Dragon Lore: Origins of the Fire-Breathing Beast

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From ancient Greek myths to Game of Thrones, the legend of the dragon is one of the most enduring and romanticized throughout history. It has been traced back as far as 4000 BC and exists in all parts of the world.

In and around Europe dragons are viewed mostly as monsters of evil intent. In ancient Rome, the army used dragons as symbols of strength.

During the Renaissance, fear of sea monsters kept sailors from venturing too far from known waters, and the edges of their maps would read “Here be dragons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains the etymology of the word dragon, which it says entered the English lexicon in around 1220 and was used in English versions of the Bible from the early 14th century.

Dragon derives from Old French, the language used by nobles and law courts following the Norman conquest of 1066. This in turn stems from the Latin draconem or draco meaning “big serpent,” which was derived from ancient Greek δράκων (drakon).

In Greek mythology, the Hesperian Dragon named Ladon was a hundred-headed serpent that guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides.

Historically, European dragons were viewed as being evil, jealous, and greedy hoarders of treasure.

In the stories, they were generally treated as violent monsters who must be slain by heroes and saints. European dragons could have four legs, two legs, or none, and often had wings.

In Asia, and especially China, the view of these creatures was very different. Dragons were thought to live under the ocean in the winter, arising in the spring with a clap of thunder to bring the rain needed for their crops, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

They breathed clouds and moved the seasons. The dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, and the Imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. Known as the Dragon, the emperor ruled in harmony, and brought peace and prosperity to all.

Chinese dragons are depicted as being more serpent-like, with long, snaking bodies and usually had four legs. They are generally seen as wingless.

How people view them and what they believe about them varies widely, but the idea is too widespread not to think there are some common roots.

What made people from cultures that may have never met all come up with the idea of dragons?

There are several theories about what creatures could have been the source of the dragon myths, any or all of them may be true.

Ancient Origins discusses a number of potential roots. The first one is crocodiles. Saltwater and Nile crocodiles are the two largest living reptiles on earth today.

Currently, saltwater crocodiles live in the eastern Indian Ocean region, and Nile crocs in the rivers, marshes, and lakes of Sub-Saharan Africa. But 1,000 years they had a much larger habitat range, and could have been encountered by people living in Greece, Spain, and Southern Italy.

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Nile crocodiles can grow to 20 feet in length, and have the ability to lift much of their bodies off the ground. This may be a hint about why European dragons are often described as rearing up.

Many archaeologists believe that ancient people envisioned dragons when they found the fossils of certain sorts of dinosaurs, specifically, the types that had very long necks.

Having no explanation for the lengthy fossils, they would have imagined a beast that seemed to fit what they were seeing.

There is evidence to suggest that there were discoveries of dinosaur fossils being uncovered in China as early as the 4th century BC. Fossils belonging to flying dinosaurs, such as pterodactyl or pteranodons, could very well be part of why some cultures envision dragons as having wings.

Another, similar, theory is that people imagined dragons when the skeletons of whales washed on shore near early coastal dwellings.

Because early people didn’t have suitable sailing and navigation technology, they would most likely only have seen the immense whales from a distance when the creatures were living.

This could certainly be the root of sailor’s fear of “dragons” in the waters, as well as the ocean-dwelling Asian view. This could also be one of the reasons that some dragons are pictured as having wings.

Snakes are also thought to be a basis for the dragon myth. Although even very large snakes are much smaller than dragons are said to be, humankind has a deeply embedded instinct to fear them.

In ancient Egypt, for example, Apep was a deity known as the Serpent of the Nile. He was viewed as the lord of Chaos, and opposed to light and truth.

Each of these theories show some echo of what we think about when we think of dragons. All of them together show a more complete picture of the huge beasts that feature in so many stories and myths.

 Ian Harvey

How a German city changed how we read

Despite the far-reaching consequences of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history.

The German city of Mainz lies on the banks of the River Rhine. It is most notable for its wine, its cathedral and for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced the printing press to Europe. Although these things may seem unconnected at first, here they overlap, merging and influencing one another.

The three elements converge on market days, when local producers and winemakers sell their goods in the main square surrounding the sprawling St Martin’s Cathedral. Diagonally opposite is the Gutenberg Museum, named after the city’s most famous inhabitant, who was born in Mainz around 1399 and died here 550 years ago in 1468.

The printing press marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world

It was Gutenberg who invented Europe’s first movable metal type printing press, which started the printing revolution and marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world. Although the Chinese were using woodblock printing many centuries earlier, with a complete printed book, made in 868, found in a cave in north-west China, movable type printing never became very popular in the East due to the importance of calligraphy, the complexity of hand-written Chinese and the large number of characters. Gutenberg’s press, however, was well suited to the European writing system, and its development was heavily influenced by the area from which it came.

Mainz, Germany, is the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

The German city of Mainz is most notable for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

 

In the Middle Ages, Mainz was one of the most important cathedral cities in the Holy Roman Empire, in which the Church and the archbishop of Mainz were the centre of influence and political power. Gutenberg, as an educated and entrepreneurial patrician, would have recognised the Church’s need to update the method of replicating manuscripts, which were hand-copied by monks. This was an incredibly slow and laborious process; one that could not keep up with the growing demand for books at the time. In his book, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age, Dr Bill Kovarik, professor of communication at Radford University in the US state of Virginia, describes this capacity in terms of ‘monk power’, where ‘one monk’ equals a day’s work – about one page – for a manuscript copier. Gutenberg’s press amplified the power of a monk by 200 times.

At the Gutenberg Museum, I watched a demonstration of a page being printed on a replica of the press. First, a metal alloy was heated and poured into a matrix (a mould used to cast a letter). Once the alloy cooled, the small metal letters were arranged into words and sentences in a form and inked. Finally, paper was placed on top of the form and a heavy plate was pressed upon it, similar to how a wine press works. This is no coincidence: Gutenberg’s printing press is thought to be a modification of the wine press. Since the Romans introduced winemaking to the region, the area around Mainz has been one of Germany’s main wine-producing areas, with famous grape varieties such as riesling, dornfelder and silvaner.

The page that is always printed at the Gutenberg Museum replicates the original style and font (Gothic Textura) of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, the first major book ever to be printed using movable type in the Western world. It is the first page of St John’s Gospel, in the Bible, which begins: “In the beginning was the word…”

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Writing is often considered the first communication revolution, while Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication. After about 15 years of development – and huge capital investment – Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455.

“Gutenberg’s Bible is an extraordinary work of craftsmanship,” said Dr Kovarik, who suggests we can read a strong religious motivation into the perfection of his work. “This wasn’t unusual at the time – for example, a stonemason would try to achieve a perfect sculpture in a remote corner of one of the great cathedrals, not really for the people who would be worshipping there, but rather as an expression of personal faith.”

Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication

Of his original print run of about 150 to 180 Bibles, only 48 remain in the world today. The Gutenberg Museum has two on display. Both are slightly different, because after printing, the pages would be taken to a rubricator (specialised scriber) who would paint in certain letters according to the tastes of their customers. Gutenberg’s Bibles turned out to be bestsellers.

At first, the Church welcomed the new availability of printed bibles and other religious texts. Printing enabled the Church to spread the Christian message and raise cash in the form of ‘indulgences’ – printed documents that forgave people’s sins. However, the disruptive power of the printed word soon became apparent. With the rapid spread of printing technology – by the 1470s, every European city had printing companies, and by the 1500s, an estimated four million books had been printed and sold — came the spread of new and often contradictory ideas, such as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, in which he criticised the Church’s sale of indulgences. Luther is said to have nailed his text to a Wittenberg church door on 31 October 1517. Within a few years 300,000 copies of it had been printed and circulated, leading to the Reformation and a permanent split in the Church.

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

But despite the far-reaching consequences of Gutenburg’s press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history. A plaque marks the place where he was born on corner of Christofsstraße, but the original house is long gone. Today, a modern building stands there, occupied by a pharmacy.

Another plaque outside the nearby St Christoph’s Church marks the place where he was likely baptised. The church was bombed during World War II and remains in ruins as a war memorial, although the original baptismal font from Gutenberg’s time is still intact.

The graveyard where Gutenberg was buried has been paved over, and even though there are statues of him are everywhere in the city, we don’t know what he looked like. He is commonly depicted with a beard, but it is unlikely that he had one. Gutenberg was a patrician and during his time, according to my tour guide Johanna Hein, only pilgrims and Jews wore beards. In fact, the man we all know as Johannes Gutenberg was actually born Johannes Gensfleisch (which translates to ‘goose meat’). If it weren’t for the 14th-Century trend of people renaming themselves after their houses, we would perhaps be referring to his invention as the Gensfleisch Press today.

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

But although the traces of the man have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere: a poster advertising cosmetics; a woman reading a newspaper in a cafe; the menu on a restaurant table. Furthermore, our current communications revolution, made possible by the internet, digital technology and social media, is a progression of what started with Gutenberg.

“Every time the cost of media declines rapidly, you enable more people to speak out, and you have a greater diversity of voices,” said Dr Kovarik, explaining that this impacts the distribution of power in society, and sparks social change.

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Paradoxically, however, our digital revolution can also be seen as a return to the pre-print era, according to a theory called The Gutenberg Parenthesis by Dr Thomas Pettitt, affiliate research professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who argues that there are parallels between the pre-print age and our own internet age.

In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour

“Print conferred stability on discourse; works in books were authorities; news in print was true. In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour. We are now in a post-news phase, where purveyors of fake news can accuse the legitimate press of purveying fake news and get away with it,” Dr Pettitt said.

Whatever the impact of the 21st-Century digital revolution, just like the printing revolution before it, the effects will reverberate for hundreds of years to come.

By Madhvi Ramani 8 May 2018

The 16 Most Beautiful Places in Japan You Didn’t Know Existed

Japan is filled with countless places that inspire and enchant visitors. From historic castles and eye-catching floral displays to unusual landscapes that look pulled from a completely different country, here are some of the most beautiful places in Japan you have to see to believe.

Mount Koya

Mount Koya, Japan

Mount Koya | © Kazue Asano/Flickr

Mount Koya is the spiritual home of Shingon Buddhism, a sect founded more than 1,200 years ago by one of Japan’s most important religious figures, Kobo Daishi. The sect’s head temple, Kongobu-ji, is set on the forest-covered mountaintop of Mount Koya. Over 100 other temples have been established around Mount Koya, many of which offer visitors an overnight stay.

Noto Peninsula

Wajima City under a blanket of snow | © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Comprising the northern section of Ishikawa Prefecture, the Noto Peninsula is home to some of Japan’s most stunning coastal scenery and untouched countryside landscapes. Aside from admiring the natural scenery, the peninsula offers a number of spots for fishing, swimming, and camping. Its main tourist center, Wajima City, is home to fewer than 30,000 people and serves as wonderful place to experience Japanese small-town life.

Shikoku Island

One of the great bridges that cross from Honshu to Shikoku | © Yusei/Shutterstock

One of the great bridges that cross from Honshu to Shikoku | © Yusei/Shutterstock

Shikoku is Japan’s fourth largest island, located southwest of the main island of Honshu to which it is connected via two bridge systems. This island is also tied to influential monk Kobo Daishi as the home of the 88 Temple route, one of the country’s most important pilgrimages. Aside from attracting those seeking spiritual fulfilment, the island offers some spectacular coastlines, mountain ranges, and tumbling rivers.

Kiso Valley

Village in the Kiso Valley | © De antb/Shutterstock

The Kiso Valley is home to the Nakasendo trail, one of only five Edo-period highways connecting Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. Travelers during this time made this long journey on foot and, as a result, the Kiso Valley is dotted with historic post towns where travelers once rested, ate, and slept along the way. It’s possible to walk a section of this old highway, between mountains and through thick forests, as well as visit some of the well-preserved towns.

Shodoshima

Shodoshima, Japan

Shodoshima, Japan | © Kentaro Ohno/Flickr

Shodoshima has a mild climate and a Mediterranean atmosphere, home to beaches, dramatic coastlines, resorts, and even olive plantations. The second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea, Shodoshima is one of the hosts of the Setouchi Triennale contemporary art festival, and outdoor installations from previous festivals can be seen dotted around the island.

Kenrokuen Garden

Park
Kenroku-en garden, Kanazawa , Japan

Kenroku-en garden, Kanazawa , Japan | © Milosz Maslanka

Named one of Japan’s ‘three most beautiful landscape gardens’, Kenrokuen Garden is filled with charming bridges, walking trails, teahouses, trees and flower. Once the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen was opened to the public in the late 19th century. Each season reveals a different side of the garden’s beauty, from plum and cherry blossoms in the spring to colourful maple-tree leaves in the autumn.

Matsumoto Castle

Building
Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture

Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture | © Yanadhorn/Shutterstock

Matsumoto Castle is one of only a handful of original castles remaining in Japan. Initially built in 1504, it was expanded to its current form in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Nicknamed Karasu-jō (Crow Castle), it’s known for its beautiful black-and-white three-turreted main keep.

Nachi Falls

Nachi Falls in Wakayama | © Mie Mie/Shutterstock

Nachi Falls in Wakayama | © Mie Mie/Shutterstock

Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall (with a single drop) in the country, tumbling down 133 metres (436 feet) into a rushing river below. The waterfall is overlooked by the gorgeous Nachi Taisha Shinto shrine, which is said to be more than 1,400 years old. Built in honour of the waterfall’s kami (spirit god), the shrine is one of several Buddhist and Shinto religious sites found around the waterfall.

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route , Japan

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route , Japan | © William Cho/Flickr

The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route connects Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture with Omachi Town in Nagano Prefecture. The route can be experienced by various types of transportation, including ropeway, cable car, and trolley bus, all of which offer spectacular views of the surrounding Tateyama Mountain Range. The most impressive part of the route is the road between Bijodaira and Murodo, which is bordered by 20-metre-high snow walls from April to May each year.

The Blue Pond

shutterstock_738052129-By okimo

Blue Pond in Hokkaido Prefecture | © okimo/Shutterstock

The Blue Pond in Hokkaido Prefecture, also called Aoiike, is known for its ethereal blue colour. Tree stumps protruding from the surface of the water add to its otherworldly appearance. This artificial pond was created as part of an erosion control system, designed to protect the area from mudflows that can occur from the nearby Mt. Tokachi volcano. The pond’s eerie blue colour is caused by natural minerals dissolved in the water.

Hitachi Seaside Park

Park
Tourists viewing the seasonal flora at Hitachi Seaside Park

Tourists viewing the seasonal flora at Hitachi Seaside Park | © Phurinee Chinakathum/Shutterstock

Hitachi Seaside Park is famous for its fields of baby-blue flowers, called nemophilas, which bloom across the park in the spring. The park encompasses 190 hectares (470 acres), and more than 4.5 million blossoms blanket its fields every April. During the autumn, the park’s rounded shrubs called kochia (bassia in English) turn a bright crimson colour, creating an almost equally mesmerising sight.

Gokayama

Park
Shirakawago Village, Gokayama, Japan

Shirakawago Village, Gokayama, Japan | Mithila Jariwala / © Culture Trip

Gokayama is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that also encompasses the nearby village of Shirakawa-gō. Both areas are known for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. These centuries-old houses feature distinct thatched roofs, designed to withstand heavy snowfall. Gokayama is less accessible than popular Shirakawa-gō, and, as a result, its villages are more quiet and secluded.

Tottori Sand Dunes

Tottori Sand Dunes | © Aon168/Shutterstock

Tottori Sand Dunes | © Aon168/Shutterstock

The Tottori Sand Dunes are part of Sanin Kaigan National Park in Tottori Prefecture. Stretching for 16 kilometres along of the Sea of Japan coast, the dunes are the largest in the country. Tide movement and wind causes the dunes’ shapes to change constantly, but they can be up to two kilometres wide and 50 metres high. Camel rides are widely available, causing the area to have an enchanting, desert-like atmosphere.

Sagano Bamboo Forest

Sagano Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama | © Kanisorn Pringthongfoo/Shutterstock

Sagano Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

The Sagano Bamboo Forest is located in Arashiyama, a district on the western outskirts of Kyoto. Paths wind through towering bamboo groves, with the sun peaking between the green stalks and creating an enchanting effect. The bamboo forest is equally famous for its beauty as for the characteristic sounds created by the bamboo stalks swaying in the wind.

Nishinomaru Garden

Park
Sakura of Osaka Castle at the Nishinomaru garden

Sakura of Osaka Castle at the Nishinomaru garden | © KPG_Payless/Shutterstock

Nishinomaru Garden is a gorgeous lawn garden that offers spectacular views of Osaka Castletowerand the stone wall of its moat. The garden is covered with more than 600 cherry trees and more 95 different types of apricot flowers. It’s a popular spot for cherry blossom viewings in the spring, with night-time illuminations held during the peak blooming periods.

Aogashima Volcano

Aogashima Volcano

Aogashima Volcano | © Charly W. Karl/Flickr

Aogashima is a tiny, tropical island in the Philippine Sea, which is under the administration of Tokyo. The most isolated island in the Izu archipelago, Aogashima is home to an enormous double volcano. The island itself is a volcano and there’s a second smaller volcano found at its centre. With around 200 inhabitants, Aogashima is also the smallest village in Japan.

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By Jessica Dawdy   Updated: 16 April 2018