Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Nov 8th - Nov 14th,  2002

The Jaws of the Dragon

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The dragon Gilgamesh knew?

The Dragon
Gilgamesh knew?

   "O my lord, you do not know this monster, and that is the reason you are not afraid. I who know him, I am terrified. His teeth are like dragon's fangs, his countenance is like a lion, his charge is the rushing of the flood, with his look he crushes alike the trees of the forest and reeds of the swamp."

   This is the warning Enkidu gives to his friend Gilgamesh in an epic which reaches farther back than our certainty can perceive. The stars suggest that this myth was current in the 28th century BC. It was perhaps even centuries older than that as an oral tradition. Either way, it is one of the oldest myths in the human tradition.

A more oriental dragon

A more oriental dragon

   It is an image which has stood up well, as dragons and floods permeate Chinese tradition, but also work their way through European culture. The Greeks touch on this theme numerous times. Zeus battled Typhon, a creature with a hundred burning snake heads, and whose name implies great torrential storms.

   After taking Hippolyte's belt, Heracles stops at Troy, a city in distress. It is besieged by a sea monster sent by Poseidon, which, "carried up by a flood, snatched away the people of the plain."

   -Apollodorus, The Library, II v. 9

Zeus and Typhon

Zeus and Typhon

   This is a tale that sounds remarkably like the heroics of Perseus, of whom Heracles is a descendant. In this case King Laomedon must expose his daughter Hesione by fastening her to rocks near the sea, in order that she might be devoured by a monster, presumably our dragon once again. In this case it is Heracles who comes to the rescue.

   But this theme is not confined to the classics. The same images are used in Revelation 12:

Revelation 12- Gustave Dore

The Jaws of the Dragon

   "Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman... crying aloud in childbirth. Then a second sign appeared, a huge red dragon... and the dragon stopped in front of the woman as she was having the child, so that he could eat it as soon as it was born from its mother. As soon as the (dragon) found himself thrown down to the earth, he sprang in pursuit of the woman, the mother of the male child... So the serpent vomited water from its mouth, like a river, after the woman, to sweep her away in the current, but the earth came to her rescue; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river thrown up by the dragon's jaws."

   While Revelation is part of the beginning of an entirely new tradition, helping to announce the birth of Christianity to the ancient world, it also represented a 'regime change', the end of mythology as a common language in western culture. It began at least as far back as the symbolic notations found on the clay figures of Old Europe, from 3500 to 7000 BC, with images of the serpent being associated time and time again with the rains and water.

   From Marija Gimbutas' classic work, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, p.112:

A Serpent Bowl

A serpent bowl, seen from above

   "The presence of the Bird and Snake Goddess is felt everywhere- on earth, in the skies and beyond the clouds, where primordial waters lie. Her abode is beyond the upper waters... She rules over the life-giving force of water, and her image is consequently associated with water containers."

   This common motif runs from at least 5000 BC until the time of the New Testament, and even longer if we include Chinese tradition, may simply be the fanciful musings of an ancient, ignorant people, even if the themes remain the same.

   Or they may represent something much deeper.