Sunday, October 19, 2008


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday October 19th, 20008

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” --G K Chesterton

All my life, ever since I was a little boy and for as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by maps. I’m not sure how or why I became so fascinated, but I suspect it had something to do with the large, free-standing globe next to my grandfather’s chair in the front room of their modest Seattle bungalow, and the hundreds of National Geographic magazines that were carefully shelved in chronological order behind it. A good map is an amazing thing (and even bad ones have their uses). They can take us anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye. They can take us back in history to show us how other people lived their lives in times before us; or into the future, say, to predict the outcome of an upcoming election. Electronic maps like Mapquest or Google Earth can give us turn-by-turn driving directions to any location in the database, or show us satellite photographs of virtually any location in the world, in what seems like real-time. Maps can even take us to other worlds: to places like Middle Earth, or Treasure Island, or “over the rainbow” to Oz. It’s no wonder that I should have become so fascinated with them when I was younger, and that this fascination has continued now well into middle age.

Yet those of us who love maps most also quickly discover that “the map is not the territory.” And this is particularly true as we begin to map out the course of our own lives. It’s nice to know the geography of where we’ve been, and the road to where we want to go: which turns to take and how long it’s going to take us to get there traveling at a certain speed over a certain distance. But nothing in real life is ever quite that certain. Perhaps you’re familiar with the old saying: if you want to hear God laugh, tell her your plans. If you actually want to get from where you are now to whatever destination you’ve chosen for yourself, you have to fold up the map, put it in your pocket, get up out of your chair and go. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Our maps can guide us; they can even inspire us, and give us hope and confidence. But the map can’t make the journey for us. We can trace the route with our finger, but we have to walk it with our feet.

Of course, my favorite maps of all are still generally of places where “you can’t get there from here.” These maps are often beautifully illuminated, and contain interesting illustrations and legends around the margins: annotations like Terra Incognita and “Here There Be Dragons” -- the unknown territory where mythical, magical creatures dwell, magnificent creatures who challenge us to explore beyond the same limits of the familiar landscape.

I’ve never seen a real dragon, but I’ve certainly read a lot about them, and seen plenty of pictures of dragons from every corner of the globe. There are some who say that dragons are simply a superstition left over from times when human beings weren’t as knowledgeable as we are today. Others say that they are mythological creatures, who represent metaphorically our collective fear of the unknown, that uncharted territory where no one has ever gone before, and unknown dangers may well await us around every turn.

But I sometimes wonder whether Dragons might just be more real than we think -- and that just because they are figments of our imagination doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting...or less dangerous.

There are legends about dragons in just about every human culture and society we know of. Perhaps the earliest is the dragon Tiamat from the Babylonian Creation Epic the Eunuma Elish, who was slain by the culture hero Marduk and then reshaped to form the world we know today. Or from the other side of the world, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and turquoise “fire serpent” Xiuhcoatl of the Aztecs.

A little closer to home (at least culturally), we have the Draca Wyrm (who both slew and was slain by Beowulf), and Fafnir the evil and avaricious dwarf turned dragon through his own acquisitive greed, slain first by Sigurd in the Volsung Saga, and then twice later on by Siegfried in “Das Nibelungenlied” and “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” Not to mention the unnamed dragon slain by Saint George on his way home from the Crusades, and of course many, many others of both legend and literature.

Even Satan makes a cameo appearance as a Great Red Dragon in the book of Revelation, (although there are some who would say that he was also a Dragon in the Garden of Eden, before God took away his legs and made him crawl upon his belly in the dust). And the Chinese have more dragons than they know what to do with: creatures virtually identical in physical appearance to the dragons we know here in the West, but with VERY different personalities.

But if dragons really are just “Make Believe,” how do we explain the cultural ubiquity of dragons in societies which until relatively recent times have had very little knowledge of one another? Why would the Babylonians, the Aztecs, the Chinese and those old Norse Vikings all imagine the same flying, fire-breathing, rapacious snake-like predator, whose razor-sharp claws are capable of slicing through human flesh as if it were so much lunch meat, and whose armor-like scales make them all but impervious to most pre-industrial human weaponry?

There have been lots of theories put forward, including challenges to the premise that dragons are really all that cross-culturally ubiquitous in the first place. But one of the most interesting is a hypothesis suggested by anthropologist David E. Jones in his book An Instinct for Dragons, in which he claims that dragons represent a residual, instinctive fear, hardwired into our limbic system, of the principal predators (namely snakes, hawks, and big cats) who fed upon our distant biological ancestors as we were evolving as a species: a fear which goes back not only to before the start of human history, but before the beginning of “humanity” itself.

Combining the wings and talons of an eagle with the claws and teeth of a leopard and the tail of a python, dragons represent and symbolize our subconscious, non-rational, instinctive fear of becoming someone’s lunch -- as well as the essential feelings of helplessness and powerlessness which accompany that precognitive sense of vulnerability and victimization. Dragons represent and symbolize our visceral fear of a malevolent power which is both beyond our control and can strike us down at any time without warning. And thus (at least here in the West) they have come to represent not only great power and great danger, but also great appetite: greed, avarice, the insatiable desire to acquire and hoard more and more, without any real sense of need or limitation.

Here’s a little more dragon lore. It is natural, at least in our culture, for us to associate dragons with fire; they do, after all, breath the stuff, and thus fire can be seen as a perfect metaphorical manifestation of a dragon’s reckless and indiscriminate power to destroy. But in many other cultures, dragons have generally been more closely associated with water, and with the destructive power of the ocean, and of storms. And when we toss in their ability to fly, and their penchant for gold, and gems, and other precious stones and metals, it becomes clear that dragons actually embody all four of the ancient elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. What makes Dragons dangerous is not so much the source of their power as its completely random unpredictability. Dragons are chaos incarnate. They represent not only our fear of the unknown, but of the unknowable -- those elements of our human experience which can neither be predicted nor controlled.

A little earlier this morning I mentioned that Chinese dragons look an awful lot like their European cousins, but they actually have very different personalities. Chinese dragons still symbolize great wealth and great power. But they embody as well a sense of prosperity, abundance, and good fortune. Chinese Dragons can be vain, but they are also wise -- as well as bold, heroic, noble, energetic, decisive, optimistic and intelligent creatures, whose ambitions and appetites are far more sophisticated than those of their European counterparts. In Chinese folklore Dragons are closely associated with the Imperial House, and those born in the Year of the Dragon are thought to enjoy superior health, wealth, and long life. Chinese dragons are still capable of great destruction. But they prefer to use their powers to protect and bless those who honor and respect them....

Here There Be Dragons....

“He was a dragonlord, they say. And you say you’re one. Tell me, what is a dragonlord?...”

“One whom the dragons will speak with,” he said, “that is a dragonlord, or at least that is the center of the matter. It’s not a trick of mastering the dragons, as most people think. Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count upon his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you’re a dragonlord....”

There will always be unexplored territory around the margins of our lives, where dragons and other imaginary creatures make their homes and frighten us with the threat of the unknown, and ultimately unknowable. The question is not so much whether we will ever master those dangers: Dragons have no masters. The question is whether we can master our own fear of being eaten alive long enough to learn from the wisdom of Dragons, whose avarice and cruelty have made them hunted monsters in the folklore of the West, but whose kindness and generosity have inspired human beings to worship them as deities in the Far East....

Here There Be Dragons....

It helps to have a good map before setting out on any journey. It helps to know your destination, and to be aware of what lies upon your way, and to have a good inventory of the equipment you bring with you. But ultimately, the most important discoveries that await us in our traveling never show up on any map, and it is impossible to prepare for every contingency. So we need to learn how to trust our own inner resources, and to rely upon the help of both neighbors and strangers alike; to find our bearings again when we stray off course, and to read that “inner compass” which keeps us true to our own best selves....

Here There Be Dragons....

Ultimately, the most important place we discover on our journey through life is not a place “out there.” It is rather a place “in here” -- that special place “where our own deep yearning meets the world’s great need,” and our desire for personal achievement, and our ability to be of use, come together in often unexpected and even magical sorts of ways. And then we know, in our heart of hearts, that we have become the kind of people our creator intends for us to be, and that our journey, and our destination, are the same....


[In her novel The Tombs of Atuan, the second in her award-winning “Earthsea” series, fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin tells the story of the Wizard “Sparrowhawk,” the Archmage of Roke, who travels to the island of Atuan in order to steal the lost half of the broken amulet of Erreth-Akbe from the underground labyrinth there. But his powers fail him, and he becomes a prisoner of the Priestess of the Labyrinth, a teenaged girl known only as Arha or “the Eaten One,” who secretly keeps him alive in defiance of her superiors in order to learn more about the world beyond the walls of the temple, which in fact now imprison them both.]

“Who was Erreth-Akbe?” she said, sly.

He looked up at her. He said nothing, but he grinned a little. Then as if on second thoughts he said, “it’s true you would know little of him here. Nothing beyond his coming to the Kargish lands, perhaps. And how much of that tale do you know?”

“That he lost his sorcerer’s staff and his amulet and his power -- like you,” she answered. He escaped from the High Priest and fled into the west, and dragons killed him. But if he’d come here to the Tombs, there had been no need of dragons.”

“True enough,” said her prisoner.

She wanted no more talk of Erreth-Akbe, sensing a danger in the subject. “He was a dragonlord, they say. And you say you’re one. Tell me, what is a dragonlord?”

Her tone was always jeering, his answers direct and plain, as if he took her questions in good faith.

“One whom the dragons will speak with,” he said, “that is a dragonlord, or at least that is the center of the matter. It’s not a trick of mastering the dragons, as most people think. Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count upon his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you’re a dragonlord.”

“Dragons can speak?”

“Surely! In the Eldest Tongue, the language we men learn so hard and use so brokenly, to make our spells of magic and of patterning. No man knows all that language, or a tenth of it. He has not time to learn it. But dragons live a thousand years.... They are worth talking to, as you might guess....”