Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Culture Hospitable to Dragons

The speakers of  languages related to those spoken by Celtic people are found to use dragons in their myths and symbols, carved and painted, sculpted and sewn.  The dragon appears on the flags of the modern British military, on ancient Bactrian seals, on amulets worn by the ancient Assyrians and on the monuments and household vessels of the ancient Persians.  A looser connection to the dragon symbol was found in the Tocharian culture.  This was a Celtic related culture who, about 2,000 B.C., began to settle the expansive northwestern end of China, a province now known as Xinjiang.  The Tocharians discovered that the pebbles and chunks of jade that washed down from the surrounding mountains into the Black Jade and the White Jade rivers could be sold to the Qijia people who lived just to the east of Xinjiang.   The Qijia people had adopted the symbolic amulets of carved dragons from the older Hongshan culture.

The Xinjiang jade used for carving the amulets and statuettes is still highly valued by people today.  It is less popular among the commercial jewelry buyers than the translucent green jade or the pale blue green celadon stones.  However, the classic Chinese pieces are carved from what is known as Old Jade, most of it from the Hotan area of Xinjiang in northwestern China.  The near relatives of the Indo-Iranian people were just across the mountain into what is now Afghanistan -- the Bactrian culture.  In Bactria, too, we find dragons playing a large role in their miniature art forms.  Our discussion will lead us to examine in detail some of the intricate early bronze miniature art pieces of the Bactrians in my collection.

First, I thought I owed you some background material on the subject of dragons in Western and Eastern Art, especially along the routes of trade where ideas were exchanged as often as trade goods.

So from Wales in the British Isles to northwestern China, we find cultures bound by spoken words and graven symbols.  They shared many of the same myths, manners of life, and some of the same burial customs.

To illustrate now some of the dragon images:
1.  The partial image of a dragon used on the Welsh Henry VII's Banner is a fierce creature, but meant to protect the country and the troops bearing the banner.  The threat is directed to the enemy.

We will find that the dragon or serpent dragon (a complex image of a reptile with ears but no feet) is often engraved or sculpted to protect the wearer of the ornament on which the image occurs or the temple on which it is sculpted.  There is a glaring exception to that rule in the icon or heraldic amulet that shows a hero slaying a dragon, very evident in Greek mythology and in early and in medieval Christian paintings both secular and sacred.  At the same time Christian cathedrals were protected at every corner by the sculpture of a dragon in Western Europe.  The Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf slew the dragon, while the Greek hero Jason,  of 1500 or so years before Beowulf, had relied on a dragon to protect the Golden Fleece.

As to Henry VII's dragon symbol, the English claim that the image was brought to the British Isles through Rome from Persia during the Roman occupation of Britain, I would assume,  according toHoward David Johnson, a writer who researches dragon images.

 2.  For now, I will offer an illustration of the dragon at the Eastern end of the East-West trade route.  This is a photo of a natural dragon of the eastern regions that the Indo-Aryans from the borders of Persia, Syria and Mesopotamia settled in.
The dragon that likes people: a Chinese water dragon 

We will discuss in the following blog the mythical connection of dragons, climate and water.  The myth may have developed because of empirical observation by early cultures of the dragon's behavior.  Come back for more...

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