The meaning of the dream symbol: Dragon

While on the other hand,  and rather quite conversely,) in the Western tradition, the Dragon represented lust, aggression and a haphazard ruin of sensible order. Taken together, it is easy to see why today the overall archetypical dragon represents the extreme coordinates of an infinite Unconscious. In the modem world, our giant, fire-breathing lizard may easily step in and out of these diverse ‘worlds’ of expression. Moreover, because of its snake-like movements, flying ability and mouth of fire, the dragon is predominantly associated with the specifics of flagrant and passionate love. This symbolism comes replete with all of love’s sublime consequences, which of course, run the gauntlet from divine euphoria to bitter and demonic hatred. The dragon is the uncontrollable element within us all. The knight in slaughtering the dragon is representationally coming to terms with his own hot desire and finding a reconciliation for these feelings within the bounds of a sacred and selfless union.


Basically dragons are seen as strict guardians or as symbols of evil and of diabolical tendencies. They guard buried treasure, and as such are enemies which must be defeated if the treasure is to be won. In the West, dragons guarded the golden fleece and the Garden of the hesperides; in China, in the story of the T’ang, they guarded the pearl; while the legend of Siegfried confirms that the treasure which the dragon guarded was that of immortality.

In fact the dragon may be identified with the serpent as a diabolical symbol and Origen confirms this identification in his commentary on Psalm 74 (see leviathan). The breaking of ‘the heads of serpents ... [and]... of leviathan in pieces’ is Christ’s victory over evil. In addition to the well-known portrayals of St Michael or St George, Christ himself is sometimes pictured crushing the dragon under foot. The Zen patriarch Hui Neng, too, made dragons and serpents emblems of evil and of hatred. When the unshakable Fudo-Myoo of Japanese Buddhism overcame the dragon, in so doing he overcame ignorance and darkness.

These negative aspects, however, are neither the only nor the most important ones, for dragon symbolism is ambivalent. This is in any case made plain by Far Eastern iconography depicting a pair of dragons facing one another. Unsuccessful efforts have been made to distinguish the long dragon of the waters from the kui dragon of the earth. In Japan, four dragon species were popularly distinguished: celestial, rain, terrestrial or aquatic and chthonian.

In fact, this is simply a matter of four aspects of a single symbol, the symbol of what Grousset calls ‘the active First Cause and Demiurge; divine force and spiritual vigour.’ The dragon is the cloud which thickens overhead before dropping its fertilizing showers. It is the k’ien principle, the source of Heaven and maker of rain, its six lines six harnessed dragons. Again, the I Ching tells us, dragon’s blood is black and yellow, the primal colours of Heaven and Earth. The six strokes of the hexagram, k’ien, traditionally depict the six stages of manifestation, from the ‘hidden dragon’, potentiality, immanent and inactive, to the ‘swooping dragon’ which returns to the First Cause, through the dragon ‘in the fields’, ‘visible’, ‘leaping’ and ‘flying’.

Huang-ti, who had used dragons to overcome temptation to evil, ascended into Heaven on a dragon’s back. However, he was himself a dragon, as was the primeval sovereign, Fu-hi, who received the Ho-t’u.

It is, however, remarkable that this symbolism applied not only in China but among the Celts. Dragons being, in fact, associated with lightning - they spit fire -and with fertility - they make rain - thus symbolize the duties of kings and the rhythm of existence which ensures order and prosperity. This is why they became an imperial emblem. For the same reason their pictures were displayed: ‘in time of drought, they made an image of the Yin-dragon and then it began to rain’. The dragon was a manifestation of the omnipotence of the Emperors of China; ‘the dragon’s face’ meant ‘the emperor’s face’; ‘the dragon’s pace’ was the majestic walk of the head of state; ‘the dragon’s pearl’ - which it was believed to keep in its throat -was the indisputable prestige of the head of state’s words, the perfection of his thoughts and commands.

Although the aquatic aspects of dragon symbolism remain of prime importance, since dragons live in the water and cause springs to bubble up, and while the ‘Dragon-King’ is a king of the naga (which further identifies dragons with serpents), the dragon is above all linked to rain-making and to lightning, both manifestations of celestial activity. Uniting Earth and Water as it does, the dragon is a symbol of the rain of Heaven which makes the soil fruitful. ‘Dragon-dances’, displays of appropriately coloured dragons, enabled mankind to receive Heaven’s blessing in the form of rain. Consequently, dragons were signs of good omen and their appearance was the culmination of prosperous reigns. Sometimes from their jaws hung foliage, the symbol of germination, and wherever the dragon-dance was performed, the watchers fed the ‘dragon’ with greenstuff. Thunder is inseparable from rain and its link with dragons derives from the notion of the active First Cause, the Demiurge. Huang-ti, who was a dragon, was also the genius of thunder. In Cambodia it was believed that the water dragon possessed a jewel.

The upsurge of the thunder-cloud, which is that of the yang, of life, of plant-growth and of the cycle of regeneration, is embodied in the appearance of the constellation of the Dragon, which corresponds to Spring, the east and the colour green. The Dragon rises with the vernal and sets at the Autumn equinox, heralded by the positions of the stars kio and ta-kio, the ‘Dragon’s Horns’, the bright stars Spica in the constellation Virgo and Arcturus in Bootes. The employment of the dragon motif in the decoration of Eastern gateways also endows it with cyclical symbolism, but this is more characteristically solstitial. In astronomy, the head and tail of the Dragon are nodes in the lunar orbit, the points at which eclipses occur, hence the Chinese symbolism of the dragon devouring the Moon and the Arabic symbol of the Dragon’s tail as the ‘realm of Darkness’. This brings us to the dark side of dragon symbolism, but its ambivalence is constant. As the sign of thunder and the Spring and of celestial activity, the dragon is yang; but yin as ruler of the realm of the waters. It is yang in so far as it is identified with such solar animals as the horse or the lion and with swords: yin in so far as it changes into a fish or is identified with the serpent. It is yang as a geomantic principle; yin as the alchemical principle of mercury.

The emblem of Wales is a red dragon. In the end both dragons, made drunk with mead, were buried in the centre of the island of Britain. So long as they remain undiscovered the island will suffer no invasion. The coffined dragons are symbols of hidden and chained powers, the two faces of a veiled being. The white dragon carries the pallid colours of death, the red dragon those of anger and violence. The burial together of both dragons signifies that their fates have become interfused.

The image of the whale vomiting the Prophet Jonah may be associated with dragon symbolism, since dragons are creatures which swallow, transfigure and vomit up their prey. ‘The image, based upon a solar myth, depicts the hero swallowed by the dragon. Overcoming the monster, the hero acquires eternal youth. His journey to the Underworld completed, he returns from the realm of the dead and his night-time prison in the sea’. Jungian analysis has taken advantage both of the myth itself, which clinical experience shows recurs in dreams, and of its traditional interpretation.

Henderson also quotes in this context Faust’s acceptance of Mephistopheles’ challenge, the challenge of life, the challenge of the unconscious. Through it and through what he has believed to be the pursuit of evil, Faust sees salvation on the horizon.

The battles of St George or of St Michael with the dragon, so common a subject for artists, illustrate the perpetual struggle of good with evil. In a wide variety of shapes and forms it pervades every culture and every religion, not excepting dialectical materialism in the guise of the class struggle.

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