Saturday, July 30, 2005

Here Be Dragons

Baltimore backyard

I took this picture from my friends' backyard in baltimore a couple of weeks ago. The flag in the picture, mostly hidden, is that of a red dragon on a green-and-white background. When I saw it I thought of Chinese dragons and guessed it was a flag from East-Asia. But, a little googling later, I was surprised to find out that it's actually Welsh.

Welsh Flag

Bhutanese Flag

Dragons have, interestingly, independently appeared in the cultures of Europe and East Asia. Apart from being the symbol of the Welsh people, the dragon has been the symbol of Chinese Emperors, and appears on the national flag of Bhutan. Here is a site that talks about the history of dragons in the west from the ancient Greeks, through medieval Christianity (St.George and the Dragon --- a myth that may have been inspired by the Greek tale of Perseus and Medusa). East Asian dragons appear to be linked to their Buddhist origins in India (and some dragon/serpeant-like creatures called Nagas in Indian mythology --- never heard of them).

One theory why dragon-like creatures have appeared independantly in such different cultures is that when people found dinosaur bones, they fleshed out what creatures they thought they belonged to, and created these dragon myths.


Anonymous Manoj said...

Interesting post as always, Ashvin.

St.George and the Dragon --- a myth that may have been inspired by the Greek tale of Perseus and Medusa.

Try telling that to the diocese members of the thousands of St.George churches in Kerala and you'll be stoned to death! :))

I remember the fiery sermons of a bishop, popularly referred to as Perumpally Thirumaeni, during the St.George festival at our church. Master story-teller who held kids like me in awe with his vivid narration of the heroics of St.George the dragon slayer . I also remember my grandma telling me that calling upon Geevarughese Punyaalachchan would keep me safe from snakes! I guess granny dear had her own theory as to what snakes evolved from. :)

7/30/2005 08:56:00 PM  
Blogger ashvin said...

Wow, I did not know that kerala churches perpetuated the story of St.George and the dragon. (Probably because of my sparse attendence at the Orthodox church and my poor compehension of malayalam). Actually, thinking back, I do remember seeing that picture of St.George on his white horse all over kerala: and if I'd looked closely I could have seen the dragon being speared.

Also: what is Punyaal ?

Thanks a lot for the comment Manoj.

7/31/2005 09:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Manoj said...

I'd say Punyaalachan literally meant Kind Father, but it's actually a Malayalam reference for a Saint (Anthoniar Punayalaachan, Geevarughese Punyalaachan etc.). The more commonly used word for Saint would be Sleeha I'd think (Mar Thoma Sleeha, Pathrose Sleeha, Paulose Sleeha etc.).

I also realized that Mallu stories of St.George referred to the dragon as perumpaampu, as in "great snake". For a long time I thought it was a mutant python in those photos, until I happened upon stories of dragons & knights. No wonder my gran had it all mixed up.

7/31/2005 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger ashvin said...

Yes, I'm familiar with Sleeha and Mar, but I don't think I've heard
Punyaalachan before.

It's interesting that the dragon, in the kerala version, is known as perumpaampu. I have long felt that snakes have got a bad rap in christianity : what with eve and the snake in the garden of eden and all.

7/31/2005 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

I think you're bang on with the dinosaur bone theory....

Nagas are actually all over Indian mythology, and it's hard to read about indian mythology without reading about nagas. They were part of the semi-cellestial group (gandharvas, apsaras, yakshas and nagas), with some magical powers. They ruled over the serpents as well. Their leader was Vasuki.

Lots of interesting stuff about indian churches and their development. That seems to be a pet like of yours.

8/03/2005 09:17:00 PM  
Blogger ashvin said...

Thanks for the info about Nagas, Sunil. I know shamefully little about Indian mythology (and lots of other things) :)

8/03/2005 09:34:00 PM  

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