The Dragon

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust



The Stanzas of Dzyan

  Out of the whirlwind spoke the voice that ignites, that sounds like no voice ever heard. It is, instead, a flame that swirls down out of yawning darkness and scorches the flanks of the trembling world. Amongst the clouds gathered in storm, its fiery curves are sometimes glimpsed and the scraping of its taloned feet echo up the blackened caverns leading to the bowels of the earth. These are aspects of its voice . . . extensions of its flaming breath. They shine like glittering scales spiralling through the atmosphere. They project forth in the wake of that thunderous tone which issues from the depths of the very source of sound, from the primordial throat which opens out to another world. Thus it is that dragons float at the edge of the universe and near the apertures leading to unknown but frightening realms. Their fiery breath resounds and their reptilian form expands and contracts into myriad shapes described in thousands of stories the world over. But their exact nature remains a mystery and, despite their legendary reputation, for many persons they have never existed.

  It has been held that the dragon, "while sacred and to be worshipped, has within himself something still more of the divine nature of which it is better to remain in ignorance". Something double-edged is suggested here, and the question of the existence of the dragon deepens to become one of how to approach the Divine without being incinerated by its lower emanations. This question is further complicated by the widespread notion that the dragon represents the animal adversary who is the primordial enemy, the symbolic figure of a monstrous involvement with the things of the earth-earthy and of the devil himself. The killing of the dragon has come to signify for many the victory of light over that darkness which may be seen as man's own evil nature. Examples of the dragon as enemy are so numerous in European traditions that it is difficult to avoid the impression of there having been intense and, perhaps, even deliberate diffusion of the idea in the area for a long time. The dragon of The Faerie Queen infested Ludd's dominion and made every heath in England resound with shrieks on May Day eve, while that of St. Samson lay hidden in a cavern in Wales, destroying two districts with its venom before the Christian hero threw it into the sea. Other dragon slayers of Christendom are St. Philip, St. Martha, St. Florent, St. Cado, St. Mandet, St. Paul, St. Remain, St. Keyne, St. Michael, St. George, St. Margaret and St. Clement, to name a few. Indeed, the ranks that join the famous St. George are full and their exploits spanned vast areas from the Middle East to the North Sea.

 The enemy was sometimes found elsewhere, such as the dread Aghasura sent by Kansa to devour Krishna and his followers. Aghasura looked like a mountain with an open cave for a mouth, but he lived in a land where 'dragon' and naga were names given to wise and holy men. That 'dragon' need not designate only what is evil is suggested in the etymology of the word, which comes from the Greek δρακων, meaning a dragon, a huge serpent or python. This word is closely related to the verb διρομαοι, which means 'to see clearly' and which explains why the dragon, though so often feared, was in the oldest traditions associated with prophecy and wisdom and made the guardian of temples. In fact, the dragon is a multi-levelled symbol related to the highest level of spirituality, the intermediary planes of phenomenal life and the lower inferior and telluric forces. It was enthroned and almost deified by the Manchu Chinese, Phoenicians and Saxons, who saw the dragon as a grand intermediary between heaven and earth. The common winged dragon which combines the elements of bird and serpent, spirit and matter, is well exemplified by Quetzalcoatl, who brought all that is beneficent to the Nahuatl people of Mexico. The Chinese perceived a link between it as the Upper Waters and the earth and said that "the Earth joins up with the Dragon" when it rained.

 We are warned elsewhere, however, that "Terrible are the gods when they manifest themselves . . . those gods whom men call Dragons." 'Dragon' in this sense is said to have a septenary meaning which surpasses, in its highest interpretation, any notion of wisdom born of this world. It indicates, instead, a subtle notion of transmission, like the manifesting breaths or like the changes in the Dragon book, I Ching, which was called The Classic of the Chameleon. The Chinese taught that because a dragon in the water covers himself with five colours he is a god. He can become small like the silkworm or large enough to be hidden in the world. He may ascend at will to the clouds or descend into a well, but his transformations are not limited by time or space and therefore he is a god. The Gnostics took a more definite line in speaking of the Universal Dragon as Katholikos Ophis ('the way through things') and relating this to the concepts of chaos and dissolution. The idea of transformation does seem to suggest dissolution but it was also the inspiration for the much less philosophical notion that dragons take on a variety of surprising shapes because they are so notoriously promiscuous. This in itself could bear deeper analysis, but for the present one might merely point out that in the Old Testament the dragon's place was likened to 'the shadow of death' and in addition to promiscuity he was believed to bring about desolation and destruction. This is a sort of dissolution, perhaps, but not exactly what the Gnostics had in mind. Nor does this represent the perspective of the alchemists, who spoke of volatile and fixed elements as winged and wingless dragons.

  The divine power of change and transformation was sometimes illustrated by the Chinese as two contending dragons (Lung and Mang) which face each other and represent the yin/yang dual forces. They are the union of heaven and earth, the emperor and empress of divine potentiality. A single dragon may combine these forces when its coils extend around the elliptic pole. The axial point of this motion is the centre referred to in the art of Tai Chi, which is in effect a circular compendium of the yin and yang. In this case, the dragon is itself the pole around which it moves. The amalgam of dual powers in the single dragon is also reflected in its masculine (goat, ram, horned bull) and feminine (lizard, crocodile, dolphin) parts which combine hot and cold-blooded elements. Like the Goat-Fish and Makara of the ancients, the fusion symbolizes Agni in the waters, a sign of manifest power adopted through the ages by imperial heads of state. Just as the five-clawed dragon was the emblem of the emperor of China, so the red dragon was the sovereign insignia of Wales, and dragon standards were carried by Romans, Persians, Parthians and Scythians. With the latter three peoples they were figures borne in relievo which were so realistic that they deceived the enemy who took them for real dragons. The sense of power and destiny exhibited by ancient rulers must have derived much of its conviction from the notion of their being an instrument of divine will. In the case of King Arthur, who wore a dragon helmet, this was surely linked up with his magician-mentor Merlin, who was called by some a red dragon. All the Teutonic tribes carried effigies, banners and shields with dragons, and the Norse Berserkers named their boats after them, adorning the wooden prows with their terrible visages. In Celtic chivalry the word 'dragon' came to mean 'chief or 'pendragon', a sort of dictator created in times of danger, and the later dragoons were so named because they were armed with fire-spouting muskets that bore the head of a dragon wrought upon their muzzle.

  The power associated with the dragon is in all these worldly instances linked with awe and fear. If it is true, as one writer suggests, that "the dragon has haunted the childhood of the human race from time immemorial with its serpent form, its magic jewel and its power to suggest that there is an immortal self in all things", why should there be fear? Why should the Chinese use dragon cannons to terrify the Mongols and the Norwegians set them to guard the gables of their stave churches? How do these applications of its power link up with the notion that the dragon is the animating principle of every place, the genii-loci of trees, rocks, pools and mountains? To sit on the dragon throne, carry the banner and command the guns, implies a mastery of this animating power which could be paralleled by the concept of self-mastery. Jung called the dragon a mother-image (the great unconscious) and pointed to the fear of being drawn back into it. He equated this with man's repugnance towards incest and the individual's fear of committing it. Whether this is the basis for universal abhorrence of incest is difficult to decide, but there certainly is a deep-seated fear in all men of losing the thread of rational self-consciousness which we sense prevents us from falling back into a primordial flood of enormous and blind energies. Linking myth with psychology, one can see a relationship between this fear of the unconscious and the idea that the dragon represents that which devours itself. This is more than merely emblematic of a cycle. It has to do with the alchemical notion that the dragon, as Mercury, represents burning thirst or hunger and the blind impulse towards gratification. Put in a more metaphysical manner, the fiery eye of the abyss sees only itself and it desires, then, to engulf and couple with itself. This is linked up with a description in the Upanishads that speaks of "the light of this fiery spirit [which] allows it to see" in which state it looks about hungrily. This activity is described as "glancing dartingly", which in Greek would be διρκισχαι, an expression of the term διρκμαοι spoken of earlier as a cognate of δρακων (or dragon). Such hunger is manifest in the so-called lust of the androgynous dragon coupling within itself and producing offspring which can only maintain their separate natures through a constant metamorphosis of their form. Looking at this in terms of a vast evolution leading towards individuation, one could equate this process with that of natural selection of forms from the Double One.

 It is probable, in early times, when the arts were little known and mankind was but thinly scattered over the earth, that serpents, continuing undisturbed possessors of the forest, grew to amazing magnitude, and every other tribe of animals fell before them. It then might have happened that the serpents reigned tyrants of the district for centuries together. To animals of this kind, grown by time and rapacity to one hundred or one hundred and fifty feet long, the lion, the tiger, and even the elephant itself were but feeble opponents.

Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences, 1798

  "The existence of the dragon", it is asserted, "cannot be proved or disproved in the usual manner of demonstration." Certainly this dictum would be shown by those who spend months on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, and there is also a wealth of testimony to the presence of dragons in ancient times. Aristotle, Strabo, Diodorus, Josephus and Herodotus all describe various gigantic reptilian monsters, and Pliny described twenty-four-foot dragons living on Mt. Nysa in India which were yellow, purple and azure blue! The most common descriptions of dragons in the Western world frequently include dreadful details about tributes of sacrifices made to them. Propertius in his Elegy tells of a typical old dragon who protected part of the Appian Way. Each year a virgin maiden was lowered down into his cavern to place the tribute in the dragon's gaping mouth. If she was chaste in truth, she was returned to her parents above who rejoiced, "We shall have a fruitful year!" Occasionally the person sent to the dragon was a chaste youth, but usually it was a maiden that had to be rescued, such as those in the many stories where the hero crosses the water to the land of death in order to release her from the monster's lair.

  Just as Apophis, the dragon of darkness and chaos, was overcome each morning by the Egyptian sun god Ra, so numerous other solar heroes and gods became champions. They represent the forces of creation, light, activity and order. Because manifestation requires order, they act to put a limit upon action itself. The dragon, which is sometimes identified as female in this combat, represents the forces of chaos. Its activity is without limit and tends towards destruction and death. Its insatiable appetite and voracious lust are but objectified characteristics of what is really a subjective state. The job of imposing objective order upon this condition falls to the Michaels, the Herakleses and those, like Beowulf, who descended into the mare to do terrible battle with the fiendish mother of the monstrous Grendel whom he pierced with his sword at the dawn of day. The hero is then able to take the great treasure which the dragon has guarded, the golden fleece, or apples, or the jewel, the precious cosmic materials or the wisdom withheld within a carefully watched tree. Tracing the struggle back in time reveals the fact that during the earlier dynasties of ancient Egypt, Set and Typhon were symbols of life and power. It is with the Twentieth Dynasty that they come to epitomize evil and join the ranks of the evil 'serpents'. In the earliest world-cosmogonies there is no 'Evil Dragon'. It was with the Semites and the later Chaldeans that "the fathomless deep of Wisdom" becomes gross matter. Thus it is that Ea (of the Akkadians), who personified Wisdom, is changed into Tiamat, the Sea Serpent, and eventually into the much hated Satan himself.

  The relationship between the solar god and the dragon is delicately balanced in the mythical characters of Apollo and Dionysos. While Apollo reigned during most of the year at Delphi, Dionysos was supreme as god of winter and death for three months. Each year during this time Apollo was absent and men sang dithyrambs and addressed themselves to the python god. The Corycian cave on Mt. Parnassos above Delphi was believed to be the lair of Python (Typhon) in early times, and it was there that the first Delphic Oracle was established. With the ascension of the cult of the sun god, Dionysos retreated from the world and was 'dead' for nine months of each year. He was, however, intimately linked with spring and rebirth, which was evident in the enactment of the Eleusinian Mysteries. As Python, he is the spirit of both death and fertility combined, and closely linked in myth to Deukalion's flood which was associated with Mt. Parnassos. Here, as in so many other places in the world, the great struggle between the watery primeval forces of chaos and the ordered universe of the solar god took place.

  In the legend concerning St. George and the Cappadocian dragon, the latter had taken possession of a spring which was the only source of water for the inhabitants of the district. This provides a reflective twist to the more archetypal idea that the dragon must release the waters so that they can run off after the deluge. The fact that this dragon had to be appeased with the sacrifice of virginal youths and maidens would seem to reflect the central aspect of its character which opposes manifestation. In curbing the potential fertility of at least these victims, the dragon takes back into itself that which has not yet participated in the process of generation. Perhaps because of its approval of a chaste state, the dragon guardian of the Appian Way was willing to release the virgin tribute-bearers that were lowered into its cave. But generation does take place and the dragon's own child, the sun, becomes the dragon slayer without actually bringing about the death of the dragon at all. The sun (or son), as the mind, appoints itself to be the World Architect (Visvakarman) and sets about establishing the four cardinal points with a fifth point at the pole-star. All this is formed within the body of the dragon while its objectivized aspect is relegated to the outer walls of 'the Holy City', as often depicted in medieval illustrations. These are the 'dragon wads' that guarded the maidens within the fortress, and this is the great serpentine wall of China, with its awesome serrated spine coiling along the outer precincts of that Sacred Seat.

  The Chinese dragon rolls about in the heavens a pearl of perfect wisdom, a jewel ball which emits darting flames along with thunder. A flash of lightning issues forth from the rolling sound and gives birth to the fertilizing rain. This flash is symbolic of the first stirrings of mind, of the wish-fulfilling jewel that the dragon swallows and spits forth as it rolls across the universe. With those stirrings there is a fall from subjectivity into objectivity, as in the case of the plumed dragon Quetzalcoatl, who suddenly saw his image in his brother Tezcatlipoca, whose name means 'smoking mirror'. Quetzalcoatl was so stunned by his material likeness that he fell into debauchery and death. His was the archetypal fall that prompted the Aztecs to state that "the hour of parturition is the hour of death". Those Kumaras-Makaras (Dragons) who refused to participate in creation are said to oppose (or combat) the Demiurgos (the Solar Creative Deity). In The Secret Doctrine these are depicted as the first mind-born who are subsequently cursed to be born as men and hurled down to earth. One might liken them to a third part of the stars making up the seven crowns of the great red dragon in St. John's apocalyptic vision which were seized by the dragon's tail and cast down. Thus the flashing jewel of mind will precipitate generation, not independently of the dragon, but rather in its substance. This is why it is held that the Dragon Progenitor is one which marries itself three times to its own reflection until the two aspects conceive themselves anew as their own child. This is also hinted at in the Laws of Manu, which teach that "the husband, after his wife has conceived, becomes an embryo and is born again of her". Such enigmatic ideas could be the ancient source of latter-day notions concerning the self-devouring nature of the dragon and, in their even more concretized expression, the fears connected with incest.

  Hesiod wrote that in the beginning Chaos was born and then Earth and Eros. "Eros fertilized the lifeless mass of Chaos and infused it with love and life." Eros personifies the principle that the solar hero upholds and the combat that ensues can be seen as one between Eros and Thanatos. The hero has to 'kill' this dragon to release the material of cosmos. Chaos, however, not only preceded cosmos but still surrounds it as a living hermaphroditic creature, which is why the combat myth continues as one of recurring attacks upon the forces of order by the forces of dissolution. In human beings these two forces are always mingled and men strive, with sword in hand so to speak, to maintain a balance between them. The progeny of this ancient strife are numerous in their psychological manifestations, flaming forth as the loving and fearful tensions that exist between parents and offspring, men and women. At its heart the age-old combat is indeed a life or death situation, and few there are who rise up and assert their innate individual strength in direct combat with the dragon's flood. A realization of the danger of attempting to do this without the full knowledge of the dragon-guarded tree is evident in Shelley's lament to Adonais:

Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?
Defenceless as thou wert, oh, where was then
Wisdom the mirrored shield, or scorn the spear?

  In Cambodia each reservoir has a temple where its divinity is worshipped in dragon form. These are dragon reservoirs just as irrigation canals, wells and other waterways are thought to be their compassionate gifts. The theme of compassion linked with water is of central importance in Buddhist cultures. It is taught that the Buddha himself, in his incarnation previous to that in which he took on human guise, lived as a naga king. Upon reaching enlightenment as a human being, his first deed was to tame a fire-dragon by causing it to enter his alms-bowl. That an Enlightened Being is shown to have such familiarity with the dragon nature is but one of the very noticeable differences in attitudes marking Eastern and Western religious views. One recalls that Kansa tried to annihilate Krishna by luring him and his followers into the open mouth of the dragon Aghasura. Unlike the simple idea of an evil purveyor of death and destruction - one often finds in European mythology the swallowing dragon of hell depicted in Christian frescoes - Aghasura's open mouth appears to be a cave leading into a mountain. The Sanskrit word for mountain is giri, which is also the term for throat. Several related words reveal an interesting series of connections that indicate different levels of interpretation of the myth. Giri-kuhara is a 'mountain cave', while the root stem gir means 'to swallow', 'to call', 'voice', 'speech', 'word' and 'hymn' (as in Gita). Giri-sa is 'the dwelling of Shiva in the mountain', which suggests a place beyond the utterance of sound and beyond the action of swallowing and spewing forth. Even the Latin words 'jargon', 'gyrate' and 'gargoyle', which come from this root, suggest the warbling in the throat produced by vibrations emanating from a self-contained source. How much more can be symbolized by the dragon's open maw than merely the gaping doorway to hell. One may recall the Corycian cave near the summit of Mt. Parnassos where presided the first of the Delphic Oracles.

  The infernal dragon of the lower world lies coiled at the South Pole where the evil winds blow. Here it is that the compassionate waters of life become fouled and mix with the debris of the "water-men, terrible and bad". The water becomes purified as it makes its way back towards the Mother's Heart (Shambala) and is filled with oracular powers wherever it springs up. In a deluge, it takes away all life, but controlled, it is the infinite nourisher of the spirit as well as form. Thus the water that is the chaos dragon's body is also the soma, milk, golden treasure and nectar that the creator god must win for his world and for mankind. It is significant that Draco was once the pole-star and symbolized the guiding light that one might well relate to a creator god. The body of the Great Dragon constellation spreads over seven signs of the zodiac, and the period during which it was at the very centre of heaven is associated with the Old Dragon or the Great Flood. The mystery of this is profound, as it seems that the first great flood was astronomical and cosmical, while several others were terrestrial. Esoteric teachings indicate that the root dragon is the spiritual Logos of the constellations. Those who come to understand this are called Dragons or Arhats of the Four Truths of the Twenty-Eight Faculties. These numbers represent the sum total of knowledge obtainable in connection with this earth, the numbers relating the four genii of the cardinal points and the seven-headed dragon Logos.


The Stanzas of Dzyan

Oeaohoo is the Incorporeal Man who contains the Divine Idea (the germ of all things). He is the generator of light and life, the Logos which contains the Seven Creative Hosts (the Sephiroth). He is also called the Son of the Mother of Time who is the goddess of the Great Bear. Thus he is Sevekh-Kronus, her Word-Logos, she being called the Living Word, In his desperate struggle with the dragons, Beowulf found in the mother of Grendel a much more formidable adversary than the son. In this very old Celtic myth Christian concepts of the devil have overlaid the association of the son with the treasure of wisdom and emphasized the terrifying nature of the chaotic dragon-mother. She is the Mare (sea) Hag and her foul breath poisons the waters just as the fetid vapours from numerous other dragons laid their victims helpless before their gnarled claws and dripping appetites. These are the putrefied waters of the South Pole, tainted with all the sins of the Third and Fourth Races and rising up through the gorge of Death, This polluted dragon-mother must become purified by the son. She is brought up from the shades of Hades like Persephone and once again merged with her virginal state in Demeter under the guidance of Dionysos or Python.

  The Dragon constellation is the symbol of the Son and it resides between the immutable pole-star of the Father and mutable matter. "The Dragon transmits to the latter the influences received by him from the Pole, whence his name - the Verbum." Behind this manifesting dragon is his mother and he exists in her and through her while casting into the world the divine monads destined to perform the whole cycle of incarnations. These monads which are ourselves clothed in matter come to cling desperately to life and abhor the activity of Nidhogg, who gnaws constantly at the roots of the world tree. The evolution of the world after a pralaya is comparable to an uncoiling serpent which, at its root, is timeless and sexless and has built into it the agent for its own dissolution. Those who struggle to uphold the world tree may truly yearn for its wisdom fruits, but many of them miss the message of the teaching: "He who bathes in the light of Oeaohoo will never be deceived by the veil of Maya." He who pierces through this veil becomes a Dragon-Initiate who then guards the Tree of Knowledge. In recalling the Gnostic Katholikos Ophis who "sees through things", one realizes that the devouring aspect of the dragon is beneficent. It is an "outer aspect of an inner knowledge" and its incestuous voracity symbolizes a reduction of the many into the One. The dragon that seeks to devour the coming child (the universe) is the dragon of Absolute Wisdom, which recognizes the essential non-separate ness of the universe and sees in its manifestation no more than Mahamaya, the cause of suffering and illusion. This great desire to devour represents the will, spoken of by Jacob Boehme, which desires and yet has nothing capable of satisfying it except its own self, as "the ability of hunger to feed itself.

  In human souls the longing for wholeness continues unabated until the serpent power of kundalini reaches the point between the eyes and lets fall the dragon scales of illusion. Then, with the inner eye opened, the Golden Embryo of the universe is seen as its pupil and all sense of objectivity dissolves. These scales of the dragon flash and hypnotize us. Their illusive power causes us to externalize the good and evil dragon, divide up the mother from the son, conquer the devil dragon with an iron sword and walk into the mountain cave without ever knowing where we are going. "So Veal" is the poison of the evil dragon that it can kill that aspect of us which is steeped in fear and rooted in the objectivized world. We imagine the dragon mountain can be located out there and that we can penetrate its mouth, listen to its oracle and pierce its swallowing gorge with our sword. But the mountain is the universe in toto and the only aperture that leads to the great subjective realm of Be-ness is indicated by Draco, the old pole-star. It conceals the hidden giri, the gaping mouth and cavernous throat through which the great sound of manifestation is intoned. If the seeker of that cave persists in the understanding of this world, he will, as he approaches the dragon's lair, be incinerated by roaring flames. It is only his inner self-knowledge which is capable of supplying the precise map that will guide him to the cold flame of immortality that lies at the very centre of the dragon's throat. If he can pierce to this with his true and self-sharpened sword, he has conquered the dragon. He steps beyond the maya of creation and dissolution, life and death, and enters into a Dionysian state of perennial and simultaneous death-in-rebirth and rebirth-in-death. He has become the dragon.

Through the primordial throat
That leads into another world,
I pierce with my cold-flaming sword.
I pierce beyond the roaring screams
Of birth and death
To the Silence beyond.
To the realm of giri-sa,
The dwelling place of Shiva on the mountain,
I pierce with my cold-flaming sword.