By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
And precisely this angry aspect of the waters has been acclaimed as one of the origins of that river-dragon idea which used to be common in south Italy, before the blight of Spaniardism fell upon the land and withered up the pagan myth-making faculty. There are streams still perpetuating this name–the rivulet Dragone, for instance, which falls into the Ionian not far from Cape Colonne.
A non-angry aspect of them has also been suggested as the origin: the tortuous wanderings of rivers in the plains, like the Meander, that recall the convolutions of the serpent. For serpent and dragon are apt to be synonymous with the ancients.
Both these explanations, I think, are late developments in the evolution of the dragon-image. They leave one still puzzling as to what may be the aboriginal conception underlying this legendary beast of earth and clouds and waters. We must go further back.
What is a dragon? An animal, one might say, which looks or regards (Greek drakon); so called, presumably, from its terrible eyes. Homer has passages which bear out this interpretation:
[Greek: Smerdaleon de dedorken], etc.
Now the Greeks were certainly sensitive to the expression of animal eyes–witness “cow-eyed” Hera, or the opprobrious epithet “dog-eyed"; altogether, the more we study what is left of their zoological researches, the more we realize what close observers they were in natural history. Aristotle, for instance, points out sexual differences in the feet of the crawfish which were overlooked up to a short time ago. And Hesiod also insists upon the dragon’s eyes. Yet it is significant that ophis, the snake, is derived, like drakon, from a root meaning nothing more than to perceive or regard. There is no connotation of ferocity in either of the words. Gesner long ago suspected that the dragon was so called simply from its keen or rapid perception.
One likes to search for some existing animal prototype of a fabled creature like this, seeing that to invent such things out of sheer nothing is a feat beyond human ingenuity–or, at least, beyond what the history of others of their kind leads us to expect. It may well be that the Homeric writer was acquainted with the Uromastix lizard that occurs in Asia Minor, and whoever has watched this beast, as I have done, cannot fail to have been impressed by its contemplative gestures, as if it were gazing intently (drakon) at something. It is, moreover, a “dweller in rocky places,” and more than this, a vegetarian–an “eater of poisonous herbs” as Homer somewhere calls his dragon. So Aristotle says: “When the dragon has eaten much fruit, he seeks the juice of the bitter lettuce; he has been seen to do this.”
Are we tracking the dragon to his lair? Is this the aboriginal beast? Not at all, I should say. On the contrary, this is a mere side-issue, to follow which would lead us astray. The reptile-dragon was invented when men had begun to forget what the arch-dragon was; it is the product of a later stage–the materializing stage; that stage when humanity sought to explain, in naturalistic fashion, the obscure traditions of the past. We must delve still deeper. . . .
My own dragon theory is far-fetched–perhaps necessarily so, dragons being somewhat remote animals. The dragon, I hold, is the personification of the life within the earth–of that life which, being unknown and uncontrollable, is eo ipso hostile to man. Let me explain how this point is reached.
The animal which looks or regards. . . . Why–why an animal? Why not drakon = that which looks?
Now, what looks?
This is the key to the understanding of the problem, the key to the subterranean dragon-world.
The conceit of fountains or sources of water being things that see (drakon)–that is, eyes–or bearing some resemblance to eyes, is common to many races. In Italy, for example, two springs in the inland sea near Taranto are called “Occhi"–eyes; Arabs speak of a watery fountain as an eye; the notion exists in England top–in the “Blentarn” of Cumberland, the blind tarn (tarn = a trickling of tears), which is “blind” because dry and waterless, and therefore lacking the bright lustre of the open eye.
There is an eye, then, in the fountain: an eye which looks or regards. And inasmuch as an eye presupposes a head, and a head without body is hard to conceive, a material existence was presently imputed to that which looked upwards out of the liquid depths. This, I think, is the primordial dragon, the archetype. He is of animistic descent and survives all over the earth; and it is precisely this universality of the dragon-idea which induces me to discard all theories of local origin and to seek for some common cause. Fountains are ubiquitous, and so are dragons. There are fountain dragons in Japan, in the superstitions of Keltic races, in the Mediterranean basin. The dragon of Wantley lived in a well; the Lambton Worm began life in fresh water, and only took to dry land later on. I have elsewhere spoken of the Manfredonia legend of Saint Lorenzo and the dragon, an indigenous fable connected, I suspect, with the fountain near the harbour of that town, and quite independent of the newly-imported legend of Saint Michael. Various springs in Greece and Italy are called Dragoneria; there is a cave-fountain Dragonara on Malta, and another of the same name near Cape Misenum–all are sources of apposite lore. The water-drac. . . .
So the dragon has grown into a subterranean monster, who peers up from his dark abode wherever he can–out of fountains or caverns whence fountains issue. It stands to reason that he is sleepless; all dragons are “sleepless “; their eyes are eternally open, for the luminous sparkle of living waters never waxes dim. And bold adventurers may well be devoured by dragons when they fall into these watery rents, never to appear again.
Furthermore, since gold and other treasures dear to mankind lie hidden in the stony bowels of the earth and are hard to attain, the jealous dragon has been accredited with their guardianship–hence the plutonic element in his nature. The dragon, whose “ever-open eye” protected the garden of the Hesperides, was the Son of Earth. The earth or cave-dragon. . . . Calabria has some of these dragons’ caves; you can read about them in the Campania. Sotteranea of G. Sanchez.
In volcanic regions there are fissures in the rocks exhaling pestiferous emanations; these are the spiracula, the breathing-holes, of the dragon within. The dragon legends of Naples and Mondragone are probably of this origin, and so is that of the Roman Campagna (1660) where the dragon-killer died from the effects of this poisonous breath: Sometimes the confined monster issues in a destructive lava-torrent–Bellerophon and the Chimsera. The fire-dragon. ... Or floods of water suddenly stream down from the hills and fountains are released. It is the hungry dragon, rushing from his den in search of prey; the river-dragon. . . . He rages among the mountains with such swiftness and impetuosity.
This is chiefly the poets’ work, though the theologians have added one or two embellishing touches. But in whatever shape he appears, whether his eyes have borrowed a more baleful fire from heathen basilisks, or traits of moral evil are instilled into his pernicious physique by amalgamation with the apocalyptic Beast, he remains the vindictive enemy of man and his ordered ways. Of late–like the Saurian tribe in general–he has somewhat degenerated. So in modern Greece, by that process of stultified anthropomorphism which results from grafting Christianity upon an alien mythopoesis, he dons human attributes, talking and acting as a man (H. F. Tozer). And here, in Calabria, he lingers in children’s fables, as “sdrago,” a mockery of his former self.
To follow up his wondrous metamorphoses through medievalism would be a pastime worthy of some leisured dilettante. How many noble shapes acquired a tinge of absurdity in the Middle Ages! Switzerland alone, with its mystery of untrodden crevices, used to be crammed with dragons–particularly the calcareous (cavernous) province of Rhaetia. Secondary dragons; for the good monks saw to it that no reminiscences of the autochthonous beast survived. Modern scholars have devoted much learning to the local Tazzelwurm and Bergstutz. But dragons of our familiar kind were already well known to the chroniclers from whom old Cysat extracted his twenty-fifth chapter (wherein, by the way, you will learn something of Calabrian dragons); then came J. J. Wagner (1680); then Scheuchzer, prince of dragon-finders, who informs us that multorum draconum historta mendax.
But it is rather a far cry from Calabria to the asthmatic Scheuchzer, wiping the perspiration off his brow as he clambers among the Alps to record truthful dragon yarns and untruthful barometrical observations; or to China, dragon-land par excellence; [Footnote: In Chinese mythology the telluric element has remained untarnished. The dragon is an earth-god, who controls the rain and thunder clouds.] or even to our own Heralds’ College, where these and other beasts have sought a refuge from prying professors under such queer disguises that their own mothers would hardly recognize them.