Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of March 21st - March 27th,  2003

Wings of the Dragon

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   Athena has held a particular fascination for the dragon for some time. Not only has the Web invested considerable effort in focusing on this omnipresent creature, but mythically there seems to be a connection as well. For instance, in the Etruscan version of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason is consumed by the great serpent, but Athena intervenes and makes the dragon 'cough up' the still living body of the hero, in order that his exploits might be fulfilled.

Marduk's Net

 

Athena, the Dragon and Jason

   Astronomically speaking, the constellation of the dragon is generally defined as running from the two bright stars in the head of the creature, beta (Rastaban) and gamma (Etamin) Draconis, down to the tip of its tail, lambda (Giansar) Draconis, also known as 'the poison place'. Presumably this last star represents the venom in the tail of the dragon.

The constellation Draco

 

The constellation Draco

   But these spacial limits to the dragon were not always the case. The dragon was once a far larger constellation than what we are now familiar with. Mythology is anything but lineal. Different cultures at different times have had different images. As we look back to the matriarchal (lunar) traditions which ran for thousands of years until circa 2,000 BC, the local environment which nourished and sustained cultures were preeminently important and formed the 'pallet' from which native mythologies were drawn. One Egyptian creation myth speaks of little hillocks arising from out of the cosmic sea, just as the land would begin to reemerge from out of the flooding of the Nile each year. Elements of the myths of the early Babylonian period can be traced, not only into Phoenician and Greek myths, but also into the Indus and Ganges river valleys of India. By the time these traditions reach China, a recognizable system of 12 can still be seen, but the animals have totally been replaced with an entirely new 'vocabulary' of images.

The constellation Hydra

 

The constellation Hydra

  We know, for instance, the constellation Ursa Minor was once considered to be a wing of the dragon. In our column for 3/7/3, we postulated that the 'teeth' of the dragon in the Cadmus and Jason myth may not in fact represent stars in the constellation Draco, but in the head of the sea monster Cetus, which falls just below Aries and Pisces. There are many constellations which may be part of the 'entourage' of Draco. Cetus, the sea monster, we have already mentioned, but there is also the Hydra, the water serpent, Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, and of course Scorpio, the Scorpion. When Gilgamesh goes in search of his deceased companion Enkidu, he journeys to the mountains of Mashu,

   "...which guard the rising and the setting of the sun... At its gate the Scorpions stand guard, half man and half dragon; their glory is terrifying, their stare strikes death into men..."

   Here, the dragon theme is extended to what at that time was demonstrably the autumnal equinox, and another mythically venomous creature. It is in fact possible that when Draco fully commanded the North Celestial Pole of heaven, its power and 'talons' were mythically extended to include not only the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and the summer and winter solstice points, thus providing an imaginative framework for the seasons in relation to stars of heaven, but also all of the venomous constellations of heaven as well, tucking them under her protective and imaginative wing. As the constellation Draco began to slowly precess away from the North Celestial Pole, so, too, did his mythic hold on the vernal points in the celestial sphere, begin to slide from the collective memory.

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