Sea crocodiles from the Philippines
The crocodile has long been an object of human fear and veneration. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the crocodile, for example.
The dragon of China may have originated from ancient crocodile worship. An early Shang image of a dragon has many crocodile-like features. Richard Irving of the University of Hong Kong thinks that crocodile worship came to South China from Southeast Asia, where such beliefs are widespread.
From there, during the Neolithic period, crocodile worship moved into northern China where it merged with local beliefs. Irving studied dragon boat heads in various parts of southern China and found many crocodile features such as the long snout, protruding teeth, nostrils and eyes on the top of the head. After time, the crocodile contributed to the composite dragon image which included other features such as hawk claws and deer horns.
Crocodile worship from Southeast Asia tends to focus on the saltwater crocodile and it is worth noting that the dragon of China is strongly aquatic in character. The dragon, for instance, is said to rest coiled at the bottom of the sea. The four Dragon Kings (??; pinyin: Lóng Wáng) of Chinese mythology are portrayed as regents of the sea with special powers to create rain and storms. When angered they often brought about devastating floods.
In the early Philippines, crocodile worship was widely described by Spanish colonizers. The people left offerings to crocodiles on the banks of rivers and indigenous priests were quite fond of tamed crocodiles which they raised. The two great oaths by which the people in this region swore were "May the Sun cleave me in two, if..." and "May the crocodile devour me, if..."
If a crocodile devoured someone who had not made an oath though, it was often seen as a sign that the person's soul directly entered the highest heaven.
Diego Bergano records that into the late 18th century offerings were still made to crocodiles by the river communities of Pampanga. Father Zuniga describes early Pampangan settlements "along the river bank inhabited by a far greater and denser population than the region around Manila Bay and its environs in Central Luzon, Bulacan and Bataan."
In the Pampangan town of Apalit, named after a great sacred narra (Pterocarpus indicus) tree that resided there, offerings along the river continued even after the crocodile had disappeared in the 20th century. These sacrifices of chickens, ducks, goats and pigs were made to Apung Iru the adopted name of St. Peter during the Bayung Danum (New Water) festival.
Originally Apung Iru was the name of a great cosmic crocodile. The theory that Apung Iru is a pet name for St. Peter does not hold water. First it's highly unlikely the Kapampangan converts known for their reverential faith would use anything but the saint's regular name in the vernacular, Pedru.
Iru although easier to pronounce is not even shorter than Pedru with both consisting of two syllables. Iru is more likely derived from ilug the Kapampangan word for river. Examples of similar transformations in which the liquid "r" becomes "l" when coupled with a final or penultimate stop still exist in the language. Some examples are:
dulut -- offering, gift
duru -- dowry
dumalaga - young chicken
dumara -- wild duck
dilig -- to water
dulung - go into the water
dura -- saliva, spit
dalaga -- young woman, virgin
dara -- aunt, stepmother
bulug -- flavor a dish
buluk -- rotten smell
buru -- condiment made of fermented rice and fish
balut -- wrap
baru -- clothing
bulag -- blind
bura -- erase
kulul -- color
kuru-kuru -- opinion
Apung Iru means then Lord River or Lord of the River. The origin of the Apung Iru water festival like water processions all over Southeast Asia is connected with local indigenous royalty. Similar royal aquatic parades are found in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. In Java, a royal water procession takes place along the seashore in honor of the goddess of the South Seas. The title of Apung Iru, linking the sovereign, with the great underworld cosmic crocodile, was, after Christianization, transferred by the residents of Apalit to St. Peter, the captain of the Roman church.
In Eden in the East, Stephen Oppenheimer notes that the dragon found in numerous mythologies was very frequently linked with sea, or secondarily aquatic, flooding.
In the Old Testament, we hear the tales of the great dragons Leviathan and Rahab, who are compared to crocodiles that live in the sea.
On that day the Lord will punish
With his sword, that is hard great and strong,
Leviathan, the fleeing serpent,
And he will slay the crocodile (tannin) that is in the sea.
Thou didst divide the sea by thy power;
Thou didst crush the heads of the crocodiles (tanninim) by the waters.
Thou didst shatter the head of Leviathan...
Oppenheimer notes however that saltwater crocodiles did not exist in any ocean regions around ancient Israel. He believes the ideas of sea crocodiles and dragons may be associated with the great sea floods of Sundaland that brought with them increased dangers from marine crocodiles. Because of the great danger posed by these reptiles to villagers with rising sea levels, they became the personification of catastrophic flooding. Saltwater crocodiles (C. palustris and C. porusus) range from India throughout Southeast Asia to the western Pacific sometimes spotted as far as Fiji.
Dragons also sometimes find favorable image in Near Eastern myth. While the Babylonian Tiamat, a dragon associated with salt water, symbolized negative forces, Apsu, the dragon of the underground sweet waters was altogether favorable.
The Sumerian goddess Nammu the first being and known as "the mother who gave birth to heaven and earth" is also portrayed as a great dragon.
A report of crocodile worship still practiced among Muslims in the southern Philippines
The crocodile contributes to the idea of a composite creature also in India. The mythological creature known as makara appears originally to have been a crocodile or crocodile-like creature.
In modern vernaculars, the words for crocodile are often derived from makara like magar in Hindi. According to art historian, Ananda Coomaraswamy, the earliest images of makara in India had crocodile-like heads.
With time though, the makara became a very composite beast. The long snout of the crocodile apparently became linked with the elephant's trunk. It wasn't long before the makara had such a trunk added to a shortened snout.
The body also became more goat or bovine-like and the monkey eyes were added. The makara though never loses its strong associations with the sea and water.
It may be the crocodile's amphibious nature living both on land and in the water were helpful in developing its hybrid qualities. The makara was grouped with the fishes in Hindu thought and was said to stand out among the fishes as the Ganga stands out among rivers i.e., it held the highest place in the group hierarchy.
Paul Kekai Manansala