Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, , at sacred-texts.com
Some explanation is due to the reader of the form and scope of these elaborations of the lectures which I have given at the John Rylands Library during the last three winters.
They deal with a wide range of topics, and the thread which binds them more or less intimately into one connected story is only imperfectly expressed in the title "The Evolution of the Dragon".
The book has been written in rare moments of leisure snatched from a variety of arduous war-time occupations; and it reveals only too plainly the traces of this disjointed process of composition. On 23 February, 1915, I presented to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society an essay on the spread of certain customs and beliefs in ancient times under the title "On the Significance of the Geographical Distribution of the Practice of Mummification," and in my Rylands Lecture two weeks later I summed up the general conclusions. 1 In view of the lively controversies that followed the publication of the former of these addresses, I devoted my next Rylands Lecture (9 February, 1916) to the discussion of "The Relationship of the Egyptian Practice of Mummification to the Development of Civilization". In preparing this address for publication in the Bulletin some months later so much stress was laid upon the problems of "Incense and Libations" that I adopted this more concise title for the elaboration of the lecture which forms the first chapter of this book. This will explain why so many matters are discussed in that chapter which have little or no connexion either with "Incense and Libations" or with "The Evolution of the Dragon".
The study of the development of the belief in water's life-giving
attributes, and their personification in the gods Osiris, Ea, Soma [Haoma] and Varuna, prepared the way for the elucidation of the history of "Dragons and Rain Gods" in my next lecture (Chapter II). What played a large part in directing my thoughts dragon-wards was the discussion of certain representations of the Indian Elephant upon Precolumbian monuments in, and manuscripts from, Central America (Nature, 25 Nov., 1915; 16 Dec., 1915; and 27 Jan., 1916). For in the course of investigating the meaning of these remarkable designs I discovered that the Elephant-headed rain-god of America had attributes identical with those of the Indian Indra (and of Varuna and Soma) and the Chinese dragon. The investigation of these identities established the fact that the American rain-god was transmitted across the Pacific from India via Cambodia.
The intensive study of dragons impressed upon me the importance of the part played by the Great Mother, especially in her Babylonian avatar as Tiamat, in the evolution of the famous wonder-beast. Under the stimulus of Dr. Rendel Harris's Rylands Lecture on "The Cult of Aphrodite," I therefore devoted my next address (14 November, 1917) to the "Birth of Aphrodite" and a general discussion of the problems of Olympian obstetrics.
Each of these addresses was delivered as an informal demonstration of large series of lantern projections; and, as Mr. Guppy insisted upon the publication of the lectures in the Bulletin, it became necessary, as a rule, many months after the delivery of each address, to rearrange my material and put into the form of a written narrative the story which had previously been told mainly by pictures and verbal comments upon them,
In making these elaborations additional facts were added and new points of view emerged, so that the printed statements bear little resemblance to the lectures of which they pretend to be reports. Such transformations are inevitable when one attempts to make a written report of what was essentially an ocular demonstration, unless every one of the numerous pictures is reproduced.
Each of the first two lectures was printed before the succeeding lecture was set up in type. For these reasons there is a good deal of
repetition, and in successive lectures a wider interpretation of evidence mentioned in the preceding addresses. Had it been possible to revise the whole book at one time, and if the pressure of other duties had permitted me to devote more time to the work, these blemishes might have been eliminated and a coherent story made out of what is little more than a collection of data and tags of comment. No one is more conscious than the writer of the inadequacy of this method of presenting an argument of such inherent complexity as the dragon story: but my obligation to the Rylands Library gave me no option in the matter: I had to attempt the difficult task in spite of all the unpropitious circumstances. This book must be regarded, then, not as a coherent argument, but merely as some of the raw material for the study of the dragon's history. In my lecture (13 November, 1918) on "The Meaning of Myths," which will be published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, I have expounded the general conclusions that emerge from the studies embodied in these three lectures; and in my forthcoming book, "The Story of the Flood," I have submitted the whole mass of evidence to examination in detail, and attempted to extract from it the real story of mankind's age-long search for the elixir of life.
In the earliest records from Egypt and Babylonia it is customary to portray a king's beneficence by representing him initiating irrigation works. In course of time he came to be regarded, not merely as the giver of the water which made the desert fertile, but as himself the personification and the giver of the vital powers of water. The fertility of the land and the welfare of the people thus came to be regarded as dependent upon the king's vitality. Hence it was not illogical to kill him when his virility showed signs of failing and so imperilled the country's prosperity. But when the view developed that the dead king acquired a new grant of vitality in the other world he became the god Osiris, who was able to confer even greater boons of life-giving to the land and people than was the case before. He was the Nile, and he fertilized the land. The original dragon was a beneficent creature, the personification of water, and was identified with kings and gods.
But the enemy of Osiris became an evil dragon, and was identified with Set.
The dragon-myth, however, did not really begin to develop until an ageing king refused to be slain, and called upon the Great Mother, as the giver of life, to rejuvenate him. Her only elixir was human blood; and to obtain it she was compelled to make a human sacrifice. Her murderous act led to her being compared with and ultimately identified with a man-slaying lioness or a cobra. The story of the slaying of the dragon is a much distorted rumour of this incident; and in the process of elaboration the incidents were subjected to every kind of interpretation and also confusion with the legendary account of the conflict between Horus and Set.
When a substitute was obtained to replace the blood the slaying of a human victim was no longer logically necessary: but an explanation had to be found for the persistence of this incident in the story. Mankind (no longer a mere individual human sacrifice) had become sinful. and rebellious (the act of rebellion being complaints that the king or god was growing old) and had to be destroyed as a punishment for this treason. The Great Mother continued to act as the avenger of the king or god. But the enemies of the god were also punished by Horus in the legend of Horus and Set. The two stories hence became confused the one with the other. The king Horus took the place of the Great Mother as the avenger of the gods. As she was identified with the moon, he became the Sun-god, and assumed many of the Great Mother's attributes, and also became her son. In the further development of the myth, when the Sun-god had completely usurped his mother's place, the infamy of her deeds of destruction seems to have led to her being confused with the rebellious men who were now called the followers of Set, Horus's enemy. Thus an evil dragon emerged from this blend of the attributes of the Great Mother and Set. This is the Babylonian Tiamat. From the amazingly complex jumble of this tissue of confusion all the incidents of the dragon-myth were derived.
When attributes of the Water-god or his enemy became assimilated with those of the Great Mother and the Warrior Sun-god, the
animals with which these deities were identified came to be regarded individually and collectively as concrete expressions of the Water-god's
powers. Thus the cow and the gazelle, the falcon and the eagle, the lion and the serpent, the fish and the crocodile became symbols of the life-giving and the life-destroying powers of water, and composite monsters or dragons were invented by combining parts of these various creatures to express the different manifestations of the vital powers of water. The process of elaboration of the attributes of these monsters led to the development of an amazingly complex myth: but the story became still further involved when the dragon's life-controlling powers became confused with man's vital spirit and identified with the good or evil genius which was regarded as the guest, welcome or unwelcome, of every individual's body, and the arbiter of his destiny. In my remarks on the ka and the fravashi I have merely hinted at the vast complexity of these elements of confusion.
Had I been familiar with [Archbishop] Söderblom's important monograph, 1 when I was writing Chapters I and III, I might have attempted to indicate how vital a part the confusion of the individual genius with the mythical wonder-beast has played in the history of the myths relating to the latter. For the identification of the dragon with the vital spirit of the individual explains why the stories of the former appealed to the selfish interest of every human being. At the time the lecture on "Incense and Libations" was written, I had no idea that the problems of the ka and the fravashi had any connexion with those relating to the dragon. But in the third chapter a quotation from Professor Langdon's account of "A Ritual of Atonement for a Babylonian King" indicates that the Babylonian equivalent of the ka and the fravashi, "my god who walks at my side," presents many points of affinity to a dragon.
When in the lecture on "Incense and Libations" I ventured to make the daring suggestion that the ideas underlying the Egyptian conception of the ka were substantially identical with those entertained by
the Iranians in reference to the fravashi, I was not aware of the fact that such a comparison had already been made. In [Archbishop] Söderblom's monograph, which contains a wealth of information in corroboration of the views set forth in Chapter I, the following statement occurs: "Lanalyse, faite par M. Brede-Kristensen (Ægypternes forestillinger om livet efter döden, 14 ss. Kristiania, 1896) du ka égyptien, jette une vive lumiére sur notre question, par la frappante analogie qui semble exister entre le sens originaire de ces deux termes ka et fravashi" (p. 58, note 4). "La similitude entre le ka et la fravashi a été signalée dejà par Nestor Lhote, Lettres écrites dÉgypte, note, selon Maspero, Études de mythologie et darchéologie égyptiennes, I, 47, note 3."
In support of the view, which I have submitted in Chapter I, that the original idea of the fravashi, like that of the ka, was suggested by the placenta and the ftal membranes, I might refer to the specific statement (Farvardin-Yasht, XXIII, 1) that "les fravashis tiennent en ordre lenfant dans le sein de sa mère et lenveloppent de sorte quil ne meurt pas" (op. cit., Söderblom, p. 41, note 1). The fravashi "nourishes and protects" (p. 57): it is "the nurse" (p. 58): it is always feminine (p. 58). It is in fact the placenta, and is also associated with the functions of the Great Mother. "Nous voyons dans fravashi une personification de la force vitale, conservée et exercée aussi après la mort. La fravashi est le principe de vie, la faculté qua lhomme de se soutenir par la nourriture, de manger, dabsorber et ainsi dexister et de se développer. Cette étymologie et le rôle attributé à la fravashi dans le développement de lembryon, des animaux, des plantes rappellent en quelque sorte, comme le remarque M. Foucher, lidée directrice de Claude Bernard. Seulement la fravashi na jamais été une abstraction. La fravashi est une puissance vivante, un homunculus in homine, un être personnifié comme du reste toutes les sources de vie et de mouvement que lhomme non civilisé aperçoit dans son organisme.
Il ne faut pas non plus considérer la fravashi comme un double de lhomme, elle en est plutôt une partie, un hôte intime qui continue son existence après la mort aux mêmes conditions quavant, et
qui oblige les vivants à lui fournir les aliments nécessaires" (op. cit., p. 59).
Thus the fravashi has the same remarkable associations with nourishment and placental functions as the ka. As a further suggestion of its connexion with the Great Mother as the inaugurator of the year, and in virtue of her physiological (uterine) functions the moon-controlled measurer of the month, it is important to note that "Le 19e jour de chaque mois est également consecré aux fravashis en général. Le premier mois porte aussi le nom de Farvardîn. Quant aux formes des fêtes mensuelles, elles semblent conformes à celles que nous allons rappeler [les fêtes célébrées en lhonneur des mortes]" (op. cit., p. 10).
But the, fravashi was not only associated with the Great Mother, but also with the Water-god or Good Dragon, for it controlled the waters of irrigation and gave fertility to the soil (op. cit., p. 36). The fravashi was also identified with the third member of the primitive Trinity, the Warrior Sun-god, not merely in the general sense as the adversary of the powers of evil, but also in the more definite form of the Winged Disk (op. cit., pp. 67 and 68).
In all these respects the fravashi is brought into close association with the dragon, so that in addition to being "the divine and immortal element" (op. cit., p. 51), it became the genius or spirit that possesses a man and shapes his conduct and regulates his behaviour. It was in fact the expression of a crude attempt on the part of the early psychologists of Iran to explain the working of the instinct of self-preservation. In the text of Chapters I and III I have referred to the Greek, Babylonian, Chinese, and Melanesian variants of essentially the same conception. Söderblom refers to an interesting parallel among the Karens, whose kelah corresponds to the Iranian fravashi (p. 54, Note 2: compare also A. E. Crawley, "The Idea of the Soul," 1909).
In the development of the dragon-myth astronomical factors played a very obtrusive part: but I have deliberately refrained from entering into a detailed discussion of them, because they were not primarily the real causal agents in the origin of the myth. When the conception of a sky-world or a heaven became drawn into the dragon story it came
to play so prominent a part as to convince most writers that the myth was primarily and essentially astronomical. But it is clear that originally the myth was concerned solely with the regulation of irrigation systems and the search upon earth for an elixir of life.
When I put forward the suggestion that the annual inundation of the Nile provided the information for the first measurement of the year, I was not aware of the fact that Sir Norman Lockyer ("The Dawn of Astronomy," 1894, p. 209), had already made the same claim and substantiated it by much fuller evidence than I have brought together here.
In preparing these lectures I have received help from so large a number of correspondents that it is difficult to enumerate all of them. But I am under a special debt of gratitude to Dr. Alan Gardiner for calling my attention to the fact that the common rendering of the Egyptian word didi as "mandrake" was unjustifiable, and to Mr. F. Ll. Griffith for explaining its true meaning and for lending me the literature relating to this matter. Miss Winifred M. Crompton, the Assistant Keeper of the Egyptian Department in the Manchester Museum, gave me very material assistance by bringing to my attention some very important literature which otherwise would have been overlooked; and both she and Miss Dorothy Davison helped me with the drawings that illustrate this volume. Mr. Wilfrid Jackson gave me much of the information concerning shells and cephalopods which forms such an essential part of the argument, and he also collected a good deal of the literature which I have made use of. Dr. A. C. Haddon, F.R.S., of Cambridge, lent me a number of books and journals which I was unable to obtain in Manchester; and Mr. Donald A. Mackenzie, of Edinburgh, has poured in upon me a stream of information, especially upon the folklore of Scotland and India. Nor must I forget to acknowledge the invaluable help and forbearance of Mr. Henry Guppy, of the John Rylands Library, and Mr. Charles W. E. Leigh, of the University Library. To all of these and to the still larger number of correspondents who have helped me I offer my most grateful thanks.
During the three years in which these lectures were compiled I
have been associated with Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, F.R.S., and Mr. T. H. Pear in their psychological work in the military hospitals, and the influence of this interesting experience is manifest upon every page of this volume.
But perhaps the most potent factor of all in shaping my views and directing my train of thought has been the stimulating influence of Mr. W. J. Perry's researches, which are converting ethnology into a real science and shedding a brilliant light upon the early history of civilization.
G. ELLIOT SMITH.
9 December, 1918.
v:1 "The Influence of Ancient Egyptian Civilisation in the East and in America," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, January-March, 1916.
ix:1 Nathan Söderblom, "Les Fravashis Étude sur les Traces dans le Mazdéisme dune Ancienne Conception sur la Survivance des Morts," Paris, 1899.