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The Dragon and the Phoenix

The contents of this post are based on no specific research whatsoever and contain interpretations according to my limited knowledge on the subject only. Please feel free to add/correct any factual errors or omissions.

The Dragon and the Phoenix have always been two of the most ubiquitous symbols in mythology. Especially the Dragon. Every culture major culture, from Scandinavia to China contain some reference of this mythical beast. And all of them share some common characteristics while allowing for other differences in detail, symbolism, origin-myths etc that can be attributed to cultural differences.

The common characteristics are:

  • Serpentine nature: i.e scaliness. Dragons are never represented as mammals
  • Ability to breathe fire
  • Immortality with a variation being immortal, but can be killed
  • Immense wisdom
Then there are variations of course. Some dragons are portrayed as serpentine viz. the Chinese, while others tend to be like giant lizards. However, these common points do bring forth a picture of sorts. Similar to my analysis on the Phoenix (read: http://charcterized-chaos.blogspot.com/2009/03/phoenix-as-mythological-symbol.html) I will start with one of the Dragon.

The Dragon is the embodiment of the destructive power of fire. Perhaps many many years ago, before Men discovered how to make fire, it can be assumed that they knew of its destructive power from the forest fires that raged and ravaged their homelands. So a memory survived, handed down from generation to generation, integrating itself into our Primal Consciousness: the fear of fire as Fire. Later, aeons later perhaps, when we learned the secrets of the flame (Prometheic or otherwise) we also knew instinctively that it was also something to be feared. Fire is immortal, fire is implacable. It can be used, but to a point. Even today, with all our modern technology et all, fire is something over which we retain only the barest minimum control. The recent bushfires in Australia bear ample evidence to that fact.Thus dragons share a lot of characteristics in common with how fire is perceived by the Collective Primal Consciousness: immortality, implacability and the potential to wreak untold havoc. As for their possessing immense wisdom, I believe it has something to do with immortality. Immortality is something humanity has always been obsessed with and consequently, it's 'wishful thinking' of sorts that such an immortal creature will also possess knowledge beyond the scope of humanity.

One of the other Primal Fears: snakes. Humans have always feared and despised snakes. Since time immemorial, the snake has been the symbol of fear and hatred. Admittedly some cultures have adopted it as a sacred symbol (Egypt, Hinduism) but that is because (I believe) the fear was channelized into other symbolisms such as divinity or the phallic representations. However, with dragons, humanity hits a double barreled embodiment of fear: snakes who breathe fire! Whoo hoo! Scaryyyy! Or alternatively when successfully channelized, a religious instrument evoking fear and reverence. Add flight and we've hit the proverbial jackpot.

Now, witticisms aside, the Dragon thus becomes an immortal symbol. And since it is made up of our Primal Fears, thus it follows from logic that almost all cultures will share some aspect of it in their Collective Consciousness.

The Phoenix needs no analysis, as I've discussed it already. Now, to get to the point of this article: I am now going to explore the similarities between the Dragon and the Phoenix, essentially postulating a common origin for both of them or at least a common origin in the conceptualization of the fears and desires they represented.

Now we enter the realm of possibilities. From (more or less) fact based deductions that can be followed from logic and/or assumption, we enter into speculation. At first glance appear so different from one another: one the symbol of resurrection, good and benevolence, the other: a symbol of destruction if not outright malevolence. However, the similarities are equally obvious. Both are related to fire, one born from it (fire without) and the other bears it (fire within). Both are bearers of the flame. Both are immortal. Both are equally inaccessible, though the Dragon reveals itself to Men more often to cause harm, however its lair remains unreachable to most. The phoenix is generally portrayed as a sort of neutral benevolent: it rarely intervenes or interacts with humans or their affairs. However when the interaction does take place, it is generally to the benefit of the human concerned.

Essentially, their core concepts are similar in nature. Both are embodiments of fire, both possess flight and immortality and boundless knowledge. So it can be safely assumed that they are born from the same philosophy. As to their being opposites in their natures, this may be due to the underlying dichotomy in all things. The two sides of the coin. One is Fire. The Dragon. The destructive, terrible, inextinguishable/indestructible aspect i.e it's extremely hard to kill a dragon much like it's hard to extinguish an out of control fire. Malevolence because until the later ages, most houses were made of wood and thus extremely susceptible to fires. Thus it might be that the malevolence crept in. This unique assumption can be (at least superficially) supported on the grounds that the Chinese dragons are benevolent and China had stone houses that were less susceptible to fire than Europe.

The Fire is power out of control. It is unharnessed energy. It is the corrupting nature of some kinds of knowledge. Essentially it is a concept of self corruption. Some depictions of dragons show them as evil AND possessing great knowledge. That is a concept that is frightening on two different dimensions. Firstly, the immense destructive potential of it, secondly, the fact that all that wisdom doesn't deter it from doing evil. There is a third angle, namely that perhaps what we do not perceive/understand appears to us as evil, but I don't want to digress into a whole new philosophy there.

The Phoenix is the Flame. It is the light that dispels darkness. It is the light of knowledge. Of endurance and enlightenment. It is the Flame of the forge and of the kiln. It is the flame of civilization. Like knowledge, it must be sought. It rarely reveals itself to anyone. Also, the impact of the Phoenix seems to be less immediate than that of the Dragon. Unlike it's scalier counterpart, it doesn't go on rampages and destroy towns and livestock. It prefers to live in it's inaccessible peaks surrounded by deserts. However, the few interactions it has with humanity provide a more sustainable benefit. It is the symbol of Hope. Of resurrection.

Now in the resurrection, the two unite. To be resurrected, there must be death . Creation is not possible without destruction, indeed creation itself is an act of destruction because when you create something out of something else, you destroy what it was before. A wheel on a car is not a wheel anymore, it has lost its identity in the car. Creating something out of nothing, were that possible, would be destroying that 'nothing'. Similarly, destruction is an act of creation. When a stick of wood burns, ash is created. Thus, creation and destruction are just abstract reference points in a never-ending cycle. A snake eating its own tail. Hence, when the forest fire has finished burning, it fertilizes the soil so that new things may grow. It eats out the rotten, the dead and decaying and makes way for the fresh, the new and the young. In this are the two: the Dragon and the Phoenix, parts of the whole. They are representations of the two aspects (actually the same aspect, but with different reference points, they appear to be different) of the same power. The power of the Flame and the force of Fire.

Often we seem to see the same thing from two different directions. And then we separate them into two different concepts altogether.

Adieu

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