The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

More on Dragons

From Many Imaginations, One Fearsome Creature
April 29, 2003By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.

A huge scaly serpent, usually with the wings of a bat orbird. Four or two or no legs. Breathes fire or poisonousfumes. May talk, but won't take guff from mere mortals.Sometimes has a vulnerable underbelly (good luck,Siegfried!) and sometimes is solid armor plate. May guard atreasure. May diet on virgins, or anything that crosses itspath, halitosis-barbecued.

Sound familiar? Of course. For everyone from Perseus ofJaffa to Harry of Hogwarts, it's a dragon.

Of all the hoary old monsters, dragons are the mostpersistent, appearing everywhere from mall crystal shops toDisney movies. Cryptozoologists search for its cousins, theLoch Ness monster and the mokele-mbembe of the Congoswamps.

Dragon images have been found on the Ishtar Gate ofBabylon, on scrolls from China, in Egyptian hieroglyphs andEthiopian sketches, on the prows of Viking ships, in basrelief on Aztec temples, on cliffs above the MississippiRiver and even on bones carved by Inuits in climates whereno reptile could live.

Now scholars drawing on primitive art, fossilized bones andancient legends are struggling to explain how cultures thathad no contact with one another constructed mythicalcreatures so remarkably similar. And why did dragonspersist so long?

Claw-footed griffins, gentle unicorns and man-eatingsphinxes passed into legend relatively quickly, while eveneducated men clung to belief in dragons at least through1734, wrote Peter J. Hogarth, author of "Dragons" (Viking,1979). That year, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus dismisseda seven-headed hydra on display in Hamburg by saying it wasa clever fake concocted of animal parts. Its aggrievedowners, merchants who had bought it from Count vonLeeuwenhaupt for the "staggering price of 10,000 florins,"drove Linnaeus out of town by threatening to sue, thuspuffing a small dark cloud across the dawn of rationalism.

"The new zoology had lost a first skirmish with the old,"Mr. Hogarth wrote. But, he concluded, it won every laterone.

As a dragon debunker, Linnaeus was unusual. Many earlierassertions that dragons existed came from scientists whospeculated on how birds could mate with lizards or whom themonstrous skulls turned up in European caves and Chinesecanal projects belonged to.

They include writers like the Roman naturalist Pliny; theJesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who wrote "UndergroundWorld" in 1665; and Edward Lhwyd, keeper until 1709 of theAshmolean Museum at Oxford, which is now a respected artmuseum but began life as a botanist's curio cabinet.

In "An Instinct for Dragons" (Routledge, 2000), Dr. DavidE. Jones, a professor of anthropology at the University ofCentral Florida in Orlando, posits a biological explanationthat jibes with the Jungian notion of unconsciouscollective fears. He argues that the dragon image,fermented in the primal soup of man's first nightmares, isa composite of the carnivores who fed on human ancestorswhen they were tree-dwelling monkeys: the pythons, the bigcats and the raptors.
Professor Jones was struck by the idea, he said, whilereading about the three-alarm calls of the vervet monkey.The first, for leopards, makes them leap for the treetops.The second, for eagles, makes them duck to low branches,and the third, for snakes, makes them jump.

Obviously, there is quite an evolutionary gap betweenvervet monkeys and the Sumerians of 5000 B.C., the firstpeople known to have drawn dragons. But Dr. Jones arguesthat the same elemental fears persist in humans as snakeand bird phobias, and he cites as evidence the fact thatinfant chimpanzees who have never seen snakes are terrifiedof them.

His theory cannot really be tested, he acknowledged in aninterview. Still, he said, for millions of years, "primatebrain selectivity was for sensitivity to predators."

Until relatively recently, the question that scholars hadasked was not, "Are dragons real?" but rather, "Why don'twe see them anymore?"

Pliny, ignoring Greek and Roman mythology, held that"dracos" did exist, but just in faraway India, where hereported that they were large enough to prey on elephantsby dropping out of trees and strangling them. Modernnaturalists assume that he heard reports of pythons, whichnot only grew bigger in retelling, but also turned intofish stories. Some dragons, Pliny wrote, had such largecrests on their heads they could sail to Arabia to hunt.

Pliny's descriptions - treated as factual - persisted forcenturies, turning up in 1608 in an English translation ofa German naturalist's work. That just strengthened beliefin subsequent legendary dragons, Beowulf's Grendel; Fafner,whose belly was slit by Siegfried; and the Midgard serpentthat Thor struck with his hammer. As late as 1420, a battlebetween Sir John Lambton and the milelong Lambton Wyrm (oldEnglish for snake) was reported as fact, and flocks werereported at London fires.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the devout assumed that dragonsexisted; the Bible said so. The 300-eyed steam-spewingJordan-swallowing Leviathan in the Book of Job is a dragon,and so, according to early translations and many medievalpaintings, is the creature that tempted Eve.

After all, itwould be hard for a mere snake to offer an apple whilewhispering sweet temptations.
The ancients often cited "physical evidence," for whichmodern scholars offer new explanations.

In 58 B.C., Pliny reported, the "spine of the sea serpentkilled by Perseus at Joppa" (modern-day Jaffa) wasdisplayed in Rome. Karl Shuker, author of "Dragons, ANatural History" (Simon & Schuster, 1995), surmises thatthe monster Cetus, swimming up to eat Andromeda, might havegrown out of rare sightings of oarfish, a snakelike fish upto 30 feet long with a coral red head crest. Other scholarstheorize that the skeleton might have been one of the spermwhales that once commonly beached near Jaffa. A half-rottedwhale, with its jawbones and vestigial leg bones exposed,would look rather dragonlike, they say.

Before Linnaeus played spoilsport, stuffed monsters wereroutinely exhibited at fairs. An Italian mathematicianreported seeing "dragon babies" in Paris in 1557. They mayhave been snakes with bat wings sewn on.

(Centuries later, P. T. Barnum sewed a dried fish tail to adried monkey torso and told Americans that it was amermaid.)

But there is another obvious source for the dragon myth:the bones of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. Bones exposedby storms, earthquakes or digging were well known to theancients, said Dr. Adrienne Mayor, a professor of folkloreat Princeton and the author of "The First Fossil Hunters"(Princeton, 2000). She argues that the myth ofgold-guarding griffins arose in the red clay of the GobiDesert, a landscape literally scattered with whiteProtoceratops skulls, with parrot beaks and bony neckfrills.

Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, speculated asearly as 1914 that the central nasal holes in skulls ofprehistoric dwarf elephants were the source for Homer'sCyclops. Abel added that the skulls of cave bears - ursusspelaeus, half again as big as grizzlies - could have givenrise to tales of dragons.

Medieval Europe is "full of stories of knights fightingdragons in caves," Dr. Mayor said.
Some extinct mammals have startlingly dragonlike skulls,and Asian dragon myths may be based on Pleistocene andCretaceous fossils, which were at one time universallyknown as "dragon bones," Dr. Mayor added.

Sivatherium giganteum, a huge proto-giraffe, has a pointedthree-foot-long skull, and another, Giraffokeryx, has fourswept-back horns.

Mount Pilatus in Switzerland abounds in pterodactylfossils, and with stories of fights between men anddragonets - small, scrawny winged dragons.

The head of a dragon sculptured in 1590 by Ulrich Vogelsangfor the city of Klagenfurt, Austria, was modeled on a"dragon skull" found by quarrymen in 1335. It is now knownto be that of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros.

Paleontologists can even account for the legend thatdragons have jewels in their foreheads. Big calcitecrystals form on long-buried skulls.

So, having found the bones of dragons, Enlightenmentthinkers were at pains to explain them.

For medieval Christian thinkers, the explanation wassimple: God had formed them whole, but let them be wipedout in Noah's flood.

But for pre-Darwinians who realized that many creatures toobig to be overlooked were nowhere in the story of Creationand who were gleaning some inkling that species begat otherspecies, it was trickier.

Dragons were clearly a hybrid, part snake, part bird andpart bat. In the 17th century, they were explained by thenewly popular "spermatick principle," which held that semenformed creatures and that the egg was a mere food source.Sometimes, scholars surmised, sperm from different speciescould mix and make a monster.

Mr. Lhwyd of the Oxford museum argued that semen from fishand snakes could rise high into the air with evaporation,rain down again and end up in the high aeries of eagles andvultures. In a lucky process called "fermentationalputrefaction," the mix could produce a winged snake.

Of course, there are living reptiles that could haveinspired dragon myths. Ten-foot carnivorous lizards prowlKomodo island in Indonesia, But Western explorers did notdiscover them until 1912, and there is no evidence theywere known to the ancients.

Marco Polo's "factual" descriptions of Chinese dragons moreor less match the large crocodiles once found there. Nilecrocodiles, which can grow 22 feet long, still prey onrural Africans while their overseas relatives eat two orthree Americans and Australians a year.

But David Quammen, an independent scholar writing a bookabout the relationship between indigenous peoples and theirpredators, points out that although draconian crocodilesappear in the mythology of Australian aborigines, dragonsare just as common in the myths of Vikings, who might havebeen eaten by bears, but never by crocs. And dragon lore israre in Africa, where crocs are common, but predator mythsrevolve more around lions and hyenas.

1 comment:

ms_lili said...

Very interesting article! You may wonder what the following has to do with dragons when you start reading, but you'll know the answer by the end:

At dawn, when a certain
little breeze which they know begins to
blow, they would gather them…

The Mazatec call the
mushrooms Nti-si-tho, in which `Nti' is a
particle of reverence and endearment; the
rest of the name means `that which springs
forth.' A Mazatec explained this thought
Poetically: `The little mushroom comes of
itself, no one knows whence, like the wind
that comes we know not whence nor

Here let me say a word about the nature
of the psychic disturbance that the eating
of the mushroom causes. This disturbance
is wholly different from the effect of alcohol,
as different as night from day. For hundreds,
even thousands, of years, we have thought
about these things in terms of alcohol, and
we now have to break the bounds imposed on
us by our alcoholic obsession.

…the Bemushroomed man shows a few of the
objective symptoms of one who is intoxicated,
drunk. Now virtually all the words describing the
state of drunkenness, from "intoxicated" (which
literally means poisoned') through the scores of
current vulgarisms, are contemptuous, Belittling,
pejorative. How curious it is that modern
civilized man finds surcease from care in a
drug for which he seems to have no respect!
If we use by analogy the terms suitable for
alcohol, we prejudice the mushroom, and
since there are few among us who have
been bemushroomed, there is danger that
the experience will not be fairly judged.

Upon receiving six pairs of mushrooms in
the ceremony, this novice-participant ate
them. He experienced the sensation of this
soul being removed from his body and
floating in space. He saw "geometric pat-
tems, angular, in richest colors, which grew
into architectural structures, the stonework
in brilliant colors, gold and onyx and
ebony, extending beyond the reach of sight,
in vistas measureless to man. The architec-
tural visions seemed to be oriented, seemed
to belong to the...architecture described
by the visionaries of the Bible." In the faint
moonlight, "the bouquet on the table as-
sumed the dimensions and shape of an
imperial conveyance, a triumphant car,
drawn by...creatures known only to my-

Dragons anyone?

The Mysterious [Mushroom] Mother?