Episode 9: Dragons of Central Asia

Hello Mythsters! We made it to the dragons of Central Asia, even though we suffered a few days’ delay. This time, it is Jaz and Koji behind the microphones, as Anike is feeling a bit under the weather. We hope she feels better soon, but in the mean time, let’s give Koji a warm Mythster welcome for her podcast debut!

Now, without further ado, let’s dig in. And don’t forget to whip out your MythsterMap to make our progress across the world.

Dragons of Central Asia Podcast transcript

Jaz: Hello hello, mythsters, and welcome to episode 9 of Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. Today, I will be joined not by Anike, but by Koji. I’m afraid Anike is not feeling too well but we hope she’ll be joining us again for episode 10. Koji, how are you doing today?

Koji: I’m doing well, Jaz. A little bit nervous to be out from behind the website and on the podcast, but also excited.

Jaz: Well, I’m sure you’ll do absolutely excellent.

Koji: Thank you. Uhm, what do we have going on first?

Jaz: First we have a bit of housekeeping in the form of a Massive massive thank you to our new patron: Lizzie. And, of course, as always, pre-emptive apology for any mutilations inflicted upon words we’re unfamiliar with. And now, without further ado, Where the hell are we, Koji?

Koji: Let’s take out our map and see where we are today.

Jaz: Well, that’s a bit of a problem. We’re supposed to be in Central Asia, but the borders tend to bleed.

Borders

Koji: Bleeding borders? That sounds like the perfect place to look for dragons.

Jaz: Does it, now? Well, you won’t be disappointed with  the mess.

Koji: OK, in all seriousness. We’re mostly looking at the countries that have the persian suffix -stan. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan.

Jaz: All the way down to Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Koji: Hmm. Debatable. So that’s the problem.

Jaz: Right. So, when you started this week’s research, she ran into two words used for dragon in central Asia. One is the persian word, Azhdaha, which has a slight variation in each of the local languages. The other is the Turkic word, Evren.

Koji: Right and there are some differences between the azhdaha and evren but not a lot.

Jaz:  Right. Until you get further west. Countries like Turkey and Bulgaria also use evren as a type of dragon, which varies from the Central Asian Evren.

Koji: And Anike asked me to leave Turkey out of this week’s episode!

Jaz: She did, she did. But you did too, because I think we’re going to concentrate mostly on the persian azhdaha, with a bit of Turkic mythology thrown in. Is that correct?

Koji: I think so. Let’s get to it. Where shall we start?

Mongolia

Jaz: How about the furthest east, in Mongolia. Oh, uhm, were we also going to cover a bit of Mongolian mythology then??

Koji: You didn’t, but let’s hear it.

Jaz: Mongolian dragons look similar to Chinese dragons — long, thin, winding. But unlike Chinese dragons, they were not thought to bring good luck. Instead, they were evil forces to be fought against.

Koji: Like the story of the Black Dragon King who lived on the land and constantly attacked the men. Apparently, an old man who was one span high with a beard two spans long —

Jaz: Hang on. Say that again?

Koji: An old man who was one span high with a beard two spans long.

Jaz: Wow, that is some beard. Hipsters, eat your heart out.

Bearded-Man

Koji: Isn’t it though? Like, huge beard.. Anyway, beard-man had a sack, a spoon, and a billy goat and he decided he was going to defeat the Black Dragon King. When he passed the sea, it asked him where he was going. The old man said he was going to defeat the dragon, and the sea mocked him. And so this angry old man caught the entire sea in his spoon and put it in his sack.

Jaz: Next, he met a fox who also didn’t believe the old man could defeat the dragon. So the man scooped up the fox and put him in the bag too. The same thing happened with a wolf, except the old man had to beat him with his spoon before he could put the wolf in the bag.

Koji: Oh my God. That sounds like an amazing spoon. When the old man got to the Dragon King’s palace, the Dragon King released his ten thousand sheep to trample the man. But the man released the wolf, which scattered the sheep.

Jaz: Well, if the wolf was fierce enough to scatter ten thousand sheep, that spoon just became even more impressive. Next the dragon released his two dogs to devour the man. But the man let the fox out of his bag, which led the dogs away. Finally, the Dragon King ordered his ten thousand soldiers to attack the old man. But the man opened his sack and poured out the sea, which drowned the soldiers and the dragon. From then on the dragon only lived at sea.

Koji: It kind of makes you wonder why the dragon didn’t start with his ten thousand soldiers.

Jaz: Yeah, doesn’t it though? But we’ve seen it before, these stories are not always super logical. It’s the nature of stories, I guess.

Koji: Yeah, there’s got to be some progression there.

Jaz: Definitely. If Gandalf had led the company of the ring on the most logical route, the book would have been three chapters long. Let’s face it.

Koji: Anyway, it is an interesting story, but we learn more about the hero than the dragon.

Death Worm

Jaz: And that’s, unfortunately how dragons tend to be represented in Central Asia, as a negative, evil force. The mythology doesn’t get into their origins or personalities. Instead, they often represent some kind of demon or devil.

Koji: Or, like in the Mongolian story, negative forces of nature. Mongolia has some other dragon stories, too. And one really interesting creature called the Mongolian Death Worm.

Jaz: Ooh, I know that one! Is it the big toothy one Jabba the Hut tries to feed Luke, Han, and Chewie to? No wait. That was a Sand worm, wasn’t it? But a death worm sounds interesting, too.

Koji: Right, it is, and here’s one of those names I’m totally going to mess up. It’s called olgoi-khorkhoi, the large-intestine worm. In 1922, the then Mongolian Prime Minister Damdinbazar, described the worm as shaped like a sausage, about two feet long, with no head nor leg and so poisonous that merely touching it meant instant death. Supposedly it lives in the Gobi Desert and, get this, researchers inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune constructed a motor-driven “thumper” and used small explosions to try to find it. But alas, no luck. This worm remains a mythical creature.

Kazakstan

Jaz: Too bad. Anyway, moving on to Kazakstan, let’s talk about the tree of life legend that most Central Asian countries share. In this legend, life is represented by a tree that connects the three spiritual planes. The roots are underground, where the demons are. Apparently a large dragon is wrapped around the roots of the tree. The trunk is on earth where humans are, and the canopy reaches to the sky, where good spiritual beings are, often represented by birds.

Koji: Ooh, this is the episode art that Anike drew this week, isn’t it?

Jaz: I’m pretty sure it is. Uhm, since she’s not here to talk about it this week, we can convince her to write something up on Patreon this week to talk about it.

Koji: Ooh, that’s a good idea.

Jaz: Yeah, definitely. Let’s lean on Anike here. Please Anike?

Koji: OK, well, the interesting thing about that is the Kazakh dragon is a chimera-type creature. Its snake body symbolized the terrestrial, water or underground world, its head and feet were of a predator – the average, land world, and its wings – the top, heavenly world. Supposedly this allowed it to act as a mediator which could go between all three worlds.

Jaz: So then dragons could be good creatures after all?

Koji: Not quite. Here we get into the Turkic/Persian split. In the Turkic view, the evren, although not gods themselves, represented Tengri, the Turkic God. However, Persian influence seems to have won when it comes to dragon-culture. Because, they are mostly painted in the Persian-evil serpent way.

Jaz: I see. Oh, did you know Kazakhstan has a cryptid?

Cryptids

Koji: Ooh, cryptids.

Jaz: Yeah. Lake Kök-köl–I don’t know if that was pronounced that correctly but let’s assume it was. Anyway, this lake has an aidakhar that is 45 to 50 feet long, with a 6 feet long and 3 feet wide head. It has a long neck and one hump. It’s said to have a trumpeting call. The water in the lake occasional swells or ripples for no apparent reason, and the locals rush to collect the water in the creature’s wake, because it is said to contain healing properties.

Koji: See, I’m not buying that they think of aidakhar as evil. Healing water? That sounds pretty good to me.

Jaz: It does. If only the serpent wasn’t wrapped around the tree of life, trying to eat the eggs from the bird spirit.

Koji: So that’s what it’s doing down there?

Jaz: Yep. And that’s why hero after hero descends to kill it.

Long Poem

Koji: Like Manas slaying the dragon on his famous statue in Bishkek. Manas was the founder of Kyrgyzstan and there is an epic poem about him called the Manos Epos.

Jaz: Like Homer’s Iliad?

Koji: But longer. Much, much longer. It’s 500,000 lines,

Jaz: more than twenty times the length of the Odyssey and Iliad combined.

Koji: And, get this, it was mostly passed down through oral tradition. It’s only been written recently.

Jaz: Wow. That’s one feat of amazing memory training. And in it Manas defeats a dragon?

Koji: Not just one dragon, but several. Mostly these dragons were your basic, run-of-the-mill evil dragons or guard dragons, guarding the castles of evil characters. However, there was one notable thing about them: several of them had multiple heads.

Jaz: Like the Naga?

Koji: Well, more than most naga. We’re talking between 60-100 heads on a single dragon.

Jaz: How would they even all fit?

Koji: I know, right? Can you imagine all those heads squished onto one body?

Yelbegen

Jaz: Yeah, it’s a scary sight. I mean, who’d want to fight that? But I guess that’s what you’re going for with a guard dragon, anyway. So, next I wanted to talk about the Yelbegen. This creature is fascinating, and I’m not quite sure where to place him.

Koji: Like on the map?

Jaz: Well, on the map his legends stretch from Turkey all the way to Siberia, with a strong concentration among the Turkic and Altai people. But the problem is I’m not quite sure he’s a dragon. In the original myths, Yelbegen was a multi-headed dragon or serpent-like creature. Yel means wind, magic, and demonic while begen comes from böke which means giant serpent or dragon.

Koji: That clearly sounds like a dragon to me.

Jaz: Yes, but over time Yelbegen evolved into more of a multi-headed ogre-like behemoth. In a legend of the Altai, there was a seven-headed ogre, Yelbeghen, who used to try to eat the Sun and the Moon, which is how the Altai people explained eclipses.

Koji: That sounds like Bakunawa and other dragons who swallowed the moon.

Jaz: Right, but is it a dragon or a giant ogre? Either way, it is said to be a being of pure evil that usually lives in dark and hostile places or guards unreachable locations. It is often multi-headed (with 3, 7 or 9 heads) and breathes fire. It is considered an “extremely intelligent, wise and knowledgeable” creature of supernatural strength and proficiency in magic, very rich (usually described as having castles of enormous riches hidden in distant lands) and often lustful for women. Apparently many historical and mythical heroes were conceived by this type of dragon.

Koji: OK, so a dragon who likes to get it on.

Jaz: You could say that.

Turkmenistan

Koji: But definitely still a dragon. Who knows, maybe it’s like the shape-shifting dragons that can take human form? Except this one takes ogre form. Okay, let’s do a quick little stop in Turkmenistan, where we’ll check in on a dragon slayer rather than a dragon.

Jaz: Oghuz Khagan?

Koji: Oghuz Khagan, yes. He was a legend of the Turkic people. When he was a boy, his land was terrorized by a dragon named Kiyant.

Jaz: Oh, we have a name for once. Any other details?

Koji: Unfortunately, not. Only that as soon as Oghuz Khagan came of age he set a trap for Kiyant by hanging a deer in a dead tree. He then killed the dragon with a spear and cut off its head.

Jaz: And…?

Koji: And that’s it.

Jaz: That’s a bit of a let down.

Koji: Isn’t it? But killing this dragon did allow him to go on to unite the Turkic people and become their national hero.

Uzbekistan

Jaz: I suppose that’s good. But I just want more details about the dragon. Like in Uzbek poetry. Apparently the dragon is a mythical creature with two or more heads with wings. They are sparkling, but an embodiment of evil. Contemporary Uzbek poetry combines the negative connotations of war, certain regimes, lust and ambition into the dragon.

Koji: Interesting. I just want to point out here that sparkling sounds great. Sparkling dragons?

Jaz: Doesn’t it though? You’d almost take the negative sides just to have the sparkles. Almost. Not quite.

Koji: Almost, but that is a lot for one creature to represent. War, regimes, lust, ambition…

Jaz: And because the dragon holds so much imagery, poets can use it to express a lot in few words. Take Jamol Sirojiddin’s poem “History Pages – The Fall of the Fall” where he says,

Our breath has dried up

the seas and lakes, The horned

dragon, Bones adorn our ways

Poisoning on the goddess of Sepda

He uses the dragon to show how humanity has destroyed the earth through our desires, especially for wealth and fame.

Ajdarho

Koji: Interesting. Well, I don’t have any Uzbek poetry, but I do know that the word for dragon in Uzbek, ajdarho, is also used to describe a cruel person.

Jaz: So, like, you’d be saying “you’re such an ajdarho.” I like that!

Koji: That is kind of fun. I might have to pick that up for my own language. But let’s see if we can leave our listeners with a better image than a cruel person. Shall we take on just a bit of Pakistan?

Jaz: Sure.

Pakistan

Koji: OK. Well, in Pakistan, they’ve got a mix of dragon beliefs. Neighboring India, of course they have some Naga beliefs. However, the Chitrali have a more Persian dragon, the azhdaar. They are large, winged serpents with golden manes like a lion. The azdhaar protect treasure and devour warriors. But the warrior could counter the azhdaar by holding his sword above his head with the tip of the blade in one hand and the hilt in the other. This would tear the azhdaar’s fish-like mouth.

Jaz: Fish-like mouth?

Koji: Yep, fish-like mouth.

Jaz: That’s what we’re going to leave our listeners with?

Ending

Koji: Well, I do promise to give them some Persian dragon mythology in the blog next week. But until then, I’m afraid this is really all we have time for.

Jaz: Aw, alright then. If you enjoyed this whirlwind trip, please consider leaving us a rating or review on the platform of your choice.

Koji: This helps new listeners find us, and that’s super important for a new project like the Mythsterhood.

Jaz: If you want to get the first peek at next week’s epic artwork by our lovely Anike, do come and hang out with us on Discord.

Koji: In the meantime, we will reconvene for out next journey in the Middle East.

Jaz: Awesome! I can’t wait. Until then, we wish you all days like dragons greeting clouds.

Koji: Later Mythsters!

Sources:

Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License

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