Saturday, February 13, 2016

Eric Hoffer and dragons and devils

Eric Hoffer has a unique perspective on the interrelationships among devils, dragons, and humans.  At least, it is unique as far as I'm concerned.  I hadn't really read or heard anything like the inter-workings of the three as described by Hoffer.


"Man made God in his own image.  In whose image did he make the devil?  The devil with hoofs, tail, and horns is obviously a beast masquerading as a man.  Does he, then, personify nature?  Is there a confrontation--God and man on one side, the devil and nature on the other?

It is significant that where men live in awe of nature and see it as inexorable and inscrutable fate, nature is personified not in a devil but in a dragon.  The dragon is a composite of the fearsome strengths and uncanny faculties of the animal world.  Any piecing-together  of parts of various animals result in something like a dragon.  Vasari tells how the young Leonardo da Vinci, wanting to point something that would frighten everybody, brought to his room every sort of living creature he could lay his hands on and set out to paint a composite animal.  "He produced an animal so horrible and fearful that it seemed to  poison the air with its fiery breath.  This he represented coming out of some dark broken rocks, with venom issuing from its jaws, fire from its eyes, and smoke from its nostrils.  A monstrous and horrible thing indeed."  In the course of time the dragon came to embody the menace and mystery of the whole nonhuman cosmos.  "The dragon," says Kakuzo Akakuro, "unfolds himself in the storm clouds, he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpool.  His claws are in the forks of lightning, and his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rainswept pine trees.  His voice is heard in the hurricane."   Since societies awed by nature tend to equate power with nature, they will invest omnipotent individuals--emperors, despots, warriors, sorcerers, etc. -- with the attributes of the dragon.  Thus, unlike the devil, the dragon is a man masquerading as a beast.

The dragon is infinitely more ancient than the devil.  The earliest representation of the dragon is the painting of the sorcerer in the cave of Trois Freres.  This  Late Paleolithic painting presents a sorcerer decked out as a composite animal with horns of a reindeer, the ears, of a wolf, the eyes of an owl, the paws of a bear, and the tail of a horse.

The devil is coetaneous with Jehovah, the God who is not nature but its creator.  It was the feat of the ancient Hebrews that though without an advanced technology they lost their awe of nature, and saw it as man's task to "subdue the earth."  And once man, backed by Jehovah or a potent technology, assumes a cocky attitude toward nature, the devil comes upon the scene and takes the place of the dragon.  The devil personifies not the nature that is around us but the nature  that is within us--the infinitely ferocious and cunning prehuman creature that is still with us, sealed in the subconscious cellars of the psyche.

Outside the Occident, where nature has the upper hand, the dragon is still supreme, but the Occident proper is the domain of the devil.

It is of interest that at his first appearance in the Garden of Eden, before clothes were invented, the devil came undisguised, and contrived the fall of man from a paradisaical existence.  Nowadays the devil is decked out in the latest fashion, and quotes the latest scriptures.

We of the present are vividly aware that the slaying of the dragon is the opening act in a protracted, desperate contest with the devil.  The triumphs of the scientist and the technologist are setting the stage for the psychiatrist and policemen.  We also know that we can cope with the devil only by using the tension between that which is most human and nonhuman in us to stretch souls in a creative effort."
-- Eric Hoffer --
Reflections on the Human Condition

Any thoughts?


  1. Demons and devils are fascinating tropes; humans have certainly concocted some bizarre ways of coping with the paradoxes of existence. Elaine Pagels wrote _The Origins of Satan_, which I recommend as a supplement to Hoffer et al.

    1. R.T.,

      Thanks for the reference. I remember reading Pagels' book on the Gnostic Gospels and being impressed by the clarity and depth of her commentary.

  2. Off-topic postscript: I've moved all blogging activities to a new address - Beyond Walden Pond.
    I look forward to time-travel to the past, and I also look forward to your visits and comments. All the best from Emerson's, Thoreau's, and Hawthorne's kindred spirit.