid animal and human features, and also Nergal’s consort Ereskigal, a serpent-wielding queen, the ugliest picture of a woman imaginable. Nergal has here the body, fore-limbs and tail of a big, square-headed dog, four wings, the under and foremost two being small and roundish, while the posterior pair reach back beyond the creature’s rump like the shards of a beetle; the body is scaly, and the hind legs have the shape of an eagle’s. Perhaps what follows will help us to interpret this ugly composition.
All these art-efforts and their like belong to the earliest period, when southern Babylonia was in possession of the Sumerians. Later a different (Semitic) people from the north and west of them became occupants and rulers of Mesopotamia, and we find among their relics at Nineveh and elsewhere seal-cylinders bearing pictures of the conflict between the warrior-god, Bel-Marduk, and the evil genius of the universe, in which the latter is always being struck at, put to flight or killed.
Afterwards in Assyria such figures were grandly drawn, always with a serpentiform head surmounted by two sharp horns, as in that alabaster slab found in the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nimrud, where a storm-god, wielding tridents, fights the traditional monster. "The horned dragon," says Jastrow, "from being the symbol of Enlil . . . becomes the animal of Marduk and subsequently of Ashur as the head of the Assyrian pantheon." These horns long persisted as a royal mark in memory of the fact that Enlil, as Ea, and afterward Marduk, subjugated Tiamat, showing that the conquering dynasty of Ashur assumed their glory and attributes as part of the spoil.
In subsequent and more cultured times an artistically conventionalized image, retaining all the essential elements required by religious tradition, was devised to represent the Evil Spirit, as is shown by the really elegant coloured and glazed tiles that ornament the exterior walls of the magnificent Gate of Ishtar, the approach to the sacred area of Marduk’s temple in the ruins of ancient Babylon, an approach built by Nebuchadnezzar four hundred and seventy-five years before the Christian era. Here the dragon reaches its glorification in Assyria, as, in another way, it attained artistic eminence in China and Japan; yet here too it holds tenaciously to the original conception, even then thousands of years old, so impressive and persistent was the underlying reason therefor.
The very earliest representation known, the model so closely adhered to, is the simplest of all, and in its simplicity best reveals its mythical origin. It is an outline cut on an archaic seal found at Susa, in Persia, which unites the head, wings and feet of a bird (the falcon of Horus) with the lioness of Hathor-Sekhet.
Now it is not necessary to assume that ordinary folk in the towns and gardens and pastures beside either of the two great rivers had a full knowledge, or a lively comprehension, of such ideals and co-relations of gods and men as we have traced. The plain farmer, if given by some priest or sheik such an image as a worshipful object, would probably take it to represent a union of his two worst pests–the lion and eagle that ravaged his herds and preyed on his lambs, while his wife would think of it as a combined jackal and hawk, and treasure it as a charm against their raids upon her chicken-yard. The mystical allegory worked out by the philosophers of the time probably escaped them, and still more likely escaped the busy citizens of Memphis, Nippur, or Susa; yet apparently this philosophy is the principle that has vitalized the persistent, although highly variable, idea which is the soul in the dragon.
"The fundamental element in the dragon’s powers," declares Professor Smith, "is the control of water. Both the benevolent and the destructive aspects of water were regarded as animated by the Dragon, who thus assumed the role of Osiris or his enemy Set. But when the attributes of the Water-God became confused with those of the Great Mother and her evil Avatar, the lioness (Sekhet) form of Hathor in Egypt, or in Babylon the destructive Tiamat, became the symbol of disorder and Chaos, the Dragon became identified with her also." This means that all these primeval ‘gods’ were in nature both good and bad, could be either saints or devils; and certainly they played contradictory roles in an amazing way–were dragon, dragon-slayer and the weapon employed, all in the same personage. This wonder-beast ranges from Western Europe to the Far East of Asia, and, in the view of a few extremists, even across the Pacific to America. "Although in the different localities a great number of most varied ingredients enter into its composition, in most places where the dragon occurs the substratum of its anatomy consists of a serpent or a crocodile, usually with the scales of a fish for covering, and the feet and wings, and sometimes also the head, of an eagle, falcon, or hawk, and the fore-limbs and sometimes the head of a lion. An association of anatomical features of so unnatural and arbitrary a nature can only mean that all dragons are the progeny of the same ultimate ancestors."