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Here Be Dragons



I have always liked dragons. It delights me to see ancient maps with fanciful creatures swimming in their oceans with the warning “Here Be Dragons.”  I take them as good omens. Protectors on my ventures near and far. Reminders that over the edge of any charted territory (internal or external) are wildly wonderful unknowns. 

 

As a child, the stories of dragon slayers seemed somehow to be incomplete and skewed. Even then I could see that the dragons were provoked into defensive reactions that set off a chain of unnecessary warfare. And for some reason, I always referred to dragons as “she.”

 

Now I understand the hidden message ~ amazed that my childhood self understood this at some unwordable level. Dragons and snakes, you see, were ancient symbols for the Goddess. Dragon slaying was a metaphor about the absolute control that the patriarchy wanted (still wants) to wield. Especially over women. Especially over those whose ethnicity is different or whose lifestyles don’t match what the ruling party deems appropriate. 

 

No wonder she fought! No wonder she roared! 

 

The dragon was simply protecting her own traditions. Not evil. Not wrong. She was guardian of her beliefs. Defender of her daughters and sons. Safeguarding the ways of the Goddess.

 

My mother, the inimitable and unintimidated Dot Barkley, was my model of the dragon, though it is only because of a wise and wonderful friend, Connie, that I have understood that. Connie asked me recently why I was drawn to dragons. When I told her I really didn’t know, she replied, “That’s okay Dorothy. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” But I did want to! I just didn’t know the answer.

 

So, I began to meditate on dragons of my present and my past. It came clearly to me: my mother was my dragon inspiration! I must tell you part of her truly amazing story for you to understand why I recognize her as my early motivational dragon. Born Dorothy Lynetta Wallace in 1921 – just one year after women in the U.S. won the right to vote – Mama was so very much ahead of her time. As the only daughter with three brothers, a loving but weary mother, and an alcoholic father there were very Southern Traditional Expectations (capitals mine for emphasis) of the girl. Her father’s death when she was 16 plunged them into deeper poverty. The Great Depression promised her nothing but a life of struggle, but her dream and her determination gave her possibilities that became realities. She DID go to Blue Mountain College for Women. She DID escape the Deep South and she moved to Virginia against the wishes of her brothers. (I have a scathing letter from one brother practically demanding she come home.)

 

After World War II a boyfriend returned home from Europe and wanted her to work to put him through college. Ah, no. She told him politely, but firmly, she had put herself through college with hard penny-scrapping work and she would be happy to stand by him as he put himself through. He broke her heart. But she moved on. She loved him; she believed in herself more.

 

She worked in a wonderful church for about ten years where loving accolades are preserved in letters I also have. Intermittently dating my father, she decided in 1954 that it just wasn’t going anywhere and she had aspirations. So, she went on a date with him to break up and tell him she was moving to Louisville, KY, only to find he was also moving within days of her own move to attend Southern Seminary … in Louisville, KY.

 

Synchronicities of this sort followed my mother. She recognized the abundance in believing in yourself, in believing in life, in believing in God. She taught me well.

 

She taught me “the look.” If you have a mother, especially a Southern Mama, you know that look. My husband, Daniel, calls it my “F… You” look. What??? Sweet me? Looking back, I know that sometimes during my career, in Executive Team meetings where I was for many years the only woman, my male colleagues would become a little…um, boisterously inappropriate. I’d raise an eyebrow just as Mama did. They would sheepishly apologize and become their professional selves again. Are women taught that these days? Mama taught me how to clearly articulate my expectations of behavior with just “the look.” (And yes, I know there are real predators out there who need a different dragon treatment.)

 

My relationship with Mama was much more complex, of course, than these few paragraphs relate. I may post a blog, or better yet, write a book about her. But for now, just know that she taught me dragon wisdom.

 

Dragon wisdom cannot be explained in one word. It is a wisdom of transformation, the kind that turns difficulties into opportunities. It is wisdom that steps bravely into uncharted territories even if you are afraid. Wisdom that holds a gentle fierceness – think breathing fire with a charming smile. And wisdom that loves, always loves.

 

I have two exquisite dragons that were special gifts. In fall 2020 Daniel and I visited my brother in Pasadena and spent a glorious sun-filled day in L.A.’s Chinatown. Those who read this blog might remember that Taoist philosophy has particularly called to me since the 1970s. Daniel discovered a Taoist Temple there in his research, so of course we went! It is a walk up the steep Los Angeles terrain on small residential street. You’d never go there if you didn’t know. That day held a powerful spiritual experience for us as we entered the mostly empty shrine. When we started to leave, Daniel said, “Wait. I need to go back.” When he emerged minutes later, he eagerly said, “We must go back to the market.” There was a shop that he was urged to return to.

 

Our first stop that morning had been to the Chinese stalls that form a vast labyrinth of goods. Vendors had just been setting up when we originally arrived, but now hours later, other shops had opened. Bustle and confusion reigned. Where exactly was that shop? My brother found it – otherwise we might still be there wandering! Daniel set off on a search in the tiny shop that was overflowing with merchandise of all sorts., At first he wouldn’t tell us what he was seeking. After not finding it, he revealed he was looking for a white dragon. There were gold and jade dragons aplenty, but those were not the image that had been revealed to him in the temple.

 

“Well,” I commented, “I didn’t see a white dragon, but I did see etched glass pieces of other Chinese artistry. Maybe there was a dragon amongst those.” We squeezed back through the narrow aisle and there, just waiting to be found, was a White Imperial Dragon etched into a rectangular block of glass. It was precisely what Daniel had been seeking. It still sends a shiver of wonder when I think of the synchronicities that found this dragon. Or, as Daniel says, the dragon found him.

 

The New Moon of February 2024 ushers in the Chinese Year of the Wood Dragon. Christmas 2022 Daniel ordered a wonderful hand-carved Balinese dragon for me, but the company shipped the wrong item. I liked the alternate gift, so we kept it. Unbeknownst to me, he reordered and presented the real dragon to me this Christmas. And now we know why – it was to help us celebrate the abundant strength and good fortune in the ascendant year of this mythical creature.

 

Or is she just a myth? I rather think that the Dragon did exist. Almost every culture around the globe has a dragon as part of its story: Akhekh of Egypt, Fafnir from Scandinavia, Orochi in Japan, the Aztec Quetzalcoatl among others.[1] Especially in Asian civilizations the dragon was benevolent, auspicious even, and almost certainly Divine. Archeologists have found artifacts with depictions of dragons in China from the Neolithic period when the Yellow Emperor, Huandi (2717-2599 BCE) chose the dragon as the totem for his unification of tribes. She was especially allied with water and was thought to control storms, rain for crops, and natural elements of earth

 

As a fusion of creatures (serpent, raptor, lion, even camel) she could fly, connecting earth and heaven as an emblem of the power of the cosmos. Joseph Campbell describes her in The Power of Myth, “The serpent is bound to the earth, the eagle in spiritual flight – isn’t that conflict something we all experience? And then, the two amalgamate, we get a wonderful dragon, a serpent with wings.” [2] She becomes the symbol of our freedom, our ability to transform and change, and our own personal power.

 

Tiamat, the Dragon Goddess was the Mother of the Gods in ancient Babylon. She, like the serpent in the Adam and Eve story, was defeated by the male god, though Tiamat had a more favorable ending than the poor serpent. Tiamat became the physical universe, her ribcage became the arching vault of heaven and earth, her tears became the oceans, rivers, and seas, and her tail transformed into the Milky Way.

 

Merlin Stone in her impressive works on the Goddess notes that the cultures in the Middle East at the time the Hebrew Bible was composed would have understood this imagery. Woe to the woman or man who continued Goddess worship, signified by the serpent. The Biblical story made an enemy of a beautiful creature who is so beneficial to this planet. It also interprets the golden serpent that Moses held up desert and makes sense of that story that I puzzled greatly over as a child. The people were not quite ready to give up their god, who was most probably the Goddess Herself.[3]

 

In the language of myth, dragon blood had power. Killing a dragon allowed the male hero to assimilate that power by tasting its blood. Oh, wait. Isn’t that just as the patriarchy killed the Goddess, relegated her to negative status, and in western culture blamed women and the serpent for all of humanities woes? In a tale written by powerful men, women were made less than. I believe that was certainly not what the Mother/Father Spirit of the Universe intended.

 

It is most interesting that most cultures begin with a Mother creator and with equality for men and women. It was the patriarchal society that intruded on this balance, toppling the world into a new chaos.

 

Now let me clarify. Patriarchy is not a synonym for men or the masculine. Though males do tend to dominate (word choice intentional here) the patriarchal establishment, women inhabit that system, too – sometimes unwittingly and sometimes (to my astonished horror) embracing it in the name of religion. Conversely, many men reject the patriarchy and embrace wholistic philosophies of collaboration. The Patriarchy is an ideology that presupposes male superiority over everything. This is not Truth. Dominion may exist, but I do not believe it was the original order of things. I reject all myths that declare it so. The world, our very existence, needs the powers of both women and men in harmony.

 

So, how does this relate at all to my mother? When I was a small girl she repeatedly told me a story and I believe it is extremely telling that even in her late 80s when dementia was claiming her memory, she would tell this particular story again (and again). When Dot went to Louisville, Kentucky in 1954, she headed a program for nurses at the Baptist Hospital and was responsible for creating and producing an annual report to the Kentucky Baptist Convention. It was a detailed compilation of data and results and hers alone to prepare. She, however, was not allowed to present it at the convention. Only men could speak at the convention, so a man read it. And it made her mad. I mean, Mama was furious over this in the 1960s when I was a girl. And she was still fuming about it fifty years later just before she died.

 

She embodied dragon fierceness over injustices for women.

 

She was never one to kowtow to male systems. At this same Baptist Hospital, her work took her in and out of the women’s dormitories, to various churches, and around the hospital campus for meetings and events as well as office paperwork, correspondence and such. She had to clock in and out. So, in the morning, she would clock in work all day and clock out at closing, although her work often extended into evening hours when the nursing students were out of class. Her male boss objected to this freedom and required that she clock in and out every time she came and went. So, she did. Within a week she had overwhelmed the clock system and the poor secretary who had to process it all and demonstrated that she worked far more than the 40 hours required. Quickly she was told to clock in and out once a day as before. She just smiled. And told me the story many times with a glint in her eye that I can still see – and feel.

 

If women had been allowed to preach, she would have become a preacher. And oh how “not allowed” burned as a challenge anytime it confronted her dreams. Feisty, determined, smart, and so pretty, mama was also a talented and trained musician. She was not afraid to be her own person when the situation called for it.

 

In China there is an expression for someone like my mother who is successful in any life venture: “‘fish jump over the Dragon Gate’…According to Chinese mythology, the Dragon’s Gate is located at the top of a waterfall cascading from a legendary mountain. Carp swim upstream against the current, but only a few make the final leap over the waterfall. It is said that if a carp successfully makes the jump, it is transformed into a dragon. The image of a carp jumping over the Dragon’s Gate is an old and enduring Chinese cultural symbol for courage, perseverance and accomplishment.” [4]

 

We need to learn - for we never have - that being different is noble and good. That evil, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. That the enemy isn't them, it is ourselves. And that dragons are not something to be afraid of. Dragons are fearsomely beautiful mentors sent to inspire us to dream deeper and go farther. She teaches that we, too, can jump over the Dragon’s Gate and become a dragon.

 

Oh yes. I have always liked dragons.



[1] The Book of Mythical Beasts & Magical Creatures, Stephen Krensky

[2][2][2] The Power of Myth, quoted from Enchanted, ed. Jesse Kowalski

[3] Credit to Sue Monk Kidd for the beautiful name, “The Goddess Herself.” I love this!


I recommend three books particularly that tell stories of women from ancient days that were almost lost, stories that reflect how the Goddess was wronged in history. Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd, When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone (out of print, but still findable occasionally), and Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Here Be Dragons has also been informed by The Power of Myth and ­­Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine by Joseph Campbell; The Book of Mythical Beasts & Magical Creatures by Stephen Krensky; Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration, editor Jesse Kowalski; The White Goddess by Robert Graves; the Bible. And the following websites:  Britannica.com, traditionalkyoto.com, pressbooks.pub, royalmint.com, and historyskill.com.

 




All photos original by Dorothy Barkley Bryson. 

 

TO CONNNECT. I would love to hear from you and learn how this piece (or any of my other writings here) resonate with you and your journey to finding your own deepest self, your own Real. While these writings are about my path, my hope is that they shine light for yours. You can email me directly at barkleybryson41@gmail.com or you can also simply subscribe via the home page of this website. May peace and happiness be yours, always.

 

 



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