The Lupine Steppe Dragon Revisited: its Representative Role on the 3rd to the 1st Century B.C.
Pastoral Paraphernalia from Rostov Province to South, Central and Western Siberia
(55th Meeting, 2012)
In the steppe culture, belts emblazoned with large, rectangular plaques of different media were a predominant component of pastoral paraphernalia. These common features of animal combat scenes that belonged to the visual repertoire of many Eurasian pastoral people must have had their roots in a common Indo-Iranian cultural substratum. The importance accorded to the lupine dragon in the life of the pastoral nomads is shown by its frequent depiction on such ornaments that are thought to have served as status indicators and royal regalia of some significance, which may also have served as clan insignia. It was also the most favoured mythical animal of the Xiongnu, often found in a context of rulership.
This paper investigates examples of such belt plaques from Rostov province of south central and western Siberia which are dated between the late third to the first century B.C. The depiction of the same motif over a period of time, across a large geographical region and moreover executed in different media, raises the issue of artistic “directions of
transmission.” Latter was often perceived as a one-way exchange from China to the steppes and beyond, also encompasses the uncertain antecedents of the iconography and iconology of the dragon motif, which is generally considered to originate in China – being the paramount Chinese emblem. It is however tempting to think, as has been suggested by the eminent Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko, that the lupine steppe dragons which appeared for centuries in the art of the steppes might have served as prototypes for the Chinese dragon. Such lupine dragons became part of the artistic repertoire of the Eastern Zhou and thereafter of the Han Period, when the iconography of the dragon was coined in Chinese art, and it was depicted with jutting forehead, elongated muzzle and the upper lip terminating in an inward curled tip. The identity of the huge semi-nomadic confederacies that introduced the lupine dragon into the art traditions of northern China remains unclear. However it has been proposed that its iconography was associated with pastoral tribes who are thought to have had an Indo-European heritage from Central Asia and southern Siberia.
To what extent the distinct iconologies of the depictions were decipherable if considered
apart from their original semantic system is uncertain. There is a possibility that they might have acquired new values imbued with a different ideological significance. However, it would appear quite reasonable to suggest that among the semi-nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes, certain mythological concepts and their artistic expression eventually became part of a shared and mutually understood cultural and intellectual property. The belt plaques distinguished with the lupine dragon speak of a history of interrelations between the pastoral tribes and of a shared, and to a certain extent possibly mutually intelligible, visual language across vast distances and over a substantial period of time.