Semiotics of the Dragon and Other Celestial Signs: a webinar by Professor Marcel Danesi.

Semiotics of the Dragon and Other Celestial Signs:

In European cultural traditions, the dragon is envisioned as a fire-breathing mythical monster resembling a giant reptile with wings, symbolizing chaos, whereas in East Asia it is imagined, contrariwise, as a symbol of order, associated with the ruling heavens. It is the fifth animal in the Chinese zodiac, representing immanent beneficent metaphysical forces in the universe. The question of why such powerful existential meaning is imprinted into a zodiacal sign is of particular relevance today in an age where mythological thinking has been recycled, to paraphrase Barthes. To penetrate why such early sign systems have not disappeared in a post-Enlightenment world, this presentation describes and examines the origins and meanings of zodiacal sign systems from a semiotic perspective. The premise pursued throughout is that these constituted early psychological forms designed to impart a sense of order to human lives. The zodiacs were created as early calendars; however, they not only described the
recurring movements of the planetary bodies in numerical-geometric terms, but also related these to people’s lives, and to their existential connection to other species, thus constituting early totemic systems of a certain kind.

Before the advent medical microbe theory, it was common for physicians to use astrology for diagnostic purposes, believing that astrological forces directly influenced people’s lives and wellbeing. One of these was the theory of conjunctions, whereby certain planets approaching each other in the sky were
seen as predicting the arrival of catastrophic events. The theory was used in the medieval period to explain the advent of the bubonic plague. This suggests that, form the outset, astrology was used as template for viewing otherwise random life events as connected to aspects of the universe—a worldview that started, as is well known, with Pythagoras’s notion of the music of the spheres. In effect, the zodiac assigns a “metaphysical locus” to each human being in the universal scheme of things.

In his Theogony, the Greek poet Hesiod stated that Chaos generated Earth, from which arose the starry, cloud-filled Heaven. Only gradually did science and mathematics come forward to explain the universe in neutral, non-mythic ways, free of any necessary connection between the stars and human destiny.
However, belief in the zodiac has not dissipated. The reason may be that its existential meaning code may have become hardwired in the human species. Whatever the truth, all we can do is to document the semiotic connection between mythic and scientific sign systems as they originated in tandem, so as to get an indirect look into how we perceive our place among species and among the stars.

Marcel Danesi, Ph.D., was born in Lucca, Italy. A professor of semiotics and anthropology at Victoria College, University of Toronto, he directs the semiotics and communication theory programs. Danesi also holds an appointment at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education as professor and researcher in bilingual education. In 1998 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honor awarded to an academic, especially in education. His new book is The Total Brain Workout: 450 Puzzles to Sharpen Your Mind, Improve Your Memory, and Keep Your Brain Fit.

Danesi has been a visiting professor at Rutgers University (1972), the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” the Catholic University of Milan, and has given lectures throughout the academic world. He has also held the chair of language and media studies at the University of Lugano.

As a professor of anthropology, he became intrigued by the ancientness of puzzles and their use in cultures throughout the world as tests of intelligence and creative imagination. Danesi has conducted extensive research on puzzles and has written a number of scholarly books on puzzles, semiotic, linguistic and pedagogical topics. Among his books are Increase Your Puzzle IQ (Wiley, 1997), The Puzzle Instinct (Indiana University Press, 2002), The Liar Paradox and the Towers of Hanoi: The Ten Greatest Math Puzzles of All Time (Wiley, 2004), Sudoku (Time Warner, 2006), Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language (1993); Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence (1994); Giambattista Vico and the Cognitive Science Enterprise (1995) and La metafora nel pensiero e nel linguaggio (2003).

He has also authored and coauthored numerous language manuals for the study of Italian and Spanish, including Adesso: A Functional Introduction to Italian (1992; 2nd ed. 1996); Con fantasia: Reviewing and Expanding Functional Italian Skills (1995; 2nd ed. 2004; with M. Lettieri and S. Bancheri); and Learn Italian the Fast and Fun Way (1985).

He is editor in chief of Semiotica, and is also editor of various book series, including Toronto Studies in Italian Pedagogy and Applied Linguistics, Toronto Studies in Semiotics and Signs and Semaphors. He also teaches a course on puzzles at the university, which aims to examine every aspect of puzzles, and had the opportunity to work with neuroscientists and psychologists over several decades to design puzzle-based teaching and learning methods to help people learn better in various disciplines.

Danesi’s work has been featured in the New York TimesToronto Star, and Psychology Today among other print publications, and he has been a guest on several broadcast outlets including National Public Radio.


Chris Arning (London)


Roman Esqueda (Mexico)

Hongbing Yu (Toronto)

Susan Petrilli (Bari)

Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Delhi)

Grigoris Paschalidis (Thessaloniki)

Monica Rector (Rio de Janeiro)

Geoffrey Sykes (Sydney)

Panchanan Mohanty (Patna)

Evripides Zantides (Cyprus)

Piotr Sadowski (Dublin) 

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