Dragon soaring high,
Chasing reindeer in the sky.
Santa is delayed.
Archive for November, 2016
Dragon soaring high,
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and I’m deep in the ritual of Madly Cleaning House For Guests. Not to be confused with the ritual of Madly Cleaning Up After Guests, which happens on Friday. But part of me lingers in the warm and wonderful land of India.
The Indian Naga, Part 2
Much of the naga lore that comes down to us is from the Mahabharata, an epic story cycle of Vedic and Hindu culture. In particular, the Mahabharata contains origin story for the naga race.
The great sage Kasyapa had thirteen wives, who were all daughters of Daksha, a prajapati or creation god. Two of these wives were named Kadru and Vinata. Kadru wished to have many children, while Vinata wanted only a few but powerful children. Kasyapa gave each one her wish. Kadru laid 1,000 eggs, which hatched into serpents, the ancestors of the nagas. Vinata laid two eggs, which hatched the deities Garuda and Aruna. Garuda had the wings and beak of an eagle.
Although they were kinfolk, Garuda and the nagas were destined to become mortal foes. Kadru and Vinata made a bet, and they agreed that whoever lost would become a slave to the winner. Kadru enlisted her many children to help her win, but they wouldn’t do it. Furious, Kadru cursed them. Nevertheless, Kadru won the bet. Vinata, Garuda and Aruna became slaves of Kadru and the nagas.
Garuda was obedient, but his anger grew into an eternal grudge. When he asked Kadru’s children what he must do to release his mother and brother from servitude, they said he had to bring them amrita, the elixir of immortality. Garuda set off, although the odds were long. The gods guarded their previous elixir with warrior deities, a ring of fire, a machine with whirling blades, and two gigantic poisonous serpents. Somehow Garuda made it through and seized the amrita in his beak but did not swallow it.
On his way back to his mother, Garuda encountered the gods Vishnu and Indra. Vishnu promised to make Garuda immortal if he would serve as Vishnu’s flying steed, while Indra said if Garuda tricked the serpents and gave back the amrita, he would have snakes for his food ever after. Garuda agreed to both proposals.
When Garuda got back, he laid the amrita on open grass. Vinata and her sons were freed! But he told the nagas the elixir would only work if they purified themselves at a temple before they drank. While the nagas were in the temple, Indra swooped down and snatched the amrita away. Only a few drops were left.
The nagas must have been furious, but Garuda had plausible deniability, and so he remained free. The nagas tried to lick up what was left. They gained magical powers and long life, though not true immortality. Also, this split their tongues, so that all snakes now have forked tongues. From that time on, Garuda attacked and devoured any snakes he could find. Perhaps this is why the nagas eventually retreated to underground domains.
I’m preparing for an appearance tonight, but I’ve been recounting the legend of a nagini, Zathi, so here’s a reblog from April 2013 about the mythical race of nagas.
The Indian Naga, Part 1
If you are like me, the first you knew of Indian myth was an exotic creature in the D&D monster manual, called a naga. It had a serpent’s body and the head of a human. (I know, nagas aren’t dragons! But they’re pretty cool, and I’m going to cover them anyway. So there.)
Nagas are a kind of creature like elves and dwarves, that have a long history in folklore. They appear in lots of stories, where they sometimes behave in contradictory ways. Also like elves and dwarves, nagas are not individual monsters but an entire race, separate from humans but intellectually equal.
Nagas, generally, are snakes that can take human form. They seem able to choose what parts are human and what are serpent, so sometimes they are entirely snake, sometimes they are snakes with multiple heads, and sometimes they are humans with serpent coils from the waist down. Naga are immortal, demi-gods in Western terms, and many are skilled sorcerers.
A naga man is called naga, and a woman is nagini. (If you were wondering, yes, this is where J. K. Rowling got the name for Voldemort’s serpent companion.) They dwell in a nether realm called Patala, and have been ruled by various kings and princes. Nagas practice multiple marriage, with powerful naga men having several wives. There aren’t any stories that I’ve found where nagini act as leaders.*
In part, nagas are nature spirits associated with rivers or underground caverns. As such, they are vulnerable when humans alter or damage the environment. In most tales, nagas are only malevolent when reacting to such depredations. Some also are treasure guardians, so perhaps they strike back to defend what is theirs.
*Update: Technically, the nagini Zathi does not hold a position of power. Yet she is a spiritual leader whose philosophy is highly influential in the world around her.
In part 2 of this Burmese folk tale, a snow-white crow took word to the Sun God that his wife, a naga princess, was about to give birth. The Sun God sent a precious ruby to celebrate, but the foolish crow left the parcel unattended…
When the crow had stuffed himself on rice from the cart, he returned to his hiding place. Not knowing that the parcel had been tampered with, he continued on his way. Zathi was in her underground palace, curled around her three golden eggs. The princess was sad to hear that her husband could not return to her, but she cheered up when the crow presented her with a silk-wrapped gift. Imagine her shock to find a piece of dried dung inside!
“Is this what my husband thinks of me?” she cried. “I thought we were happy together. How could he despise me and our children?”
Zathi sent the crow away and shut herself up with her eggs. She brooded for days, unable to bear the Sun God’s cruel scorn. Before the eggs could hatch, she had died of a broken heart.
When the Sun God heard this news, his shining face went dark. He mourned his lost love and demanded news of anyone he could find. Eventually he learned that Zathi had received a piece of dung instead of the ruby he had sent. Immediately, he summoned the snow-white crow.
“You selfish, irresponsible creature!” bellowed the Sun God. His flames blazed with searing heat, and he blew a blast at the crow.
“Forgive me,” wept the crow. “I am but a humble creature of the world.”
The Sun God knew his beloved Zathi wouldn’t have wanted the crow to die, so he caught back his fiery breath. The white crow’s feathers were blackened and scorched, and every crow in the world has been black from that time on.
The three eggs lay in Zathi’s chamber, with no one to care for them. When the rainy season came, a flood washed them out into the Irrawaddy River. The tide tumbled one egg into the rocks near a town called Mogok. It shattered, scattering millions of blood-red rubies over the shore. Since then, Mogok has been famous for the beautiful gems that are found there.
The current bore the other two eggs down to Central Burma, before another one broke against a half-submerged log. Out burst a fierce tiger, roaring with all the pride of Zathi’s great heritage. It climbed up the log and slunk into the forest. That is how the jungles of Burma came to be the home of mighty tigers.
The last log tumbled on until it was caught between two rocks in Southern Burma. That egg, too, cracked open. A huge crocodile swam away, its heart cold with all of Zathi’s despair. Whenever people travel by boat on the Irrawaddy River, they have to watch out for crocodiles lurking in the water.
You see, this is why the crocodile and the tiger share the same nature, even though they look different. They are the lost sons of Zathi and the Sun God. Because of the merchant who stole their heritage and broke their mother’s heart, they will never miss a chance to get revenge on any humans they encounter.
In my previous post, I began a traditional Burmese folk tale that related the love and marriage of the Sun God with a Naga princess, Zathi. After the Sun God was called back to the Heavens, Zathi sent a snow-white crow to tell him their children were about to emerge from their eggs.
The crow, who had a vain nature, held his head high and preened his feathers to their finest. “Just think, I have been chosen to carry a message to the Heavens!” Up he flew, boasting to everyone he met about his important job.
When he reached the Sun God’s palace, the deity beamed with joy at his news. “Alas,” he said, “I cannot come down just now. It gets too hot when I am on Earth, and that is dangerous for all living things. I know my dear wife will understand.”
However, he searched among his treasures for token to show Zathi his love. He chose a huge, blood-red ruby and wrapped it in silken cloth. “Give this precious stone to my beloved Naga princess. Ask her to buy a kingdom with it. Our children will grow up to rule over that kingdom, and I will always be able to smile upon my family.”
“I will guard it with my life!” cawed the crow. “You have chosen your messenger wisely. No other could be a more trustworthy servant.”
Down he flew, with the parcel in his beak. But as he flew over the Burmese countryside, he spotted a merchant’s caravan bumping along the mountain roads. The cart was loaded with sacks of rice, and bits dribbled out as it jolted over the ruts. Noisy birds swooped in, chattering as they grabbed bits of grain. Despite his best intentions, the crow’s nature took hold of him.
“I am tired and hungry,” he said to himself. “I deserve a reward for my hard work.” So the crow landed in some bushes and hid his precious bundle there before darting off. Soon he was thick among the birds, cawing and snatching up the rice.
While the crow was gone, one of the merchants passed those bushes. He spied a gleam of silken fabric and went to see what it was. Under the bushes, he gasped to see the magnificent ruby folded into the cloth.
“What luck!” the merchant cried. Looking around to see that no one was watching, he tucked the gem into his belt. Then he took a piece of dried dung from the ground, wrapped it in the cloth, and returned it to its hiding place. The merchant strolled off as if nothing had happened.
Uh-oh! Check back on Tuesday for the final chapter.
Long ago, in the beautiful land of Burma, there was a Naga princess named Zathi. She came from a fierce and proud Naga kingdom below the hills. However, her heart was gentle and full of love. She often traveled the world to spread wisdom among humankind. Even small animals, which normally fled from the terrifying Nagas, would gather in her presence.
One day the Sun God was passing over Burma. He saw a glow from beyond the hills, and went to investigate. There he saw Zathi, stretched out to bask in the sun. Light reflected from her iridescent scales, making her seem as a river of fire with eyes like blazing coals.
“What a glorious creature!” cried the Sun God. He lingered to admire her, and the longer he looked, the greater his admiration. For several days, the love-struck Sun God could not stop watching her, nor could he sleep at night. Eventually he descended to Earth to ask for her hand in marriage.
Zathi agreed, and they were married. They lived together quite happily, until one day the Sun God was called back to the Heavens. No matter how he wished to stay with his Naga princess, the Sun God could not shirk his appointed duties. Zathi watched with sorrow as her beloved husband rose higher and higher into the sky.
A short time later, Zathi discovered that she was soon to be a mother. She returned to her underground home to rest and prepare. Soon she produced three golden eggs. She tended them with her loving warmth. After many days, she sensed that they were about to hatch. Making her way to the surface, she searched for a messenger. She found a handsome, snow-white crow — for in those days, all crows had white feathers. At first the crow was terrified, but she spoke softly and he calmed down enough to listen.
“Please, friend, fly to the Heavens and tell the Sun God his children are soon to be born. I beg him to come and welcome them.”
“That would be my honor!” cawed the crow, and he flew off with the message.
Do you really think it will be that easy? Check back on Saturday for more of the story.