Author Topic: Dragons and Serpent Deities in Ancient Cultures  (Read 1032 times)

Vellos

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Dragons and Serpent Deities in Ancient Cultures
« on: March 02, 2016, 04:08:04 pm »
Figured I'd give this empty board something for folks to chew on.  So, I'll throw out a subject that I've been gnawing on myself for some time.  How, when looking through history, we see so many cultures with dragon or serpent deities.  Or rather, did until recently (thanks, followers of Abraham).

Flying reptilians are an oddly consistent theme among many cultures... that did not have much chance to contact one another, due to distance or geography.  It's very strange that we would have as many cultures as we do that all seemed to agree on a depicition of things draconic.

There are caves in Australia, belonging to the aboriginal peoples there.  Until Europeans arrived, they did not have much in the way of a written language, but did make plenty of cave depicitions of what they saw, and what they held sacred.  Some of these depictions go back 6000 years.  One of the most common depicions in these caves are of their creator and protector, the Rainbow Serpent.  Responsible for good weather/rain, fertility, and healing if you get your rituals right.  During droughts, it would keep the major watering holes going, making a rainbow as it travelled from place to place.  And, when these people looked up to the sky at night, where we see the Milky Way side-on, they saw the underbelly of the giant serpent, stretching across the sky.  A very powerful and world-controlling, flying, fabulously colored serpent. 

If we hop over to another continent, South/Central America, the Olmecs had something going on very curious as well.  About 3500 years ago we start to see evidnece of their culture, and of a central feathered-serpent deity, which the later Aztecs and Maya would call "Quetzalcoatl".  While prone to eating men whole, this serpent was the patron of the priesthood for the Aztecs, of learning and knowledge.  Massive temple-cities were even dedicated to him, like Teotihuacan.  Also, another example of a fabulously colored snake deity.

You've also got the pretty standard (at least to us) European stories of dragons and serpents, though no deities.  Christianity, like mesoamerican cultures, do also associate serpents with learning and knowledge, though in a "sinful" context in Genesis.  Still, a talking snake being involved with a major pivot point in a religion's creation story.

It seems before the Abrahamic faiths took off and spread around the planet (along with their distaste for anything scaled), there were quite a few faiths around the planet that did worship dragon-like things, and put them front-and-center to other gods.  And, that they seem to have come to these conclusions independent of one another.  Curious!

This is what I often find most fascinating and can chew on for the longest: How did this idea come about?  Are these reminants of some ancient proto-religion that spread with the very first populations of humanity?  Perhaps there was more contact than we thought possible?  Maybe some species of scaled megafauna (feathery dragon things?) existed early in humanity's history that they deified?  Something else entirely?  Dunno!  But it's fun to research and speculate.
« Last Edit: March 03, 2016, 07:29:13 pm by Vellos »

TashRikil

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Re: Dragons and Serpent Deities in Ancient Cultures
« Reply #1 on: March 03, 2016, 06:48:09 pm »
A couple comments, because this is well thought out.

1) If all humans are, according to current evolutionary science, the likely descendents of one tribe expanding aggressively out of Africa, it makes sense that they brought their stories with them. They might change them, scaly things are all over the planet, frankly, and they might be swapped in for other political influences they didnt wish to name directly, etc, but it makes sense that people would pay attention to the local scalies.

2) The very earliest pre homo sapien sapiens (homo erectus, homo habilis, etc) from a few million years ago may have shared the planet with the last of the dinosaurs. Science originally scorned this but I thought some came back around to thinking this way. At the very least they could have dug up the low hanging fossil fruit and wondered what that birdish thing was. Make up stories to justify its existence, of dragons. Nothing would surprise me at this point.

Vellos

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Re: Dragons and Serpent Deities in Ancient Cultures
« Reply #2 on: March 03, 2016, 08:16:45 pm »
1) If all humans are, according to current evolutionary science, the likely descendents of one tribe expanding aggressively out of Africa, it makes sense that they brought their stories with them. They might change them, scaly things are all over the planet, frankly, and they might be swapped in for other political influences they didnt wish to name directly, etc, but it makes sense that people would pay attention to the local scalies.

It does make sense that they integrate what they see into their faith structures.  Ultimately these are human beings trying to develop an understanding of why things are the way they are.  If we look at the Egyptians, we've got gods with the heads of crocs or snakes that are responsible for those creatures and surrounding environments.  But we don't see feathered/winged/flying serpents, just ones reflective of those in northeast Africa.  So there are cultures that did and did not engage in this kind of reasoning in their faith systems, while still folding in scaled things.

The very oldest haplogroups, found in equatorial Africa, date back to about 120k-150k years ago (for reference, human cultivation of crops dates to about 50k years ago, and writing about 8k years ago).  These people were very nomadic, following food sources since they could not create their own stable sources.  Knowing plants and animals were vital to survival, and I'm sure they developed stories for one generation to pass down to the next to help them learn and remember.  Gods were pagan-like in nature, having physical domains, and when you moved into the domain of one, you were to show your reverence regardless of whom you worshiped beforehand.  Else, your new location may start giving your clan diseases, or poor weather.

We see a lot of bull and snake and tree gods, cave paintings and stone sculptures dedicated to them.  But no flying serpents are seen until much more recently, in human history.  The sky serpent of the Australian aboriginals dates back to at least 8k years ago.  About 7k years ago, early Chinese cultures declared themselves as "children of the dragon", and made depictions of what we would call an "eastern" dragon.  The Olmecs and their feathered serpent deities date back to about 3.5k years ago, as well.

Compared to other human activity (agriculture at 50k years ago), this is actually a rather recent development.  It coincides at about the same time as writing systems, about 8k years ago.  That enabled communication, and very explicit communication between large gaps of time.  It was also about that time that the Chinese cultures were digging up dinosaur bones and writing about them.  So there might be a very strong link there.  Books travel well through time, much better than humans do.

2) The very earliest pre homo sapien sapiens (homo erectus, homo habilis, etc) from a few million years ago may have shared the planet with the last of the dinosaurs. Science originally scorned this but I thought some came back around to thinking this way. At the very least they could have dug up the low hanging fossil fruit and wondered what that birdish thing was. Make up stories to justify its existence, of dragons. Nothing would surprise me at this point.

There's definite possibilities in here.  Human beings were very much hunting down mammoths and smilodons into extinction, and there very may well have been more species we don't know about.  Maybe some exotic, big and flappy theropods.  Those could be integrated into stories, and the stories mutated through time as they tend to do.  Written word is so much more stable, but that's an advent that unfortunately comes much later in history.  So that's a solid possibility.

The fossil records no doubt influenced human culture for ages, before we got a concrete idea of what we were looking at.  Stories of towering cyclops were derived from the peculiar bones of mammoths, with a giant huge hole in the front of the skull for where the trunk connects.  Paleontology didn't get started until the 1700s or so to really suss out the subtle details in the fossil record, to put theories like this to rest.  So any interpretation done long ago would have had to have been against existing creatures, to even tell if the thing was fuzzy or scaled.

So that people perhaps picked up these large skulls, and compared them to what they had (existing crocs, perhaps), they could extrapolate a large stompy lizard was the owner of that skull.  But where does flight start to get involved, and how did that idea spread?  We currently look at theropods like bitey lizard-birds, mostly because of the very, very faint hints of plumage we find in the fossil record, ignored in the prior decades.  But that's a very recent discovery, requiring magnifying glasses and a large catalog of fossils to compare and contrast.  I'm not sure ancient man could have made the same discovery beforehand, and use that to influence their cultures and others.

InannaEloah

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Re: Dragons and Serpent Deities in Ancient Cultures
« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2016, 10:39:59 am »
I've always felt that the idea of the serpentine gods of old being aliens from another planet made the most sense.  They had immense power, they did things that terrestrial animals don't do, and quite often the human locals had trouble properly describing them.  A lot of the time, the descriptions focused on the dragons' individual body parts and what they most closely resembled in Earthly animals.  One of my favorite examples of this is a description I read of the Babylonian dragon goddess Tiamat, which said she had "the horns of a bull, the legs of a lizard, the wings of a bat, the head of a camel, the udders of a cow," and so on.  To me, this would indicate more than anything that these beings were not originally of this Earth, and that they probably traveled here from another world. 

Also, there is a bit of wisdom that I see every now and again, attributed to science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, which goes:  "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." 

So my humble opinion is that most of the serpentine gods were simply advanced beings from another planet, or maybe from another dimension.
« Last Edit: September 19, 2016, 10:41:33 am by InannaEloah »