Seven times and seven score times on high
All hail the golden wings unfurled —
The Druid of the Circled Sky —
The Flame-bright Dragon of the World! —
— Kenneth Morris
Symbols are an introduction to wordless thought, and form a language of analogy by which we may explore the inwardness of the universe. Each symbol has its inherent meaning, but it is a general meaning, and acquires a specific or limited significance only through association and use. It is sometimes said that a symbol has many interpretations; but this is because we are accustomed to look at everything from our word-bound mentality, and so fail to see the universal application of the symbol as an interpretation of nature's laws.
The mystical concept of the dragon is one of the oldest known to man. It was common to China, Japan, Tibet, Europe and the Americas; and temples of the dragon as emblem of the Sun, life, and wisdom, once covered the globe. To this the mysterious monoliths of Stonehenge and Carnac, the Pyramid Temples in America, and many similar remains, bear silent witness.
Lao-tze thus described water: "Water is the weakest and softest of all things, yet it overcomes the strongest and the hardest. It penetrates everywhere, subtly, without noise, without effort." So it becomes typical of the spirit which is able to pass out into all other existences of the world and resume its own form in man; and associated with the power of fluidity, the dragon becomes the symbol of the infinite.
In its essence, the dragon in China, America, and Wales signified the divine spirit of the waters; and the waters were themselves the fluid aspect of any principle of nature. The dragon and water myth illustrates the relationship between spirit and matter in nature; it is the Yang of Chinese philosophy as opposed to the Yin; and as there are many grades of matter ranging from the physical to the divine, Chinese mythology divides the dragons into classes according to their nature and habitat.
It was not always so, for as explained in The Secret Doctrine (Vol. I, p. 408) the genii or four Maharajas of the cardinal points known to the Chinese as "the Black warrior, White Tiger, Vermilion Bird, and Azure Dragon [are] called in the Secret Book the "Four Hidden Dragons of Wisdom" and the "Celestial Nagas." Now, as shown, the seven-headed or septenary Dragon-Logos had been in course of time split up, so to speak, into four heptanomic parts or twenty-eight portions."
The archaic dragons and serpents of antiquity were all seven-headed and typified the seven principles throughout man and nature. Later this symbol was broken up into separate classes, into good and evil dragons, and, in Europe during the Middle Ages, into an emblem of evil only.
In Central America the Dragon is represented as two-poled, having a head at each end. When separated, the dragon becomes dual as are the good and evil serpents of the caduceus, or sometimes a dragon is opposed by a serpent.
In its earthy aspect, the dragon is the fiery essence in underground water which attracts the divining rod. It is the Od of Baron Reichenbach, in his researches into the astral light.
In the air, it is the lightning of the storm cloud and the fertilizing power of the rain; in the hurricane, it is the noise and whirling vortex of the winds; for on every plane there is some aspect of the dragon power.
In the Orient, folklore, art, and poetry, have woven a garment of fancy about the ancient myth, which, delightful as it is, obscures the deeper significance of the symbol. Yet while it conceals it preserves truths which might otherwise be lost.
Like the Sphinx of Egypt, and like man himself, the dragon is composite, and represents the several kingdoms of nature. In China, the Imperial five-clawed dragon has the scales of a fish, the neck of a lizard, the paws of a tiger, the claws of an eagle, and the horns of a deer; in all, there are nine attributes to this strange creature, who as the embodiment of Yang, the spiritual principle, continually seeks to subdue the nine Yin inherent in matter.
According to Chinese Mythology there are three classes of dragons; the lowest were the Li Lung or earth dragons, whose realm was the waters of the earth, the second class were the Chen Lung or spiritual dragons associated with storms and clouds, the highest class were the Tien Lung, the celestial or heavenly dragons who guarded the mansions of the gods, and were adopted as an emblem by the Chinese Emperors.
The domain of the Li Lung or earth dragon was the sea, the underground waters of the earth and the streams, lakes and waterfalls on the surface. It was this earth dragon living underground who was supposed to guard precious metals and to cause earthquakes; it is also referred to as the golden dragon, and is the variety associated with the fossil bones of the dinosaurs. The Chinese say that these bones are strong in the principle of Yang, and so expel the evil Yin which is afflicting the body.
The second class of dragons, the Chen Lung, whose home is in the air, shows itself in the lightning and in the fertilizing and vivifying power of rain. Above these are the Tien Lung which reside in the sky, guarding the mansions of the gods. The Tien Lung symbol is used only by those in the Imperial service. It may be recognized by the horns and the five-clawed feet.
The figure ordinarily used in decoration has three claws, and is divided into a number of minor divisions by custom and fancy.
It is a strange fact that in both the Gobi Desert of China and the Bad-lands of the Dakotas in the United States, the native tribes gathered the bones of fossil dinosaurs and prepared them for medicine. In each case they supposed they were gathering the remains of dragons, the Li Lung in China; the Unk-ta-he in Dakota. In America the earth dragon is known to the Dakota Indians as the Unk-ta-he (a word which defies analysis). This mythical being is the god of the water, and is said to fly through the air as a fiery meteor. He is the one whom tradition credits with bringing the first land forth from the water; and it is he also who conducts the soul of the deceased from the village of souls, down the river of life to the earth, where the soul reimbodies as a man. The Unk-ta-he lived in rivers and lakes and also in underground waters, and is represented in picture writing as horned and composite in structure.
The Algonquins also had their fire dragon or light-thrower, which they believed flew from one deep lake or river to another.
In Southern California there are many stories of Taquitz, the fiery monster supposed to live in the waters within Mount San Jacinto, and to fly through the sky as a low-flying meteor. To it the Indians credit the strange sounds sometimes heard within the mountain.
The Great Dragon of Quirigua, in Guatemala, is a marvelously carved ovoid stone weighing twenty tons. It is placed North and South and has two mouths. In the northern mouth a beautifully carved divinity is seated, in the southern is a long-nosed demon of the underworld; while about the circumference are twelve eyes. The stone is covered with an intricate design which, without representing any definite form, suggests the potentiality of all life in a strange blending of human, reptilian, and avian elements. As a whole, it symbolized the primordial earth, the spiritual earth from which the earth emanated, upon which it depends.
W. H. Holmes of the National Museum says of this stone, "It conveys vividly the impression of a living thing — a dragon out dragoning all the composite monsters of the Orient. So virile are the forms, so tense the coiling, so strong the impression of life, that a thrill almost of apprehension steals over one, for there is a distinct suggestion that the bulging imprisoned inner monster might break its bonds, uncoil its length, and slide away into the deep shadows of the forest immediately at hand." (Smithsonian report for 1906: The Great Dragon of Quirigua, Guatemala.) As to its symbolism Mr. Holmes asks, "May it not be, as some have surmised, that this image impersonates the Earth Monster, The World God, and that from the wide-open jaws, facing the ceremonial plaza, issued the divinity of the world of man, that through the glyph-hidden jaws of the southern end peered the grotesque demon of the underworld?"
Whatever the date of the carving may be, the tradition followed is very old, and in occult significance this image may well be the chief of dragon symbols.
Among the Aztecs, the earth was said to have emanated from the primordial Cicpactyl or earth dragon which was also the first sign of their zodiac, the first day of their calendar; and the first day of creation was called "I Cicpactyl."
The Mayas had the same system with Imix replacing Cicpactyl as the name of the primordial or spiritual earth. In their codices Imix is shown as a dragon associated with waterfalls, and with the color green as indicating beginning or newness.
Truly China, America, and the Land of the Druid all fall under the domain of the dragon, and it is by comparing the myths as found in these countries that we can better understand the development of the symbol.
The earliest Chinese account is the symbolic story of a dragon-horse rising from the river Lo, and bringing the Trigrams to Fu Hsi in the year 2853 b.c.
The eastern dragon is not the gruesome monster of medieval superstition, but the genius of goodness itself. He is the spirit of change, therefore of life itself; in Theosophical language he is the Wind of the Spirit, again rising from the depths to renew and revitalize the life of the world.
"He may become the size of a silk worm, or enlarge to fill the space of heaven and earth." (Kakuzo)
In Japan four classes of dragons are recognized and are said to represent the four dragons which rule the four seas which surround the earth. The myth has traveled a long way from its source when such a perversion of the symbol can arise as the notorious Black Dragon Society of recent years.
Ernest Ingersoll believes that the four classes of Nagas of India correspond to the Chinese division, and that this with the Mahayana conception of Buddhism, did much to shape Chinese Symbolism during the Han dynasty.
The four classes of Nagas are as follows:
1. Heavenly Nagas, who uphold and guard the heavenly palace.
2. Divine Nagas, who cause clouds to rise and rain to fall.
3. Earthly Nagas, who clear out and drain rivers.
4. Hidden Nagas, who are the guardians of treasure.
The last two classes appear to be combined in the later Chinese classification.
One of the most familiar designs in the Orient is that of two dragons contending for a flaming pearl, which is sometimes explained as two forces, positive and negative, producing rolling thunder during the formation of a storm. But there is a much deeper explanation than the physical one.
According to tradition, the T'ien Lung, which means literally Heaven Dragon, carries a pearl under its chin. This pearl is white or red with a golden aura, and has four three-forked flames rising from it. Suspended from the pearl is a comma-shaped pendant, dark in color, which probably represents the Yin portion of the Yang and Yin monad, separated yet still pendent from the radiant pearl, even as man is pendent from his spiritual nature. There are variations and simplifications of the design, and sometimes the pendant is omitted.
These strange comma-like objects, carved out of shell or bone, have been found in the mounds of the Ohio Mound Builders, and while no one knows their use or significance, one might suppose them linked in some way with the dragon myth, as it is in the Orient.
The precious pearl figures in many designs. Often two dragons are shown rushing through swirling clouds towards a pearl which floats between them.
An eighteenth century vase is "decorated with nine dragons swirling through scrolled clouds enveloping parts of their serpentine bodies, in pursuit of jewels of omnipotence which appear in the midst of clouds as revolving discs emitting branched rays of effulgence." (Ernest Ingersoll)
A popular explanation of the dual dragon contending for the pearl is that of bad luck and good luck trying to secure the prize.
Whether we speak of the Nagas of India, the Unk-ta-he, Imix, Feathered Serpent or others of America, or the various dragons of China or the Druid lands: there is an esoteric current running through all these. They have too much in common not to have had a common source.
In all countries the dragon, because it is the symbol of imbodied spiritual qualities, has been used as a title for great initiates and adepts, who are spoken of as Dragons of Wisdom, and as Nagas or Serpents. The Sun itself is often called the Cosmic Dragon in occult literature.
The sphinx, combining lion, eagle, man, and bull, signifies the four-fold nature of man and the universe according to a monadic classification. The seven-headed dragon or serpent symbolizes the seven principles in man and nature, while the dual or two-headed dragon suggests the dual nature everywhere existing.
G. de Purucker describes the Dragon as "the Demiurge, the establisher or former of our planet and of all that pertains thereto; neither good nor bad, but its differentiated aspects in Nature make it assume one or the other character." And he adds:
"Summarizing, therefore, the Dragon and the Serpent, whether high or low, were types of various events in cosmic or world history, or again of various good qualities whether in the World or in man, for either one can at different times signify Spiritual Immortality or Wisdom, or Reimbodiment, which last in this sense is equivalent to Regeneration."