Introduction to the script

Naxi is one of the 55 official ethnic group of China, depositary of Dongba tradition, result of local shamanistic practices, stratified with Bön pre-buddhist substratum, melted to Buddhist, Indy, Taoist and Confucian elements. Written documents of Dongba tradition and ceremonials are realized on manuscripts, mostly written by pictographic signs, which contains all rituals, precepts and myths.

According to such literature and tradition, all animated and in-animated beings are manifestation and home of supernatural entities who live in equilibrium and coexistence. In  this peculiar vision of universe, the relationship that humans must have with any element of the creation, has to be grounded on veneration and respects of relative supernatural sphere, so man must practices propitiatory rituals before interacting with any element of surrounding setting: digging a hole on the ground, hunting animals, cutting trees, etc…, in this tradition are all activities which have to be propitiated in respect to tutelary spirits.

Dongba priests are the specialists able to perform proper ceremonies suited for each situation, also to restore eventually unbalances of equilibrium between humans’ and spirits’ world. The latter is represented into manuscripts as a variegate pantheon of deities, and among such crowds of supernatural beings, sources documented 2 main sets of gods, respectively associated to a reptile-based and to a bird-based iconography, both with many subclasses, variants and interaction with other signs.

Context of manuscripts documenting myths and rituals associated to a kind of cult dedicated to prosperity, long life, evicting of demons and illness, which is as peculiar to Naxi people, as it could be related to a wider religious mythological stream, diffused in Tibetan, Indian and Chinese traditions.

Texts of manuscripts, iconographies, detailed study of signs of animals associated to supernatural entities documented:

·Ssù – serpent cult. Based of the veneration of the serpent-tailed and human-body spirits, a life-god entity. Propitiated for granting prosperity and fertility, closely associated to rain and water, able to provoke terrible misfortunes if got hungry with humans. In this study it’s directly related to the traditions of kLu in Tibet, Nāga
in India and Long in China

·Bird-god cult. Bird deities are powerful, strong, able to suppress the serpents-spirits and devour them. Able to spell charms, allied to Shilo the founder of Dongba tradition. In this study the bird-gods of Naxi – Dongba pantheon are associated to mythologies of Khyungchen of Tibet and Garuda of India.

·Serpent vs. Eagle fight myth, here directly related to the mythologies of kLu versus Khyung-chen of Tibet and Naga versus Garuda of India

As emerged from manuscripts and according to Naxi tradition, the central figure of Dongba Shilo is here looked not just as the founder of Dongba religion, but as directly related to the Enlightened Buddha sTompa gShen-rab of Bön tradition.

Methodology of research

According to the theme of the colloque, the methodology of study adopted by author mostly consisted in the research of signs from documents, as the signs are pictographs which were made of an animal-based graphic unit, directly relate to deities. Once they’ve been found the study of the functions of signs ad of the context was the way followed: identification of readings and meanings associated to pertinent signs, alias the research of the signs’ phonetic and semantic values, the identification and the interpretation of iconographic motifs associated to the pertinent sign.

Then the study of the context, which here is meant as the study of the signs which surrounding the pertinent one in an adjacent part of text (mostly the rubric containing the pertinent pictograph), as the research of eventual relationship with surrounding signs in adjacent parts of text for the identification of eventual association patterns among signs,.

Once sign was identified as pertinent, alias study of the sign and its contexts evinced that by this significant a deity was meant, then a deeper analysis started focused on the detailed study of the iconography represented by the sign and its
variants, the reconstruction of iconologies, also with the help of cross-studies focused on related (but non necessary Naxi) cultural, iconographic and iconologic elements; this methodology permitted to the author some integrations with non Naxi – Dongba directly related documentation, as Indian, Tibetan and Chinese.

First stage of study, which consisted in the identification of pertinent signs, was performed by the analysis of available sources which contains attestations of pictographs with an animal-based graphic unit. Nature of available sources evinced the possibility of making use of two kind of attestations: direct and indirect attestations.

  • ·Direct attestations: are those performed directly from documents belonging to Naxi – Dongba pictographic tradition: manuscripts, scrolls, wall-paintings, handcrafts and sculptures. Some hundreds of documents are available online thanks to Harvard Yenching web resources, which consist in a selection from their collection of 598 manuscripts. By this web resource is possible to perform direct analysis over Dongba manuscripts, avoiding the difficulties in retrieving of documents.[1]
  • ·Indirect attestations: are those made and evinced from documents which not belong to Naxi – Dongba tradition, but directly or indirectly dedicated or related to Naxi culture and Dongba, in particular dictionaries, Naxi mythology and Dongba culture dedicated studies.[2]

By this two ways of attestation, the signs identified as pertinent, alias signs associated and identified as a deity, were recorded in a concordances’ system, with manuscripts’ page, rubric, reading and meaning.

As introduced upper, further analysis of surrounding contexts was performed for identification of possible association of signs: sources evinced a number of not casual association, here meant as recurring pattern, with peculiar reading and meaning, pertinent inside the context of animal-deities belonging to Naxi – Dongba Pantheon.

Such group of pertinent signs evinced by sources from direct and indirect attestations, on a corpus of 78 manuscripts,[3] according to contexts and to dedicated bibliography, scored 1242 attestations of signs of animals associated to 2 main groups of iconographies of deities:

reptile – gods iconography,
with 513 attestations

bird – gods iconography,
729 attestations

Analysis of context which the pertinent signs belong to, evinced a very complex pantheon of gods with many subgroups of deities, both in reptile and bird forms: reptile and bird iconographies thus here are meant as two main classes of gods, as from contexts they appear to be antagonist, while inside bird and reptile group of deities the different form of spirits are often in close interaction, share a common origin, and acts in strong influence and interaction with/against humans.

The reptile – deities iconographies was thus characterized of different and distinguished kind of supernatural entities:

· serpent-tailed, human headed with trilobate crown, associated to
many readings: Ssù, Llümun, Ssawndaw
and/or mute sign

· dragon iconography, associated to the reading Lu

· serpent iconography, associated to the reading Shi-zi

The bird – deities iconographies also contains at least 3 different gods:

· iconography, associated to the reading Khyut’khyu

· iconography, associated to the reading Dtergko

· iconography, associated to the reading Yuma

Data, concordances and statistics here quoted are completely available on author’s website.[4]

[1] For a detailed description of Harvard Yenching web resource and features please, cfr.:

For an exemple of Harvard Yenching manuscripts pertinent to the theme studied (the Ssù cult) and for crossing references with Joseph Rock manuscripts’ collection please, cfr:

[2] Particular attention was focused on Dongba pictographs dictionaries and monograph studies dedicated to Dongba religious tradition, with an eye especially focused on Joseph Rock and Chas McKhann works . In particular cfr.: Rock J., 1952, 1963, 1972; McKhann C., 1989, 2003c, 2003d

[3] Here manuscripts are grouped in 3 clusters, just for a more comfortable layout. Data are available online:

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