Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Faeries and dragons and what about that Silk Road?
Faeries and dragons along the Silk Road
I co-present a series of workshops about myths and legends around the world. One that seems to get requested a lot is the one about faeries and dragons around the world. Why is that?
I mean, I know why I’m interested. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of myth out there about faeries and dragons. Everywhere, it seems. And if you were an anthropology major, like I was, you get interested in all sorts of cultural minutia. And language (I was a linguistical anthropology major, and thus culture always took a backseat to language. I had a linguistics professor who spent her sabbaticals in Kenya, and when she went out to do her research, she up and … whoops, that’s another story. Sorry!). A broad overview of faeries gives you an idea of what kind of nature spirits the locals of any area believed in, because it reflects the climate, the environment, the history, and current events of the period in which the legends were formed.
On the other hand, a broad overview of the dragon myth around the world gives you an idea of what kind of wildlife was afoot, or the locals thought were afoot. Or they wanted to make sure their kids were probably freaked out so they’d stay in their version of the yard. Or the fireball in the sky was either attacking them or protecting them, depending on what else was going on at the time. (My copresenter, Jacquie Rogers, and I found dragons to be reflective of local norms, because depending on where you study, the mythical creatures are either a force for good or a force for bad, or both, depending on whether you’ve ticked them off or not.)
Anyway, the names may change and the situations may change, but whatever you call them, faeries and dragons have been both kind and mischievous, good and evil, sometimes a symbol and sometimes one of chaos. Jacquie and I decided to use the theme of the Silk Road, the historical routes in the Old World that traders used to move their silks and spices and what-not from the Far East and Middle East to Europe, because that’s most likely how the stories about faeries and dragons got spread around and changed and fitted to the particular culture they ended up.
As an example, the dragon myths we find in Europe have very little in common with those we find in the rest of the world (obviously, because otherwise, why in the world would we bother studying the subject?). By the time we get past the Mediterranean Sea, those dragons are distinctly different. In classical Greek culture, one of the earliest mentions of a dragon is from the Iliad, where Agamemnon is described as having a blue dragon motif on his sword belt and a three-headed dragon emblem on his breast plate. And of course, the references to the “sea-monster” or “pole serpent” in the Bible, the “leviathan” of the Biblical stories, seem to be very close to the idea of the dragon we see elsewhere.
Persia, the earlier name for Iran, has in many ways more in common with its neighbors to the east, which includes China and India. Unlike its Arabic-speaking neighbors – because Iranians/Persians speak Farsi, not Arabic – Persian mythology refers to angels as its nature spirits, although there are references to demons as well. One example is the Peri, a Persian faery referred to as a fallen angel, who can’t achieve paradise until they do penance.
Then there’s the Persian version of dragons, mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture, in which stories include both positive AND negative stories – remember, Persia is a gateway culture, with influences from both East and West, with very close ties to the Hindu culture. But I found a curious inversion, even commented on by comparative linguistic and folklore academics: Many things that are viewed as negative in Persian mythology is topsy-turvy positive in Hindu mythology, with names that are clearly connected, very close, but usually not exact, so their roots in Indo-European myths are pretty apparent.
As opposed to the dragon legends of the West, the dragons of the East are usually water-based, associated with rainfall and bodies of water as well as fertility, usually wingless, serpentine, often positive, often seen as an authority figure, and still very much part of contemporary culture. The Vedic version of the dragon, also known as a naga, is the personification of drought and enemy of Indra, the hero of Hindu sagas. Naga, also known as a snake-spirit, guarded great treasures, just like so many stories in Western myths about dragons. These forms of dragons can take human form and many ancient tribes claim to be descendants of nagas, especially from a union between a human hero and a feminine form of the snake called Nagini. Today, there are even tribes that are called Nagas. The Japanese word for long is “nagai.” Coincidence? You decide.
Going south, the earth spirits in Polynesia are also still going strong. The menehune are some of the most popular faeries of the region and are said to live deep in the forests and hidden valleys, granting wishes and helping those who are lost. Local legends say that the menehune built temples, fishponds, roads, canoes, and even houses. They are said to have lived in Hawaii long before the human settlers arrived, many centuries ago – which may remind you of the stories about the fae of the British isles.
This coming weekend, we’re going to try something a little different: for Sakura-con, the anime and manga convention, we’re going to approach the topic as a quiz show. Is it going to work? Who knows, but we might as well give it a try!