And we are back, with episode 6 of Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. We’ll continue where we left off in episode 5, as the dragons of South East Asia were not quite bite-sized enough to fit into a single episode. But, Mythsters, it was worth the wait. This time around, we meet more awesome dragons and learn of their amazing tales. Which was your favourite?
As always, a full transcript is available if you scroll down and next week, a complementary blog post will follow, featuring even more awe-inspiring dragons. So go grab your MythsterMap and let’s get started.
As promised in the episode, we would love to welcome you on our Mythsterhood Discord server, where you’ll get sneak peeks at new artwork by Anike Kirsten, among other things!
Anike: And we’re back!
Jaz: Two weeks was too long to wait and finish Southeast Asia!
Anike: I have to ask, though, will it ever be done? I mean, there is so much dragon mythology packed into each country.
Jaz: And we can only touch on part of what we learn each fortnight.
Anike: At least we have the extra blog posts every other Monday.
Jaz: Oh yes. Be sure to check out our blog every other Monday for region specific information, and every Thursday for fun pop culture dragons. But even then, we can only scratch the surface of dragons around the world. Serpent mythology is so pervasive and extensive.
Anike: That it is. But before we begin, we’ve got some housekeeping to take care of first.
Jaz: I almost forgot! What would I do without you, Anike?
Anike: Probably end up with only half a podcast. First of all, we have an announcement. At the moment of this recording, the Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales is about to reach its first milestone. We stand at a total of 99 downloads. Who will be number 100? We never expected to get there this fast, and we’re thrilled to celebrate our almost-milestone with you, and by the time you hear this, we will have dropped the almost.
Jaz: Secondly, we have a another, well, announcement. In celebration of the first one, we would love to welcome you on our Mythsterhood Discord server. You can join in on the fun there, and get sneak previews of the episode artwork. The link can be found in the show notes, of course.
Anike: And lastly, we of course, as always, would like to pre-emptively apologise for any linguistic trauma inflicted by our attempts at pronunciation. Did we forget anything, Jaz?
Jaz: No, don’t think so.
Dragons of South East Asia
Anike: Right then. What do we have left to cover? Cambodia and Thailand?
Jaz: Don’t forget Laos. Koji grouped these three countries together for us because their serpent mythology is all heavily influenced by hindu nagas and they share some creation myths.
Anike: But aren’t Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia predominantly Buddhist, not hindu?
Jaz: That they are. But naga mythology was adopted into Buddhism. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand all had indigenous groups that worshiped variations of snake deities before Indian influence.
Anike: Ah, then let’s start at the beginning. What’s a naga?
Jaz: We’ll definitely get deeper into this as we move west to India in later episodes. But the basic concept of a naga is a god or demi-deity who has a human head or torso fused with a serpent body. They are shapeshifters, which can take a full serpent form or a full human form. The snake part is usually the cobra.
Anike: That sounds pretty scary.
Jaz: Strangely, they often took a protective or positive role in mythology.
Anike: Right mythology. So with the basics out of the way, do we dive in now?
Jaz: We do. Let’s start in Cambodia.
Anike: Okay. Cambodia. Cambodia. Right, the Khmer people. They have a serpent called a neak that is derived from the Indian naga. It has multiple heads, often as many as nine. Supposedly, if it has an odd number of heads it is masculine, representing infinity, timelessness, and immortality. If the number is even, it is feminine, representing physicality, mortality, and the Earth.
Jaz: I read that the seven-headed neak represents the seven naga races, which are derived from the seven colors of the rainbow.
Anike: Interesting, more rainbow serpent connections?
Jaz: Well, naga are water deities, so that would make sense.
Anike: Khmer people have two other types of dragons, the Makar and the Tao. The Makar is like a giant crocodile, kind of similar to the Taniwha of the Maori. The Tao have feline features. But for now, let’s concentrate on the Neak.
Jaz: What’s so special about the Neak?
Anike: Well, The Khmer people are supposedly descended from a neak.
Jaz: I sense a story.
Anike: Your senses are spot on. This story starts with an Indian prince by the name of Preah Thong. One night, a hermit appeared in his dreams and told him to take a ship and sail east. He promised the prince he would find a land to claim as his own that would later become a great and prosperous kingdom.
When the prince woke up, he arranged a ship and sailed for several days. Eventually, the ship approached a beautiful island filled with animals and vegetation that could easily support a human settlement, but there were no other human inhabitants. The prince decided this must be the place, claimed it as his own, and built a settlement.
Sometime later, Preah Thong set out to explore the island on his own. He found a beautiful sandy beach with a sparkling river and a grand Thlork tree casting wonderful shade. He rested beneath the tree and felt at peace and full of bliss.
Jaz: Now THAT sounds like a great tree.
Anike: Apparently it was, because he decided to call his new kingdom Nokor Kauk Thlork, aka, The Kingdom of Thlork. Before long, Preah Thong fell asleep. When he woke, the tide had risen and most of the beach was submerged. He decided to wait for the tide to go down, and night fell. The full moon cast brilliant beams on the water and suddenly the surface began to ripple. A group of people emerged from under the water. When they reached the tree, the newcomers dropped their supplies and rushed to roll on the sand, playing merrily.
Preah Thong set eyes upon a young lady’s face and fell in love. So he stepped out of his hiding place and approached the young lady.
Jaz: Let me guess, she was a magic snake lady?
Anike: That’s right. The lady was daughter of Sdech Neak, the king of the naga world. The princess’ name was Neang Neak. At every full-moon night, Neang Neak came to visit the island with her maids and servants. They often took the form of human beings and had fun all night long before they went back to their under-water-world.
Jaz: The prince and princess fell in love immediately and the princess agreed to take Preah Thong to her under-water-kingdom to introduce him to her father. Sdech Neak threw a big wedding celebration that lasted three day and nights. When the wedding was done, the naga king arranged a grand procession to accompany the newlywed couple to return to human land because Preah Thong could not live in the under-water-world for long. The king then used his magic power to suck up water around Kauk Thlork island. A magnificent land suddenly emerged upon which Preah Thong and Neang Neak started to build their Nokor Kauk Thlork kingdom. They lived together happily ever after, and their descendents were known as the Khmer.
Anike: In the past, Khmer wedding ceremonies lasted three days and consisted of two parts. The first part “Apeah” started with a procession accompanying the groom to the bride’s home , followed by several steps of ceremony. Then the second part “Pipeah” started with a procession accompanying the newlywed couple to the groom’s home. This custom resembled the way that Preah Thong was accompanied to Neang Neak’s home before the newly wedded prince and princess returned in a grand procession to Preah Thong’s settlement.
Jaz: That’s a beautiful story.
Anike: It is. But it seems a lot of it is based in reality. In the first century CE, there was an exiled prince named Preah Kaodinya, also called Hun-tean who followed the Mekong river inland to an island called Koh Kauk Thlork.
The island wasn’t empty, though. It was inhabited by a group of people led by a woman called Soma, also known as Liu-Yee. Soma and her people set out on boats to fight the intrusion and protect their land, but Preah Kaodinya, who was an excellent archer, hit the boat carrying Soma.
Soma and her people fled back to their settlement, and Preah Kaodinya gave chase. He captured Soma and seized control of the island. He fell in love with Soma and negotiated a truce in which he would become king and Soma would rule as his queen.
Jaz: Now that sounds a lot less romantic.
Anike: History usually is. But, Soma was a pretty cool woman who didn’t just give up. Although Preah Kaodinya brought along his Indian customs and belief, she refused to fully give up their ways of the tribe. Because of her, the people respected women and mothers as important figures in the family and society. The word for woman or mother was Maeh in the local language. Because of their respect for the Maeh, the people of Kauk Thlork became known as the Ka-Maeh.
Jaz: Ahh, which eventually turned into Khmer.
Jaz: I think I still like the myth better.
Anike: Which is why we’re the Mythsters.
Jaz: Okay, let’s move on to Thailand. Like Cambodia, many of the buddhist temples have nagas guarding stairways, doors, and roofs. In fact, several Thai architectural terms have naga in them.
Anike: Like what?
Jaz: The nak sadung, which is the outer roof finial component featuring a naga-like structure, and the nak than, which is the corbel with naga shape. The naga is also associated with medicine and healing, so often the naga replaces the serpent on the Rod of Asclepius in medical symbols.
Anike: Nak sadung, nak than? So is nak the Thai word for naga?
Jaz: Yes. They are called nak, and the ruler is the phaya nak, which is the lord of the naga.
Anike: And what are the Thai versions like?
Jaz: Well, they are thought to be huge, serpent-like creatures that live in the Mekong river. They are a bit more like Vietnamese dragons rather than the cobra-like nagas of India. Thai nagas have many different names and appearances, but they can generally be categorized into Buddhist nagas and folktales. The buddhist nagas are beautiful animals with a jewel on their neck. Sound familiar? They follow the buddha and other ascetics and will shelter the ascetic while meditating.
Anike: That does sound familiar, and sounds like a rather good naga to have around.
Jaz: For sure. These nagas represent guardianship and wealth and are good beings. Take Prince Bhuridatta for example. He was the son of the Naga king, but hoped to break away from the naga shape because he no longer wanted to crawl on his belly.
Anike: Well, crawling on one’s belly doesn’t exactly sound comfortable.
Jaz: Right, so he decided to keep the Eight Precepts of the religion to accumulate merit and earn his evolution. The folklore nagas aren’t quite so noble. They are thought to have magical powers and be emotional, like humans. So while they can protect humans, they can also be very vengeful against humans that eat naga in other forms or destroy their habitat.
Anike: Rightly so, I guess?
Jaz: Speaking of rightly so, a lot of the folklore has to do with people maintaining power. The stories of the Khmer or the Thai being descended from nagas was a way for chiefs to claim divine power over their people.
Jaz: Diving deeper, the naga have four main physical descriptions. First is that jewel around the neck, usually in Budhist stories. The jewel is considered a treasure that can clean water, cure diseases, and satisfy all kinds of desires.
Anike: Oh, these must be the naga eyes or naga diamonds sold in Thai markets. They are beautiful stones, usually translucent amber, collected along the banks of the Mekong River. Supposedly they can reduce pain and make the wearer more compassionate or charismatic.
Jaz: Yep, those are the ones. Next is that the naga is king of the waters and has the ability to change forms. Nagas have been depicted as a water deity, crocodile, water snake, dragon, and serpent — the thing all these forms have in common is that they tend to live underwater. The third thing is that the naga has human emotions and a vengeful heart, which we already talked about. Finally, the naga is the protector of the Three Gems in Theravada Buddhism, which leads to them being the protector of temples and the ladder between this world and the higher world. In other words, the naga is the keeper of liminal space.
Temples & Shrines
Anike: So, all of this is still believed today?
Jaz: For the most part, yes. Nagas are an important part of Theravada Buddhism and you will see them all over Thailand. Not just on the temples, though. Some people in Thailand believe the king cobra is an “angel snake,” and they make separate shrines to him.
Anike: Additional folklore shrines?
Jaz: From what I can understand, yes. Cobras are thought to be able to appear and disappear at will, and people will usually not harm them because they can bestow health and wealth on people. A great example is the shrine of the cobra queen in Thonburi, Bangkok.
Anike: Oh, what’s the story behind that?
Jaz: A road was being built and a female king cobra appeared to the bulldozer operator, asking him to halt construction so she could hatch her eggs. He didn’t hear and killed her hatchlings. In revenge, she began killing off the men and their loved ones in freak accidents.
Anike: Uh, this sounds a bit like a horror film.
Jaz: It really does. But in the end, the locals built a shrine to placate her. People leave offerings at this shrine and ask for favors. Apparently the queen is very good at finding lost money. And… here’s the really interesting part: the garden next to the shrine is home to several king cobras. Supposedly if you see one, your wish will be granted.
Anike: Okay. But I remember that movie with Leonardo DiCaprio where he drinks snake blood. Wasn’t that set in Bangkok. It sounds a little less respectful of snakes than how you’re painting people to be there.
Jaz: Ah, right. The Beach. Well, we can’t believe everything we see in movies. But in this case, it’s true. People in Thailand to drink the blood of cobras, generally fresh and mixed with whiskey. Supposedly it gives people strength and cures them of impotence, lethargy, and cirrhosis. But the people who drink snake blood generally believe that not all snakes are nagas. Sometimes a snake is just a snake.
Anike: And other times they are the creators of the universe. Thailand and Laos have a lot of overlapping beliefs, one of which is that two naga kings slithered through the area, creating the Mekong and Nan rivers. Naga still reside in these rivers and there are a lot of myths about them.
Jaz: Such as?
Anike: Supposedly, every year at the end of Phansa, a period of dietary restrictions and internal reflection among Buddhist monks, the nak release fireballs above the Mekong river, which the Thai and Laotian people go to the river to see. These range from small sparkles to basketball-sized balls that rise up from the river and dissipate.
Jaz: Fire balls? Like the ones we’ve seen before in the pacific islands?
Anike: They definitely sound similar. Some scientists think they are pockets of gas rising from the river, but this doesn’t explain their regularity, coming only at the end of October. Other people think that they must be Thai officials firing flares from the wilderness.
Jaz: Whatever it is, it sounds impressive.
Anike: Definitely. And it has the added bonus of keeping the people respectful of the river. Another reason to show respect are the ngeuak. Unlike the naga, these water serpents are feared by the Lao fishermen. They are believed to devour the flesh of drowning victims around Si Phan Don. This is why people avoid wearing red when crossing rivers.
Jaz: So in Laos there are nagas and ngeuak?
Anike: Right, except nagas are, once again, called Nak. Some people believe the nak and the ngeuak are the same thing, just one is the Buddhist version and the other the animist version. As such, ngeuaks are fading out of style. Laos architecture has many nak in it, especially in temples. But what really stands out in Laos is the weaving. Many cloth patterns have nak motifs that have been passed down for hundreds of years.
Jaz: That sounds gorgeous. Hopefully we have some samples in the blog.
Anike: I’ll send Koji to hunt for them. In the meantime, I’ll tide you over with a couple of nak stories from Laos.
Jaz : Oooh.
Anike: First, there is the angry nak of Moung Phouan where a hunter killed a deer and brought it back to the village. The chief divided it among everyone except a widower who had been ostracized. Afterwards, a major storm caused a mudslide and all the houses slipped into the river except the house of the widower. Supposedly the deer was a nak, who had taken deer form to go on land. Now people leave unusual animals alone, because they could be a nak.
Jaz: So more of the have respect for nature stories?
Anike: Yes. Another story involves a family growing silkworms that produced super strong thread. They used it for a fishing net and a long Nak got tangled in it. He was not able to free himself, but the daughter sang a song and used her knife to release the nak. As a reward, the girl was invited below the river where she met the nak king and queen and they gave her bags of white and yellow ginger that turned into silver and gold when she returned home.
Jaz: So, take care of the nak and you’ll be rewarded?
Anike: Right. Also, because of this people wrap a bit of silk thread around their wrists when they travel by a river. A lot of Laos mythology deals with rivers, which is probably why they have one of the largest dragon boat races every year, with many types of dragon boats…
Jaz: Anike, that’s where I have to cut you off. Maybe we can include dragon boats in one of our future blogs. But for now we have to wrap up Southeast Asia and move on.
Anike: Aww, and I was just getting hyped up. Where are we off to next?
Jaz: I’ll give you a hint. We’re going to be discussing the four dragon kings and the azure dragon.
Anike: Oh! We’re going to China?
Jaz: That’s right, I’ll meet you and the other Mythsters there in a fortnight.
Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License