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Dragon, legendary monster usually conceived as a huge, bat-winged, fire-breathing, scaly lizard or snake with a barbed tail. The belief in these creatures apparently arose without the slightest knowledge on the part of the ancients of the gigantic, prehistoric, dragon-like reptiles. In Greece the word drakōn, from which the English word was derived, was used originally for any large serpent (see sea serpent), and the dragon of mythology, whatever shape it later assumed, remained essentially a snake.
In general, in the Middle Eastern world, where snakes are large and deadly, the serpent or dragon was symbolic of the principle of evil. Thus, the Egyptian god Apepi, for example, was the great serpent of the world of darkness. But the Greeks and Romans, though accepting the Middle Eastern idea of the serpent as an evil power, also at times conceived the drakontes as beneficent powers—sharp-eyed dwellers in the inner parts of the Earth. On the whole, however, the evil reputation of dragons was the stronger, and in Europe it outlived the other. Christianity confused the ancient benevolent and malevolent serpent deities in a common condemnation. In Christian art the dragon came to be symbolic of sin and paganism and, as such, was depicted prostrate beneath the heels of saints and martyrs.
The dragon’s form varied from the earliest times. The Chaldean dragon Tiamat had four legs, a scaly body, and wings, whereas the biblical dragon of Revelation, “the old serpent,” was many-headed like the Greek Hydra. Because they not only possessed both protective and terror-inspiring qualities but also had decorative effigies, dragons were early used as warlike emblems. Thus, in the Iliad, King Agamemnon had on his shield a blue three-headed snake, just as the Norse warriors in later times painted dragons on their shields and carved dragons’ heads on the prows of their ships. In England before the Norman Conquest, the dragon was chief among the royal ensigns in war, having been instituted as such by Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur. In the 20th century the dragon was officially incorporated in the armorial bearings of the prince of Wales.
In the Far East, the dragon managed to retain its prestige and is known as a beneficent creature. The Chinese dragon, lung, represented yang, the principle of heaven, activity, and maleness in the yin-yang of Chinese cosmology. From ancient times, it was the emblem of the Imperial family, and until the founding of the republic (1911) the dragon adorned the Chinese flag. The dragon came to Japan with much of the rest of Chinese culture, and there (as ryū or tatsu) it became capable of changing its size at will, even to the point of becoming invisible. Both Chinese and Japanese dragons, though regarded as powers of the air, are usually wingless. They are among the deified forces of nature in Taoism.
The term dragon has no zoological meaning, but it has been applied in the Latin generic name Draco to a number of species of small lizards found in the Indo-Malayan region. The name is also popularly applied to the giant monitor, Varanus komodoensis, discovered on Komodo, in Indonesia.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.
Realm of History
The Future Lies In The Past
10 mythical dragon entities from different cultures you should know about
Posted By: Dattatreya Mandal March 27, 2020
Among all legendary creatures, the dragons (derived from Greek δράκων or drákōn) have taken their unique place among the pedestals of mythological accounts as well as present-day popular culture. And quite interestingly, dragons (or at least dragon-like entities) have been symbolic fixtures from a myriad of regions across the world. Of course, many of these mythical traditions have developed and evolved distinctly without much influence from one another, and yet the monsters have commonly played their major parts as gods, demons, and even personifications of nationalism. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at ten mythical dragon entities from cultures across the planet that you might not have known about.
Note* – Some of the images may not depict the lore version of the dragons, but they were still used due to lack of pictorial depictions in the related media.
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1) Akhekh (from Egypt) –
Also known as Akhekhu, the Akhekh is characterized as a fantastical beast with a long serpentine body that is supported by its four legs. The mythical dragon was said to reside in remote corners of the Egyptian lands, mainly around the fringe desert areas beside the fertile Nile valley. And interestingly enough, the tales of the Akhekh drake might have inspired the legends of the Griffins in Europe. This gradual evolution of folkloric traditions can be substantiated by the later depictions of the Akhekh – in which the creature maintains its serpentine profile with the ancient Egyptian headgear (Uraei), albeit with an antelope’s body and a bird’s head.
2) Drakon Kholkikos (from Kolkhis or Georgia) –
If the legend of the ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ was an adventure game, the Drakon Kholkikos (or simply Colchian Dragon) would have been the main boss who guarded the Golden Fleece – that was located in the sacred grove of Ares at Kolkhis (present-day central Georgia). Described as having a crest, three tongues and a magical set of teeth, there are different versions as to how the mythical dragon met its untimely death – with some concluding with the ubiquitous scenario of the hero slaying the dragon, and some alluding to a situation where the witch Medea puts the dragon to sleep with her magic. There is also a third version where the great singer Orpheus lures the dragon with an enchanting musical rendition on his lyre.
3) Druk (from Bhutan) –
Druk or the ‘Thunder Dragon’ is the national personification of Bhutanese culture, mythology and monarchy. To that end, the elaborately scaled drake is prominently featured in Bhutan’s national flag and national anthem (Druk tsendhen), while the Himalaya-nestled nation itself is called as Druk Yul (in Dzongkha), which translates to the ‘Land of Druk’. The mythical dragon-inspired scope also extends to personal titles with the leaders of Bhutan being addressed as Druk Gyalpo or ‘Thunder Dragon Kings’. And, if you thought that was stretching things a bit – well, even all the political parties were named as ‘Druk Party’, for a mock election that was held in 2008.
4) Fafnir (from Scandinavia) –
Probably the most famous of all the dragons mentioned in this list, Fafnir (according to various sagas) oddly enough started out his life as a mere dwarf. He was the son of the Dwarf king Hreidmar, and was responsible for killing his own father to get hold of all the wealth and treasure that was originally stolen from the æsir gods. However, after he had taken the valuables out of sheer greed, he was cursed by Andvari’s ring and gold among the loot (it was a trick played by Loki). This transformed him into a mighty mythical dragon with armored scales that couldn’t be penetrated by ordinary weapons (Smaug anyone?). Finally, it was Sigurd who slew him with his broken-sword, Gram, by finding a weak point along the soft underbelly of the gigantic beast.
5) Kukulkan (from Mesoamerica) –
Also known as Quetzalcoatl, Kukulkan was worshiped as the great ‘feathered serpent’ god in the pantheon of Aztecs, Toltecs and the Mayans. The major deity (often taking the form of a mythical dragon-like entity) seems to have played a multifaceted role while practicing his ‘godly’ business. To that end, Kukulkan was the god of creation, the sire of both the Morning and Evening Star, the protector the craftsmen, the rain-maker, the wind-blower and also the fire-bringer. Interestingly, both the Mayans and the Aztecs were not too keen on solar eclipses (given the sacredness of the sun), as such their mythic traditions used to depict such rare scenarios with the Earth Serpent swallowing the great Quetzalcoatl. Furthermore, as opposed to their cultural penchant for human sacrifices, Kukulkan was supposedly not fond of such bloodthirsty practices.
6) Kur (from Sumeria) –
The primordial Kur is often considered as the first dragon within the web of vast literary traditions from Sumeria. He is described as residing in the void above the earth’s layer and below the primal sea. The monstrous entity is also often related to the Sumerian concept of the underworld, and such, among its numerous wicked exploits, the dragon once kidnapped the goddess Ereshkigal by taking her into his netherworld realm. The rescuing task fell to a hero called Enki, and he successfully slew the mythical dragon – a narrative which serves as a prologue to the renowned ‘Epic of Gilgamesh‘. Interestingly, the act of ‘slaying a dragon’ is a common motif repeated in later Babylonian traditions, which might have also found its parallels or expansion (in tales) in other parts of the world.
7) Python (from Greece) –
Python is depicted as the earth dragon that came from a slime in Delphi, while other sources claim the entity to be a female offspring of Gaia, the Earth goddess. She was described as being so humongous that her gargantuan coils stretched around the entire site of the Delphi oracle – thus ably protecting her mother. She was also counted as one of the pets of Hera (wife of Zeus), and that gave her the ‘privilege’ to cause harm and destruction to the surrounding lands, without getting punished. However, the happy romping sessions were finally curtailed by the Olympian deity Apollo, when he slew the mythical dragon with his weapon of choice – the bow and arrow. The god of ‘light and sun’ also took over the stronghold of Delphi and grandly refurbished it with his own predilections.
Stoor Worm (from Scotland) –
Stoor Worm or Mester Stoor Worm (also known as Master Stoor Worm) is an evil monster from Orcadian mythology (myths pertaining to the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland), who is portrayed as having the fetid capacity to cause pestilence and contamination among both plants and animals. He was also known to be a glutton, and would randomly pick seven victims from the nearby settlement for his weekly meal. Fortunately, in an interesting turn of events, it was little boy named Assipattle, who killed the mythical dragon by going inside its belly with a boat and burning the creature’s liver. However, the scope of the Stoor Worm might go beyond this little tale, as some experts believe the monster dragon was an Orkney version of the famous Jörmungandr from Norse mythology (the World Serpent who is predicted to be killed by the mighty Thor during Ragnarok).
9) Vritra (from India) –
Mentioned in the ancient Aryan Vedic texts as the main adversary of the Indra (the king of Devas or ‘demi-gods’), Vritra was an Asura (a spirit that seeks power and dominance) who was represented as a mythical dragon-like entity. Also known by his Vedic name of Ahi, which translates to ‘snake’, Vritra personified the droughts that ‘imprisoned’ numerous rivers and water bodies. On the other hand, Indra was the God of thunderstorms and rain, and hence their enmity is well justified within the literary scope. To that end, in an epic battle, Indra successfully destroyed 99 fortresses of the beast, and finally slew the dragon himself by breaking his jaw into two – with his imbued power being generated from an enchanted drink called ‘Soma’. This heroic feat finally led to the freedom of the flowing rivers.
10) Honorable Mention – Abrasax
Abrasax (or Abraxas) is a well known term in Gnostic traditions, where the entity is considered as the great ‘Archon’ or God. This makes etymological sense, since Abrasax in Greek translates to ‘supreme being’, with the seven letters denoting the seven primary planets. Even the Greek letters of the word add up to 365, which pertains to the number of days in a year. However, beyond Gnostic traditions, the Abrasax might very well have had its origin in Persian myths. According to numerous sources, the entity was often perceived as a demon (as opposed to a god), and it was described physically as a hybrid between a mythical dragon and serpent, with a rooster’s head! Also, in an interesting note, it has been suggested that the whimsical word Abracadabra is derived from Abrasax.
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Dragons: A Brief History of the Mythical, Fire-Breathing Beasts
Dragons are among the most popular and enduring of the world’s mythological creatures.
Dragon tales are known in many cultures, from the Americas to Europe, and from India to China. They have a long and rich history in many forms and continue to populate our books, films and television shows.
It’s not clear when or where stories of dragons first emerged, but the huge, flying serpents were described at least as early as the age of the ancient Greeks and Sumerians. For much of history dragons were thought of as being like any other mythical animal: sometimes useful and protective, other times harmful and dangerous. [Top 10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth]
That changed when Christianity spread across the world; dragons took on a decidedly sinister interpretation and came to represent Satan. In medieval times, most people who heard anything about dragons knew them from the Bible, and it’s likely that most Christians at the time believed in the literal existence of dragons. After all, Leviathan — the massive monster described in detail in the Book of Job, chapter 41 — sounds like a dragon:
«Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth.»
The belief in dragons was based not just in legend but also in hard evidence, or at least that’s what people thought, long ago. For millennia no one knew what to make of the giant bones that were occasionally unearthed around the globe, and dragons seemed a logical choice for people who had no knowledge of dinosaurs.
A Chinese dragon statue at Nakornsawan Park in Thailand. (Image credit: GOLFX / Shutterstock)
Diversity among dragons
Though most people can easily picture a dragon, people’s ideas and descriptions of dragons vary dramatically. Some dragons have wings; others don’t. Some dragons can speak or breathe fire; others can’t. Some are only a few feet long; others span miles. Some dragons live in palaces under the ocean, while others can only be found in caves and inside mountains.
As folklorist Carol Rose discusses in her book «Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth» (Norton, 2001), dragons «have composite features from many other beasts, such as the head of an elephant in India, that of a lion or bird of prey in the Middle East, or numerous heads of reptiles such as serpents. Their body color may range from green, red, and black to unusually yellow, blue or white dragons.»
Zoologist Karl Shuker describes a wide variety of dragons in his book «Dragons: A Natural History» (Simon & Schuster, 1995), including giant snakes, hydras, gargoyles and dragon-gods, and the more obscure variants such as basilisks, wyverns and cockatrices. At its root, the is a chameleon — its features adapting to the cultural and literary expectations of the era.
Dragons continue to capture the public’s imagination in fantasy books and films, appearing in everything from the kid-friendly 2020 film «How to Train Your Dragon,» to the more adult-oriented «Game of Thrones» books and TV series and «The Hobbit» book and movies. The popular role-playing game Advanced Dungeons and Dragons describes more than a dozen varieties of dragons, each with unique personalities, powers and other characteristics (Black dragons, for example, are fond of eels — who knew?).
St. George and the Dragon, by Paolo Uccello, 1470.
Dragons go way back
The word «dragon» comes from the ancient Greek word «draconta,» meaning «to watch,» suggesting that the beast guards treasure, such as mountains of gold coins or gems. But this doesn’t really make sense because a creature as powerful as a dragon surely doesn’t need to pay for anything, right? It’s probably more of a symbolic treasure, not for the hoarding dragon but instead a reward for the brave knights who would vanquish the evil beast.
Dragons are one of the few monsters cast in mythology primarily as a powerful and fearsome opponent to be slain. They don’t simply exist for their own sake; they exist largely as a foil for bold adventurers. Other mythical beasts such as trolls, elves and fairies interact with people (sometimes mischievously, sometimes helpfully) but their main role is not as a combatant.
The Christian church created legends of righteous and godly saints battling and vanquishing Satan in the form of dragons. The most celebrated of these was St. George the Dragon Slayer, who in legend comes upon a town threatened by a terrible dragon. He rescues a fair maiden, protects himself with the sign of the cross, and slays the beast. The town’s citizens, impressed by St. George’s feat of faith and bravery, immediately convert to Christianity.
Vanquishing a dragon was not only an important career opportunity for any ambitious saint, knight or hobbit, but according to legend it was also a way to raise armies. As Michael Page and Robert Ingpen note in their «Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were» (Viking Penguin, 1987), «The use of dragon’s teeth provides a simple method of expanding the armed forces of any country. It was first practiced by Cadmus, King of Thebes. First, prepare a piece of ground as though for sowing grain. Next, catch and kill any convenient dragon and draw all its teeth. Sow these in the furrows you have prepared, cover lightly, and stand well away.» Easy, peasy, right?
Next, veteran warriors «clad in bronze armor and armed with swords and shields . emerge rapidly from the earth and stand in ranks according to the way in which the dragon’s teeth were sown.» Apparently these draconis dentata soldiers are a quarrelsome lot and will turn on each other lacking a ready enemy, so if you plan to do this, be sure your adversaries are nearby.
Scholars believe that the fire-breathing element of dragons came from medieval depictions of the mouth of hell; for example, art by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, among others. The entrance to hell was often depicted as a monster’s literal mouth, with the flames and smoke characteristic of Hades belching out. If one believes not only in the literal existence of hell, but also the literal existence of dragons as Satanic, the association is quite logical.
Komodo dragons have long, forked tongues that they use to help smell and taste. (Image credit: Sergey Uryadnikov / Shutterstock)
So, are they real?
Medieval theology aside, few people today believe in the literal existence of dragons in the way they may believe in the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, for example. The dragon (or at least the dragon version most familiar to Westerners) is simply too big and too fantastic to take seriously or literally. In the modern age of satellite imagery and smart phone photos and videos, it’s simply implausible that any giant, winged fire-breathers inhabit Earth’s lands or skies unseen.
However, only a few centuries ago rumors of dragons seemed to have been confirmed by eyewitness accounts from sailors returning from Indonesia who reported encountering dragons — Komodo dragons, a type of monitor lizard — which can be aggressive, deadly, and reach 10 feet in length. (In a possible parallel to dragons, it was previously believed that the bite of a Komodo dragon was especially deadly because of toxic bacteria in its mouth, though that myth was debunked in 2020 by a team of researchers from the University of Queensland who discovered that the Komodo dragon’s mouths are no dirtier than those of other carnivores.) Western scientists only verified the existence of the Komodo dragon around 1910, but rumors and stories of these fearsome beasts circulated long before that.
Dragons, in one form or another, have been around for millennia. Through epic fantasy fiction by J.R.R. Tolkien and others, dragons have continued to spark our collective imagination and — unlike the dinosaurs that helped inspire stories about them — show no sign of dying out.
- University of Queensland researchers discuss Komodo dragons» mouths.
- Did the phrase «Here Be Dragons» appear on historical maps?
- The story of St. George, from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
This article was updated on Apr. 11, 2020 by Live Science Reference Editor Kimberly Hickok.
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