A Dragon perching on a hut at Thorpeness, East Anglia

The Dragon
as an Archetype

The Dragon as an Archetype
An essay by Laurence Mee (Wyrm), previously published on the AFD literature page.

Before we begin to explore the Dragon as an Archetype, we first must define what we mean by an archetype in this context. The word itself is derived from the Latin archetypum and the Greek arkhetupon (arch as in chief, and tupos as in stamp) and in context it takes on three meanings. We can use it as a reference to a prototype, or initial image, something from which all the various forms of Dragons throughout the world were based on. We can choose the classical Jungian hypothesis of the primitive mental image, inherited from man's earliest ancestors and which is supposedly present in the collective unconscious. Lastly we can use the definition which describes a motif that recurs throughout art and literature. The following parts examine each of these definitions based on the recorded images and myths concerning Dragons. As probably expected, the fourth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (published in 1951) does not mention Jung's notion of the primordial image archetype, it being a relatively new meaning that had not been popularised at the time.

The Prototype for the Dragon -

In defining the archetypal Dragon as a prototype image, we are faced with the problem of tracing back all the various Dragon forms to a single source. This is not made any easier considering that many of the myths were formed before writing was developed. To start with, we can explore the very early Dragon myths and attempt to determine a lineage with the later legends.

In early Egypt, the Dragon was chiefly a representation, albeit with some embellishments, of the snake. In Egyptian myth Re, the sun god, travelled through Duat, the underworld, each night. Whilst travelling through the underworld Re reaches a two open doors guarded by snakes, some having human heads and four legs others having three snake heads and wings. Re passes by these without incident as they are only guards. Later Re observes the demise of Apophis, the giant serpent representing chaos, whose severed coils are bound by Aker, a Dragon representing the earth. There are many occurrences of Dragons in Egyptian mythology, another example being Denwen. Denwen was attested in the third millennium BC and is described as a fiery serpent who would have caused a conflagration destroying all of the gods if it had not been thwarted by the King. If one is to draw any conclusion from this it can only be that the Egyptian mythology was influenced by an early form of snake worship.

The Chinese Lung, in contrast to the Egyptian image of the destructive serpent, was more benevolent. The Lung has its origins in the oracle bones of the Shang and the I'Ching, and was ascribed lizard like qualities before it's later association with rain. This association was formed in the second and first millennium BC and though they would take on varied attributes through the centuries, this association remained fixed. The I'Ching was probably used to divine various agricultural concerns - when to plant and when to harvest. It refers to Dragons as the bringers of thunderstorms. The Dragons hibernate over the winter in pools, then in summer they take to the sky bringing on the rains. Azure Dragons were symbols of spring, the sighting of one heralded the onset of the spring thunderstorms and the end of hibernation. The horse-dragon, a creature with hooves on its four legs and curly hair on its back which could walk on water as well as fly. It featured prominently in Chinese mythology emerging from the Yellow River to give the 'River Map' to the legendary Emperor Fu Xi which formed the basis of the I'Ching. The first images of the Lung were actually half-man, half-fish creations, but this soon took on the more lizard like look of the current Chinese Dragons. These representations of Dragons also occur in ancient Japan and Korea, both in the Shinto beliefs and Buddhism.

The Babylonians provide us with a clear picture of a Dragon in the Epic of Creation from the early second millennium BC. It details the struggle of Apsu (god of the primordial waters under the earth) and Tiamat (the sea) against their son Ea. Apsu is defeated by Ea who takes over his domain and produces a son, the god-hero Marduk. Tiamat created all sorts of Dragons, including the mushussu Dragon, in order to have her revenge, but she is defeated in single combat by Marduk and her body is split to form the earth and the sky. The mushussu is subdued by Marduk and takes its place at his feet. In the Babylonian texts Dragons are differentiated from snakes, and whilst they are scaly they also have both reptilian and mammalian characteristics. Thus we have the Babylonian idea of a Dragon as a completely fictional creature with no basis in nature, both as an image of chaos and as a guardian. These images were relatively short lived however, as the Chinese Lungs soon came to dominate in later Near Eastern mythology.

In early India, images of the Dragon were in some ways similar to the Egyptian ones in that they represented the form of the snake. There were those, however, that represented the form of the crocodile, such as the makara. We see through Hindu myth that the Indians identified the Dragon with nature. One of the Indian Dragons, Vritra, caused drought by withholding water in its body until it is slain by Indra, god of rain, with a bolt of lightning thus starting the monsoon. While there are many similarities with the Egyptian images, we can also see influences from the Chinese Lung. The obvious conclusion is that the Indian Dragon had the same background of early snake worship, and to a lesser extent crocodile cults, but was later influenced by the Chinese images.

All of the Eurasian Dragon images can be traced back to the early forms of Egypt, the Near East, and the Far East. This can be clearly seen in the Greek Dragons, the word drakkon meaning large serpent as well as Dragon. The Greeks carried on the idea of the Dragon as a Guardian Serpent - Ladon guarding the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Colchis guarding the Golden Fleece. We now, however, see the Dragon as a creature that is slain by the hero, rather than tamed. This imagery was to last, becoming eventually a symbol of evil.

Dragons in the Islamic world initially started out as astronomical figures, and were linked to the Egyptian myth of Re's voyage through the underworld. The Dragon Jawzahr was responsible for eclipses and comets, the Dragons Draco and Serpentarius were emblazoned in the stars. There are many tales in Persian mythology of Dragons representing evil being slain by heroes, influenced by the Greek legends. It is here that the idea of Dragons guarding treasure emerges, the treasure eventually passing to the King who represents good. This, however, was not to last for when the Mongols invaded Persia they imposed their own Chinese style images.

Celtic and Nordic dragons were almost certainly derived from the more ancient myths, though there seems few similarities. We have the Midgard Serpent with its myriad of snakes gnawing at the roots of the World Tree - a corruption of the creation myths of Babylon and Egypt. The story of Sigurd and Fafnir shows the destructive qualities of the Dragon but also illustrates the slaying of the Dragon by the hero. The long-ships used by the Vikings bore on their prows the heads of Dragons, in keeping with the association of Dragons with water. The Celts used Dragons as heraldic symbols such as in the story of Hercules, who after triumphing over Ladon carried the image of the Dragon on his shield. The best example of this is the Welsh Legend of the fight between the Red Dragon of Cadwallader representing Wales and the White Dragon representing the Saxons, also mentioned in the tale of Lludd and Llevelys. Of these representations, only the heraldic device would continue to be used after the Christian ideals spread throughout Europe.

Taking much from the Greek and Arabian legends, the Christians were responsible for turning the Dragon into the image we generally associate with it, that of the fire breathing monster. The Christians used the image of the Serpent, or Dragon, to represent evil, and commonly Satan himself. They drew much from the cultures of the lands they encountered - the legend of St George and the Dragon is taken from the Near East. The Christian image of the Dragon, however, is a perverted one being set up in opposition of the pagan religions such as snake worship. The snake is seen as the Devil in the Garden of Eden, the Dragon is seen as the incarnation of evil in many horrific forms to be vanquished by the hero representing the virtues of God. It is known that the early Christians brought people into their religion by all manner of ways, building churches on old pagan sites for example, and casting the pagan Dragon as the personification of evil and having it defeated by the Christian Hero was a typical ploy.

Complicating matters further, we have the apparently totally unconnected development of Dragons in the Americas. There are the lake spirits of the North American creation myths, and there is also the plumed serpent of Central and South America. The Mayan Kukulkan, later the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, was both good and evil and was though to rule the four parts of the earth. The greatest god of the Aztecs was Xiuhtecuhtli who took on many manifestations, one of which being the fire serpent. There are parallels with the Chinese myths in that Quetzalcoatl is described as being able to take the form of the sun and is depicted as being swallowed by the earth serpent thus causing an eclipse.

We have seen how many of the later Dragon myths derived from earlier ones, albeit with some embellishment, some reaching as far back as early snake worship. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that the various ancient Dragon images appeared around the same time with different connotations - the Egyptian serpent, the Babylonian hybrid, and the Chinese lizard. There is no evidence that these originated from a single prototype, and given the dissimilarities between these ancient creatures one must conclude that they arose spontaneously out of the needs of the people to explain various natural phenomenon. In Egypt it explained night and day, in Babylon it formed part of the creation, and in China it was used to predict the spring rains. All we can infer from this is that there was no single prototype for the Dragon myth, rather there were several, probably one for each centre of ancient civilisation.

The Jungian Dragon -

In trying to define the archetypal Dragon in Jungian terms, we must first understand Jung's notion of the archetype. Jung refers to the Archetype as the 'type' in the psyche, an inner mental image (type being derived from the Greek tupos meaning imprint or blow). Though an archetype as an imprint presupposes that there was an imprinter in the first place, Jung does not concern himself with this, rather he concentrates on the image within the collective unconscious that dominates when there is no other rational thoughts. The unconscious is said to modify the conscious. Jung's idea of the archetype as a Primordial Image required that it was at least common to entire races, or entire epochs, the most powerful archetypes being common to all races at all times. It also required that the image was in close accord to the ancient myths and symbols. The ancient symbols were supposedly created from the collective unconscious to explain certain phenomena of the world, rational thought being impossible at that time.

Jung referred to Dragons in a number of his works. He initially cites it as the arch-enemy of the Hero archetype, drawing mainly from the New Testament and Gnosticism. Viewing it as the mother Dragon which threatens to overwhelm the birth of the God, thus the Hero must defeat the Dragon before becoming the Hero. He later views the Tiamat-Marduk myth as the basis of the Mercurial Serpent image - the Dragon that both destroys and creates itself and represents the Prime Material (or Philosopher's Stone). However Jung does fall back on his Mother Dragon theory in stating that the father figure triumphs over the matriarch thus signifying the transition of the world towards the masculine. He identifies the Dragon directly with the unconscious, which in being vanquished by the Hero indicates the natural state of the conscious. In a sense, both the mother Dragon and the Mercurial Serpent are closely linked, both being creators. So we see Jung's idea of the Dragon as an archetype.

When one considers the various ancient myths, however, one soon finds problems with Jung's rather simplistic, and overtly Christian, notion. Tiamat is indeed the mother of creation, however she created the mushussu which was later tamed by Marduk. No doubt Jung would again describe this as the victory of the conscious Hero over the unconscious extension of the matriarch, but the mushussu is not a matriarchal figure nor is it vanquished. Instead it is more of a guardian image, tamed by the Hero and protecting the Hero. The Egyptian serpentine Dragons bear even less resemblance to Jung's archetype. Though they are identified as being in conflict with the Gods in a parallel of the Hero myth, yet they do not represent the feminine, nor are they anything to do with the Prime Material - identified in both Osiris and Re. Indeed the conflict between brothers, which is prominent in Egyptian tales (primarily Seth slaying Osiris), also falls contrary to Jung's ideal of the mother-son conflict. Even more at conflict with Jung are the Chinese Lung, who are identified as life-givers in that they bring the spring rains. Although this could be though of as a matriarchal figure, and the association with water a representation of the Prime Material - said to be a form of water, there is no conflict and it does not play a part in the creation. The Aztec images also fall contrary to the Hero's adversary. If one can salvage anything from the Jungian archetype, it is that the Dragon may be a representation of the life-giving mother, though this is not true for all civilisations.

Unable to justify the Mother Dragon archetype in all civilisations, one has to fall back on Jung's statement that an archetype is something shared (at least) by the collective unconsciousness of a single race. We can then ascribe the matriarchal figure with the Babylonian Tiamat, and as an archetype of the Sumerians. The Egyptian archetype is that of the snake which destroys life and has to be defeated before life is reborn - in other words the Prime Material. Whereas the Chinese archetype is that of the life-giver, the lizard which emerges with the onset of the spring rains.

These archetypes were still influencing the conscious a long time after their inception. The Chinese archetype has remained intact throughout the centuries, it is still the life-giver. The Christians, however, took on the notion of the Dragon as the Hero's adversary identifying it with the alleged Satanic connotations of Pagan religions. It does surface as the matriarchal figure, and as that of the Prime Material, through the writings of the early philosophers however these were eventually denounced by the mainstream - frightened that the old Pagan religions might surface again. The Christian teachings show the domination of the conscious over the unconscious. All in all, though there is evidence to support separate archetypal Dragons, there is none to support a single archetype for the whole human race.

The Image of the Dragon -

Throughout the world, there are references to Dragons in art and literature as far back as the fourth millennium BC. Is it possible that these all share common symbolisms or motifs? If one looks at the ancient forms of Dragons which were carved or engraved before the development of writing in the third millennium, one sees an apparently unconnected series of images. The early Chinese and inhabitants of Pakistan favoured ornaments decorated with snakes and dragon-like composite beasts. The Chinese Pig-Dragon circa 3500 BC is a case in point, though it is not known if this image was considered to be a Dragon or what it symbolised. Early versions of Chinese Lungs were fishes with the heads of men, more akin to merfolk than Dragons. Due to the limited knowledge about these very early stages in civilisation we cannot draw many conclusions from these artifacts.

When writing was developed, in the third millennium BC, we begin to see Dragon images more clearly. We have already discussed the Snake like Serpent images of Egypt, the composite reptile-mammal Dragons of Sumeria, the Crocodile Dragons of early India, and the Lizard like Lungs of China. This is not to forget the Water spirits of North America and the bird-like images of South America. It is not difficult to see that there is little parallel in their physical attributes, but they are still Dragons and they still play a role in the literature of the time.

Following on from those early images, we see the spread of the Chinese Lung image over the Eastern world. Supplanting or enhancing the images from India, and eventually working their way into Persia. However, though the image spread the associated meaning did not. The Persian Dragons were seen as creatures who guarded hordes of treasure and were slain by Heroes who then inherited the treasure. In this we see the birth of the typical Western Dragon image. The Greeks also played their part in developing the Dragon, though they took their inspiration from the Egyptian myths. It is in Greek mythology that we first see Dragons identified with trees - those guarding the Golden Fleece and the Golden Apples are clear evidence of this. This connection recurs in other Dragon myths, most notably in the Norse World Serpent at the roots of the World Tree. The Greek Dragons are still serpentine, though they do have multiple heads. One explanation for the multiple head images comes directly from nature where snakes with two heads are occasionally born and live to a reasonable age. Once can readily imagine the early Greeks being terrified of such a creature and promoting them in their legends.

Following on from the Greek and the Chinese influenced Persian myths, one sees the spread of Christian ideals. Here the Pagan Dragon is identified with the Devil, something to be overcome by the Christian Hero. The Christians seemed to have taken images from all of the early civilisations, the Snake in the Garden of Eden - yet another association of Dragons with trees, which is sometimes represented as a winged devil-headed Dragon. In the Old Testament we find again the identification with water. These horrific images were readily represented in the at of the time. The Crusades also had a part to play in the development of the Dragon in that it brought back previously discredited tales such as St George and the Dragon - another example of the connection of the Dragon with water as the creature lived in a lake in Libya. At this time the Dragon images were varied, two-footed lizards, beasts resembling Lions, and various forms of winged serpent. Essentially the emphasis was on the Hero or Saint in the image rather than the Dragon, which occurred with regularity - St Philip, St Margaret of Antioch, and St Martha. Dragons cropped up in alchemical works, being used as a form of code to keep their uninformed helpers in the dark as to what they were actually doing. Lastly, the Christians used Dragons as heraldic emblems, mirroring Hercules, used to symbolise the horrific power in an attempt to demoralise their enemies. In wasn't until 1807 that the Red Dragon was used as the King's Badge for Wales - after being supplanted as a supporter for the Royal Emblem by the Scottish Unicorn in 1603.

Eventually, through the depictions of Dragons in works by such artists as Titian, Tintoretto, and van Haarlem we see the dominance of the four footed, winged serpentine creature. The hoarding of treasure derives directly from the Persian myths that the Crusaders came into contact with. It's ability to breath fire originating with the Egyptians and probably being later associated with the fires of Hell, or representing the false prophets. In the story of St Philip the apostle, the Dragon that the people of Hieropolis in Phrygia were worshipping as Mars is banished but not before it has killed many with its poisonous breath, or false prophecies. Hence we have the image of the Dragon as an evil being, intent on destruction, sitting atop its pile of gold. This imagery is continued right up to the present day, the works of Tolkien show this. In the Silmarillion the representative of the Devil, Morgoth, creates the Dragons in order to defeat the Godly armies of the Elves. The Dragons are killed by Hero figures and in the case of Smaug in the Hobbit, the treasure falls to the righteous. This Christian image can be said to be artificial, or at best composite, its meaning having been twisted to suit the ends of a religion; however we can still see the attributes of old underlying this blasphemous beast.

The Modern Infestation -

When one looks at the historical references to Dragons, one sees several distinct images. So what remains of these in the modern view of Dragons. Well the classical Christian image of the fire breathing winged monster is still with us, a combination of the Lizard and Snake images with fire-breathing and wings as later embellishments. Yet we now see images of Dragons as benevolent creatures, playful creatures, almost pet-like. These can be seen as a further development of the Dragon image, a freeing of the ties of religion and the exploration of something that was previously forbidden. The image of a Dragon as a guardian is returning, as can be seen by the increase in cuddly Dragons that one can buy. The notion of Dragons as pets stems from the myths of old when Dragons were tamed rather than slain - going back as far as the Tiamat-Marduk legend. The Dragon as a playful image is far more removed, there appears to be no precedent in myth. It could argued that it is a further development of the Dragon as a pet-guardian having been tamed to such a degree, or even as an extension of the Dragon as a riddler as prominent in some Egyptian and Celtic myths. It can also be seen as a complete rejection of the Christian image, the Dragon is now something that adorns the mantelpiece rather than being shunned as blasphemous. There are also connections with snake-worship in that the shamans 'played' with their snakes to show their power over the creatures. With the blending of images in this modern global civilisation one is bound to see many influences in the modern Dragon, however one can still see the basic ancient archetypes at the base of them all.

What evidence is there of the Jungian archetypes in modern civilisation. Well firstly one must consider what happens when different races with different archetypes intermix, as occurs today. Jung is not specific, so one is forced into conjecture. It could be though that the intermingling of the various races is the beginning of a new epoch in human civilisation, which according to Jung would allow a new archetype to be formed or at least the old archetypes to be abandoned. It could also be argued that the combination of differing archetypes causes an imbalance in the collective unconscious allowing all sorts of images to be visualised. Yet it can also be argued that the archetypes remain as inviolate and separate as they always have been.

The ancient Dragon images are still present in modern day views, though much more suppressed. This can be thought of as the rational mind dominating over the unconscious image. The early addition of wings is a very rational step, the Dragons were present in the sky thus they must have wings so that they can fly. This shows a tendency towards Jung's Extroverted Type. The archetypal Dragon is repressed, though it never loses its original meaning. We see this in the development of the guardian image, Dragons as pets., the Dragon is consciously shown to be something that is tamed and controlled. This has to be understood by the Extroverted Type so as to reduce the danger of lapsing into a nervous breakdown as the demands of the unconscious image force themselves onto the conscious producing extremes of either interest of disinterest in everything.

In the case of the Introverted Type, the mythical Dragons would take on powerful and terrifying qualities, almost magical. This would lead to the Introvert fearing all strange and different forms of Dragon as it would symbolise a magical animation of the image which is so attached to him. We see this in the perpetuation of the Dragon as a fearful and powerful creature - the fire-breathing serpent. This is something the Introverted Type must come to terms with if they are not to develop neuroses.

In coming to terms with the Dragon archetype, one must explore its influences over the conscious. This can be best done during symbolic play sessions where the active imagination can be left to roam. Jung was convinced of the healing power of play and the imagination through various media, and its ability to put people in touch with material that is ordinarily repressed. The fantasies thus produced are done so in controllable circumstances. The images these fantasies take are varied and unpredictable for during the state of play people are able to imagine anything. This can take the form of playful Dragons, Dragons doing things that are not in keeping with the Primordial Images. It is probably the best way in which to discover the influences that the archetypal image has over the conscious and rational mind; and in discovering the influences one can come to terms with them.

As for the depiction of Dragons in modern art and literature, there is certainly a paucity of variation in the image. The Dragon is almost always shown with four legs, a serpentine body, and with wings. This is only to be expected due to the dominance of Christianity and the conformity of artists over the centuries to this form. Other types of Dragon, such as the Wyvern and the wyrm, are not given anywhere near the same amount of emphasis. The only other image that endures is that of the Chinese Lung which has remained fairly true to the original despite the additions of successive generations. This is somewhat strange given the veritable plethora of Dragon behavioural types present in art and literature. The guardian Dragon, the playful Dragon, the fire-breathing dragon all share the same physical attributes - a cross between the Egyptian snake images and the Chinese lizards with the rational wings. The fire-breathing notion has been discarded somewhat, it has no real place in ancient mythology, though some form of breath weapon still remains in many tales. What we are seeing is the merging of the ancient archetypes into a composite image that resembles all of them, yet is also removed from them. One global image for one global civilisation.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Eighth Edition - R. E. Allen (Editor).
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Fourth Edition - H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (Editors).
Mythical Beasts - John Cherry (Editor).
Mysterious Britain - Janet and Colin Bond.
Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt - R. T. Rundle Clark.
A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses - George Hart.
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe - H. R. Ellis Davidson.
The Mabinogion - Jeffrey Gantz (Translator).
Legend of the Chinese Lung - The Chinese "Dragon" - Dr. Ong Hean-Tatt.
Psychological Types - C. G. Jung.
Psychology and Alchemy - C. G. Jung.
Jung on Active Imagination - C. G. Jung (Joan Chodorow - Editor).
Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts - Herbert Silberer.

The essay itself was written back in 1995, but was then re-visited and eventually posted on the alt.fan.dragons newsgroup on the 18th June 1997. Since then it has been hosted on many web sites (including the AFD Literature page).


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