Dragons in the East and West

Do you have a conversation topic that doesn't seem to fit any of the other conversations? Here is where we discuss ANYTHING about Joseph Campbell, comparative mythology, and more!

Moderators: Clemsy, Martin_Weyers, Cindy B.

RDCharlton
Associate
Posts: 47
Joined: Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:46 pm
Location: Pacific NW USA

Dragons in the East and West

Post by RDCharlton » Mon Dec 22, 2008 6:49 pm

I have been contemplating the differences between the way dragons are presented in western myths vs. eastern myths. I suppose it is no wonder, since so very much is different between the eastern and western perspectives. I would love to get some input from this group, both regarding the differences on the dragon myths specifically and what they represent, as well as the differences between east and west in general.

Bear
Rain falls. It is up to us to plant fields or build shelters.
User avatar
noman
Associate
Posts: 670
Joined: Mon Oct 02, 2006 8:26 am

Post by noman » Mon Dec 22, 2008 10:18 pm

Hello RDCarlton,

You read my mind - after reading Samarra's Metaphysics thread.

In POM Campbell mentions the difference in the image of the dragon East and West. I never gave it much thought until I read BodhiBliss’s essay:

Here Be Dragons

Even after he explained it, in detail, it still doesn’t make sense to me; why our serpent speaks with forked tongue.

From the East:

Nüwa appears in literature no earlier than about 350 BC. Her companion was Fuxi the brother and husband of Nuwa. These two beings are sometimes worshipped as the ultimate ancestor of all humankind.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_mythology
Image

The half serpent/half human-like rulers emerged from the Yellow river. In a way, there is an implied ‘fall’ in this story, because we are not serpents like these two great ancestors.

In the West it’s a different story. There is the legend of Draco, the first legislator of Athens, said to have lived in the 7th century BCE, giving us the word ‘draconian’. The penalty for major offenses against the state was death. The penalty for minor offenses against the state was death. It made law much simpler. There would be no more vendettas. But I say the ruler Draco is a legend because the name is suspect. His name in ancient Greek means ‘Dragon’.

I doubt the classical Greeks thought too highly of Draco, the ruler. And that tells me they didn’t think too highly of dragons. But at the same time, I don’t see the Greeks as terribly anti-nature. I still see their intertwine snakes on the side of ambulances – a symbol of healing.

What Bodhi explains in his essay, and what I still can’t quite grasp, is the idea that the individualism of the West causes the snake/serpent/dragon to become evil. The dragon in European mythology doesn’t seem any less popular than the dragon of the East. But then, why don’t we have separate names for them? And if the basic archetype of the dragon is a duality, there should be a few good dragons in our Western classical mythology and a few evil ones in the Chinese myths. (Perhaps there are evil dragons in Chinese myths. Don’t know.)

But there is something in this split iconography that should not be taken lightly. If China is indeed rising as a new superpower as many believe, the dragon of the East and the dragon of the West may soon be staring at each other face to face. But will they, can they, recognize their common ground? Their common ancestry?

- NoMan
RDCharlton
Associate
Posts: 47
Joined: Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:46 pm
Location: Pacific NW USA

Post by RDCharlton » Tue Dec 23, 2008 2:44 am

Noman,
Yes, I read the Metaphysical string after I posted this and realized I should have just carried on the conversation there, but I had already posted this, oh well.

Thank you for the link to BBs essay. I had not read it before and I enjoyed it. Regarding Draco, I wonder if his name previously meant dragon in ancient Greek or if it CAME to mean dragon because of the harshness with which it was associated. A chicken or egg question, yes?

For a time I wondered if the western view of dragons wasn't unduly colored by the Christian lens, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized that the western view of dragons was ingrained before Christianity and it was perhaps the other way around. One prime example being the Nordic Jörmungandr, responsible for the death of Thor and the end of the world. Of course, it is from this destruction that the new world arises, a repeat of the creation theme seen so many times. This pagan myth existed entirely separate from any Christian influence.

But why is it we, in the west, feel the need to kill our dragons in order to see new life, while those in the east are able to live in harmony with theirs? What really is the archetype and what is it trying to tell us?
Rain falls. It is up to us to plant fields or build shelters.
User avatar
noman
Associate
Posts: 670
Joined: Mon Oct 02, 2006 8:26 am

Post by noman » Tue Dec 23, 2008 7:02 pm

This is one of the perplexing things about it all. I personally believe that myths and mythic images are more than human fantasies that have little to do with practical concerns. To make my point, let me quote William G. Doty:
P30 Myth is not spacey talk about never-never lands. It is grounded in pragmatic, realistic encounters with others and with important aspects of the natural and cultural worlds in which we dwell. Robert Neville refers to the projection of mythic values in the symbolic codes that get embedded in the stories we favor: “symbols within the myth or story refer to other symbols within the myth or story, and when people are ‘thinking mythically’ they are interpreting things, perhaps even the meanings of their own lives, within the coded contours of the narrative; they take themselves to inhabit the myths with nowhere else to stand.”

- Myth A Handbook, William G. Doty, 2004
If one accepts this view then one has to ask what part of Chinese history is so different than European? China doesn’t appear to be any less violent or patriarchal. The so-called ‘patriarchal curse’ of warfare seems alive and well in their history. But what about the desire to conquer and control nature? It’s funny, but many of the greatest innovations that made the rise of Europe possible over the last 500 years depended on Chinese inventions: the compass, gunpowder, the stirrup, and one of the greatest inventions of all time: paper. The Chinese had been sailing the Indian Ocean since the 1st century BCE. In the early 15th century they had huge vessels of exploration, bringing back exotic animals as far away as Africa. They led Europe in agricultural innovation as well.

From wiki:
The basic plough with coulter, ploughshare and mouldboard remained in use for a millennium. Major changes in design did not become common until the Age of Enlightenment, when there was rapid progress in design. Chinese ploughs, with mouldboard, were brought to Holland in the seventeenth century by Dutch sailors. And because Dutch were hired by the English to drain the East Anglian fens and Somerset moors at that time, they brought with them their Chinese ploughs. The English called these Chinese ploughs the 'bastard Dutch ploughs' instead of 'Chinese ploughs'. The Chinese had been using this type of plough since 6th century BC. Thus, the Dutch and the English were the first to enjoy the efficient Chinese ploughs for the first time in Europe. The Chinese style ploughs were spread to Scotland from England, and from Holland it spread to America and France.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plough#Heavy_ploughs
The two manifestations of the dragon in each culture are so blatant and pervasive that it seems as if it would have a truly profound difference. But the only truly profound difference I see is ‘individualism’ vs ‘collectivism’. A collective can still kill a dragon.

It’s something that will probably be gnawing at me the rest of my life. There should be a book written on just this issue of the duality of the dragon.

- NoMan
RDCharlton
Associate
Posts: 47
Joined: Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:46 pm
Location: Pacific NW USA

Post by RDCharlton » Tue Dec 23, 2008 11:51 pm

I am not certain I get the individualism vs collectivism connection. What I tend to see is that the dragon personifies the more base, instinctual response, the reptillian brain, as it were, something we, in the west, tend to associate with the darker aspects, even evil. We have always viewed evil as something to be overcome, while, in the east, they have viewed the dark as a compliment to the light, they view both as being necessary to the balance of the universe.

I think we begin to catch glimpses of this even in some of the western myths, were the destruction of the dragon, winds up unleashing a greater evil. Perhaps the most explicit of these being Tolkien's tale where the death of Smaug results in the massive Battle of 5 Armies, and more death and destruction than Smaug ever caused.

Obviously I, too, view myth as far more than simple stories. I believe they are glimpses of Jungian archetypes and can tell us much about ourselves, both as humans collectively, as well as individuals.

So with the dragon, I wonder if the archetype isn't: a) a view of the dark/animal/instinctual/primitive aspects of our psyche, b) revelatory of our relationship with nature as a whole, and c) explanatory of the duality of our nature in the sense of the conflict between good/evil.

Thoughts?
User avatar
noman
Associate
Posts: 670
Joined: Mon Oct 02, 2006 8:26 am

Post by noman » Wed Dec 24, 2008 2:31 am

I am not certain I get the individualism vs collectivism connection.

- RD
And neither do I, exactly, but it is – there. I mean the evidence of the different psychology of East and West. Here is how it relates to the attitude toward the dragon. (From BB’s essay)

Such masculine, patriarchal deities acting on nature — rather than as agents of nature
— mirror the trajectory of the developing ego-consciousness in humanity as it differentiates itself from the amorphous, mysterious workings of the unconscious psyche.


* * *


These centuries of the third millennium B.C. are years of dramatic transformation. Hieratic city-states give way to dynastic states and high civilization; wars of subjugation become the norm; heroic mythology is born (of which the cosmic dragon-slayer motif is the prime example); and the human ego becomes more sharply defined as individuals play an ever greater role in shaping their universe


* * *


In goddess-oriented cultures the group mind prevails — all are agents of the divine, playing one’s proper role, whether a peasant tilling the soil or a king who submits himself to sacrifice when Venus comes round once more. The nascent ego is not sharply defined, and the individual will is subordinate to the rhythms of nature and of society, submerged in the collective consciousness.


* * *


The absence of the feminine isn’t simply an aberration of Judaism and Christianity, but part of an
evolving continuum that reflects not only historical changes, but changes in the collective psyche. The evolution of this mythic perspective marks the origin of our contemporary Cartesian outlook. Ours is no longer a world ensouled, and subject ("me," "I" – or "ego") remains separate and distinct from everything else – the trees, the mountains, the clouds, the chair on which I sit – none of these are experienced as conscious and alive in the sense they are in primal cultures. The Earth and all that's on it is conceived as composed of soul-less matter, created for our use.

- HERE BE DRAGONS
In some ways, the evidence for the relationship between Western individualism and an evil dragon are overwhelming. And yet, there is something about it that doesn’t sit well with me. I follow your reasoning here.
a) a view of the dark/animal/instinctual/primitive aspects of our psyche

- RD
Exactly. Many people carry with them the innate fear of snakes. (remember Indiana Jones?, “I hate snakes”.) Calling someone a reptile or a cold blooded snake is not a kind thing to say to someone. Think it would be a kind thing to say in China? Reptiles don’t show emotions. They aren’t warm like mammals. It’s that lack of emotion that makes the reptile such a good image of – as you say – base nature – nature without emotion to direct.


I have to go way back when I think of film because I don’t watch them much anymore. The dragon archetype shows up in Hollywood films. It was in the Jurassic Park films. But remember the first Alien film with Sigourney Weaver. The evil of ‘base nature’ gets into people and explodes out of their heart. So much for emotion. But at the end of that first film, the heroine is trying to escape in a space module, and she does something I thought was very interesting. She sings. She sings to herself. Using the three-level cosmos symbolism of heaven-earth-hell, birds sing and live in the sky, mammals live on the earth, and reptiles live below in the watery world or in the earth. As Sigourney Weaver escapes from the reptile-monster she also goes out of her way to save a cat – a fellow mammal.

b) revelatory of our relationship with nature as a whole,
c) explanatory of the duality of our nature in the sense of the conflict between good/evil.

- RD

In the West, the dragon only takes on the evil aspect. We, battling against nature, our own nature, original sin, and inner struggle projected outward. But how can this situation not have a manifestation in Chinese mythology. I have to learn more about Chinese mythology.


- NoMan
Neoplato
Associate
Posts: 3907
Joined: Fri Nov 21, 2008 3:02 pm
Location: Virginia
Contact:

Post by Neoplato » Wed Dec 24, 2008 2:57 am

I'm going to chime in here with my opinion. To me, the dragon of the west represents ego, materialism, greed, and self-centeredness. Hence "individualism. The dragon of the east represents "utilitarianism" or the greatest good for all and the wisdom behind this notion. Hence, the "collective".

Unfortunately, I'm unaware of a dragon that represents Altruism and/or compassion and loving kindness. Maybe there is another "symbol" for this?
RDCharlton
Associate
Posts: 47
Joined: Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:46 pm
Location: Pacific NW USA

Post by RDCharlton » Wed Dec 24, 2008 3:26 am

Noman,
Thank you for the rapid response.

I sometimes try to maintain brevity out of a fear of being to verbose, and in doing so I sacrifice the line of thought which lead to conclusions and offer simply the conclusions. So it is no wonder they come across as without support.

Regarding my confusion over the individualism/collectivism issue, I do not debate the fact that these two items are hallmarks of the west and east, respectively, but I do not see how they are linked to the dragon archetype. As a former professor of analytical statistics I once had was fond of saying, "Correlation does not necessitate causation." One might also say that rice is the primary grain source in the east, wheat in the west, then attempt to claim there is a causal link with the individualist/collectivist mindset. See what I mean? These may be individual characteristics, but even after reading BBs essay thoroughly, I see nothing to support the idea that dragons represent an individual or collective archetype.

I think a stronger case can be made for the eastern penchant for yin/yang and tendancy for comprehending everything as energies with which we must work. Even Chinese medicine is based upon this idea of energies in balance, where western medicine is all about eradicating the bad stuff, only now beginning to touch on the idea of balance. This, in spite of the patriarchal tendencies of the society as a whole.

What I meant when I said revelatory of our relationship with nature was our tenency in the west to feel we have to dominate nature, to bend it to our will, to destroy it if it will nto be subjugated. And regarding our duality, it seems to me that by conquering the dragon one of a couple things happens: 1) Either new birth/new creation occurs, a decidedly UNmasculine occurance and contrary to the raw masculinity of the hero overcoming the dragon by force of arms, 2) the hero wins the kingdom and the princess, getting married, domesticated, and in the process and becoming something less than the wild hero of his youth, eventually growing old and fat in his luxury, again very contrary to the raw masculinity of the hero... 3) something worse than the dragon itself, ala The Battle of Five Armies.

I wonder if this isn't meant to teach us that we destroy these dragons at our own risk, and that in doing so we lessen ourselves. I wonder if the lesson isn't that we must learn to dwell with the dragon, and in doing so we BOTH become more than we were individually.

Kind of like that....okay, nerd alert***nerd alert***, that old Star Trek episode where Kirk was split into two people a hyper aggressive almost-evil-Kirk and a hyper sensitive almost-pansy-Kirk, and the only way they could survive was to be put back into one person.... In the same way we need to recognize that by destroying the dark side we destroy a necessary part of ourselves.

In the east, they have learned to live with the paradox, the yin and yang co-existing and being interdependent, in balance. We in the west have not.
RDCharlton
Associate
Posts: 47
Joined: Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:46 pm
Location: Pacific NW USA

Post by RDCharlton » Wed Dec 24, 2008 3:42 am

Neoplato,
Thanks for your response, and welcome to the discussion. I am curious as to what evidence you are basing this view. Which specific myths are you referring to? Also, if materialism and greed are what the dragon is representing, then what is the archetypal imagery which is being conveyed.

Also, is individualism always bad? Ayn Rand seemed to think that the highest expression of civic responsibility was for the individual to pursue and achieve their own highest possible individual expression. However, your statement seems to equate individualism with only negative qualities.

I am not trying to be confrontational here. I deeply apologize if it comes across that way. I am simply trying to explore these thoughts as deeply as we can.

And, finally, what I am particularly interested in is the Jungian archetypal imagery which connects the dragons of the east with the dragons of the west.
Rain falls. It is up to us to plant fields or build shelters.
User avatar
noman
Associate
Posts: 670
Joined: Mon Oct 02, 2006 8:26 am

Post by noman » Wed Dec 24, 2008 5:55 am

It’s Christmas Eve eve – and we’re talkin’ about dragons.

Hello NeoPlato.

When I read Bodhi’s essay, it makes perfect sense. And it follows from what Campbell and Gimbutas and many others have said. Then I think of

1.) individualism – Evil Western Dragon
2.) collectivism - Good Eastern Dragon

and I say to myself – ‘there’s something missing’.

I think you’re right RD. Medicine is a good example. I’ve heard that we are creating a great deal of trouble with all the antibiotics we are using – because to use them too much is to encourage the enemy bacteria to adapt and come back stronger.

If the dragon of the East is a ying/yang complementary symbol then there should be stories where the Eastern dragon is evil. This is a possibility. I’ve heard that the Jinn of Arabian legend are sort of like angels that can be malevolent or benevolent.

You read my mind again mentioning Star Trek. There was a recent thread on 2001 Space Odyssey and we got to talking about Sci-Fi and how it relates to mythology. So I picked up a few of the many books on Star Trek theory and it really is interesting. It ties into mythology past and present. At my age, I remember all the original episodes with Kirk. And there are some great themes. One of my favorites was the planet with the rulers that lived in the clouds and the workers that lived on the planet and had to dig the minerals to support the cloud people. It was such a great metaphor for the way our planet is run.

But by the time Next Generation came out, I had outgrown most of my interest in Sci-fi and fantasy. And Next-Gen, they say, has some of the most sophisticated themes. So I’ve had to check-out some of these episodes to know what the book is talking about. This associate professor at Harvard wrote that the episode ‘Darmok’ in the Next-Gen is the crowning achievement – not the most popular – but most sophisticated in terms of modern mythology.

There is another episode called ‘masks’ that I haven’t seen. But it deals with mythology and I’d bet dollars to dimes that the title ‘masks’ was given in honor of the myth-genius who is responsible for the existence of this forum we are conversing on.

The lack of a divine presence behind mythology in Star Trek does not, however, indicate the lack of an overall belief structure in the series. As we shall see in the next chapter, the series rarely misses an opportunity to discredit organized religions. From the high clerics among the Klingons to the priests and prophets among the Bajorans, ecclesiastical structures are uniformly regarded with a suspicion that almost always turns out to be justified. Star Trek thus has a recognizably modern attitude toward mythology. In the series the pantheon of gods is at best a thing of the past, or at worst, a complete fraud.

* * *

What if human beings are not evolving toward a perfectly rational, perfectly technological society? What if the ultimate end of technological development is a return to myth? Much science fiction is preoccupied with this idea, and Star Trek has its own twist on it.

- The Meaning of Star Trek, Thomas Richards, 1997
Anyway, I’m just learning about the values that were pounded into me by Star Trek when I was a lad. It’s heavy on individualism, anti-family, anti-religion, but pro-science and pro-mythology, in the ancient Greek sense. Campbell said in a lecture one time that the Greek Gods were like older brothers to humans. You respected their power and you obeyed for your own good but you didn’t think of them having some ultimate moral authority like the Judeo-Christian god. And that’s how I see the Star Trek Galaxy. The humans are often negotiating with much more powerful beings but they aren’t worshiped – they are just one of the players.

But you’re right, ‘The Enemy Within’ is one of the best episodes from the original series.

- NoMan
RDCharlton
Associate
Posts: 47
Joined: Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:46 pm
Location: Pacific NW USA

Post by RDCharlton » Wed Dec 24, 2008 6:40 am

Perhaps I am remembering this incorrectly, and if so I am open to correction, but as I remember it, the broader eastern view of dragons was that they were not necessarily jovial beings, but rather keepers of great power, and that power could be expressed in either destructive or constructive manners, though they were primarily protective/guardian in their natures. It seems to me that the dragon was associated with weather, and as such could bring life to crops or destructive floods and tornadoes, thus a very Yin/Yang kind of expression. I think they were also representative of both aspects of fortune, good and bad. And I think this balance carried from Asian nation to nation. Again, I may be remembering this incorrectly, so if anyone has specific references which correct this, please let me know.

Bear
Rain falls. It is up to us to plant fields or build shelters.
Neoplato
Associate
Posts: 3907
Joined: Fri Nov 21, 2008 3:02 pm
Location: Virginia
Contact:

Post by Neoplato » Wed Dec 24, 2008 3:37 pm

I am curious as to what evidence you are basing this view. Which specific myths are you referring to? Also, if materialism and greed are what the dragon is representing, then what is the archetypal imagery which is being conveyed.

Also, is individualism always bad? Ayn Rand seemed to think that the highest expression of civic responsibility was for the individual to pursue and achieve their own highest possible individual expression. However, your statement seems to equate individualism with only negative qualities.

I am not trying to be confrontational here. I deeply apologize if it comes across that way. I am simply trying to explore these thoughts as deeply as we can.
Please notice that I typically begin my postings with "my opinion" or "I believe" etc...

I can not give you specific references to texts, all I can do is speak from experiences and conclusions that I have come to from them. I like to learn and refine my opinions through discussions, if you think I am not considering something that you are aware of, please say so.

It is my OPINION that the illusion of individualism is an afflication of the mind that may lead to self destructive beliefs, behaviors, and consequences. Therefore I BELIEVE that the western dragon represents materialism and greed.

The eastern dragon to ME is collectiveness but it is not altruistic. It is utilitarian, or the greatest benefit to the most people. If this means killing one person saves 100, that person is history. However, that does not make the act of killing a virtue.
RDCharlton
Associate
Posts: 47
Joined: Sun Jul 08, 2007 7:46 pm
Location: Pacific NW USA

Post by RDCharlton » Wed Dec 24, 2008 6:48 pm

Cool. Many thanks for the clarification Neoplato. And for understanding the spirit in which I was asking.
Personally, I really prefer these discussions at a round table at the pub over a cold pint of recently brewed gold! It makes communication soooo much easier (and tasty!).

But I would also venture to reiterate my question to you, and to anyone else who cares to answer, regarding individualism. Is it always negative?

It seems to me that we have developed the tendency to develop something like the "Noble Savage" idea, except in regards to the eastern mindset. That is, we see only the good aspects of collectivism and ignore the bad, while seeing only the negative aspects of individualism. Yet many well respected philosophers thought that individualism was the apex of contribution, almost that individualism was the height of collectivism.

As I am writing this I am wondering if, even though I have yet to see the actual link between the archetypal dragon and individualism/collectivism, this may actually be a Jungian archetype, ala Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged. I know I am probably sounding like I am rambling incoherently here. My apologies. First post of the day and it is more stream-of-consciousness than anything else, but it is helping me formulate...thank you.

Bear
Rain falls. It is up to us to plant fields or build shelters.
Neoplato
Associate
Posts: 3907
Joined: Fri Nov 21, 2008 3:02 pm
Location: Virginia
Contact:

Post by Neoplato » Wed Dec 24, 2008 7:21 pm

But I would also venture to reiterate my question to you, and to anyone else who cares to answer, regarding individualism. Is it always negative?
I'm probably too bias to give a "neutral" opinion on this. However, I started to read an "essay" written by Mark Twain (got half way through) called "What is Man?" It reads like a Platonic dialog between an "Old Man" and "Young Man". This focuses more on individualism. Here's the link.

http://www.online-literature.com/twain/3304/
That is, we see only the good aspects of collectivism and ignore the bad, while seeing only the negative aspects of individualism.
To me there are obviously some negative aspects when one is talking about "the greater good". That's why I was wondering about a symbol (or archetype) for altruism.

I'll have to look at the archetypes again, and see if anything fits.
Andromeda
Associate
Posts: 85
Joined: Sat Oct 07, 2006 3:50 pm

Post by Andromeda » Thu Dec 25, 2008 12:09 pm

WoW... this conversation is a jewel. You all brought out so much about the dragon archetypes... I'm not sure I have anything to contribute except that comment...

I don't see a lot of the dragon symbology being used in western culture... except in tattoo parlors and alternate-belief systems. Even there it seems to be a reaching out to some unknown, trying to accomodate the archetype of the unknown as a not-necessarily evil thing... I dunno, that get's in over my head.

If I had to choose between the two archetypes discussed here, eastern/western, I would certainly choose the eastern dragon... but not as a 'label' in which to bundle up all the implications... more as a vehicle for understanding other aspects of nature.

I'm all for duality when it comes to individualism and collectivism. Like the comment referencing Ayn Rand I see great value in individual development as a way to contribute to the collective. Metaphysics alert * ... the collective is a blend of individuals, each of whom comprises and affects the collective by their contributions. Contributing to the collective is unavoidable. Personal health habits spreading disease, individual activities that affect the attitudes of those around us, like a smile making a difference for someone else... just thinking and sending out vibes...

...what would be the eventual condition of the collective... if individualism, the care and feeding of the individual to the fullest extent possible including all aspects of human health... was allowed to lapse in any aspect?

...maybe the health and vitality aspect of the eastern dragon is more than just a myth or symbol. Maybe the eastern dragon is more like a collective gauge of the condition of the collective... perhaps a parade with a dragon figure in the east (being active and vibrant) sends a message to all the individuals watching that their efforts have been positive and good for the collective overall?

... just a thought...
Envision a world as it should be. What we envision is what we create in the future.
Locked