On The Meaning Of Dragons – An Indo-European Exploration : Part Three – The Custodian of Colchis , The Draconic Defender Of The Nemean Naos Dios

Now, there are two key points that we wish to make viz. this circumstance of the Colchisian Dragon (and we shall leave certain comments viz. Medea and other such potent female figures in relation to the Dragons for another day).

The first of which being that it is quite clear that the specific suite of saliencies for this dragon are also heavily bound up with various other Hellenic occurrences for the Dragon. We can tell this because the stories themselves do.

Various accounts have Jason sowing the serpent’s teeth in just the same manner that Cadmus does for the ‘Ismenian’ dragon’s dental resources. And handling the resultant situation in effectively the same fashion. It would be interesting to ponder whether, in much the same manner as a certain other clade of warlike men that spring from something connected to trees and spears (the Sons of the Meliae – the ‘Bronze’ Race of Man, per Hesiod, etc.; and also, interestingly, perhaps the foundation myth of Rome as we have discussed in a recent piece) … this might be a vague recollection of an anthropogenic myth of broader saliency amidst the Hellenic (and potentially broader) Indo-European sphere. Certainly, we are absolutely not unfamiliar with ‘Serpent Progenitor’ figures – whether the famed Kekrops (Cecrops) and Erechtheus of Athens … or a most particular Divinity (Two Divinities, in fact), that we shall be encountering later on in earnest.

The parallels don’t stop there, either. In both cases, we find that the Dragon is encountered at a site that is under the dominion of Ares [per Apollonius Rhodius – Argonautica II] … and, quite pointedly, is there guarding the God’s sacred place. Which, in this case, prominently features a rather important Tree (an Oak, it should seem) – although I am unsure if the Ismenian grove had this as quite such a key element (Ovid does have the Ismenian dragon being killed up against an oak tree, but it does not seem so central as that of the Colchisian grove – or certain other occurrences we shall be (briefly) meeting in the very near future); certainly, I do not think there is such a mention of a wondrous treasure of gold (whether fleece or fruit) hung up amidst the boughs thereof for the Ismenian.

Now, at this point it is necessary to note that Apollonius of Rhodes introduces a curious further ‘parallel’ into his narrative. To quote him (in the Seaton translation, Book II):

“Nay, to seize the fleece in spite of Aeetes is no easy task; so huge a serpent keeps guard round and about it, deathless and sleepless, which Earth herself brought forth on the sides of Caucasus, by the rock of Typhaon, where Typhaon, they say, smitten by the bolt of Zeus, son of Cronos, when he lifted against the god his sturdy hands, dropped from his head hot gore; and in such plight he reached the mountains and plain of Nysa, where to this day he lies whelmed beneath the waters of the Serbonian lake.”

Why do we mention this? Because Typhon is … not exactly what one would term a ‘Divine Guardian’. Indeed, Typhon is – as we have seen above – an Enemy of the Gods at large, brought low by Zeus in a justly famed deed. Apollonius would, it would seem, have sought to deliberately interweave several strands of “Dragon-Lore” in the crafting of his narrative – and whilst this handily accounts for why we find both the situation of the Ismenian Dragon taken on by Cadmus and the Typhon fought by Zeus being referenced implicitly or explicitly to avail in describing the Dragon of Colchis … to my mind, this is ‘mixing metaphors’, and mixing somewhat separate typologies.

Having said that, there is a bit of an overlap, perhaps, in a different fashion. One Dragon we have not yet mentioned is that which guarded the Apples of the Hesperides – Ladon. And which was slain by Herakles in various iterations of the myth (in others, alternative outcomes eventuate, as per usual). To quote again from the Argonautica (IV, Rieu translation):

“Then, like raging hounds, they rushed to search for a spring; for besides their suffering and anguish, a parching thirst lay upon them, and not in vain did they wander; but they came to the sacred plain where Ladon, the serpent of the land, till yesterday kept watch over the golden apples in the garden of Atlas; and all around the nymphs, the Hesperides, were busied, chanting their lovely song. But at that time, stricken by Heracles, he lay fallen by the trunk of the apple-tree; only the tip of his tail was still writhing; but from his head down his dark spine he lay lifeless; and where the arrows had left in his blood the bitter gall of the Lernaean hydra, flies withered and died over the festering wounds. And close at hand the Hesperides, their white arms flung over their golden heads, lamented shrilly […]”

Following the propitiation by Orpheus and promises of worship, the following occurs:

“First of all they caused grass to spring from the earth; and above the grass rose up tall shoots, and then flourishing saplings grew standing upright far above the earth. Hespere became a poplar and Eretheis an elm, and Aegle a willow’s sacred trunk. And forth from these trees their forms looked out, as clear as they were before, a marvel exceeding great, and Aegle spake with gentle words answering their longing looks: “Surely there has come hither a mighty succour to your toils, that most accursed man, who robbed our guardian serpent of life and plucked the golden apples of the goddesses and is gone; and has left bitter grief for us. For yesterday came a man most fell in wanton violence, most grim in form; and his eyes flashed beneath his scowling brow; a ruthless wretch; and he was clad in the skin of a monstrous lion of raw hide, untanned; and he bare a sturdy bow of olive, and a bow, wherewith he shot and killed this monster here.”

Now, we say that this is a ‘bit of an overlap’ because Hercules slaying a Dragon … is not unfamiliar to the ‘Chaoskampf’ mytheme so prominent across the Indo-European mythologies.

Except here, instead of liberating something Divine that has been stolen by a wayward Serpent … we find quite the opposite. We find Divinities – and Tree-linked Divinities, at that – being rather outraged at having Their Guardian being slain and something stolen from Them. We also pointedly note the Arboreal situation for these female figures – not all ‘Ash Nymphs’, but still a remarkable point of potential resonancy to follow up upon in due course, perhaps.

Speaking of ‘Guardians of Groves’ in the Gods’ Employ, we would also draw attention to the situation of the Dragon of Nemea ( Δρακων Νεμειος ) – who , as Statius puts it in his Thebaid [V, Mozley translation]:

” A livid gleam is in his eyes, the green spume of foaming poison in his fangs, and a threefold quivering tongue, with three rows of hooked teeth, and a cruel blazonry rises high upon his gilded forehead. The Inachian countrymen held him sacred to the Thunderer, who has the guardianship of the place and the scant worship of the woodland altars; and now he glides with trailing coils about the shrines, now grinds the hapless forest oaks and crushes huge ash-trees in his embrace; oft he lies in continuous length from bank to bank across the streams, and the river sundered by his scales swells high.”

In this case, the dragon is put to death by the Seven (against Thebes) due to its having killed an infant (Opheltes) – although potentially unintentionally (indeed, obliviously) to the impact of its tail upon one so small. This … would appear not to have found favour with Zeus, with Statius noting that upon the dragon’s death “[He] had already called for His Weapons from the height of air, and long had clouds and storms been gathering, had not the God allayed His Wrath and Capaneus been preserved to merit a direr punishment; yet the wind of the stirred Thunderbolt sped and swayed the summit of his crested helm.”

Not for nothing do the Seven rename the infant in death ‘Archemorus’ – Archemorus meaning, effectively, the ‘Beginning of Doom’. Although I would ponder whether the frequently encountered speculation as to the name’s occurrence within the narrative (that of being the ‘first death’ of many along a road of woe the Seven would have to tread, etc.) is slightly mis-aimed – and instead, whether the Doom which befell the Seven was the rather directly attributable result of their having slain a sacred serpent in the sentinel employ of Zeus to defend one of His Holy Dominions. There is certainly some rather intriguing speculation (c.f the work of Daniel Ogden in this regard) that the Funerary Games of Nemea that were established following the incident … whilst conventionally, in the texts that have come down to us, ascribed an origination as a commemoration of the infant whom the Seven had felt responsible for the innocent death of – could, instead (or perhaps, in addition to), have had a purpose of ‘making amends’ for the deed. Certainly, Ogden infers from his sources that the effective ‘origin story’ for the Pythian Games of Delphi and/or the similarly located Septerion festival was one of ‘compensation’ through memorialization for the slaying of the serpent (which should, of course, as he points out, accord quite directly with Hyginus’ (Fabulae 140) statement of the Games being Funerary Games for the Python) .

We could go on citing elements for the ‘Guardian Dragon’ or ‘Sentinel Serpent’ typology from the Hellenic sphere – and rest assured, we have rather prominent deployments for this in-mind when it comes to our Hindu comparanda (we have already briefly mentioned the most famous – the situation of Erechtheus and/or Kekrops (Cecrops) , or other ways to refer to the Serpent Spirit that was domiciled upon the Acropolis of Athens and ever-near to Athena); however we ought move on.

The final point we shall make concerning Nemea is a rather unexpected mention courtesy of one Alexander of Myndus [or ‘Mindos’] for Herakles, whence engaged in combat ‘gainst that other famous monstrous denizen of Nemea, the Nemean Lion, as reproduced in Photius’ Bibliotheca [190, Henry translation]:

” Alexander of Mindos says that a serpent born of earth fought with Heracles against the Nemean lion; fed by Heracles, it accompagnied [sic] him to Thebes and stayed in a tent; it was this that ate small sparrows and was changed to stone. “

We note, of course, that ‘Born of Earth’ is a succinct descriptor for an array of the Dragons that we have encountered elsewhere in the course of our explorations ; and that it should seem, going by the last clause (viz. sparrows and petrification) , that it was to find later fame in a particular occurrence connected to the Trojan War.

While it might prove interesting to probe in greater depth to see if we could identify a typological understanding that this otherwise … unexpected element might link to (an instant suggestion would be something along the lines of Perseus wielding the Head of the Gorgon in order to slay the Cetus sent to claim Andromeda – as occurs in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca XXV), our main interest here is instead to observe the potential ‘shift of positions’ at play here. Per Ogden’s work upon the subject, it seems both clear and logically apparent that there is quite the ‘convection zone’ or coterminity between ‘lion’ and ‘dragon’ within the Greek sphere of myth – with what is one thing, in one telling, readily seeming to shift in other iterations to the other side of that fearsome typology. A situation perhaps exemplified by those aforementioned Nemean Games – wherein various Classical-era traditions and scholars attribute them to events oriented around the Dragon or the Lion, and seemingly settled upon a ‘compromise’ of Herakles (with the Nemean Lion) having ‘reformed’ or otherwise resurrected a previous observance linked to the Nemean Dragon.

So, this situation reported by Alexander of Myndus viz. Herakles fighting the Nemean Lion with the assistance of a dragon … well, it makes for an interesting comment if we consider that the Nemean Lion may, in fact, have once been a or the Nemean Dragon (that is to say – the same myth, ‘refracted’, and differently presented by differing traditions). Not least because if it were true, we would therefore have Dragons occurrent on both sides of the equation – the “Heroic” (alongside Herakles, et co.), and also the “Dutiful” (to the Gods).

But let us return to that situation of the Dragon acting as the Guardian of a Holy Site – quite pointedly, a Spring, or more especially (it should seem), a Tree. In several cases – viz. Ladon and the Colchisian Dragon, for instance – a Tree that is not only declared to be within the Demesne of a Divinity, but which also has some marvelous golden mythic element attached to it, likewise.

We are familiar with Dragons hoarding Gold or the mythically precious described with golden lustre (and more upon this, indeed, when we come to the Vedic typologies, in earnest) – we are now also, it would appear, familiar with Dragons watching over what is precious on behalf of Others, likewise.

Yet we are also familiar with the Dragon in a rather more overtly ‘demonic’ sense – not , as we have met above, a Divinely-appointed Sentinel that is, nevertheless, engaged as adversarial by adventuring Demigods or human Heroes … but actually and actively working against the Divine.

And in various of the cases we have considered, it is not at all clear just how these mythic typologies might be ‘cleanly’ disentangled. Something that might seem almost (indeed, quite literally) ‘academic’ in its saliency – yet which really does rather matter. There is quite a difference, after all, between slaying an existential threat to the cosmos (or, at the very least, a nasty and noxious demonic foe) … and killing a Divinely appointed Guardian that is, indeed, acting in protection of a Site of the Divine and in arguable protection rather than usurpation of the fundamental emanation of Cosmic Order therethrough.

Indeed, in a very fundamental sense, these point toward opposite directions for our nascent Indo-European Draconic typological modelling. Even if, maddeningly, we can also quite feasibly argue that in some of these occurrences the situations are ‘closer’ in coterminity than might prove comfortable.

Consider the situation of Vritra, for instance. Not a lawfully appointed Guardian, as such (although yes, most definitely a hoarder of wealth that is then ‘liberated’ by the Striker/Thunderer deific) … however, in various Vedic renditions of the narrative, he is presented as a Divine Sending – created by Tvastr (and/or fated to incarnate by Parvati cursing a figure – however that is .. perhaps something a little different) in order to be a ‘Revenge Gambit’ against Indra for the Slaying of Trisiras. A ‘Revenge Gambit’ that then grows (rather literally) ‘out of hand’ and out of control and runs decidedly amok.

This stands in contrast to the situation presented in various of the Hellenic perspectives featuring a Dragon (such as Typhon or the Hydra) being produced for the purposes of Revenge. How? Well, other than the chief issue of ‘authorship’ (the Classical instances aforementioned often featuring a female divinity in the causative role – Tvastr, of course, being a male deific and of a particular typology … as well as, intriguingly, apparently seeming to be Indra’s Father, as well, per an array of RV verses upon the subject), there is also the actual incident that is being Avenged through this most dramatically draconic of mechanisms. In the Vedic situation – it is the Brahmanicide (‘Brahmahatya’) of Trisiras, Tvastr’s Son; a deed that there can be no arguing was not a violation of Cosmic Order (precisely because the texts themselves tell us this in various fashions and ritualine conceptry built substantively out of the resultant accrual of serious Sin and its consequent transference and expiation – something that we can demonstrate to likely have roots running back to the PIE era based around the co-occurrence in somewhat ‘jumbled’ form in the mythology around Herakles’ Hydra-Slaying likewise, as we have previously considered at quite some length elsewhere). In the Hellenic? Well, we shall not run through all of these for now, but suffice to say that we do not seem to find dominant among them a similar unambiguously (and, indeed, outright ontologically ) ‘Just Cause’ for the deployment of the Dragon.

In short – there is a note of ‘ambiguity’ introduced – at least, in inceptive purpose, if not necessarily in how the creature’s characterization and eventual deeds play out … in the Hellenic schema these things are perhaps rather more complex due to the somewhat fractious situation of Divine intra-relations. But both in terms of the ‘general shapes of the myth’ in various of the Hellenic cases aforementioned (viz. , for example, Ladon wherein, on the one hand, we have a Sentinel standing watch at apparent emplaced station by Hera what can only be a divine grove featuring a most precious treasure … and yet on the other, we have what looks somewhat like the myth of the Striker/Thunderer slaying a dragon that’s guarding divine treasures it’s stolen (indeed – Diodorus Siculus’ euhemerism of the situation as ‘golden’ sheep might resonate with the Cattle encountered in other presentations of the latter myth), inter alia) , as well as the prior attempt at a linkage between the Colchisian Dragon and Typhon (as reported by Apollonius of Rhodes) – all point toward a potential conflation or confusion in relation to the Dragon and the Tree.

Namely, whether the Dragon is there acting as a Sentinel and Protector of said Tree – or whether the Dragon is a demonic presence that is likely corrosive also to the Axis Mundi (and the saliency of Cosmic Law) that it twines around for habitat.


This piece continues our exploration of the Dragon in Indo-European terms. Find Part One and the Introduction here:

And Part Two here:

One thought on “On The Meaning Of Dragons – An Indo-European Exploration : Part Three – The Custodian of Colchis , The Draconic Defender Of The Nemean Naos Dios

  1. Pingback: On The Meaning Of Dragons – An Indo-European Exploration : Part Three – The Custodian of Colchis , The Draconic Defender Of The Nemean Naos Dios – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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