I’d mentioned to king-in-yellow the other day that I didn’t think I necessarily had much else to say about Digital Devil Saga 1. To which I was told, yeah, so what? XD But it wasn’t a complaint, more of a musing. This is for my own amusement after all.
I have strange amusements.
So to my surprise (particularly since I was looking at Lovecraft last night: I would have figured that to be what influenced my dreams), I woke up this morning with this in my head:
"Dragons. Are weird.”
(I think I’ve figured out “read more” so let’s try this.)
Apparently this thought was prompted by my going through the mantra system in the game. Because, typically, I’m mastering “mantra”* faster than I’m earning cash money in the game, which leads to concern about waste (grinding must be efficient!) and going through the system.
This time, the names of the mantra caught my eye, apparently. Because the path where you’re going through the zan spells is named after “dragon.” In Japanese, the first two stages of the mantra path are hiryū (飛龍) and ryūō (龍王): or flying dragon and dragon king, respectively.
So, here’s where things get a little confusing depending on how much background knowledge you have. What is the elemental affiliation of a dragon? Or, given that we’re in East Asia, where would we put dragons in Five Phase theory?
In traditional Chinese and Japanese ritual, dragons are almost always rain. They tend to inhabit water, ponds and caves near ponds (looking at ritual locations)—and from here you get, I think, the “river” idea that Spirited Away calls upon. (Even though I’m not sure I know of any major rain calling rituals that use rivers: here’s where more specific examples might illuminate something.) Alternatively, under the ocean: this is referenced in the Tales of the Heike when Nii no Ama tells her grandson Antoku where they’re headed. But in illustration, in visual depictions, I think dragons in storms are a bit more common than dragons in rivers per se, but more examples in my “database” as it were might change this impression. Of course, the conflation between Naga and “dragon” makes things more confusing where Buddhism has influence, but that’s where we would be. (Dragons with pearls reference the tale of the Naga King’s Daughter in the Lotus Sutra: even if there’s no connection to Buddhism in some of the later examples, as far as I’m aware, there are dragons holding pearls before Buddhism enters China—if you know of a pre-2nd century example, please, let me know.)
So dragons might logically be found as “water” creatures.** Storms aren’t quite water, but there’s enough of a connection.
But storms are also wind, so associating dragons with zan makes a certain amount of sense too!
Only zan etc. aren’t “wind” here, but force. (Despite some exceptions in the MegaTen series writ large.) So most of what follows clearly isn’t all that relevant to a system when your “elements” are: water, fire, lightning, force. (Not that it stops me making assumptions about which creatures are weak to what based on their element spells. I need to stop doing that.)
So we’re not working really with the system that I was thinking with initially. (Although, to be fair, a survey of the internet shows confusion about force/wind regarding zan in MegaTen-related games. But “force” is not a traditional element, and if you want to say dragons are forceful, and you also want “vaguely-Indian-derived-religion-ish” names for your mantra, hey: dragons are available. Even if Nagas are pretty much also watery. But that’s another story.)
Let’s continue anyway: are dragons water?
There’s another association with dragons, and that’s with the directional/seasonal system. Chinese cosmology has the Five Phases, and you have certain associations:
South: fire, phoenix, summer, red
West: metal, tiger, autumn, white
North: water, “dark warrior”***, winter, black
East: wood, dragon, spring, blue-green
We have one phase left, though, so you have:
Center: earth, also dragon, … ?????, yellow.
The repetition of “dragon” for 神獣 shinjū (although the distinction is usually made between blue-green dragon seiryū (青龍) and yellow dragon of the center) as well as the ambiguity of the season for the Fifth Direction**** help reveal that the base-5 system was not originally the only one: there was a base-4 system, arguably older,***** that had to be reconciled with it. That base-4 system originally had the directions and “god-beasts” (also associated with constellations/parts of the sky), but were latter added to the Five Phase system of “elements” and directions. (And then there’s a base-6 system of qi 氣 which for the sake of my incipient headache I will not go into).
By Five Phase logic, dragons should be wood or earth. Dragons associated with earth you also see in feng shui, and if you find that in a MegaTen game, you perhaps could blame/thank Aramata Hiroshi for that: provided that you take him seriously that he introduced feng shui to the Japanese.
If you had five dragons of each of the five colors, you could even potentially have one dragon for each element.
… Except that the shrines to the Five Dragon Kings that you see in north China are all dedicated to rain-rituals, and so. Back to rain.
In sum: if you try to find the “natural” or “inherent” element of a Chinese or East Asian dragon, you’ll get tangled up in knots. I think any argument along these lines is doomed to a weak defense against counter-attack.
Because dragons are weird. And chimera-ish, when you get down to it. (But that makes them, in turn, good monsters.)
* Okay, okay, HA. Sorry, this is something where I can’t help but laugh and wonder what various authors of Shingon Buddhism would have to say about this. Fun times!
** I’m reminded of some of the Persona 2: Eternal Punishment fusions here. But that’s more rain-ish? Anyway.
*** 玄武 genbu might be thought of as a “turtle” for convenience, but you lose the two snakes strangling it if you think of it this way. The two snakes are kind of key to the iconography. But that’s not to say that the alternatives are not attested to!
**** Not to be confused with One Direction, which is not Chinese cosmology. I think.
Anyway, one way of settling what the season of the “center” and “earth” is was to give it a bit of every season. Another was to give it part of summer. Either way, that’s where your doyō (土用) comes from, when you eat your eels for protein and b-vitamins because it’s too damn hot. And it’s also why most people need advertisers or NHK to tell them when doyō is because it is tricky.
If you’re interested in the subject and can put up with academic writing, Aihe Wang’s Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China covers some of this for the Shang and Zhou, and John Henderson’s The Development and Decline of Chinese Cosmology handles the whole doyō issue, among others.
***** There are neolithic burials in China that oppose the dragon and the tiger****** with the appropriate directions, so the direction and beast association can be said to be very very old.
****** Yes, traditionally you would oppose the directional dragon and tiger. The directions are also tied to the constellation division. This is yet another reason why Fūshigi Yūgi makes no sense. (But not the only reason why.)
Oppositions of the dragon and phoenix are a bit more, hm, yin and yang-ish? Which, again: the system is not coherent. There are historical reasons for this, as people added more to the system and tried to make it make sense through logic gymnastics.*******
Also: dragons are weird.
******* Logic gymnastics: A new Olympic sport!