Dragons in Mythology (Part 2 of 3)

This is Part Two of Three of my Dragons in Mythology series. In Part One, I discussed the general roles of dragons in different mythologies around the world, especially common differences between dragons in the East and West. Be sure to check it out here if you missed it!

I find the dragons of the East fascinating, but my favourites are of course Japanese dragons. They are beautiful, elegant creatures with the power of storms and rain behind them, but their nature is not purely benevolent or malevolent like Chinese or European dragons, respectively.

Many of Japan’s dragons came from the mythologies of other countries such as China, Korea, and India. Despite this, the dragons native to Japan were already described as fickle, snake-like water gods before any outside influence.

Japanese Myth

Dragons in Japan were often benign or vicious on a whim. They were worshipped and prayed to for rain when it was dry or for less during the wet seasons, but the same dragons were often thought to be the cause of those droughts and torrential downpours.

These dragons then would hold out on restoring regular weather patterns until they received sufficient worship or sacrifice. People would pray simply to ask the dragons to stop withholding their favour!

Not only were dragons prone to causing extreme weather, but also for terrorizing nearby villages, even killing people. To this end, dragons often received sacrifices of livestock and sometimes even humans to calm their tempers.

Even then, not all dragons were easily sated, and such beasts turned into prime stories about heroes tricking crazed monsters into submission—or death.

The relationship between Indian mythology, Buddhism, and Japanese dragons is strong. According to some of the books I have read, the Japanese accepted Buddhist beliefs surrounding dragons because of their similar characteristics. For example, the Indian Nagas and Japanese dragons are often described as slender and serpentine, whereas Chinese dragons tend to be shorter and bulkier.

However, regardless of the original influence, Japanese dragons can sometimes be differentiated from others by their number of toes; Japanese dragons typically have three, while it is common for Chinese dragons to have four or five. Keep in mind, though, that this is not a hard and fast rule, so telling the difference can be tricky!

Can you tell which of the dragon pictures here are Japanese and which are Chinese?

Since the adoption of Buddhism in Japan, Buddhist temples have been built next to lakes, rivers, and ponds that are believed to be inhabited by dragons. These locations are sometimes determined by a phenomenon called Ryūtō (龍燈; “dragon lights”) which is when orbs of dancing light appear to hover over the surface of the water from dusk until dawn. Because of the strangeness of these lights, they are thought to be a yōkai as well.

Unfortunately, discussing all the stories of dragons from the original Buddhist beliefs or even those native to Japan is beyond the scope of this blog post. Rest assured that I will revisit dragons in Japan at a later date to tell you about all the stories attached to these wondrous mythical creatures!

Dragon Gods

 Japanese myth is, to say the least, a little confusing. There are two widely accepted versions called the Kojiki (古事記; Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihon-Shoki (日本書紀, sometimes also referred to as the Nihongi, 日本紀) in which there are a lot of differences, including different and/or multiple names for each deity.

This made it difficult to pinpoint which gods were dragons and the chronological order in which they came into being. Nonetheless, I decided to stick with the version of events from the Nihon-Shoki where possible because it was the version most frequently referenced in one of the books I read on Indian, Japanese, and Chinese dragons.

In this version, the story goes something like this:

The Goddess of Creation and Death, Izanami no mikoto (伊弉冉尊 or 伊邪那美命; “she who invites”) is giving birth to the God of Fire, Kagutsuchi (軻遇突智; “Flame Elder”), in the heavens. During the birth, Kagutsuchi burns his mother and causes her to fall to earth, where she, in her death throes, creates several new deities, including the Earth Spirit Haniyasubime (波邇夜須毘売神; “Lady Kneading Clay”) from her feces and Water Spirit Mizuhanome (彌都波能売神; “Water Gushing Woman”) from her urine, both of which are potentially snakes or dragon deities.

Izanami dies shortly after, and her husband, Izanagi no mikoto (伊弉諾; “he who invites”), the God of Creation, kills their new son (Kagutsuchi) in his grief. From the dripping blood on Izanagi’s sword, several new deities are made, which includes Watatsumi or Ōwatatsumi no kami (大綿津見神; “Great Deity of the Sea”)Dragon God of the SeaKuraokami (闇龗; “Dark Water Serpent”) the Dragon God of Rain and Snow; Kurayamatsumi (闇山津見神; “Mountain Gorge Majesty”), God of Mountains; and the Goddess of Ravines, Kuramitsuha (闇御津羽神; “Ravine Water Rushing”).

Kurayamatsumi

Kurayamatsumi is a minor deity of mountains, ravines, and gorges. As such, he is part of the Yama-no-kami (山の神), a group of earth or mountain gods, goddesses, or spirits. His name has the alternate reading of Takaokami (高靇), which can mean “high rain-dragon.”

Kuramitsuha

Kuramitsuha is the sister of Kurayamatsumi, but because of the conflicting order of events between the Nihon-Shoki and Kojiki, she is sometimes considered the same deity as Mizuhanome (or Mitsuhanome) which can also be read as “Dark Water Snake” or “Valley Water Snake” which leaves the possibility that she was also a dragon deity.

Ōwatatsumi

Ōwatatsumi is a guardian water deity who rules over the sea, but he has two alter-egos. His most popular name is Ryūjin (龍神; Dragon God), which is believed to be an alternative identity representing  one of the eight dragon kings imported from the Lotus Sutra of Indian Mythology.

But Ōwatatsumi is also sometimes considered Watatsumi Sanjin (綿津見三神, “Three Watatsumi gods”) which are the three evil dragon gods who rule the upper, middle, and lower levels of the sea. They were created by Izanagi when he washed himself after leaving Yomi, the underworld, to try and save Izanami from death.

Although it is somewhat confusing to have three (or five?) deities connected under one name, I think this can be interpreted as the capricious nature of the sea, which can guide and aid you one minute, and then drown you the next.

Ōwatatsumi lives at the bottom of the sea in a palace made of coral (or fish scales, depending on the story) with his daughter, Toyotama-hime (豊玉姫; “Abundant Pearl Princess”). He is the power of the ocean, thunder, and rain, and, according to legend, can turn into a human and uses the jewels of the sea to control the tides. Snakes, jellyfish, sea turtles, and fish are his messengers and servants.

In addition, Ryūjin is said to live in Lake Biwa (north-east of Kyoto) and is often associated with the freshwater deity Suijin (水神; “Water God”), whose name is also used to refer to other mythological water creatures including snakes, dragons, kappa, and more.

There are many myths and stories associated with Ōwatatsumi/ Ryūjin, but perhaps the most notable stories are those surrounding his daughter’s marriage to Hoori. Long story short, Hoori and Toyotama had a fateful encounter, after which Ryūjin recognized Hoori as a descendant of the Gods and arranged their marriage.

Their union resulted in a son, Ugayafukiaezu, who ended up marrying Toyotama’s younger sister, Yamayori. She eventually gave birth to the First Emperor of Japan, Jimmu. This story established the relationship between the Imperial line of Japanese emperors and the sea god, Ryūjin, a lineage which is still in place today.

Kuraokami

Kuraokami, the Dragon God of Rain and Snow, is worshipped all across Japan in temples alongside Suijin. Often he is the go-to deity when there are droughts or too much rain (although other local water dragons are also an option), but he is also prayed to for more snow. In some versions of the myths surrounding Kuraokami, Watatsumi, and Mizuhanome, Izanami created them to tame Kagutsuchi’s fire if he ever got out of control.

The story of Hoori and Toyotama-hime’s marriage established the relationship between the Imperial line of Japanese emperors and the sea god, Ryūjin, a lineage which is still in place today.”

Other Dragons

 

Up until now, I have only discussed the dragon gods from Japan, but they are far from the only dragons in Japanese myth. Most dragons are considered kami (essentially a god) or yōkai (a broad term for supernatural creatures) and worshipped as such even if they are not named deities.

Tatsu

Tatsu (竜; or ryuu) is one of many words in Japanese can refer to a dragon. These dragons are not necessarily attached to any one myth or folklore, rather, they are the original Japanese dragons and are one of the oldest supernatural creatures in Japanese myth as recorded in the Nihon-Shoki and Kojiki.

They have the appearance and traits of many dragons from Chinese and Korean myth, and like many other Eastern dragons, Japanese tatsu are creatures with power over rain, floods, and have other abilities related to water.

People worshipped them to bring rain, for safe passage through their domain, and to placate them when they were angered and caused storms, death, or destruction. Holy sites linked with dragons or rumoured to be located near a dragon’s dwelling were popular destinations for pilgrimages, and even today, many Japanese attend festivals to honour the power of dragons.

Mizuchi

Known as the “Water Fathers,” Mizuchi (大虬) are well-known gods or spirits that dwell in rivers throughout Japan. However, like many dragons, they usually do not have individual names, and there is conflict between deciding whether their appearance is more serpentine, like Indian dragons, or if they are bulkier like Chinese dragons.

There are several stories about Mizuchi who harass, poison, and kill people. One story in particular from the Nihon-Shoki resulted in the belief that dragons, as clever and powerful as they are, cannot sink calabash (a type of gourd). In this story and others similar to it, heroes trick dragons into attempting to sink the gourds, only to fail and get killed or be denied another human sacrifice in their honour.

Wani

Wani (和邇) are another type of water-dwelling dragon that live in the depths of oceans and lakes. They happen to share the same name for crocodiles in Japan (although the kanji is different: 鰐), which is another creature, like snakes, that were worshipped as part of different mythologies around the world.

Unlike other most other dragons, wani are known to live in elaborate villages or palaces beneath the water and can transform into humans. They are of Ryūjin’s court and often hold noble titles, and even his daughter, Princess Toyotama, is a wani, according to the marriage tale between her and Hoori.

Yamata no Orochi

There is an eight-headed dragon from Japanese mythology named Orochi or Yamata no Orochi (八岐大蛇; 8-branched giant snake). This beast is described as being the size of eight hills and eight valleys with moss and other plants growing on his back.

In an overly simplified version of the myth, the Storm God Susano-o (素戔男尊) encounters a family of earth deities who had had seven of their eight daughters eaten by the serpent. He offers to slay the creature in exchange for the final daughter’s hand in marriage, to which the deities eagerly accept. Susano-o then proceeds to have each of the eight heads drink from liquor that was distilled eight times so it falls asleep, and then cut Orochi into pieces.

This myth is super cool and, as much as I loathe to bring it up and only discuss it briefly, I’ll have to come back to it another time.

    In conclusion, dragons of Japanese myth are associated with water and rain, similar to Chinese dragons, but they are less benevolent and more tempermental. Many Japanese dragons were imported from Chinese, Indian, and even Korean mythologies, which still heavily influence the perception and stories of dragons in Japan today. Despite this, there are still dragons native to Japanese mythology, namely those who were born from the original creator God and Goddess, Izanagi and Izanami respectively, as well as individual kami or yōkai such as tatsu, wani, and mizuchi.

    These are all creatures with plentiful myths and stories to talk about sometime soon. But for now, prepare for Dragons in Mythology Part Three, where I’ll discuss the influence of mythological dragons in modern Western culture.

    Dragons are still often depicted as fiery, aggressive monsters to be slain and defended against. These traits have made them iconic to the fantasy genre—including books, video games, television, and more.

    But what about Eastern dragons? The thus-far limited perspective of dragons has created what I like to call “dragon fatigue” in some fantasy-lovers, some of which avoid dragons completely because they’re “more of the same”.

    Read part 3 now!

    If you have any questions, or would like me to discuss a certain dragon or myth in more detail in the future, leave a comment below!

    —Erynn

    Final Note: I am not yet fluent in Japanese, so I took the translations of some of the names from History of Japan and Wikipedia, so they might not all be 100% correct.

    In addition to the Nihon-Shoki, I used the book “The Dragon in China and Japan” by Marinus Willem de Visser, if you’re interested in reading more.

    Everyone’s stories are worth sharing– even yours

    Stories enrich our lives, fuel interactions, build connections, and foster our imaginations. It’s difficult to imagine a world without stories; how different would conversations with your best friends be if you couldn’t tell them about the crazy tourists you encountered on your last vacation? Or if you couldn’t wind down for the night, reading a good book or some articles online?

    Dragons in Mythology Part Two

    I find the dragons of the East fascinating, but my favourites are of course Japanese dragons. They are beautiful, elegant creatures with the power of storms and rain behind them, but their nature is not purely benevolent or malevolent like Chinese or Western dragons, respectively.

    Dragons in Mythology Part Three

    This is the long-awaited part three of three for my Dragons in Mythology series. Although this will be my last long post about dragons for the foreseeable future, rest assured that this won’t be my last post about dragons.

    Dragons in Mythology Part One

    People all over the world have always been fascinated by dragons. They appear within the mythologies of over two dozen cultures and even today are a common within popular literature, television, and more.

    Yes, yes, yes, to some degree, the popularity of dragons has led to an overabundance of them within the fantasy genre.

    What Are Yokai?

    Yokai (妖怪) are, simply put, supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore.

    They come in all shapes and sizes from villages, mountains, and forests all across Japan, encircled by rich spiritual traditions, legends, and myths. Like the mythical and folkloric creatures of other cultures, there are ‘good’ yokai, ‘evil’ yokai, mysterious yokai, you name it.

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