Category Archives: Lightning
Etymology – The Altar (Latin), Incense Burner or Censer (Greek – Thymiaterion)
Also known as: θυτήριον, θυμιατήριον, Thymiaterion (Greek), Ara Centauri (Roman), Focus, Lar, and Ignitabulum, Thuribulum (Latin),
Ara is the name of a constellation in both Greek and Roman mythology that represents the altar that sacrifices to the gods were made on. The Milky Way galaxy was said to represent smoke rising up from the offerings on the altar. It is a southern constellation that lays between the Scorpius and Triangulum Australe constellations along the southern horizon on the Northern Hemisphere.
The constellation known as Ara is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Ara was noted as being close to the horizon by Aratus in 270 B.C.E. Bradley Schaefer, a professor of astronomy, has commented that the ancient star gazers must have been able to see as far south on the southern hemisphere for where Zeta Arae lays, in order to pick out an alter constellation. The stars comprising of Ara used to be part of the Centaurus and Lupus constellations until the astronomer, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille created the Ara constellation during the mid-eighteenth century. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is one of the smaller constellations, ranking 63rd in size.
Constellations bordering with Ara are: Apus, Corona Australis, Norma, Pavo, Scorpius, Telescopium, and Triangulum Australe. The best time to spot Ara is during July in the Northern Hemisphere.
The stars for Ara are found in Dōng Fāng Qīng Lóng or the Azure Dragon of the East. In modern Chinese, Ara is known as Tiān Tán Zuò (天壇座), meaning: “the heaven altar constellation.”
Guī – Five of the stars (most likely Epsilon, Gamma, Delta, Eta, and Zeta Arae) in Ara form a tortoise that lived in the river formed by the Milky Way. Since tortoises are land animals, this likely a turtle as they were a prized delicacy. Another turtle found in Chinese astronomy is Bie who is located on the banks of the Milky Way in the Corona Australis.
Chǔ – Three stars (most likely Sigma, Alpha, and Beta Arae) in Ara form a pestle that is seen as pounding rice and separating the husks into a basket, Ji that is found in Sagittarius. Sometimes Chǔ is placed within the constellation Telescopium and depicted by the stars Alpha and Zeta Telescopii.
In Christian astronomy, Ara represents the altar that Noah built to make sacrifices to God on after the great flood.
In Greek myth, Ara represents the altar that Zeus and the other Greek gods swore their oaths of allegiance on before they went to war against the Titans to overthrow Cronus. This particular altar that the gods swore on is held to have been built by the Cyclopes.
It should be noted that Cronus was one of twelve Titans who had also usurped his own father, Uranus, the previous ruler.
What comes around, goes around. A prophecy was given that Cronus would suffer the same fate of being displaced by one of his own children. To prevent this from happening, Cronus swallowed all of his children whole as they were born. These children being: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon who would all go on to be the Olympic gods.
When Rhea, Cronus’ wife gave birth to her youngest son, Zeus, she hid him in a cave on Crete and gave Cronus a stone, telling him that this was Zeus. Duped, Cronus swallowed the stone. Later, when Zeus had grown up, he managed to get Cronus to vomit up his siblings. Cronus’ children swore vengeance and to help Zeus overthrow Cronus and the other Titans.
The war lasted many years and had come to a standstill at one point and Gaia, goddess of the Earth and spouse to Uranus instructed Zeus to free the ugly, deformed kin of the Titans. These kin were the Hecatoncheires (hundred-handed giants) and the one-eyed Cyclopes who sorely wanted revenge against Cronus for having been imprisoned down in Tartarus.
Making his way down to the depths of the underworld of Tartarus, Zeus freed the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes, asking them to join his side against Cronus and the other Titans. In gratitude for their freedom, the Cyclopes created a helmet of darkness for Hades, Poseidon’s trident and thunderbolts for Zeus.
Victory didn’t take long after, bringing a ten-year war to an end. Zeus would become the god of the sky, ruling over the other gods from Mount Olympus, Poseidon would become the gods of the sea and Hades would become the god of the underworld.
To commemorate their victory over the Titans, Zeus placed the alter up into the heavens to become the constellation Ara.
Alternatively, Ara has been seen to represent the altar of King Lycaon of Arcadia. Yes, that Lycaon, who held a feast for the gods and dished up one of his sons, Nyctimus as the main course.
Why? Because Lycaon wanted to test Zeus to see if he was omnipotent. Okay dude, not a good idea, this sort of thing with testing and challenging the gods is called Hubris. It is never a good idea to anger the gods.
Needless to say, Zeus was not amused by this affront and turns Lycaon into a wolf (represented by the constellation of Lupus) before killing Lycaon’s other sons with lightning. As for Nyctimus, Zeus restored the child back to life.
Another version of this story given by an Eratosthenes, holds that Lycaon had served up his grandson Arcas at this feast. This would really anger Zeus as Arcas is his son by way of an affair with Callisto, who happens to be Lycaon’s only daughter.
In terms of predicting the weather forecast, it was said by the Greek poet Aratus, that if sailors saw the constellation of Ara, it meant that there would be wind blowing in from the south.
Other weather forecasting held that if the Ara constellation was the only visible constellation in a cloudy night sky, that there would be a storm coming.
The Romans called Ara by the name of Ara Centauri as it represented the altar that Centaurus used when sacrificing the wolf, Lupus.
In this version of the myth, Centaurus is shown in the night sky as carrying the wolf, Lupus to sacrifice on the altar, Ara.
Altar To The Gods, Hearths & Oaths
A more minor bit of lore, is that the Ara constellation represents the actual altar that people would burn incense on to show respect for Zeus.
Out of all the constellations for Ptolemy and other ancient Greek Astronomers to point out, why an Altar? It’s clearly important to the ancient Greeks. Many heroes in the Greek & Roman mythologies made sacrifices to different deities, so it does make sense that something so important would find a place of note in the heavens.
It is very likely that this is just a smaller constellation taken from a larger whole that tells a story narrated out in the night sky, much like the constellations for the story of Perseus and Andromeda or the three constellations that make up the Argo Navis for the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
Usually I want to roll my eyes when I come across an article while researching for a bit of mythology that gets too long winded about the etymology of a word and seems to try and make far too many linguistic connections.
This time it seems to bear some strong merit.
The interesting tidbit I came across is how the Latin word altar was adopted into the Old English word altar as a derivative from the plural noun “altaria”, meaning: “burnt offerings” and likely from the verb “adolere” meaning: “burn up.”
This word connection and etymology has been linked to Hestia, the goddess of the Hearth. The center of the home. That the description of Ara with the smoke from the Altar is that of smoke rising from the hearth of Greek and Roman homes.
More significant is that the Altar was the place where people would swear their oaths. Further etymology games and connections have brought up that the Greek word for oath is horkos and where the modern word exorcise, meaning: “’to bind by an oath” or “to drive out evil spirits” as seen in the Greek word of exorkizein (ex – out and horkos – oath). That seems to make sense in the story of the Titanomachy when Zeus swears an oath on the altar to kill his father and over throw the other Titans. Thus, making way for a new era ruled by the Olympian gods
Making a jump to Roman mythology, you have Orcus, a god of the underworld and punisher of broken oaths. There wouldn’t be this aspect to a deity unless it wasn’t considered important. Again, comes the linking of the Roman Orcus to the Greek orkos or horkos, meaning to swear and the variations of exorkezein, “to bind by an oath,” orkizein ‘to make to swear’, from the word orkos, ‘an oath.”
Continued word etymology has me looking at how the root orkos is very similar to the Greek erkhos or serkos, meaning: “an enclosure, hedge or fence” and is a cognate to the Latin “sarcire” meaning: “to patch or mend” with similar words of sark “make restitution,” sartoruis and sarcire, “to mend or repair.”
It used to be that your word was your bond and that giving one’s word or oath really meant something. Nowadays it feels like you need to have it in writing with the possibility of needing to take people to court if they don’t fulfill any contractual agreements of significant importance.
The constellation of Ara, along with 18 other constellations of: Aquila, Centaurus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hercules, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Serpens, Sextans, Triangulum Australe, and Vulpecula.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Stars of Ara
Alpha Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tchou or Choo, meaning “pestle.” Is the second brightest in the Ara constellation.
Beta Arae – This is the brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Gamma Arae – Is a blue-hued supergiant star thought to be 12.5 to 25 times bigger than the Earth’s own Sun.
Mu Arae – Is a sun-like star that has four known exo-planets orbiting it.
Delta Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tseen Yin, meaning “the Dark Sky.”
Zeta Arae – This is the third brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Named for the distinct “stingray” shape, this Nebula is located roughly 18,000 light years away from the Earth. As of 2010, this is the youngest known planetary nebula found within Ara. While smaller than many other planetary nebulae that have been discovered so far, the Stingray Nebula is still 130 times larger than our solar system. The light for this nebula was first observed in 1987. It is a planetary nebula some 18,000 light years away from the Earth.
Water Lily Nebula
Also, catalogued as IRAS 16594-4656, this is a pre-planetary nebula found within the Ara constellation that is in the process of forming planets. It was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Westerlund 1 (Ara Cluster)
This is a compact cluster of relatively young (a few million years old) stars located some 12,100 to 16,000 light years from Earth. Westerlund 1 is named after the Swedish astronomer, Bengt Westerlund who first discovered it in 1961.
Other Names – “the Brain Sucker”
In the Zulu mythology of South Africa, Mamlambo is a large serpentine river goddess as well as a goddess of beer. In some legends, Mamlambo appears during lightning storms.
For the Xhosa of South Africa, the Mamlambo is a giant river snake that will bring good fortune to the one who can claim it. Witch doctors are believed to use Mamlambo to extract revenge on their enemies.
Goddess Of Beer!
Yes, beer. This aquatic, serpentine deity is also known for brewing beer. This is a job that women in many Southeast African tribes do.
Mamlambo’s myth entered the realm of cryptozoology in 1997 when various South African newspapers began reporting sightings of a “giant reptile” monster in the Mzintlava River (also known as the Umzimhlava River) near Mount Ayliff in South Africa. The reports also mention how between 7-9 people and even a number of animals were all killed by this monster by dragging its victims underwater and drowning them. After which, the Mamlambo would suck out the blood and brains of the victims, earning it the name of “the Brain Sucker.”
There are a few different accounts what Mamlambo is to look like.
One version has the creature being some 20 meters (67 feet) long, with the torso of a horse and lower body of a fish, short legs and neck of a snake. That it also shone green at night. Some have commented that this description fits that of a Mosasaur, a variety of giant marine reptiles that went extinct with the dinosaurs.
A slight variation to this description says the Mamlambo is half-fish, half-horse with short stumpy legs, crocodilian body and the head and neck of a snake. This version of the description also says the Mamlambo has a hypnotic gaze that it uses to lure its victims to a watery grave. Much like crocodiles do, the Mamlambo is able to leave the water to snag its potential victims that come to close to the water. The Mamlambo is also believed to glow an eerie bioluminescent green when it is dark.
Possible Reality Behind The Myths
In April of 1997, there had nine bodies found in the Mzintlava River. According to local police, all of the bodies had been in the water for a long time, long enough for scavengers such as crabs to come and eat the soft parts of the heads and necks. When the bodies were pulled from the water, river crabs were still clinging to the bodies. The local villagers on the other hand insist that these mutilations are the result of the Mamlambo eating people’s faces and then sucking out their brains.
Another idea put forward is that the Mamlambo may be an elasmosaur-like animal an ancient type of archaeocete from the cetacean evolutionary branch. Basically, a member of the whale family before whale legs became flippers.
Brosno Dragon – Or Brosnya, is a Russian Lake Monster that some have described as being a mutant beaver or a giant pike that’s around 100-150 years old.
Dobhar-Chú – A cryptid from Irish folklore described as being a water hound and known for dragging victims to a watery death.
Each-Uisge – A Scottish shape-shifting water horse, that much like the Irish Kelpie is known for drowning victims.
Glashtyn – Or Cabyll-Ushtey, it is a shape-shifting goblin that inhabits of the waterways in Manx, one of it’s favored forms is that of a horse.
Kelpie – A water horse, this is another creature from Irish folklore known for its shape-shifting abilities and drowning victims.
Lau – A dinosaur-like lake monster with tentacles from Sudan.
Loch Ness Monster – A similar aquatic and serpentine creature found in Scotland.
Mahamba – A reptilian cryptid from the Congo, it is often described as being similar to a giant crocodile or thought to be a fresh water living fossil mosasaur.
Mokele-Mbembe – A famous reptilian cryptid from the Congo described as looking a sauropod and herbivore in nature.
The Mamlambo has indeed featured on an episode of the SyFy channel’s Destination Truth.
Alternate Spellings: 黄帝, Huang Di, Huangdi
Also known as: Gongsun, Kung-sun, Xuanyuan, Xuan Yuan, Hsuan-yuan, Huang Ti, Hwang Ti, Yellow Emperor, Yellow Thearch, the Yellow God, the Yellow Lord
Etymology: the Yellow Emperor, The character 黄 Huang, means “yellow” and is a homophony for the character, 皇 Huang, meaning, “august”, “creator” and “radiant”, Di “emperor”
Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor ruled during a golden age of Chinese history and mythology. He is the first of five legendary Chinese emperors. Tradition has Huang-Di beginning his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
There are a number of different legends surrounding Huang-Di that tell of his greatness as a benevolent ruler and establishing Chinese civilization. Huang-Di is to have ruled in a Golden Era of history before written Chinese history was established so many of his stories were passed down orally first. Just as Britain has its King Arthur, China has Huang-Di, the greatest ruler of all time that everyone looks up to and reveres.
What’s In A Name?
This gets a little tricky. Depending on the Chinese character used and its pronunciation; depends on what the word is translated to mean.
The character for Di, is used to refer to the highest deity from the Shang dynasty. During the Warring States period, the term Di came to be associated with the gods of the five sacred mountains and colors. After this era, about 221 B.C.E. the term Di came to refer to earthly emperors.
The character for Huang can be translated a couple different ways. Either Yellow or August. Scholars and historians seeking to emphasize the more religious meaning to the name Huaung-Di will translate the name to mean “Yellow Thearch” or “August Thearch.”
Some scholars such as Sima Qian in his “Records of the Grand Historian” compiled in 1st century B.C.E. have given Huang-Di’s name as Xuanyuan. The 3rd century scholar Huangfu Mi have said that this is to be the very same hill that Huang-Di lived and takes his name from. Liang Yusheng, from the Qing dynasty has argued that the hill is named after the Huang-Di. In Chinese astronomy, Xuanyan is the name for the star Alpha Leonis or Regulus.
The name Xuanyuan is also references Huang-Di’s birthplace. Huang-Di’s surname was Gongsun or Ji.
The name Youxiong is thought to be either a place name or clan name. Several Western scholars and translators have given their ideas on what Youxiong translate to. The British sinologist, Herbert Allen Giles says the name is from Huang-Di’s principal heritage. William Nienhauser, in translating the “Records of the Grand Historian” has put forth that Huang-Di is the head of the Youxiong clan who lived near Xinzheng in Henan. The French historian, Rémi Mathieu translates the name Youxiong to mean “possessor of bears” and linking Huang-Di in mythology to bears. Rémi isn’t the only one to make a connection to bears. Ye Shuxian also makes a connection with Huang-Di to the bear legends found throughout northeast Asia and the Dangun legend.
As a culture hero, Huang-Di is seen as a wise and benevolent ruler who introduced government and laws. He is also seen as having taught people several different skills and to have invented several things such as clothing, building permanent structures such as palaces and houses, music, the wheel, armor & weapons, carts, ships, writing, digging wells, agriculture, taming and domesticating animals, astronomy, calendars, mathematics, cuju (a sport similar to football), the compass and currency.
At some time during Huang-Di’s rule, he reputed to have visited the Eastern sea where he met Bai Ze, a supernatural talking beast that taught him the knowledge of all supernatural creatures. Bai Ze explained to Huang-Di there were 11,522 (or 1,522) different types of supernatural beings.
San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns
Also, known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of god-kings and demigod emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Huang-Di is counted as being part of this group and the leader of their number to have once ruled over China. Other’s counted among this number are Fu Xi, Nuwa and Shennong.
This is another mythological and historical group of rulers important to Chinese culture. These five emperors were virtuous rulers of outstanding moral character. Taihao, the Yan Emperor, the Yellow Emperor (Huang-Di), Shaohao and Zhuanxu are considered among the Five Emperors in this group.
But that makes four with the Three Sovereigns! The math is off! There are a number of variations as to who is counted among these numbers and it all depends on which text and source is used. It will even flip-flop too as to where Huang-Di is placed as either one of the Three Sovereigns or Five Emperors.
Parentage and Family
Huang-Di’ parents are given as Shaodian as his father and Fu Pao as his mother.
According to the “Discourses of the States”, Shaodian is sometimes mentioned as being Huang-Di’s step-father.
Huang-Di seems to have had several different wives:
Leizu – Of Xiling, she is the first wife, she is the most notable with any information as she is the first person to have domesticated silk worms for their silk. With Leizu, Huang-Di had two sons.
Fenglei – Second wife
Tongyu – Third wife
Momu – Fourth wife
Huang-Di is reputed to have had 25 sons. 14 of these sons all started clans of their own with their own surnames.
Shaohao – Also known as Xuanxiao, he would become the Emperor after Huang-Di’s death.
Changyi, who in turn is the father of Zhuanxu who would succeed his uncle, Shaohao as the next Emperor.
Ancestor Of The Chinese
A lot of emphasis and importance has been placed on Huang-Di as many Chinese dynasty rulers would trace the rights of their sovereignty to him. The Chinese Han claim being descendants of both Yandi (The Flame Emperor) and Huang-Di. Eventually, Huang-Di would be seen as the ancestor to all Chinese. A many Dynasty Emperors would all lay claim to Huang-Di’s legacy to prove their rightful claim to the throne.
It should be noted that the earlier mentions of Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor is on a fourth century bronze inscription for the royal house of the Qi. This inscription claims Huang-Di as an ancestor to the Qi. The scholar, Lothar von Falkenhausen has suggested that Huang-Di is likely created as an ancestral figure in order to claim that all the ruling clans from the Zhou share a common ancestor.
Birth Of A Legend
Per myth and legend, Huang-Di is the result of a virgin birth. His mother, Fubao become pregnant with him while walking out in the countryside and was struck by lightning from the Big Dipper constellation. Fubao would give birth to her son after a period of twenty-four months on either Mount Shou or Mount Xuanyuan. It is for mount Xuanyan that Huang-Di would be named.
In Huangfu Mi’s account, Huang-Di is born at Shou Qiu or Longevity Hill near the outskirts of Qufu in Shandong by modern times. Huang-Di lived with his tribe near the Ji River, a mythological river and later migrated with his tribe to Zhuolu near modern Hebei. As a cultural hero, Huang-Di tames six different animals, the bear, the brown bear, the pi and xiu. The pi and xiu get combined to become a mythological animal known as the Pixiu. He also tames the chu and tiger. I’m not sure which creatures all of these are or the difference between a bear and brown bear is, but there we have it.
Other legends surrounding Huang-Di hold that he could speak shortly after his birth. That when he was fifteen years old, there was nothing that he didn’t know. Huang-Di would eventually hold the Xiong throne.
Trouble In Paradise
Huang-Di’s rule wasn’t completely problem free. One god decided to challenge Huang-Di’s sovereignty. This god was helped by the emperor’s son, Fei Lian, the Lord of the Wind. Fei Lian sent fog and heavy rain to try and drown the Imperial Armies. The emperor’s daughter, Ba (meaning drought) put an end to the rain and helped to defeat Fei Lian and his forces.
The Yellow Emperor And The Yan Emperor
Despite there being some 500 years between Huang-Di and Shennong rules, both of these emperors’ rules near the Yellow River. Shennong hailed from another are up around the Jiang River. Shennong having trouble with keeping order within his borders, begged the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di for help against the “Nine Li” lead by Chi You and his some 81 brothers who all have horns and four eyes.
Battle of Zhuolu – Shennong was forced to flee Zhuolu before begging for help. Huang-Di used his tame animals against Chi You who darkened the sky by breathing out a thick fog. Huang-Di then invented the south-point chariot to lead his army out of the miasma of fog.
In order to defeat Chi You, Huang-Di calls on a drought demon, Nüba to get rid of Chi You’s storm.
This story sounds a lot like a variation of the previous story where Huang-Di calls for his daughter Ba to defeat Fe Lian.
Battle of Banquan – It is at this battle, that both Huang-Di and Shennong finally defeat Chi You and his forces and replace him as ruler.
Death & Immortality
Huang-Di ruled for many years and is thought to have died in 2598 B.C.E. Legend holds Huang-Di lived over a hundred years, by some accounts this was 110 years. Before he died, Huang-Di met a phoenix and qilin before he rose to the heavens to become an immortal or Xian. He is considered the very archetype of a human who merges their self with the self of the Universal God; how a person reaches enlightenment and immortality.
Another account of Huang-Di’s death is that a yellow dragon from Heaven flew down to take up Huang-Di up. Huang-Di knew that he could not deny destiny and went with the dragon. On their way to fly back to Heaven, they flew over Mount Qiao where Huang-Di asked to be able to say goodbye to his people. The people cried out, not wanting Huang-Di to leave them and they pulled on his clothing to try and keep. Surprisingly, Huang-Di slipped free of his clothing and got back on the dragon to fly up to the heavens. As to his clothing, they were buried in a mausoleum built at Mount Qiao.
Two tombs commemorating Huang-Di were built in Shaanxi within the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor. Other tombs were built in Henan, Hebei and Gansu.
Huang-Di is the founder of Taoism, one of the main philosophies and religions found in China.
As Huang-Di began to age, he began to allow his court officials to handle matters and make decisions. Huang-Di moved out into a simple hut in his courtyard. There, as he fasted, prayed and meditated, Huang-Di discovered Tao, or the way, a philosophy that would lead to the ideal state of being.
In some of the older accounts with Huang-Di, he is identified as a god of light and thunder. The name Huang and Guang, meaning “light,” making him a Thunder God. However, Lei Gong or Leishen is the name of another deity and he is seen as Huang-Di’s student.
The legend and origins for Haung-Di have been cast into doubt by many. The scholar Yang Kuan, a member of the Doubting Antiquity School has argued that Huang-Di is derived from the god, Shang-Di from the Shang dynasty. Yang says that the etymology of Shang-Di, Huang Shang-Di and Huang-Di all have a connection to the Chinese character of 黄 Huang, which means “yellow” and its homophony of, 皇 Huang, which means “august,” that to use the character for 皇 Huang, was considered taboo.
Other historians have disputed this claim like Mark Edward Lewis and Michael Puett. While Mark Edward Lewis agrees that the two characters are interchangeable, he has suggested that the character 黄 Huang is closer to the character wang phonetically. Lewis puts forth the idea that Huang might have referred to a “rainmaking shaman” and “rainmaking rituals.” He uses the Warring States and Han era myths for Huang-Di, in that these were ancient rainmaking rituals, as Huang-Di held power over the clouds and rains. Huang-Di’s rival, Chiyou or Yandi held power over fires and drought.
Lord Of The Underworld Or The Yellow Springs
Further disagreements with Yang Kuan’s idea of equating Haung-Di with Shang-Di is the Western scholar, Sarah Allen who has stated that the pre-Shang myths and history can be seen as changes to Shang’s mythology.
By this argument, Huang-Di was originally an unnamed Lord of the Underworld or Yellow Springs, the counterpart to Shang-Di in his role as the supreme deity of the sky. Continuing this theme, the Shang rulers claimed their ancestor as the “the ten suns, birds, east, life and the Lord on High. Shang-Di had defeated an earlier group of people who were associated with the Underworld, Dragons and the West.
After the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty in the eleventh century B.C.E., the Zhou rulers began to change out the myth, changing the Shang to the Xia dynasty. By the time of the Han, according to Sima Qian’s Shiji, Huang-Di as Lord of the Underworld had now become a historical ruler.
During the Warring States era of texts, the figure of Huan-Di appears intermittently. Sima Qian’s text, Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) is the first work to gather all of the fragments and myths surrounding Huan-Di into a coherent form and narrative. The Shiji would become a very important and influential text for the Chinese and the start of their history.
In the Shiji, Sima Qian he says that the state of Qin began worshiping Huang-Di during the fifth century B.C.E. along with Yandi, the Flame Emperor. Alters had been established in Yong, the capital of Qin. By the time of King Zheng in 247 B.C.E., Huang-Di had become the most important of the four “thearchs” worshiped in Yong.
During the late Warring States and early Han eras, Huang-Di’s cult became very prominent as he is regarded as the founder of the arts, civilization, governing and a supreme god. There have been a number of texts such as the Huangdi Neijing, a classic medical text, and the Huangdi Sijing, a group of political treatises that Huang-Di is credited with having written.
While his influence has waned for a period, the early twentieth century saw Huang-Di become an important figure for the Han Chinese when trying to overthrow the Qing dynasty. For some, Huang-Di is still an important, nationalist symbol.
Huángdì Sìmiàn – Yellow Emperor with Four Faces
In the Shizi, Huang-Di is known as the Yellow Emperor with Four Faces. Other names that Huang-Di is known by are: Sìmiànshén, Four-Faced God or the Ubiquitous God. The name Sìmiànshén is also the name for Brahma in Chinese.
As Huángdì Sìmiàn, Huang-Di represented the center of the universe and his four faces allowed him to see in everything that happened around him and in the world. In this aspect, he communicated directly with the gods for prayer and sacrifice. When traveling, Huang-Di rode in an ivory chariot pulled by dragons and an elephant. He would be accompanied by a troop of tigers, wolves, snakes and flocks of phoenix.
Wufang Shangdi – Five Forms of the Highest Deity
In Chinese texts and common beliefs, the Wudi (“Five Deities”) or Wushen (“Five Gods”) are five main deities who are personifications or extensions of a main deity.
Zhōngyuèdàdì – Huang-Di, when he becomes an Immortal or Xian and deified, is one of the Wudi. As Zhōngyuèdàdì, the “Great Deity of the Central Peak”, he is the most important of the Wudi, representing the element of earth, the color yellow and the Yellow Dragon. He is the hub and center of all creation upon which the divine order found within physical reality makes way for possible immorality. Huang-Di is the god of the governing the material world, the creator of the Huaxia (Chinese) civilization, marriage, morality, language, lineage and the primal ancestor to all Chinese people. In addition, he is a Sun God and associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Huángshén Běidǒu – the “Yellow God of the Northern Dipper”, connected to this constellation, Huang-Di becomes identified as Shangdi or Tiandi, the supreme God or “Highest Deity.”
Further, Huang-Di is the representation for the hub of creation, the divine center and the axis mundi for the divine order in physical reality which opens the way to immortality. He is the god who is the center of the cosmos that connects the San-Huang and the Wudi.
Huángdì Nèijing – The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon
Also, spelled as Huang Ti Nei Ching (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine).
This medical text forms the foundation for traditional Chinese Medicine. it comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Di who lived around 2600 B.C.E. This tome preserved a lot of ancient medical knowledge and is compose of two volumes. The first one is a dialogue between Huang Di and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.
Huangdi Sijing – Four Scriptures of the Yellow Emperor
In this text, it is explained how regulating the heart and one’s emotions, they will never allow oneself to get overly emotional and carried away. Huang-Di had accomplished doing this during his three years at the refuge at Mount Bowang in order to find himself. Doing this, creates an internal void where all the forces of creation gather, where the indeterminate they stay, the more powerful these forces of creation will be. In more simpler terms, this is self-mastery and self-control.
Other Books –
Other books attributed to Huang Di are: Huángdì Yinfújing (Yellow Emperor’s Book of the Hidden Symbol) and the Yellow Emperor’s Four Seasons Poem that is found contained in the Tung Shing fortune-telling almanac.
As a Sun God, Huang-Di as Zhōngyuèdàdì is associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Going Back To Where It All Began!
As previously mentioned earlier, tradition has Huang-Di begin his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending in 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
It should be noted that the traditional Chinese calendar didn’t mark years consecutively. Some Han-dynasty astronomers have tried to determine when Huang-Di ruled. Under the reign of Emperor Zhao in 78 B.C.E. a court official, Zhang Shouwang calculated that some 6,000 years had passed since the time of Huang-Di rule. The court however rejected this claim and said that only 3,629 years had passed. Comparisons with the Western, Julian calendar place the court’s calculations to the late 38th century B.C.E. for Huang-Di. Nowadays, the 27th century B.C.E. is accepted by many.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is difficult. There is a lot of reliance on what archaeology can provide and prove. The earliest Chinese writing and records date to the Shang dynasty around 1200 B.C.E. This system of writing is the use of bones for oracles. Even any hard evidence for the Xia dynasty is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologists trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.
Many Chinese historians view Huang-Di to have a stronger historical basis than other legendary figures like Fu Xi, Nuwa and the Yan Emperor. While many legendary figures and ancient sages have all been considered to be historical figures, it is not until the 1920’s that members of the Doubting Antiquity School in China began to question the accuracy of these legends and claims.
Warring States Era
These early figures of Chinese history, as Gu Jiegang from the Doubting Antiquity School, as stated are mythological in origin. They started off as gods and then became depicted as mortal during the Warring States era by intellectuals.
Yang Kuan, another member of the Doubting Antiquity School, has commented that it is only during the Warring States era that Huang-Di is mentioned as the first ruler of China. Yang goes on to argue that Huang-Di is really the supreme god, Shang-Di, the god of the Shang pantheon.
Even the French scholars Henri Maspero and Marcel Granet, in their “Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne” (“Dances and legends of ancient China”) have commented that early Chinese legends have more to do with the period to when they were written than to when they are supposed to have happened.
From God To Man
Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the 2nd century C.E. with the rise and reverence of Laozi. Huang Di will still be regarded as an immortal and the master of the longevity techniques and a deity who would reveal new teachings in the form of books like the Huang Di Yinfujing in the 6th century C.E.
Nowadays, many scholars accept the view that Huang-Di and other figures like him started off as a god of religious importance and then become humanized, mortal during the Warring States and Han periods. Even though Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the
Chang Tsung-tung, a Taiwanese scholar has argued, that based on a vocabulary comparison between Bernhard Karlgren’s Grammata Serica and Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, there is a connection with the Old Chinese and the Proto-Indo-European etymologies. That there is a strong influence of Indo-European languages on the Old Chinese language around 2400 B.C.E. Chang goes on to say that the Shang dynasty was founded by Indo-European conquerors and identifies Huang-Di as an Indo-European god. Chang says that the “yellow” in Huang-Di’s name should be interpreted as referring to blond hair. That as a nomad of the steppes, Huang-Di encouraged road construction and horse-drawn carriages to establish a central state.
This idea, to me, seems farfetched. Since it is one of the ideas I came across, I’ll include it here.
Thanks to the French scholar, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, many Chinese historians got hooked on the idea Chinese civilization getting its start in 2300 B.C.E. by Babylonian immigrants and that Huang Di would have been a Mesopotamian tribal leader. This idea has been rejected by European sinologists, however the idea was advocated for again by two Japanese scholars Shirakawa Jiro and Kokubu Tanenori in 1900.
The ideas certainly seem to held on to by anti-Manchu intellectuals who are looking for the truth of China’s history and wanting to prove the superiority of the Han over the Manchu and the importance of Huang Di as the ancestor of all Chinese.
The Mausoleum Of The Yellow Emperor
Also called Xuanyuan Temple, this mausoleum is the most important of ancient mausoleums in China and praised as “the First Mausoleum in China.” The mausoleum is located at Mount Qiao, north of the Huangling County of Yan’an some 200 kilometers north of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. According to historians, the mausoleum was first built on the western side of Qiao during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) It was later restored during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) It had been damaged by floods and moved to Qiao’s eastern side by the Emperor Song Taizu of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1234 C.E.)
During the Qingming Festival that is held on April 5th, Chinese people from all over gather to hold a memorial ceremony to commemorate the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di. Yan’an also earns the distinction of being considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization.
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference to Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. The last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician, and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There are typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus, and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or a demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus are also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer nor Hesiod mentions him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue its true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to God and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Another gift that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, is often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. Calliope, Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophecy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This is the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus’ fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations of how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, and he looks back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would then later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld, and Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize, and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay, or other supernatural beings.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually, Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as to why would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death of Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophecies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come and tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures in Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their descent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Other names: zmaj (Serbian) змај, (Croatian and Bosnian), zmaj (Slovene), zmey, змей (Bulgarian, Russian), zmiy (Old Church Slavonic), змеj (Macedonian), żmij (Polish), змій (Ukrainian)
It should be noted that most of these words are the masculine forms for the Slavic word “snake.” In Russian, the feminine is zmeya. Other names include zmajček or zmajić that is used as a diminutive form of endearment.
Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent
In the Slavic language, a dragon is called a Zmej. It appears as multi-headed dragon with three, seven or nine heads that are capable of breathing fire. The Eastern Slavic dragons are believed to be able to regrow their heads like a hydra if one head is chopped off. In all cases, their large size makes them fearsome foes. Also, among the Southern Slavic countries, the Zmej appears more as an anthropomorphic draconic of fishlike humanoid.
The Zmej is primarily associated with fire, like a good many other dragons of European folklore. It either breathes fire or it can throw fiery arrows or lightning bolts. It is exceedingly strong and the Zmej’s strength can be taken by a person who eats the dragon’s heart. That puts a whole new light on the movie Dragon Heart. The precise abilities of the Slavic dragons vary by locality and country.
The male Zmej were often portrayed in a positive light, acting as protectors of their family and tribe. He was seen as a good demonic force, using the power of weather in the way of hail, storms and strong winds to protect crops and harvests from getting ruined. Among the Southern Slavs, it’s very common to see the imagery of a dragon representing a good demonic force.
While I note the use of the word and spelling demonic to describe the Zmej; given the context and influence of Christianity upon an older Pagan religion, beliefs and traditions; it is very likely that the Greek term and usage of daimon is more appropriate.
You Called Him A Daimon!
Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being.
Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.
Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.
Sometimes the Zmej also appears as an anthropomorphic dragon man, much like the Romanian Zmeu, seen as very intelligent, wise and knowledgeable with great magical proficiency, breath fire and superhuman strength. Like the Romanian Zmeu, the Slavic Zmej was also known for being very wealthy with castles and realms in otherworlds. They too lusted after women with home they could bear children. Respect was always given to these Zmej as one never knew what to expect in terms of behavior.
National And Folk Heroes
A good many heroes were considered dragons or the son of a Zmej. A number of these heroes include:
Husein-Kapetan Gradaščević – A successful Bosniak general who fought for the independence of the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia. He is known as “Zmaj od Bosnia,” or “The Dragon of Bosnia.”
Vlad III Dracula – A Romanian Hero and more infamously known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula and depicted as a Vampire. Among the Romanians of Wallachia, Vlad is a hero, having been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend a Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire.
Vuk Grgurević – A Serbian Despot known as “Zmaj-Ognjeni Vuk” or “Vuk the Fiery-Dragon” due to the vicioness of his rule and his many battles against the Turks.
In the folk songs of Bulgaria, the Zmej appears as a popular motif as a Draconic Lover. Most of these songs featuring a Dragon Love, have a male Zmej. More heroic songs involving a Zmej will be female.
It’s interesting to note a very stark contrast and distinction male and female dragons in Bulgarian folklore. For one, the male and female dragons were seen as brother and sister. Yet for all this, they were very staunchly opposed to each other. The female dragons were known for representing the destructive weather that would destroy crops and agriculture. Whereas, the male dragons protected the fields and crops for harvest. Such that the two often fought each other, representing the dueling, opposing forces of female/water with male/fire symbolism.
Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro Folklore
In these Southern Slavic countries and areas, a dragon is known by the name of zmaj, zmej and lamja. Similar to the Russian dragons, it has three, seven or even nine heads, all of which breathe fire. Additionally, in Serbia the dragon is called aždaja or hala and in Bosnia is called aždaha.
Polish And Belarussian Folklore
In both of these cultures, aside from Zmej, they also have the word smok, coming from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow. Other spellings for smok are: смок and цмок.
As previously mentioned, there is a very similar dragon-like creature in Romania with an equally similar name called the Zmeu. It is distinguished from many of the Slavic Zmej as it is anthropomorphic in nature and always a destructive force.
Russian And Ukrainian Folklore
Representing the Eastern Slavic people, there are a few different dragons found in their folklore. A number of prehistoric sites such as the Serpent’s Wall near Kiev have associations with dragons and act as symbols for foreign people. The Russian dragons are known to have heads that come in multiples of three and will grow back if every single head isn’t chopped off or promptly covered in ash or burnt.
Zmey Gorynych – This green colored dragon has three heads and walks on two back paws with two smaller front paws. Like many dragons, it breathes fire. The hero Dobrynya Nikitich is who killed this dragon.
Tugarin Zmeyevich – This dragon very strongly represented the Mongols and other Steppe peoples who often threatened the borders of Russia. Tugarin’s name is Turkic in origin. He was defeated by the hero Alyosha Popovich.
Saint George And The Dragon – It is without question that the hero Saint George symbolizes Christianity and that his killing of the Dragon symbolizes the Devil or Satan. It is a motif often portrayed on the coat of arms for Moscow.
The Serbian folklore for dragons is very similar to that of Bulgarian folklore. Essentially the differences come down to the different countries and regions’ name for them. Here, the Zmaj or Zmey is seen as very intelligent with superhuman strength and well versed in the use of magic. Like many European dragons, they breath fire and lust over young women. An image that sounds very much so like the Romanian Zmeu. The big difference here is that the Zmaj or Zmey are defenders of the crops and fight against a demon known as Ala that they attack using lightning.
The Slovene word of zmaj is of an uncertain, archaic origin. Another word used for dragons is pozoj. Like many European dragons, the zmaj are often seen in a negative light and associated with Saint George in his slaying the dragon.
There are other Pre-Christian Folk Tales involving dragons.
Ljubljana Dragon – This dragon features on the city of Ljubljana’s coat of arms that it guarded over and protected.
Wawel Dragon – This Polish dragon is often defeated by tricking it into eating a lime. It should be noted that this dragon isn’t always harmful towards people.
Also known as aždaha, ala or hala in Persian mythology. Some Southern Slavic countries will mention Aždaja as a type of dragon. Its true nature is considered to be drastically different than that of a real dragon and considered separate. While the Zmej is often seen as a positive force, the Aždaja is seen as a negative force and woefully evil. Ultimately the nature of the Aždaja seems contradictory and should be a type of dragon as it shares all of the hall marks of the European dragons that are often sinister in nature. After all, the Aždaja is draconic in appearance, they live in dark places such as caves. Like many other Slavic dragons, the Aždaja is frequently multi-headed with three, seven or nine heads and breathes fire. In some of the Christian mythologies of Saint George, he is shown slaying the Aždaja and not Zmej.
While the Zmej is male, the Southern Slavic folklore makes mention of a female version known as Lamya. This name derives from the name Lamia, a Queen and former lover of the god Zeus who turns into a daemon that devours children and in some versions of her story, Lamia becomes more serpentine. Later stories will equate Lamia to vampires and succubae.
In Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a Bulgarian legend about the hero Mavrud who succeeds in cutting off all of the heads of Lamya; who appears in this story as a hydra-like dragon. It has been commented that this story seems to symbolize the pruning of grape vines. Further, there is a variety of Bulgarian grapes known as Mavrud.