The Water Dragon

The thunder-god is not after you and me. His wrath is directed against devils, demons, giants. Their identity varies from one country to another. But there is an adversary of a different order who lurks in Vedic, Greek, and Norse mythology and who seems to represent an Indo-European concept: a monstrous reptile associated with water, lying in it or blocking its flow. It is perhaps a cosmic version of the common mythical motif of the serpent who guards a spring, or some other desirable thing, and prevents access to it.

The defeat of this creature by the thunder-god is in essence a nature myth: thunderstorms release torrents of water that had previously been pent up. But whereas the god can always go on killing giants or demons, because there are always more of them, a unique dragon can only be slain once. There is therefore a dilemma. Is the killing of the monster a heroic deed that the god did sometime in the past, to be celebrated in his hymns of praise? Or is the monster not after all dead, so that the conflict is renewed again and again? On the whole the first approach prevails. The story is set in the past, weakening its connection with our weather. But we shall see that there is some ambivalence.

Indra is celebrated for many victories over different demons, for example Vala, Visvarupa, Sambara, Namuri, Susna, Urana, Pipru, Arbuda. However, his principal opponent is Vrtra. Vrtra's name, as we have seen, means 'resistance, blockage', and was abstracted from Indra's epithet vrtrahan-. But it was abstracted to bestow on a mythical creature already conceptualized.

62 Pliny, HN 2. 146; 37. 134 f., 150, 176; Lydus, De ostentis 45; Grimm (1883-8), 179 f., cf. 1221, 1686; Mannhardt (1875), 294; von Schroeder (1914-16), i. 546; most fully documented in C. Blinkenberg, The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore (Cambridge 1911).

Vrtra is a huge serpent, ahi-. The same verb that appears in vrtrahan- is used in the formula ahann ahim, '(Indra) smashed the serpent' (RV 1. 32. 1, 2, 103. 2, etc.). This has an almost exact counterpart in Avestan janat azem (Y. 9. 8, Yt. 14. 40, of ©raetaona's defeat of a three-headed dragon), and Calvert Watkins has shown how cognates and variants of the phrase can be traced extensively in Hittite, Indo-Iranian, and Greek.63

A translation of part of RV 1. 32 will serve to convey the essential features of the Vrtra myth.64

1 Of Indra's heroic deeds will I now tell, the ones that the vajra-bearer did first.

He smashed the Serpent, pierced a path for the waters; he split the innards of the mountains.

2 He smashed the Serpent that lay on the mountain; Tvastr fashioned for him the roaring vajra. Streaming like lowing cows, the waters ran straight down to the sea... .

4 When, Indra, you smashed the firstborn of serpents and shrivelled the magicians' magics, then, bringing sun, sky, and dawn to birth— since then you have truly found no antagonist.

5 He smashed Vrtra the vrtra-most, the wide-shouldered, Indra with his vajra, his great weapon.

Like branches lopped off by an axe, the Serpent lies flat on the earth... .

7 Without feet, without hands, he fought against Indra, (but) he smashed his vajra into his shoulderblades.

A castrated ox matching himself with a bull, Vrtra lay shot to pieces all over the place.

8 As he lies thus like a broken reed, Manu's rising waters go over him:

the very ones that Vrtra had surrounded in his greatness, at their feet the Serpent was prostrate . ..

10 In the unstaying, unresting watercourses' midst his body is laid away. Over Vrtra's concealment the waters ride; into long darkness he sank, Indra's antagonist.

11 Demon's wives, Serpent's herd they had stood shut in, the waters, as the cows by Pani.

63 Watkins (1995), 297-407. This is the basis of his splendid title, How to Kill a Dragon.

64 Cf. also Macdonell (1898), 58-60, 158 f.; Oldenberg (1917), 133-41; Joseph Fontenrose, Python (Berkeley-Los Angeles 1959), 194-201.

The waters' cleft that had been blocked, by smashing Vrtra he opened it up.

12 ... You won the cows, hero, you won the Soma, you freed the seven streams to flow.

13 Nor lightning nor thunder availed him, nor the rain and hail he poured forth. As Indra and the Serpent have fought, for the future too the Bounteous one is victorious.

That this is a nature myth is clear enough, though the consciousness that Indra's vajra- represents the thunderbolt has faded: the storm is interpreted in stanza 13 as Vrtra's assault on Indra instead of vice versa (cf. 1. 80. 12). The conflict is mostly treated as a past event, but the tenses fluctuate between past and present, and it is recognized that Indra's victory is of continuing significance (4, 13). Vrtra's body lies now in the waters, sunk in darkness (10).

There is in the Avesta a demon of drought Apaosa who fights against Tistrya (Sirius) and at first overcomes him, to the detriment of the waters and plants. But then he is defeated and driven away, whereupon the streams that water the crops flow forth unhindered. Apaosa fights in the form of a hairless black horse, Tistrya as a fine white one with golden ears (Yt. 8. 21-31, cf. 18. 2, 6). There is no thunder-god here; the role of victor over the demon is assigned to the stellar deity as seasonal power. But Apaosa's function is parallel to Vrtra's, and his name is analysed as from *ap(a)-vrt-, 'water-blocker', with the second element as in Vrtra.65

The Greek thunder-god's great mythical opponent is Typhoeus. The classic account of their conflict is to be found in Hesiod's Theogony (820-80). Typhoeus (or Typhaon, as Hesiod calls him elsewhere) is a monster with a hundred serpent heads that flash with fire and give out alarming animal noises of many kinds. He would have become master of gods and men if Zeus had not seen the danger and attacked him with his thunder. The world is plunged into tumult:

A conflagration held the violet-dark sea in its grip, both from the thunder and lightning and from the fire of the monster, from the tornado winds and the flaming bolt.

All the land was seething, and sky, and sea;

long waves raged to and fro about the headlands from the onrush of the immortals, and an uncontrollable quaking arose. (844-9)

65 J. Wackernagel in Aufsätze Ernest Kuhn gewidmet (Munich 1916), 158 f. = Kl. Schr. 448 f.; cf. Oldenberg (1917), 140.

Zeus' thunderbolt scorches all the monster's heads on every side. Lashed by Zeus' blows, Typhoeus collapses crippled on a remote mountain, flames shooting from his body and burning the earth. Finally he is flung into Tartarus. It is remarkable to what extent his afflictions match those of Vrtra, whose head is broken, who is scorched and burnt about, lies broken on a mountain, and is hidden away in the darkness.

Hesiod then makes it clearer that Typhoeus is a figure of meteorological significance by explaining that he is the source of wild, squally winds (86980). In a simile in the Iliad (2. 780-3) Zeus' 'lashing' of Typhoeus appears as something that still happens from time to time.

There is another famous encounter in which an Olympian god slays a dragon. Apollo kills the Python at Delphi. At first sight this does not seem to have much in common with the myths we have been comparing. Python is just a pestilential serpent dealing death to people and animals in the area. Apollo is no storm-god, and he kills the monster with arrows, not thunderbolts. But it is curious that in the Hymn to Apollo the creature is associated with a spring at Delphi (300), and that immediately after killing it Apollo goes back to the other spring where he had thought of establishing his shrine, Telphousa, and covers it over with rocks (375-83). The association of these motifs, blocking the flow of waters and killing the dragon, may be the fragmented relic of a myth similar to that of Indra and Vrtra.66

Among Typhaon's offspring Hesiod numbers the Lernaean Hydra that Heracles slew with the help of Iolaos. Her name marks her as a water creature. According to other literary accounts and artistic evidence, she was a serpent with a huge body, many heads, and poisonous breath. There is no agreement in the sources on the weapon that Heracles used against her, whether it was a sword, a sickle, a club, a bow, or stones. But from the second half of the sixth century it is a feature of the story that the clubbed or severed heads had to be cauterized with fire to prevent their regrowth. Some say that one of the creature's heads was indestructible; Heracles cut it off and buried it under a heavy rock (Apollod. 2. 5. 2. 5).

In antiquity the Hydra's heads were interpreted as prolific water springs that kept bursting out and flooding the countryside; if one was blocked, others appeared, until Heracles burned the region and shut off the flow (Serv. Aen. 6. 287, sch. Stat. Theb. 1. 384). This is the converse of Indra's achievement in releasing the pent-up waters by his killing of Vrtra. But there are enough common motifs—the great serpent occupying a watery site, the smashing and scorching of heads, the covering with rock—to suggest

that here again some elements of an Indo-European myth have been preserved.67

Thor, a genuine thunder-god, killed (or perhaps only wounded) the Mi5gar5 Serpent 'which lies round all lands' (Gylf. 47). He went out in a boat with the giant Hymir on the outer sea and fished for the monster, using an ox's head as bait. He managed to pull its head out of the water and dealt it a smashing blow with his hammer, whereupon it sank back into the sea (Hymiskvida 20-4). The poem leaves it ambiguous whether the blow was fatal. Snorri, telling the story more fully (Gylf. 48), writes 'and men say that he struck its head off on the sea-bed. But I think the truth to tell you is that the Mi5gar5 Serpent still lives and lies in the surrounding sea.' In this Norse myth the great serpent is located outside our world and has nothing to do with our water supplies. But like Vrtra he is struck on the head by the thunder-god's weapon and sinks into th, e waters, where he now lies hidden. The phrase that Snorri uses about him, that he 'lies round all lands' (liggr um lgnd gll), is reminiscent of a formula repeatedly used of Vrtra, ahann ahim parisayanam amah, 'he smashed the Serpent who lay round the flood' (RV 3. 32. 11; 4. 19. 2; 6. 30. 4).

The more recently recorded mythologies of eastern Europe yield a few residual motifs that are relevant in this context. In Lithuania Perkunas' first spring thunderclap is said to 'unlock the earth' from its frozen winter state. The Slavonic Perun fought a dragon, a conflict later transferred to St Ilya (Elijah). According to a Ukrainian legend the divine smith Kuy, who assisted the thunder-god against the dragon, ploughed a furrow with its body, and this was the origin of the river Dnieper with its 'snake ramparts'. Albanian myth tells of a dragon called Kulshedra (from Greek/Latin chersydros, an amphibious serpent) or Ljubi, who grows huge in a mountain cave and often causes streams to dry up, though her approach also brings storms; she has nine tongues and spits fire. What is most to be feared is her lethal urine. She is fought by a Drangue, who uses meteoric stones or lightning-swords and protects mankind from storm by overwhelming her with piles of trees and rocks.68

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