Why dragons hoard gold

shallow focus photo of dragon on gray building

I mentioned to my brother the other day how I enjoyed his “What if”-questions. What if you could master kung fu like in The Matrix. Would you do it? That was a fun thought experiment.

I remember a teacher in university sharing with us a formula in which a “+12” component appeared. He made an off-hand remark about how nobody knew where that 12 came from. I spent the next weekend figuring that out. (When we e-mailed years later, he mentioned he had saved that PDF I sent him because he thought it worthwhile.) It was a very satisfying exercise.

shallow focus photo of dragon on gray building

Last week, I heard another open question that set my mind whirring off in all sorts of directions. This time it was a question posed by Jordan Peterson in one of his lectures on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. He talked about the story of St George and the dragon and mentioned how he hadn’t figured out yet why dragons hoard gold. It was a lecture from 2017, so maybe by now he has a theory. I’d be very interested to hear what this theory would be.

On Quora someone replied to the question “Why do dragons hoard gold?” with 20 different and fun possibilities. One of the theories works off the observation that dragons seem way too heavy to be able to fly. This theory asserts that dragons are able to transfer a portion of their gravitic mass to any gold they rest upon, making them lighter so that they can actually take to the air. The answers in that Quora question are mostly of the fairy-tale, high-magic variety. These theories take a magical world and creatively add a twist.

“Listen, this isn’t my treasure. I don’t want this stuff. I’m just… holding it, see. For some leprechauns, while their rainbows get fixed. Truth be told, I’d love to get rid of it if I could, but you’ve got to talk to those guys.”

I’d like to take a step back and look at what the dragon and the gold might signify. Stories that are retold over and over again, have something to them that makes them resonate with people. The question of why dragons hoard gold got me thinking and I have some ideas of my own I’d like to write down.

First, let’s start with the story of St George and the dragon. I must admit, I had not read this story. In fact, I still haven’t. I watched a few YouTube videos that told the tale. These retellings differed somewhat, but well, most stories are told and retold in different ways. Rather than focus on the differences, let’s look at the similarities.

St George and the dragon

The core tale of St George and the dragon seems to be something like this.

  • Dragon lives in cave or dirty lake.
  • Dragon eats sheep.
  • When the sheep don’t satisfy its hunger (or maybe it ran out of sheep) it switches to a human diet.
  • Somehow, it got to a point where the villagers decided to instate a lottery to keep things fair. Once a week, they draw a lot and it’s not just the poor, the sick or the elderly who get sacrificed; anyone could be this weeks’ lucky winner. Every week, the dragon eats someone.

One day, the local king’s daughter (princess) rolls out of the lottery. In some YouTube tellings of the tale the king then bargains for his daughter’s life but the villagers won’t budge. Fair’s fair they say, she was drawn in the lottery and so into the dragon’s belly she goes. On that exact day, George comes by, decides to fight the dragon to prevent the princess’ sacrifice and defeats the dragon. He then asks for the princess’ belt or girdle. They put that around the beast’s neck and the princess guides the dragon back to the village. There, the mob slaughters the beast.

It’s a rather boring story really… George slays the dragon and that’s that.

No mention of hoarding gold, though… Probably a different dragon’s tale that Peterson referred to when he posed the question. Or maybe one of the many images of St George and the Dragon does have the dragon hoarding gold. Either way, the idea of the dragon hoarding gold is a common one. Another common feature is that the dragon captures a woman.

Order and chaos

A recurring theme in Peterson’s lectures is how order is associated with the masculine and that men must defeat the chaos. Also, chaos is associated with the feminine. (Would that be why the dragon in Shrek came to be a girl dragon? The girl dragons are more vicious, another tale by Terry Pratchett tells us.) Anyway, Peterson asserts that the dragon represents chaos and that it is man’s (men’s) task to restore order by defeating the chaos. He also states that God created order from chaos. And yet, this way of looking at dragons must be incomplete. If it were complete, it would explain why dragons hoard gold.

gold and silver round frame magnifying glass

I have an idea about that. St George’s tale is the masculine perspective. Chaos, the dragon, must be defeated, and it’s the man who comes in to save the day. There’s a parallel to be drawn here. Because if you say that order is masculine and chaos is feminine, there is an imbalance in St George’s story. You’ve got George, dragon, princess. In other words: order, chaos, chaos. You could say, yes, that’s the whole point, there’s too much chaos. Is that the whole truth though? There’s also a village. That instated a lottery. A weird (sick) form of order.

There is another common trope when it comes to dragons and that’s in conjunction with the princess: the girl in the tower. This is the imagery that helped me come to another perspective. From the point of view of the princess in the tower, what’s going on? I mean, think about it. Let’s assume a dragon doesn’t have much use for a human. Either eat it or… I don’t know, trade it? Why would the dragon keep a princess in a tower? It’s an animal for crying out loud. Keeping a princess in a tower is very un-animal-like behavior. (Also, who does all the cooking and cleaning? The princess herself? Most stories are very unsatisfactory in that regard.) From the princess’ perspective, what’s her most pressing issue? Why do they grow such unkempt long hair? Why do they throw the hair down the tower for a hero to climb or why do they tie the bedsheets together? That’s right: She’s trapped. Her biggest issue is not chaos. It’s suffocating oprression. The extreme end of order.

My theory is this: The dragon is not necessarily only a representation of chaos. The dragon is representation of chaos or order, or both, gone rotten.

You’ve seen those villagers. Yes, they’ve got a chaos issue. But their order stinks too. I think anyone who grew up in a chaotic family knows that such a family has a crippled form of order. It’s not just chaos that gets dialed up. In a frantic attempt to get things under control, order is whacked with a wrench. How do you solve chaos? Increase order!!! Except, that’s not how it works. What results is a majorly crippled form of order. It’s not just chaos that goes nuts. Father always comes home drunk and beats his kids. But dinner is exactly at 6. And even father runs home to make that time. The worst kind of chaos is one where there is some semblance of order but where that order is unrelated to the issue at hand. The family is unable to make father stop drinking. So, in a frantic attempt to restore some balance, you get a curfew or other strange rituals. The actual source of chaos is not addressed. In fact, even if father stops drinking, the actual underlying problems still need addressing or you end up with a dry drunk.

St George comes in and observes a village that, in dealing with a dragon eating people, has instated a lottery to keep things fair….. The king only protested the lottery when his own daughter came out as the next sacrifice. What a twisted situation. St George slays the dragon. The tale is very boring when it comes to slaying the dragon, it’s one swoop with a sword and the beast is done for. In fact, anyone could have done it, if you ask me, based on how the beast goes down with one fell. The actual slaying of the dragon seems to me to be of only minor importance. Or perhaps it shows that indeed anyone could have done it, all you needed was a sword or spear. The lesson of the tale, I think, is to show us that to solve an issue, you actually have to confront it. Not instate rules that are a workaround at best. To protest when it’s your turn, like the king does on behalf of his daughter, illustrates how the rules of the lottery gave a false sense of safety: Someone else will solve this. But nobody did and the rules weren’t a solution at all. Some villagers do not protest at all, like the daughter/princess herself apparently. She has also bought into the absurd notion that the lottery and your own sacrifice really is for the best. No. No, no, no. You fight the dragon. St George shows the princess and the entire village what the course of action is: You address the original problem.

In the story of St George, you have: dragon, villagers, George and princess. Which translates to: crippled chaos, crippled order, balanced order, balanced chaos. The princess and George both embody the restoration of chaos and order to their rightful positions. This is why the princess also plays a role in this tale. The point isn’t that George only acted because a princess was about to be sacrificed. He would have restored balance even if it were a poor person. But for the balance of the story and its significance, it is the princess who has to lead the dragon back to the village with her girdle: It’s the embodiment of healthy chaos leading the embodiment of sick chaos back and showing that chaos is now back in line. And as a result, the villagers can abandon the lottery and their sick form of order is abolished.

So where does the gold come in?

gray top

The dragon is a pivot. The presence of the dragon signals that order and chaos are out of whack. In most stories, the dragon also embodies sick chaos itself, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The dragon could also have an order restoring quality, for example by eating the bad guy at the end (Shrek again). The presence of the dragon is a signal: Something is out of whack.

Where men have to fight the sick chaos to restore healthy order, women have to fight the sick order to restore healthy chaos. Chaos has a very negative association. But you need both order and chaos. Perhaps entropy is a better word, because chaos has come to mean the same as destruction. If you’ve ever been in a situation where your every move was constricted, you’ll know that order isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You need some freedom, some creativity, some goofiness. The best rules are those that provide structure without being oppressive. If something happens that doesn’t fit the rules, you need to be able to deviate. That’s where healthy chaos comes in. This is why chick flicks are often about the woman breaking free. Breaking free of what other people thought of them, or from what they thought they were supposed to do. Breaking free from oppressive order, bringing some healthy chaos back into the system to balance things out.

In a story where there are no villagers, the dragon is not only the pivot, but must also embody both the crippled chaos and the crippled order. Poor thing. This is what makes the dragon collect and obsessively protect its gold. The dragon doesn’t even have a use for it, but it’s doing so because it embodies sick chaos and something has to balance sick chaos. That’s either a restoration of chaos to its rightful place (which occurs at the end of the tale), or sick order pops up for a while to keep things, if not in balance, then at least somehow predictable. If there is nothing else in the tale to embody sick order, no villagers or anal retentive badger, the dragon gets to embody sick order too. In the form of a castle where it traps the princess or, if it is fresh out of castles, in the form of obsessively hoarding gold.

I think that, boys and girls, is how you get a neurotic dragon…

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