In antiquity, dragons were mostly envisaged as serpents, but since the Middle Ages, it has become common to depict them with legs, resembling a lizard. Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body like a huge lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from their mouths. The European dragon has bat-like wings growing from its back. A dragon-like creature with wings but only a single pair of legs is known as a wyvern.
The association of the serpent with a monstrous opponent overcome by a heroic deity has its roots in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, including Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. Humbaba, the fire-breathing dragon-fanged beast first described in the Epic of Gilgamesh is sometimes described as a dragon with Gilgamesh playing the part of dragon-slayer. The legless serpent (Chaoskampf) motif entered Greek mythology and ultimately Christian mythology, although the serpent motif may already be part of prehistoric Indo-European mythology as well, based on comparative evidence of Indic and Germanic material.
Although dragons occur in many legends around the world, different cultures have varying stories about monsters that have been grouped together under the dragon label. Some dragons are said to breathe fire or to be poisonous, such as in the Old English poem Beowulf. They are commonly portrayed as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and possessing typically scaly or feathered bodies. They are sometimes portrayed as hoarding treasure. Some myths portray them with a row of dorsal spines. European dragons are more often winged, while Chinese dragons resemble large snakes. Dragons can have a variable number of legs: none, two, four, or more when it comes to early European literature.
Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom—often said to be wiser than humans—and longevity. They are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power, and are often associated with wells, rain, and rivers. In some cultures, they are also said to be capable of human speech. In some traditions, dragons are said to have taught humans to talk.
Narratives about dragons often involve them being killed by a hero. Examples can be traced to the Chaoskampf of the mythology of the Ancient Near East (e.g. Hadad vs. Yam, Marduk vs. Tiamat, Teshub vs. Illuyanka, etc.; the Biblical Leviathan presumably reflects a corresponding opponent of an early version of Yahweh). The motif is continued in Greek Apollo, and the early Christian narratives about Archangel Michael and Saint George. The slaying of Vrtra by Indra in the Rigveda also belongs in this category. The theme survives into medieval legend and folklore, with dragon slayers such as Beowulf, Sigurd, Tristan, Margaret the Virgin, Heinrich von Winkelried, Dobrynya Nikitich, Skuba Dratewka/Krakus. In Biblical myth, the archetype is alluded to in the descendants of Adam crushing the head of the Serpent, and in Christian mythology, this was interpreted as corresponding to Christ as the "New Adam" crushing the Devil.
The blood of a slain dragon is depicted as either beneficent or as poisonous in medieval legend and literary fiction. In German legend, dragon blood has the power to render invincible skin or armor bathed in it, as is the case with Siegfried's skin or Ortnit's armor. In the Slavic myth, the Earth refuses it as it is so vile that Mother Earth wishes not to have it within her womb, and it remains above ground for all eternity. The blood of the dragon in Beowulf has acidic qualities, allowing it to seep through iron. Heinrich von Winkelried dies after the blood of the dragon slain by him accidentally drips on him.
In Ancient Greece the first mention of a "dragon" is derived from the Iliad where 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. However, the Greek word used (δράκων drákōn, genitive δράκοντοϛ drákontos) could also mean "snake". 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. It could grow to a length of 180 feet (55 m) and had a lifespan rivaling that of the most enduring of animals.
European dragons are usually depicted as malevolent under Christianity; pre-Christian dragons, such as Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales, are seen as benevolent.
Russian dragons usually have heads in multiples of three. Some have heads that grow back if every single head isn't cut off. In Ukraine and Russia, a particular dragon-like creature, Zmey Gorynych, has three heads and spits fire. 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.
In the early Vedic religion, Vritra (Sanskrit: वृत्र (Devanāgarī) or Vṛtra (IAST)) "the enveloper", was an Asura and also a "naga" (serpent) (Sanskrit: नाग) or possibly dragon-like creature, the personification of drought and enemy of Indra. Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi ("snake") (Sanskrit: अहि), and he is said to have had three heads.
The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus: contains a long detailed description of India heavily infested with dragons, but this does not correspond with modern Indian belief, and likely not with Indian belief as it was in his time, whether Apollonius invented this story, or whether he believed someone else who told him it.
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. In Middle Persian he is called Dahāg or Bēvar-Asp, the latter meaning "[he who has] 10,000 horses." Several other dragons and dragon-like creatures, all of them malevolent, are mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture.
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 which appears in the form of Naga, which is prevalent in some Southeast Asian countries with more direct influence from Vedic religion, will be described largely in the article Naga.
In China, depiction of the dragon (traditional:龍;simplified:龙) can be found in artifacts from the Shang and Zhou dynasties with examples dating back to the 16th century BC
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.
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.
- Growing up, I used to read a lot of fairy tales and some of them involved stories with dragons. I am aware that you have used them a lot in your stories as well. Why do fantasy writers, as well as readers, find them such fascinating creatures and weave whole books around them?
- The dragon is a core archetype, not just of Fantasy, but of religion, mythology and human psychology. The dragon always represents the absolute of an emotional drive, usually fear; there is, conceptually, nothing more terrifying than a dragon. I say “conceptually”; the image of the dragon represents a profoundity of terror. The hero who can slay the dragon symbolically masters himself, overcoming all fear and transcending personal limitations. In this context, the dragon is usually aligned to the sword (or occasionally the lance), the weapon representing the ability to overcome said inner limitations. Dragons hold such fascination because they are “real” in the ontological sense of the image itself existing in the human mind.
- Are dragons mostly perceived as good or bad in fantasy books?
- Very much depends on who you read. The dragon image is equally powerful whether it's portrayed as benevolent or malevolent. In the malevolent form, as discussed, the dragon represents the ultimate personal terror, the innermost nightmare of the character confronting it given physical form. As a benevolent image, the dragon represents the highest flight of fantasy and power the character can attain; their ultimate potential, as it were.
- Are they dinosaurs’ evolution or just gullible peasants’ myths? What’s your version?
- Dragons are emphatically NOT dinosaurs. The descriptors of a dragon are very specific and all the stories and folklore are amazingly consistent and detailed. Of all the varieties of dragon described in world mythology, not one matches any known dinosaur. It should also not need pointing out that dinosaurs and humans NEVER co-existed; dragons, if there ever was such a real beast, persisted well into the Middle Ages. There are plenty of Medieval paintings of fire-breathing winged serpents; there are none of Tyranosaurus Rex. I make no assertion whether dragons really did once walk the planet. If you want a theory as to how they might, and yet leave no proof, Peter Dickinsons's “The Flight of Dragons” is the ultimate source. Personally, I hold that dragons are real in the human mind, and that is quite real enough.
- What’s your favourite dragon story?
- Probably the first dragon story any English boy learns is not St George & The Dragon (which is actually not a native British story at all), but The Lambton Wyrm. The story appears all over northern England, and despite a strong Christian moral tone now, still carries hallmarks of a far older Celtic root in the imagery.
The story goes that a young man, while out fishing, caught a strange creature too ugly to eat. So he threw it back. He grew up and went away to war abroad, and in the intervening years the creature grew into a vast wyrm, a dragon, lairing at the well. On his return, the young man, now rich, resolves to slay the wyrm and secure his rank and wealth at home. He duly sets out, but is warned that many have tried before, and none succeeded. So he equips himself specially to fight the beast, on condition of a vow that upon his return in victory, he will kill the first person to greet him at the door of his home. He also gives instruction to his family to let the dog out first when they hear his hunting-horn sound his return...
Here versions differ:
- In the latest, most Christian account, it is a local priest who advises our hero, and tells him that the dragon is the young man's penance for his childhood sin of fishing on a Sunday. Further, the priest advises him to lay down his sword and shield (typical), and poison it instead. To this end, the priest drives long blades into a wooden log, and wraps the log with meat. Our “hero” then returns to the well, baits the dragon with the meat, then runs and hides from the beast's death throes. The blades tear the dragon's innards, and it explodes. Returning home well pleased with himself, our hero sounds his horn to let his family know he's survived. Overjoyed, his father is the first to greet him, the dog second. The young man kills the dog anyway, breaking his vow to the priest, and all his war-fortunes dwindle away until the family dies in poverty.
- In the older, more Celtic accounts, it is a local druid (sometimes a wise-woman) who warns our hero of the failed heroes gone before to face the dragon, and lays him under a gaes (a magical vow) that he shall live, provided that he kills the first person to greet him upon his return home, etcetera. This time, the young man equips himself by spending his war-fortune on a fine suit of armour covered in spikes and barbs, and goes to do battle with the dragon. He fights the dragon in the water, to escape its fiery breath, and whenever the wyrm closes to attack with tooth and claw, it wounds itself on his armour. Eventually, the young man is victorious returning home, he sounds his horn, his father releases the dog, which is duly sacrificed to the gods, and the family prospers.
There are some pretty obvious differences in the moral assumptions and imagery of both versions. First, in the Christian account, the dragon is directly synonymous with Satan; it is a punishment on the entire town for the misdemeanour of a single child. That the Celts lacked any such “healthy” sense of Christian guilt is marked simply by the absence of this detail from the original story. That it's a complete fabrication added to the original is seen in the confusion of the Christian account with the term “well”. Here, the boy is fishing in a river, takes his ugly catch to a well, and throws it in. The beast then lairs atop the hill, coiled around the well; a rather comical image. A “well” in a Celtic story however means a natural spring; the word usually used is “lyn”, and magical springs are the common setting of Celtic stories of all kinds and indeed a great many dragon myths the world over.
It also makes little sense, in a Christian context, to decree a sacrifice human or animal for any reason; the whole point is that Jesus stands for all sacrifices. So this detail is clearly an original Celtic note; the Celts did indeed sacrifice humans and animals, and dogs in particular have a detailed and consistent body of mythology the world over which strongly features a sacrificial theme.
Moreover, the Christian account does not extol personal heroism, but rather enjoins a sort of pious cowardice: It is the priest who provides the answer, and our “hero” triumphs not by physical combat with the dragon, but by lowering a joint of deadly bait down a well. It's worth noting, also, that this method of killing a dragon is a direct lift from the Bible (Apocrypha and Greek Orthodox, Daniel in “Bel and the Dragon”); poisoning the thing, so that it explodes. There is then a tacit moral injunction in this account that the Bible is a source of directly applicable answers day to day...
Taking instead the Celtic meaning of “well”, a natural spring, obviously makes a lot more sense as the dragon's lair and the scene of battle. Here, we have a solution to the dragon's fiery breath, a sensible plan to fight the beast, and the hero doing the whole thing by his own hand. The morality and attitude of the story here is completely different: The ultimate terror represented by the dragon is not “sin” or any otherworldly matter, but rather a literal monster. The Celts were a hunting society; we see instead the epitome of the qualities that they prized, being courage and cunning, displayed against the ultimate monster a man might conceive.
The Celtic version, finally, gives us a detail arguably unique to this story: The use of “magic” armour. All dragons stories involve the acquisition of a weapon to defeat the beast, usually a magic sword; neither detail is compulsory, it may be a lance, arrows, or indeed poisoned bait, what matters is that the weapon be acquired through special knowledge, through consulting wisdom (it is Merlin, for example, who guides Arthur to Excalibur). The older version of the Lambton Wyrm is a rare example, uniquely so among Celtic stories, of the “weapon” being a suit of armour. The Celts were not a heavily armoured culture, and the making of a full suit of mail a massive expense not lightly undertaken. Here we the final stamp of Celtic authenticity on the story; the young man spends his fortune to make the armour, risks his life to kill the dragon, makes his sacrifices to the gods, and is thereafter supported and made wealthy again by the community. The Christian hero, by comparison, is working a penance to begin with, gets no credit and ends up penniless at the end.
I prefer the Celtic version.