Icy Glacier

History of Mesopolatamian Dragons

Let's first look some of the earlier stories about Dragons. The very first "written" stories (that we have uncovered so far) on the creation of the world is from the Sumerian civilization generally in the area we call Mesopotania. This area which later became Persia and then part of various Middle East civilization is generally found between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq and Iran.
The actual word "dragon" comes from the Greek language much later than this time so any mundane interpretation of creatures by this name before the Greeks must be by descriptions and attributes and not by name. They were generally considered "monsters" even if they had divine attributes.
The very origins and foundations of the entire Mesopotamian culture comes from the stories, culture, and ethics of these Sumerians. The later civilizations of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and then Grecians all got much of their philosophy, cosmology, and religion from the earlier stories/ myths of the Sumerians so it behooves us to first look at these early very early stories and pay particular attention to them.

In fact so many of the stories sprout the same type of general story line that we can actually divide them into two categories; Gods versus monsters (dragons) before creation and heros versus monsters after creation. Later versions of the stories often change the names of the parties about but maintain the basic story line. Is it possible that all these stories came from a single source and was later simply adapted, adopted, and some elements changed to suit the civilization telling it? This is a possibility to be considered about these first stories. Many later dragon stories will also be changed in the same manner by different areas or countries but with the same original tale.

The earlier myths often have a god, usually a storm god or a god armed with thunder and lightning bolts, chasing a dragon that has something to do with water. Examples are almost all of the Mesopotamian stories, the Indian god Indra, both Chinese and Japanese myths, the Mayan Rain Gods, the Egyptian sea dragon/serpent Apophis and pursuer Re, and even many early Semitic stories.

From the very start Dragons were seen as guarding treasures, holding back the floods, and dispensing knowledge. They also are battled by gods or heros from the very beginning. In many cases stories from the Sumerians were borrowed and slightly changed by the preceding civilizations. These same stories were very similar in content but with the actual names of the participants changed.
The first written commentary, found on clay tablets, uses the names of Asag, a monster/dragon (sometimes named as Kur) and Ninurta, a god/hero. Later we are introduced to this same god/hero as Marduk by the Babylonians and the dragons name has been changed to Tiamet. There is some confusion here as the preserved evidence is not in good shape or complete.

In the Babylonian version called the "Enuma elish" Tiamet is one of the original pair of god and goddess at the founding of the universe. From these two all later creatures, good or bad, came into creation. This Goddess is in effect the "mother of all."

In the beginning of the tale Tiamet defends her offspring and all of creation from all the minions and forces of evil. But later, when her husband Apsu is killed, she apparently goes mad and decides to end all creation in her grief. This irrational action pits her against all the other Gods and one of her offspring, named Marduk, is talked into opposing her.

In the fight that ensues Marduk finally kills her by shooting an arrow into her mouth as she tries to swallow him. She is a shape shifter as most or all early Dragons are assumed to be so fought him in different guises. Even time seems to be effect which will come up again in the dragons versions. After the battle he uses her dragon body to form the earth and from death we have life and substance.
The first epic of the hero or human and dragon encounter is the "Epic of Gilgamesh." This we know of by clay tablets from Semitic origin. But these tablets are telling about much earlier versions of the story. Here the hero is pitted against a Dragon named Humbaba who also has shape shifting abilities. Gilgamesh with the aid of the god Shamash finally kills the Dragon but gets in trouble with those other gods who were friends with or supported the Dragon and so has a pyrrhic victory and some penalties for his action are imposed.

Not much later we find the Egyptians with a similar story of either Re the sun god or Seth the hero destroying the snake or Dragon named Apophis. Again there is much confusion and contradictions. In this story both the side of good and the side of evil have attributes of the dragon. So once again we see the idea that the winner of the contest with the dragon take on the attributes of the dragon.
The Hittites have a story of the battle of a storm god with the Dragon named Illuyankas which also has contradictions and different versions but also follows the earlier stories in general details.
Later on we get several versions from the Grecian civilization. There is the story of Zeus fighting Typhon. Typhon is described as "Up from his shoulders there grew a hundred snake heads, those of a dreaded dragon." We will deal with the relationship between snakes and dragons a little latter. But suffice for now to say they are essentially the same. And again this monster/dragon is slain by a mighty thunderbolt from Zeus.

Very similar to this is the story of Apollo and Python. Python is alternately described in different versions of the story as a giant snake or a female dragon with many coils. In any case in some versions she is killed by Apollo when the young god shoots an arrow down her throat. But in other version she is taken into his service and becomes a protected oracular serpent at Delphi. It is interesting to note that both Grecian and Romans had serpents or dragons that were kept at various temples including Delphi that were considered to have great knowledge.

It is also interesting that Hercules himself consulted the Oracle of Delphi and was directed on his "12 labors" by the advice he got their. Included in his labors were the destroying of the dragons Ladon and Hydra of the Seven heads.

A good example of another Greek hero is Perseus who instead of fighting for good versus evil killed a dragon that was about to devour the princess Andromeda in order to marry her and gain a kingdom. The dragon was sent by the god Poseidon or Neptune to avenge an insult.

Another hero dragonslayer was Jason who along with his companions the Argonauts had to overcome the unsleeping "dragon of a thousand coils" who guarded the golden fleece. In one version the dragon is ensorcelled into sleeping and they stole away unharmed with the treasure. In another Jason fought the dragon who was a sea dragon and lost the fight and so was swallowed. it was only by intersession of the god Athene that the dragon gave up her prey.

An interesting story related to Jason is that of Cadmus who later went on to be the King of Thebes. He was also given advice by the Oracle of Delphi (who was herself a dragon) that eventually led him to fight and kill a golden crested dragon at the spring of Ares. For killing this dragon Cadmus was forced to serve the god Ares for a year but was then allowed to found his city from the children of the dragons teeth.

History of Eastern Dragons

It has been often said that the finding of dinosaur bones by ancient Chinese was the original basis for their "dragon" stories and myths. In reality there is no definitive proof that this is so. It does seem to make sense as large bones from an unknown large creature (i.e. dinosaurs) would cause a superstitious people to believe in large mythical beast such as dragons.

But this story actually appears to belong to the category of “folklore”, rather than anthropology. The Chinese were a highly civilized peoples and had definite ideas on Dragons which were studied, written about, and philosophized on as if they were rather common creatures to these peoples. This is an attribute that often pervades dragons stories worldwide; offhanded casual acceptance of their presence but debate on what it meant.

The reality in ancient China actually appears to be that Dragons were believed in for far longer than peasants were finding large petrified bones. Some of the earliest writings from the Far East mention Dragons, long before it was reported that bones from this creature were found.

In many early mythologies from Asia we find Dragons as either God's or messengers to the God's. Again like in earlier Mideast stories the Dragons are most often associated with water and wisdom. But unlike the Mideast and later European stories we find little to no fighting and killing of or between Dragons & Gods or normal people and Dragons.

Instead of fear and loathing or even outright worship, here we find Dragons as being desirable to an area and good luck rather than ill falls to those areas where dragons abide. They are often prayed to for deliverance from bad fortune, bad weather, and even bad men. In fact, very early in China's history the emperors are said to be communing with the Dragons to get the advice of the Gods on how to govern their peoples. But somewhere along the way things changed.

One very widespread story is of the Dragon Kings. They were known as the Four Brothers when they traveled together. All were water dragons and served the August Personage Jade who commanded them when, where and how much rain to deliver to the earth.

Each lived in a Crystal palace and ruled one of the Four Seas via an army of crabs and fish, watchman, and ministers. Their names were Ao Ch’in, Ao Jun, Ao Kuang, and Ao Shun. There is no indication that these kings directly communicated with mundane humans. But their ministers, who are presumably all dragons, apparently did.

In Chinese society individualism was strongly discouraged for most of their history. Instead, one was to subjugate ones will to the gods or their representatives including the authorities in power. And that power usually started with the emperor. The emperor himself was to have received his authority and blessings from the heavens and used it for the betterment of all the peoples. But how often in our human histories was this arraignment going to last?

Originally it was believed that the dragons were the ones who talked directly to the Gods. The Emperor was given the God's will for his people and he in turned passed on this message to the people through his growing bureaucracy. In this way the Emperor was seen to be sitting on the throne by the will of the Gods and thus divine himself as long as he passed on the god's will as spoken to him.

As time went on the Emperors apparently decided to cut the Imperial Dragons out of the deal and claimed to be able to communicate directly with the God's. Of course to protect this monopoly no one but the Emperor was allowed to try and communicate with the Dragons.

This is a subtle but definite indication of the strength of the belief that dragons did exist and needed to be communicated with. Otherwise there would have been no reason to give the “no communication” decree and the harsh follow up with strict enforcement.

At this point the Imperial Dragons were said to have 5 claws and other lessor Dragon's 4 or even 3 claws. It was now death to try and "communicate with an imperial Dragon." But there were still those who did not believe that the emperor was the only one who should be allowed to gain wisdom by talking to the wisest of the God's messengers, the Dragons.

There are more than a few stories from the Far East about various men who sought out this draconic source of wisdom. But to try and discredit them the Imperial court called them "four-men" or those who talked to less than Imperial Dragons. The implication was that only the Emperor could talk to a real messenger from the God's.

Later on these same individuals who learned and used dragon wisdom became derided as Foemen. But all of these outlawed individuals seeking out Dragons were supposed to prove their worth to talk to these wise creatures by helping out villagers against bandits or oppressive bureaucrats and such.

The tales told of these dragon inspired warriors were very much like the quests and deeds done by the much later heros and the Knights of the Round Table.

Japanese Dragon Tales

The Japanese also had Dragon Kings. One of these was named Rinjin or Ryujin. Like the Chinese Dragon Kings he also had a palace under the sea. Like many other dragon stories this one has several versions. In one case it is about his queen and octopus and in another it is about his daughter and jellyfish.

In the more popular version the jellyfish was a handsome creature with strong bones, ornate fins, and walked on four feet. The princess had a craving for monkey liver and Rinjin liking to spoil his only daughter sent the jellyfish out to acquire one monkey.

To oblige his king the jellyfish found a monkey and invited him to dine at the kings palace. The monkey agreed but on the way back seeing that the monkey was a fine creature confessed why the king really wanted him.

The monkey said that it was alright but that he had left his liver in a special jar at home and would go and fetch it. Eventually it became apparent that the monkey wasn’t coming back and the jellyfish returned to the Dragon King and told his story.

In his rage for the incompetence shown the Dragon beat the jelly fish into a pulp and exiled him from his palace. That is why to this day jellyfish are in the shape they are in.

Korean Dragon Tales

The Koreans also had their very own dragon kings as did the Vietnamese. According to the Chinese their “true dragons” had five claws. All others had 4 or 3. Japanese dragons were said to have 4 claws while Korean and Vietnamese dragons had 3.

Vietnamese Dragon Tales

A Vietnamese story of the Dragonkings starts when a kindly man named Slowcoach finds a cute little animal named Cibet. But his mean brother in jealousy kills the little critter who is then buried under a tree.

Every time that Slowcoach visits the grave silver rains down on him. This does not get missed by the brother who also goes to the grave only to be rained on by mud.

In anger he cuts down the tree and leaves. Slowcoach decides to sue the fallen tree so shapes it into a food trough for his pigs. They of course do marvelously well and this also is noticed by the brother who burns the trough.

Only a little piece of wood escapes the fire and this is fashioned into a fish hook by the gentle Slowcoach. But when he puts the hook into the lake the water raises, the pole and line disappear into this turbulence, the waves and almost drown him. Out of the water walks a beautiful woman who says she is the dragon kings daughter and that the hook is caught in her fathers mouth.

Slowcoach agrees too free it and she turns him into a bubble and takes him to her father. The fish hook removed the dragon king rewards him with a bottle containing a little blue fish.

After returning home with his reward which he sits next to his bed life goes on. But one day Slowcoach realized that every time he left his home and came back afterwards it was cleaned. To solve this mystery he came back unexpectedly one day and caught the little blue fish turning into the dragon kings beautiful daughter and cleaning the house.

In order to keep her there forever Slowcoach broke the bottle and asked her to marry him. She agree on the condition that he make her some bones which he did. They lived happily ever after.

As a side note the jealous brother wanting to also get a beautiful wife jumped into the lake in search of the dragon king, but knowing him for what he was the dragon king turned him into a fish. And that was the last anyone saw him except that Slowcoach seemed to spend a lot more time fishing when he wasn’t with his new bride.

Japenese Dragon Tales

Another Japanese story tells of a dragon named OGoncho who lives in a deep but small fissure lake not far from the Kyoto castle named Ukisima. The area of Japan where the white dragon lives is called Yama-shiro and is reputed to be a former home of some demi-god. Every half century the dragon changes into a golden bird and flies around. If anyone hears this bird calling it is a warning that famine will soon be upon the land.

India Dragon Tales

From the Indian subcontinent comes multiple stories of the serpent-dragon named Vitra. He was said to have absorbed the cosmic waters from the universe and coiled around a great mountain. In order to bring water to both the gods and the humans Indra battled this dragon and proved victorious when he used his thunderbolts to kill this monster and released the waters of life for all.

This tale is very much like several of the Mesopotamian stories and Vitra is sometimes described as the personification of winter. When winter is killed by the Gods water is released in the spring.
The name Vitara is sometimes used in place of Vitra but often this is a completely separate dragon.

Island of Borneo Dragon Tales

Another interesting tale comes from the Island of Borneo about a dragon named Kinabalu. He lived at the summit of a mountain of his name. He was the possessor of a fabled pearl of immense size. The Emperor of China heard about the pearl and sent an army to get it for him but the dragon killed all but a few. These survivors return and told the emperor about the disaster and said he could not be overcome by strength of arms. So the emperor sent his two clever sons named Wee San and Wee Ping to get the pearl.

Wee Ping could not find any way to get the pearl but his brother came up with an idea. When the dragon went away to hunt for food they would steal the pearl and replace it with an identical looking one.

The first part of the plan worked as Wee San used a kite to get to the top of the Mountain to steal and replace the pearl. Unfortunately Kinabalu was not fooled and went after the two sons who were sailing away in a large junk with the real pearl.

A fight ensued and Wee San ordered the sailors to heat up a cannon ball red hot and shoot it at the fast approaching dragon. The dragon thinking it was the pearl swallowed it and in doing so was killed and fell into the sea.

Upon arriving home in China Wee Ping lied to his father about who had actually succored the pearl and was given palaces and rewards. Rather than fighting with his older brother Wee San left his homeland and went back to Borneo where because of his good deeds and wisdom eventually became a king.

The lying brother Wee Ping did not get to enjoy his rewards as he was either punished by the Gods or else there was a curse on the possessor of the stolen dragon pearl. Nothing but sadness and misery befell Ping and he died a broken and poor man.