Finding Our Dragons
(An Exerpt)

One of the reasons for following a spiritual path, for taking that strange journey into the Self and into the world, is to discover the truth - the truth about ourselves and about Life. This is, in essence, the quest for enlightenment - for coming to an experience and a knowledge of 'What Is' as opposed to being ensnared by 'What Is Not' - illusion, samsara, untruth.

After the initial elation of setting off on the journey and discovering the wonders that are there for our exploration, we come to a point where we encounter demons and dragons. The sun is hidden behind clouds, it rains and the wind blows. The journey isn't that pleasant any more and we wonder why we began it.

From behind the clouds comes the dragon and we are faced with a choice. Do we fight it, or flee from it? If we fight it, we may well preserve the status quo, but at the cost of burying the power that the dragon represents. At an individual level, this may mean that we repress and foolishly believe we have conquered our sexuality, or our greed, or our lust for power. At a collective level we may repress an awareness of the dragon force of the earth currents that run through the land. If instead of supposedly fighting and mastering the dragon, we flee from it, it will continue to haunt the woods and the hilltops or the sea - ready to harm us if we ever return there.

A third approach - the approach of both the ancient wisdom traditions and of psychoanalysis - involves befriending the dragon.

One of the purposes of vision questing is to do just this. In the Native American tradition you stay alone in a secluded place outdoors for at least three days. In the Tibetan tradition these quests occur for three day, three week, three month or three-year periods. In the Christian tradition isolated retreats have also been part of spiritual practice. In Lewes we can still see the cell inhabited by an anchorite hermit.

In the Druid Tradition, some groups call this practice 'Hero-Questing' for we are seeking the Hero Within. Sometimes these quests would have occurred in circumstances designed to create the effect of sensory deprivation – to which end trainee Bards would seal themselves in pitch black rooms and lie with a stone on their chest. The stone seems a strange prescription until we realise that the Bards were making use of a technique well known to modern psychology - that of creating one over-riding sensory input in order to block out all others.

Nowadays we use 'white noise' fed in through headphones to the seeker in an isolation tank. Shamans use drumming partly for a similar purpose. After a while the brain becomes habituated to this one monotonous repetitive input and blocks even that out. A familiar example of habituation is that of a ticking clock - even though it may be loud, after a while we don't perceive the ticks any more – our brain 'hears them' but stops bothering to pass the message up to our consciousness until it changes.

And once the over-riding input is blocked out we are floating free – free of experience coming to us through our senses. What happens then is that experience comes to us in different ways – rising out of our subconscious as strange waking dreams, flooding in from our superconscious as powerful experiences of elation and inspiration. We find we can slip free of our physical bodies to explore a realm in which dragons can either be great sea-worms rising from the mud to haunt us, or jewel-encrusted mountain dragons guarding caves which hold for us those secrets which will change our lives forever.

But hero-questing or vision-questing can also be undertaken not in isolated places of retreat – in caves or dark bothies – but whilst walking the old dragon-paths – whilst journeying from place to place. The outer journey then becomes a metaphor for the inner journey. The dragons that we find will then be either inner ones or outer ones – tied either to our souls or to the soul of the landscape we are exploring.

Lest we think, however, that we can befriend all dragons, we must beware – because there are dragons that are truly dangerous and are best left alone. We should not fall into the trap, so well laid by modern psychotherapy, that seduces us with the idea that every repression can be lifted, every pain healed. It is an over-simplification to see evil as pain turned outwards as hatred. All we apparently need to do is fix the hurt and the evil will go away...but 'fools rush in where angels fear to tread' and the wise know that the stories of dragons are there to teach us that the guardians of the treasures of the soul if approached naively or at the wrong time will wound and damage us.

The individual and collective energies, complexes, call them what you will, that can be symbolised as dragons, are extremely powerful and can only be faced at the right time – and not before. And there are some dragons – demons perhaps rather than dragons – which are the result of evil thoughts and deeds and which only the gods can face without harm.

But what are and were dragons?

Up on this ridgeway I look north towards the Weald – a great expanse of lowland that lies beneath the Dun and which continues until the North Downs again rise up to provide another ridge of high ground. In the old days this was completely forested and much is still woodland. Thirty miles deep from north to south, from east to west it stretches across 120 miles of countryside: from Romney Marsh in Kent to West Meon in Hampshire. At one time this massive forest was called the Waste of Ondred, and at another time the Forest of Anderida. The Venerable Bede described it in 731 as "thick and inaccessible...a retreat for large herds of deer, wolves and wild boars."

And here, a little to the northwest just two miles from Horsham lived a dragon in the forest. In 1614 he was still alive – terrorising the neighbourhood. Described as being nine foot long with black scales on his back and red scales on his belly, the dragon "rides away as fast as a man can run. He is of countenance very proud, and at the sight or hearing of men or cattle, will raise his neck upright and seem to listen and look about with great arrogance. There are likewise upon either side of him discovered, two great bunches so big as a large football, and (as some think) will in time grow to wings; but God, I hope, will (to defend the poor people in the neighbourhood) that he shall be destroyed before he grow so fledge."

Some believe such creatures were exotic reptiles that had escaped from private menageries or were fictions put about by smugglers who needed to keep ordinary folk away from their hideouts in the forest. The suggestion that dragon stories relate to a race memory of early man encountering dinosaurs cannot be correct, since 60 million years separate the final days of the dinosaurs from the appearance of humans on earth. Velikovsky believed that dragons were comets passing close to earth bringing disaster in their wake. Their bright heads and dark forked tails became the fire-breathing monsters of folk tales.

But to truly understand dragons and their relevance to the ancient traditions of this land, we need the help of Merlin.

Up here on the ridge overlooking the Waste of Ondred are two old dewponds – Red Lion Pond and White Lion Pond. Dewponds were probably being made up on the Downs as far back as Neolithic times, although some historians suggest they are of far more recent invention. A hollow would be dug out and lined with puddled clay and straw and then more clay - gradually building a waterproof lining to the hollow that would gather rainwater and the dew each morning. These dewponds have been maintained by local farmers to this day – although now, sadly, they tend to be lined with concrete. Why should one be called Red and the other White? We are reminded of the story of Merlin's boyhood when he and his mother were brought before King Vortigern, the king having been advised to sacrifice Merlin so that his blood could be smeared on the stones of a tower he was trying to build. Geoffrey of Monnmouth in his Prophecies of Merlin, continues the story in this way:

"Merlin...approached the king and said to him 'For what reason am I and my mother introduced into your presence?' - 'My magicians,' answered Vortigern, 'advised me to seek out a man that had no father, with whose blood my building is to be sprinkled, in order to make it stand.' – 'Order your magicians,' said Merlin, 'to come before me, and I will convict them of a lie.' The king was surprised at his words, and presently ordered the magicians to come, and sit down before Merlin, who spoke to them after this manner: 'Because you are ignorant of what it is that hinders the foundation of the tower, you have recommended the shedding of my blood to cement it, as if that would presently make it stand. But tell me now, what is there under the foundation? For something there is that will not suffer it to stand.'

"The magicians at this began to be afraid, and made him no answer. Then said Merlin, who was also called Ambrose, 'I entreat your majesty would command your workmen to dig into the ground, and you will find a pond which causes the foundation to sink.' This accordingly was done, and presently they found a pond deep under ground, which had made it give way. Merlin after this went again to the magicians, and said, 'Tell me ye false sycophants, what is there under the pond.' But they were silent. Then said he again to the king, 'Command the pond to be drained, and at the bottom you will see two hollow stones, and in them two dragons asleep.' The king made no scruple of believing him, since he had found true what he said of the pond, and therefore ordered it to be drained: which done, he found as Merlin had said; and now was possessed with the greatest admiration of him. Nor were the rest that were present less amazed at his wisdom, thinking it to be no less than divine inspiration.

"Accordingly, while Vortigern, King of the Britons was yet seated upon the bank of the pool that had been drained, forth issued the two dragons, whereof the one was white and the other red. And when the one had drawn anigh unto the other, they grappled together in baleful combat and breathed forth fire as they panted. But presently the white dragon did prevail, and drave the red dragon unto the verge of the lake. But he, grieving to be thus driven forth, fell fiercely again upon the white one, and forced him to draw back. And whilst that they were fighting on this wise, the King bade Ambrosius Merlin declare what this battle of the dragons did portend."

Merlin then proceeds to utter a series of prophecies that begin with the overcoming of the red dragon (the British) by the white dragon (the Saxons) and continues by prophesying how the Boar of Cornwall (Arthur) will trample the Saxons. In an extraordinary sequence of powerful and often obscure images, Merlin predicts the history of Britain till the end of days, when the constellations of the Zodiac will cease to turn and the Goddess 'shall lie hidden within the closed gateways of her sea-beaten headland'. We shall return again to consider this prediction, but in the meanwhile why are the dragons white and red, and why are the dewponds here named after white and red lions?

The sacred animals of the inner world, like language, meet and merge with each other – producing fabulous beasts that portray features of the landscape both human and terrestrial. The lions of heraldry and alchemy, that once in the flesh roamed this land, are images of the zodiacal sign of Leo, of the sun and of the element fire. Transformed into the winged lion, symbol of solar light and the morning, we can see its closeness to that other winged beast symbolising the element of fire – the dragon – as if the noble lion has united with the proto-dragon, the Worm – a creature famous in Britain in such places as Lambton and Linton, and recognised in the landscape at such places as Worm's Head in the Gower.

Another term for the dragon, common here in Sussex, is Wyvern. This term comes from the old French, wivere meaning both the adder and life. And suddenly one of the key themes of Druidry is illuminated for us. The Druid term for life force is Nwyvre - an old Welsh word meaning energy and vigour. In common with Eastern symbology, the snake is seen in Druidry as the prime symbol of the life force that snakes both through the land and through us.

If we want to understand this life-force it is not enough simply to discover it within ourselves – we need to discover it in the world around us too – for we are not separate from the earth, but a part of it. Here we find a contrast between the inward-turning methods of the east, and the outward-turning approach of the west – although both ways lead to the same point.

Wivere derives from the old Gaulish Wouivre, meaning spirit, and this became Vouivre in certain parts of France, where the dragon became depicted as half-woman, half winged snake – a fitting symbol of the goddess' energy that snakes the land.

How beautiful it is that like Celtic knotwork both language and symbolic animals interweave to show us the relationship between ourselves and the land – between the dragon in our own body and the dragons of the earth. Inner and Outer, Self and Other, dance together as do the words Nwyvre and Wyvern – the Druid Kundalini and the fire-breathing dragon – the Kundalini of the earth goddess.

The purpose of both dragons, inner and outer, is the same. They convey the creative fire, the fertilising breath that brings life and abundance – both to the individual and to the land. For all sorts of reasons beyond our understanding, these dragons have been allowed to sleep.

But in the old days they were awake – and it was the old sage, the Druid or Druidess, who knew how to direct and utilise this inner and outer fire to creative ends. The quest for personal fertility – of ideas, of children, of song and music – and of earthly fertility in abundant crops – were united in the ancients, and need to be united by us again as we try to extricate ourselves from the wasteland we have created within and around us.

And it is in the two colours of white and red that we find the clue to this fertility we need to rediscover: for white and red symbolise male and female, sperm and blood, moon and sun. Still to this day in somewhere as far away as Bulgaria, an old territory of the Celts, everyone will be seen wearing small pom-poms of white and red in March, in conscious recognition of the coming Spring, and in unconscious recognition of the Spring Equinox on March 22nd and of the need to unite the two principles to create an abundant life.

~~ From The Druid Way by Phillip Carr-Gomm ~~