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Snakes, Dragons, and the Watery Underworld in China's Early Bronze Age

Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology (February 24, 2023)

SEMINAR SERIES : Archaeology, Artifacts and Art

MAJOR SPEAKER : Allan, Sarah
LENGTH : 78 min.
ACCESS : Open to all
SUMMARY : In this talk, Prof. Allan will trace the evolution of snake and snake-bodied (dragon) motifs from Erlitou to Yinxu and explore what can be deduced about cultural meaning. Snakes have been shown to cause a neurophysiological reaction of fear in all higher primates and we will argue that ancient China shared the common association of snakes with death and feelings of religious awe. More specifically, snakes were associated with a watery underworld in a three tiered-cosmos of water, earth, and sky. At Erlitou, snakes and snake-bodied creatures have diamond backs and human-shaped eyes. The diamond back and unusual depiction of the nose identify them with the Deinagkistrodon, known in Chinese as the “five or one hundred-step snake” because of the potency of its poison. The alternative is a banded-back (represented as a shield pattern) and round eyes. These two types of bodies and eyes remain conventional for snake and dragon motifs through the Yinxu period. In the transitional period between the Erligang and Yinxu (ca. 1350-1250 B.C.E.), some snake-bodied creatures with animal-like heads acquire bird-legs. This addition is probably related to the myth of suns that fly across the sky as birds in the day and traverse the underworld as dragons at night.  [Go to the full record in the library's catalogue]

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