One of the most prevailing and popular creatures of folklore and legend is the dragon. From Mesoamerica, Medieval Europe, Asian folklore, to more modern depictions in books such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and A Song of Ice and Fire, dragons crop up time and again. Unlike other legends, the essence of a dragon has remained little changed through hundreds of years of folklore. But where did the idea of dragons originate?
One of Daenerys’ dragons from the popular tv series Game of Thrones.
In Europe, the earliest depictions of dragons come from Ancient Greece, and were serpentine, borrowing from imagery from western Asia. The Book of Revelation – the last book of the Bible – written in Greek talks about Satan as being “a great dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns”. So the idea of a dragon being a big flaming beast was certainly a common enough creature that followers of Christianity around 2000 years ago were expected to understand this picture. Dragons had been appearing in Greek mythology before then; they were often creatures who guarded treasure, in an image that is often still adhered to today. For example, Ladon was a serpent-like dragon who twisted around the tree in the Garden of the Hesperides and guarded the golden apples, but was eventually slain by the hero Heracles.
As mentioned, the Greek’s ideas of dragons being serpent-like creatures came over from Asia. The most famous variant is the Chinese dragon, which is long and snake-like, but has 4 legs with talons or claws. Dragons were powerful creatures and represented strength and good luck – often they had control over the elements, particularly over water. As the dragon was such a powerful creature, it is no surprise that the Chinese emperors seized it as their own symbol. The founder of Han dynasty, Liu Bang (202 – 195 BC), claimed that he was conceived after his mother dreamt of a dragon, and later dynasties wore robes with dragons on. In fact, many dynasties proclaimed that only the Emperor or higher nobility were allowed to wear images of dragons.
An embroidered blue silk dragon robe for a civil official, c. 1885. Christies.
In the early European folklore, dragons were vicious, fire breathing, linked to Satan, and were a beast to be overcome by the hero. However, in Ancient China, dragons were considered spiritual, wise, a creature that could bring harmony. The legend of the dragon in China is a very old one, with the earliest representation being a 1.78m dragon statue dating to the fifth millennium BC. The idea of what a dragon was is remarkably consistent in Chinese culture – the appearance of a Chinese dragon is almost unchanged across thousands of years.
Independent to Europe and Asia, the civilisations of Ancient South and Central America had numerous snake-like creatures similar to a dragon. Most commonly, these Mesoamerican regions had a ‘feathered serpent’ that was often depicted as a deity to be worshipped. The earliest depiction of the feathered serpent comes from the Olmec people of Mexico c. 900 BC, where the creature is rising up behind a person engaged in a shamanic ritual. By the first century BC, the Aztecs were worshipping Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind, air, and learning, and the Maya also worshipped a serpent who was often seen as the embodiment of the sky itself. In this, the imagery is similar to that of the flying dragon/serpent often seen in European and Asian folklore.
As the medieval period advanced, the worship of a feathered serpent deity spread across most of Mesoamerica. The Incans (13th – 16th centuries) had the mythological Amaru, a double-headed serpent that dwells underground, often depicted with bird-like features such as wings, feet, and heads. The Amaru had similar spiritual qualities to the Chinese dragon, as it was believed that it could transgress the boundaries between the human world and the spiritual world. The importance of the feathered serpent of Quetzalcoatl is exemplified by the Great pyramid of Cholula in Mexico which was dedicated to him. It is the largest pyramid known to exist in the world today, measuring 450 by 450 metres, and standing 55 metres above the surrounding countryside.
Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century). Wikicommons.
The Incan Amaru, depicted on a drinking vessel. WikiCommons.
Meanwhile, in medieval Europe, ideas of the legend of the dragon had spread to a variety of cultures. In Norse mythology, a creature called a lindworm was a dragon/serpent monster which had a serpentine body, a dragon-like head, clawed arms, and scales, but was wingless. However, as with the Ancient Greek legends, the lindworm was not a friendly creature. For example, one story tells of the lady Thora Borgarhjört who receives a baby lindworm from her father as a gift, but as the lindworm grows it takes Thora hostage and demands to be given one ox a day. Eventually, Thora is saved by the young man Ragnar, who goes on to marry her.
The legend of the dragon was sometimes used to explain something otherwise unknown to people in the medieval period. For example, in 1335 the skull of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros was discovered in Klagenfurt, Austria, and it was believed to be the skull of a dragon. In 1590, the skull was used as a model for a lindworm fountain in the city. The discovery of the skull fit well with the history of the town – the previous century, it was believed that a dragon was responsible for the flooding of the river that was threatening travellers, and a duke offered a reward for anyone who could catch it. The dragon was successfully killed by some local young men.
The Lindworm fountain in Klagenfurt.
In England, Geoffrey of Monmouth (most famous for creating the legend of King Arthur) who was writing in the 12th century also popularised the legend of the dragon. In one such story, the wizard Merlin is brought in by the leader Vortigern who is attempting to build a tower to defend against the Anglo-Saxons, but the tower keeps sinking into the ground. Merlin has a vision and tells Vortigern that underneath the tower was a pool with two sleeping dragons, one white, and one red. Vortigern orders the pool to be drained, and this causes the two dragons to begin fighting. Merlin delivers a prophecy that the white dragon will triumph over the red, symbolising England’s conquest of Wales, but declares that the red dragon will eventually return and defeat the white one. Even today, the Welsh flag features the large red dragon.
The battle of the red and white dragon, from a 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae. WikiCommons.
Of course, one of the most famous legends of a dragon in Western Europe today is the story of Saint George and the Dragon. The earliest stories date to the sixth century AD, and the most famous version tells of a dragon that kept pillaging the sheep of a town in Libya. It eventually ate a young shepherd, so the townspeople were forced to leave two sheep as a sacrifice every morning for the dragon. Eventually, there were no sheep left, and the people began to offer their children. The children were chosen by lottery, and one day the king’s own daughter was forced to be sacrificed. However, Saint George arrived and subdued the dragon by making the sign of the cross, and led the captured dragon into the town. He promised to kill it if the town converted to Christianity, which they did, and in some versions he then marries the princess.
In early depictions of western dragons – including images of George and the Dragon – the dragon is often a very small, serpentine creature. However, the earliest recognisable image of the modern, western dragon of today, comes from a manuscript dating to c. 1260. The dragon is longer and thinner than many modern dragons, but it clearly has wings, 4 legs, scales, and is breathing fire. It is no surprise that in medieval legends, the dragons are always the evil adversary; greedy, gluttonous, and murderous, an enemy for the hero to beat. When we look back to the depiction of Satan as a dragon in the Bible, it is not difficult to see why the Christian West followed this narrative. As seen in George and the Dragon, often stories of saints’ lives include battling a dragon. It is therefore perhaps surprising to see the prevalence of dragons (and their two-legged relatives, the wyvern) in medieval heraldry. The heraldic wyvern was used as symbols for overthrowing Satan and his demonic forces.
The earliest depiction of our modern, western dragon, from MS Harley 3244, a medieval bestiary dated to around 1260 AD. WikiCommons.
As the early modern era progressed, the popularity of dragons continued. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the French philosopher Denis Diderot was complaining about the prevalence of stories with dragons: “There are already in books all too many fabulous stories of dragons”. This did not stop their popularity, however, and the increased popularity of fiction novels in the Victorian period perpetuated the legend of the dragon to its status today. Lewis Carroll’s famous Jabberwocky is often depicted as a type of dragon, and J. R. R. Tolkien wrote dragons into his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1930s.
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The Jabberwocky as illustrated by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871. WikiCommons.
Today, the western depiction of dragons have certainly prevailed in popular culture. In most works dragons are still evil creatures hoarding treasure, an adversary for the hero – or at the very least a wild, uncontrollable beast who breathes fire and is a huge danger. In Asia, of course, the gentler dragon remains, and the dragon is still part of the Chinese zodiac. In fact, dragon years are still the most popular to have children, often seeing a boost in birth numbers. With the increasing popularity of video games and fantasy films/tv shows, the dragon is certainly not going anywhere any time soon.
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Chinese dragon folklore (page 126 onwards) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GTv50UPAPvsC&pg=PA126&lpg=PA126&dq=dragon+statue+yangshao&source=bl&ots=8fE4RMbSOx&sig=4pL-kxmB6fZQ8wSAweRp-C3Xvpk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiQ_a2BnLDdAhXIAcAKHa5QDJQQ6AEwB3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=dragon%20statue%20yangshao&f=false