Sacred Texts  Legendary Creatures  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at
Buy this Book on Kindle

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


I have already referred to the magical significance attached to the number seven and the widespread references to the seven Hathors, the seven winds to destroy Tiamat, the seven demons, and the seven fates.

p. 212

[paragraph continues] In the story of the Flood there is a similar insistence on the seven-fold nature of many incidents of good and ill meaning in the narrative. But the dragon with this seven-fold power of wrecking vengeance came to be symbolized by a creature with seven heads.

A Japanese story told in Henderson's notes to Campbell's "Celtic Dragon Myth" 1 will serve as an introduction to the seven-headed monster:—

"A man came to a house where all were weeping, and learned that the last daughter of the house was to be given to a dragon with seven or eight 2 heads who came to the sea-shore yearly to claim a victim. He went with her, enticed the dragon to drink sake from pots set out on the shore, and then he slew the monster. From the end of his tail he took out a sword, which is supposed to be the Mikado's state sword. He married the maiden, and with her got a jewel or talisman which is preserved with the regalia. A third thing of price so preserved is a mirror."

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.

The seven-headed dragon probably originated from the seven Hathors. In Southern India the Dravidian people seem to have borrowed the Egyptian idea of the seven Hathors. "There are seven Mari deities, all sisters, who are worshipped in Mysore. All the seven sisters are regarded vaguely as wives or sisters of Siva." 3 At one village in the Trichinopoly district Bishop Whitehead found that the goddess Kāliamma was represented by seven brass pots, and adds: "It is possible that the seven brass pots represent seven sisters or the seven virgins sometimes found in Tamil shrines" (p. 36). But the goddess who animates seven pots, who is also the seven Hathors, is probably well on the way to becoming a dragon with seven heads.

There is a close analogy between the Swahili and the Gaelic stories that reveals their ultimate derivation from Babylonia. In the Scottish

p. 213

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. 1 In the Babylonian story seven winds destroy Tiamat.

“The famous legend of the seven devils current in antiquity was of Babylonian origin, and belief in these evil spirits, who fought against the gods for the possession of the souls and bodies of men, was widespread throughout the lands of the Mediterranean basin. Here is one of the descriptions of the seven demons:—

“Of the seven the first is the south wind. …

“The second is a dragon whose open mouth. …

“The third is a panther whose mouth spares not.

“The fourth is a frightful python. …

“The fifth is a wrathful ... who knows no turning back.

“The sixth is an on-rushing … who against god and king [attacks].

“The seventh is a hurricane, an evil wind which [has no mercy].

“The Babylonians were inconsistent in their description of the seven devils, describing them in various passages in different ways. In fact they actually conceived of a very large number of these demons, and their visions of the other evil spirits are innumerable. According to the incantation of Shamash-shum-ukin fifteen evil spirits had come into his body and

“‘My God who walks at my side they drove away.’

“The king calls himself ‘the son of his God’. We have here the most fundamental doctrines of Babylonian theology, borrowed originally from the religious beliefs of the Sumerians. For them man in his natural condition, at peace with the gods and in a state of atonement, is protected by a divine spirit whom they conceived of as dwelling in their bodies along with their souls or ‘the breath of life’. In many ways the Egyptians held the same doctrine, in their belief concerning the ka 2 or the soul's double. According to the beliefs of the Sumerians and Babylonians these devils, evil spirits, and all evil powers stand for ever waiting to attach (sic) (? attack) the divine genius with each man. By means of insinuating snares they entrap mankind in the meshes of their magic. They secure possession of his soul and body by leading him into sin, or bringing him into contact with tabooed things, or by overcoming his divine protector with sympathetic magic.

p. 214

[paragraph continues] … These adversaries of humanity thus expel a man's god, or genius, or occupy his body. These rituals of atonement have as their primary object the ejection of the demons and the restoration of the divine protector. Many of the prayers end with the petition, ‘Into the kind hands of his god and goddess restore him’.

“Representations of the seven devils are somewhat rare. … The Brit. Mus. figurine represents the demon of the winds with body of a dog, scorpion tail, bird legs and feet” (S. Langdon, "A Ritual of Atonement for a Babylonian King," The Museum Journal [University of Pennsylvania], Vol. VIII, No. 1, March, 1917, pp. 39-44).

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, or rather given the real dragon seven-fold attributes. 1

In "The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia" 2 (British Museum), Marduk's weapon is compared to "the fish with seven wings".

The god himself is represented as addressing it in these words: "The tempest of battle, my weapon of fifty heads, which like the great serpent of seven heads is yoked with seven heads, which like the strong serpent of the sea (sweeps away) the foe".

In the Japanese story which I have quoted, the number of the dragon's heads is given as seven or eight; and de Visser is at a loss to know why "the number eight should be stereotyped in these stories of [Japanese] dragons". 3

I have already emphasized the worldwide association of the seven-headed

p. 215

dragon with storms. The Argonaut (usually called "Nautilus" by classical scholars) was the prophet of ill-luck and the storm-bringer: but, true to the paradox that runs through the whole tissue of mythology, this form of the Great Mother is also a benevolent warner against storms. This seems to be another link between the seven-headed dragon and these cephalopoda.

I would suggest, merely as a tentative working hypothesis, that the process of blending the seven avatars of the dragon into a seven-headed dragon may have been facilitated by its identification with the Pterocera and the octopus. We know that the octopus and the shell-fish were forms assumed by the dragon (see p. 172): the confusion between the numbers seven and eight is such as might have been created during the transference of the Pterocera's attributes to the octopus (vide supra, p. 170); and the Babylonian reference to "the fish with seven wings," which was afterwards rationalized into "a great serpent with seven heads," seems to provide the clue which explains the origin of the seven-headed dragon. if Hathor was a seven-fold goddess and at the same time was identified with the seven-spiked spider-shell (Pterocera), the process of converting the shell-fish's seven "wings" into seven heads would be a very simple one for an ancient story-teller. If this hypothesis has any basis in fact, the circumstance that the beliefs concerning the Pterocera must (from the habitat of the shell-fish) have come into existence upon the shores of Southern Arabia would explain the appearance of the derived myth of the seven-headed dragon in Babylonia.

My attention was first called to the possibility of the octopus being the parent of the seven-headed dragon, and one of the forms assumed by the thunderbolt, by the design upon a krater from Apulia. 1 The weapon seemed to be a conventionalization of the octopus. Though further research has led me to distrust this interpretation, it has convinced me of the intimate association of the octopus and the derived spiral ornament with thunder and the dragon, and has suggested that the process of blending the seven demons into a seven-headed demon has been assisted by the symbolism of the octopus and the Pterocera.


212:1 "The Celtic Dragon Myth," by J. F. Campbell, with the "Geste of Fraoch and the Dragon," translated with introduction by George Henderson, Edinburgh, 1911, p. 134.

212:2 My italics.

212:3 Henry Whitehead (Bishop of Madras), "The Village Gods of South India," Oxford, 1916, p. 24.

213:1 "The Celtic Dragon Myth," p. 136.

213:2 See Chapter I, p. 47.

214:1 I do not propose to discuss here the interesting problems raised by this identification of the dragon with a man's good or evil spirit. But it is worthy of note that while the Babylonian might be possessed by seven evil spirits, the Egyptian could have as many as fourteen good spirits or has. In a form somewhat modified by the Indian and Indonesian channels, through which they must have passed, these beliefs still persist in Melanesia; and the illuminating account of them given by C. E. Fox and F. W. Drew ("Beliefs and Tales of San Cristoval," Journ. Roy. Anthropol. Inst., Vol. XLV, 1915, p. 161), makes it easier to us to form some conception of their original meaning in ancient Babylonia and Egypt. The ataro which possesses a man (and there may be as many as a hundred of these "ghosts") leaves his body at death and usually enters a shark (or in other cases an octopus, skate, turtle, crocodile, hawk, kingfisher, tree, or stone).

214:2 Vol. II, 19, 11-18, and 65, quoted by Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 282.

214:3 Op. cit., p. 150.

215:1 A. B. Cook, "Zeus," Vol. I, p. 337, in which (Fig. 269) the rider in the car is welcoming the thunderbolt as a divine gift from heaven, i.e. as a life-amulet, a giver of fertility and good luck. For a design representing the octopus as a weapon of the god Eros see the title-page of Usener's "Die Sintfluthsagen," 1899.

Next: The Pig