It is now officially the Year of the Dragon, the only mythical creature in the Chinese Zodiac. He’s big, he’s beautiful, and those born under his aegis are supposed to be fearless, innovative, self assured and brave (they can also be tactless and quick tempered, but who wants to be negative?)
Dragons are not always creatures of legend and story, as witness the Komodo Dragon, a most unprepossessing customer that that can grow up to ten feet and weigh 200 pounds. Even with all this weight the Komodo can run, climb trees, swim, and hunt big game like wild horses, deer, and water buffalo. Nastiest of all, the Komodo’s saliva contains so many germs that a single bite will kill within days.
Is it any wonder that I prefer the legendary creatures of fire and air? Of course, not all dragons were friendly. As far back as Sumer, there were stories written on clay tablets about a monster dragon called Asag (or Kur) who was battled by Ninurta, a god/hero. The Egyptians had their hero (who is either the sun god, Ra, or Seth) get rid of a nasty snake/dragon called Apophis. Then there is St. George putting paid to the dragon that brought him so much fame, and the warning that struck terror into the heart of all mariners who dared sail to the edge of the world… “There be dragons.”
Admittedly, dragons have had a bad rep. Deemed sneaky, malicious, unscrupulous and deadly, they always seem to be guarding treasure in some deep and damp cave or setting towns on fire. Even literary dragons have a lot to answer for—consider Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock! Still, there are some good members of the species. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and Paolini’s Inheritance cycle spring to mind—and, of course, Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. Closer to home there is “The Very Hungry Dragon” which I wrote to amuse the grandchildren. In it Sparks, a young dragon who detests broccoli and rutabagas, is driven by hunger to devour hay (with ketchup on it). The story never appeared in print but got high praise from its target audience.
Most likely because I was born in the year of the dragon, I am partial to these wonderful mythical creatures. Though often vilified in the west, dragons are considered revered protectors in the east, and in olden times Chinese people would make many offerings to them. There were a lot of dragons, too (the Great Dragon purportedly had nine sons), and they all had personalities! I recall reading that Baxia was a good swimmer, and that Qiuniu loved music.
Dragons were also a symbol of status. While we were in China we learned that ordinary people could only display a dragon with four claws. Five-clawed dragons belonged to the Emperor alone and anyone foolhardy enough to own or display one such was put to death.
There is a story—supposedly true—about a rich merchant who built a wonderful residence for himself and erected a five-clawed dragon on the roof. Just below the open jaws of this great creature knelt a small frog. Of course the emperor heard about it and had the merchant arrested and brought before him. I can imagine the scene, can’t you? The Son of Heaven sits on his great throne and there before him kneels the trembling merchant.
“What,” thunders the emperor, “do you mean by this disrespect? For your actions, you must die.”
The merchant dares to raise his forehead off the floor. “Oh, Great Son of Heaven,” he pleads, “let me explain. You are the great, the wonderful, the magnificent dragon depicted on my humble roof. I am the miserable frog kneeling at your feet so that I might best serve you.”
Pretty quick thinking, don’t you think? And it worked. The merchant not only left the Imperial Presence with body parts intact but was from then on showered with favor. His business and property increased, and his gardens—which we visited in Shanghai—were fabulous.
Black cloud overhead…
Could it be that a dragon
Has hidden the sun?