Snakes and dragons

The Chiribukuro 塵袋, literally "Bag of rubbish," is a harshly named but entertaining proto-encyclopedia from the 13th century. It is in a question-and-answer format, and here is a question I read today:

Dragons and snakes seem to be separate things, but does referring to snakes rising to become dragons imply that dragons begin as snakes? There have also been instances of dragons appearing to be snakes. Nor does the way that the two Dragon Kings Nanda 難陀 and Upananda 跋難陀 appear in images such as the Big Dipper Mandala 北斗曼荼羅 wrapped thrice around Sumeru differ from the doings of a snake. It is unclear whether they are one and the same or not. What say you?

The answer starts with a literature review:

Snakes becoming dragons is perhaps a reference to reincarnation. Since they say that if the fish who live in the ruins of Yu fight their way upstream to the dragon gate they can become dragons, it would seem that fish can become dragons too. It is also said that snakes can become eels, and that yams can too. Is there no end to such transformations?

(According to the notes in my edition of the book [Tōyō bunko 2004, ed. Ōnishi Harutaka 大西晴陸 and Kimura Noriko 木村紀子], "yams become eels" was a common contemporary expression for a preposterous event, particularly a fortunate one, that nevertheless happened.)

The above seems almost sarcastic, and perhaps the mention of the yams-become-eels saying was intended as criticism of those who believe everything they read. However, the author does not seem skeptical about the idea of dragons in general, or that one might become one. The second half of the answer discusses the five types of dragon defined in the "Great Accumulation Sutra" 大集経: fish-dragons 魚龍, snake-dragons 蛇龍, horse-dragons 馬龍, elephant-dragons 象龍, and toad-dragons 蝦蟇龍. If fish and snakes become dragons, no doubt they become fish-dragons and snake-dragons in particular, the author reasons. (It is also noted in passing that horse-dragons may be the source of the notion that dragons' voices sound like the neighing of horses.)

Popularity factor: 9

L.N. Hammer:

Scrap sack!


"It is in a question-and-answer format"... that would make it less of an encyclopedia than a Quaestiones Japonicae, no?


Good point, there. On the other hand it is organized into sections by topic natural-philosophy style (i.e. "plant life" and "animal life" vs "the nature of suffering" and "the finality of death"), and there is no sustained dialogue, just one question heading each self-contained entry. You could rewrite the questions in a form like "On snakes and dragons, and whether the former can become the latter, etc." with no negative effect. So I am OK with placing it in te pre-encyclopediac tradition.


Here's a list of sections:

① 天象・神祇・諸国・内裏
② 地儀・殖物(土地と栽培される植物)
③ 草・鳥(薬用植物と鳥類)
④ 獣・虫(獣類と虫・魚など)
⑤ 人倫(官職・職業・家族など)
⑥ 人体・人事(身体各部・人の行為)
⑦ 仏事・宝貨・管紘
⑧ 雑物(武器・生活用具・書状など)
⑨ 飲食・員数・本説・禁忌
⑩ 詞字(さまざまな専門用語など)
⑪ 畳字(とくに注意すべき熟語)

It's got some flavor of an encyclopedia, and some flavor of Plutarch, but generally seems to be an original "guide to life". The placement of "Miscellaneous" in the middle, and the odd mix of food, math, and taboos, reminds me a bit of Borges' Chinese Encyclopedia.


Nah, food, math and taboos go naturally together. They can all be found in the Yellow Therach canon after all. (Math and taboos especially.)

Starting with the sky's pretty classic--you can see it in 口遊 after all. I feel like the taboos are pretty far down in favor of animals.

(Question and answer for manuals seems, on the other hand, to be more of a medieval thing. Influence from Buddhist traditions? But it does seem to flow naturally from "topic--definition" as well.)


It's also not realky that practical - for example the stuff in "plants and birds" isn't so much "eat this, avoid that" as "why two different kanji are used to write the same plant name" and "what this type of bird mentioned in ancient poetry actually was".


While it is true that the normal logic of transmigration--i.e. from lesser to greater--might place the snake before the dragon in the process of transformation, it was probably reverse.

Although there is a lot of ambivalence to account for on number of levels, including the problem of Buddhist snake-dragons (nagas) opposed to and blended with Chinese dragons (and snakes), in general, dragons (=largely sea creatures) became snakes when sea-faring lost its dominance as people begin to settle in-land, transforming their water-deity based cults into worship anchored in snake-teeming mountains. Becoming-snake dragons could then adopt functions in agricultural affairs, for this was a dimension the snake had occupied all along, owing partly to his predator habits (eating mice who would eat the harvest), and also, as inhabitants of the mountains, snakes were seen to be in control of the source of water--the riverways and streams flowing from higher land. In this capacity, i.e. the bringing of water, they were the bringer of rain, as the gods of lightning (or "thunder")--but this status was probably eventually given over to the dragon, who was considered big enough for the job. (Foxes, too, were seen as lightning, and they too were crucial creatures for agricultural matter, not only as predators, but in sharing the same color as the harvest itself. A 'tenko' 天狐 or heavenly fox resembles in this flying sense the 'tengu' 天狗, and this is probably no coincidence. Foxes were believed to start fires to houses, as were tengu, as does lightning.)

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Snakes and dragons | No-sword



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