Taming Humans, Freeing Dragons
For reasons that remained for a while unclear I seem to have attracted the attention lately of…uhmm…ssshhh…dragons. ‘But aren’t they supposed to be sort of imaginary?’ So they tell me, but nevertheless dragons are popping up almost every day and sometimes several times in one day! Now, 2012 is the year of the Water Dragon in the Chinese calendar so dragons were showing up everywhere more frequently than usual as would be expected during the week of 23 January but in my case they’ve intensified their demands to be noticed since about the middle of February.
Taming Humans, Freeing Dragons
It all started around Valentine’s Day as I was idly checking to see what was showing on the TV and, within seconds of each other, twoprogrammes featuring dragons popped onto the screen. One was the movie, Dragonheart, an all-time favourite of mine that was on a local channel. The other, a documentary based on Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, was on the Discovery channel at roughly the same time. Since I own a copy of Dragonheart, I decided to watch the documentary. A day or so later, I was in a charity shop browsing through the used books shelves and an out-of-print novel I had been looking for found me instead. It was perched precariously on the edge of the shelf that was right at my eye level. The book was Tea With The Black Dragon (above) by R. A. McAvoy. I snapped up the book and decided to start reading it over lunch at a local restaurant that specialized in light fare on the lunchtime menu.
Dragons, Dragons Everywhere
I was about to order a quiche when a list of the day’s specials was wheeled in to the shop. A very brightly coloured chalk drawing of guess what…a Dragon, pointed to the daily specials menu. The first item on the menu was…Dragon’s Breath Curry. Curry is not exactly my idea of a light lunch so I gave that a miss but noted the amusing co-incidence in the back of the book I had just bought. By the time I arrived home I’d forgotten about the Dragon’s Breath Curry until later that evening when I picked my mail. As I was lifting it out of the mailbox, a flyer fell out so I stooped to retrieve it. It was an
invitation to a class in something I have always wanted to learn: Oriental silk thread embroidery. And the item to be embroidered was? Yup, a Dragon! By now I was getting a bit spooked. Why were dragons – of all things – suddenly springing up all around me as though insisting I pay attention? I know better than to ignore such multiple incidents of the same archetype popping up within a short span of time so I raised my antenna to a state of higher than usual alertness and turned it over to the powers that be to further enlighten me.
Keeping A Tame Dragon
Personally, I like Dragons. I even have one in my kitchen. He’s a lovely and very colourful fellow who accompanied me home from Bali some years ago. I wasn’t sure what I would do with him but I discovered that Dragons like to have jobs (so they don’t get bored, I guess). Anyway, my dragon has wings so I guess that means he doesn’t mind flying. For the past six years he’s been floating from the kitchen ceiling and has an excellent view of everything that goes on. Thus far, everything has gone well – no burnt toast or anything so I think he’s doing a good job. I also gave him an octagonal shaped crystal to protect during the times when the kitchen is empty. He doesn’t surrender it easily even for cleaning so I guess he takes his responsibility seriously. All in all, an impressive showing for a creature who is about 6000 years old.
In the Chinese context, dragons go back to at least 4000 BCE. There is no definitive history of the idea of the dragon but cultures all over the world had different versions of creatures that are clearly all representations of the Dragon. What attracts people everywhere, however, to the Oriental Dragon is its dignity, nobility and, most of all, its beneficence. Most Oriental Dragons are human-friendly, even protective of us – which I for one find a rather comforting notion. Couldn’t we all use a fire-breathing defender from time to time ? But imagine yourself living in the world of 4000 BCE. Humans were puny beings by comparison to even some minor predators. What was our defense in a world where we could become a meal for any passing tiger? Gods and Goddesses were a useful notion if we could get these all powerful beings on our side. But what if the Gods were not paying attention at all times, then who was going to offer us protection? Our ancient forebears reasoned that it would take a creature with a huge body, large eyes that could see even in the dark, the ability to fly, scaly skin like fish so it would be impervious to water, horns on its head to break through barriers, paws like a lion for strength, could breathe fire if it had to, and the talons of an eagle to fight with. The basic concept called on human experience of creatures from all realms: earth, air, fire, and water. Combining the characteristics of multiple creatures would increase the power of the resulting paragon of protection, the Dragon.
Making Dragons Into Enemies
By contrast, in Western culture psychologists maintain that Dragons are vestigial memories of frightening human encounters with Monitor Lizards or other species of large reptiles deep in our evolutionary past. No matter where the idea of the dragon comes from, it certainly has captured the human imagination. The potency of its appeal to our cultural psyche is visible in any toy shop, any ‘New Age” or ‘alternative’ bookstore, on the countless internet sites devoted to electronic games, and even in our churches where images of “St. Michael” and “St. George” can be found engaged in killing the hapless reptile. Given the ubiquity of the Dragon, one would have to conclude that he is alive and well and still occupying a place of honour in the human imagination.
Dragons – like Angels, interestingly – appear almost universally in human art making the dragon an exceptionally potent archetype. In the West we talk about ‘slaying our (psychological) dragons’ meaning our fears and phobias, even things like addictions. Thus, the Western version of human-dragon conflict is a self-flattering form of ego gratification: humans triumphing over Nature but today we should be re-thinking our entire relationship with Nature. The huge thrust toward ‘living green’ is a big step in the right direction. The rise of eco-industries and recycled products in the past 20 years has opened up whole new fields of research, a revitalised respect for conserving resources (at the personal level if not at the corporate level), an appreciation of the wisdom of consuming foods that are primarily grown locally, and taking the further step of protecting animal and plant species that human greed has all but extinguished. Given this context, I wondered if perhaps my recent synchronistic encounters with dragons in my immediate environment was a message from my sub-conscious about re-forming our ideas of nature in more benevolent terms. After all, Nature is what made it possible for us to survive as a species despite the droughts, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, meteor strikes, and ice ages. Overall, we have received far more from Nature than we have lost so we owe her a debt, a huge debt, and maybe it’s time to start repaying what we owe in this year of the Water Dragon.
The Gentlest Dragon
Now Water Dragons mean one thing to me: the leafy sea dragons that live along the coast of Western Australia. I totally adore them. I love all sea horses but the leafy-looking ones are an amazing sub-species that bears a remarkable resemblance to the human concept of dragons. But suppose we humans had it all wrong and these lovely, delicate creatures really are a species of dragon that we are here to protect? Does that make sense? After all, we are aware of their existence; we have studied them for generations. Consequently, we are in the position to make decisions that could keep these magnificent – if a bit unlikely looking – creatures alive and well, floating in the habitat they have occupied for more than 45 million years and which their ancestors inhabited more than 400 million years ago! The antiquity of these Teleostomes alone entitles them to our respect if not outright veneration along the lines of Chinese fondness for dragons. Their beauty and apparent delicacy might seem to make them too fragile, too vulnerable to adopt as symbol for the planet’s future but think about it. The dinosaurs on whom western culture has projected the idea of the destructive force of the dragon died out 65 million years ago but we have this extremely rare species of dragon here with us right now in one special corner of our planet, the waters off the coast of Western Australia. Their unique habitat is under threat from the usual human suspects: over-fishing of coastal waters, undersea exploration, the proliferation of sonar and microwave undersea transmissions, and even ‘leisure sailing’. These beautiful creatures don’t even swim; they are carried along on deep sea currents like the seaweed they have evolved to resemble. All life forms have a function and, perhaps, in addition to inspiring human awe at their sheer beauty, the Leafy Sea Dragon is here to prick our consciences and remind us of obligation to stewardship of the life forms on this planets. Anything as beautiful and mysterious as this colour-changing, highly camouflaged and ancient creature is worthy of our attention – and our service in its struggle to survive.
The media cited in this post are available HERE.
Image credits: Chinese Dragons and Leafy Sea Dragons courtesy of Wikimedia and Creative Commons.
To learn about the Leafy Sea Dragon and the campaign to protect its habitat, look HERE