Myth and Legends of the World Volume One
By John M. Wickersham
The people of China have a rich and complicated mythology that dates back nearly 4,000 years. Throughout Chinese history, myth and reality have been intertwined. Historical figures have been worshiped as gods, and ancient myths are sometimes treated as historical truths. In addition, three great religious traditions-Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism-have played a role in shaping the mythology. The result is a rich tapestry of characters and tales, both real and imagined, and a unique pantheon organized very much like ancient Chinese society.
Roots of Chinese mythology
China can trace its historical roots in a unbroken line for more than 4,000 years, and its mythological roots extend even further back in time. From about 2000 to 1500 B.C., a people known as the Xia dominated the northern regions of China. The Xia worshiped the snake, a creature that appears in some of the oldest Chinese myths. Eventually, the snake changed into the dragon, which became one of the most enduring symbols of Chinese culture and mythology.
Taoism, also known as Daoism, arose about the same time as Confucianism. This religious tradition had its roots in the nature worship of the earliest Chinese people. the world tao means “way”, and Taoist belief is based on the idea that there is a natural order or a “way of heaven” that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature. Through an understanding of natural laws, an individual can gain eternal life.
Buddhism arrived in China between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50, several hundred years after the rise of Confucianism and Taoism. One of its basic principles is that all suffering comes from earthly desire, and only by eliminating desire can one gain happiness.
Common Themes in Chinese mythology
Several common themes appear throughout much of Chinese mythology. Among the most significant are the creation of the world out of chaos, the importance of nature, and reverence for ancestors.
The main Chinese account of creation involves the god Pan Gu, the son of Yin and Yang, who came into being in the darkness of chaos. After 18,000 years, Pan Gu had grown so much that he caused the light parts of the chaos to rise and become the heavens, while the heavy parts sank and became the earth. To keep the heavens and earth separated, Pan Gu stood up and forced them apart. He grew 10 feet a day for another 18,000 years until the earth and heavens became fixed in place. Pan Gu then laid down to rest and died. Various parts of his body became parts of the universe-the sun and moon, wind and clouds, and all elements on earth. The fleas on Pan Gu’s body became humans.
In myths and legends of the world, dragons are often fire-breathing, reptile like creatures with wings, huge claws, and a long tail. They are usually portrayed as frightening and destructive monsters. Gods and heroes must slay them in symbolic battles of good over evil. But a few cultures, notably those of China and Japan, view dragons in a positive light and use them as symbols of good fortune.
In ancient times, dragons often represented evil, destruction, and death. The dragon Apophis in Egyptian mythology was the enemy of Ra, the sun god. Babylonian creation myths describe the dragon-like monster Tiamat, who was associated with chaos. Dragons also play a role in the Bible, where they are frequently identified with Satan.
Dragons appeared in various Greek and Roman myths. For example, Apollo fought the dragon Python, which guarded the oracle at Delphi. In Greece and Rome, dragons were thought to understand the secrets of the earth. They had both protective and fearsome qualities. As a result, the dragon came to be used as a military symbol. Roman soldiers of the first century A.D. inscribed dragons on the standards that they carried into battle. The ancient Celts also used the dragon symbol on their battle gear, and to this day a red dragon appears on the flag of Wales.
In Norse mythology, the best-known dragon is Fafnir, a giant who transformed himself into a dragon to guard treasure on which a curse had been placed. The young hero Sigurd slays Fafnir. The story was retold in the German epic the Nibelungen lied. In the story of Beowulf, the hero fights a dragon that has been terrorizing the people. He is mortally wounded in the struggle.
Christian legends generally blend the dragon’s satanic image with elements of Greek and other mythologies. Many of the stories had symbolic meanings. In one famous legend, St. George, the patron saint of England, saved the daughter of a king from a dragon, symbolizing the triumph of the church over the devil. The dragon played a similar symbolic role in Christian art, representing sin over come by saints and martyrs.
In contrast, the Chinese and Japanese hold the dragon in high regard. In their mythology and tradition, dragons symbolize power, happiness, and fertility and are believed to bring good fortune and wealth. Statues and carvings of dragons are common, and garments are often decorated with dragon image.
The mythology of Japan has a long history dating back more than 2,000 years. It became part of two major religious traditions. Shinto, an indigenous religion, and Buddhism, which developed in India and came to Japan from China and Korea.
Japanese mythology includes a vast number of gods, goddess, and spirits. Most of the stories concern the creation of the world, the foundation of the islands of Japan, and the activities of deities, humans, animals, spirits, and magical creatures. Some myths describe characters and events associated with particular places in Japan. Others are set in legendary locations, such as the heavens or the underworlds.