Posted by Chuck Wagner on 02-16-2002 03:19 PM:


Greetings all,

After taking in as much of the posted info on dragons as possible AND getting some sleep as well, I'll now introduce some more fodder for the extended version of The Epistemologists Nightmare.

In northern Afghanistan there sits a place called Bamiyan, most recently in the news because of the Taliban Buddha Deletion Program. It is located near one of the more significant cultural intersections of Central Asia: Silk Road, Gateway to India,etc. But, it is way up against the mountains, at the headwaters of the Kunduz River and slightly out of the way of normal high traffic trade routes.

Regardless, it is one of the major Buddhist monastary sites in the region: 120 foot tall ex-Buddha statues, temples, the works. Several artifacts were collected and/or carved out of the site and shipped off to the Kabul Museum, and these artifacts were partially documented in a book by Benjamin Rowland called Ancient Art of Afghanistan (The Asia Society, Inc., Arno Press, 1976)

It contains among other things a photo of a Leogryph (Rowland's terminology), more obviously a winged lion in most instances, but looking CONSPICUOUSLY like a dragon in this case....

A photo from the book follows (this is where Our Moderator checks his email)

Note that this is a Sasanian culture artifact (500 - 600 AD) and as such is sort of mid-way between the Han Dynasty expansion of the Silk Road and the 16th century, when a lot of gargoyles started showing up on cathedrals. It is the place where winged beasts from the Indian and Burmese cultures might reasonably be expected to converge with those from Chinese cultures moving west, and Persian cultures moving east.

The winged creatures from the Darian Empire of Persia, which pushed way up into the Caucasus, are particularly well preserved at Persepolis. And there are several Leogryphs among them. There are beasts occuring in both Egyptian and Darian sculpture that have human heads, but they also have wings and clawed feet. By the time they're all combined, you have quite a concoction of flying things with teeth and claws.

Four ancient cultures: Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Persian, with the same strange notion for portraying supernatural beings. Were they ALL chewing the same mind altering snack food substitute ?

So here's the question: Are these ALL dragons?

Does the notion of the dragon go way beyond flying reptiles: a transcultural vision of some commonly held concept of the supernatural ?
Chuck Wagner

Posted by Steve Price on 02-16-2002 04:15 PM:

Hi Chuck,

What I think we have is a variety of mythical critters, each with many of the things people find scary as hell: a big, toothy mouth, long, nasty claws, ability to fly (one of the things people can't even do badly), and to use fire as a weapon. Whether the body and head come from lions, crocodiles, or humans, those elements are usually there. The American Indian version (which I never thought of as a dragon until Sophia said that's what the Indians call it) lacks the claws, being legless.

Did part or all of the images migrate around from culture to culture? It seems likely to me.

Are they all dragons? They are whatever the local people call them. These aren't REAL animals, after all.


Steve Price

Posted by Ludwina Akbulut on 02-16-2002 05:45 PM:

Hello Chuck, Steve and All,

I have been reading this salon and the following discussions with interest.
Because my English is not that good it was sometimes difficult to follow…and I did not want to throw myself in the discussions.
But because ‘dragons’ keep coming back here just some of my idea’s about dragons:
Dragon stands for nature forces what people could not explain in their time, as for example lightning and thunder: that’s why Dragon sprouts fire…or earthquakes: that’s why Dragons are so big that when they walk the earth is trembling…
I know this sounds like fairy-tales but WHY? What are the dragons in our fairy-tales standing for?
And why not use this design than to try to protect you against…
And when Dragon stands for ‘power’ or ‘force’ why not use this symbol then to show what a powerful man you are, or what a powerful tribe…. you are (or would like to be????)
And this nature forces where in every culture.

Than just some thoughts about ‘ask it the weavers’…
I believe designs in carpets and kilims are a language, but a language what nobody understands any more today, we only can guess and try to find some indications…I do not think there is a ‘Stone of Rosetta’ for carpets or kilims.
Even as a weaver myself, and speaking their language there are a lot of difficulties, caused by ‘culture’(?) difference. I am living now 10 years in Turkey -and with the Turks-not isolated! -(Maybe to short) but sometimes I still cannot follow their ways of thinking …
And when I talk with weavers I had the experience that they still know the names of the designs but the moment that you ask to explain this design they do not know- although they will NEVER say this (the words exist in Turkish but nobody uses them!) they will tell you what they think what will make you happy to hear…

Thank you Sophia for all the work you did for this Salon!

Ludwina Akbulut

Posted by Steve Price on 02-16-2002 08:40 PM:

Hi Everyone,

In response to everything that Ludwina just said: AMEN!


Steve Price

Posted by Steve Price on 02-17-2002 06:24 AM:

Hi People,

Here's Chuck Wagner's image of the
Leogryphin, referred to in his opening post on this thread.

Thanks, Chuck.

Steve Price

Posted by Steve Price on 02-17-2002 06:39 AM:

Hi Chuck,

It does have a dragonesque look. But it also looks a lot like a cat that's stretching, something they do when they are just coming out of a nap (which is often simply the prelude to the next nap). Cats are pretty sinuous creatures, and my guess is that the person who made this one had a cat in mind, not a reptile.


Steve Price

Posted by Steve Price on 02-17-2002 09:43 AM:

Hi Chuck,

Your mention of gargoyles (which, I believe, occur well before the 16th century in Europe) brings up the following: Maybe the gargoyles were there first, Marco Polo brought a few to Asia with him, and the Chinese adopted them as their own.

Naaah. Nothing important began in Europe.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-17-2002 12:37 PM:

Not Real?

Who says dragons and their companions - gargoyles, griffons, chimeras, sphinxes - etc - aren't real!

They're real METAPHYSICAL animals - symbols for natural, spiritual and temporal power, depending upon the situation and/or the type of animal.

Did people literally believe in them? I think, in some cases, yes. In others, no - but they believed in the powers they represented: lightening and storm; rain nuturing crops; the might of a king; an unknowable mystery barring the revelation of insight.

I find it interesting that dragons in the West (excluding the feathered serpents of Native America) are frequently seen as Bad. Really bad - sometimes they are stand-ins for Satan himself. Some writers have speculated that in this case, they are representatives of nature, which man must conquer. Their veneration in the east would reflect a different understanding of man's place WITHIN nature.

And yet, other Western dragons fly on the banners of kings. Uther Pendragon and Arthur, his son, flew a golden dragon on a scarlet banner. And the gargoyles guard the house of God.

It is striking how universal dragons are. According to the A&E production about them, some people have speculated that they may have been representing actual physical animals. And others, yes, believe in our common, shared perceptions: as Ludwina says, we all experience the same natural phenomena.

Chuck - and all - I'm curious about the extent to which Buddhist art may have influenced the embroiderers, rug weavers and designers of Persian and Central Asia - and points west. Just yesterday, Chuck's post got me thinking and also I'd been looking at some Buddhist art and reading some information about THEIR symbols - they of course love dragons

But also their mandalas - the circular medallions - perhaps this too is a "universal" concept - or perhaps they were a direct influence on Islamic art?

Another striking similarity - this time with Native American sandpaintings: the Buddhists, too, make elaborate and beautiful designs - which they then destroy.

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 02-17-2002 05:33 PM:

Hi everyone,

Where to start... (and I'm tired, so give me a break)

Sophia touched on a point that I would like to explore a little more: How universal the dragon concept is. And, extending, whether the common concept is transmitted via crosscultural communication, or simply intrinsic to the cultures. Or both.

Cultural mixing can certainly explain migration of design elements, but it can't explain the persistance (over LONG periods of time) of form and character across cultures with wildly varying developmental profiles. Additionally, there's the parallel development problem. The Mayan and Aztec cultures had winged, clawed, toothy mystical critters (Quetzalcoatl, Kukulkan, etc). These were roughly contemporaneous with the Buddhist Bamiyan carvings (about 600 A.D.). But these societies were not engaged in cultural exchange programs.

I started discussing the Asian varieties of flying toothy things because we're supposed to be working out ideas on Caucasian dragon rug design origins. Whether reptilian or lion-like, that universal component of dragons goes beyond common fears like teeth, fire & flight. I admit, though, that applying Occam's Razor to the issue puts you right at the "scared people" conclusion. So in a sense, Steve's views are quite valid.

But really, are we going to consider that cultural transfer pasted Asian dragons into the thought planes of Aztecs, Mayans, Celts, Norsemen, and Senecas ? I don't think so. Those distant cultures evolved in parallel, but with strikingly similar characteristics in their resultant dragons.

It's quite reasonable to suggest that the Caucasian dragons were likely sourced in Asian design and beliefs. But I think there is another, different, element superimposed on that process that is much more deeply rooted in the human psyche and crosses cultural and geographic boundaries. And that commonality may be behind why some design elements are successfully transferred from one culture to another, and some aren't. When was the last time anyone spotted a Chinese Fo dog on a Caucasian rug ? They're everywhere in Chinese art, and dogs are certainly not unknown in the Caucasus.

The term "mythical" certainly seems appropriate when discussing this issue, because it refers to ideas SO OLD that they are almost primal. I guess my analog for the notion I'm exploring would be the low frequency carrier wave that carries radio signals. We focus on the higher frequency component because that's where the stuff is that we're intereted in. But the carrier wave is still there. I also wonder if this "carrier wave" is somehow an element of what Steve has described as degeneration: gradual evolution in design, loss of detail, and yet the major theme is still there. It all makes sense at some lower level of the weavers conciousness, even if they can't explain why anymore (Ludwina's observation).

And, no, I don't want to get into the environment vs. genetics imprinting argument.

+++ It's getting really late and I'm really tired so I'll toss out a couple more thoughts and get back to this again tomorrow. By the way, we're not the only folks thinking scholarly thoughts about dragons:

1) Why are dragons showing up on rugs woven in a society that postdates the invention of moveable type in Europe ? Was there an earlier Orientalist movement ?

2) Another Sophia point, which I wanted to raise, but didn't, because I'm not an art historian and the art historians have been pretty testy around here, lately. How much influence did the Buddhists have on Central Asian weaving art ? Given the extensive trade routes travelled by the Buddhists, how did they figure into the cultural transfer issue ?

3) Ludwina - some interesting comments. I have a relatively new Baluchi rug with flowers in the major border. Each flower has a face (two dots for eyes, and a line for the mouth). The mouth is happy, indifferent, or sad, at varying locations. There's a language for you: And it tells you kind of day the weaver had that day ?

Also, did you notice that those people do the same thing when you ask them for navigational directions ? They don't know the answer, but they don't want to appear rude so they still give you directions. And then, you have an adventure.

4) What happened to good rendering in Central Asia ? The Mongols? The Scythians were GREAT artists in 300 B.C. Why are Central and South Asian tribal weavers such lousy artists, in the specific case of lifelike representations of animals and people. One would think that a Turkoman would notice all kinds of details in a horses figure; horses are central to their existance. Yet they seem incapable of getting much further than stick figures...

Good night everyone...

Chuck Wagner

Posted by Yon Bard on 02-17-2002 06:54 PM:

Chuck, I'd like to address only your point (4). You seem to equate 'good art' with 'realistic art.' According to you, then, all European artists before 1400 and after 1850 were lousy artists. Perhaps the Turkmen did not render horses realistically because they didn't want to - it wasn't 'in their paradigm.' We had an earlier Forum on this subject.

Regards, Yon

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-17-2002 08:45 PM:


Thank you for the fantastic contribution. It is good to see some serious thinking on the subject of dragons, as well as on the possible Buddhist connection to West and Central Asian art.

The paper on archetypes was good. It is fascinating that the dragon is virtually universal yet interpretations vary so much within civilizations. Perhaps archetypes are culture-specific? This seems contradictory to the very notion of archetype. On the other hand as a person develops his perception of archetypes - for example, his real-world parents - can change and develop. So perhaps something of the sort can develop within cultures? A very shapeless thought - so far.

This is something to ponder further. Have you had time to think about it?

And, I'd like to hear more from you about the Buddhist connection. I'm beginning to think the influence may have been considerable albeit, like Hellenistic art, along major trade routes. In other words, this might have been an influence that one would find in more cosmopolitan regions rather than deep in the countryside - but there again I haven't researched this - except in my sleep, where I'm beseiged by maps of Persia, Asia Minor and environs, all decorated by beautiful red, blue and gold dragons

As far as an early Orientalist period in Europe - oh, absolutely. When Western Rome fell, Constantinople - Byzantium - became the capitol of the Roman world. People travelled there to learn, to acquire trade goods, to buy the fantastic Oriental horses. And of course, Constantinople was also the gateway to the Orient itself. So people from all over Europe, North Africa and the Nordic regions would have had access to Oriental goods and artwork and culture.

Also - probably not coincidentally - Christianity became the official State Religion of the Roman Empire. And not long thereafter, Islam arose in the Middle East. So all kinds of things were going on there.

Incidentally, St. George was made a saint for murdering a Bad Dragon in Libya in the 3rd century C.E.

I love dragons.

But I do have to agree with Jon about the art thing. Representational art can be good but abstract art can be extremely expressive as well. And Turkmen artists did show some very nice representational drawing in their embroideries.

However, speaking to your point, I think the skills gained from drawing from life are hard to maintain from generation to generation. Geometric forms can be memorized and copied without loss of detail or "meaning" - but this is not really true of "life" drawing. It's too complex and each artist really must learn for himself, using models and learning skills from a teacher. That's why the Old Master system was so effective: apprentices could learn, over a period of years, the technical aspects of this particular artform. Similar studio systems probably existed in the Orient, but would have centered around cities and probably would not have included women, although this is an assumption and I do not know that for a fact.

So, if something happened to disrupt the apprentice system, or as one went further away from a center of this type of learning, the skills might be lost OR deliberately changed into a more geometric, abstract form.

I've argued previously that geometric symbols, in a system of symbol language, are more appropriate than representational drawing - for the simple reason that they remain "pure". Hence, our writing and its geometric nature. And, abstract symbols can carry more than one meaning, like the Mimbres bowl - again, they're more adaptable depending upon the situation. I would include the Yomud arrow-tree design, which can be found in the elems of certain engsis.

As far as why a form might be deliberately changed, I'm going to prepare a post on that subject tomorrow or the next day.

Meanwhile, thanks to all for the excellent contributions.

Posted by Steve Price on 02-17-2002 09:15 PM:

Hi People,

I think too much is being made of the "universality" of dragons in cultural myths. In the posts here and in the very interesting article that Chuck linked, it seems that a dragon can be many things. It can have 2 legs, 4 legs, or no legs. It can have one or three heads. It can have parts derived from mammalian, avian or reptilian sources, in various combinations.

It is not too far from the truth to say that almost any vertebrate that exists only in the imagination is a dragon. If this is the case, then it is not a bit remarkable that dragons are universal. The statement about dragons can be rephrased, more accurately in my opinion, as:
Myths that include imaginary beasts with internal skeletons are universal, or nearly so. How do we account for that? The answer, it seems to me, is simple: Any culture with a few imaginative people will have them.

Just a thought.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-17-2002 11:26 PM:


Dear Steve:

Respectfully, I disagree.

Although dragons vary somewhat in exact details, most are also attached to myths that again, tend to overlap and reinforce the image.

That's one of the most compelling reasons for their survival: not just their striking visual characteristics, but the narratives that accompany them over periods of thousands of years and vast distances. So they're associated with human legend and ancient memory.

The myths associated with griffons, sphynxes and chimeras are quite distinct in their own right.


Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-18-2002 12:24 AM:

Real Dragons

Fellow Dragon Enthusiasts,

We are exploring the various types and interpretations of dragons from the 17th-19th centuries on Caucasian rugs, earlier examples on Chinese textiles, various legends such as St George and architectural examples from thousands of years ago.
Where did they come from?
I speculate that they came from actual dinosaur remains. Some of the early 20th century dinosaur discoveries came from the deserts of Eastern China. I can only imagine what kind of thoughts would enter the mind of a farmer stumbling across the head of an extinct meat-eating dinosaur. He would surely be on the lookout for the live version. And most likely this find would enter the artwork of the era in the only way they had of suspecting what the real thing actually looked like. It looked like whatever they made it look like.

Nervously yours,

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 02-18-2002 06:31 AM:

Hi Sophia,

I guess we just differ on what we would call different things. No two things differ in anything except details, of course. What we usually mean when we call two things the same is that the number of details in which they differ is fairly small and the nature of those details is not terribly important.

A winged snake, a three-headed snake, an assortment of lizards with various combinations of fiery breath and wings, and animals with cat-like bodies or heads combined with serpent-like or human heads differ in a lot of details. If they really existed (and, since I am agreeing to differentiate symbol from icon for this Salon, I hope you will agree to differentiate real from metaphysical for awhile), no zoologist would put all of them into the same species.

The article Chuck linked, about which you expressed enthusiasm, focuses on the universality of dragons. It includes within the definition of dragon all of the types of creatures I mentioned. If we call everything a dragon, we should not be surprised to find dragons everywhere. If we call many things dragons, we should not be surprised to find dragons in many places.

A little game I used to play with my kids went like this: "If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?" The answer would be "Five". "Wrong", I would say, "the fact that
you call a dog's tail a leg doesn't make it one."

Now, if I click my mouse on the
icon that says "Post Reply", this message should appear.


Steve Price

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 02-18-2002 12:25 PM:

Hi everyone,


"lousy artists, in the specific case of lifelike representations of animals and people"

"equate 'good art' with 'realistic art'

Yup, you've got me Yon. You're restating what I said, all right. And if you look at the art of the Scythian nomads from the 200BC to 400BC era, you'll see why I'm curious about how the tribes of the steppes (east of the Caspian) arrived at rendering styles like those emanating from the Zagros, the Caucasus, and Kurdistan, instead of those from closer cultures with higher order rendering traditions, like India and China, and the Scythian follow-ons. I'll look for the old Salon and read through it. Maybe it was something like an early impressionist movement; sitting on the Left Bank of the Syr Darya sipping Chai and having arcane conversations about overthrowing static artistic tradition and looking at the world through new and different eyes.

Next: I think focusing too closely on the details of dragon renderings leads us (and maybe, rightly so)into conversations not unlike those involving negotiation for peace in certain regions of the world: devolution into niggling details instead of pondering the Bigger Question, how a single creature-concept ends up in a position of substantial importance in so many disconnected cultures around the world ? Take a look at some of the heads on the Quetzacoatl pyramid and then glance at a classic Chinese dragon head. Yikes.

It's that Bigger Question that addresses the issue of proliferating such motifs into the "items generated for personal use" handicrafts arena for centuries, I think. Alternatively, one could suggest a cold, market-based hypothesis: that the Caucasians noticed that people will lay out big money for Chinese rugs with dragons on them, and started weaving their own versions with careful application of locally popular colors and geometry. Hmmm....

And last (for tonight) (maybe): I'm crushed that none of the "weaving as a language" thread people didn't ask to see the frowny-face rug! So I asked Our Moderator to plug in three images of same, for your perusal. It's a recent rug, but remember, I already know all the "new rug" jokes.

Sophia: After checking out the frowny-faces, have a look at the interesting zoomorphic worked into each end of the medallion, a common motif with this particular Baluchi rug style...

Yours, Chuck
Chuck Wagner

Posted by Steve Price on 02-18-2002 02:19 PM:

Hi Chuck,

I like your Belouch. The flower/human figures in it remind me of a Shirvan prayer rug that I own that's appeared on Turkotek before.

Notice the two flowers/smiling stick figures in the spandrels? The piece is so well done that it's a little hard to believe that the weaver did this accidentally. I sometimes wonder whether it was made by a Christian weaver who was underhandedly representing a human figure on a Moslem prayer rug. The wear pattern on the rug suggests that it was knelt on a lot, and the materials and workmanship (silk wefts, over 240 knots/square inch) suggest that it was made for someone wealthy or important (or wealthy and important).


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-18-2002 04:47 PM:


Yes - these are nice - both of them.

Chuck, I've never seen a piece quite like this. The little faces are nice but the little dancing stick-figures - they almost look winged - those are really awesome.

And Steve - your rug is really lovely. Could we possibly see a closeup of the area in question?

As a person who knows a lot about these rugs - have you thought a bit about the Shirvan piece in the initial post? I can't recall having seen a published example (or a "live" example) with that design; perhaps you have?

Many thanks to both of you!

PS: Steve, you bring up an interesting subject: that of a weaver cryptically "encoding" her rug with a "forbidden" design. I had another thought about that this morning - actually two -

One is relating to the religious strife that seems to have wracked this area of the world for ages - people would have been very careful, perhaps, about exposing themselves to the Religious Police. This is going on today, as we know from watching the Afghanistan situation and the strife between various sects of Islam. Let alone between one religion and another!

So it makes sense that "encoding" might have occurred.

Also - a note on Ludwina's post: for the same reasons, people might STILL be reluctant to tell an "outsider" - even one they know and respect - what symbols or designs "mean".

We can see this reluctance going on in certain Native American groups, for example the Pueblo tribes. Although nominally Catholic, they have very elaborate and carefully maintained religious practices of their own. The Spanish priests tried to burn and torture and maim these people, in order to save their souls. Finally, the gentle Pueblo rose up and cast the Spaniards out of the the region. But - they came back. The second time, however, they turned a bit of a blind eye toward the traditional religions and in turn, the Pueblo natives "converted".

Religious matters have always, apparently, been closely guarded secrets among these groups. Men's groups, "Kiva Societies", each perform separate roles in maintaining the traditions. Their secrets are passed down from generation to generation. Interestingly, they practice not only religious matters but weaving in their kivas.

Trusted outsiders have learned much from the Native Americans about their religions, particularly earlier in the 20th century; and they've been particularly willing to share with people who've learned their languages and come to live with them or trade with them.

Even so - past a certain point there is reserve.

Therefore - perhaps the weavers aren't demonstrating "forgetfulness" or "not knowing" - but privacy?

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-18-2002 04:55 PM:

Fossils and Sycthians

Dear Pat & Chuck:

Fossils seem to be the most natural explanation for dragons, and they're quite widespread in China and in the American Southwest. Really big dinosaurs have been found there. Perhaps a biologist could tell us where some of the other great finds have been?

On the subject of Sycthian art - whoa. That's a good one. I will see about doing a post on that with some scans (poor Steve).

Some writers do believe that Southern Persian art did descend from that older tradition - I think - but as you've remarked they made much different renderings of their creatures.

If anybody has any ideas on the subject, this would be a good time to help out!

I don't think we can discount the formal concept of warp and weft, though: rugs are geometrically constructed and these weavers preferred their woven art to reflect that. Southern Persian weavers could and DID make very intricate, curvy, naturalistic designs.

But the larger question remains: what happened to the Sycthian tradition?

Posted by Sophia Gates on 02-18-2002 05:06 PM:

Cold Commercialism

Chuck brings up the concept of Cold Commercialism affecting the rug market.

Well, of course! It's one of the most powerful factors in the art world.

However - and this is a big however - that doesn't necessarily affect the QUALITY or CREATIVITY of the art made in response to demand.

In fact, people who are making money for their work might actually work HARDER at it, at least from a technical perspective. Look at the Southern Persians: for themselves, they make gabbehs. For others, they make much more intricately decorative and finely woven pieces.

The Generally Accepted Rug Wisdom holds that weaving for oneself is necessarily better, or results in Better Art. I disagree. Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael - they all got paid for their work.

But "Anonymous" in the mountains of the Caucasus, weaving for her floor - might also have been a great artist. Indeed, I believe the evidence they've left behind speaks for itself.

The TYPE of art that is made for sale or to please a patron, however, may be affected by those demands. Persian "classical" rugs, undoubtedly made to please a king or a wealthy patron, would have been designed to suit - not the designer and the weavers - but the PATRON. In that sense, the artistic expression is most definitely - well - modified. I was going to say polluted but that isn't fair But it does change one's thinking and way of working.

And remember, too, that the patronage system in Northern European art, did result in some rather strange juxtapositions, particularly in Christian art. The good Fathers sold indulgences to the well off in exchange for alterpieces and other churchly requirements. So it's not unusual to find a stout burgher and his wife, carefully painted and beatifically smiling at the newborn Jesus and His Mother. Complete, of course, with doves and donkeys and Magi from the desert night