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Friday, December 21, 2012

Year of the Dragon: Part 2- What Is A Dragon, Anyways?

Most of you are probably wondering what made this take so long. Basically, I kept finding more and more fodder for it. Exactly what defines a dragon is very confusing, with a ton of symbolism woven into a tangled mess. 

So, here's the tough part: What makes a dragon a dragon? Well, let's see what Wikipedia has to say about this:

"A dragon is a legendary creature, typically with serpentine or reptilian traits, that feature in the myths of many cultures."

Does this really suffice in defining a dragon? At first, it seems so, but if that's all it is, then the modern perception of the dragon has become far too narrow. At the same time, it looks like that definition is slowly being broken.

One would think that "any legendary reptilian" would be a fine definition, but look again. There is almost nothing reptilian about 'dragons' like Lati@s and Reshiram. Even with the generic 'legendary reptile' definition, does that make basilisks and, to a lesser degree, Medusa dragons? Most people would not say so. (Actually, the ancient Greeks WOULD call the most popular rendition of Medusa a proper drakaina-gorgon hybrid. More on that later.)

It is much easier to describe something that is not a dragon rather than to actually describe in detail what makes a dragon a dragon. Gryphons aren't dragons, even though they sometimes have serpentine tails. Nagas as the internet knows them are not usually considered dragons, even though they fill that position traditionally.

Yes, even this is a dragon. Really.



The majority of dragons have some connection to snakes. Western or Eastern doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter if dinosaur fossils were responsible for dragons. They were seen as snakes, not lizards, in the collective subconscious (otherwise we would be calling them "sauroi" or some such). Occasionally, there is also some fish in the mix, but the vast amount of serpentine traits still speak to the original basis.

Don't believe me? The Greek "drakon" is the word for snake. The Japanese "Orochi" literally translates as "big snake." The words "zmey," "naga," and the English "serpent" all speak to the relationship between dragons and snakes. Dragons are commonly depicted with a forked tongue, which is far more common in snakes than in lizards. No matter how much evidence "dragons are dinosaurs" has behind it, the dragon always comes back to "serpent" in the subconscious.

The problem is that most snakes (read: most) are not nearly impressive enough to warrant folktales and art about. Yes, it's great if you can kill a rattlesnake, but most rattlers are tiny. Snakes are also, as Secrets of the Snake Charmer put it, "cowards, then bluffers, then finally fighters" - meaning that a snake would rather run than fight unless a hot mouse is involved. A dragon is, at its core, a valiant, bellicose snake - a creature that reverses the very temperament that people hate about serpents. This reversal means that the mutant snake will put up a good fight.

As such, it can be said that snake and dragon symbolism tend to run parallel, often with the dragon representing an extreme in snake symbolism. This extreme can be for better or for worse. If the snake has ambivalent reception, the dragon tends to receive either exaltation (China) or the best/worst of both worlds (Greece). If the serpent cannot be anything but evil, the dragon is almost undeniably so to a much larger degree.

Another very popular theory involves dinosaurs. While I do buy this as a valid starting point for dragons, the symbolism doesn't match up. The presence of fossils does not explain the relationship to snakes at all. Given that the symbolic relationship to snakes is almost homogenous, I wonder what proponents of the idea of dragons as dinosaurs think?

Pokemon shows the distinction between Eastern and Western dragons very, very well. We can find the three "basic" types of dragons - the "Eastern," "Western," and wyvern- in the first generation of Pokemon as Gyarados, Charizard, and Aerodactyl respectively. Are the parallels 100%? No, but I will be sure to point out when they are not.



Gyarados is a typical Eastern dragon, even though it does not have legs. Its story originates from the "Dragon Gate" tale in which a carp jumps over a waterfall in order to become a heavenly dragon. Aside from fish, snakes are also said to be capable of this ascension - an idea which is taken to new heights in the Korean imugi. Yes, D-War sucked; that does not mean that its mythological basis is entirely false. (China has the idea of snakes as baby dragons as well, but they never really play it up.)

Evidence of this blur can be found in the Shin Megami Tensei series.  The non-Persona games of that franchise blend the terms "snake" and "dragon" more or less freely. Pendragon, a Western-style dragon, is a "Snake," even though it has limbs; Bai SuZhen, a character that would be explicitly a "snake" to most people in the West, is a "Dragon." The Cardfight!! Vanguard card game also has nagas ("Demonic Dragons") listed as "Dragonmen," showing just how blurry this line can be. It really doesn't make that much difference in Asian cultures.

(I also think Seiobo might be a Bai SuZhen reference.)


Eastern dragons, much like naga and other more serpentine dragons, are usually beings of water - a far cry from the fire-breathing beasts common to Christian lore. A few serpents are noticeably fire-breathing (Kiyohime comes to mind), but by and large, Chinese/Eastern dragons are treated as heavenly beings who breathe steam and command rain. This makes them very important for cultures dependent on wet rice fields, like Thailand, or upon the sea, like Japan. Japan even seems to have several types of dragons, both the "water deity" kind and malevolent, fire-breathing serpents that pop up from time to time (see: Orochi and Kiyohime).  The situation is a lot more complex than it looks.

Although Chinese dragons are whored (often improperly), they are nowhere near as corrupted as the Western version. Unfortunately, they are heading that way. The more solid the definition of "dragon" gets, the less variety we will see. As the Western and Eastern serpents both get lumped under the same classification of "dragon," things like this start happening:


So now Mushu's Satan?

That said, moving on to the so-called "Western" dragon:

Who else has one of these, eh? ;)


Charizard is our archetypal Western dragon: a massive, scaly beast that flies, breathes fire, and has a grand total of six limbs. There is also probably some salamander in Charizard's design (as hinted by Charmander), but the salamander is an entirely different creature from the dragon. Go look up the mythical salamander for that; it's kind of neat, but I won't be covering it here.

Although I will use the term "Western dragon," the dragon that usually comes to mind is a four-legged beast with leathery wings that breathes fire. This was not so in much of the Western world for a very long time. Prior to the cultural invasion of Christianity, many local, pagan religions had serpentine dragons associated with water and the earth. (When I say "serpentine," I mean "basically giant snakes.") The Lernean Hydra, for example, did not breathe fire at all; as one might have guessed from the name, the Hydra (capitalized here to note that hydra as opposed to any other) was a multi-headed water snake (drakon) that was toxic instead of fiery. I don't see why movie makers don't go for an acidic serpent; enough people are terrified of snakes that even "giant snake" would be a pretty impressive beast.


I am TIRED of these motherf**ing snakes in this motherf**ing chamber!

Even typical-looking Western dragons such as Y Ddraig Goch were largely associated with pestilence- not something that we usually associate with dragons nowadays. It is actually really, really hard to find a four-legged, fire-breathing, winged dragon outside of post-Christian lore. The closest you will get are the Brazilian boitata, and the Hindu/Buddhist nagas - all described as serpents that can manifest spirit fire. (Japan has a few fire-breathing snakes as well.) "Western" by itself is far from homogenous. 

"Nagas" are rarely considered Western dragons, but the Greeks had snake/dragon people just like the Indians did. The Greek drakaina ("she-dragon"), in combination with the Hindu naga, has led to the blossoming of female serpents - half-woman, half giant snake. This style of drakaina was generic- there is no one Greek snake woman that can be properly identified, with the notable exception of Echidna (their Tiamat).  The drakaina and other snake-people were common to the point where the divine could be represented that way, so long as they somehow came straight from the earth ("autochthonic").

Silly Clash of the Titans...she doesn't need that bow.


Time for some brief mythbusting regarding drakainai. Medusa did not have a serpentine tail as in Clash of the Titans, but was instead part avian in her traditional mythology. The snake hair was still a very real trait, inflicted as a punishment from Athena, who was herself portrayed as a snake goddess (sometimes with a serpentine cloak). The Greeks probably would not have minded making Medusa more draconic, if only because she would then be the queen of dragons (thus making her head the ultimate trophy). The same case holds for Lamia, whose name properly relates to sharks; the "drakaina" version was popularized by John Keats, and again, the Greeks would probably think that synchronicity very fitting. It's not a bad thing that these two got draconified. There's another look at the Western dragon for you.

So, where did the popular Christian dragon come from? Two sources. One is Satan - hellfire, goat horns, pointy teeth, etc. with some serpentine skin to tie it all together. (I've heard some interesting stuff about Celtic dragons being general elemental spirits; this doesn't change the fact that medieval culture demonized them, and the 'Western' dragon draws heavily from medieval sources.) A few depictions of seven-headed serpent Satan add on a human face for good measure. The other way of making a Western dragon is a bit less obvious, and, honestly, much cooler:



If this image of Bellerophon slaying the chimera, a certain (female) fire-breathing lion with wings, a snake tail, and a goat's head, looks familiar, you are not mistaken.  The chimaera is the basis for every fire-breathing Western dragon ever. The salamander may have had some influence, too, but even that looks like a chimaera in mythical depictions. A "Western" dragon is effectively a homogenized lion-goat-snake hybrid. Many people throw eagle in there, too. Awesomeness is not the point; point is that the "dragon" we know and love is an unwitting chimera.

Medieval artists loved the Bellerophon mosaic. Almost every picture of St. George slaying the dragon derives from this mosaic in some way, shape or form. It's almost as if they traced the same pic over and over. If copyright laws had been around in the old days, I would bet money that the Western dragon would never have become popular. It's that plagiarized.

Look familiar? Also, note the emphasis on serpentine elements.

What happens when you fuse a snake with the popular perception of demonic forces? A dragon. What happens when you take a Greek chimaera and successfully blend its parts together into a more homogenous entity? A dragon. It's not that hard to see.

This mish-mashed type of dragon was designed to be the ultimate nemesis. It could fly, breathe fire, and embodied the raw power of nature (again, particularly water and darkness originally). Having four clawed limbs was icing on the cake. Sometimes, just to make things even freakier, they would give dragons mammalian genitalia - a good record of which can be found here. (The gendering of the dragon over time would be another essay in and of itself; I will not dive too deeply into it here.) To conquer the dragon was to conquer Mother Nature. Even China, a nation known for revering dragons, has at least one king known for killing one of the serpents; dragon/snake slaying is alive and well everywhere.



That leaves Aerodactyl. Before anybody gets on my case about Aerodactyl not being a dragon, 1) Lance uses an Aerodactyl, as he does Charizard and Gyarados, and 2) despite being constantly compared to serpents in their "native" land, the Japanese use the word "yokuryuu" ("winged dragon") to refer to both extinct pterosaurs and wyverns. It's perfectly legitimate to say that Aerodactyl is a wyvern, despite being revived from a fossil and all that jazz. The cross was clearly intentional.

Wyverns are by far the most realistic type of dragon and have been gaining popularity in recent years. Although one could make an argument for six-limbed dragons being embodiments of the elements, the wyvern is undoubtedly feral and vicious. This is highlighted in one story where a young lady takes in a young wyvern, only to have it grow too big to handle and ultimately go out of her control. There is nothing sacred about a wyvern. Despite this, it remained popular in heraldry.

The word "wyvern" is related to the word "viper." Instead of the serpentine symbolism being exaggerated, here it is 100% kept in-tact. The wyvern is venomous, a sign of plague, and looks very much like a demonic serpent. Aerodactyl doesn't look particularly friendly, either, which is really what one would expect from being based off a pterosaur. (This reputation is further cemented in the anime episode "Attack of the Prehistoric Pokemon," in which Aerodactyl comes inches away from biting Ash's head off.) Wyverns are unanimously man-eating, poisonous menaces.

Count the limbs.
 

The wyvern has become the new dragon. In an effort to still use dragons while trying to make them 'strange,' filmmakers have decided to hack off two of those extra limbs. Most feral 'dragons' nowadays are technically wyverns if you count the limbs. Even movies don't think dragons are strange anymore.

And you know what? That's a problem. If we lose the root of the dragon - the serpent made strange - then the creature is incomplete. Whatever a dragon once was, its function has changed to fit the times in a way that medieval scholars could never have predicted. The next part will look at the modern dragon and exactly what has changed from its conception into the modern age. 

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