6 June 2009

The lesson of ancient dragons

By Liam Carroll

Dragons are one of the most widespread and ancient symbols in human culture and are still consistently emerging in artistic, educational and religious activities to this very day. I had the pleasure recently of cycling the Dragon Trail around three charming Norfolk churches on the Broads and was struck by the dragons enduring appeal. I was even more surprised when I subsequently walked around Norwich Cathedral cloisters and saw many dragons on the roof bosses.

Probably the oldest creation myth that we know of is the Enuma Elish, which foreshadows much of Genesis and comes from the same part of the world (the Middle East). It features the great dragon Tiamat, a watery chaotic power, that is confronted by Marduk, a courageous god, who defeats the dragon and creates the world from her carcass. It represents the awakening of human culture, and is echoed in the Bible by the creation story and later references to the sea beast Leviathan.

Marduk's struggle with the dragon Tiamat, and the biblical threat to God's kingdom from the sea beast are psychological stories, not events. The struggle to keep chaos at bay, to have the courage to do the right things and to confront fear and anxiety, was, and still is, a living reality. For the ancients, the world was a much more mysterious place, and probably more frightening, for death was never far away. Yet even today, in the age of science, we cannot eradicate anxiety.
To achieve anything of value still requires a struggle of some sort, the sacrificing of one's time, a test of will power or the ordeal of examination. Yet we often know in our hearts that we must endure such discomforts for there is really no other way to progress in life, for talent too is often only the product of considerable effort.

Children and young people are constantly challenged by new and uncomfortable experiences, whether that be starting school, going to the dentist or going to work for the first time. Adults may be expected to be somewhat better equipped to deal with the new and unfamiliar, yet in reality we often have to face far more serious choices, for which the consequences of failure can be far reaching.

Anxiety and difficult choices face all people throughout their lives, and the process of getting old hardly lessens the burden, despite the increase in wisdom. We are imperfect beings with imperfect knowledge about ourselves and the world, and it is not surprising that we seek to lessen our state of vulnerability through material security.

Material security often proves evasive though; the more one pursues it, the more it seems to recede into the background; the more we run from our vulnerability, the more we are endlessly confronted by it.

Folklore, fairytales and dragons offer a different wisdom; the hero always makes the difficult choice, the fool pursues the immediate gain, the hero always helps people despite the difficulty of his journey, the fool always seeks to outwit people for his own personal benefit and thinks himself clever. In the final end the fool is always left with nothing whilst the hero gains the ultimate prize, which is never something material but something more precious like love or redemption for a particular community.

Norfolk and Norwich have a rich variety of dragons; mostly to be found in it's many religious houses, but also in it's heritage (Dragon Hall and the Snap Dragon in the Castle Museum), but most enduring of all are the dragons of children's stories that still proliferate homes, schools and libraries. This is to be welcomed, for the dragon stories often have something valuable to tell, something we have perhaps been telling ourselves since the very beginning, but somehow we seem to keep forgetting.

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