Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, , at sacred-texts.com
The American and Indonesian dragons can be referred back primarily to India, the Chinese and Japanese varieties to India and Babylonia. The dragons of Europe can be traced through Greek channels to the same ultimate source. But the cruder dragons of Africa are derived either from Egypt, from the Ægean, or from India. All dragons that strictly conform to the conventional idea of what such a wonder-beast should be can be shown to be sprung from the fertile imagination of ancient Sumer, the "great breeding place of monsters" (Minns).
But the history of the dragon's evolution and transmission to other countries is full of complexities; and the dragon-myth is made up of many episodes, some of which were not derived from Babylonia.
In Egypt we do not find the characteristic dragon and dragon-story. Yet all of the ingredients out of which both the monster and the legends are compounded have been preserved in Egypt, and in perhaps a more primitive and less altered form than elsewhere. Hence, if Egypt does not provide dragons for us to dissect, it does supply us with the evidence without which the dragon's evolution would be quite unintelligible.
Egyptian literature affords a clearer insight into the development of the Great Mother, the Water God, and the Warrior Sun God than we can obtain from any other writings of the origin of this fundamental stratum of deities. And in the three legends: The Destruction of Mankind, The Story of the Winged Disk, and The Conflict between Horus and Set, it has preserved the germs of the great Dragon Saga. Babylonian literature has shown us how this raw material was worked up into the definite and familiar story, as well as how the features of a variety of animals were blended to form the composite monster. India and Greece, as well as more distant parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia, and even America have preserved many details that have been lost in the real home of the monster.
In the earliest literature that has come down to us from antiquity a clear account is given of the original attributes of Osiris. "Horus comes, he recognizes his father in thee [Osiris], youthful in thy name of 'Fresh Water'." "Thou art indeed the Nile, great on the fields at the beginning of the seasons; gods and men live by the moisture that is
in thee." He is also identified with the inundation of the river. "It is Unis [the dead king identified with Osiris] who inundates the land." He also brings the wind and guides it. It is the breath of life which raises the king from the dead as an Osiris. The wine-press god comes to Osiris bearing wine-juice and the great god becomes "Lord of the overflowing wine": he is also identified with barley and with the beer made from it. Certain trees also are personifications of the god.
But Osiris was regarded not only as the waters upon earth, the rivers and streams, the moisture in the soil and in the bodies of animals and plants, but also as "the waters of life that are in the sky".
"As Osiris was identified with the waters of earth and sky, he may even become the sea and the ocean itself. We find him addressed thus: 'Thou art great, thou art green, in thy name of Great Green (Sea); lo, thou art round as the Great Circle (Okeanos); lo, thou art turned about, thou art round as the circle that encircles the Haunebu (Ægeans)."
This series of interesting extracts from Professor Breasted's "Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt" (pp. 18-26) gives the earliest Egyptians' own ideas of the attributes of Osiris. The Babylonians regarded Ea in almost precisely the same light and endowed him with identical powers. But there is an important and significant difference between Osiris and Ea. The former was usually represented as a man, that is, as a dead king, whereas Ea was represented as a man wearing a fish-skin, as a fish, or as the composite monster with a fish's body and tail, which was the prototype of the Indian makara and "the father of dragons".
In attempting to understand the creation of the dragon it is important to remember that, although Osiris and Ea were regarded primarily as personifications of the beneficent life-giving powers of water, as the bringers of fertility to the soil and the givers of life and immortality to living creatures, they were also identified with the destructive forces of water, by which men were drowned or their welfare affected in various ways by storms of sea and wind.
Thus Osiris or the fish-god Ea could destroy mankind. In other words the fish-dragon, or the composite monster formed of a fish and an antelope, could represent the destructive forces of wind and water. Thus even the malignant dragon can be the homologue of the usually
beneficent gods Osiris and Ea, and their Aryan surrogates Mazdah and Varuna.
By a somewhat analogous process of archaic rationalization the sons respectively of Osiris and Ea, the sun-gods Horus and Marduk, acquired a similarly confused reputation. Although their outstanding achievements were the overcoming of the powers of evil, and, as the givers of light, conquering darkness, their character as warriors made them also powers of destruction. The falcon of Horus thus became also a symbol of chaos, and as the thunder-bird became the most obtrusive feature in the weird anatomy of the composite Mesopotamian dragon and his more modern bird-footed brood, which ranges from Western Europe to the Far East of Asia and America.
That the sun-god derived his functions directly or indirectly from Osiris and Hathor is shown by his most primitive attributes, for in "the earliest sun-temples at Abusir, he appears as the source of life and increase". "Men said of him: 'Thou hast driven away the storm, and hast expelled the rain, and hast broken up the clouds'." 1 Horus was in fact the son of Osiris and Hathor, from whom he derived his attributes. The invention of the sun-god was not, as most scholars pretend, an attempt to give direct expression to the fact that the sun is the source of fertility. That is a discovery of modern science. The sun-god acquired his attributes secondarily (and for definite historical reasons) from his parents, who were responsible for his birth.
The quotation from the Pyramid Texts is of special interest as an illustration of one of the results of the assimilation of the idea of Osiris as the controller of water with that of a sky-heaven and a sun-god. The sun-god's powers are rationalized so as to bring them into conformity with the earliest conception of a god as a power controlling water.
Breasted attempts to interpret the statements concerning the storm and rain-clouds as references to the enemies of the sun, who steal the sky-god's eye, i.e., obscure the sun or moon. The incident of Horus's loss of an eye, which looms so large in Egyptian legends, is possibly more closely related to the earliest attempts at explaining eclipses of the sun and moon, the "eyes" of the sky. The obscuring of the sun and moon by clouds is a matter of little significance to the Egyptian but the modern Egyptian fellah, and no doubt his predecessors also,
regard eclipses with much concern. Such events excite great alarm, for the peasants consider them as actual combats between the powers of good and evil.
In other countries where rain is a blessing and not, as in Egypt, merely an unwelcome inconvenience, the clouds play a much more prominent part in the popular beliefs. In the Rig-Veda the power that holds up the clouds is evil: as an elaboration of the ancient Egyptian conception of the sky as a Divine Cow, the Great Mother, the Aryan Indians regarded the clouds as a herd of cattle which the Vedic warrior-god Indra (who in this respect is the homologue of the Egyptian warrior Horus) stole from the powers of evil and bestowed upon mankind. In other words, like Horus, he broke up the clouds and brought rain.
The antithesis between the two aspects of the character of these ancient deities is most pronounced in the case of the other member of this most primitive Trinity, the Great Mother. She was the great beneficent giver of life, but also the controller of life, which implies that she was the death-dealer. But this evil aspect of her character developed only under the stress of a peculiar dilemma in which she was placed. On a famous occasion in the very remote past the great Giver of Life was summoned to rejuvenate the ageing king. The only elixir of life that was known to the pharmacopoeia of the times was human blood: but to obtain this life-blood the Giver of Life was compelled to slaughter mankind. She thus became the destroyer of mankind in her lioness avatar as Sekhet.
The earliest known pictorial representation of the dragon (Fig. 1) consists of the forepart of the sun-god's falcon or eagle united with the hindpart of the mother-goddess's lioness. The student of modern heraldry would not regard this as a dragon at all, but merely a gryphon or griffin. A recent writer on heraldry has complained that, "in spite of frequent corrections, this creature is persistently confused in the popular mind with the dragon, which is even more purely imaginary." 1 But the investigator of the early history of these wonder-beasts is compelled, even at the risk of incurring the herald's censure, to regard the gryphon as one of the earliest known tentative efforts at dragon-making. But though the fish, the falcon or eagle, and the composite eagle-lion
monster are early known pictorial representations of the dragon, good or bad, the serpent is probably more ancient still (Fig. 2).
The earliest form assumed by the power of evil was the serpent: but it is important to remember that, as each of the primary deities can be a power of either good or evil, any of the animals representing them can symbolize either aspect. Though Hathor in her cow manifestation is usually benevolent and as a lioness a power of destruction, the cow may become a demon in certain cases and the lioness a kindly creature. The falcon of Horus (or its representatives, eagle, hawk, woodpecker, dove, redbreast, etc.) may be either good or bad: so also the gazelle (antelope or deer), the crocodile, the fish, or any of the menagerie of creatures that enter into the composition of good or bad demons.
"The Nâgas are semi-divine serpents which very often assume human shapes and whose kings live with their retinues in the utmost luxury in their magnificent abodes at the bottom of the sea or in rivers or lakes. When leaving the Nâga world they are in constant danger of being grasped and killed by the gigantic semi-divine birds, the Garudas, which also change themselves into men" (de Visser, p. 7).
"The Nâgas are depicted in three forms: common snakes, guarding jewels; human beings with four snakes in their necks; and winged sea-dragons, the upper part of the body human, but with a horned, ox-like head, the lower part of the body that of a coiling-dragon. Here we find a link between the snake of ancient India and the four-legged Chinese dragon" (p. 6), hidden in the clouds, which the dragon himself emitted, like a modern battleship, for the purpose of rendering himself invisible. In other words, the rain clouds were the dragon's breath. The fertilizing rain was thus in fact the vital essence of the dragon, being both water and the breath of life.
"We find the Nâga king not only in the possession of numberless jewels and beautiful girls, but also of mighty charms, bestowing supernatural vision and hearing. The palaces of the Nâga kings are always described as extremely splendid, abounding with gold and silver and precious stones, and the Nâga women, when appearing in human shape, were beautiful beyond description" (p. 9).
De Visser records the story of an evil Nâga protecting a big tree that grew in a pond, who failed to emit clouds and thunder when the tree was cut down, because he was neither despised nor wounded: for
his body became the support of the stūpa and the tree became a beam of the stūpa (p. 16). This aspect of the Nâga as a tree-demon is rare in India, but common in China and Japan. It seems to be identical with the Mediterranean conception of the pillar of wood or stone, which is both a representative of the Great Mother and the chief support of a temple. 1
In the magnificent city that king Yaçaḥketu saw, when he dived into the sea, "wishing trees that granted every desire" were among the objects that met his vision. There were also palaces of precious stones and gardens and tanks, and, of course, beautiful maidens (de Visser, p. 20).
In the Far Eastern stories it is interesting to note the antagonism of the dragon to the tiger, when we recall that the lioness-form of Hathor was the prototype of the earliest malevolent dragon.
There are five sorts of dragons: serpent-dragons; lizard-dragons; fish-dragons; elephant-dragons; and toad-dragons (de Visser, p. 23).
"According to de Groot, the blue colour is chosen in China because this is the colour of the East, from where the rain must come; this quarter is represented by the Azure Dragon, the highest in rank among all the dragons. We have seen, however, that the original sūtra already prescribed to use the blue colour and to face the East. .. . Indra, the rain-god, is the patron of the East, and Indra-colour is nila, dark blue or rather blue-black, the regular epithet of the rain clouds. If the priest had not to face the East but the West, this would agree with the fact that the Nâgas were said to live in the western quarter and that in India the West corresponds with the blue colour. Facing the East, however, seems to point to an old rain ceremony in which Indra was invoked to raise the blue-black clouds" (de Visser, pp. 30 and 31).
106:1 Breasted, op. cit., p. 11.
107:1 G. W. Eve, "Decorative Heraldry," 1897, p. 35.
109:1 Arthur J. Evans, "Mycenæan Tree and Pillar Cult," pp. 88 et seq.