The Trail Of The Golden Dragon

By: G. B. Gordon

Originally Published in 1918

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Before asking you to follow me on the trail of the Golden Dragon, I want to say in order to give you your bearings that while the name of the monster carries with it a very distinctly Oriental flavor, it has nothing to do with the situation in the Far East. Our subject does not take us farther from home than Central America, where during the period of my explorations I picked up a number of Indian myths relating to different classes of phenomena and falling naturally into as many groups. Among these groups, the most prominent, because of its persistence under a variety of forms and because of its manifold variations depending on local environment, is that which relates to the Golden Dragon.

I have selected for the present occasion a few typical instances to illustrate this myth and the manner in which it occurs; but first I want to sketch briefly the historical background against which these stories and mythical notions are projected under the influence of modern conditions.

In Central America more than anywhere else in the world, the past is separated from the present by a wide and seemingly impassable gulf. Actual history does not go back one step beyond the day when the Spanish conquerors set foot on the soil. And from that day to this the shadow of oblivion has been falling deeper and deeper over the preceding centuries. Nothing could be more absolute than this divorce between the yesterday and today in Central America. The task of bridging over this gulf and reaching backwards for the broken threads of history is one that is beset with great difficulties. When history and tradition are silent we can only turn to the material relics that have survived; to the time-worn monuments which, though lacking an interpreter, carry the mind back into the dim and shadowy past and show us something of its features.

The country is filled with these old monuments. As you travel about you constantly find yourself amid the scenes of an antique tragedy played along ago by forgotten actors; in the fallen temples the altars are bare; the palaces where they feasted are silent and deserted and there is no one to read the writing on the wall. When you happen upon one of these old ruins the first thing that claims your attention, after the feeling of wonder has passed, is the presence everywhere of a monstrous serpent or dragon that seems to pervade the scene around you like the spirit of desolation and gloom that reigns over these lost cities.

I can give you absolutely no idea of this extraordinary serpent. He assumes the most fantastic variety of shapes, and among his thousand presentments he is never twice alike. He trails his length up and down the slopes of pyramids; he winds along the colonnades; he coils himself about the monuments; he twists his scaly body in and out among the figures on the cornices and he looks out from the highest elevations like the devils of Notre Dame, only a thousand times more conspicuous and infinitely more ugly.

For my part the serpent of Central American ruins gave me a lot of trouble from the first. I saw buildings of various shapes and sizes, monuments and columns and pyramids, all covered over with intricate sculpture with serpents everywhere. The longer I looked the more serpents I saw, and after a while I couldn’t see anything but serpents. At last it became quite apparent that the whole motive underlying the decorative system, or the greater part of it, was the form of a serpent and a great variety of ornament was derived from this serpent motive by a process of conventionalization and abstraction. In short, the trail of the serpent was over everything. So you will see that a serpent or a dragon, intimately associated with certain aspects of culture, is a very old institution in Central America and is by no means a modern invention.

One word more by way of introduction. It is a well-known fact that the serpent plays an important part in the social and religious life of relatively primitive peoples the world over, and as religious ideas develop into higher forms the serpent often remains under one disguise or another. But I wish only to call your attention to a special set of ideas that would seem to be pretty generally associated with the serpent in certain stages of social and religious development.

In some of the earlier stages of human thought, various animals appear to come in for a share of divine honours, and the less they resemble man the more certain their divinity. The steps that led to this conception is a subject of much discussion and shrewd speculation. There must have been a time when man had not yet begun to recognize his place in the animal kingdom, when he had not yet begun to look upon himself as the paragon of animals; he was perhaps content to regard himself as the most miserable and helpless of creatures and this state of mind was simply the recognition of a very disagreeable truth, for not until he began to use his mental faculties to some purpose was man the superior or even the equal of other animals. The wild creatures seemed to know more than he did; he envied them the dumb certainty of their instincts and their subtle ways that were guided by a wit beyond his understanding.

Of all the beasts none was more wonderful than the serpent. Its strange subtle motion no doubt inspired admiration and its power of inflicting sudden death made it an object of terror. Man began to associate the serpent with the unknown powers and it became identified in his philosophy with the phenomena of nature. Because its gliding motion was observed to resemble the river in its course, the resemblance was taken for an actual relationship and the river became a great serpent endowed with the attributes and the divinity of the snake, and thus the snake became identified with the water.

What resemblance could be more plain than that between the trailing course of the lightning across the clouds, its sudden flash and death dealing stroke on the one hand and on the other the sharp outward lash of the venomed serpent’s head and the quick backward stroke after the blow has been delivered? And so the lightning is a great serpent that dwells in the sky and by the same irresistible logic the serpent became a God of Storm and of the Waters.

In the north of Scotland there is to be seen a huge earthwork in the form of a serpent resting upon a bluff that overlooks one of the lochs. In Ohio another great earthwork represents a serpent with his head resting on a bluff that overlooks the river. In each case the serpent looks out upon the water and this is by no means an accident but the result of deliberate purpose. It is to be interpreted as the symbolism corresponding to a definite set of ideas. It is not difficult to divine what these ideas were. Our mental habits and the language we use suggest a logical explanation. We speak of the course of a river being serpentine; a river in England is called the Serpentine and in the poetry of Europe you may recall many examples in which the figure is used. Moreover, we frequently hear of the sea serpent, which in all probability has been suggested by the undulating motion of the waves. Likewise the name of the Kennebec River, according to very good authority, means in the Indian language the Serpent.

Now the American Indian, whose mental habits lead him to look for family relationship in all things in the material universe and whose language, rich in figures and in concrete terms, is well adapted to giving expression to such artificial relationships in the realm of nature, describes the river, like his white brother, in terms suggested by its resemblance to the serpent. But he does not stop there. His animistic view of nature leads him to look upon the river as a living conscious being, actuated like himself by motives good and evil. He is not careful to distinguish between subjective and objective things, and so, mistaking an accidental resemblance for an actual relationship, he conceives the river to be in reality a great serpent endowed with all the attributes of the snake. Moreover, the river is forever flowing into the sea, and so the spirit of the serpent pervades the ocean itself.

What I want to bring out is simply this intimate relationship which exists between the serpent and water in the Indian’s philosophy.

There are in Central America numerous dry canons or old water channels often running for miles across the country and cutting through the mountains. These were at one time occupied by torrents, but the precipitation and drainage of the country has become changed in such a way that the old channels are now dry. Such a canon is called by the Indians “The Trail of the Golden Dragon.”

The monster is associated with water, the element in which he dwells. Wherever there is a beautiful pool in a secluded spot, it is sure to be the abode of the Golden Dragon.

In the good old days before the stranger came he was a god, and when the people made him offerings he would condescend to receive their gifts and the worshippers had the privilege of beholding their divinity; but in these degenerate days he accepts no gifts and it is only by accident that favored mortals chance to see him.

On the high table lands that lie along the boundaries between Honduras and Salvador there lives a tribe of Indians called the Lencas. Their territory is intersected and cut up by a number of dry canons such as I have referred to. In their chief village there lives a privileged class, a true aristocracy, very strong in pedigree but weak in numbers, for they are diminishing rapidly. They are the descendants of the last king of the Lencas and they believe that when the time is come, one born among them will be a great king, but they must wait until the sign is given them.

Not far from the village there are a number of great rocks, and one detached mass rises to a height of about fifty feet with almost vertical sides and of such dimensions that a good sized army might camp on its summit. It is protected in such a way by the canons that it is at present inaccessible, while deep in its base a great cavity worn by the floods forms a basin of water very deep and clear. It would be hard to find a more wild and picturesque situation. Stretching away to the south can be seen the beautiful valleys of Salvador and beyond them three great volcanic cones, none of them less than 12,000 feet in elevation and one of them in constant eruption. It is a scene well calculated to inspire heroic deeds and to breed a race of brave men.

Lempiro, the last of the Lencas, was a great and mighty king. He had a palace on the top of the table rock and 30,000 warriors obeyed his command. He vowed that he would drive the Spaniards into the sea and made himself so terrible that they organized an expedition to rid the country of so dangerous a foe; and so in time the Spanish forces appeared before the rock upon which Lempiro and all his warriors had retired.

Now the Golden Dragon lived in the pool in the base of the rock and there the king and his wise men would make their offerings and consult the oracle. It seemed that on a certain day the oracle was unfavorable and Lempiro himself predicted that the time was at hand when he and his house should fall. Therefore he directed that a great golden chain which he wore around his neck and which was so heavy that it took two men to lift it, should be thrown into the pool as soon as his fate overtook him.

The Spaniards camped on the plain below the rock and their leader came forward and called upon Lempiro to come out to the edge of the rock for a parley. At the same time he caused a cross-bowman to be concealed near by, and as Lempiro came forward and began to speak he was struck on the head by a bolt from the crossbow. His body, pitching forward, fell to the base of the rock and in the night his people took the chain and cast it into the pool and buried their king on the height above. Then, submitting themselves to fate, they scattered among the mountains. Afterwards came the prophecy that when a child is born of royal blood with the mark of the dragon on his breast, then will the old order of things come again and a king will rule over the Lencas as Lempiro ruled. Meanwhile Destiny sleeps at the bottom of the pool in the shape of a Golden Dragon. He never appears to man and he gives no sign, but on one day in each year, the day on which the sun passes the zenith, if your eyes are good and clear and you look at the right moment, when the sun is directly overhead and the vertical rays penetrate the depths of the pool, you may see the glint of the golden scales, and if your eyes are very clear you may see the Golden Dragon stretched out asleep, holding a great gold chain in his mouth.

Now I am going to take you to another part of the country where the Uloa River winds through the plain of Sula and flows into the Caribbean Sea, a region forever associated with the deeds of the Bucaneers. Here the Spaniards of the sixteenth century found a peaceful native population cultivating the soil and living in towns and villages. The adventurers were so pleased with the region and the prospects of gold, that they founded settlements and built forts along the river and prospered greatly at the expense of the Indians, for whom nothing remained but cruel slavery and consequent extermination. Then came retribution in the shape of the Bucaneers and Gentlemen Adventurers. These honest sportsmen, English and Dutch they were, had a habit of making little excursions up the river in small boats and laying the Spanish settlements under contribution.

If the exact amount of gold demanded was not immediately forthcoming they were always ready to resort to the most extreme measures of violence. It is not surprising that the Spaniards found the operation of mining under such conditions so unprofitable that they abandoned the mines. Then the Bucaneers burnt the settlements and destroyed the forts and let in the jungle so that to this day the jungle people have the whole region to themselves; and the wolf pack hunts along the river bank at night and the bandar log makes the darkness noisy with senseless talk and the panther lays down the jungle law. There are also a few villages scattered along the river banks, but they are there only by the sufferance of the jungle folk. The people of these villages are rather a mixed lot, their ancestors being Spaniards and Indians and Negroes, and the redeeming thing about them is that they are few. Yet I did not fail to find among them people who showed good will and courtesy and some who were kind to me. There was another inhabitant in the region. I met him one day in the jungle,—a solitary Indian who lived by himself and hunted in the forests and fished in the river. His name was Nicho. He was held in great dislike by the people in the villages, being as they said a low savage and not a Christian. He did not approve of them any more than they approved of him, only there was this difference : they were afraid of him and he wasn’t afraid of them. They gave him credit for having killed thirteen of them in his time. After our first encounter he began to make somewhat sullen advances, a demonstration that surprised me, since it was notoriously his habit to shun his fellow men. This show of sociability was explained afterward when he told me that I was better than the people on the river. After that I believed everything Nicho told me.

Once we made an excursion into the jungle to visit a wonderful enchanted pool in a deep ravine that Nicho was acquainted with. I had heard of this interesting place from others, but none except Nicho had seen it, though all on the river were familiar with its magic echoes. This ravine sometimes sends out a loud melodious sound which may be heard many miles away, and is regarded by the inhabitants of the region, both the jungle people and the villagers, as an infallible sign that it is going to rain. The sound is so modulated as to indicate by its pitch whether the coming storm is to be heavy or light. The amount of promised rain is in exact proportion to the volume of sound, and thus proclaims to the accustomed ear with unerring precision, the approach of a passing shower, or heralds the terrific thunderstorm of the tropics. On account of these phenomena the place is called La Quebrada Encantada, The Enchanted Ravine. As we proceeded on this journey we seemed to be entering the very heart of the mountains, of which the dark masses towered above us. We entered a deep ravine, which as we proceeded grew narrower, while the sides grew higher and more precipitous. Arriving at our destination, the thing that attracted attention was a cataract that came tumbling down the side of the mountain and after a final leap of fifty feet was precipitated into a great circular pool about one hundred feet in diameter and very deep. The pool is surrounded by vertical walls of dark gray rock except at the outlet in front. The refreshing coolness of the place was in pleasant contrast to the closeness of the jungle and the heating exertions of the journey, while its wild romantic charm was in keeping with its legendary associations, and made it seem a fitting place for sacred rites and mysteries. It is just such spots that man in a state of nature endows with supernatural gifts or associates with his ideas of power and wisdom. Paying divine honour to that which inspires in him feelings of admiration and awe, he identifies it with some spirit which he worships as the author of things or with some lesser divinity who represents one of his attributes as ruler over the powers of nature. In other lands this spot would have been a rendezvous of elves or a favorite haunt of naiads, but the savage mind dwells darkly on the grim and terrible in nature, and so to the sombre imagination of the Indian it was a dragon that kept guard over the sacred pool and dwelt in its enchanted depths.

According to Nicho this pool is the abode of a Golden Dragon. In former times before the Spaniards came, it was lined with golden pebbles and the sands at the margin were grains of gold, and it was the custom of the Golden Dragon to rise occasionally to the margin of the pool and receive the offerings that were made to him by his people. If they wanted rain they would bring their offerings and lay them on the golden sand beside the pool or cast them on the water; then while all the people chanted a prayer the dragon would rise from the cave where he dwelt in the depths of the pool and receive the good things that were offered him, and there was never a drought or a famine in the land. Then when the Spaniards came and the people were driven from their homes, the golden pebbles and grains of gold disappeared and the Golden Dragon, retiring into the uttermost corner of the watery cavern, withdrew forever from the upper world. There he still lives and controls the winds and clouds that bring the rain.

The spirits of the Indians too still hold their meetings of an occasional evening by their accustomed pool, now lost in the solitude of the forest and it is the sound of their chanting that makes the voice of the ravine.

These two characteristic tales are sufficient to give you an idea of the legend and the manner in which it occurs, but I might go on and relate many others of a similar character; for instance, there is the Lake of Amatitlan in western Guatemala. It lies at an elevation of 8,000 feet above the level of the sea and has no visible outlet, and no plumb line has ever been found to reach the bottom. It is surrounded by mountains on all sides and on its shores are the remains of many ancient towns and villages destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. The Golden Dragon lived in the lake and was the chief divinity of those who dwelt on its shores. They made vessels of clay of curious shape and in these they placed incense made of copal and set them adrift upon the lake, and the watcher on the shore, observing the various signs and omens that attended the vessel with its flames as it was received into the water or drifted out of sight, gave each its proper interpretation and in this way settled the problems of life and facilitated the administration of government. These ceremonies are no longer performed, but if you send a diver into the bottom of the shallow water near the shore, he will bring up specimens of the old vessels in which the burning incense was set adrift.

One very interesting form of the legend associates the Golden Dragon with the bird called the Quetzal, or Kezá1 as the Indians pronounce it. Away up in the highlands of Guatemala, remote from the paths of civilization, there is a very remarkable cave called the cave of Lankin. The Lankin River has its origin somewhere in the underworld and rushes forth from the mouth of the cavern in the form of a mighty torrent. According to the story, you can follow the river underground for miles and the cave is very beautiful.

This cave was once the highroad to an ideal land that lies somewhere away to the East. In that land the corn and the cacao and the tobacco grow of their own accord, and there is no such thing as sorrow or hunger or death. It is from there that the sun sets out in the morning and there he returns at night. It was there that the ancestors of the Indians lived at the beginning, but for some sin they were driven into this world of trouble. For a long time they wandered in darkness underground, but at last they emerged from the cave, and lest they should find their way back and at the same time to prevent them from perishing utterly, the waters were sent after them to save them from dying of thirst, and the Golden Dragon came forth with the waters to dwell in the depths of the cave and watch over man’s earthly destiny; but in order to return to the happy land the Indian must die, for the spirit only may find its way back.

The region that I am speaking of now is the home of the Quetzal. Of all the birds of the forest his plumage is the most magnificent, but he is also the shyest and most silent of birds. He lives in the deepest solitudes of the forest and the only time when his note is heard is during the mating season when the male bird is calling to his mate and then the cry is low and mournful as though the little breast were full of sorrow. And so it is, for the Indian knows all about it, having shared the same misfortune himself. In the beginning the Quetzal, like the Indian, lived in the beautiful land of the East where sorrow is not known. He was first of all the birds; his plumage was dyed in the rays of the rising sun and he filled the wood with his joyous song, but in some way that I have never been able to learn, he shared in man’s disgrace and accompanied him to this world. Thinking of the lost Paradise, he forgot his joyous song and retired into the gloomiest depths of the forest, where he passes his life in mournful brooding silence.

There is no doubt that these legends come down to us from a very remote antiquity, perhaps the same antiquity about which the venerable monuments are so eloquently silent. Perhaps these are the faint echoes of forgotten rites that were performed before the altars of the feathered serpent. Perhaps they are the last surviving remnants of the old religion of which that sculptured monster is the surviving symbol.

On the other hand, I think it may well be doubted whether any of these myths and legends are directly related to the ideas embodied in the ancient Central American art. The legends of the Golden Dragon seem to belong to an earlier stage of culture. In the sculptures, as Maudslay has surmised, the dragon has passed through a process of conventionalization in which the original character seems to be lost and he survives only as a symbol. He is no longer an object of worship, and while he points unmistakably to an earlier period of serpent worship, that period had been left behind, and in the higher culture that followed, the serpent remains embalmed in the art and literature of the nation.

The myths of today point, I think, to the earlier stage of serpent worship pure and simple, and therefore to a people nearer to the condition of primitive man than the builders of the lost cities, but related to them by a common set of mythical notions which may or may not have had a common origin in some indefinitely remote past. In short, there is nothing to prove that these myths carry us back to the same epoch and culture as the monumental remains, but, taken in this connection, they illustrate a definite process that is natural to native American culture. They reveal, moreover, a well marked law of uniformity that shapes the thoughts of men and gives rise to a certain type of ideas, corresponding to a definite horizon. These ideas find expression in different ways but chiefly in Sculpture, Painting and Story Telling.

G. B. G.

Cite This Article

Gordon, G. B.. "The Trail Of The Golden Dragon." The Museum Journal IX, no. 1 (March, 1918): 29-38. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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