Some years ago, I happened across a remark of the great Argentine author, Jorge Luis Borges, on the subject of dragons:
“We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster.”
Now, with all the respect that is due to the venerable literary figure (Borges, that is, not the Dragon – their due comes later), I disagree.
In Indo-European terms, at least, we do know what the Dragon means … and I would also add that it is not really a “the image” of the Dragon that we are dealing with. Either in the more conventional sense of a visual appearance, or the more philosophical sense of , I suppose, a ‘construction’ or a ‘typology’.
Confused? So are many people.
We intend to explore the Indo-European perception of the Dragon – particularly in its Hellenic and Hindu occurrences, although with (inevitably) some salient encounters from the Nordic / Germanic sphere.
Why? Well, you see, it all began a few days ago when I was asked to weigh in on whether there were any “Dragons” in Hindu mythology. What had happened, was a modern ISKCON illustration featuring a winged serpent had been posted – and discussion had ensued as to whether Dragons were something already there and endogenous to the Hindusphere … or something which had been ‘projected in’ by a European or American Hare Krishna convert.
Now, at first glance, the question of Dragons potentially being something of an ‘introduced species’ to the Hindu mythology seems almost self-evidently absurd. You are all probably mentally totting up a half-dozen or more exemplars right now in your minds.
Yet here’s how one of my interlocutors on that day had thought of the situation:
“I’ve read Vritra being referred to as a “dragon” in most English translations, but my grandmother always told me it was a large snake.”
Now, straightaway, you begin to perceive the issue.
And that’s why I felt this topic deserved a grander exploration. Because obvious questions often hide within their coils useful challenges to our thinking.
In this case – the rather important point to ponder of … just what it is that we actually mean by “dragon”.
Part One – The Problem of Perception And The Horrific Hostile Hellenic Herpeton
At its core, yes, a dragon is … a really large serpentine creature. Local experience may vary.
This includes such features as number of heads, whether legs, whether wings, whether … a bunch of more curious features besides.
All of which effectively means that if your strict idea of what a ‘Dragon’ is, is basically a winged reptilian with four (or two) legs, sharp teeth and a tail, that breathes fire and wouldn’t look too out of place in a modern Generic Fantasy Setting (some might, perhaps, term this the ‘Heraldic Dragon’) … well, you’re probably going to find there aren’t very many dragons anywhere within the realms of the pre-Christian Indo-European mythologies of Europe (with some admitted exceptions) – let alone in India.
As an example, consider the Typhon so direly encountered within the Hellenic mythos [illustrated at the header by Nassima Amir]. Here’s the description given in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca [I , Frazer translation], which describes Typhon as:
“[ A ] hybrid between man and beast. In size and strength he surpassed all the offspring of Earth. As far as the thighs he was of human shape and of such prodigious bulk that he out-topped all the mountains, and his head often brushed the stars. One of his hands reached out to the west and the other to the east, and from them projected a hundred dragons’ heads. From the thighs downward he had huge coils of vipers, which when drawn out, reached to his very head and emitted a loud hissing. His body was all winged: unkempt hair streamed on the wind from his head and cheeks; and fire flashed from his eyes. Such and so great was Typhon when, hurling kindled rocks, he made for the very heaven with hissings and shouts, spouting a great jet of fire from his mouth.”
An identifiably similar description is given in Hesiod’s Theogony [Evelyn-White translation]:
“Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at another, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed.”
Now, the question is: would this count as a ‘Dragon’ in the minds of a modern viewer?
Maybe. It’s certainly rather easier to feel it to be the case when there’s that word ‘Dragon’ (δράκοντος) right there in the description of the serpentine heads growing from the shoulders of the adversary (more on this in the next section to this exploration, rest assured).
And in a pinch, I am sure that many would be swayed by the fact that the demon is breathing fire, has wings, has ‘coils’ that can constrict and ensnare about his Divine Foe, and so forth.
We would also, as we are operating within an Indo-European paradigm of the comparative theology, no doubt also be influenced by the situation of Thunder being utilized to slay the beast, along with decapitation (and/or dropping a sufficiently large rock upon the problem – whether from orbit (viz. Brihaspati’s solution – just to be sure), or otherwise) … and the situation of the Harpe (ἅρπη) involved and its frequent ‘mapping’ to the Vajra as we have capaciously covered elsewhere.
In this particular case (of the Harpe being wielded by Zeus), perhaps that Vajra wielded by Brihaspati in the course of dealing to Vala (and, for that matter, the Vajra in such prominent Roudran panoply, per RV II 33 3, etc.) – with the Deed in question being, as we have shown in previous works, cognate with that certain undertaking by Odin in the course of the Ynglinga Saga entailing opening up the earth in pursuit of a wealth of cows.
But more upon these in a moment. My point in raising them here was to pre-emptively head off at the pass any inference that the situation aforementioned rendered Zeus somehow a cognate of Indra (or, for that matter, somebody trying to claim Apollo to be an Indra-analogue due to the deed involving the Python, invoking Athena’s slaying of serpentine adversaries, etc.).
Rather than, as we are by now no doubt eminently aware – ‘Dragon-Slaying’ being something of a familial past-time (c.f. also that hailing of Saraswati in RV VI 61 as such a draconic Foe-Slayer) … and in this particular case, a situation of ‘Like Father, Like Son’.
‘Like Father, Like Son’, here, being perhaps most familiarly illustrated in the Hellenic sphere via Herakles’ deed against the Hydra … something that is pretty easily acceptable as a ‘Dragon-slaying’, even if the target of the most insightful Fire-Power of Athena (as wielded also by Iolaos – c.f., perhaps, Trita Aptya) may not have had wings.
There are certainly a few Classical texts (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example) that would seem to include the Hydra in amidst the ranks of the ‘Drakon’ (‘Dragon’) clade.
We would, however, be pushing things very, very controversially were we to attempt to assert that a figure such as Geryon (or, perhaps, the Roman Cacus) would ‘count as’ a dragon; as even despite occupying observably the ‘right place’ within the relevant myth … we are not exactly dealing with very many of the ‘right features’ to make an even comparatively loose ‘Draconic’ identification. Dante’s presentation of Cacus and Geryon with certain pertinent features in his own Christian-era ‘ascended fan-fiction’ , perhaps notwithstanding.
That is, in no small part, because the Geryon of the Three Bodies that we encounter in the mythic arcs of Herakles … appears to be a ‘resonancy’ of the ‘Tricephal’ (‘Three-Headed’) opponent faced by the Striker/Thunderer deific (with a little help, to be sure, from His Friend – as applies Indra contra Trisiras (‘Three-Headed’), where the actual decapitation is carried out by the aforementioned Trita Aptya).
Although as we have briefly observed elsewhere, various accounts of the Hydra-slaying also seem to bear features of this combat (not least – the situation of heads numbering in multiples of three, and one head being immortal or ‘golden’ … and, in some accountings, the rather direct problem-solving approach of dropping a suitably large rock on the head or heads) – implying that there has been some confluence of narrative episodes at some point in some of the spheres that informed the greater Hellenic. I digress.
To make all of this relevant to our initial suite of questioning that had started this quest –
It should prove tempting to presume that as we have attested the existence of (literal) Dragons within the Hellenic sphere, in the form of certain figures possessed of reasonably clear cognates in the Hindu textual canon … that this solves our quandry quite swiftly.
Perish the thought. Just because something may be a ‘Drakon’ in its major Hellenic outings – does not mean that the cognate Hindu element can be similarly labelled such simply because of that fact. If that sounds rather improper of me, then cast your mind back to some of those exemplars of particular mythic typologies that we have aforementioned.
Geryon and the Hydra are both situated within the Hellenic sphere. Various renditions of the Hydra-slaying myth bear identifiably coterminous features with that of the Striker/Thunderer contra the Tricephal – which is, of course, the major element underpinning the situation of Geryon. Simply because we can point toward cognate identification (to varying degrees, per various permutations) between the Hydra and Geryon – with the Hydra being explicitly a ‘Drakon’ – does not automagically render Geryon likewise. Otherwise the term becomes almost a nullity – simply ‘Opponent’, ‘Mythic Opponent’, and ‘Slain by […]’ … any of a surprisingly broad array of Gods or Heroes, it should appear. And what is the point of that.
To take another exemplar – we have elsewhere discussed how Odin’s opening up of the Earth to reveal the stolen wealth of kine, utilizing sung ‘magic’ to do so, is a direct correlate for the RigVedic scenario of Brihaspati utilizing mantras to open up the obstruction of a mountain to reveal the stolen wealth of Cows. The word ‘obstruction’ there – ‘Vala’ – also happens to be the name of a great Serpent, a brother of Vritra. It is pointedly ‘both’ rather than ‘either’. And what that means is that in the Nordic sphere, we have a situation wherein the ‘obstruction’ encountered and opened up by Odin in the Ynglinga Saga … is ‘cognate’ in that sense to the Vala of the RigVeda overcome by Brihaspati.
Yet I don’t think anyone would for a moment seek to suggest that, presuming we can agree Vala is a ‘Dragon’ (more on him in due course), the mere fact of the mythic concordance to all other elements to the two perspectives (Nordic and Vedic) upon the same deed accomplished by the same God means that “the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds” (to quote the relevant description from the Ynglinga Saga, Laing translation) is, likewise, to be regarded as “Dragon”. Something has shifted, something has become perhaps rather ‘euhemerized’ (unsurprising – this is the same text, after all, presenting Odin, et co., as being human-ish migrants from ‘Asia’ (i.e. Anatolia), where ‘Asgard’ had been conveniently re-situated for various ‘editorial’ reasons in the Heimskringla’s prose).
In short – being labelled a ‘Dragon’ has to mean something. It can’t simply be a vague and merely ‘circumstantial’ (or dare we suggest – ‘co’-‘incidental’) descriptor.
Otherwise it is, at best, a descriptor of having a vague similarity in some not-immediately-obviously-apparent sense to the thing, rather than being a descriptor of being (of) the thing itself.
Hence, I suppose, our quest (such as it is) – to explore across the Indo-European sphere and examine the ‘Dragons’ we might encounter therein … in order to more truly express what actually is meant by their occurrence.
5 thoughts on “On The Meaning Of Dragons – An Indo-European Exploration [Introduction & Part One – The Problem of Perception And The Horrific Hostile Hellenic Herpeton] ”
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The ‘heraldic’ Dragon is really a very Western European type and even there a relatively modern form. Serpentine forms were ubiquitous there as elsewhere previously. In Eastern Europe the other forms of dragon (serpentine, anthropomorphic etc) have continued to be found and have much in common with Asian dragons.
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“Brihaspati’s solution – just to be sure”.
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