The Dragon: Mythical Beasts of the Middle East, Part 2

By Hajar, Rachel | The World and I, January 1999 | Go to article overview

The Dragon: Mythical Beasts of the Middle East, Part 2


Hajar, Rachel, The World and I


Typically, the dragon is a tall, standing serpent with a scaly body, a crocodilian head, four feet, horns, wings, and a propensity to belch fire and smoke. For some, this image has embodied the idea of cosmic order and chaos. For others, it has posed a challenge as the ultimate bestial adversary. The dragon is recognizable in most of the world's cultures and yet always with different connotations.

In the ancient Near East, the dragon symbolized the four elements of nature: earth, air, fire, and water. It lived in the depths of earth or water, flew through the air, and would often breathe flame.

As the inhabitants of gloomy regions under land and water, dragons were often associated with dark forces. In many traditions, they are linked with the earth-dwelling serpent, a form usually representing evil.

Benevolent beasts

Early writings illuminate the mythical significance of dragons. In Near Eastern mythology, the dragon symbolizes destruction and evil when it is untamed. Conquered and subdued, however, it assumes the role of guardian. This is clearly illustrated in the Babylonian Epic of Creation, written about 1400 b.c. The epic details the struggle of Apsu, god of the primordial waters under the earth, and his consort Tiamat, the sea goddess, against Ea, god of wisdom, and his son Marduk, a god-hero.

According to the story, Ea killed Apsu and took over his domain. Plotting revenge, Tiamat created an army of

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giant snakes sharp of tooth and unsparing of fang.

She filled their bodies with venom instead of blood.

She cloaked ferocious dragons with fearsome rays and made them bear mantles of radiance, made them god-like.

"Whoever looks upon them shall collapse in utter terror! Their bodies shall rear up continually and never turn away!"

Marduk defeated Tiamat in combat and split her down the middle. He put up one of her halves as a roof for the sky and laid down the other half to form the surface of the earth. Marduk then captured the dragon and Tiamat's other monsters. For this, the gods bestowed the trappings of kingship upon Marduk, and the dragon took its place at his feet. Thereafter, the dragon became the emblem of the god Marduk.

In Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra travels in his solar boat through the underworld each night. Though his journey is fraught with danger, he is aided by the dragonlike creatures that guard the tomb of Osiris, god of the underworld, and the fire-breathing cobras that guard the gates and passageways. Ra confronts his mortal enemy, Apepis, a giant sea snake and a symbol of darkness and chaos. He slays and dismembers Apepis, and then sails up from the east to shine as the sun for the next twelve hours. Apepis, however, is resurrected each time he is slain. Come nighttime, the battle begins again.

Ancient civilizations believed in a perpetual process of death and resurrection. Ra's struggle represents the victory of light over darkness, the defeat of chaos, and the renewal of life.

Like the Babylonian epic, this Egyptian myth indicates that dragons have a capacity for good, especially when serving gods such as Ra. As guardians, however, they also have the ability to destroy through fire, venom, or constriction.

Serpents of darkness

From antiquity, the belief in dragons as the incarnation of evil, darkness, and other negative forces has endured. The association of serpents with the underworld was likely derived from the subterranean living habits of snakes. Their connection with death and rebirth is based upon a snake's ability to "regenerate" by shedding its skin. From ancient times, these qualities have been central to dragon mythology.

The dragon appears in many religions as an agent of chaos and a symbol of evil. In the Old Testament, the dragon embodies the chaos that existed before the world. Since chaos threatened Creation, it was believed that the dragon had to be defeated. …

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