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Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll, [1928], at



"HAVE You seen the dragon?" asks Mr. Okakura in The Awakening of Japan. "Approach him cautiously, for no mortal can survive the sight of his entire body. The eastern dragon is not the gruesome monster of mediaeval imagination, but the genius of strength and goodness. He is the spirit of change, therefore of life itself. . . . Hidden in the caverns of inaccessible mountains, or coiled in the unfathomed depths of the sea, he awaits the time when he slowly arouses himself into activity. He unfolds himself in the storm-clouds; he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpools. His claws are in the fork of the lightning, his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rain-swept pine-trees. His voice is heard in the hurricane, which, scattering the withered leaves of the forest, quickens a new spring. The dragon reveals himself only to vanish."

Joly continues these impressions thus: "The dragon is full of remarkable powers, and seeing its body in its entirety means instant death; the monster never strikes without provocation, as, for instance, when its throat is touched. The Chinese emperor Yao was said to be the son of a dragon, and several of the other Chinese rulers were metamorphically called 'dragonfaced.' The emperor of Japan was described in the same way, and as such [in old times was] hidden by means of bamboo curtains from the gaze of persons to whom he granted audiences to save them from a terrible fate.

Let me insert here two remarkable paragraphs from Dr. William E. Griffis's standard work on old Japan, say previous to fifty years ago:

Chief among ideal creatures in Japan is the dragon. The word ‘dragon' stands for a genus of which there are several species and varieties. To describe them in full, and to recount minutely the ideas held by the Japanese rustics concerning them would be to compile an octavo work on dragonology. . . . In the carvings on tombs, temples, dwellings and shops--on the government documents--printed on the old and the new paper money, and stamped on the new coins--in pictures and books, on musical instruments, in high relief on bronzes, and cut in stone, metal and wood,--the dragon (tasu) everywhere "swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail," whisks his long moustaches, or glares with his terrible eyes. The dragon is the only animal in modern Japan that wears hairy ornaments on the upper lip. . . .

There are many kinds of dragons, such as the violet, the yellow, the green, the red, the white, the black and the flying-dragon. When the white dragon breathes the breath of its lungs goes into the earth and turns to gold. When the violet dragon spits, the spittle becomes balls of pure crystal, of which gems and caskets are made. One kind of dragon has nine colours on its body, and another can see everything within a hundred ri; another has immense treasures of every sort; another delights to kill human beings. The water-dragon causes floods of rain; when it is sick the rain has a fishy smell. The fire-dragon is only seven feet long, but its body is of flame. The dragons are all very lustful, and approach beasts of every sort. The fruit of a union of one of these monsters with a cow is the kirin; with a swine, an elephant; and with a mare a steed of the finest breed. The female dragon produces at every parturition nine young. The first young dragon sings, and likes all harmonious sounds, hence the tops of Japanese bells are cast in the form of this dragon; the second delights in the sound of musical instruments, hence the koto or horizontal harp, and suzumi, a girl's drum, struck by the fingers, are ornamented with the figure of this dragon; the third is fond of drinking, and likes all stimulating liquors, therefore goblets, and drinking-cups are adorned with representations of this creature; the fourth likes steep and dangerous places, hence gables, towers, and projecting beams of temples and pagodas have carved images of this dragon upon them; the fifth is a great destroyer of living things, fond of killing and bloodshed, therefore swords are decorated with golden figures of this dragon; the sixth loves learning, and delights in literature, hence on the covers and titles of books and literary works are pictures of this creature; the seventh is renowned for its power of hearing; the eighth enjoys sitting, hence the easy chairs are carved in its images; the ninth loves to bear weight, therefore the feet of tables and hibachi are shaped like this creature's feet,

Marcus Huish gives a description of the figure that has become conventionalized among the artists of Japan in the following terms, which show that it differs markedly from the Chinese convention: "A composite monster with scowling head, long straight homs, a scaly, serpentine body, a bristling row of dorsal spines, four limbs armed with claws, and curious flamelike appendages on its shoulders and hips. The claws are usually three on each foot, but are sometimes four or even five." A famous print by Ichiyusai Hiroshige shows a dragon in a cloud about Fuji, which has three bird-like toes and claws on every foot.

I have underscored the item of the row of spines along the ridge of the back, for that is a special characteristic (sometimes a double row, as in those turned about the bronze drum at Nara), and significant in relation to its history; and in general its figure is more distinctly that of a serpent than is the typical dragon of China. Its name in Japanese is Tatsu, the equivalent of the Chinese Lung; and in both countries it serves as one of the signs of the zodiac in the place occupied by Leo in the European symbols of the sun's stations in its apparent annual circuit of the heavens. It also represents the four seas which, as in the Chinese cosmogony, limit the habitable earth, and are ruled by four dragon kings. "The snake," says G. E. Smith, "takes a more obtrusive part in the Japanese than in the Chinese dragon, and it frequently manifests itself as a god of the sea. The old japanese sea-gods were often female watersnakes. The cultural influences which reached Japan from the south by way of Indonesia--many centuries before the coming of Buddhism--naturally emphasized the serpent form of the dragon and its connection with the ocean. But the river-gods, or 'water fathers,' were real four-footed dragons identified with the dragon-kings of Chinese myth, but at the same time were strictly homologous with the naga-rajas or cobra-kings of India."

Joly describes the four 'dragon kings' recognized in Japan as follows:

Sui Riu--a rain-dragon, which when in pain causes reddish rain, coloured by its blood.

Han-Riu--striped with nine different colours; forty feet long; can never reach heaven,

Ka Riu-scarlet; fiery; only seven feet long.

Ri Riu-has wonderful sight; can see more than 100 miles.

The dragon queen is occasionally shown in art dressed in shells, corals, and other marine attrihutes.

The Chinese winged dragon ying lung (rare in decorations) is the hai riu of the Japanese, and is shown with feathered wings, a bird's claws and tail, and a dragon's head; it is also called tobi tatsu and sachi hoko. Children are told of a dragon with a fish's body clothed in large scales; it is called maket-sugo, and may be a nursery version of the Chinese carp-and-dragon story. The dragon of good luck is fuku riu, contrasted with which is one of bad luck. It is popularly believed that dragons may breed by intercourse with earthly animals as a cow or mare, and in folklore a special name is given to each kind of hybrid so resulting. Joly, whose interest in this subject is in explaining its symbolism in art, says that a dragon ascending Fuji in a cloud is symbolic of success in life; that one issuing from a hibachi has the proverbial significance of "It is the unexpected that happens"; and that in connection with a tiger, usually drawn near a cave or some bamboos, the dragon in the sky above represents the power of the elements over the strongest animals. (We have seen hitherto that the tiger is the antithesis of the dragon in many situations.) Joly concludes: "As an emblem the dragon represents both the male and female principles, the continual changes and variations of life, as symbolized by its unlimited powers of adaptation, accommodating itself to all surroundings."

A Japanese myth represents Susan-o-no-o-no Mikoto as an ‘impetuous’ man who killed an eight-headed dragon, or snake, by making the brute drunk with eight cups of sake (one for each head), and then cutting off all the heads at once. (Eight is a number of great significance in Buddhistic mysticism.) From the tail he drew a marvellous sword, later consecrated to and preserved in the temple of Atsuta. A sword got from a dragon figures, by the way, in several other legends; and various dragons are common ornaments of sword-guards and netsukes, presumably with symbolic intent.

Another version of this story runs thus: A man came to a house where all were weeping, and learned that the last of eight daughters of the house was to be given to a dragon with seven (?) or eight heads, which came to the seashore yearly to claim a victim. He changed himself into the form of the girl, and induced the dragon to drink sake from eight pots set before it, and then slew the drunken monster. From the end of its tail he took out a sword which is supposed to be the Mikado's state sword. The hero married the maid and with her got a jewel or talisman, which is preserved with the royal regalia. Another prize so preserved is a mirror.

Commenting on these tales from Japanese folklore, Dr. G. Elliot Smith expresses the opinion that the appearance in them of a seven-headed monster adds to the probability of their importation from the West, and regards it as a reminiscence of the Egyptian Seven Hathors myth. "The seven-headed dragon is found also in the Scottish dragon-myth, and the legends of Cambodia, India, Persia, western Asia, East Africa, and the Mediterranean area. . . . In southern India the Dravidian people seem to have borrowed the Egyptian idea of the seven Hathors. . . . There is a close analogy between the Swahili and the Gaelic stories that reveals their ultimate derivation from Babylonia. In the Scottish story the seven-headed dragon comes in a storm of wind and spray. The East African serpent comes in a storm of wind and dust. In the Babylonian story seven winds destroy Tiamat. . . . But the Babylonians not only adopted the Egyptian conception of the power of evil as being seven demons, but they also seem to have fused these seven into one."

Foremost, however, among Japanese dragon-legends is that of Riujin and his submarine palace Ryugo-Jo. His messenger is Riuja (or Hakuja), a small white serpent with the face of an ancient man. To the anger of this dragon-king of the sea we owe the boisterous waves. Joly instructs us that he is usually represented by artists as a very old, long-bearded man with a dragon coiled on his head or back. Some say that a man named Hoori once visited the sea-god's palace and got a wife whom he brought ashore and married in earthly fashion; but as soon as the first baby came the wife became a dragon again and sank under the surface of the sea. Other tales are told of visits of this submarine ruler of storms, some of which deal with marvellous gems romantically recovered.

This brief sketch indicates that the dragon is a different affair in Japan from what it is in China, despite a superficial similarity. In both countries the learned and more or less modernized top-crust of society is, or pretends to be, unaffected by this superstition--if it be permissible so to designate it--but this unbelieving class is far broader and deeper in Japan than in China, although still finding in the dragon of tradition an art-motive which is more than merely effective in decoration, for it is instinct with an antique sentiment which all cannot help feeling. This sympathy and sense of symbolism, fostered by the romantic wonder-tales of childhood, in which the dragon figured, is perhaps stronger in sensitive Japan than among the more matter-of-fact Chinese; while faith in the actuality of dragons and the reality of their powers and divine influence is much stronger among the latter people than in Japan.

I shall quote here a paragraph illustrating this point from that most delightful book, John La Farge's An Artist's Letters from Japan. The author is speaking of what he saw at Nikko when visiting the splendid temple built by the Tokugawa rulers in memory of the great shogun Iyeyasu, who died in 1616, and was buried and deified on the Holy Mountain of Nikko. It is entered by the gate called 'magnificent,' above which is an ornate balcony.

The balcony is one long set of panels--of little panels carved and painted on its white line with children playing among flowers. Above, again, as many white pillars as below; along their sides a wild fringe of ramping dragons and the pointed leaves of the bamboo. This time the pillars are crowned with the fabulous dragon-horse, with gilded hoofs dropping into air, and lengthy processes of horns receding far back into the upper bracketings of the roof. Upon the centre of the white-and-gold lintel, so delicately carved with waves as to seem smooth in this delirium of sculpture, is stretched between two of the monster capitals a great white dragon with gilded claws and gigantic protruding head. But all these beasts are tame if compared with the wild army of dragons that cover and people the innumerable brackets which make the cornice and support the complicated rafters under the roof. Tier upon tier hang farther and farther out, like some great mass of vampires about to fall. They are gilded; their jaws are lacquered red far down into their throats, against which their white teeth glitter. Far into the shade spreads a nightmare of frowning eyebrows, and pointed fangs and outstretched claws extended toward the intruder. It would he terrible did not one feel the coldness of the unbelieving imagination, which perhaps merely copied these duplicates of earlier terrors.

An interesting legend, which has been made the theme of a popular Japanese play, is related by Arthur D. Ficke in his Catalogue of colour-prints, 1920. In the tenth century the monk Anchin, having repulsed the amorous advances of an infatuated girl Kiyohime, fled from her wrath and hid in the shadows beneath the great bell that hung in the grounds of the temple at Dojoji, in the Province of Kii, near Kyoto. She, having procured the aid of evil spirits, pursued him; and transforming herself into a dragon she touched the enormous bell, which at once fell to the ground covering the unfortunate priest. Thereupon the revenged dragon-woman curled her fiery length about the bell and, lashing it into a white heat with her flaming body, she consumed her reverent lover and perished herself as the bell collapsed in a molten flood.

The prevalence of the Shinto doctrines in Japan has weakened, no doubt, the more corrupt and superstitious features of mediaeval Buddhism, and the natural gentleness and sensitiveness to beauty in the Japanese have freed them from the grossness and terror belonging to such ideas and rites as came with the horrible naga-cult imparted to their ancestors by early travellers and emissaries from India. Relics of this ancient demonism remain, however, in both their literature and their antique art. The emphasis put in the legends on the sea-god in his submarine palace, and his attendants of both sexes, their ability to become humanized and to mate on shore with human beings, show distinctly an Indian origin.

Climate also has had an effect here as elsewhere on men's views of life. The dragon in northern and central China, at least, is primarily a rain-god, as it was in Mesopotamia and in the valley of the Indus, where drouths were dreaded. In Japan, on the contrary, rain was rarely lacking in agriculture, so that prayers for it were seldom necessary--often, rather, were petitions that its excess should cease. Hence among landsmen the principal motive for prayer and sacrifice to sky-dragons, at any rate, disappeared; while the scarcity of dangerous snakes destroyed the fear of and consequent veneration for serpents, so that actual naga-worship probably never took a strong hold of the people. What held most firmly and longest was the notion of a sea-god, for the Japanese have ever been mariners, and all seamen are inclined to love mysteries and to deify the wondrous phenomena of the ocean.

Next: Chapter Ten: The Dragon's Precious Pearl