Author: Elisha Kayne
The Dragon Slayer is an archetype that is well established. Western society is very familiar with the image of a sword swinging, knight-in-shining armor who sweeps in at the last minute, rescuing the fair maiden from the grasp of the fire breathing dragon. However, not everyone is aware of just how wide spread and far reaching these legends go. While many may associate the dragon warrior with medieval or renaissance Europe, the motif of the daring avenger who restores order from chaos can be found as far back as ancient Sumer, and in regions as far away from the British Isles as Japan.
Susanoo and his two siblings were born from Izanagi during a purification ritual following his ascent from the underworld. Amaterasu became the Kami of the Sun, Tsukiyomi became kami of the Moon, and Susanoo became kami of the seas and storms. Sibling rivalry between Susanoo and his sister reached a fever pitch, and eventually, the storm god was banished from the Heavenly realm. On the earth, he quickly meets two Earthly Kamis who have been forced to sacrifice one of their seven daughters to the eight headed sea dragon Orochi every year. It was almost time for them to feed their eighth daughter to the beast, when Susanoo steps in. He turns the princess into a comb, and instructs the parents to build eight round fences with gates and fill them with refined liquor. When the serpent emerged from the depths, he unknowingly drank from the liquid and became intoxicated. This made it possible for Susanoo to overcome the dragon’s strength and slew it. After piercing the flesh, he found a sword of great power within the dragon, called Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which to this day remains one of the three items of the sacred Japanese Imperial Regalia.
The story of Marduk and Tiamat comes from the Enuma Elish, written sometime before the 7th century BCE in Ancient Sumer. It tells of the primordial goddess of the sea, Tiamat and her lover Apsu. The pair existed before creation, and are the primordial progenitors of all that was created after them. Their children Lahmu, Lahamu, Ansar and Kisar, continued to create more Gods. Eventually, there were so many beings in existence, their clamoring created disturbances which were so great that Tiamat and Apsu could no longer rest. Apsu plotted with his vizier Mummu to destroy the young Gods so they could be at peace. After hearing rumors of the coming destruction, Enki was sent to destroy Apsu. In doing so, he and his wife Ninhursag inherited the throne and became rulers over all the Gods. They birthed a new, powerful deity named Marduk, or AMAR.UTU.K in Sumerian, whose name meant “bull calf of the sun”. His powers were stronger than any other, and his enchantments created four winds which again disrupted the rest of the elder Gods. They formed a council and approached Tiamat, begging her to rise up against Marduk. She created an army of demon serpents and sent them to do her bidding, placing her son Kingu as their commander and pronounced him ruler of the Annunaki. Enki and the other Gods gathered together, begging Ansar for support. They formed a coalition to defend themselves against Tiamat’s army, but no one was powerful enough, or brave enough to stand up against Tiamat herself. Marduk stepped forward, and the younger Gods placed the crown upon his head, gifting him with the throne, a rod and a mace. With the might of his club, and his ability to conjure the winds and lightning, he set out to defeat Tiamat. He created four horses, The Destoyer, The Merciless, The Trampler and The Fleet, which pulled his chariot. Marduk harnessed the storm winds and trapped Tiamat beneath their force, making it easy to defeat her with his weapon. He divided her body and used it to create the heavens, whereby he established the separation of night from day, formed the constellations, ordered the movement of the stars and created time by revealing the day, the week and the month.
In the early days of Mediterranean civilization, a Tyrian merchant took off with an Argos princess named Io, and fled to Egypt. In retaliation for the offence, the Mycenaeans abducted Europa, the princess of Tyre, daughter of King Agenor. Her brothers Cadmus, Cilix and Phoenix all went on a journey to find her, but none could. Rather than return home and face their father’s wrath, they each settled a new city. Cilix established Cilicia in Southern Anatolia. Phoenix founded more settlements near Tyre, which would be called Phoenicia after his namesake. And Cadmus travelled all the way Boetia in Greece. He traveled to see the Oracle of Delphi, who told him to look for a heifer with a half moon on her flank, and the place where the cow chose to lie down would become his new colony. Eventually, he was gifted with a cow that fit this exact description by Pelagon, King of Phocis, and she led Cadmus to the land which would be called Thebes. In this territory was a sacred spring, guarded by a terrifying water dragon, who slew his companions. Cadmus fought and defeated the serpent and Athena instructed him to sew its teeth into the ground, which is how the Spartan race was birthed. The new army immediately began constructing Cadmea, the citadel of Thebes. Afterwards, Ares became enraged that his dragon was killed, and forced Cadmus to serve him for 8 years. After completing his contract, he met Harmonia, sister of Dardanos of Troy, fell in love and celebrated the first wedding, establishing the Theban royal line who would one day produce Semele and Dionysus.
St. George was a Cappadocian soldier who was born in Anatolia during the time of the Roman Empire. On an adventure in Libya, he came across a city who was plagued by a dragon. For many ages, they had sacrificed sheep to the serpent, but it’s appetite had grown more demanding. At the time of George’s arrival, they were preparing to sacrifice the princess to avoid the dragon’s wrath. With the help of Ascalon, his powerful lance, he defeated the dragon, saved the princess and converted the Libyans to Christianity. Though he became a martyr under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, his name and legend has been immortalized throughout Western and Eastern Europe and symbols that represent him can be seen on various crests and heraldic banners, including the red cross on the flags of England and Britain.
Archangel Michael and Thor
So far, we’ve discussed legends which place the defeat of the serpent in the far-reaching past. However, there are two legend that foretells of a future dragon slayer. Biblical prophecy explains that the Archangel Michael fought against the dragon in heaven and prevailed. However, during the great battle of Armaggedon, the seven headed beast will return. Michael will again be charged with defeating the dragon, and saving mankind from its grasp. A similar prophecy exists among Norse mythology. Jormungandr is the giant serpent which surrounds Midgard. At some point in the future, he will release his tail, ushering in Ragnarok. The serpent will team up with his beastly ally, the wolf Fenrir and fill the earth with fire and poison. Thor will defeat Jormungandr with the might of his thundering hammer, but is fated to die from the water dragons venom after taking only nine steps.
These are only a few of the innumerable stories involving a serpent being slayed be a valiant warrior. Similar portrayals can be found in the Scottish myth of Assipattle and the Stoor Worm, Heracles’ defeat of the Ladon, a serpent guarding the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides. It can even be found in more modern renditions of man overcoming a creature of the Abyss in the story of Pinocchio’s flight from the belly of the whale, or Harry Potter’s triumph over Voldemort. The repetitive and wide spread use of the dragon slayer motif has certainly piqued the interest of psychologists, historians and anthropologists for many years. While different theories about the symbolic meaning of the dragon have been developed, one thing is for certain. The portrayal of a hero risking it all to overcome the all-powerful primordial beast holds just as much interest in the human mind today, as it did thousands of years ago.