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Dragons

Dragons

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

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.

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