Mythical beasts are creatures born of the imagination. Or, are they? They are also creatures we find in the spirit world!
Many animals have myths attached to them - but this does not make them mythical beasts. A mythical beast is an animal that never existed in everyday reality. (Talking of which: recently I have tried to explain the difference between dragons and dinosaurs to my children. They believe dragons are 'extinct'!)
Mythical beasts appear in many forms in sculpture, tapestry, paintings, on buildings. Even in the logos of modern companies!
They may be composed of the parts of different animals. (E.g. head and wings of an eagle + body of a lion = Griffin). It may be created by multiplication (think of the 'Manyheaded Hydra'). Some beasts combine human and animal features (think: Mermaid, Centaur - half horse & half man, Minotaur, half bull & half man).
(mermaid goddess living on the bottom of the sea)
Dragons are perhaps the most widespread mythical beast! (See the next section on Dragons!)
The Unicorn and the Griffin share an origin in the ancient world.
INTERLUDE ABOUT UNICORNS!
During the 2008 Open Studios my Unicorn painting got a lot of attention and people asked a lot of questions. This made me realise I need to provide more information with this painting, so here goes!
The notion of a four-legged animal with a single horn growing from its forehead is ancient. The first mention of a unicorn is in a book about India written in the 4th century BC. It is likely that this description was inspired by the Indian Rhinoceros, who is the only actual one-horned animal in existence.
Early accounts agreed on two critical points: that no man or beast could capture it and that the horn possessed medicinal powers (and that anyone who drank from it would be protected by harm from disease or poison).
Narwhal tusks were sold as unicorn horns throughout the 18th century.
Apart from these 'scientific artefacts', there is lot of history and mythology that surrounds the unicorn.
Now lives in Helsinki
The sphinx links the ancient world of Egypt with the modern world.
There is often a close association between the genesis of mythical animals and the myths of creation (to read more about that, see tthe following pages: CREATION STORIES and COSMOS. The characteristics of mythical beasts often include the possession and control of natural forces such as water (rain, floods) and fire. (More about this in the Dragon Section)
Sometimes the death of a mythical animal results in its rebirth. The most obvious example is the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the fire that consumes it.
Mythical beasts had an important role as guardians of borders and crossing-places, such as the border between life and death. The entrance to the Greek underworld was guarded by Kerberos (Cerberus in Latin, a three-headed dog). Another way of crossing this boundary was to be transported by a Harpy, a fierce-looking bird-woman, who flew with the souls of the dead to Hades. (For more about bird women and bird people click on Bird World Series).
LEOPARD AD INFINITUM SOLD
The monsters of the ancient Near East sprang from the concept of a cosmic struggle between gods and demons as the determiner of human fate. By the European Middle Ages they were seen very differently. To Medieval Christian monks' nightmare visions of ferocious beasts were transmuted into symbols of earthly passions and supernatural powers that assailed them in their own struggle for spiritual perfection. With the advent of modern psychology they have become symbols of the unconscious mind and its desires.
This fantastical creature is a product of my imagination! However I would like to make the point that shamanism teaches that mythical creatures do exist in other realms, not only in the realm of the unconscious mind or imagination. See also the SHAMANISM PAGE and the SEEING PAGE.
Now on to mythological snakes, serpents and dragons...
This week I received a query regarding a serpent called 'Guja'. Guja appears in a creation myth of unknown origin. The great serpent Guja had many children and created the world for them using parts of her body. She had a great jewel on her forehead. Her eyes became the sun and the moon. When creation was ready for habitation some of Guja's children became animals and some became humans to be the protectors and sheperds of the animals
My guess is that it is an African story, possibly from Nigeria. Anyone who can shed light on this, please contact me! Thank you!
Once I spotted a little creature in the margin of a medieval manuscript. 'He' caught my attention and I decided to give him 'a new life' on a large canvass and some company. The resulting painting was Dragon's Blood. Dragon's Blood is an old name in the pharmacy for the resin from certain plants formerly used in preparations. The East Indian palm (Calamus Draco) is used as colouring matter for artist's varnishes etc.
Dragons are peculiar creatures. Unlike dinosaurs they never lived on earth. Their bones and skeletons are not on display in the Museum of Natural History. However, artefacts depicting dragons appear as early as the fourth millennium BC. Amazingly different dragons appeared in very different places all over the world...
The creature we identify as a dragon today - a scaly reptile with a snake-like body, crocodilian head, four feet, horns and fiery breath - evolved from different influences. In ancient India and Egypt dragons were idenfied with snakes. The earliest Chinese dragons resemble either lizards or composite animals the tales of snakes and heads of other animals.
With the advent of writing in the third millennium BC, the mythical significance of dragons becomes clearer. In the Babylonian Epic of Creation (the Enuma Elish) the dragon plays an ambivalent role. It starts off as a ferocious evil creature in an army of monsters. Once subdued and tamed however it is transformed into a guardian animal at the court of the gods.
In Babylonian mythology Tiamat is a CHAOS MONSTER, a PRIMORDIAL GODDESS OF THE OCEAN, mating with Apsu (the god of fresh water) to produce younger gods. Basically a sacred marriage between salt water and fresh water occurs, peacefully creating the goddess through successive births and regenerations. Some sources depict Tiamat as a dragon or sea serpent. Later in the epic she is killed by the Storm God MARDUK. The heavens and the earth are formed from her divided body.
Here the link between dragons and serpents is interesting. Snakes have the ability to regenerate through shedding their skins. This means that the world over they have become symbols for life after death, rebirth, immortality. Serpent-dragons have the capacity for destruction through fire, yet they have the potential for good if they are in the service of gods.
(80 x 100 cm) £525
Both snakes and dragons appear in the Old Testament - and they don't have positive connotations. The serpent who tempts Eve in the garden of Eden is a symbol (or incarnation) of the Devil. The interchangeability of snakes and dragons in the Bible (and in Greek myth) probably stems from a linguistic source: the Greek word drakon means 'large serpent' as well as 'dragon'.
The Bible story also shows the association of snakes with trees. Dragons tend to guard valuables kept in a tree, be it the Apples of Immortality or the Golden Fleece and they tend to act as evil obstacles to the forces of good. In Greek myths we find superhuman heroes in combat with dragons. In his twelve labours Hercules encountered the Hydra, the many-headed Serpent. Each time he managed to chop off one head, two grew in its place. Hence the expression 'hydra-headed' to mean a difficulty that keeps on increasing as it is combated.
The oracle bones of I Ch'ing originated in pre-historic China. The idea is to throw sticks (or coins in modern times). The patterns form diagrams that form the base for divining the future and choosing the correct course of action. The dragon appears in many diagrams. And there is a clear connection between the dragon and rain. For instance: 'a dragon hidden in water is useless' or 'The dragon exceeding proper limits. There will be regret'. I.e. if the dragon flies too high, the rain won't reach the earth. (Use this link to read about contemporary DIVINATION WORK in my shamanic practice).
According to Chinese myth a horse-dragon emerged from the Yellow River and presented the Emperor Fu Xi with a 'River Map' from which the diagrams of I Ch'ing are derived.
(Story about the origin of the I Ching or Book of Changes)
In terms of Mythology, the authorship of the I Ching (Book of Changes) is attributed to China's first emperor. He was a mythological figure called Fu His (or Fu Xi), also called Pao His. He lived about 5000 years ago and was supposed to half man and half dragon. One day Fu His saw a dragon-horse rise from the Yellow River. On it's side were markings, which were recorded as the 'Yellow River Map' ('Ho Tu'). Fu Hsi interpreted the four directions of the Ho Tu in eight diagrams, consisting of geometric lines. These diagrams became the hexagrams that make up the I Ching or Book of Changes. It is likely that Kung Fu-Tze (Confucius) added commentary and created the book as we know it today. Historically speaking the I Ching probably developed out of earlier methods of divination, using tortoise shells or ox shoulder bones. (A red-hot poker was applied to cause a random pattern of cracks from which priests deduced meaning).
SERPENT PETROGLYPH, NEW MEXICO, 2012
One of the best known images of a dragon today is that of a giant paper dragon chasing a red ball in the Chinese New Year processions. It is possible that the image of the dragon chasing and swallowing a ball symbolises the disappearance of the moon and is intended to bring on spring rains.
Before the acceptance of Buddhism in Japan, a dragon formed rain and snow in answer to men's prayers. River-gods took the form of dragons and were thought to bring rain. One sea god held the 'pearl of ebb' and the 'pearl of flood'!
SHRINE TO A SERPENT GOD ON THE KO PHI PHI ISLANDS IN THAILAND, 2009
In the Islamic world dragons appear in the constellations of stars. One such constellation is 'Draco', resembling a dragon.
In a Christian context the Bible is a good starting point for studying dragons. In Medieval Europe there was a lively trade in stories about the lives of the saints: tales of gruesome martyrdoms and miraculous feats. In these stories dragons came to symbolise paganism. The saints who did battle with them were the warriors of Christ. The most famous one being St George, patron saint of England, of course. Two women saints encountered dragons too. St Margaret was devoured by a dragon. However, the cross she held punctured the dragon and she emerged unharmed. For obvious reasons she is the patron saint of childbirth! Then there is St Martha, patron saint of housewives. She defeated a dragon by sprinkling it with holy water.
In the Middle Ages there were biblical and legendary accounts of dragons supported by 'scientific descriptions'. These appeared in bestiaries, compendiums that listed real animals alongside fantastical creatures. All these animals were viewed in terms of Christian morality and qualities (see Medieval Series).
SIGURD & THE LANGUAGE OF BIRDS (80 x 100 cm) £485
A very famous European dragon is of course Fafnir, slain by Sigurd in the Norse myth. After tasting the dragon's blood Sigur suddenly understands the speech of birds!
According to Nordic mythology Fafnir used to be a giant who turned himself into a dragon to hoard a lot of gold he had stolen. The hero Sigurd kills Fafnir by hiding in a pit and stabbing upwards with his sword. He then roasts Fafnir's heart over a fire. He burns his thumb and sucks it. 'When the blood from the dragon's heart touched his tongue he knew the language of birds' to quote a runic inscription quite literally.
Then there are dragons in Native American creation myths. In Mesomerica (see Mesoamerican Series) we find Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Called Kulkulkan by the Maya. He was part bird (symbolising the sky) and part snake (symbolising the earth). Another Mesoamerican image is that of a serpent without feathers with heads at either end of an undulating body. This symbolises eternity.
The Rainbow Incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, The Plumed Serpent
Quetzalcoatl, also known as The Plumed Serpent, is the ancient hero of the Aztec and other Mesoamerican peoples. He is the father of culture, agriculture, music, dance, art and crafts.In his 'dragon form' he ruled the wind, the rain and the fertility of the earth. He was both a celestial and terrestial being. Rainbows symbolise a bridge between sky and earth. In his 'rainbow incarnation' Quetzalcoatl connects heaven and earth. Quetzalcoatl is the deity of the creative process. This painting is about the creative process, about the process of 'bringing forth', assisted by spirit helpers. (Painting for Nick Taylor)
To sum up: for creatures who don't exist and never existed (at least in ordinary reality!), dragons are amazingly widespread all over the world. In art and fiction worldwide (not to mention picture books for children!) dragons have a place even today. They can carry positive or negative meaning, but remain a powerful symbol of nature beyond man's control. (Talking of which: see the painting 'There But For The Grace of God', depicting the vsion of a dragon-like creature I had myself, symbolising the frailty of human life and everyday reality).
And of course another serpent we need to mention here is the OUROBOUROS, the serpent that bites its own tail. This concept appears all over the world with 'local detail and flavour'. Here I am thinking of e.g. Jormundgandr, the Norse World Serpent.
LEOPARD AND MONKEY SPIRITS MEASURE! £245
(painting inspired by rock art in Zimbabwe)
Yesterday my youngest son told me that a Rainbow Dragon lives in the tree at the very back of our garden!
In the year 2002 my husband gave me two wooden 'retired fairground horses' from India for my birthday. They made such a picture, I had to paint them! This was the start of horses appearing in my paintings.
As a child I knew several girls who were obsessed by horses and trips to the stables to ride and groom horses. I never felt the slightest desire to join in. My only claim to fame is riding a horse one afternoon in Iceland and not falling off (I have the certificate to prove it!). No, my interest in horses is 'strictly mythological'!
The horse as soul conductor , with a twist, delivering souls to earth, not collecting them!
According to Greek Mythology Poseidon (Neptune in Latin, the God of the Sea) created the horse. In a competition to have a brand new city named after them, two Olympian gods were challenged to produce a completely new thing for humanity. It had to be both useful and beautiful. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a huge black animal appeared: the first horse. Athena wins the competition by creating the first olive tree, as a horse symbolises war and an olive tree symbolises peace. And so the city of Athens was named after Athena.
In Christian art the horse represents courage and generosity. My dictionary lists a lot of phrases that have horses in them: 'The Pale Horse' (one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse), 'white horses' (white-capped breakers in the sea), the 'Wooden Horse of Troy' (a deception, a concealed danger) and so forth...
In Celtic mythology heroes are transported to the Otherworld on magnificent white horses. Otherworld woman Rhiannon rides a white horse that moves so fast, it renders her invisible. Then there was the mother goddess figure of Epona who protected horses and their riders. The famous Irish warrior Oisin is carried off to the Otherworld on horseback. If he wants to visit the mortal world, yet retain his Otherworld immortality, he must ride their on horseback and never allow his feet to touch the Irish soil. When he arrives in Ireland he realises the people he longs to meet are dead and everything has changed beyond recognition. He forgets himself and gets off his horse. Instantly he is transformed into a very old and infirm man, blind and near death.
This is a theme that appears in stories from all over the world: in the Otherworld time passes on a totally different scale scale compared to our everyday world - a bit like what would happen if a human being managed to travel to a far off planet and back again in his lifetime. He'd return to a wholly changed planet!
The Norse God of War, Odin, had an extraordinary horse called Sleipnir. Sleipnir had eight legs and could carry Odin through air and over sea.
It is interesting to note that Sleipnir is not the only eight-legged horse in world mythology. An aboriginal tribe in India called the Muria believe that someone who dies is carried to the Other World on the back of an eight-legged horse!
By the 1700s the horse was known to the Native American peoples as 'Spirit Dog' or 'Medicine Dog'. (See Native American Series).
Horses have made a very recent appearance in the Pazyryk Series (see Siberia and Pazyryk). Nomadic tribes in Siberia created antler-shaped gilded head-pieces for their horses, turning them into Spirit Deer.
In Shamanism, the horse appears as a psychopomp, i.e. a guide to the world of the dead. For this reason some shamans use horse-headed sticks in their seances. The horse facilitates trance and the flight of the soul to forbidden regions. The horse-ride thus enacted symbolises death, the shaman leaving his body and entering the world of the dead.
HORSE HEADED STICK OR STAFF INSPIRED BY MONGOLIAN SHAMANISM (TENGRIISM)
I came across a Bangladeshi tapestry where a horse is shown flying through the skies, carrying a lot of babies. It is presumably a 'Reverse Psychopomp', i.e. a magical horse that delivers the souls of unborn babies! This was the inspiration for my painting 'Heavenly Delivery'.
(The Origin of the I Ching or Book of Changes)
In terms of Mythology, the authorship of the I Ching (Book of Changes) is attributed to China's first emperor. He was a mythological figure called Fu His (or Fu Xi), also called Pao His. He lived about 5000 years ago and was supposed to half man and half dragon.
One day Fu His saw a dragon-horse rise from the Yellow River. On it's side were markings, which were recorded as the 'Yellow River Map' ('Ho Tu').
Fu Hsi interpreted the four directions of the Ho Tu in eight diagrams, consisting of geometric lines. These diagrams became the hexagrams that make up the I Ching or Book of Changes.
It is likely that Kung Fu-Tze (Confucius) added commentary and created the book as we know it today.
Historically speaking the I Ching probably developed out of earlier methods of divination, using tortoise shells or ox shoulder bones. (A red-hot poker was applied to cause a random pattern of cracks from which priests deduced meaning).
To finish on an upbeat note: a big event in Holland is the birthday of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) on December 6th. The ancient saint rides a white horse called Americo. Americo has special powers too, it seems. He can climbs houses and walk on roofs, enabling Sinterklaas to drop presents down all chimneys. Our boys met Sinterklaas in Holland, last December. Not Americo, he had a day off.
Imelda Almqvist (Last updated January 2015)
Encyclopedia of World Mythology, general editor: Arthur Cotterell Colour Library Direct 1999 ISBN 0-75253-325-8
Shamanism, Archaic techniques of ecstasy Mircea Eliade Arkana Penguin Books ISBN 0-14-019155-0
Spirit Walk, Sedna, Seakeeper, Keeper of Animals, Unicorn, Griffin, Sphinx, Phoenix, Guardians of Borders and Crossing Places, Kerberos, Harpy, Dragon's Blood, Serpents, Hydra, I Ch'ing, Oracle Bones, Chinese New Year, Sigurd & Fafnir, Quetzalcoatl, The Plumed Serpent, The Pale Horse, Rhiannon, Epona, Sleipnir, Spirit Dog or Medicine Dog, Psychopomp, Yellow River Horse
A well known serpent is Jörmungandr , the sea serpent or Midgard Serpent in Norse mythology. He is the middle child of the giantess Angrbotha and the God Loki. According to the Prose Edda, Odin tossed Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircles Midgard (or the abode of the first human beings) The serpent grew so large that he was able to surround the Earth and grasps his own tail. When he lets go, the world will end...