The Power of Symbols: A Story of Dragons and Phoenixes

Symbolic images are deceptively simple but incredibly powerful, each image containing whole worlds of stories, mythologies, cultural learning, and racial memories.

Several years ago, when I was regularly discussing the idea of writing a book with my dear friend Al Sheehan, the conversation veered to finding an appropriate title for our work in progress. Though my ideas have progressed considerably since those days, the central theme is still intact: the idea that our global society is on a dangerous course of self-destruction, fueled by greed, fear, and a mistaken belief in the superiority of modern humans over anything that existed in the past. Looking for a good way to capture the ideas of greed, fear, and superiority Al and I stumbled on the image of the dragon.

In Western mythology the dragon is an evil creature. It is huge, very often virtually invincible (unless you know its one weak spot), and uses the fire it breathes as a terrible weapon of destruction. Its sole purpose in life seems to be the hoarding of treasures (and occasionally stealing or seducing a virgin, though nobody is quite sure what for), which it will then guard jealously against anyone attempting to steal even a single coin or jewel. And when its anger is roused it does not hesitate to lay waste to entire cities and their surrounding lands, just because it can.


I thought this Western dragon was the perfect symbol for the current economic industrial system dominating most (if not all) of the world today. This system, too, seems obsessed with collecting and hoarding treasures at the expense of anyone daring to cross it. It guards its treasures jealously against anything it perceives as a threat, and doesn’t hesitate to use its superior fire-power to destroy its attackers (real or imagined) along with anyone that had the misfortune to be near. The image of a dragon lying on top of an incredible amount of gold, jewels, and artifacts, surrounded by smoking ruins and a blackened, utterly destroyed landscape as far as the eye can see, is – to me at least – very close to the way modern industrial society is destroying the planet for the sake of creating wealth and treasures it doesn’t even know what to do with.

Once the symbol of the dragon was firmly established, the symbol of its opposite announced itself almost straight away. There is another fire wielding animal in the mythical realm, but this one uses fire not as a weapon, but as a means of regeneration and renewal. The phoenix is, in many traditions, a long-lived, gentle, noble bird that harms no-one, brings good fortune to many, and – when it feels it is reaching the end of its natural life – builds a funeral pyre for itself, commits itself to the fire, and rises out of the ashes fully rejuvenated, ready for another long, peaceful and fruitful life. What better symbol to put against the dragon’s utterly selfish and destructive use of fire than the benign, peaceful, and self-sacrificing phoenix, using fire as a transformative, rather than destructive power?


So, there I was, perfectly happy to have found a nice juxtaposition of two powerful and well-known symbols from Western mythology. And it made an interesting sounding title, too: The Dragon and The Phoenix – evoking, perhaps, a battle between opposing principles, a clash of ideas, or perhaps simply two very different creatures encountering each other. The nice thing about symbols is, of course, that everyone is perfectly free to make up their own mind about their true meaning, based on their personal knowledge of and experience with these symbols in their life.

And then, about a year later, I happened to visit Hong Kong and mainland China. That visit made me remember something I had known but apparently mostly forgotten, that the Chinese, too, have dragons in their mythology, but that, contrary to ours, their dragons are mostly benign, and considered to be powerful protectors of humanity. Intrigued by this different view of the dragons’ nature I began looking for dragon imagery in art stores and antique shops, hoping that maybe I could find a nice image for the cover of the book. It was when browsing through images and carvings of all kinds of mythical creatures I made an unexpected discovery: not only does Chinese mythology have benign dragons, they have an equally benign phoenix, too, and the two are often portrayed as lovers! That’s right, in Chinese mythology the dragon and the phoenix are happily married together, as a symbol for the harmonic balance between the masculine (dragon) and feminine (phoenix) elements of the world. In this imagery they may be juxtaposed, but not as alternatives to each other, or as enemies, but as necessary counterparts, complementary principles that only form a whole when brought together in harmony and balance.


I couldn’t be more happy with this discovery. I always liked the juxtaposition of the destructive dragon to the transformative phoenix, but the way I pictured it, the two were engaged in a battle where only one could win. I was on the side of the phoenix, obviously, since I feel our dragon-mentality is causing more damage than benefit. But the idea that it would have to be either/or, either the dragon or the phoenix rising to the top, did not completely satisfy me. I actually like the Chinese marriage of the dragon and the phoenix a lot better. Instead of a battle, we now have a balancing of complementary forces; a harmonic resolution, instead of a violent conflict. It brings together dark and light, destruction and transformation, East and West, masculine and feminine, …

With the Chinese overtones added to the symbology, I feel the title of the book/blog has become even more appropriate to my quest: to find a positive resolution of the destructive path we are currently on. Which brings me back to the power of symbols: the dragon and the phoenix came to me through my link to Western mythology, and that gave them meaning; by adding the rich tapestry of Eastern mythology the same symbols now reveal even greater depths of wisdom and understanding than I was even aware of. It’s like alchemy: making gold out of ordinary materials. Without destroying the world to do so.