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In Search of Dragons…

January 23, 2012

Chinese New Year Float

As you may know, Chinese New Year is today, and Tibetan New Year is one lunar month later, on February 22nd. In both astrological systems, it is the Year of the Water Dragon.

I don’t celebrate Chinese or Tibetan New Year, or follow either astrology closely, although I always write about them at BellaOnline this time of year, because they are celebrated as Buddhist holidays in many countries. But this year I felt myself called to dragons (or by them!), and embarked on a ‘dragonquest’ to see what they had to say to me. Whether you view this kind of message as psychological – symbols speaking to us from our subconscious – or spiritual – actual beings communicating – doesn’t really matter (and really, I view it as both.) But it pays to listen to them. I thought I would share some of what I found here, in case dragons have something to say to you too. I should tell you right now, this post has no ‘point’ – it is just a sharing of dragons, largely through images, so enjoy! (And most of the images are public domain, those that aren’t link to the source.)

One thing I found very interesting is that although European and Asian dragons are vastly different in their appearance and mythology, they are both connected to the serpent. The European word dragon is rooted in the word for snake or serpent, and in Asia dragons literally look like serpents.

Japanese Dragon, by 18th-century artist Hokusai, with serpent body typical of Asian dragons.

A typical European dragon, as depicted in a statue in the capital of Slovenia - Four-legged and winged.

Spiritually, serpents have very different connotations in the East and the West. Of course in the standard interpretation of the Old Testament, the serpent is seen as the bringer of evil, tempting Eve to eat the apple that leads to her and Adam’s exile from Eden. In the East, there are many conflicting legends of serpents, and nagas – their deity counterparts, but they are certainly not simple bringers of evil. In fact, the kundalini itself, the spiritual energy that moves up through the chakras, is often depicted as a rising snake, as are the nadis, or spiralling energy lines through which the kundalini travels upward.

One Chakra Mapping, showing the two spiraling nadis as serpents.

These differing views of serpents carry through into the views of dragons. In European tales they are usually troublemakers, hoarding wealth or kidnapping princesses, and the hero of the story sets off to vanquish them. In Asia, they are mostly symbols of power, protective forces, and good fortune. It’s so interesting to me how this parallels the differing views towards evil that you find in Western and Eastern religions (and forgive me for painting in broad strokes here) – Judeo-Christianity focuses on evil as a force outside of ourselves, that needs to be vanquished, while the Eastern take is that evil is the result of an internal misperception or misalignment – our own delusion that we are separate from light.

Either way, I found that dragons, wealth, and royalty are linked in both European and Asian lore. Of course in the Arthurian legends Arthur’s royal lineage is of the Pendragon – ‘ultimate dragon’ – line. In historical China, dragons were associated with the Emperor, and also considered symbolic of wealth. In Tibet, White Jambhala is sometimes referred to as the ‘wealth deity’ and is shown riding a dragon. Of course there are exoteric and esoteric interpretations of the link between wealth and these deities – in the esoteric interpretations, wealth is associated with spiritual insight, much as the ‘gold’ of alchemy traditions is interpreted by some to be symbolic of enlightenment.

White Jambala - Tibetan Wealth Deity - Riding a Dragon

Across cultures dragons are also considered an old power, part of the ancient order of the world, and linked to old magic. In Asia they are often depicted as sea creatures, the sea being the primordial source of life. In this, they are also linked in some spiritual traditions to the ancient pathways to enlightenment. In other traditions, dragons are themselves representative of the seeking, as in Chinese depictions of a sea dragon chasing a pearl, which itself represents a closed lotus blossom. Lotuses represent enlightenment, and the dragon swallows many ‘pearls of wisdom’ along its path.

Chinese Dragon chasing a 'pearl of wisdom'

In some Tibetan traditions, dragons are seen more as ‘dharma protectors’ – protectors of the sacred teachings for true seekers. Dragons are also one of the ‘Four Dignities’, along with the snow lion, the tiger, and the garuda (a large mythical bird), each representing a different aspect of the Boddhisattva. The dragon represents compassion, and sound, as in true hearing, and the way that both compassion and true hearing can break through delusion.

In Japan,  there are a lot of dragon legends, but not many of them linked to spiritual traditions, although I did find this fascinating picture entitled Buddha Riding a Dragon (I couldn’t find much more information about it, however.)

Buddha Riding a Dragon by 18th century Japanese Artist Kunasada

Another favorite dragon depiction of mine was also 18th-century Japanese, by Hiroshage, who painted in a Chinese style, and entitled Dragon in a Cloud. It speaks more to the ethereal or ‘spirit dragon’ idea, which is also prevalent in Asian tales.

Dragon in a Cloud

Interestingly, the idea of a spirit or guiding dragon is one that has taken off in contemporary Fantasy fiction. Although interpretations vary, in most totem systems dragons represent the ability to burn through obstacles with their fire-breath. As companions to ‘dragonriders’ in contemporary Fantasy series such as Eragon or The DragonRiders of Pern, dragons are fierce in battle, and intimately, spiritually linked to their riders. I actually think the artwork done for the Eragon  books is lovely, and conveys a lot of depth – this eye of Saphira from one cover is an example:

eragon saphira the dragon 1 pictures, backgrounds and images

Eye of Saphira

The prevalence of the dragonrider concept in Fantasy fiction (it’s part of the Game of Throne series too, although as of the fifth book still undeveloped), is really fascinating. The dragons are usually depicted more like winged European dragons, but have spiritual symbology more connected to the Asian interpretations. Either way, these dragons are spiritual guides, and spiritual warriors. I love this one, which I think is based on some of the Pern books, although I am not sure:

Dragon SpiritThis one too, spoke to me – as you can see, there is a strong tradition of white dragons in fantasy series, and they are very often feminine – the dragon is itself symbolic of feminine power:

And finally, progressing all the way into the spirit dragon realm, I found this:

Spirit Dragon

Exactly the opposite in many ways of the sea serpent-like Asian dragons we started with. And yet throughout all the dragons and dragon lore I encountered, the connection to ancient knowledge, enlightenment, burning through obstacles, the feminine, and dharma protection shone through. For me, these are the themes of 2012.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this dragon tour, and that these dragons speak to you in some way. Happy Year of the Dragon!


P.S. I will soon be combining this blog with my teaching site into a new site, and will begin posting weekly, including a once a month guest post or interview. If you write or teach something related to the themes of this blog, and would like to share it here through an interview or guest post, please email me at LAmeditation [at] earthlink [dot] net. Namaste-

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 7:57 pm

    I LOVE it! I’ve been seeing dragons for weeks… and 2 of my life journey totems are dragons – a white feathered one and a gorgeous, opalescent red one. Both are SO powerful, and yet so loving and supportive… quite the powerful energy to move forward!

    I’ve been seeing a number of dragons with my clients over the past few months, too… with the message that they “have their back”… and it was funny that I just found out a few weeks ago that we’re coming into “the Year of the Dragon”… of course! How powerful!

    Thanks for this write-up… you summarize the mythology so well (and I LOVE your pics!) 🙂

  2. January 23, 2012 8:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing all this insightful info and beautiful graphics of dragons. I especially appreciated your explanation of the Judeo-Christian vs. Eastern view of evil – outside oneself to be vanquished vs. an internal misalignment or separation. I was once told by a Pastor that yoga was evil (he mentioned the snake in kundalini) while I find it as a means toward wholeness, in mind, body and spirit.

    I’m looking forward to the “Year of the Dragon” and all the abundance and power it’s said to be bringing. Wishing you a Happy Chinese New Year – why not celebrate in our lives as often as possible?

  3. January 23, 2012 10:31 pm

    Hi Angela, that’s so fascinating! That’s the way it has been for me too – lots of dragons in meditation, dreams, etc. I have always loved dragons, but this round of interest really got triggered by a guided meditation I participated in, and then finding out it’s the Year of the Dragon. Others have told me they’ve had a similar reaction. The dragons are clearly out and about:-)

    Hi Becca, yes I found it so interesting how dragons are to be slayed in so much European lore and they are helpers and aids in the Asian lore (although there were exceptions in both cases.) I think the mystic arms of Judeo-Christianity are much more nuanced, but it’s an interesting difference on the surface. And I agree, let’s celebrate all we can:-)

  4. January 24, 2012 4:22 am

    Lisa, I had a dream about twin baby dragons in 2007 and wrote a poem about it entitled “Why the Dragons Went Away.” That was before I knew you, so I’m putting the link here so you can read it. I’m impressed that you were able to get in and out of the dragon lore as effectively as you did here. I remember getting stuck there. Dragons are so interesting!

    The white dragon standing behind the seated warrior maiden looks most like the dragon who narrates my poem. I think you’ll like this. There’s a bit of a backstory before the actual poem. I love dragons. Happy Year of the Dragon to you too!

  5. January 24, 2012 5:10 am

    This was really cool, Lisa. Thank you so much for sharing what you found! I’ve had a life-long love affair with dragons, and dragon-lore was (at least partially) responsible for my desire to become a fantasy author. Once upon a time, I even had a book on dragon magick, all geared towards working with dragons as totems, spirit guides, and teachers from the realm of spirit.

    You’ve found some very lovely images…thank you for sharing them with us!

  6. January 24, 2012 1:28 pm

    I LOVE dragons!! They are one of my core subjects to draw and paint. The feminine principle is exquisitely embodied in the dragon/serpent and I enjoy exploring the complexities. Jezebel,Tanith (the ‘first Eve), the ‘great whore of Babylon among others, are all symbolic manifestations of the [feared] feminine principal. This year the dragon is black/water – my paintbrush and pencils have already been busy! Love your posts.

  7. January 24, 2012 2:44 pm

    Brenda – I love it!! What a wonderful visit of the muse, in this case a dragon muse. And it shows that it was so spontaneously inspired, because the voice, visuals, everything are so unique…

  8. January 24, 2012 2:47 pm

    Hi Jay – so what are your favorite fantasy dragon stories? I have been try to find some more to read…I actually loved the Inheritance series, but I guess opinion is very divided on that one…and I like the Dragonriders of Pern series…but haven’t really found any others here I connect with the dragons themselves – any recommendations?

    Corestarme – Yes, I didn’t write much about the feminine principle and the dragon here, but that was another powerful theme I found, thanks for bringing it up. I would love to see some of your dragon artwork…

  9. January 24, 2012 9:48 pm

    i have no particular connection with dragons, but something about it being it’s year and i became thoughtful. it came to me later, my daughter. i feel like she has a connection to them. so i’m keeping my eyes open. 😉

  10. January 25, 2012 5:21 am

    (Brenda, I read your poem and the story of it’s inception and LOVED it!!) Wonderful post, Angela. I think the dragon is also tied to all things reptilian–that which slithers closest to mother earth and that part of our brain that is old and instinctual and has little use for the conscious mind. The early church had to demonize these qualities, associated with women’s “non-rational” nature in order to control the population. (We can’t have people running around willy-nilly by their own instincts or chaos will reign and we won’t have the power.)

  11. January 25, 2012 5:40 am

    This is fascinating Lisa. And I love the dragon art you’ve posted here! What struck me reading this is that there are so many parallels regarding dragon lore throughout such very different cultural and spiritual contexts.

    I’ve never had any special pull towards dragons, but I have many dragon people in my life, (year of the dragon I mean hehe), and a good friend of mine has a tiny son who since he could talk has spoken of his dragon friend who lives with him and visits him in his sleep (!)

    Love also you point about the Judeo-Christian take on evil, contrasted with the Eastern perspective. Thanks for this post – really enjoyed it.

  12. January 25, 2012 4:55 pm

    Hi Mon, that’s so interesting re: your daughter, I would love to hear how that connects in the future…like whether it seems as if it’s a power animal of hers, or she has a dragon-like guide or friend (like Antoinette mentioned) or something along those lines…

    Cate – “that which slithers closest to mother earth and that part of our brain that is old and instinctual and has little use for the conscious mind” – yes! And I left it out, but I did come across a lot linking dragons and reptiles in general to images of Satan as he evolved in Christian lore…the literal ‘demonization’ of dragons as Christianity overtook Europe historically…

    Antoinette – that’s interesting re: your friend’s son…I have seen/sensed a lot of ancient spirits that are very dragon-like as they appear in my consciousness…I don’t think of them as literally being dragons, but it has made me think that dragons as we’ve come to think of them are a representation of a type of spirit that has been sensed across many different cultures…just as so many cultures have winged beings (i.e. angels, winged deities, etc.)…then of course there is the literal dinosaur connection – dinosaur bones have been believed to be dragon bones by many cultures around the world when discovered…


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