Guardians For Good Or Ill: The European dragon - like its Maori counterpart, the taniwha - attaches itself to things we treasure ... or fear. The patronising response to the Central Auckland taniwha, Horotiu, reveals just how challenging the linguistic and cosmological metaphors of pre-scientific cultures have become for a great many Pakeha New Zealanders.
HERE BE DRAGONS, wrote the old cartographers when their meagre store of facts about the world was finally exhausted. Here, at the frontiers of human knowledge, only myths, legends and the tall tales of travellers remained to fill up the blank spaces on their maps.
In the oral tradition of the Maori, the word to describe an elemental danger; the threat of the unknown; or that perception of brooding malignity which somehow attaches itself to a place – is taniwha.
It is interesting to compare Oriental and European dragon lore with taniwha lore, for it is immediately apparent that they have a great deal in common.
For the old map-makers the creature was mostly metaphor. “Here be dragons” simply meant, “here be things we know nothing about, but which are potentially extremely dangerous, so travellers should be on their guard.”
In Chinese mythology, the dragon symbolises elemental force: a creature to command air, fire, earth and water. Chinese dragons are wise, and their interventions in the lives of men – be they for good or ill – are decisive. The Year of the Dragon is typically a year of dramatic change.
European dragons, as every reader of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien knows, are very different creatures. They are more cunning than wise, and if they are decisive it is almost always in a destructive sense.
The European dragon is besotted with riches of all kinds: gold, jewels, costly weapons and armour, magical objects of every description. Gathering them into a mighty hoard, usually deep inside a mountain or underground cavern, the dragon curls its vast bulk around its treasure and loses itself in dark dreams of avarice until, awakened by its insatiable lust for wealth, it slithers forth to wreak havoc upon the world of men.
As brooding, evil presences; keepers of secrets; and guardians of sacred places and/or magical objects; dragons and taniwha would appear to be close relations.
This is especially true of their power to draw to them the most courageous and/or foolhardy representatives of the human world. Whether it be Jason and his Argonauts; the Germanic hero, Siegfried, bathing in the blood of Fafnir; Tolkien’s plucky hobbit, Bilbo Baggins; or C.S. Lewis’ Eustace Scrubb: the hero’s encounter with the dragon is inevitably transformational.
It is no different in Maori mythology: no hero emerges from his or her encounter with the taniwha unscathed – or unchanged.
THE FURORE which erupted around a member of Auckland City’s Maori Advisory Board’s reference to the taniwha, Horotiu, is, perhaps, a measure of how detached we Europeans have become from the myths and legends which define our culture.
The angry denunciations of Maori superstition, and the snide racism that quickly manifested itself on talkback radio, the blogosphere and across the news media, revealed just how challenging the linguistic and cosmological metaphors of pre-scientific cultures have become for so many Pakeha New Zealanders.
Horotiu may guard something precious, or, he may control something dangerous. Whichever it is, the Maori people who lived alongside the stream he personified, clearly regarded him as something or someone you disrespected at your peril.
Engineers seeking the optimum route for Auckland’s underground rail loop should probably do the same. And the Auckland Council – ever anxious to save ratepayers’ funds – has nothing to lose and, potentially, much to gain by tapping the folk-wisdom of those who have lived on the porous volcanic crust of the Auckland isthmus for 700 years.
CELTIC FOLKLORE tells of a king, Vortigern, whose attempts to construct the city of Dinas Emrys were constantly thwarted by violent earthquakes which, every night, brought low his stonemasons’ efforts. It was the wizard, Merlin, who divined that the earthquakes were caused by the mortal struggle of two dragons fighting one another deep below the king’s feet. Only when these dragons ceased their nightly struggles, said Merlin, could the city be built.
Surely, here is a metaphor we New Zealanders could use to our advantage? For isn’t our own civic peace troubled by the fruitless and destructive conflict between the white dragon and his brown taniwha brother? And, wouldn’t the chances of building something fine and enduring here in Aotearoa-New Zealand be greatly improved if we were willing to release these cultural antagonists from the dark cavern of our national psyche and introduce them to the sun?
Who knows? By the light of day the dragon and the taniwha might look a lot less like enemies than they do allies. Or even friends.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 June 2011.