Award: Most improved speaker
"Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth … tame the dragon and the gift is yours." - Noela Evans
Until last week, I had no interest whatsoever in dragons. In fact, the only dragon I'd ever heard of was the Komodo Dragon. After hearing this quote, I saw a travel special in Asia on an airline called DragonAir. Then, I saw a story about medieval manuscripts with dragons on them currently on display in France.
At that point, I starting doing some research on the monster that appears in so many cultures.
While investigating this topic, I asked what dragons are and what they symbolize. I found the answers varied across cultures, often in surprising ways.
Let's take a moment and have you tell me what comes to mind when you hear the word "dragon."
A predatory mélange
David Jones, author of Instinct for Dragons, argues that dragons are a mix of the three great predators of primates in prehistoric time: the feline, the serpent, and the predatory bird. Jones contends that aspects of these three greatest threats were combined into one great fearsome beast - the dragon.
For thousands of years, the symbol of a dragon has been used to strike fear into the hearts of man.
Persian soldiers would often drive into battle behind immense dragon figures to frighten their opposition.
The vikings also used dragons to scare their enemies. When sailing and terrorizing much of Europe's northern coastline and major rivers, they moved in boats. They would carve the prows of their ships in the shape of dragons. Imagine being a villager in the early morning, when the mist and fog was rising from the river and seeing a dragon gliding silently over the water. Then, to your horror, fierce warriors would pour off the dragon and plunder your town before disappearing back into the night. It's no wonder that dragons were synonymous with death and destruction and that they were so hated and feared in Northern and Western Europe.
Dragons were also used by peoples and dynasties to legitimize their political and social power:
- The N. Iroquois and Central Algonquian Indians claim to be descendants
of the great serpent and dragon.
- The story of Alexander the Great includes an interesting detail: that his mother, Olympias, conceived him with the god Zeus disguised as a dragon.
- In the British Isles, the leaders of clans were called Dragons and their kings were Pendragons (i.e., the Pendragon Cycle - The Story of King Arthur). In this sense, to slay a king or clan leader was to slay a dragon.
By the Middle Ages, the Christian church portrayed the dragon as a symbol of evil. The Bible describes the archangel Saint Michael fighting the dragon in the sky during the apocalypse.
Saint George, the patron saint of England, is said to have killed a dragon. But by this time, the dragon no longer symbolized malevolence, but paganism, which the Christian soldier eradicates, becoming a martyr in the process.
And don't forget Saint Margaret. Her story goes something like this: The Roman Governor Olybrius saw her and fell in love with her. He was ready to marry her, until he found out that she was a Christian. In characteristic Roman treatment of Christians at the time, Olybrius tortured Margaret and flung her into prison. While in prison she prayed to the Lord to make visible to her the fiend that had fought with her. Then, poof, a horrible dragon appeared and attacked her. The dragon swallowed her whole and while in its stomach she made the sign of the cross which caused the dragon to burst and she came out of his body unharmed.
But the dragon is also seen as a protector by the Christian church. It is used on the outsides of cathedrals, helmets, and shields to give strength and courage to warriors. Dragons and other stylized reptiles were also used to decorate arms and jewellery in Europe.
East vs. West
Let's move away from Europe and consider another view of dragons. If I were to ask the same question of an audience in Asia, we'd have a very different flipchart. That's because when we move from West to East, the image of the dragon changes. But dragons aren't universally feared. In fact, dragons are loved in certain cultures. The fact is that the Chinese and the Japanese are especially fond of dragons.
In China, dragons are generally thought of as peaceful and lucky. Dragons have been accepted by the Chinese people, who love, revere, and (most of all) respect them for their awesome wisdom and power. Dragons are said to control the waters and rain, help with fertility, and their justice is swift. They are a sign of good luck and happiness and are used in processions to mark the New Year.
In Japan, where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are an ever-present threat, the dragon is a more ambivalent figure, a protector and representation of the anger of the earth. The dragon is a creature of the sky and the earth and unites the fundamental constituents of the universe: fire, water, sky and earth. And the Emperor Hirohito even traced his ancestry over 125 generations back to the Dragon King's daughter.
Shift your perspective
So I'll ask you again, what are dragons? Do you believe in the European view of dragons as fierce, malevolent creatures? Or do you prefer the Eastern perspective, where a dragon is a powerful, wise, and fair creature?
Consider the quote in front of you again: "Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth … tame the dragon and the gift is yours." I dare to use the Eastern perspective as you seek to tame the challenges (or if you will, the dragons) of your own life.