Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bronze Dragons West and Jade Dragons East

The very earliest finds of the dragon images in the shape resembling the ouroboros, the dragon or serpent who swallows his tail, are found in the steppes of Asia and along the Yellow River that spans China and borders on Mongolia. The finds were dated scientifically to around 4000 B.C.  This image came from or was spread across a great distance to the area along the border of Eastern Anatolia, Northern Mesopotamia and ancient Persia.   As the symbol went from West to East or vice versa, the symbol took on new meanings and new shapes.  

The images shown on the plate below are images on bronze seals in ancient Northeastern Persia, on carved stone ritual objects or on royal possessions in Western Persia and finally at the bottom of this blog entry I show a modern reproduction of the Eastern version of the ouroborus ritual symbol.  Even though the dates of the earliest findings of the archeological artifacts are in the Far East, there are scholars who insist that the dragon image entered into human history and spread from the West.  So I will begin this blog by showing the various versions of the serpent with a face and ears that have been found in the regions of Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Persia.  

after Sarianidi, 1998
The drawings in the plate above are the third millennium B.C. renditions in bronze of the serpent dragon, in which he is not swallowing his tail.  In the Bactrian or ancient Persian culture, the dragon had already changed his shape and how he fit into the rituals of the ancient culture of Persia.  In the West, the dragon was often shown as being a crawly, creepy thing, as in the photo above. The dragon was also shown being vanquished by sky creatures such as the eagle shown in the photo below, while in the East, the dragon was often portrayed in jade as a sky creature himself, a flying dragon.  There may have been a fascinating pre-historical event that explains the dragon ornament, as we shall see in later blogs.  Since blogs cannot be books, I have to limit each blog to a small part of the dragon story. 

Below, the cast bronze seal from Bactria shows dragons being seized and held by the great eagle that was such a powerful iconic figure in Bactria.  

after Sarianidi, 1998

The photo below is one of the small ritual columns carved in the soft chlorite stone that was the favored stone in the West, where soft stones were engraved with bone or sharpened stone points.   In the East, they used agates and jade which are very hard stones that had to be shaped by grinding them.  After metal saws, chisels and knives came into use, the jade and agate could be cut much easier and quicker.  

The Persian chlorite stone cult object below shows a lion hero fighting against two dragons, again showing a difference in the dragon's position in the Western pantheon.  On looking again at the image below, it is possible that the dragon in back of the lion is actually attaching the other dragon?  In the East, the dragon is always shown as a provider and protector and is still popular as a lucky amulet.  

after article in Teheran Times, shown online by Iran Chamber Society, 2011

Below is an antique but not ancient image of the Eastern dragon that does show a less creepy, crawly image, but retaining an allusion to the swallowing of the tail myth, the one that produced the ouroboros.   This image is in my collection as a piece of jewelry.  There are other cultural accretions in this particular dragon image, which may be discussed in later blogs.  It is a complicated story of how this Eastern dragon took on a mammal's face and head, but the story will be told at which time I will have the complete piece of jewelry showing on my web site. 
Read a fuller story on this particular piece HERE

Some features that this dragon image shown above shares with some of the images in the first plate above are the mammal-like head with bulging eyes and a forked tail.  

In later blogs, we will trace the development of the ouroboros as a human expression of an aurora appearing in the sky in the geologic era of the New Stone Age and therefore seen by all humanity.  From there we will trace the development first to being the totem or protector and the devolution of the dragon's status  from protective sky creature to terrestrial or subterranean creature that heroes must struggle against.  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Dragon Will Lead You to Water

From the modern legend of the Loch Ness monster in Celtic Scotland to the Biblical Leviathan that plays in the water of the Mediterranean in David's Psalms, to the equally ancient Chinese water dragon that does not actually live in the water but needs a daily soak in order to stay healthy.

What I am going to write in this blog entry is pure speculation on my part.  But I will tell my own legend of how the dragon attained the place of honor that he enjoys on our calendars, our protective amulets, our household decorations and even in the tattoos worn by so many.  The legends that elevated the dragon to a heroic or maybe even deified level in the ancient world may be related to the fact that dragons -- serpent like reptiles that have legs and a more expressive face -- are land creatures but must have a nearby body of water for survival.

A large lizard occupies the area of Gonur Depe, the site of the excavation of one of the sites of the Bronze Age Bactria-Margiana Complex.  His ancestor may well have pointed our ancestors to the Murghab River, where Gonur was founded some four thousand years ago.  When my husband was visiting the site, the workers always warned him that the 'dragon' might crawl into his tent; the warning was not that the dragon was dangerous, but that the dragon brought a bad odor into the tent.  You see, the dragon soaked for a while each day in the murky waters where no doubt a lot of waste had been dumped.
Given the needs of the dragons or large lizards that crawl through the deserts of Central Asia, migrants might have found the dragon a valuable guide to water.  Especially in the era of 4000 to 3000 B.C. there were great migrations from the Asian steppes toward settled regions or to still Neolithic nomadic herders.  By the end of that era, the herders, too were moving into contact with the more sedentary cultures that were farming and raising domestic animals such as pigs, cows, sheep and goats and even horses and donkeys.  The dog had domesticated himself long before this age.  The domestic canine was following the camps of Ice Age Hunters, helping in the hunt.
Noting the fascination held by birds, the fourth millennium cultures of Central Asia may have kept even large birds when they could be caught.  The eagle and the phoenix -- a really fancy chicken -- are displayed on a huge percentage of their amulets.
A note here on the migrants.  They were not nomads who had adopted the life style of constantly moving.  They were usually people who simply had to move from their home land to a more comfortable climate or culture.  Therefore, along with the pigs, the rams' heads and the magnificent horses that the people already honored by being buried with them, sometimes worshipping their statues, the ancients added the dragon symbol.

Another blog will be on the jade dragon and the bronze dragon.   Such as this jade one:

Old Hongshan Style Hetian Jade Necklace Hand Carved Amulet and Beads

The photo above shows the pig-drgaon amulet that might have developed from the veneration of the ancient settled farming community for its pig and the migrants' respect for the dragon.  In the late Neolithic and Bronze Age culture named Hongshan with archeological traces across much of the Northern part of what is now China, the pig dragon held sway as the most powerful spiritual symbol.  

Meanwhile on the other side of the Himalayas in what is now Afghanistan, migrants were moving into the high desert oasis called Bactria.  In Bronze Age Bactria they immortalized the dragon in small stone seals and cast bronze amulets.  Here is another image of a dragon amulet with the eagle image on the opposite side of the carved steatite seal from Bactria:

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...

Dragon Tracks from Mongolia to Bactria in Afghanistan

Dragon Tracks

The task of tracking dragon image amulets from one side of the Himalayas to the other is a matter of following the old -- now probably approaching ten thousand years old -- paths of the  migrant people of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Central Asia and Northwestern China.  As the neolithic methods of farming developed in the desert oases of that huge region of the planet, which was drying out, the people were forced to follow sources of water and favorable conditions for growing their crops and herds of domesticated animals.

Migrant paths became trade routes with time and by the fourth millennium B.C., there were trading posts or caravanserai operating in certain places along the roads that the caravans followed.  Migration also continued to follow those roads to greener pastures and more fertile land to farm.  From pigs to camels, different varieties of sheep and goats, even the horse and of course the dog were part of the entourage of a migrant clan leader.  Ancient Sousiana in Persia was one of those hubs of human movement and socio-economic exchange.

By about 3,000 B.C. there were people in that area that spoke a language related to the pre-Anglo-Saxon language of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Asia Minor, Galicia and part of France, the old Celtic root.  The speakers of this now dead or dying branch of this Indo-European language group did not show up only in the historical record in Europe.  The Tocharians from Susiana in Persia spoke a version of this same Celtic language in Persia and in the place they migrated to: northwestern China.   Also to be noted is that the Indo part of the Indo-European (at this point, really Indo-Aryan) language group was spoken in the Indus Valley by this time.

But what has this to do with dragon symbols?  We will focus on the dispersal of the dragon symbol in Greater Persia and Northwestern China.  There is a connection of similar uses of the dragon symbol in ancient Susiana (Elam, Gutin) and the area of China that is just over the Himalayas in northwestern China.

To recap a bit here: Susiana was located  near the Persian Gulf where Syria and Iraq join Greater Persia which stretched from central Turkey to the western side of the Himalayas.  The trade routes are known because long stretches of them are still in use.  I have traveled along some of them.  A small sketch here of how the roads developed into the Silk Road(s) in the last millennium B.C. :
Note that the road from Bactria in Afghanistan, part of Greater Persia at the time, follows what had probably been the migrant New Stone Age oasis farmers of thousands of years before the route became known as the Silk Road.  It crosses the Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas into Tashkorgan in the land of the Jade Rivers: the White Jade River and the Black Jade River.  It is the sprawling northwest part of China, now called Xinjiang, once known as Sinkiang and list of other names.  By 2,000 B.C. the people who spoke the Indo-European language related to the Celtic branch, the Tocharian, lived in this province.  Their mummies are on display in a museum at the provincial seat, Urumqi.

Tashkorgan, the first landing of those migrants or traders over the high mountain passes from the west (Persia) or south (Indus Valley), was one of the world's busiest market places. Goods were exchanged there to be passed along by resident or traveling merchants to the remainder of China, Mongolia and other parts of the East.  Merchants had come from the other end of the route to Tashkorgan to make the exchanges and take the newly acquired goods to sell along the remainder of the route.

Beads or raw stones to make beads and other ornaments were very important items of trade. They were portable enough that they could be used as 'money.'  The eastern side of the Himalayas actually have ancient jade 'coins' with an assigned value.  Agate, quartz, jade and lapis lazuli were the prized gemstones of the area.  They were carried as far as Egypt from their source in what are now Iran and Afghanistan.  It is from that very area that the beads in the photograph below originate.  They are probably from about 1,500 B.C.  The brown banded agate bead was highly prized at this time.

Ancient Brown Banded Agates from proto-Iranian Civilization

So now we know a bit about how the people traveled from the border of Mesopotamia and Iran and carried their culture along to be mingled to various extents with the residents of each area into which they settled.  They trekked along routes that came to be known much later as trade routes.  By 3,000 B.C., they were introducing copper smelting and manufacture of refined and alloyed metal ornaments, weapons and household goods.  They no doubt assimilated culturally and adopted some of the symbols used in ornamentation by the indigenous people of the place.  These Indo-European speaking people had moved along this route to settle south of the Caspian in what is now Iran (Persia), in Margiana (Turkmenistan), Bactria (Afghanistan), Indus Valley (Pakistan) and in northwestern China.  

From Susiana to central Persia and eastern Persia (Bactria), they brought their own dragon symbols such as these found in the Kerman District south of the Caspian Sea: 
This is the time-honored symbol of the twin dragons with the phoenix, a glorious mythical bird that is very often shown with a dragon or the twin dragon symbol.  Here it is worked in steatite, a soft stone.  In other times and places, it has been produced in jade, especially in what are now the modern autonomous zones of China: Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang province nearby.

The pig images at the bottom of this amulet coin show the honored animal in the Neolithic Hongshan culture that lasted until about 3,000 B.C.  At about that time, the pig gradually became a dragon with a pig's head.  This jade coin is a modern interpretation of that cultural development.  At the bottom are the pigs, then the dragon and finally the victorious phoenix, of which we will see more in these blog posts.

As mentioned above, from some other influence, by about 3,000 B.C., the people on the eastern side of the Himalayas had adopted the dragon, and their amulet became a symbol much like the Iranian one above.  A circle of two dragons or entwined dragons with pig-like features, or like this single one that shows the mixed symbolism of pig-dragon:
Modern reproduction of Neolithic Hongshan culture fetal pig/dragon symbol

Especially in the emphasis on the eye of the creature, you will note a similarity between the image above and this one from Bactria, worked in a softer stone from ancient times:

Bactrian amulet in soft white stone.
So now the dragon appears in similar form on both sides of the Himalayas.  I am not trying to establish any real connection between languages, customs or genetics.  I am only following an interesting mystery in the attraction that humans have for dragons as ornaments.  The similarity of certain of the images at or near the same time but found at great distances apart intrigues me.  And where we find tartan plaids and/or Indo-Aryan features, we find these whorled dragon images, but I grant that there is probably no causal relationship.  Maybe they  are found all over the globe at this time, but since my interest is mainly in Central Asia, especially the Himalayan countries, I certainly find dragon tracks there.  

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.