Legends and myths in oriental rugs

By limiting the subject to the selection of those legends, and those alone, which have found illustration in symbolic design, and have passed from that to pattern with a gradual loss of meaning, we may select some about which there is sufficient authority and evidence to incite us to the study and analysis of forms that have become what they are more naturally than we would at first suspect. Such, for example, are the legends, both sacred and secular, about flowers, trees, birds, animals, colours, etc, which have appealed through the ages to the myth-loving peoples of the Orient.

With acknowledgments where it is possible to secure the permission of compilers and writers, we may gather together, for purposes of comparison, a few of the vast number of myths and stories which have materially influenced the patterns of rug-weaving people. The modern student oftentimes finds it possible to interpret a design which the weavers themselves did not understand, because their work has to them been only an idle copy of a lifeless pattern which to us is evidently an evolved design which once was symbol.

One by one these forms are being traced, and it is wise to insist repeatedly upon the principle we have avowed, of never trying to force meaning into design, but to wait for it to awaken recognition in our intelligence.

By a definite mental process we become equipped, before we are aware, with power to discern the Oriental methods of manifesting thought in art.

Foremost among flower forms the lotus lifts its regal head, supreme from east to west throughout the Orient, where it has furnished motifs for many existing patterns from time immemorial. In order to recognize and appreciate the conventionalised ornament, which is historic, one must be able to distinguish between it and that which is meaningless and unintentional, for the most sacred things of eastern Asia have been lightly handled by the Mohammedan, and things of the utmost importance in Turkey have been falsely construed and copied in China and India.

Thousands of many-handed idols are pictured in Hindu and Buddhist art, which look alike to the casual observer, and yet, after we have learned that attributes are individual possessions, and that it is given to but few saints to carry the lotus in an extended hand, we begin to ask the full significance of the flower.

Seated upon the lotus-flower throne, Buddha and many of the Bodhisattwas calmly smile upon our ignorance, but after a while we discover that no image rests upon the floral base without its right so to do. Of late years art has felt it legitimate and right to question what Theology has felt it best to pass by without comment, and the Light which in its shining has illumined other races than our own seems indeed to surround with a halo of significance much that until within the present century has been considered beyond the limits of orthodox reverence.

Through successive eras the ornament that has evolved from the lotus has been accredited to first one and then another country. As we find it in our modern rugs, it is entirely separated from any evident connection with past thought about it, and still it lies with those who are interested to rescue what little is. accurate from the great mass of speculation regarding it.

There is a vast difference between the art that grows upon a dead idea, and that which feeds upon living thought and belief, and we may learn much for ourselves when it is possible to find that which is still vital, such as we may independently discover in the Buddhist use of the lotus at the present time, and in the attitude of mind of those who place the same dependence upon its significance today as others have done in the past.

Although Buddhist thought originated in India, it is now only possible to trace the forms which it has adopted in places where it is still practised. From these existing sources we learn that there has ever been that about the lotus to lead men to associate it with the beginning of material things. It is represented as springing from the “cauldron of the elements,” and its power to hold its seeds within itself until the new plant has developed sufficiently to burst its bonds, and, as a full fledged flower, to float away from the parent plant, has made it an emblem of immortality.

In form the symbolic nature of the flower has been utilized by more than one primitive religion. The calyx of the lotus is triangular while its base is circular, and such a combination has always been adopted to represent a union of spirit and form, trinity and eternity. Growing, as it does, from impure surroundings, while it preserves its chaste beauty, the lotus has figured as an emblem of purity, and without doubt such significance, though perchance secondary to the student of symbolism, has obtained in great measure in the adoption of the flower in design.

As ornament, we find the Japanese, the Chinese, and the East Indian handling the motifs in different ways, while in the western Orient there prevails even now a form inherited from the ancient Assyrians, and the lotus in Egyptian design is so universal as to admit of distinct and individual treatment.

In ornament which we may readily trace in rugs, we find the lotus handled in both naturalistic and conventional forms. Used naturally, we find it in both circular and profile form,—as simple flower, as emblem, and as sceptre or wand : and in conventionalised ornament, in both circular and profile forms, it figures as flower, wheel, and medallion.

The seed and leaf of the lotus appear less frequently than the flower as single motifs in illustrations of legends and myths, so that with the exception of the seed-form that is given to the pearl for which the dragon seeks we cannot with certainty point to any conventionalised form, other than the flower, as strictly speaking belonging to the lotus. In Indian rugs the broad outline of the lotus leaf is sometimes followed as a structural back-ground for floral ornament that in no wise resembles the actual lotus ; and while it is easy to attribute to the lotus much that looks little like anything, there is so much that is definite that we may resign all that admits of speculation.

Very few of the legends of the lotus which have found illustration in the pictorial designs in rugs have been interpreted and authenticated ; such as have been are generally to be traced to a desire to show the power of immortality that the flower possesses, and in some mythological patterns we find the cypress-tree of Persia and the lotus of India both illustrating the same thought.

The lotus in combination with butterfly and insect forms is sometimes used to tell the story of the Hindu goddess Doorga, who was supposed to have come to earth to avenge the tyranny of the wicked monster kings who craved human sacrifices in the forms of fair maidens.

“As she entered the grove, her divine presence, unrivalled charms, and sweet graces, filled the place with a solemn grandeur. The bees and the butterflies forsook the flowers, and taking her for a blooming lotus, began to hover around her person. The white, fragrant lotus, hitherto the pride of the flowers, seeing itself surpassed in beauty by the goddess, fled with shame to lodge in the water for ever. The delicate graceful neck of the goddess drove the swans away into the ponds, lakes, and rivulets. The pearls, finding their pride sadly broken by the bright teeth of the goddess, hid themselves in shells at the bottom of the ocean, the wild deer ran frantic to see her eyes far superior to its own.”

With numberless such fanciful tales to draw from, the Oriental artist has but to select his wools, erect his loom, stretch his warp, and dream through the days and years, in order to confound us with the combined work of his memory, his fancy, and his fingers.

Few, indeed, of the vast number of myths and legends which are stored away in the folk-lore of all nations can we be supposed to know, and still less can we hope to find in warp and woof that which will authentically illustrate the few we do know ; but such zest as the effort awakens can be comprehended only by those who have found Arabian, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese thought manifested in material form.

To such the Oriental rug appeals with ever-increasing significance, for, in spite of all effort to interpret that which it seems ready to reveal, there is about it a baffling resistance which prevents our complete mastery of it, holding in reserve, as it ever does, that which awaits our future consideration.

The story of ” The Golden Lotus gives us one of the imaginary reasons for always connecting the eight-petalled blossom with Lord Buddha.

” He, the All-Merciful, was wandering in a dreary mountain place when he heard a voice saying, ‘ Shio-giyo mu-jiyo.’ The Lord Shaka was amazed, and wondered who could speak these wonderful words, which, interpreted, mean, The outward manner is not always an index to the natural disposition.’ Looking beneath him, he saw on the precipice below a horrible dragon, which, looking up, uttered the words 1e-shio metsu-fio’ (` All living things are contrary to the law of Buddha.’)

The dragon then clung closely to the base of the rock, and in a loud voice cried : Shio-metsu metsu-i’ (` All living things must die ! ‘) To these remarks Lord Buddha answered, ‘ truly you know the principles that I would teach, tell me how have you learned what it has taken me many years to discover ? ‘ The dragon answered, The last truth I shall teach is far more important than the others, but I am hungry, and I cannot divulge that which I would say until my hunger is appeased.’ On being asked what he would have to satisfy his hunger, the dragon answered, ‘ human flesh alone will satisfy me.’ To this Lord Buddha responded, ‘ Though it is forbidden by my religion to sacrifice human life, it is so important that my people learn these wonderful truths that you can tell me, that I offer myself as victim,—now tell me all you know !’

The monster opened his mouth and uttered the words, (jaku-metsu I-metsu !’ (` The greatest happiness is experienced after the soul has left the body.’) After which, when he had heard the truth, Lord Buddha sprang into the open mouth of the dragon. As he did so the jaws of the monster fell apart and changed into the eight petals of the golden lotus.”

Not only in the religion of Buddha, but in various Oriental beliefs, the lotus is used as an emblem of the appearance of the soul, after death, upon the sea of paradise. The flower is carried in funeral processions, and the story of ” birth in the pure land ” is often pictured in art.

When the self within a man awakens to consciousness, a lotus bud is supposed to appear on the lotus sea, which remains there until, after life has ceased on earth, the soul of the believer finds its way through the stem of the lotus to its own awaiting bud, which will open at the touch of the soul, admitting it to paradise.

” On the moment of entering that peaceful scene, The common material body of men Is exchanged for a body ethereal and bright, That is seen from afar to be glowing with light. Happy they who to that joyful region have gone, In numberless kalpas their time flows on, Around are green woods, and above them clear skies, The sun never scorches, cold winds never rise, And summer and winter are both unknown In the land of the Law and the diamond throne. All errors corrected, all mysteries made clear, Their rest is unbroken by care or by fear, And the truth that before lay in darkness concealed Like a gem without fracture or flaw is revealed.”

” Every man, it is said, has a lotus in his bosom, which will blossom forth if he will call in the assistance of Buddha.”

To be born in the ” pure land ” is the hope of those who desire to rise through successive periods of bondage in the flesh to the highest rank of lotus purity.

The ” paradise ” of Buddha has given more motifs in art than the more strictly orthodox ” Nirvana,” and, as our subject deals with manifestations, we must be able to recognize even the side issues of great subjects, and the sacred birds and flowers of the ” Western Paradise ” figure in Buddhist ornament with numberless objects of gold, silver, and precious stone that make beautiful that mythical land.

It is perhaps unnecessary to say that the mingling of Christian with native teaching, since the Nestorians and Jesuits carried the Gospel story into China, has greatly puzzled the student of ornament. At the same time it increases the interest of his task, and should convince him that the half has not yet been told of all that will some day illumine the pages of history and interpret the art of to-day.

Thibetan Buddhism preserves for us the “lotus prayer,” ” Om mane padme hum,” which, having passed through periods of immense significance pregnant with the most subtle symbolism, has now become an idle sound, repeated as merit, and accepted (let us hope) as worship. ” Om mane padme hum,” the jewel in the lotus.

Huc, in his description of the use of this prayer by the Lamas, tells us that ” the doctrine contained in these marvellous words is immense, and the whole life of man is insufficient to realize its complete breadth and depth.” He also tells us that the Lamas claim that all living beings are divided into six classes, angels, demons, men, quadrupeds, birds, and reptiles ; and these six classes correspond to the six syllables of the mantra. It is by repeating these syllables that men avoid transmigration into the lower animals, and rise up in the scale of being till they are absorbed into the universal soul or the grand and eternal essence of Buddha.

The Indian goddess of mercy, better known to us as ” Kwan Yin,” who, figuring first as a man and then as a woman deity, has come down to art-lovers having the lotus in her hand, is represented seated or standing upon the lotus, and as the guardian of the “propagation vase ” from which the lotus-plant issues, having grown from a seed which has been carefully nurtured.

In China Kwan-Yin is supposed to have power to float on a lotus to and from her throne in the happy isles, and to call upon her for assistance is to bring upon the applicant the greatest of blessings. Kwan-Yin is greatly loved as the ” lady of the lotus,” and she is often pictured as rescuing souls from purgatory by the use of the sacred flower. One of the “Pa-hsien,” or eight Immortals of Taoism, is represented as invariably carrying the lotus flower, which she uses, as does Kwan-Yin, to relieve souls in misery, from distress.

An Indian form of the lotus, which gives us a Hindu notion of the universe, is most easily traced in many of the medallions of central Asia. Wheels are often based on the lotus, and even star forms are found in its magic suggestion.

Great importance has always been attached to mythical monsters and their representation in art. Through Christian teachings the powers of evil have been personified in dragon form, and the stories of saints who have withstood the attacks of the adversary once so thrilled our childish imaginations that when, later in life, we find that the same legends illustrate art, it becomes difficult to dissociate Occidental adaptations from Oriental myths, especially as both have found their way into textile designs, and from Asia Minor, the home of the story of St. George and the Dragon, to the eastern limits of Asia, the dragon advances in importance until in China he reigns supreme, the dragon of dragons.

The imperial dragon of China differs from any other dragon form known in art. Whether painted on pottery, carved in wood or jade, worked in silk, cast in metal, or woven into rugs, there seems to be some underlying reason for the accuracy observed by the craftsman, and evidently some definite idea had possession of the thought of the designer. It is precisely this allegiance to the absolute that makes it possible to find in Mongolian ornament a revelation of thought, and to it may be traced lines and forms adopted by tributary dependencies of the great empire.

The dragon with five claws has for 250 years marked the reign of the Tartars, and is the imperial dragon at the present time. The Emperor is spoken of as having the “great dragon face,” as wearing the ” great dragon robe,” and as sitting on the ” great dragon throne,” his rod the ” dragon’s sceptre,” his voice, ” the dragon’s voice.” Flame motifs dart from the dragon’s body, and fall about through the water and air. Wave and cloud motifs accompany him, and help us to discriminate between water dragons and dragons of the sky, and it is important to note all of these points in the study of mythological designs in rugs.

” This fabulous dragon of China is a monster with scales like a crocodile. He has no wings, and when he rises in the air it is by a power he. is supposed to possess of transforming himself at pleasure. He can make himself little or large, and rise and fall just as he chooses. He sends rain, and is the ruler of the clouds, and of the scaly reptiles the dragon is the chief. In the spring it ascends to the skies, and in the autumn it buries itself in the watery depth. There is the celestial dragon, which guards the mansions of the gods, and supports them, so that they do not fall; the divine dragon, which causes the winds to blow ; the earth dragon, which marks out the courses of rivers and streams ; and the dragon of the hidden treasures, which watches over the wealth concealed from mortals.”

In Japan many of the attributes of the dragon are popularly described in the folk-lore of the people, and those who find difficulty in distinguishing between things Chinese and Japanese should particularly endeavour to avoid deciding too quickly which are which. The story of the ” dragon king under the sea,” and of ” the jewels of the ebbing and flowing tide ” granted as gift to Prince Fire-fade, with the account of ” Benten and her dragon chariot,” are Japanese fairy-tales, though somewhat based on Chinese myths.

So involved does the study of the legendary monster become that life seems hardly long enough to determine the exact story belonging to each of the dragons depicted in Mongolian art. Consider, however, the interest attached to speculation, when we know that not any kind of a dragon is used without thought by the Oriental artist, but a special dragon for a special reason,—the dragon of the clouds, the dragon of the winds, the dragon of the sea,—the great force behind everything, —the dragon force !

The archaic Chinese dragon had the form of a huge lizard : as such we find him in undeveloped ornament, a simple scrollwork in old fret borders. The addition of more clearly defined motifs by modern artists has confirmed the speculative student in his impressions that what is called the “dragon scroll pattern” is really founded upon the archaic dragon form. This Chinese dragon scroll pattern differs from the earliest form of the butterfly and bat ornaments in that the ends turn in different directions.

Dragons are customarily represented as either holding or looking toward a round object, called by some authorities a ball, by others the sun, by still others a pearl. The attitude of the dragon toward this object, for which it seems to reach, is most significant, for while ” all dragons may enjoy the than, or ball, only those who have overcome obstacles and hindrances, and have mounted to the heavens, can posses a chin or pearl.”

The shape of the pearl is easily recognized: it has a slightly pointed top, about which two or three concentric rings are described.

Knowledge is at best but fragmentary about all these matters, and the time has not yet arrived for us to speak fearlessly all that some believe to be signified by the eager search of the dragon for an object in which it so manifestly delights.

The few facts to be gleaned lack any substantial evidence that they may be considered as relating to each other and dependent one upon the other. It seems, however, highly probable that the early ornament means more than is at first supposed. Even those slow to connect the early beliefs of one nation with those of another will see in the chase of the dragon for that which seems to be constantly within his reach, but not in his grasp, the ceaseless desire of the heart to possess something of priceless worth. The most conservative thinkers agree that the chin, or pearl stands for purity, and that the dragon is supposed to reverence and guard something greater than himself—purity and integrity—from the grasp of demons.

The greatest of Chinese emperors, who has been honoured by loyal followers everywhere, in both the past and the present is represented as having the dragon form and holding the pearl, as though in and through him righteousness and purity had been demonstrated.

A vast amount of tradition connects the dragon with the great forces of nature that are revered and feared by the Chinese. The Feng-shui is perhaps the most universal of these superstitions. The great dragon and the powerful white tiger represent the wind and water forces. Nothing is done without reference to these controlling agents, and they are manifested in art with elaborate diagrams by which one can determine how to block the course of evil influences, and open the way for all good things.

The chin, or pearl, is identically the same in form, and doubtless in meaning, as the Hoshino-tames of the Japanese. This same jewel figures in various ways in Japanese art,—as the ” tide-jewel,” and as a charm held by various deities and saints. Many writers have referred to and explained this form, but as yet the facts regarding it have never been strung together so that the student may feel sure that he has authority for his belief.

An independent theory which has long seemed most significant connects the form with that of the dried seed of the lotus, and with the germinating power of that most time-honoured plant. If it were possible to photograph illustrative objects,—porcelains, wood-carvings, embroideries, silks, and weavings of various sorts decorated with the chin, the reasons for arriving at this conclusion would be evident.

One of the Pa-hsien or eight Immortals of China, who holds the lotus blossom as her emblem, is often represented as lifting the flower form as a votive offering at a shrine, and from the flower seems to arise the seed, which is in the exact form of the chin, or pearl. In images of Buddha, seen everywhere in temples and depicted as ornament for household shrines, is the ” jewel,” either held in the hand of him who sits upon the lotus throne, or emanating from the sacred person as attribute. In some cases the heads of Buddhist saints take the form, the hair framing it as the flame that is commonly seen all about the jewel.

The dragon of Japan has but three claws, and, as it has been adopted in both form and meaning from the Chinese, it is not always as true to tradition as his Majesty, Lung, the dragon of China, and he sometimes appears without the jewel, and very often with-out the ball.

In the fanciful way in which the Japanese treat even the most serious thoughts of the older art, they have developed the dragon in ornament so that in minutest detail ” Tats ” has become significant. Their great dragon is supposed to have nine dragon children, who have strong antipathies and fancies. One dragon lovessounds, and is used to decorate bells and musical instruments. Another loves dangerous places and is carved upon roofs, angles, and corners. The dragon who loves to bear weight is used to decorate tables, and is placed in all positions where heavy weight may rest upon him. And so on through the entire dragon family.

It was to the palace of the great dragon King under the sea, that the fisher-boy ” Urashima ” was taken on the wonderful fringed-tail turtle, and as emblem of longevity in far-away Nippon the fabulous tortoise ends the travels which originated in the Hindu legends of birth.

Without end the mythology of the East has materially influenced European art, and in no form of ornament can it be traced more absolutely than in that of the pearl, which as the ” ball and claw ” design, terminated the legs of tables and chairs when admiration of things Oriental was in vogue in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In the rugs of Samarkand and eastern Turkestan we find dragon forms that adhere to Chinese traditions, but there is a perceptible change in the drawing of the monster whenever he appears in Indian or Persian fabrics. In old Ispahan rugs, in which Mongolian features are sometimes combined with strictly Persian ornament, we find the dragon a beast-like creature with elongated body and cumbersome legs, walking about with other animals, which he is subduing or with whom he is fighting.

As one who frequently attacks and destroys the birds who are feeding upon the ” tree of life,” he is pictured in Indian ornamentation of rugs that show both Persian and Chinese influence, though made in India and by Mohammedans, showing how lax the devotees of any religion may become when broken up into sects, who handle original tenets with individual liberty.

Not alone the entire body of the dragon appears in rug designs, but the claw,—the scale,—the flame, and the cloud, furnish motifs that are distinctive and significant.

From the earliest times beads have been used by the devotees of the various religions throughout the world, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and Christians alike. With the impulse born of the human craving for some tangible, outward and visible sign of his inward and spiritual nature, man has attached to the rosary deep significance as a symbol of prayer and devotion, and through the ages has counted his beads reverently in his effort to reach up through the medium of the known to the unknown.

With the ability born of human capacity for suffering, the Pagan and the Christian alike attach significance to that which can be handled to-day in memory of that which was yesterday. Whether to chronicle an event, to register a vow, or to remind one of the great phenomena of nature, beads have well served the end to which they have been dedicated.

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