A dragon is a large, serpent-like legendary creature that appears in the folklore of many cultures around world. Beliefs about dragons vary drastically by region, but dragons in western cultures since the High Middle Ages have often been depicted as winged, horned, four-legged, and capable of breathing fire. Dragons in eastern cultures are usually depicted as wingless, four-legged, serpentine creatures with above-average intelligence.
Belief in dragons may have arisen due to human instinctual fears of snakes. Dragon-like creatures are first described in the mythologies of the ancient Near East and appear in ancient Mesopotamian art and literature. Stories about storm-gods slaying giant serpents occur throughout nearly all Indo-European and Near Eastern mythologies.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Origins and development
- 3 Mythical European dragons
- 4 Mythical Asian dragons
- 5 Modern depictions
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The word dragon entered the English language in the early 13th century from Old French dragon, which in turn comes from Latin: draconem (nominative draco) meaning "huge serpent, dragon", from Greek: δράκων, drakon (genitive drakontos, δράκοντος) "serpent, giant seafish". The Greek and Latin term referred to any great serpent, not necessarily mythological.
Origins and development
Animals that may have inspired dragons
In his book An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones suggests a hypothesis that humans, just like monkeys, have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats, and birds of prey. He cites a study which found that approximately 390 people in a thousand are afraid of snakes and notes that fear of snakes is especially prominent in children, even in areas where snakes are rare. The earliest attested dragons all resemble snakes or bear snakelike attributes. Jones therefore concludes that the reason why dragons appear in nearly all cultures is because of humans' innate fear of snakes and other animals that were major predators of humans' primate ancestors. Dragons are usually said to reside in "dank caves, deep pools, wild mountain reaches, sea bottoms, haunted forests", all places which would have been fraught with danger for early human ancestors.
Ancient Near East
Ancient peoples across the Near East believed in creatures similar to what modern people call "dragons". These ancient peoples were unaware of the existence of dinosaurs or similar creatures in the distant past. References to dragons of both benevolent and malevolent characters occur throughout ancient Mesopotamian literature. In Sumerian poetry, great kings are often compared to the ušumgal, a gigantic, serpentine monster. A dragon-like creature with the foreparts of a lion and the hind-legs, tail, and wings of a bird appears in Mesopotamian artwork from the Akkadian Period (c. 2334 – 2154 BC) until the Neo-Babylonian Period (626 BC–539 BC). The dragon is usually shown with its mouth open. It may have been known as the (ūmu) nā’iru, which means "roaring weather beast", and may have been associated with the god Ishkur (Hadad). A slightly different lion-dragon with two horns and the tail of a scorpion appears in art from the Neo-Assyrian Period (911 BC–609 BC). A relief probably commissioned by Sennacherib shows the gods Ashur, Sin, and Adad standing on its back.
Another dragon-like creature with horns, the body and neck of a snake, the forelegs of a lion, and the hind-legs of a bird appears in Mesopotamian art from the Akkadian Period until the Hellenistic Period (323 BC–31 BC). This creature, known in Akkadian as the mušḫuššu, meaning "furious serpent", was used as a symbol for particular deities and also as a general protective emblem. It seems to have originally been the attendant of the Underworld god Ninazu, but later became the attendant to the Hurrian storm-god Tishpak, as well as, later, Ninazu's son Ningishzida, the Babylonian national god Marduk, the scribal god Nabu, and the Assyrian national god Ashur.
Scholars disagree regarding the appearance of Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess personifying primeval chaos slain by Marduk in the Babylonian creation epic Enûma Eliš. She was traditionally regarded by scholars as having had the form of a giant serpent, but several scholars have pointed out that this shape "cannot be imputed to Tiamat with certainty" and she seems at have at least sometimes been regarded as anthropomorphic. Nonetheless, in some texts, she seems to be described with horns, a tail, and a hide that no weapon can penetrate, all features which suggest she was conceived as some form of dragoness.
In the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, the sea-dragon Lōtanu is described as "the twisting serpent/ the powerful one with seven heads." In KTU 1.5 I 2-3, Lōtanu is slain by the storm-god Baal, but, in KTU 1.3 III 41-42, he is instead slain by the virgin warrior goddess Anat. In the Book of Psalms, Psalm 74, Psalm 74:13-14, the sea-dragon Leviathan, whose name is linguistically cognate to Lōtanu, is slain by Yahweh, the national god of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, as part of the creation of the world. In Isaiah 27:1, Yahweh's destruction of Leviathan is foretold as part of Yahweh's impending overhaul of the universal order:
|Original Hebrew text (Isaiah 27:1)||English translation|
א בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִפְקֹד יְהוָה בְּחַרְבּוֹ הַקָּשָׁה וְהַגְּדוֹלָה וְהַחֲזָקָה, עַל לִוְיָתָן נָחָשׁ
On that day Yahweh shall punish
Job 40:15-41:26 contains a detailed description of the Leviathan, who is described as being so powerful that only Yahweh can overcome it. Job 40:10-13 states that the Leviathan exhales fire and smoke, making its identification as a mythical dragon clearly apparent. In some parts of the Old Testament, the Leviathan is historicized as a symbol for the nations that stand against Yahweh. Rahab, a synonym for "Leviathan", is used in several Biblical passages in reference to Egypt. Isaiah 30:7 declares: "For Egypt's help is worthless and empty, therefore I have called her 'the silenced Rahab'." Similarly, Psalm 87:3 reads: "I reckon Rahab and Babylon as those that know me..." In Ezekiel 29:3-5 and 32:2-8, the pharaoh of Egypt is described as a "dragon" (tannîn).
The story of a hero slaying a giant serpent occurs in nearly every Indo-European mythology. In most stories, the hero is some kind of thunder-god. In nearly every iteration of the story, the serpent is either multi-headed or "multiple" in some other way. Furthermore, in nearly every story, the serpent is always somehow associated with water. Bruce Lincoln has proposed that a Proto-Indo-European dragon-slaying myth can be reconstructed as follows: First, the sky gods give cattle to a man named *Tritos ("the third"), who is so named because he is the third man on earth, but a three-headed serpent named *Ngwhi steals them. *Tritos pursues the serpent and is accompanied by *Hanér, whose name means "man". Together, the two heroes slay the serpent and rescue the cattle.
Vedic India and Avestan Iran
In the Rigveda, the oldest of the four Vedas, Indra, the Vedic god of storms, battles Vṛtra, a giant serpent who represents drought. Indra kills Vṛtra using his vajra (thunderbolt) and clears the path for rain, which is described in the form of cattle: "You won the cows, hero, you won the Soma,/You freed the seven streams to flow" (Rigveda 1.32.12). In another Rigvedic legend, the three-headed serpent Viśvarūpa, the son of Tvaṣṭṛ, guards a wealth of cows and horses. Indra delivers Viśvarūpa to a god named Trita Āptya, who fights and kills him and sets his cattle free. Indra cuts off Viśvarūpa's heads and drives the cattle home for Trita. This same story is alluded to in the Younger Avesta, in which the hero Thraētaona, the son of Āthbya, slays the three-headed dragon Aži Dahāka and takes his two beautiful wives as spoils. Thraētaona's name (meaning "third grandson of the waters") indicates that Aži Dahāka, like Vṛtra, was seen as a blocker of waters and cause of drought.
Ancient Greece and Rome
The ancient Greek word usually translated as "dragon" (δράκων drákōn, genitive δράκοντοϛ drákontos) could also mean "snake", but it usually refers to a kind of giant serpent that either possesses supernatural characteristics or is otherwise controlled by some supernatural power. The first mention of a "dragon" in ancient Greek literature occurs in the Iliad, in which Agamemnon is described as having a blue dragon motif on his sword belt and an emblem of a three-headed dragon on his breast plate. In lines 820-880 of the Theogony, a Greek poem written in the seventh century BC by the Boeotian poet Hesiod, the Greek god Zeus battles the monster Typhon, who has one hundred serpent heads that breath fire and speak all kinds of frightening animal noises. Zeus scorches all of Typhon's heads with his lightning bolts and then hurls Typhon into Tartarus. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the god Apollo uses his poisoned arrows to slay the serpent Python, who has been causing death and pestilence in the area around Delphi. Apollo then sets up his shrine there.
Hesiod also mentions that the hero Heracles slew the Lernaean Hydra, a multiple-headed serpent which dwelt in the swamps of Lerna. The name "Hydra" means "water snake" in Greek. According to the Bibliotheka of Pseudo-Apollodorus, the slaying of the Hydra was the second of the Twelve Labors of Heracles. Accounts disagree on which weapon Heracles used to slay the Hydra, but, by the end of the sixth century BC, it was agreed that the clubbed or severed heads needed to be cauterized to prevent them from growing back. Heracles was aided in this task by his nephew Iolaus. During the battle, a giant crab crawled out of the marsh and pinched Heracles's foot, but he crushed it under his heel. Hera placed the crab in the sky as the constellation Cancer. One of the Hydra's heads was immortal, so Heracles buried it under a heavy rock after cutting it off. For his Eleventh Labor, Heracles must procure a golden apples from the tree in the Garden of the Hesperides, which is guarded by an enormous serpent that never sleeps, which Pseudo-Apollodorus calls "Ladon". In earlier depictions, Ladon is often shown with many heads; the mythographer Pherecydes of Leros describes him as having one hundred heads, a description which is repeated by Pseudo-Apollodorus. In Pseudo-Apollodorus's account, Ladon is immortal, but Sophocles and Euripides both describe Heracles as killing him, although neither of them specifies how. The mythographer Herodorus is the first to state that Heracles slew him using his famous club. Apollonius of Rhodes, in his epic poem the Argonautica, describes Ladon as having been shot full of poisoned arrows dipped in the blood of the Hydra.
In the the founding myth of Thebes, Cadmus, a Phoenician prince, was instructed by Apollo to follow a heifer and found a city wherever it laid down. Cadmus and his men followed the heifer and, when it laid down, Cadmus ordered his men to find a spring so he could sacrifice the heifer to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. His men found a spring, but it was guarded by a dragon, which had been placed there by the god Ares, and the dragon killed them. Cadmus killed the dragon in revenge, either by smashing its head with a rock or using his sword. Following the advice of Athena, Cadmus tore out the dragon's teeth and planted them in the earth. An army of giant warriors (known as spartoi, which means "sown men") grew from the teeth like plants. Cadmus hurled stones into their midst, causing them to kill each other until only five were left. To make restitution for having killed Ares's dragon, Cadmus was forced to serve Ares as a slave for eight years. At the end of this period, Cadmus married Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. Cadmus and Harmonia moved to Illyria, where they ruled as king and queen, before eventually being transformed into dragons themselves.
In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus reported in Book IV of his Histories that western Libya was inhabited by monstrous serpents and, In Book III, he states that Arabia was home to many small, winged serpents, which came in a variety of colors and enjoyed the trees that produced frankincense. Herodotus remarks that the serpent's wings were like those of bats and that, unlike vipers, which are found in every land, winged serpents are only found in Arabia. In the New Testament, Revelation 12:3, written by John of Patmos, describes a vision of a Great Red Dragon with seven heads, ten horns, seven crowns, and a massive tail, an image which is clearly inspired by the vision of the four beasts from the sea in the Book of Daniel and the Leviathan described in various Old Testament passages. The Great Red Dragon knocks "a third of the sun... a third of the moon, and a third of the stars" out the sky and pursues the Woman of the Apocalypse. Revelation 12:7-9 declares: "And war broke out in Heaven. Michael and his angels fought against Dragon. Dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. Dragon the Great was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called Devil and Satan, the one deceiving the whole inhabited World - he was thrown down to earth and his angels were thrown down with him." Then a voice booms down from Heaven heralding the defeat of "the Accuser" (ho Kantegor).
In 217 AD, Flavius Philostratus (Greek: Φλάβιος Φιλόστρατος) discussed dragons (δράκων, drákōn) in India in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (II,17 and III,6–8). The Loeb Classical Library translation (by F.C. Conybeare) mentions (III,7) that "In most respects the tusks resemble the largest swine's, but they are slighter in build and twisted, and have a point as unabraded as sharks' teeth." According to a collection of books by Claudius Aelianus (Greek: Κλαύδιος Αἰλιανός) called On Animals, Ethiopia was inhabited by a species of dragon that hunted elephants and could grow to a length of 180 feet (55 m) with a lifespan rivaling that of the most enduring of animals.
Roman relief plate from late antiquity showing Heracles slaying Ladon
In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr is a giant serpent that encircles the entire realm of Miðgarð in the sea around it. According to the Gylfaginning from the Prose Edda, written by the thirteenth-century Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturluson, Thor, the Norse god of thunder, once went out on a boat with the giant Hymnir to the outer sea and fished for Jörmungandr using an ox-head as bait. Thor caught the serpent and, after pulling its head out of the water, smashed it with his hammer Mjölnir. Snorri states that the blow was not fatal: "and men say that he struck its head off on the sea bed. But I think the truth to tell you is that the Miðgarð Serpent still lives and lies in the surrounding sea."
Towards the end of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, a slave steals a cup from the hoard of a sleeping dragon, causing the dragon to wake up and go on a rampage of destruction across the countryside. the eponymous hero of the poem confronts the dragon alone, even though he is of advanced age, but is killed himself in the battle. The motif of a hero trying to sneak past a sleeping dragon and steal some of its treasure is common throughout many Old Norse sagas.
Mythical European dragons
The modern, western image of a dragon developed in western Europe during the Middle Ages through the combination of the snakelike dragons of classical Graeco-Roman literature, references to Near Eastern European dragons preserved in the Bible, and western European folk traditions. Dragons are generally depicted as living in rivers or having an underground lair or cave. They are envisioned as greedy and gluttonous, with voracious appetites. They are often identified with Satan, due to the references to Satan as a "dragon" in the Book of Revelation.
Fourteenth-century fresco by Giusto de' Menabuoi showing the Woman of the Apocalypse and the Great Red Dragon
A dragon illustration in a 1460 edition of the Medieval Liber Floridus
Woodblock carving of Saint George slaying the dragon (1501 or 1504) by Albrecht Dürer
Manuscript illustration of Saint George slaying the dragon from the Heures de Charles d'Angoulême (between 1503-1508)
Crest of the Noble house of Draeck or (dragon)
Golden dragon in Den Bosch
In Slavic mythology, the words "zmey", "zmiy" or "zmaj" are used to describe dragons. These words are masculine forms of the Slavic word for "snake", which are normally feminine (like Russian zmeya). In Romania, there is a similar figure, derived from the Slavic dragon and named zmeu. Exclusively in Polish and Belarusian folklore, as well as in the other Slavic folklores, a dragon is also called (variously) смок, цмок, or smok. In South Slavic folklores, the same thing is also called lamya (ламя, ламjа, lamja). Although quite similar to other European dragons, Slavic dragons have their peculiarities.
Russian dragons usually have heads in multiples of three. Some have heads that grow back if every single head is not cut off. In Ukraine and Russia, a particular dragon-like creature, Zmey Gorynych, has three heads and spits fire. According to one bylina, Zmey Gorynych was killed by bogatyr Dobrynya Nikitich.
Other Russian dragons (such as Tugarin Zmeyevich) have Turkic names, probably symbolizing the Mongols and other nomadic steppe peoples. Accordingly, St George (symbolizing Christianity) killing the Dragon (symbolizing Satan) is represented on the coat of arms of Moscow. Some prehistoric structures, notably the Serpent's Wall near Kiev, have been associated with dragons.
Modern statue of a "dragon family" in Varna, Bulgaria
Mythical Asian dragons
The Druk (Dzongkha: འབྲུག་), also known as 'Thunder Dragon', is one of the National symbols of Bhutan. In the Dzongkha language, Bhutan is known as Druk Yul "Land of Druk", and Bhutanese leaders are called Druk Gyalpo, "Thunder Dragon Kings". The druk was adopted as an emblem by the Drukpa Lineage, which originated in Tibet and later spread to Bhutan.
Aži Dahāka is the source of the modern Persian word azhdahā or ezhdehā اژدها (Middle Persian azdahāg) meaning "dragon", often used of a dragon depicted upon a banner of war. The Persians believed that the baby of a dragon will be the same color as the mother's eyes. Several other dragons and dragon-like creatures, all of them malevolent, are mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture. (See Zahhāk).
According to traditions, they have a huge body, a very scary face, their mouths are wide with lots of teeth, and their eyes are bright. Azhdahās are really normal snakes, according to Ajāyeb ul-Makhlooghāt, a book by Mohammad b. Mahmoud b. Ahmad-e Tusi (written in 1160 AD), "when a snake lives 100 years and its length becomes 30 gazes, it is called an azhdahā". He also wrote that "because of their harassment to other creatures, the God eventually will throw them in the sea and in there, their body continue to raise, such that their length becomes more than 10,000 gazes (a traditional measurement unit roundly equal to a meter). Then in the sea, they evolve to have two wings, like a fish, and the seawave is because of their movements. Eating the heart of an Azhdahā brings courage and bravery. Their skins are suitable to healing the wound of love, and if someone bury an azhdahā's head in a land, the conditions of that land will become good."
In East Asia, the concept of dragon appears largely in a form of a Long, a beneficent dragon-like creature from Chinese folklore. Another dragon-like creature is a Nāga, which is prevalent in some Southeast Asian countries with more direct influence from Vedic religion.
In China, depiction of the dragon can be found in artifacts from the Shang and Zhou dynasties with examples dating back to the 16th century BC. Archaeologist Zhōu Chong-Fa believes that the Chinese word for dragon is an onomatopoeia of the sound of thunder. The Chinese name for dragon is pronounced lóng in Mandarin Chinese or lùhng in Cantonese. Sometime after the 9th century AD, Japan adopted the Chinese dragon through the spread of Buddhism. Although the indigenous name for a dragon in Japanese is tatsu (たつ), a few of the Japanese words for dragon stem from the Chinese word for dragon, namely, ryū (りゅう) or ryō (りょう) (traditional: 龍; simplified: 竜). The Vietnamese word for dragon is rồng (龍) and the Korean word for dragon is ryong (hangul:용, hanja:龍).
The Chinese dragon (simplified Chinese: 龙; traditional Chinese: 龍; pinyin: lóng) is the highest-ranking animal in the Chinese animal hierarchy, strongly associated at one time with the emperor and hence power and majesty (the mythical bird fenghuang was the symbol of the Chinese empress), still recognized and revered. Its origins are vague, but its "ancestors can be found on Neolithic pottery as well as Bronze Age ritual vessels." Tradition has it composed of nine different animals, with nine sons, each with its own imagery and affiliations. It is the only mythological animal of the 12 animals that represent the Chinese calendar. 2012 was the Chinese year of the Water Dragon.
Dragon sculpture on top of Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan
Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India. Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese ones are water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water, and are typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. Gould writes (1896:248), the Japanese dragon is "invariably figured as possessing three claws".
Vietnamese dragons (rồng or long) are symbolic creatures in the folklore and mythology of Vietnam. According to an ancient creation myth, the Vietnamese people are descended from a dragon and a fairy.
To Vietnamese people, the dragon brings rain, essential for agriculture. It represents the emperor, the prosperity and power of the nation. Like the Chinese dragon, the Vietnamese dragon is the symbol of yang, representing the universe, life, existence, and growth. Extant references to the Vietnamese dragon are rare now, due to the fierce changes in history that accompanied the sinicization of the Nguyễn dynasty.
Sandra Martina Schwab writes, "With a few exceptions, including McCaffrey's Pern novels and the 2002 film Reign of Fire, dragons seem to fit more into the medievalized setting of fantasy literature than into the more technological world of science fiction. Indeed, they have been called the emblem of fantasy. The hero's fight against the dragon emphasizes and celebrates his masculinity, whereas revisionist fantasies of dragons and dragon-slaying often undermine traditional gender roles. In children's literature the friendly dragon becomes a powerful ally in battling the child's fears."
Dragons and dragon motifs are featured in many works of modern literature, particularly within the fantasy genre. Prominent works depicting dragons include J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion and The Hobbit, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire, and Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. Even by the 18th century, critical thinkers like Diderot were asserting that too much literature had been published on dragons: "There are already in books all too many fabulous stories of dragons".
The popular role playing game system Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) makes heavy use of dragons, and has served as inspiration for many other games' dragons. Though dragons usually serve as adversaries, they can be either good or evil, with their alignment being determined by their species. For example, a red dragon is evil and breathes fire while a silver dragon is good and breathes cold.
Dragons have also been prevalent in other forms of media such as films, television shows, and video games. These forms of media have a large reach on the society, making the modern depiction of the dragon more widespread. In these films and others that contain dragons, dragons are major participants in the plot and character development. A few notable dragons in films include Saphira from Eragon, Smaug from The Hobbit, Draco from Dragonheart, and King Ghidorah from the Godzilla franchise.
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