As we have evolved as homo sapiens for over 200,000 years, humanity has been continuing to tell stories. From the myths that managed to join our ancient tribes together to Disney movies, stories continue to play an integral part in our societies today. But the fundamental stories that even children’s stories give us lessons on what it means to live and survive.
The Building Blocks of A Story
The underlying patterns and themes that occur throughout all stories are defined by Carl Jung as archetypes. These archetypes give rise to images, such as that of a goddess or a wise man. This idea takes a striking similarity to Plato’s theory of forms, in which there is a realm to where the quintessence of an object exists.
For example, think of a tree. You might be thinking of a pine tree, deciduous tree, or any other tree. Plato reasoned, that there is some perfect form(or rather a perfect image of a tree), that embodies all of the characteristics that its imperfect forms share. To go further, he believed that our world was just a shadow of another world of perfect forms, where only perfect forms of everything that we categorize exist.
This parallel of Plato’s world of perfect forms can be drawn with archetypes, as it is the archetype that is the fundamental “form” that a particular character or event within a story embodies. However, Jung did not elaborate too much on the archetype, as its definition was not clear cut and his idea of the “primordial image” came to also murky the waters when it came to archetypes.
But despite this, it is crucial to understand that there are significant similarities that are shared between all cultures when it comes to storytelling. And one symbol/character that seems to appear in almost every culture, from Asian to Western cultures, is…
What Could it Be?
Now the first question I want to ask you is what does a dragon look like? More specifically, why do dragons(or dragon-like creatures) appear in so many mythologies and in the way they do? I’ll give you some time to think about this…
Alright, after thinking for a while, what did you come up with? If you want to refer to the image above, the main animals that I could pick out were that of a snake(obviously), the legs and talons of a hawk or eagle, and the whiskers/mane of a large cat. In other cultures, you can pick out all sorts of animals from these dragons, but these three main animals(snake, bird of prey, and large predatory cats) all seem to come up again and again.
Now, I know what you might be thinking.
So what? What’s a dragon’s looks gotta do with stories?
Well, let me tell you, there may be a whole slew of implications. First and foremost, if you rewind the clocks of humanity by a few million years, our earliest ancestors would live on the African Savannah. And guess what animals we most definitely made contact with? You guessed it, snakes, birds of prey, and large predatory cats. This dragon is the biological representation of what it is that we utterly fear and the unknown.
It is possible that our stories truly revolve around evolutionary instinct, with stories embedded within us to help us survive. These stories and symbols are just remnants of prehistoric information about our upbringing as both predator and prey animals. We already have the basic frameworks present within our bodies and different reactions will trigger responses without a second thought.
For example, if a snake were to jump out at you, your instinct will be to immediately jerk your body. When seeing something scary you could run or become frozen in fright. You don’t think about it and then react. Our ancestors that didn’t have the immediate reaction most likely died. But nowadays, the physical snakes that would come to scare us, are now abstracted snakes. Things like tests or exams are at their core, just a flimsy piece of paper. However, they still seem to access these biological fear responses. Our world is not just as simple as surviving to reproduce or climbing to the top of the tribal hierarchy. We have the added layers that our modern world brings.
Through abstraction, we can create fiction and fantasy. However, these fictions and fantasies must come from some form of reality. In our minds, reality is just like play-dough. We can morph the original shape into something completely different. And in the end, we transform reality sooo much, that the fiction seems to not resemble reality in the slightest.
But from this abstraction, we can end up with something that strays far from what it originally derived from. When you look at creation stories, such as those from the Iroquois, Buddhism, or even those from Christianity, there seem to be major fundamental stories that are profound, telling us stories that we never would have guessed, if we were to look only at the surface level.
These dragons come to represent the unknown and come to represent chaos. These creatures are a fusion of that which poses the most danger to us. But they are only one part of the archetypical story.
The Great Figures
With each mythology, major characters or figures come to reveal themselves. These characters manifest themselves in a myriad of ways, but they always seem to appear, bringing with them, the same message, warnings, and symbolism.
Dragon of Chaos
As I stated before, the dragon comes to represent the unknown, and chaos. That which we fear, and know nothing of. Even in our day to day lives we are surrounded by chaos. But even so, we have found security in a house, a family, a community, where order can persist.
The dragon becomes the very adversary that humanity seeks to overcome. From chaos, order can be created, and vice versa. The dragon is chaos, and the unknown, but it also holds gold and treasures. If we were to use European dragons, we find that they live in a lair filled with gold and their sole job is to kidnap princesses, or at least that’s their main job. The knight will have to battle this fire breathing dragon and, in return, obtain the golden treasures and princesses. This interesting occurrence speaks a fundamental message. The dangerous unknown holds both danger and treasure.
Imagine, again, that we are back in the ancient landscape of the savannah 200,000 years ago in the perspective of our ancestors. Each day, we have to go out into the harsh wilderness, searching for food. The tall grass could hide both predator and prey. But it is a risk we had to take in order to survive.
This concept of risk or reward can be found anywhere you look. The higher the risk the higher the reward. The taller the grass, the larger the predator or prey may be. Eventually, if we were to minimize this risk, or even eliminate it, the reward itself will be in plain view already, and most likely not constitute much of anything at all.
We as humans live to conquer the unknown. In the form of scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, parents, or any other profession. It is our primary goal that we are headed towards. But this mission of humanity cannot be partaken by solely the individual alone.
The Great Mother
The great mother is the figure that is closest to relating to the actual dragon of chaos. The great mother comes to represent nourishment, care, and creation. It is the mother that creates and nourishes the growing child. But she is capable of not only creation but destruction.
The great mother can usually be represented in the form of nature. It is nature that created and nourishes humanity while also sparking disease, natural disasters, and other catastrophes. Ultimately the great mother is a small part of true chaos. It is the chaos that we have the most direct contact with, that which we encounter on a daily basis. However, it is out of this chaos that we can create order, society, and civilization.
The Great Father
The great father contrasts heavily with the great mother. The great father is order, the rule setter, the known, the king, and the tyrannical dictator. From it we can find security and walls to keep us safe. But those same walls can also keep us in just as well as it can keep things out.
Civilization itself is the character that the great father usually plays. Society brings with it rules, laws, and customs. In it, we can feel safe and secure, protected by numbers and the walls of our communities. However, security has its drawbacks. Perfect order and security mean that there is no exploration, no freedom. And in the end, it can become tyranny as we know it. A delicate balance must be held by both the Great Mother and Great Father. Tipping towards the extreme in either case comes with it an utter disaster and the devouring of the individual.
And inside it all, is the individual, the protagonist who comes to battle against these great forces listed above. The individual takes a number of forms, whether it be a hero, an explorer, etc. Through exploration, challenge, struggle, and discovery, the individual can teach us what it takes to battle with chaos, and conquer the unknown.
It is the hero that undergoes struggle, achieves greatness, explores the unknown. The individual represents the pluripotency within all of us. To explore and become whatever we see fit. But being a hero isn’t easy. Sometimes, a hero’s life is plagued with nothing but struggle.
The Journey into the Underworld
The descent into the underworld is an extremely common story, told throughout humanity. Books like “The Odyssey” or movies like “Pinocchio” are but a few examples. This descent marks what it is to grow, develop, and to find direction as an individual.
The first step in the descent is that of necessity. I don't think anyone of us would just find ourselves wanting to journey into the literal land of the dead, or at least something resembling that. No, the journey is something that must be undertaken, even if we would really not want to. I’m assuming most of you have seen Pinocchio and as such, I‘ll be using a specific scene from that movie. If you haven't, I got your back, but really, it's a good film to watch, no matter the age!
As Pinocchio escapes Pleasure Island(not a pleasurable experience), he finds out that Gepetto(his father/creator) is stuck in the belly of a whale after he went searching for Pinocchio. We don’t exactly know why Gepetto finds himself in this whale in the first place, but even this has a whole slew of analysis that could come. With that context given, we can see that Pinocchio’s journey into the underworld(the belly of a whale in this case) comes from a necessity to find direction. Pinocchio believes that getting his father back is the only way to really get rid of his problems.
And from this, Pinnochio does indeed venture into the ocean, into the deepest waters, and finds his father inside the belly of the whale. At this point, we find that Gepetto is inside of the whale, just on a wooden raft catching fish. Now, sparing a lot of details and other interesting analysis, we’ll skip to the part where Pinnochio decides to light a fire with Geppeto’s wooden raft, freeing them. As they are washed ashore, we find that Pinnochio dies, or at least his puppet self does. Because lo and behold the blue fairy(nature/great mother figure) comes to revive Pinnochio not as a puppet, but as a boy. And then you have the cliche happy ever after moment at the end of the movie. That with great struggle comes an even greater reward. However, that’s not all of it.
This scene depicts what it means to journey into the underworld, and rise from it as well. The journey into the underworld marks the struggle and sacrifice needed to attain something. The struggle will change the hero, and they will have entered and exited the underworld as two utterly different beings. Pinocchio entered the whale as a coward, and fearful, exiting as a courageous and dutiful individual. The descent and rise change the individual, allowing them to grow, with the new experience and knowledge now gained. So for those of you thinking that children’s films are too basic and simple, think again.
The Recurring Struggle
Whether you look at movies like The Lion King, or the creation stories of a multitude of religions and cultures, you can find that chaos is always there. Whether it be in the form of a dragon, snake, person, or even oneself, chaos is the greatest enemy that humanity faces.
In this divided yet isolated world that we find ourselves living in, we can observe sides and tribes warring against one another, trying to find safety and comfort. We may have walled ourselves off from the vicious snakes outside of our communities, our families, our houses. But the snake still exists everywhere, and even makes its way into us, the individual.
We must realize this dragon of chaos, the wicked snake, or our carnal desires that are all within us. Because as stories have come to tell us, with great struggle and sacrifice, we can come to conquer this chaos and reap the rewards that it hides in the darkness. This descent and rise from the underworld will be taken many times in your lifetime, no doubt. But to really push back against chaos, no matter how many times one person descends and rises, there will need to be a collective. Humanity as a whole must undertake this journey, together. If we manage to ascend, we may finally have a grip on chaos, once and for all.