Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Out of Mongolia - Ancient Symbols in Jade and Bronze

To begin in the middle of things, I will post a few entries on the central and most imposing image in the ornamental and ritual symbols created by the earliest jade craftsmen along the Yellow River in a part of the world we now call Inner Mongolia in the fourth millennium B.C.: the Dragon symbol in various forms.   The symbol is often in amulets or talismans; but it is also carved into small statues and is often an image on a vessel, on utensils or symbols of authority such as the jade axe head. 

This is a short introduction that I wrote on another blog that I am moving to this site because it more properly belongs with the much later spiritual symbolism in the tribal ornamentation of the Turkmen up into the beginning of the twentieth century A.D. 

Dragons in Ancient Himalayan Cultures

I will begin this series of blog posts with my interest in the ancient symbol of the entwined or coiled serpent, especially the amuletic expression of the whorled serpent.  It began as a stone carved in the image of a serpent or serpent dragon with its tail in its mouth.  It is the ancient ouroboros.  As the word is spoken it almost sounds like a wheel-y motion if you roll the 'R' while pronouncing the word.

I found my first ouroboros as a Bactrian artifact in an antique shop in Ghazni, Afghanistan.  It was lying in an old bronze pot, and I knew I had to buy it.  I am glad I did; I had no idea whence it had come, nor what age it was.  I knew it appeared to be an ancient whorled serpent symbol that I had studied and imagined for years already at that time -- 1974.  

This is my very own Ouroboros that I bought that day, beginning our collection of Bactrian artifacts, though we did not know it was Bactrian.  
I assume that the stone cutter of this piece and the one that carved the naturalistic statue in the header above had two different things in mind or that they were separated in time, distance, status or even lived in two different artistic traditions, but both were in Bactria at some time long ago.  The difference is evident between the abstract and rather primitive ouroboros and the naturalistic domesticated dragon statue above.  He is wearing a collar, so he is apparently a domestic animal belonging to perhaps a royal person in the community.  We will find that there is a strong relationship between the dragon and the ruler of a settlement or a kingdom.  

Some days after I collected this ouroboros, my husband found a spectacular detailed Bactrian ouroboros in a Kabul antique shop: 
This is a very different kind of ouroboros.  The whorl design is there, but there are two serpent dragons and they are not eating each other or their own tails.  They are eating a goat.  The goat later becomes a sacred ancestor symbol among certain of the Altai-Himalayan tribes, so this may have been an early intimation of that spirituality, expressing a struggle between two forces, one good and another that is devouring the good.  

This is a very short and rather superficial introduction to the study of dragon images in two different Himalayan communities of late Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age: the Bactrian  culture on the west side of the mountains and the later Tocharian culture on the east side of the Himalayas.   The connection between the Euro-Iranian Tocharians in what is now Northwest China and the Chinese culture in South China is JADE.  It is from jade that the Chinese nobility wanted their amulets and statuary made.  And it was the people that lived near the Hotan River in Northwest China that could bring it to the developing dynastic rulers to the South of them.  

 This is a very small print of a copy of a Hongshan jade amulet purported to be from about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.  Such symbols were carried by tradition into the Bronze Age and respected by the dynastic families.  The nobility wanted their status symbols made of jade, too.  And for many centuries the jade dragon has been carried as an amulet or protective jewelry for those who could afford the price of jade.  Phoenixes and a combination of a dragon and phoenix have come into modern times as noble symbols, especially when expressed in jade. 

In later posts, we will fill in the history of how the Himalayas came to be the home of people who dressed like the ancestors of Europeans, looked like them and spoke many words that English speakers could still recognize, in a language somewhere between Old Persian (Iranian) and Old Celtic, which was spoken until Medieval times in places as far apart as  what is now Ankara, Turkey and Ireland.  

Furthermore, we will discuss the significance of jade and agate in the amuletic traditions on each side of the Himalayas.  Though the Bactrians spoke a language related to the Tocharian, their attitude toward ornamentation seemed to differ.  The Tocharian mummies found in the Tarim Basin of China wear beautifully woven clothing, but the jewelry either had been removed or they did not wear much of it.  Their relation to the jade dragon amulets made by the successors of the Hongshan culture in what is now called Inner Mongolia seemed to be through trade.  They supplied much of the Hetian or Hotan jade that the successors of the Hongshan people used to make the dragon amulets.  The Tocharian mummies in what is now Xinjiang Province in China are dated ca. 2,000 B.C. around a thousand years after the Hongshan culture had passed into history, except for the legacy of jade dragon symbols that continued to be reproduced into modern times.  

While the Indo-Europeans of the Eastern side of the Himalayas seemed not be a heavily bejeweled culture, the Bactrian ruins were found to be full of highly symbolic ornaments of very valuable materials, from beautifully shaped colored agate amulets and beads to life-sized gold masks.  

These names and places will be filled out for us in the upcoming blogs.  For now, the dragon will sleep.  

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