Dragons of the Middle East, Part I – episode 10

Hello hello, and welcome to milestone episode 10. Double digits! And this week we’ll be exploring the dragons of the Middle East.

Since the Middle East is such a vast and varied region, we’ve decided to split this part of the world into two separate episodes. Anike was super excited to be back for the first part of our foray into the Middle East, so let’s dig in right away! But first, go grab your MythsterMap and mark the spot.

Later Mythsters!

Podcast Transcript

Jaz: Hello again mythsters, and welcome to episode ten of the Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. Yeah, you heard it right: Episode ten. We are entering the double digits today.

Anike: What? Wow, that’s amazing. Feels like we only just started yesterday.

Jaz: You said it! I can’t wait to see what the future will bring.

Anike: Me too, me too, but let’s focus on the present.

Jaz: Ooh, good point! Where are we headed today?

Anike: We’ll be dipping our toes into the middle east mythology.

Jaz: OK. Something tells me, we will be butchering more names and words we’ve never heard before. We offer our most sincere apologies, since it can’t always be avoided.

Anike: Too true. As evidenced by the outtakes Jaz so kindly shares at the end of our episodes.

Jaz: But they’re too funny! How can I deny our Mythsters the joy of listening to those?

Defining the Middle East

Anike: Yes, I understand but anyway. Middle East and dragons. Another disclaimer here: Jaz found so many contradicting stories, that it was very hard to untangle all of them, so we want to emphasise that in no way do we claim to have the only true representation of any culture’s traditions or folklore tales.

Jaz: I second that. I have to say, the research for this episode had me reeling. The region we set out to cover is so, so vast and the variety of cultures I wanted to delve into was astonishing. In the end, there was no way whatsoever to discuss everything in one single episode. So, as with South East Asia, we’ll have to split the Middle East down the middle–get it?–and give ourselves a little bit more breathing room.

Anike: So, so punny. Yes. But first off, can we start with the definition of the Middle East? I mean, it’s a very large, and yet again very diverse region, spanning nations, cultures, AND continents. It includes parts of Western Asia, Egypt in North Africa, and Turkey.

Jaz: But then you get the concept of the Greater Middle East as well, which includes a considerably larger slice of North Africa: the North-West African region with Algeria, Libia, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia? Not to mention Sudan, Somalia, the Comoros, which is an island in the Mozambique channel, Djibouti, Pakistan, AND Afghanistan.

Anike: OK. If you look at it that way, it does get a bit daunting, I’ll admit. But how about a different lens? If we look at the cultures you find in the region, historically and in present times, you’ll come across Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hittite mythology and culture, and the three Abrahamic traditions: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic.

Jaz: Right. That looks a lot more feasible already. And we can cross a few of those off our list and narrow our selection down even more. We have separate episodes planned for Turkey and Egypt, so there is no need to cover that here as well.

Anike: Sweet. And though Christianity does have its roots in the Middle East, something tells me we’ll come across lots of Christian mythology as we traverse Europe, so we can stick a pin in that for now as well.

Mesopotamia

Jaz: Awesome. So that leaves us with Mesopotamian, Jewish, and Islamic mythology and I think we mentioned Hittite as well. I found a lot of stuff linking Hittite mythology to Turkey so I suggest we take that into our Turkey episode. And then, what do you say we restrict ourselves to Mesopotamia for part 1, and then take on Jewish and Islamic dragons in part 2?

Anike: Sounds like a tight plan to me! Let’s dig in. How did our Mesopotamian dragons look?

Jaz: Well, they were fearsome beings, large in size, and too strong to be safe.

Anike: For them? Or for those who cross their paths?

Jaz: Eeeeh, mostly those to cross their paths. They often had features of other animals, mostly local wildlife.

Anike: Oh. That’s to be expected. We saw as much in most of the other places we’ve visited.

Jaz: True, true. So in the Middle East, you get dragons with the head of a Lion, and perhaps the talons of an eagle.

Anike: Ooooh, niiice.

Jaz: What we hadn’t seen so far, however, is dragons with a scorpion’s tail.

Anike: Wait, what? That is awesome!

Jaz: I know. You wouldn’t want to cross swords with one.

Anike: Well, forget crossing swords. I wouldn’t want to cross paths with them.

Jaz: Seconded. Anyway. Many of them were also sea creatures, embodying the terrifying forces of nature people had to grapple with back then. And in time, they evolved from a representation of chaos and disorder, to a representation of evil.

Anike: Ahh. So I know we weren’t going to discuss Christianity here, but that explains the negative light cast on dragons and serpents in Christian mythology, which in turn coloured all of Europe as more and more of it converted.

Jaz: That does make sense. So, what do you know of the mythology of Mesopotamia, or Babylonia, which was a part of the Mesopotamian Empire.

Anike: Oh, goodness. Put me on the spot, why don’t you? Uhm. The name Mesopotamia translates as something like “land that lies between two streams” and the names of those were Tigris and Eufrates. Aaaaand the name Marduk comes to mind but I can’t quite say what for. Oh, and of course it’s also the birthplace of the goddess Ishtar.

Jaz: Ooh, you didn’t do too shabby on that one.

Anike: Thank you, thank you. But where do the dragons come in, then?

Jaz: Well, you already mentioned the name. Many dragons throughout the region functioned as a symbol of Marduk. This is like one of the main deities in Babylonian and Assyrian religion. He was the god of thunderstorms, for the Ammonites as well.

Anike: –another connection to thunder!

Jaz: Yeah definitely. It immediately reminded me of the Druk we discussed briefly in our India episode. But Marduk was also the patron god of the city of Babylon. His dragon, Mušḫuššu (Ihope I said that one correctly), was said to have the head and tail of a serpent, the body and fore legs of a lion, and the hind legs of a falcon. Oh, and don’t forget the forked tongue.

Anike: OK, OK, but what about the stories? What was the dragon like?

Jaz: Well, he became the servant of Marduk and his son Nabu after being vanquished by Marduk. We don’t know that much about Mušḫuššu himself, but get this: Robert Koldewey, an archaeologist who was most famous for his in-depth work in the ancient city of Babylon, in modern-day Iraq, believed that depictions of the creature actually referred to a real animal.

Anike: Wow. The reasoning behind this theory is that his morphology never underwent any changes during the centuries in which it was a commonly occurring motif in Babylonian art. As we’ve seen in our previous episodes, mythological creatures tend to undergo a gradual evolution as the cultures that spawn them undergo foreign influences or changes in religion.

Jaz: Apparently, the real-life animal that most closely resembled Mušḫuššu as we know him, was the long-extinct Iguanodon.

Anike: Right. Also, Iguanodon is an awesome name for a dinosaur.

Jaz: I don’t know who came up with that but he deserves an award.

Anike: Indeed. But enough about Marduk and Mušḫuššu. Does ancient Babylon or Mesopotamia at large have any other dragons for us?

Jaz: Hmm, let’s see. How about Apsu? The serpent god of fresh water. This benevolent dragon spread happiness and, as it goes with fresh water, abundance across the land, presumably in the form of thriving crops?

Anike: And, he was the divine consort of the goddess Tiamat. She is the goddess of salt water, and is pictured more like a griffin than an elongated sea dragon. Their union lies at the root of all the great gods and goddesses of Babylon.

Jaz: The pair of them represent the chaos that comes before the concepts of form and order that civilisation depends on.

Anike: Riiight. And in time, Apsu got a bit annoyed with the young gods, noisy and meddlesome and whatnot.

Jaz: Haha, I imagine him as this salty old dude shaking his fist at playing neighbourhood kids. A kind of “git off ma lawn” vibe.

Anike: Right? Anyway. He wanted to destroy them, of course with the help of Tiamat.

Jaz: Oh, so much for our idea of a benevolent dragon. But Tiamat, luckily, was like “Sorry? Destruction? Hell no.”

Anike: Sadly, the god Ea meanwhile figured he’d beat Apsu to it, and he destroyed Apsu before he could do any damage.

Jaz: Stupid. You don’t mess with the lover of a goddess if you can help it. Best to let her sort things out instead. But now, instead of sorting things out, she was furious. Since she embodied the raw energy of the sea, being the goddess of salt water, you can guess what that looked like.

Anike: Trouble. That’s what it looked like. In the end, she was vanquished by Marduk. He threw a raging storm into her mouth, I’m guessing as a distraction? Then he pierced her with an arrow, ripped her entrails apart, and then, because she wasn’t dead enough to his liking, he cleaved her in two.

Jaz: One half of her body became the ocean floor, the other became the heavens. And from her eyes sprang the two rivers of Mesopotamia. Her tail formed the Milky Way. And then, Marduk went on to kill her son Kingu. He mixed Kingu’s blood with soil and created humankind.

Anike: Hah. Marduk is very thorough, it seems.

Jaz: Ooh, and then there’s Zu, another evil dragon. Looking at images of him, he reminds me a bit of a gryphon, really. Depending on the source, he was considered a lesser god, a mythological creature with a tendency towards mischief, or a half-demon half-god dragon with a more ambiguous nature. In this depiction, he had both benevolent and sinister aspects. Another name for him was the Storm Bird.

Anike: Interesting, and again we have these parallels we can draw to previous episodes. The Druk with its connection to thunder, in this instance. Zu was born on the mountain Hehe and made a nest of his own at the top of the Sabu Mountains. I do find the more ambiguous version of Zu the more fascinating one, to be honest. It reminds me of a force of nature, like wind, rain, and sun, which are all good things in moderation but carry the potential for harm as well. In this form, he embodied the southern wind and thunderclouds.

Jaz: One of the crimes ascribed to him was the theft of the Tupsimati, the Tablets of Destiny. These belonged to the god Enlil who was the Lord of the Wind and ensured order in the universe with the help of his trusty tablets.

Anike: But have no fear, Marduk is here. He vanquished Zu and retrieved the tablets. Although some versions also give us another hero: Ninurta, Enlil’s son and the god of war. Ninurta supposedly tore Zu’s wings off and then decapitated him for good measure. At any rate, this timely intervention prevented the world from falling back into its primordial state of chaos.

Jaz: OK, so I do have to mention here that Zu stole the tablets not to purposefully destroy the ordered universe. Some stories say that he hid the tablets in his nest like an egg but that he was unaware of their significance. This absolutely fits with the interpretation of Zu as uniting benevolent and dangerous aspects and embodying a natural force.

Anike: In the stories where he was viewed as a demon, he was a servent of Tiamat and threatened domestic animals. In these versions, his theft of the Tupsimati was an attempt to stage a coup and carve out a position for himself as the leader of the gods.

Jaz: A different story altogether. Personally, I’d have to say I prefer the first iteration.

Anike: Agreed.

Jaz: So, I’m afraid that’s all she wrote for now. In two weeks, we will continue our quest to unearth the dragons of the Middle East in Jewish and Islamic mythology and folklore.

Anike: Oooh, can’t wait.

Jaz: Me too! This trip started off so amazingly great, and I am definitely looking forward to seeing what else we’ll find.

Sources:

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

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