Ancient dragon lore, from an astronomical perspective

I’ve always been fascinated by the mysterious bronze age culture of ancient China, known as Sanxingdui. On the surface, these strange figurines look so different from anything else. However, looking at some recent discoveries, I couldn’t help but notice that one particular group of figurines reflects a very popular ancient theme, that was once quite widespread across the globe. This is a story about that discovery.

Descending dragons

The top half of the image above shows the Sanxingdui figurines. The first two stand in the same, unusual pose, which immediately reminded me of the familiar representations of Shiva carrying the goddess Ganga back to Earth. The first one of these looks like a dragon with a human torso, while the second is clearly a dragon, landing on the bull’s head. The following two figurines represent birds, or bird-like creatures, standing on a pole, in a similar pose. And finally, all that is reflected in a Chinese dragon of the Tang dynasty, of a later date. However, even modern Chinese dragons are often depicted in a similar way.

In other words, we see that a similar symbol has been used for (at least) 2,500-3,500 years. What could be the story behind it?


Dragon hybrids in different cultures

Depictions of dragons go back to the dawn of time, and there were numerous cultures that had them in their lore. However, some light motifs never change. For example, Scythians loved portraying dragons in their art. But then again, Scythian dragons look very similar to those of ancient Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Phoenicians, and other Medditteranian cultures.

Moreover, just like in Sanxingdui, these dragons are often hybrids and can have a head of a human, bull, bird, horse, or even elephant. And also, they are usually depicted in a similar pose.

Astronomical connections

Whenever I see a common theme connecting different epochs and cultures, the first connection that I look for is the astronomical one. And sure enough, one of the biggest constellations of the night sky is Draco – the dragon. Besides being the biggest, this constellation is positioned high in the northern sky, and therefore visible at any time of the year.

Moreover, the shape of this constellation is very similar to the representations from ancient art.

Being the closest to the Polar star, Draco constantly rotates around it. Perhaps that is why many ancient dragons were depicted wrapped around a pole or a tree. At the same time, Typhoon is another famous dragon of Greek mythology. His name means (whirl)wind. Even today, we use this word in the same way. This is just another reference to Draco’s rotation around Polaris. The same is probably true for the famous symbol Ouroboros – a dragon eating its tail.

However, this brings us to another important question. If the ancients really represented the Draco constellation, why did they do it?

The shifting polar star

The thing is, our polar star was not always Polaris, as it is now. Due to the movement of Earth’s rotational axis, from 3,942-1,793 BC, this role belonged to the star Thuban, which is a part of the Draco constellation. Then, from 1,793-1,000 BC, it was Kappa Draconis that took its place – another star of the Draco constellation.

This simply means that for almost 3,000 years, the stars of the Draco constellation were pointing to the true North. Without a doubt, this fact was of great importance for any ancient traveler. And this fact is also very important for our story because Kappa Draconis still marked the true North when the Sanxingdui figurines were made.

A trip back in time

With a help of modern technology, we can actually travel back in time and see what the night sky looked like at any given moment. For this purpose, I used a free software called Stellarium, and the date I chose was the spring equinox of 4,000 BC.

In the screenshots below, we can see that if one looked toward the eastern horizon, just before dawn, he would have seen the Sun rising in the Taurus – the bull, constellation. Then, if he faced west, he would have seen Aquila – the eagle. Facing north, he would have seen Draco – the dragon and facing south, Cetus – the sea monster, another dragon-like creature.

In other words, if someone wanted to know when spring will begin, he simply had to wait for this arrangement of the constellations in the night sky.

What is also important is that here we have all of the three main symbols of Sanxingdui figurines – a dragon, a bull, and a bird. Note also that Aquila looks like a bird standing on a pole (the Milky Way)

Bull-headed water dragons

On this blog, I’ve already written extensively on the star lore related to the spring equinox in Taurus, so I will not repeat myself here. However, it is worth noting that some of the ancient dragons were bull-headed. At the same time, they were seen as water spirits, guardians of the springs. One of the most famous examples is Greek Achelous, although in reality Greeks inherited this od from the ancient Thracians, as in the Thracian language “achel” apparently meant “water”. Achelous was slain by Heracles, who was himself an offspring of a dragon mother, according to the Scythian tradition.

It is not difficult to imagine what is the symbolism in question. The spring is the time when the waters are “released” and the springs come alive again. Nowadays, scholars believe that even the story of the Minotaurus is just another parallel. However, I disagree with that notion. I believe that the slaying of the Minotaurus has to do with the shift of the spring equinox from Taurus to Aries.

Anyhow, I only wrote this paragraph in order to introduce another important parallel – and that is the connection with water. Namely, in the first image, we saw a descending Shiva, bringing the goddess Ganga to Earth. Ganga is the goddess of water, representing the Milky Way in the sky, and the major river on Earth. In this episode, Shiva brings her back, after a long period of drought. At the same time, Shiva’s animal is the bull – Nandi, which goes to show that all of these myths speak the same language – that of astronomy.

Part 2

Polaris takes over

As we saw, from 1,000 BC onwards, the north started its shift towards Polaris. This change was gradual, and for a long period of time, the true north was between Draco and Ursa Minor constellations. And it seems that from around 500 BC, ancient art started to reflect this change. Dragons are still related to water, but now they often accompany sailors, as we often see in Phoenician art. This is logical, as knowing how to locate the north was the single most important thing for navigation. At least from the 6th century BC, many ancient cultures started depicting Hippocampus – a hybrid between a sea dragon and a horse. Phoenicians even had a famous ship named hippo, and this ship was probably the original gift that Danaeans gave Troyans. Note also that the following depictions are identical to the Scythian dragon we saw earlier.

However, these sea dragons are now often accompanied by a dolphin, and it looks like in the end they were perhaps completely replaced by this new symbol.

Little bear or a dolphin?

Around the same time, dolphins appear even in India. And the connection is with none other than goddess Ganga, who often rides on one. In a way, this is logical, as there are river dolphins in the Ganges river. However, these striking similarities are too interesting to be so easily dismissed as pure coincidence.

The constellation Delphinus was known to the ancients. It lies next to Aquila, at the edges of the Milky Way. This could explain why Ganga, who represents the Milky Way rides one. However, this constellation is so small and insignificant. At the same time, its shape is almost identical to that of Ursa Minor.

This made me wonder, what if there was a forgotten star lore that saw Ursa Minor as a dolphin?

The story of Delphi oracle

The ancient Greeks considered the oracle of Delphi to be the center of the world. The oracle was so ancient that even ancient Greeks had mythological stories of its origins. It was one of the most important sites in their world.

Now, according to some Greek myths, the oracle got its name due to the fact that Appolo took a shape of the dolphin before he slayed the dragon – Python, which lived in a cave there. I was eighteen years old when I visited Delphi and heard this story, and I remember how I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The fact is that the oracle lies high up in the mountains, and of all the animals, the dolphin somehow sounded like the weirdest choice. Not to mention that he also had to slay a dragon in that form.

However, from this perspective, the story finally makes sense. I believe that this is a simple astronomical allegory, marking the shift of north from Draco (Python) to Ursa Minor (Dolphin).

Indeed, in ancient mythology, the dolphins were regarded as helpers of the sailors, more so than invisible sea dragons. And from this same period, we have a plethora of myths that included dolphins. Dyonisyus transformed Etruscan pirates into dolphins so that they can repay for their sins by helping others on the sea. They were considered messengers of the sea god Poseidon. Taras, the son of Poseidon was saved by a dolphin after a shipwreck. And recently, in Calabria, archaeologists discovered an ancient hall filled with mosaics of dragons and dolphins.

However, the most unusual direct connection between dolphins and dragons comes from another Greek myth about the Delphi oracle. According to this version, Apollo didn’t slay Python, but a female dragon named Delphyne. For this reason, I believe that a dolphin represented more than a minor constellation, and represented the Polar star instead – the center of the universe worshiped at the center of the world.

Final thoughts

For thousands of years, and across different continents, dragons were one of the most popular motifs in ancient art. It seems that originally they were an auspicious symbol. Then, something changed, and all the biggest heroes became dragon slayers. Perhaps the most logical explanation is that this myth became outdated with the astronomical shift that took place.

These dragons are often hybrids, as most of the constellations usually are. There could be many reasons for this, and I didn’t want to dwell more on that in this already long article. However, it would be logical to assume that nomadic peoples of the steppe would prefer the horse motif, as they had little to no idea of what dolphins look like. Copying from another drawing, one could easily mistake a dolphin for an elephant (compare the Indian medallion below with Ganga’s dolphin above)

Makara, another Indian representation of the dragon, was said to represent the Capricorn constellation. All these small inconsistencies are expected when we are dealing with a myth so ancient and widespread. But at the same time, they might prevent us from seeing the similarities, which are much more numerous and obvious. And so I will end this article with one last image. It is a familiar story that talks about the dragon, the woman, and the eagle – the markers of the new astronomical shift that is on the way.

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