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A representation of Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent of Aztec tradition.
Volcanic stone (±1300-1521 CE) Philadelphia Museum of Art



Dragons—All Between The Ears?
Jan 19, 2009

There is no shortage of theories about the nature of dragon mythology, but for some reason a celestial or atmospheric origin is seldom considered.

Typical explanations range from pure, unbridled imagination to a hard-core cryptozoological insistence that dragons are real and belong in the category of "living fossils." A longtime favourite is the assumption that dragons are essentially Dinosaurs, whose existence was either inferred by traditional cultures from the accidental discovery of fossils or was mysteriously kept alive for millions of years in archaic memories hardwired in the limbic segment of the brain. The latter idea of a "brain dragon" enjoys some popularity in academe and comes very close to a stimulating thought-experiment proposed in 2000 by Florida anthropologist, David Jones, in his book An Instinct for Dragons.

In a nutshell, Jones argues that the "brain dragon" reflected in myths was not modeled on Dinosaurs, but on a compressed racial memory of the three main predators that used to prey on our primate ancestors: raptorial birds, big cats, and snakes. Jones’ fundamental observation – which he unfortunately takes little care to document in depth – is that dragons are frequently depicted with attributes taken from all three categories of vertebrates – the flexible, scaly body of a snake, the wings and talons of a bird of prey, the characteristic face of a panther or lion. It is an original and intriguing idea, presented in a very readable format, but does it work?

At first blush, Jones’ model makes much sense of the visual appearance of the dragon as well as the deep innate fear the monster has elicited around the world. Nevertheless, the match between the evolutionary psychology of primates and the content of dragon mythology is by no means as close as Jones suggests. For one thing, the emotional response to the dragon was not universally expressed in terms of fear.

In countless cases, the dragon was held in high esteem and portrayed in affectionate terms as an instrument of creation, the original receptacle of all life forms, or a benign force in the heavens. This is even the case in non-centralised societies organised in bands and tribes, that did – on Jones’ theory – not yet "tame" the dragon.

In addition, Jones’ capitalisation on birds of prey, felid carnivores and snakes is biased in its selectivity: depending on where one lived, animals such as bears, wolves, scorpions and spiders posed just as much of a threat to early primates, yet were not incorporated in the standard prosopography of the dragon. Moreover, many trademark themes associated with dragons receive no elucidation from the assumption of a "brain dragon": the cosmic dimensions of the dragon, the dragon as the primordial container or enclosure of all waters, the dragon’s egg identified as the visible cosmos, and the propensity of the dragon to form a circle, tail-in-mouth, or entwine itself in pairs.

An impressive array of traditions situate the dragon in the sky, where the creature is variously identified as the rainbow, the lightning flash, the Milky Way, the tail of a comet, auroral arcs, the ecliptic band, the morning or evening star (!), or the constellation Draco.

Throughout the entire study, Jones makes no mention of the dragon’s intricate relationship with the firmament or the fabric of the cosmos. Indeed, a closer look at the narrative of the dragon combat directly contravenes the neurological theory in strong terms: the ubiquitous mythical motif of a warrior-hero residing in the belly or the maw of the dragon prior to victory could never have arisen as a reflex of primate experiences with predators, as nature must have selected for animals that did not end up in the clutches of eagles, panthers or constricting snakes.

No monkey gobbled up by a predator could live to tell the tale and pass it on to offspring. Though Jones does devote a chapter to the theme of the dragon combat, which he explains as an expression of advanced progress in the political level of civilisation, the quintessential myth of the swallowed hero, which is at the heart of dragon mythology, does not rate a mention.

Intriguingly, Jones’ original starting point can be taken in an entirely different direction. If it may be granted that the archetype of the dragon rests on a class of conspicuous atmospheric phenomena, what can the dragon’s avian wings, leonine manes and ears, and serpentine torso tell us about its origins? The tails of comets and auroral arcs, which are the likeliest source of dragon reports in historical times, are both formed of plasma. The signature of energetic plasmas is a notable degree of filamentation.

On the rare occasions when plasma filaments present themselves to the human eye, the impression is that of "hairs," "rays," "streamers," or "spikes." If mythical dragons were really the expression of active plasma formations witnessed in the sky, the radiant "feathers" of the "feathered serpent," adding to its avian aspect, and the "whiskers" and "manes" of its catlike head, receive a natural explanation in the filamented appearance of such plasmas. As argued on these pages and elsewhere, plasma physics has the potential to illuminate many other aspects of dragon mythology, including the motifs listed above.

The image of the dragon probably originated in the external, natural world, as Jones contends, yet the prototype is more likely found in cosmic plasmas seen at times of extreme geophysical duress than in a hazy, confused memory of threatening vertebrate rivals. This is not to rule out that such predators could have left a lasting imprint on the "mindset" of primate ancestors. If they did, it is conceivable that such deeply rooted fears played a role in the mental process of mythologising the extremely violent plasmas hypothesised here.

When confronted with the extraordinary spectacle of a plasma filament in glow discharge mode, producing instability effects that are very hard to capture adequately in language, human beings may well have been reminded of the wild animals that roam the air, the forest, or the desert – and as they struggled to apply the metaphors of such animals to the complex images displayed on the celestial screen, any subconscious associations of terror would have left their marks on the coloration of the resulting "myth" and its narrative context.

Contributed by Rens Van Der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon


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