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DRAGONS . The etymology of the term dragon (from the ancient Greek drakōn and the Latin draco, -onis ) points to serpents, for the Greek term means "serpent," and it refers to real snakes as well as to mythical snakes or snakelike figures; the Latin term may also refer to actual serpents. By dragons we mean mythical creatures shaped like serpents or with serpent features, and often endowed with features or parts belonging to various animals (a body like a lizard's or a crocodile's, with a feline's or a reptile's head, a bat's wings, an eagle's or a lion's paws and claws, and a mouth endowed with many tongues and pointed fangs). Dragons are often presented as fierce, devouring monsters; according to many traditions, they spit fire; they may be chthonic, aquatic, or aerial beings.

Even though the specific shape of the dragon's monstrous body becomes increasingly standardized in time and assumes a heraldic fixity in the art of many cultures, as in the European or in the Chinese and Japanese, the dragon is better defined by its meaning and function in mythical thought than by that shape. Dragons are the symbols of elements, forces, or principles present, or active, in the cosmic (or precosmic) world. They thus express, in mythical language, aspects of the natural setting of the various societies, and the dangerous or positive qualities of those aspects, such as drought or rain, flood, and so on. Beyond this "natural" meaning they possess a more complex value on the cosmic level, being forces of stability or of disorder, of staticity or of dynamism, of death or of life. Again, they may have a similar meaning on a "social" or "political" level, symbolizing the enemies, or, in some cases, the champions, of a given culture, society, group, or class. In this case also, however, the symbolism of this first level expresses a second-level, "cosmic" symbolism of evil, disorder, and injustice, or of protection and strength.

The main Old World traditions about dragons can be classified in two different groups. A tradition belonging to cultures located in the western part of Eurasia and in some parts of East Africa presents dragons as chaotic beings, responsible for death and disorder, and vanquished by gods or heroes. This tradition has its roots in the ancient mythologies of the Near East, and of the Indian, Iranian, and European world, and it continues into the Christian culture of the European Middle Ages as well as into the Christian mythology of Egypt and Ethiopia. A second tradition is typical of East Asia (notably China, Japan, and Indonesia) and presents dragons as powerful and helpful beings. The distinction, however, is not a totally simple and straightforward one, for "positive" aspects are present in the dragon lore of the western area, notably in India (where myths present dragonlike beings that are similar to the dragons of East Asia), and dragon-slaying myths are not unknown to the East Asian cultures. In order to respect the complexity of the material, a more detailed treatment is required, based upon specific aspects and motifs of the dragon lore of the Old World, rather than upon the usual twofold classification.

Dragons in Cosmogonies and Eschatologies

The most ancient traditions about dragons go back to the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian mythologies of the first three millennia bce. In these contexts dragons (often clearly serpentine; in some cases, as in that of Tiamat, of different, though unclear, shapes) represent forces or elements that interfere with the correct order or functioning of the world, and they are vanquished by gods who shape and organize the cosmos and, through their victory, acquire authority and power over the newly ordered world. The god Enlil defeats a monstrous being, the Labbu, in a Sumerian text. The god Marduk vanquishes the monsters Tiamat and Kingu in the Akkadian text Enuma elish of Babylon. In the mythology of the Syrian city of Ugarit (end of the second millennium bce) the god Baal defeats the monsters Yamm ("sea") and Mot ("death"). The dragon Apopis is slain by the god Seth in Egyptian mythology. In similar mythical traditions the serpentine Vtra is killed by the warrior god Indra (or by the hero Trita) in Indic mythical narratives that go back to the gveda. In the Hittite texts of Bogazköy, the serpent Illuyanka is killed by the storm god. In Greek mythology, Zeus slays the monster Typhon, who had a hundred snake heads, and Apollo kills the female serpent (drakaina ) at Delphi, and then builds his own sanctuary on the spot where the monstrous being has been slain.

In some cases, these myths have been interpreted as myths of fertility and of the seasonal pattern, because the victorious deity is often a storm god, and drought, rain, and the life of vegetation are often at stake. But the cosmogonic quality of these myths is clear in all cases: in order to construct, or to defend, the world order, the god has to destroy the primeval, chaotic dragon. In some cases (as in that of Apsu and the female Tiamat, who represent two parts of the original watery chaos, and of the younger monster Kingu) the dragonlike monster represents the preexisting, static, chaotic matter that must be broken, divided, and restructured to build the cosmos. In other cases (as in the myths about Apopis, the serpent who tries to stop the sun from rising and setting, or of Vtra, the "withholder" who blocks the cows symbolizing water and dawn) the serpentine monsters are beings that cause staticity and death by stopping the correct functioning of the world, and they must be eliminated.

The Hebrew Bible contains many traces of an ancient mythology, wherein Yahveh, in primeval times, defeats monsters that are extremely similar to the dragonlike beings dispatched by the various Near Eastern gods: to names already present in the more ancient Ugaritic texts (Yamm, Mavet, or Mot ) one can add names such as Peten, Nahash, Rahab, Leviathan, Tannin, Behemoth. Indeed, this seems to have been an ancient Israelite myth connecting creation to the fight against one or more primeval monsters, and thus a cosmogonical motif alternative to the one(s) contained in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.

Given the structural correspondence between cosmogonies and eschatologies, it is not surprising to find that eschatological myths of various societies show a dragon as the being (or as one of the beings) responsible for the lapse into chaos and death that is to take place at the end of time. Thus in late biblical texts (e.g., Dn. 7, Jb. 7:12), as well as in Judaic and Christian texts of "apocalyptic" content (e.g., Rv. 1213, 20), the primeval dragon is said to have been defeated but not totally destroyed, and to return at the end to wreak havoc, only to be finally annihilated. Other religious traditions also present dragonlike beings as eschatological enemies: thus the Germanic mythology (the Midgarðr serpent of the Prose Edda ) and the Iranian (the serpentine Azhi Dahaka, later called Zohak, who is chained to Mount Demavend by the hero Thraetaona/Feridun and who returns at the end of time).

Dragons as Abductors and Devourers

To the above themes one should connect the similar mythical complex that presents dragons as robbers who steal wealth or abduct women, and the theme of the devouring dragon. In some of the "cosmogonical" myths listed above (e.g., in the Ugaritic myth of Baal, Mot, and Yamm) the"chaotic" enemy is also presented as a devourer, or as a tyrant levying tribute; in other cases, such as the ancient Egyptian myth about Astarte and the sea (nineteenth dynasty), a goddess is sent (as "tribute"?) to the monster by the gods it terrorizes. But a more precise motif of this type has recently been reconstructed and called the Indo-European cattle-raiding myth. In the mythologies of many Indo-European-speaking societies (Indic, Iranian, Hittite, Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Armenian) versions or traces of a type of myth have been found, wherein a monstrous, serpentine, three-headed being steals cattle from a hero or a community; a god or hero retrieves the cattle and dispatches the monster. The Indic example is the very myth of Indra (and/or Trita) mentioned above, that is clearly cosmogonic; the Hittite example is the myth, also cited above, of Illuyanka and the storm god. This overlapping, and the eschatological developments of the Germanic and Iranian myths of this group (see above), point to a typological and historical connection between the theme in question and the cosmogonical myths mentioned in the preceding section, though there is no consensus among scholars on the original cosmogonic value of the cattle-raiding myths.

In the Iranian myth belonging to this group, the monster Azhi Dahaka/Zohak steals not cattle (though an interpretation of the stolen female as cattle has been proposed for the most ancient versions) but royal women, and his opponent Thraetaona/Feridun regains the young women (and, in the later versions, the usurped throne) by defeating the dragon. This theme of a dragon who steals women and is defeated by a hero who thus regains them is no less widespread than the theme of the devouring or greedy dragon. It is attested in ancient Greek mythology (e.g., the hero Perseus saves Andromeda from the dragon), and it is a central theme in medieval and modern dragon lore in Europe and Asia, appearing in folk tales collected from the oral tradition of European peasants down to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which a "princess" is stolen by a dragon (or by some other monstrous enemy) and recovered by a young man of the lower social strata, who kills the monster and is promoted, often by gaining the hand of the "princess." In other folk tales of the same traditions, the dragon steals or devours vital elements such as light or water, or pollutes the soil or the air of whole regions.

Dragons as Withholders and Custodians

The tradition of the dragon as a greedy usurper, robber, devourer, or withholder may be combined with two other widespread motifs: the theme of the serpent who in primeval times deprived humankind of immortalitya theme attested, for example, in the biblical Book of Genesis (3:115) and in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the widespread theme, which is especially important in many Asian mythologies, of the snake that resides at the foot of the tree of life or the cosmic tree. Such combinations probably gave rise to the theme of the dragon as a custodian of the tree of life or of other sources of immortality or longevity: one should quote the ancient Greek myth of the dragon that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, killed by Herakles when the hero conquered the apples, or the nāga s of Indic tradition, that guarded the White Mountain and its wonder-tree Mahāsankha, "tall as Mount Meru," that produced a special fruit. In other cases the dragon is shown not guarding but attacking the holy tree: thus, in Iranian mythology (Bundahishn 18.2) the reptile created by Ahriman that damages the miraculous plant Gayo-kerena, or, in Germanic traditions, the serpent Níðho̜ggr that attacks the roots of the cosmic tree Yggdrasill.

The theme of the dragon as guardian of the tree of life or cosmic tree is connected typologically to the theme of the dragon who guards treasures, widely attested in China, India, and Europe. See, for instance, the ancient Greek tradition about the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece and was killed by the hero Jason, who thus obtained the precious token of kingship; the serpents guarding the gold of Apollo among the Scythians (Herodotus, 3.116); and the Germanic myth of the snake Fafnir who guards the gold coveted by Regin and is killed by the hero Sigurd. The theme of the dragon guarding the tree of life became an important iconographical motif in ancient and medieval art of Asia and Europe: it is found, in a rigid heraldic scheme, even in the reliefs of the Baptistery of Parma and of other medieval churches.

Dragons as Enemies and Devils

In other traditions, dragons are ever-active, menacing symbols of evil. In some cases, their symbolic value is drastically "historicized," and they are identified by various societies or groups with real, external enemies such as foreign nations or oppressive powers and rulers. It has been shown that in many traditions of the cattle-raiding myth type the serpentine cattle raider (or abductor of women) is seen as the representative of an enemy (often non-Indo-European) group, against which the society that created the myths was engaged in a continuous warfare; in the Hebrew Bible and in the most ancient Christian texts the various monsters listed above are quoted to indicate neighboring nations (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, etc.) or tyrannical rulers that oppressed Israel or persecuted the believers.

In later Judaic and in other religious and magical texts of the eastern Mediterranean of Hellenistic and Roman times, dragons and serpents are increasingly presented as symbols and instruments of the evil forces, and from this background, as well as from the eschatological value of dragons in biblical and other traditions (see above), the identification of the dragon with the enemy of God, Satan, arose. This interpretation was already explicit in the "canonical" Christian apocalypse (Rv. 20:2; see above), and it became the most generally accepted in the Christian world. In the new Christian context, numerous hagiographic and other traditions contained a restructured version of the ancient mythical theme of the battle against the dragon or monster, in which the dragon was an embodiment or an emissary of Satan. The best-known type of battle between a holy being and the devilish dragon in Christian traditions opposes the satanic enemy to a warrior figure. One might mention Saint George, a saintly knight of Anatolian origin, who often replaced the "pagan" dragon slayers of local, pre-Christian traditions; or Michael, the Archangel, an important figure of Christian angelology that is presented as a dragon slayer already in the earliest texts (Rv. 12:79). These two figures are extremely popular in Christian iconography from the earliest times; they are usually shown dispatching the satanic dragon with a lance or sword, clad in full armor, and Saint George is often depicted on horseback.

Saints George and Michael are not, however, the only Christian dragon-slayers. The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, for example, is often depicted as trampling a serpent, as the Second Eve who defeats the forces of evil, in fulfillment of the verse of the Book of Genesis (3:15) that announced an eternal enmity between the seed of Eve and the serpent; the iconographical type continues, today still, in Catholic sacred art. Finally, other dragon-fighters of Christian tradition, such as Saint Marcellus of Paris (fifth century) or Saint Hilary of Poitiers, appear not as warriors, but as bishops, their weapon against the dragon being not the sword or lance but the bishop's pastoral staff. The connection established by the hagiographic sources between their victory over the dragon and their role as culture heroes and as peaceful leaders of their communities shows that their treatment of dragons (often not slain, but tamed or chased away) has specific meanings, different from those of the other Christian narratives about dragons, and probably less concerned with a theological symbolism: we are told of Hilary that "he gave more land to humankind, for colonists migrated to the place that had been held by the beast" ("addidit terra hominibus, quia in loco beluae incola transmigravit").

Dragons as Givers of Fecundity and Life

In spite of the systematic "demonization" of dragon figures in the Christian Middle Ages, specialists of European folklore and medieval culture have shown that many aspects of the dragon lore of Europe point to a more complex symbolic and mythical value of dragons. It will suffice here to quote the heraldic use of dragons in crests, banners, and insignia, from late antiquity to modern times; the identification (that has been compared to "totemic" practices of tribal societies) of nations and lineages with dragons; the presence of dragons (often as symbols of fecundity and prosperity) in liturgical processions (such as the Rogations of western Europe) or in folkloric festivals (such as Carnival).

The "positive" traits of dragons in European traditions show the dragon lore of Europe to be polysemous. They may be usefully compared to the "positive" traits of dragons in East Asia, and especially in China, where dragon figures are no less polysemous than in the Western tradition. In China, the theme of dragons as forces or beings that have to be controlled and confirmed in order to "create" the cosmic order is well attested by, for example, the Confucian Shujing (Book of stories). That text recounts how the mythical emperor Yu, the founder of the Hsia dynasty, who gave the world its correct order, built the first canals, freed the land from the chaotic waters, and chased away the serpents and dragons, forcing them to reside in the marshes.

To this tradition one could add many others, such as the deeds of the dragon-slaying emperor Chuan-hin. However, one should note that Nü-kua (the goddess who ordered the world in primeval times according to another ancient text, the Lizi, and killed the black dragon) and her spouse, the mythical emperor Fuxi, are represented as dragonlike beings in sculptures of the first centuries ce. This paradox of the dragonlike dragon-slayer is emblematic of the complexity of Chinese dragon lore. Chinese dragons embodied the fertilizing qualities of water, and the importance of rain in the agricultural life of that region explains the increasingly ouranic traits of dragons, their wings, their connections with lightning.

Far from being a mere symbolic expression of the natural elements, however, Chinese dragons represent the rhythmic forces that rule the life of the cosmos. This is explicitly stated by the Daoist Zhuangzi, who writes that the dragon is a symbol of rhythmic life because it embodies the waters that guarantee the living order of the cosmos by their harmonious movement. The cosmic value of dragons as symbols of rhythm and flux is not distinguished, in this text, from their value on the level of the material elements of nature.

The connection of Chinese dragons with rain is well exemplified by the ritual practices of ancient China; during droughts, images of the Ying dragon, a water figure, were made, to propitiate rainfall. Yet dragons are also important in rituals of cosmic renewal, as is shown by the presence of dragon masks during the lamplit, nightly festivities that close the Chinese New Year feast; and many traditions and practices point to the other value of dragons as symbols of cosmic rhythm. In particular, this is clear in the symbolic correspondences and ties between dragons and the Chinese emperors or Sons of Heaven who were also representative of cosmic rhythms and givers of fecundity. Thus we are told that an emperor of the Hsia dynasty ate dragons in order to ensure magically the welfare of his kingdom, and that when that same dynasty underwent a crisis and lost its vital force, dragons appeared to reestablish the correct rhythmic flux in various ways. Finally, mythical dragons were responsible for the ascension of monarchs to the heavenly regions, as happened, we are told, when Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, was abducted with several members of his court by a bearded dragon and carried to the sky.

Throughout Southeast Asia, in South India, Indochina, and Indonesia, dragons are water figures and symbols of fertility. This is attested not only by narrative traditions but also by ritual practices. Thus, in modern Cambodian weddings the bride is identified with the moon, her teeth are treated as if to deprive them of serpent venom, and the rituals are explicitly connected with myths about a dragonlike royal ancestress; in Tenasserim (Burma), to stop the rainy season and to bring in the dry weather, a statue of Upagutta, a mythical serpent king, is plunged in water and offered sacrificial gifts, in a ritual that is a symmetrical reversal of the Chinese dragon rite mentioned above.

Dragons as Parents and Ancestors

Many traditions of Asia and Europe present dragons as the parents of heroes and holy men and as the mythical ancestors of kingly dynasties. The ancient Greek myth of the origin of the Boeotian city Thebes combines this theme with the theme of the serpent as guardian and withholder: the hero Kadmos kills the dragon that barred the way to the site of the future city and then sows the dragon's teeth in the earth, thus giving rise to the Spartoi ("sown men"), who become the first Thebans. Alexander the Great (r. 336323 bce) was believed by some to be born from his mother's encounter with a god in the shape of a serpent, and a similar legend was told of the Roman emperor Augustus. According to a Chinese tradition, the princess Liu was resting by a pond with her husband, when she was raped by a dragon and conceived thus the future emperor Gaozu; and the culture hero Fuxi was said to have been born from a pond that was famous for its dragons. Similar traditions are attested in Annam and Indonesia; and the Indian kings of Chota Nagpur were believed to have descended from a nāga, or serpentlike spirit, named Puarīka.

A series of Asian traditions recount the birth of a famous kingly ancestor or holy man from a prince or priest and a nāgī (female counterpart to the male nāga ). Thus, according to a Palaung myth, the nāgī Thusandi and the son of the solar deity, Prince Thuryia, gave birth to three sons who became the kings of three lands (China, the land of the Palaung, and Pagan). Similar traditions about the origins of royal dynasties from female dragon figures exist in South India, Indochina, and Indonesia. In India the birth of the sage Agastya from the apsara Urvasi is recounted in a comparable fashion.

In the legends, the dragon-woman is often recognized as such suddenly, because she smells strongly of fish, or because she is spied upon while she takes a bath and plays in the water with a nāga. In modern traditions of this kind from Cambodia, the female dragon is a moon figure, and her mythical marriage with a solar prince is the prototype of today's marriage rituals, as well as a symbol of cosmic union between opposites. Similarly, the traditions about the birth of a dynasty from the union of a watery, dragonlike female and a fiery solar male are symbolic of a primeval unity of opposites that prepares the new cosmos represented by the new dynastic order.

A comparable symbolic interpretation has not been offered by scholars for the European traditions of the same type, that also derive princely dynasties from dragonlike females, and are known both from medieval chronicles and other texts, and from modern folklore. In the best-known of these European narrative traditions (the story of the extrahuman female Mélusine or Mélusigne, often classified as a fairy by its medieval redactors) the female protagonist is spied upon by her husband, who discovers that she turns into a snake when taking a bath. The Mélusine stories have been compared to the myth told by Herodotus (4.810) about the birth of the ancestors of the three Scythian "tribes" from the hero Herakles and a powerful female being, who was half woman, half serpent, but decidedly chthonic rather than watery.

See Also

Chaos; Monsters; Snakes.


G. Elliot Smith's The Evolution of the Dragon (New York, 1919), although outdated, is still useful as a general study. The best discussion of dragons and their symbolic meaning is in Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), chaps. 5 and 8. This book has an excellent bibliographical appendix. On dragons as chaotic beings of primeval times and on the theme of the cosmogonic battle against such monsters in the ancient Near East, Indic, and Greek worlds, see Mary K. Wakeman's God's Battle with the Monster: A Study in Biblical Imagery (Leiden, 1973). For still wider comparative material, see Joseph Fontenrose's Python: A Study of the Delphic Myth and Its Origins (Berkeley, Calif., 1959).

On the "cattle-raiding myth," see Bruce Lincoln's Priests, Warriors, and Cattle: A Study in the Ecology of Religions (Berkeley, 1981), esp. pp. 103122. On the Indo-European myths about the fight against the dragon, consult Viacheslav Ivanov and V. N. Toporov's "Le mythe indo-européen du dieu de l'orage poursuivant le serpent: Réconstitution du schéma," in Échanges et communications: Mélanges offerts à Claude Lévi-Strauss, edited by Jean Pouillon and Pierre Maranda, vol. 2 (The Hague, 1968), pp. 11801206.

A good source for medieval European dragon lore, especially the theme of the bishop as a dragon tamer, and an important critical study is Jacques Le Goff's "Culture ecclésiastique et culture folklorique au Moyen-Âge: Saint Marcel de Paris et le dragon," in Richerche storiche ed economiche in memoria di Corrado Barbagallo, edited by Luigi De Rosa, vol. 2 (Naples, 1970), pp. 5390. This essay has been translated as "Ecclesiastical Culture and Folklore in the Middle Ages: Saint Marcellus of Paris and the Dragon," in Le Goff's Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1980), pp. 159188. Le Goff and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's "Mélusine maternelle et défricheuse," Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 26 (1971): 587622, offers a source on Mélusine.

Bibliography for East Asian dragons can be found in Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (cited above), Barbara Renz's Der orientalische Schlangendrache (Augsburg, 1930), and Hampden C. Du Bose's The Dragon, Image, and Demon, or The Three Religions of China (London, 1886). On the mythical serpentine ancestress in Southeast Asia, see the bibliography provided by Eliade (cited above), adding Éveline Porée-Maspéro's "Nouvelle étude sur la nagi Soma,"Journal asiatique 236 (1950): 237267.

New Sources

Avil, François. Interprétation symbolique du combat de saint Michel et du dragon. Paris, 1971.

Jones, David E. An Instinct for Dragons. New York and London, 2000. A cross-cultural study on the origins and spread of dragon lore, following a socio-biological approach and including an excellent bibliography.

Lurker, Manfred. "Drache." In Wörterbuch der Symbolik. Stuttgart, Germany, 1983, pp. 138139.

Morris, Henry M. Dragons in Paradise. El Cajon, Calif., 1993.

Nigg, Joe. Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon. Englewood, Colo., 1995.

Passes, David. Dragons. Truth, Myth and Legend. New York, 1993.

Shuker, Karl. Dragons. A Natural History. New York, 1995.

Visser, Willem de. The Dragon in China and Japan. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1969. Original edition Amsterdam, 1913.

Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon. Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford, 1995. After an introduction to the field of comparative Indo-European poetics the author examines the structure of the dragon/serpent-slaying myths throughout the Indo-European tradition. A copious bibliography is provided.

Cristiano Grottanelli (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 17 2018




Alternate Names

Lindworm (Scandinavian), Wyvern (Saxon)

Appears In

Various myths around the world

Character Overview

In myths and legends, dragons are reptilian creatures with horns, huge claws, and long tails. Though they can be found in cultures across the globe, they tend to share these same basic physical features. Some dragons are capable of breathing fire, and many have wings. Dragons are usually described as living in a cave or underground lair.

The oldest myths involving dragons come from the ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian mythologies. The dragons in these stories are generally evil forces that disrupt the correct order of the natural world. A god typically defeats the dragon in order to protect the world. The dragon Apophis (pronounced uh-POH-fis) in Egyptian mythology was the enemy of Ra, the sun god, and is slain by the god Set . Babylonian creation myths describe the dragonlike monster Tiamat (pronounced TYAH-maht), who was associated with chaos or disorder, and who died at the hands of the god Marduk . Dragons also play a role in the Bible, where they are frequendy identified with Satan; the book of Revelations in the Bible describes the defeat of a dragon at the end of the world. Later Christian legends continued the theme of the dragon as a satanic figure; in one famous legend, St. George , the protector saint of England, saved the daughter of a king from a dragon, symbolizing the triumph of the church over the devil. The dragon played a similar symbolic role in Christian art, representing sin that must be overcome by saints and martyrs.

In various Greek and Roman myths, dragons were thought to understand the secrets of the earth. They had both protective and fearsome qualities. For example, Apollo fought the dragon Pytho (pronounced PYE-thoh), which guarded the oracle at Delphi —a place where mortals could communicate with the gods. Dragons guarded other valuable objects in Greek myths, notably the Golden Fleece and the golden apples of the Hesperides; in both stories, the dragons are defeated by heroes seeking to obtain the treasure. Dragons served as guardians of valuable things in other cultures, as well. In Norse mythology , the best-known dragon is Fafnir, a dwarf who transformed himself into a dragon to guard riches on which a curse had been placed. The young hero Sigurd slays Fafnir. In the Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf , the hero slays a dragon that guards an ancient treasure.

Chinese mythology is not without its dragon-slayers; the mythical emperors Yu and Chuan-hin kill dragons in order to establish order in the world. But this view of dragons as things that must be destroyed or controlled is balanced by positive aspects of dragons. For instance, Chinese mythology draws a strong connection between dragons and water. Dragons are thought to symbolize the rhythmic forces of life, and so are held in high regard. In East Asian mythology and tradition, dragons symbolize power, happiness, and fertility and are believed to bring good fortune and wealth. Statues and carvings of dragons are common, and garments are often decorated with the dragon image.

Dragons in Context

In some mythologies, the story of a god's victory over a dragon can be interpreted as a fertility myth because the god is often a storm god, and the dragon is threatening a natural resource. The dragon represents a chaotic force that must be destroyed in order to preserve order in the world. It has been speculated that dinosaur remains, found throughout the world, could have sparked the imagination of ancient peoples, leading them to invent dragons as the fearsome creatures that left such large bones.

The dragon's fierce and ancient power caused many cultures to adopt it as a military and political symbol. Roman soldiers of the first century CE inscribed dragons on the flags that they carried into battle. The ancient Celts also used the dragon symbol on their battle gear, and to this day, a red dragon appears on the flag of Wales.

Key Themes and Symbols

In ancient times, dragons often represented evil, destruction, and death. In some cases, as in Norse myth, dragons represent greed. They are usually portrayed as frightening and destructive monsters. Gods and heroes must slay them in symbolic battles of good over evil. But a few cultures, notably those of China and Japan, view dragons in a positive light and use them as symbols of good fortune. This may reflect the slightly different origins of dragons in different cultures, as well as cultural views on existing animals. In Europe, for example, dragons are the mythical equivalent of serpents, which have long been viewed by Europeans with fear and associated with evil. In Asia, dragons are associated with both serpents and fish, with dragons often depicted as having fish scales as skin. In addition, the Asian attitude toward snakes is generally more favorable than that of Europeans, perhaps due to more common exposure to the animals.

Dragons in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Dragons have been found in ancient art and literature from many cultures. They play an especially important role in Chinese and Japanese art. In modern times, dragons are one of the most readily recognized mythical creatures regardless of culture. The fantasy literature and art genres in particular use dragons frequendy, and have developed many modern variations on dragon myth and legend. Notable literary works focusing on dragons include the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey (begun in 1968) and TheHobbithy]. R. R. Tolkien (1937). Many films have also focused on dragons, including Dragonslayer (1981), Dragonheart (1996), and Reign of Fire (2002).

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The Inheritance Trilogy is a best-selling series of fantasy books written by Christopher Paolini and first published in 2002. The books focus on Eragon, a poor boy who finds a dragon's egg and trains to become a Dragon Rider in the land of Alagesia, where all existing Dragon Riders have been destroyed by a vengeful king named Galbatorix. The first two volumes of the series, Eragon and Eldest, had sold over eight million copies as of 2007.

SEE ALSO Beowulf; George, St.; Nibelungenlied, The; Tiamat


views updated May 21 2018


In myths and legends of the world, dragons are often fire-breathing, reptilelike creatures with wings, huge claws, and a long tail. They are usually portrayed as frightening and destructive monsters. Gods and heroes must slay them in symbolic battles of good over evil. But a few cultures, notably those of China and Japan, view dragons in a positive light and use them as symbols of good fortune.

In ancient times, dragons often represented evil, destruction, and death. The dragon Apophis in Egyptian mythology was the enemy of Ra, the sun god. Babylonian creation myths describe the dragonlike monster Tiamat, who was associated with chaos. Dragons also play a role in the Bible, where they are frequently identified with Satan.

Dragons appeared in various Greek and Roman myths. For example, Apollo * fought the dragon Python, which guarded the oracle at Delphi. In Greece and Rome, dragons were thought to understand the secrets of the earth. They had both protective and fearsome qualities. As a result, the dragon came to be used as a military symbol. Roman soldiers of the first century a.d. inscribed dragons on the standards that they carried into battle. The ancient Celts * also used the dragon symbol on their battle gear, and to this day a red dragon appears on the flag of Wales.

chaos great disorder or confusion

oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken

In Norse * mythology, the best-known dragon is Fafnir, a giant who transformed himself into a dragon to guard treasure on which a curse had been placed. The young hero Sigurd slays Fafnir. The story was retold in the German epic the Nibelungenlied. In the story of Beowulf, the hero fights a dragon that has been terrorizing the people. He is mortally wounded in the struggle.

Christian legends generally blended the dragon's satanic image with elements of Greek and other mythologies. Many of the stories had symbolic meanings. In one famous legend, St. George, the patron saint of England, saved the daughter of a king from a dragon, symbolizing the triumph of the church over the devil. The dragon played a similar symbolic role in Christian art, representing sin overcome by saints and martyrs.

epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

patron special guardian, protector, or supporter

In contrast, the Chinese and Japanese hold the dragon in high regard. In their mythology and tradition, dragons symbolize power, happiness, and fertility and are believed to bring good fortune and wealth. Statues and carvings of dragons are common, and garments are often decorated with the dragon image.

See also Beowulf; George, St.; Monsters; Nibelungenlied; Tiamat.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.


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Dragons (Chinese). These are imagined by the Chinese as supernatural expressions of natural forces, sky or water animals.

The Dragon Boat Festival (Tuan Yang Chien) takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and commemorates the death by drowning of Chu Yüan (? 3rd/late 4th cent. BCE). He is said to have committed suicide as a protest against corruption in government, and against the incessant conflict of the warring states.