Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of February 18th - February 24th,  2000

Oriental Dragons

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   The Chinese have a long history with the Dragon, and consider themselves to be children of this mythical creature. According to ancient texts, he had a pair of antlers like a deer, a camel head, the eyes of a hare, and the neck of a serpent. His belly looked like that of a shen (a mythical water dragon which resembles a crocodile), and claws like an eagle's, paws of a tiger, and ears like a buffalo. The dragon was able to change its shape at will, and was rarely seen. He could make himself as large as the universe or as small as a silkworm, and could rise to heaven or descend into the depths of the sea. He could change color or disappear in a flash. The Chinese symbol for the Dragon appears during the Yin and Shang dynasties (from the 16th to the 11th centuries BC, the period of the earliest Chinese hieroglyphs), between inscriptions on bones and turtle shells. These inscriptions depict a horned reptile with teeth, scales and sometimes paws as well. Above the hieroglyphs there's often a symbol that seems to indicate that the dragon is considered to be a violent, evil, unfortunate creature.


An Oriental Dragon

   In Chinese mythology, like many other mythologies around the world, the Dragon has the power to bring the rain. One story which unites these themes is remembered from long ago.

A T'ang dynasty emperor visited the Chinese city of Loyang during a long spell of very hot and dry weather. While there, he visited an Indian priest in a temple, by the name of Wu Wei, who knew how to call forth the dragon who brings rain. The emperor begged Wu Wei to call the Dragon so that he might bring relief for his scorched land. The priest did not wish to do so, and refused. The heat was appropriate to the season, and summoning the Dragon could do much damage to the land and the people. Any rain, even if it were accompanied by roaring winds and crashing thunder, would be good, argued the emperor. Finally, the priest agreed.

   Wu Wei ordered that everything within the temple should be removed, except for one bowl of water. Stirring the water, he repeated the magical incantations hundreds of times. After a while, a red finger-sized dragon appeared, raising its head only slightly above the surface of the water, and then slowly disappearing. Wu Wei stirred the water in the bowl again, chanting a spell three times. Slowly, from the bowl a white vapor rose several feet into the air, and began to drift toward the temple door.

   "Go," Wu Wei ordered the messenger of the emperor, "for the rain is coming!" As the messenger fled to alert the emperor, he glanced back to see the vapor roll like white silk from out of the temple. Then darkness covered the land, bringing with it powerful thunder and much rain. Gale winds uprooted giant trees along the road and in the forest as the storm overtook the terrified messenger. At last he reached the emperor, and told him what he obviously could already see.

   Part, but not all of the power behind this myth can be traced to the seasonal rotation of the constellation, Draco. Chinese Dragons were said to rise in the Spring, and plunge into the waters in the autumn. This is precisely what the constellation did in each of these seasons, one and two thousand years ago, signaling the start of seasonal rains, recorded in myth for the people to honor and remember.


Chinese Classics

   The Chinese classics taught that the dragon is thunder and that he was a creature of the waters who rested in pools in the winter, rising in the form of rain clouds in the Spring. In the Autumn, the dry season, he sank back into the pools where he slept as he waited for the spring.

   There are two times of day that changing constellational activity is generally noticed: at sunrise, and at sunset. At sunset new constellations appear in the east in the evening twilight. From this time, they begin to climb through the night sky as both season and evening progresses, appearing higher and higher overhead as the night deepens.

The northern hemisphere, showing how the constellation Draco rises in the Spring with the rains, and sets in the Autumn as seen from Beijing, circa 1300 BC

   If we examine the early evening hours of Spring in China about 1300 BC from the latitude of Beijing, we would see the constellation of the Dragon just beginning to ascend in the north-northeast, starting its great climb high over the pole of heaven. In the fall, the Dragon's first nocturnal appearance would be as his head descends, this time in the north-northwestern sky. Finally, during the winter, the constellation of the dragon is seen with its head just below the horizon line, 'resting in the pools where he sleeps as he waits for the spring.'


A Sleeping Winter Dragon


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