Jul 6, 2014

Dragons in Mythology, Legend & History, Part 2

Dragons in the Mythology of the Americas

We began Part 1 of this series (see link, below, under "related articles") by examining dragons as a creature of mythology and legend, particularly in Greek and Roman mythology.  In this second part of our series, we turn our attention to dragons as they are revealed by Central, South and North American legend and folklore.

It may surprise some to learn that, like Europe and Asia, the legends and mythologies of the Americas - North, Central and South - are replete with references to dragons or dragon-like serpents.  Unlike their Europeans counterparts, however, "American" dragons are often (though not always) depicted as large serpents, without legs.  They are also frequently deified in the form of feathered serpents.  Finally, although some bear striking similarity to European dragons, they are not always viewed as fire-breathing monsters inherently dangerous to humankind. 

The "Feathered Serpents" of Central America

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Feathered serpents were prominent deities in the ancient religions of Mesoamerica (Central America).  The earliest representations of feathered serpents appear in the Olmec culture, although it is unclear if the Olmecs worshipped such creatures.  The Olmec civilization flourished in South Central Mexico from about 1400 - 400 BCE.

The earliest Central American archaeological references to the worship of feathered serpents comes from the pantheon of the people of Teotihuacan.  This is shown most prominently on the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest pyramid found at Teotihuacan.  As noted in Wikipedia, several feathered serpent representations appear on the structure, including full-body profiles and feathered serpent heads such as the one shown above.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
By approximately 600-900 CE, veneration of feathered serpents had spread throughout many Mesoamerican cultures.  Among the Classic Maya, for example, the figure of a feathered serpent is illustrated in many stone monuments and murals, and is often related to the worship of royal ancestors.  Similarly, the ancient site of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula shows evidence of feathered serpent worship.  Finally, this worship is also amply demonstrated by the Aztec worship of the god, Quetzalcoatl, pictured right.  Quetzalcoatl (pronounced Keh-tzal-coh-AH-tl) was often associated with intelligence, self-reflection and the giving of life.

Dragons in South American Folklore

Dragons in South American mythology bear some similarity to the types of creatures one encounters in Greek myth.  These include the dragons Iemisch, Ihuaivulu, and Iwanci.  According to the folklore of Patagonia - a region located at the southern end of South American, comprised by parts of Argentina and Chile - Iemisch was a dragon-like creature with the foreparts of a fox and a prehensile serpent's tail.  Iemisch killed its victims by snatching them in its tail and crushing them like a Boa.

Ihuaivulu was a dragon in South American folklore capable of breathing fire.  According to legend, and similar to the Greek hydra, Ihuaivulu had seven heads.  It also inhabited volcanoes.

The legend of Iwanci has its origins with the Jivaro people of Ecuador.  According to Jivaroan legend, Iwanci is a demonic serpent capable of shape shifting.  It can be either a water serpent or an anaconda, but in either case is lethal to humankind.

Dragons in North American Folklore

Surprisingly, there are many dragon myths indigenous to North America.  For example, the Shawnee believed in the legend of Kinepeikwa, a serpentine creature that changed its form from one animal to another until it finally became a serpent.  It was believed to inhabit lakes.

Similarly, the Native Americans living near the Forkend Mountain, Oregon region feared a serpentine creature called Amhuluk that could change its form.

Finally, the folklore of both the Huron and Seneca peoples reveal a belief in vicious dragons that are more similar to the myths and legends of Europe.  To the Huron, this creature was known as Angont, a large, poisonous drake that dwelt in desolate places such as caves.  Likewise, the Seneca believed in a fire-breathing creature called Gaasyendietha, which inhabited rivers and lakes.