The Dragon Tamer Motif in Myth and Legend
The motif of the hero slaying or mastering the dragon has survived for thousands of years in almost every culture in the world. The main exception to this is in Chinese mythology where the dragon is considered venerable and can be a boon once one has gained its trust and respect. But even then the dragon is potentially dangerous especially, of course, if mishandled. Apart from the Chinese exception, there are countless myths and legends, songs, ballads, and fairy tales that retell a tale of the dragon that created chaos in the community and to restore order to their world the hero had to vanquish or tame it. Almost without exception there are attached charms and spells and other magical rituals dedicated in the service of relief from the chaos of this primordial enemy.
Dragons are treacherous creatures that invoke a powerful numinous presence. They are ageless and timeless, speaking great wisdom to the few that have the magic and mana to dare a conversation. It could be speculated that they are an amalgam of the bird god with the snake god. They have the form of a very large lizard with one or more heads, spitting fire through their mouths. They are usually depicted with snake-like tongues, dangerous claws and fangs and, very often, bat-like wings. In many European mythic cycles they are monstrous and fierce and can be seen as symbols for the primal, chaotic elements of nature. They are normally either associated with the sea, rivers and pools of water or they live in tunnels, caves and other underground lairs.
When the dragon is the obstructer of waters it must be vanquished by the storm god or a suitably magically endowed hero who acts as demi-god in the situation, thus freeing the rain and returning fertility and prosperity to the community. At this symbolic level it is up to the Gods and heroes to reinforce their sovereign powers over the dragon’s destructive and chaotic force and to create or restore the cosmic order.
The motif of the dragon master, therefore, is an apt metaphor for the Work of alchemy because the inherent symbolism lends itself to the process of traversing the deep and dark inner labyrinth of the subconscious with all the travail that this entails. This is what is meant by the “hero's journey” in search of our inner dragon:
The quest for the Soul is painful and dangerous. Most people prefer to remain with the comfort in believing in their their imagined self—their ego and its persona. To reach the true Self buried within is not just a matter of concentrating on and processing our inner Light but also to acknowledge and engage with our inner shadow in all its multifaceted forms.
The role of legend and mythology is not to teach us that dragons exist because everyone who has begun the journey for Self-awareness has seen their dragon face to face: Myths and legends point out to us that dragons can be conquered or harnessed. It is the function of spiritual alchemy to take the stories and decipher their hidden meaning so that the details of the transmutation process is understood in such a way as to be a meaningful part of our daily lives.
The metamorphosis of the dragon or shadow means the transformation of the whole person. By bringing what is held in the darkness of our subconscious into the light of consciousness means to balance the opposites within. This is the meaning of the term 'psychic integration' which creates a person of 'integrity.'
A common thread in the various dragon master motifs is that these monstrous creatures are usually guardians of great treasures such as the tree of life, or the Golden Fleece, or the gold for which the hero of the Germanic sagas has to fight. There are also many stories in which dragons threaten or kidnap women, or request the sacrificing of a young girl in exchange for the fertilizing of water or something else valuable to the community. In more recent times dragons appear as agents of Satan or devils. A common depiction being the well-known portrait of St. George slaying the serpent—the enemy of God—although in some legends the Saint saves a princess from perish. In spite of the obvious influence of Christian symbolism, almost all folk traditions regard dragons as a cunning guardian of fecundity and life, or as embodying the souls of the ancestors in a household.
In real, psychological terms this will mean that the integration process will give the dragon master the ability to understand the full range of the complexities of humanness so that they will have a more authentic and therefore satisfying life experience. Furthermore the integration of the formally repressed shadow will clear the conscious apprehension which is clouded with the strain of holding so much material down. This is the meaning behind the famous conversion lyric: 'I was blind but now I see.'
The nature of the shadow is to hide outside the boundaries awareness. Then it erupts spontaneously and unexpectedly in, for example, self-destructive behavior or something that hurts someone else. It is only afterwards that we realize it was there because we feel humiliated, ashamed and guilty. It seems that we cannot tame it or that it is uncontrollable. This is common in cases such as spontaneous fits of rage when, after the dust has settled, we begin the lament: 'how could I do that when I thought I would never do it again? Just when I thought I understood why I was doing this and that it would not happen again, I am still doing it. I cannot believe the hold that it has over me: I feel like I cannot stop.' This is the reaction to a confrontation with the shadow.
Observing our criticisms of others is another place to start with the process of recognizing our shadow. It will inevitably be in these negative opinions that our own darkness will divulge itself. This is particularly the case for the more extreme cases where we 'cannot stand' their attitudes and behavior or when we become obsessed with 'fixing' them. This does not mean that it is always wrong to trust our discernment of others but in every case with someone who offends or disturbs us it is best to ask 'Why don't I like this person? What is it about their behavior/opinions/new hairdo that unsettles me? By doing this we can sift through the various layers in the labyrinth of our subconscious that are often a projection of something that we cannot admit to in ourselves.
The new ability to own, observe and tolerate the full range of uncomfortable feelings within will clear our psychic awareness of our self. This will improve our relationships because we are no longer projecting these unsettling truths on to other people in our life. It will inevitably be those closest to us that become the nearest hooks for the projections of our censoring ego.
As we clear our conscious mind of the burden of repression it will improve our physical health. Being hidden in the darkness of the subconscious does not mean that these painful or embarrassing aspects of our self no longer exist. The mind and the body are interconnected and this repressed energy continues to be transferred within our nervous system. Psychosomatic causes are now known to be the origin of a wide range of physical complaints that are brought about through this stress. These might range from headaches and shoulder tension to more serious ailments such as a bleeding ulcer or even cancer.
The same is true of other repressions such as painful events that we have forgotten. That the memory and the attached emotional reaction of these events have been locked away in the darker reaches of the labyrinth of our mind does not mean that they do not still influence us: Most of our reactions and decisions will be based on these hidden aspects of our personal subconscious and if they are not attended to then actual sickness and calamitous situations can and probably will result.
The clinical and evidential basis for this was provided by the Canadian neurologist Wilder Penfeld who, in the late 1950's, experimented by electrically stimulating the brains of his patients and was able to re-animate formally repressed memories as if the patients was actually re-living the original event. This phenomenon was known to Freud, Breuer and many other pioneering psychologists in their work with hypnosis.
Because Penfeld's experiments were difficult to replicate his findings were questioned and no other clinician was successful in reproducing the results. His research fell out of favor but by the late 1990's new methods of measuring neuron activity provided a great deal of new clinical evidence for the concept that our early memories are, indeed, hard-wired into our brains.
The very well-known psychologist Eric Berne built on the research of the hypnotists and Penfeld and created the system of “transactional analysis” (TA) as a means to effectively identify and work with these repressions. In short, we are operating from three separate ego states in the situations that we encounter in our lives.
These are: The Parent, the Adult and the Child.
The Parent is formed by the influential authority figures in our formative years and we will repeat many of the same attitudes, injunctions, emotions and even the specific words that were used in bringing us up. These become “hard-wired” into our mind. The action of looking left and right before crossing the road and the teaching of it to our own children is part of our adult.
The Child is formed when we are a child reacting to our original “Parent” (or other teachers and authority figures). It is therefore a primitive constellation and is the basis of our present-day unrefined and irrational emotional outbursts to situations that trigger a response directly from our child. It is examining these unhealthy reactions that we can be aided in locating our shadow. The Child also happens to be the basis for very healthy settings such as innocent play, creativeness and spontaneous joy.
The Adult is our attempt at mediation and autonomy in each situation. The ideal in our transactions is to be aware from the point of view of our adult which can filter the contamination of the other two ego states to avoid conflict. Obviously it is possible to be too passive and occasionally a sharp response may be called for. This over-passivity is generally, in fact, a submissiveness that was instilled in our Child.
Remember that these ego states have been hard-wired into our brains in our formative years but it is possible to reprogram them. This is the action of vanquishing or taming our dragon.
The partaking in the Hero's journey will mean that one will evolve. By “mastering our inner dragon” or embracing our shadow we mature in our emotional and intellectual capacity to engage with the world. We grow up spiritually. This is also called Self-realization, Self-awareness or even 'enlightenment.'