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Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, [1919], at

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An adequate account of the development of the dragon-legend would represent the history of the expression of mankind's aspirations and fears during the past fifty centuries and more. For the dragon was evolved along with civilization itself. The search for the elixir of life, to turn back the years from old age and confer the boon of immortality, has been the great driving force that compelled men to build up the material and the intellectual fabric of civilization. The dragon-legend is the history of that search which has been preserved by popular tradition: it has grown up and kept pace with the constant struggle to grasp the unattainable goal of men's desires; and the story has been constantly growing in complexity, as new incidents were drawn within its scope and confused with old incidents whose real meaning was forgotten or distorted. It has passed through all the phases with which the study of the spreading of rumours or the development of dreams has familiarized students of psychology. The simple original stories, which become blended and confused, their meaning distorted and reinterpreted by the rationalizing of incoherent incidents, are given the dramatic form with which the human mind invests all stories that make a strong appeal to its emotions, and then secondarily elaborated with a wealth of circumstantial detail. This is the history of popular legends and the development of rumours. But these phenomena are displayed in their most emphatic form in dreams. 2 In his waking state man restrains his roving fancies and exercises what Freud has called a "censorship" over the stream of his thoughts: but when he falls asleep, the "censor" dozes also; and free rein is given to his unrestrained

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fancies to make a hotch-potch of the most varied and unrelated incidents, and to create a fantastic mosaic built up from fragments of his actual experience, bound together by the cement of his aspirations and fears. The myth resembles the dream because it has developed without any consistent and effective censorship. The individual who tells one particular phase of the story may exert the controlling influence of his mind over the version he narrates: but as it is handed on from man to man and generation to generation the "censorship" also is constantly changing. This lack of unity of control implies that the development of the myth is not unlike the building-up of a dream-story. But the dragon-myth is vastly more complex than any dream, because mankind as a whole has taken a hand in the process of shaping it; and the number of centuries devoted to this work of elaboration has been far greater than the years spent by the average individual in accumulating the stuff of which most of his dreams have been made. But though the myth is enormously complex, so vast a mass of detailed evidence concerning every phase and every detail of its history has been preserved, both in the literature and the folk-lore of the world, that we are able to submit it to psychological analysis and determine the course of its development and the significance of every incident in its tortuous rambling.

In instituting these comparisons between the development of myths and dreams, I should like to emphasize the fact that the interpretation of the myth proposed in these pages is almost diametrically opposed to that suggested by Freud, and pushed to a reductio ad absurdum by his more reckless followers, and especially by Jung.

The dragon has been described as "the most venerable symbol employed in ornamental art and the favourite and most highly decorative motif in artistic design". It has been the inspiration of much, if not most, of the world's great literature in every age and clime, and the nucleus around which a wealth of ethical symbolism has accumulated throughout the ages. The dragon-myth represents also the earliest doctrine or systematic theory of astronomy and meteorology.

In the course of its romantic and chequered history the dragon has been identified with all of the gods and all of the demons of every religion. But it is most intimately associated with the earliest stratum of divinities, for it has been homologized with each of the members of the earliest Trinity, the Great Mother, the Water God, and the

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[paragraph continues] Warrior Sun God, both individually and collectively. To add to the complexities of the story, the dragon-slayer is also represented by the same deities, either individually or collectively; and the weapon with which the hero slays the dragon is also homologous both with him and his victim, for it is animated by him who wields it, and its powers of destruction make it a symbol of the same power of evil which it itself destroys.

Such a fantastic paradox of contradictions has supplied the materials with which the fancies of men of every race and land, and every stage of knowledge and ignorance, have been playing for all these centuries. It is not surprising, therefore, that an endless series of variations of the story has been evolved, each decked out with topical allusions and distinctive embellishments. But throughout the complex tissue of this highly embroidered fabric the essential threads of the web and woof of its foundation can be detected with surprising constancy and regularity.

Within the limits of such an account as this it is obvious that I can deal only with the main threads of the argument and leave the interesting details of the local embellishments until some other time.

The fundamental element in the dragon's powers is the control of water. Both in its beneficent and destructive aspects water was regarded as animated by the dragon, who thus assumed the rôle 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 Babylonia the destructive Tiamat, became the symbol of disorder and chaos, the dragon became identified with her also.

Similarly the third member of the Earliest Trinity also became the dragon. As the son and successor of the dead king Osiris the living king Horus became assimilated with him. When the belief became more and more insistent that the dead king had acquired the boon of immortality and was really alive, the distinction between him and the actually living king Horus became correspondingly minimized. This process of assimilation was advanced a further stage when the king became a god and was thus more closely identified with his father and predecessor. Hence Horus assumed many of the functions of Osiris; and amongst them those which in foreign lands contributed to making a dragon of the Water God. But if the distinction between

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[paragraph continues] Horus and Osiris became more and more attenuated with the lapse of time, the identification with his mother Hathor (Isis) was more complete still. For he took her place and assumed many of her attributes in the later versions of the great saga which is the nucleus of all the literature of mythology—I refer to the story of "The Destruction of Mankind".

The attributes of these three members of the Trinity, Hathor, Osiris, and Horus, thus became intimately linked the one with the other; and in Susa, where the earliest pictorial representation of a real dragon developed, it received concrete form (Fig. 1) as a monster compounded of the lioness of Hathor (Sekhet) with the falcon (or eagle) of Horus, but with the human attributes and water-controlling powers which originally belonged to Osiris. In some parts of Africa


FIG. 2.—THE EARLIEST BABYLONIAN CONCEPTION OF THE DRAGON TIAMAT (from a Cylinder-seal in the British Museum, after L. W. King).
FIG. 2.—THE EARLIEST BABYLONIAN CONCEPTION OF THE DRAGON TIAMAT (from a Cylinder-seal in the British Museum, after L. W. King).

the earliest "dragon" was nothing more than Hathor's cow or the gazelle or antelope of Horus (Osiris) or of Set.

But if the dragon was compounded of all three deities, who was the slayer of the evil dragon?

The story of the dragon-conflict is really a recital of Horus's vendetta against Set, intimately blended and confused with different versions of "The Destruction of Mankind". 1 The commonplace incidents of the originally prosaic stories were distorted into an almost unrecognizable form, then secondarily elaborated without any attention to their original meaning, but with a wealth of circumstantial embellishment, in accordance with the usual methods of the human mind that I have already mentioned. The history of the legend is in fact the most complete, because it is the oldest and the most widespread, illustration of those instinctive tendencies of the human spirit to bridge the

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gaps in its disjointed experience, and to link together in a kind of mental mosaic the otherwise isolated incidents in the facts of daily life and the rumours and traditions that have been handed down from the story-teller's predecessors.

In the "Destruction of Mankind," which I shall discuss more fully in the following pages (p. 109 et seq.), Hathor does the slaying: in the later stories Horus takes his mother's place and earns his spurs as the Warrior Sun-god: 1 hence confusion was inevitably introduced between the enemies of Re, the original victims in the legend, and Horus's traditional enemies, the followers of Set. Against the latter it was Osiris himself who fought originally; and in many of the non-Egyptian variants of the legend it is the rain-god himself who is the warrior.

Hence all three members of the Trinity were identified, not only with the dragon, but also with the hero who was the dragon-slayer.

But the weapon used by the latter was also animated by the same Trinity, and in fact identified with them. In the Saga of the Winged Disk, Horus assumed the form of the sun equipped with the wings of his own falcon and the fire-spitting uræus serpents. Flying down from heaven in this form he was at the same time the god and the god's weapon. As a fiery bolt from heaven he slew the enemies of Re, who were now identified with his own personal foes, the followers of Set. But in the earlier versions of the myth (i.e. the "Destruction of Mankind"), it was Hathor who was the "Eye of Re" and descended from heaven to destroy mankind with fire; she also was the vulture (Mut); and in the earliest version she did the slaughter with a knife or an axe with which she was animistically identified.

But Osiris also was the weapon of destruction, both in the form of the flood (for he was the personification of the river) and the rain-storms from heaven. But he was also an instrument for vanquishing the demon, when the intoxicating beer or the sedative drink (the potency of which was due to the indwelling spirit of the god) was the chosen means of overcoming the dragon.

This, in brief, is the framework of the dragon-story. The early Trinity as the hero, armed with the Trinity as weapon, slays the

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FIG. 8.—A CHINESE DRAGON (After de Groot)
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FIG. 8.—A CHINESE DRAGON (After de Groot)

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Click to enlarge


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dragon, which again is the same Trinity. With its illimitable possibilities for dramatic development and fantastic embellishment with incident and ethical symbolism, this theme has provided countless thousands of story-tellers with the skeleton which they clothed with the living flesh of their stories, representing not merely the earliest theories of astronomy and meteorology, but all the emotional conflicts of daily life, the struggle between light and darkness, heat and cold, right and wrong, justice and injustice, prosperity and adversity, wealth and poverty. The whole gamut of human strivings and emotions was drawn into the legend until it became the great epic of the human spirit and the main theme that has appealed to the interest of all mankind in every age.

An ancient Chinese philosopher, Wang Fu, writing in the time of the Han Dynasty, enumerates the "nine resemblances" of the dragon. "His horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow." 1 But this list includes only a small minority of the menagerie of diverse creatures which at one time or another have contributed their quota to this truly astounding hotchpotch.

This composite wonder-beast ranges from Western Europe to the Far East of Asia, and as we shall see, also 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 forelimbs 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.

But it is not merely a case of structural or anatomical similarity, but also of physiological identity, that clinches the proof of the derivation of this fantastic brood from the same parents. Wherever the dragon is found, it displays a special partiality for water. It controls the rivers or seas, dwells in pools or wells, or in the clouds on the tops

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of mountains, regulates the tides, the flow of streams, or the rainfall, and is associated with thunder and lightning. Its home is a mansion at the bottom of the sea, where it guards vast treasures, usually pearls, but also gold and precious stones. In other instances the dwelling is upon the top of a high mountain; and the dragon's breath forms the rain-clouds. It emits thunder and lightning. Eating the dragon's heart enables the diner to acquire the knowledge stored in this "organ of the mind" so that he can understand the language of birds, and in fact of all the creatures that have contributed to the making of a dragon.

It should not be necessary to rebut the numerous attempts that have been made to explain the dragon-myth as a story relating to extinct monsters. Such fantastic claims can be made only by writers devoid of any knowledge of palæontology or of the distinctive features of the dragon and its history. But when the Keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum, in a book that is not intended to be humorous, 1 seriously claims Dr. Andrews' discovery of a gigantic fossil snake as "proof" of the former existence of "the great serpent-devil Āpep," it is time to protest.

Those who attempt to derive the dragon from such living creatures as lizards like Draco volans or Moloch horridus 2 ignore the evidence of the composite and unnatural features of the monsters.

"Whatever be the origin of the Northern dragon, the myths, when they first became articulate for us, show him to be in all essentials the same as that of the South and East. He is a power of evil, guardian of hoards, the greedy withholder of good things from men; and the slaying of a dragon is the crowning achievement of heroes—of Siegmund, of Beowulf, of Sigurd, of Arthur, of Tristram—even of Lancelot, the beau ideal of mediæval chivalry" (Encyclopædia Britannica, vol. viii., p. 467). But if in the West the dragon is usually a "power of evil," in the far East he is equally emphatically a symbol of beneficence. He is identified with emperors and kings; he is the son of heaven, the bestower of all bounties, not merely to mankind directly, but also to the earth as well.

Even in our country his symbolism is not always wholly malevolent,

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otherwise—if for the moment we shut our eyes to the history of the development of heraldic ornament—dragons would hardly figure as the supporters of the arms of the City of London, and as the symbol of many of our aristocratic families, among which the Royal House of Tudor is included. It is only a few years since the Red Dragon of Cadwallader was added as an additional badge to the achievement of the Prince of Wales. But, "though a common ensign in war, both in the East and the West, as an ecclesiastical emblem his opposite qualities have remained consistently until the present day. Whenever the dragon is represented, it symbolizes the power of evil, the devil and his works. Hell in mediæval art is a dragon with gaping jaws, belching fire."

And in the East the dragon's reputation is not always blameless. For it figures in some disreputable incidents and does not escape the sort of punishment that tradition metes out to his European cousins.


76:1 An elaboration of a Lecture delivered in the John Rylands Library on 8 November, 1916.

76:2 In his lecture, "Dreams and Primitive Culture," delivered at the John Rylands Library on 10 April, 1918, Dr. Rivers has expounded the principles of dream-development.

79:1 Vide infra, p. 109 et seq.

80:1 Hence soldiers killed in battle and women dying in childbirth receive special consideration in the exclusive heaven of (Osiris s) Horus's Indian and American representatives, Indra and Tlaloc.

81:1 M. W. de Visser, "The Dragon in China and Japan," Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam, Afdeeling Letterkunde, Deel XIII, No. 2, 1913, p. 70.

82:1 E. A. Wallis Budge, "The Gods of the Egyptians," 1904, vol. i., p. 11.

82:2 Gould's "Mythical Monsters," 1886.

Next: The Dragon in America and Eastern Asia