How to Train a Dragon in Indiana

From “Nine Dragons” (jiǔlóngtú; 九龙图) by Chen Rong, 1244, located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Dragons are my favorite supernatural creatures. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that I found a way to research them as part of my new job working for the University Archives. As part of IU’s 2018 Themester, which focused on the relationship between human and non-human animals, I started researching animal folklore in the IU Folklore Institute student papers, and quickly ran into Henry Gaidoz’s massive collection (GR55.G35 H46) in the related IU Libraries’ Folklore Collection. This French folklorist and mythologist collected texts about everything from Zoroastrianism to cannibalism, including an entire box of writings on dragons. At the bottom of that box, I found Marinus Willem de Visser’s 1913 missive The Dragon in China and Japan (Box 24, Item 568). This book contains hundreds of pages of descriptions of Chinese and Japanese dragon beliefs and traditions, including instructions on how to summon a dragon to make it rain.

M.W. de Visser, like Gaidoz, had a range of interests. He was a Dutch scholar who studied Chinese and Japanese folklore, but his works have become particularly well known in the field of cryptozoology, the study of supernatural creatures. In The Dragon in China and Japan, he chronicles the ways that dragon beliefs and rituals moved between India, China, and Japan, drawing along the way from Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. His book begins by describing beliefs that came from India, then moves into the way those ideas were absorbed into existing traditions in China and Japan. As I read, I realized what a vital role dragons play in eastern Asian traditions, particularly as water gods capable of starting and stopping rain.

Much of the western literature I had previously encountered depicted dragons as embodied metaphors for the human qualities of greed, violence, and wisdom. In China, however, dragons have been worshiped as deities, used as symbols of national identity and political authority, and are still seen today as figures with the potential to bless a community with rain or stop a flood. I was interested in these practices because of my love for all things dragon-related, but also because my home state of Utah was at the time suffering from drought and a series of terrible fires. I decided to combine some of the things I learned from Visser’s text with my own traditions and ask a dragon to bring rain to my home town.

Title page for M.W. De Visser’s The Dragon in China and Japan, Henry Gaidoz Collection, Box 24, Item 568

Chinese and Japanese beliefs in dragons are complicated and emergent, and they are not my area of study. However, based on Visser’s work as well as other texts, I identified what seemed to be some key aspects of these traditions. Ancient Chinese beliefs about dragons describe them as “enormous light-giving mountain gods” who helped create life and have power over the weather as well as other aspects of the environment (62). These long-standing beliefs combined with Buddhist and Hindu influences to form contemporary dragon worship practices, including the widespread belief in Dragon Kings. Dragon or Serpent Kings are local gods that live in specific lakes or rivers and can be petitioned to create or stop rain. Many are depicted as having bodies that are part serpent and part human.

“The Dragon King of the Four Seas” 1801-1850, located in the British Museum.

It is difficult to delineate how and where specific parts of dragon worship in China originated, but Visser outlines several examples of asking dragons for rain that come from Taoist and Buddhist traditions. In general, there are two types of strategies for communicating with dragons, both of which rely on knowing what the dragon either likes or dislikes. The first is performing a ritual to ask the dragon for help, which involves praying, providing offerings, and reciting sutras or sacred texts. These rituals often include images of specific dragons and items that are the color blue (the color of one of the most important dragons), and are done while facing the direction of the particular dragon you are trying to summon (often east) (30-32). The second strategy is to agitate the dragon to cause it to move, which can involve pulling small statues of the dragon in and out of the water, making loud noises near the shoreline, or throwing items the dragon dislikes (often iron and the Wang plant) into the river or lake (69).

My version of summoning the dragon was based on the two types of rituals described in Visser. First, I read about the Great Cloud Circle (or Wheel) rite. This Buddhist petition must be performed in an open space, under a blue canopy and a blue banner and on a blue seat facing east. There are additional instructions for who can perform the ritual and what they must be wearing, as well as the offerings that should accompany the performance. In this ritual a religious official or influential lay person recites the sutra or dharani of the Great Cloud Circle for one to two days while others play music and sing for the dragon. Then they burn offerings, including a paper figure with a message in his hand asking for rain. The act of burning this figure is supposed to allow him to take his message to heaven (32).

The second strategy I drew from is a practice associated with the dragon boat festival (such as this one in Washington D.C.), an annual celebration in which people race dragon boats and place dumplings wrapped in leaves and tied with five-colored thread in the water. There are many different versions of the story behind this festival –one of the most common is that it commemorates the poet K’uh Yen, a loyal man accused of treason who committed suicide, and the race of the villagers to save his body from being eaten by placing other food in the water. However, Visser and other scholars suggest that this celebration comes in part from an earlier festival which may have been intended to worship dragons. Visser suggests the act of racing symbolic representations of dragons and placing food wrapped in leaves of a plant that dragons would not like in the water were intended to make the dragons race or fight each other, causing a rainstorm (68).

After reading about these and other ways to communicate I wanted to respect these traditions but also perform my own ritual in a way that was personally meaningful, so I combined these ideas with what I had on hand. Part of the problem was that I was not asking for rain where I currently was–Indiana had plenty of water–so I spoke to Tam Iverson, a graduate student at the University of Tartu, Estonia, who is familiar with beliefs about rain summoning in many cultures. He suggested that I use a fulcrum, or something that emotionally connected me to the place where I was asking for it to rain. I knew my Dad was coming into town that weekend, so I waited for him to arrive and planned that we would figure out the materials and fulcrum together. Coincidentally, the day we planned was also the day of the fall equinox, which according to Visser begins the period in which dragons begin a period of hibernation (66).

Photo by Jessie Riddle

That weekend, we picked a stream near my house and I found a blue scarf given to me by my grandmother to act as a “blue banner.” My Dad and I wrote messages on pieces of paper and brought matches to burn them. I didn’t have dumplings or the specific leaves mentioned by Visser, so I wrapped a cookie in the leaves I found near the stream and tied it together with five colors of thread. We brought a blue umbrella as the blue canopy, and as the fulcrum and a text to read, I brought a childhood story book with a blue cover. I read the book out loud, we placed the cookie wrapped in leaves and thread in the water, and then burned our messages. It was raining while we did this in Indiana, but the forecast for Utah was no rain for the next week.

The next day my Dad flew home to Utah, and sent me this video, which includes the sounds of light rainfall in Provo, Utah:

I have no idea if we summoned a dragon, and if that was possible whether that dragon would listen to anything we had to say. But I learned about beliefs I would never have otherwise, and I felt strongly the importance of having personal rituals that allow you to communicate with the world around you. Also, I don’t know that it didn’t work. So thanks, dragon.

Hoosier Monsters and Where to Find Them

Click on image for interactive map

Ever wondered where to find a monster? From the 1960’s to the 1980’s students taking folklore courses at Indiana University conducted interviews around the state about topics that included local supernatural creatures. Those essays are now part of the Folklore Collection at the University Archives. To celebrate Halloween and the IU Themester on animals, I’ve selected six Hoosier Monsters for your reading and viewing terror.

Portraits of our friendly neighborhood spooks were created by fellow folklore grad student (and monster enthusiast) Ben Bridges.

“Older scouts would take some of the tenderfoots [first year scouts] out looking for the Gullywompus at the far end of camp. Older scouts would break up in groups leaving a group of tenderfoots out by themselves without a flashlight. Older scouts would then circle the tenderfoots running through the brush making wild animal sounds. This would scare the tenderfoots causing some to cry, this is when the older scouts would stop and reassure them that everything is all right and that it is just a legend.”

At Camp Louis Ernst in DuPont, Indiana, Boy Scouts in the 1960’s and 70’s would take younger scouts out into the edge of camp to look for a creature called the Gullywompus. According to an IU student’s 1977 interview with a former camper who experienced this in 1963, the Gullywompus was “a large hairy creature that will get you if you don’t watch out.” The scouts said that it had lived in the camp since the 1920s, appeared on moonlit winter nights, and had flashing red eyes in the middle of its head. They also said it would tear up trees, throw boulders, make moaning noises, and grab and shake unwary hikers.  The practice of tricking younger scouts is akin to “Snipe Hunting,” an initiation ritual practiced at summer camps across the United States.

Item number: 77/162

“..a man…was driving home one night (on Cable Line) and he saw something and it scared him, and he hit something and flew out of his car hit a tree with his body and it left the impression of his face and body in the tree, so now that whenever you drive by this tree, on the corner of 26 and 11, you can see his body in the tree. The thing that he saw was the Cable Line monster.”

In Elkhart, Indiana, there are many legends about a specific tree on Cable Line Road. The story above was shared with an IU student in 1978 by a 19-year old former resident of Cable Line Road. The “Cable Line Monster,” depending on who you ask, either caused the fatal accident or stole the body of the victim. Elkhart residents say that the monster lives near the tree, and if you drive past the scene of the accident your car will rattle and shake.

Who is said to have died in the crash varies, as does the reason for the accident – some people say it was a young couple coming home from a date and the boy fell asleep at the wheel, others that it was a motorcyclist going too fast in the rain, and still others that it was a father and his young son who were distracted by the monster. Whoever it was that met their end, it is said their spirit sometimes appears around the tree, and that if you shine your headlights on the tree at night you can clearly see the imprint of their face and body. People who live near Cable Line Road report strange happenings at night, including lights flickering on and off and phone calls with no one on the other end. The Cable Line Monster itself is the subject of much disagreement: it is usually said to have caused the accident, but it has been described by different people as a troll, a hairy bear-like animal with glowing eyes, a swamp monster, or an alien.

Item numbers: 77/145, 78/067 (story from this one), 78/102, 78/103

“Well, son, I never actually saw the thing myself. But I heard it scream. Sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Kind o’ like a woman screaming; And later when I went out fer water I seen where it had been, out at the pond drinking, left big prints in the mud.”

In Petersburg, Indiana, it was said for many years that the “strip pits,” strip mining sites near town, were inhabited by a strange creature. The figure was half-man, half-ape, twelve feet tall, and left foot prints twice the size of a man’s shoe. It had glowing eyes, and dogs would bark when the creature was nearby. The description above comes from a 93-year old Petersburg resident who shared his story with an IU student in 1973. The reports of the creature’s color varied, leading the IU student who recorded people’s stories to suggest that there might be multiple creatures who have lived in the area over the years. According to people in town, the creature would appear one day every four weeks in the late summer and early fall of every other year. The student researcher also suggested the possibility that during its two-year absences the creature was either hibernating or wandering the country under other names like “Bigfoot” and “Windago.”

Item number: 73/040

“In my mind, Oscar is the ninth wonder of the world; the Lock Ness Monster being the eighth. In a way I’m glad Oscar was never captured, if in fact he does, or did exist. People shouldn’t take his freedom away from him just because he’s unique . . . Who knows . . . Oscar just may decide to show his face some day.” – IU Student in 1973 on researching Beast of Busco

In Churubusco, Indiana, in the spring of 1949, Gale Harris saw a giant turtle that was “the size of large dinner table” in Fulk pond on his farm. The pond was named after its previous owner Oscar Fulk, so the turtle was given the name Oscar. After Harris’s first turtle sighting he began trying to capture Oscar, drawing curious onlookers from across the state. Gale’s efforts, however, were plagued by bad luck: he attempted to drain the lake, but got appendicitis and could not continue. Then he and other turtle tourists rented a diving suit, but their plans were foiled when the helmet leaked.

While someone using a “water weasel” claimed to see what looked like the turtle moving under the ice when the lake was frozen over, no official sighting besides Harris’s was documented. That did not stop Oscar’s popularity, though – hundreds and then thousands of people traveled to the farm, hoping to glimpse the giant reptile. Some reports suggest the Cincinatti Zoo asked to take Oscar if they could locate him, although the Zoo now denies this. Even the Indiana Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals got involved, stating that Oscar “should not be harpooned.” Eventually Harris spent so much money and time trying to find this mysterious turtle that he lost his farm. His search, though, made news across the state and country. Although Oscar was never found, Churubusco instituted an annual celebration called Turtle Day and has re-named itself “Turtle Town, USA.”

Item numbers: 73/004, 74/240

“One day this fisherman came in from fishing and he was soaking wet. People asked him, ‘what happened, how come you are all wet?’ He said, ‘A great big monster came out of the water and tipped my boat over and I went flying out into the water. I had to swim all the way here with the monster chasing me.’ All the people just laughed and said, “Oh sure,” and took it off like he was drunk. Well as days, months and years passed other people fishermen said they had been turned over and people along the shore said that they had seen this big monster out in the lake. Pretty soon they start believing it. So people went out to see if they could look at it, and search parties went out, but they couldn’t find anything. Then in about 1952 this one fisherman, boy he was lucky, he caught this big ten foot two-hundred pound Bass. Well after that no one else ever saw that monster. People went out in search parties but never saw the monster. So they think that the monster is that big Bass.”

Lake Manitou is a man-made reservoir near Rochester, Indiana, created in 1828 as part of a treaty between the U.S. government and the Potawatomi Tribe. The tribe called it Lake Manitou, or “devil’s lake,” supposedly because they believed a monster lived in it. An IU student recorded the story above from a Manitou local in 1978, and suggested in his analysis that the legend was intended to explain the many disappearances in the lake. According to that report the stories continued at least into the 1950s, but other sources suggest that the sightings occurred mostly in the 19th century, particularly around 1838 when the Potawatomi people were forced to leave their land.

Item Number: 78/117

“…’spose you know ‘bout that big catfish in the river down by the railroad tracks…it’s ‘spose to weigh about 150 pounds…I don’t know…an old coal locomotive went off the bridge down there and years and years ago…and he’s liven in the locomotive.”

In Terre Haute, Indiana, an IU student in 1973 interviewed an elderly plant worker about local folklore related to fishing. He shared with her the story above about a giant catfish living in the wreckage of an old train that had gone off a bridge over the Wabash River. The student who conducted the interview didn’t provide much information beyond the text of the story, but there was a train that fell in the Wabash River in the 1900 Big Four Bridge collapse. Despite later attempts to locate the ruins, part of the train is believed to remain underwater to this day. While the story of the giant catfish in the Wabash doesn’t appear to have become very well known, it is similar to many other stories of large fish appearing in rivers and lakes across the state.

Item Number: 73/128