You probably have heard about the Komodo Dragon. It always bothered me that it was called a “dragon” as its appearance didn’t correspond with what I imagine a dragon looks like. It’s ridiculous to see things like that, but the human brain is strange. Anyway, I was looking into where the name came from, and that led me to read about what I think of when were are talking about “Dragons.”
Who Invented The Dragon?
The word “dragon” is dating back to the 13th century when it first entered the English language. It was derived from two ancient languages: Latin and Greek. In Latin, the word “dracōnis” referred to a dragon, and in Greek, it was known as “drakōns.”
More precisely, the Latin word “dracōnis” comes from the Greek word “drakōn” which was used to describe various serpent-like–or dragon-like–creatures. These beings were often depicted as large, powerful, and sometimes dangerous creatures. The word “drakōn” was associated with both serpents and dragons.
The Origins of the Myth of the Dragon
One of the earliest depictions of dragons can be found in the mythologies of the ancient Near East, particularly in Mesopotamian art and literature. Here, dragon-like creatures are described in texts such as the Epic of Creation (Enuma Elish). These dragons were portrayed as giant snakes and often symbolized chaos and primordial forces.
They were believed to be powerful beings that existed before the world as we know it came into being. The Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth, described a great battle between the god Marduk and the dragon Tiamat, representing the struggle between order and chaos. The dragon Tiamat was depicted as a fearsome creature with multiple heads and a serpentine body.
The Egyptian Dragon
In Ancient Egyptian mythology, dragons took the form of serpentine creatures like Apep or Apophis, a giant serpent believed to reside in the realm of the dead or below the horizon. Apep was considered the opponent of light and Ma’at, the cosmic order. He was depicted as a formidable enemy of the sun god Ra, and every night, during Ra’s journey through the underworld, Apep would attempt to devour him.
The battles between Ra and Apep represented the perpetual struggle between light and darkness, order and chaos. Another Egyptian dragon was Nehebkau, a giant serpent who guarded the Duat, the realm of the dead. Nehebkau was often depicted as a protective deity who assisted Ra in his daily journey through the underworld. Although initially considered an evil spirit, Nehebkau later became associated with the afterlife and was one of the forty-two judges in the Hall of Ma’at.
The Greek Dragon
In Ancient Greek mythology, Dragons played a significant role and were featured in various stories and legends. They were often depicted with poisonous spit and sometimes fiery breath. One of the most famous dragon-slaying myths was the tale of Heracles (Hercules) and the Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra was a fearsome serpent with multiple heads, and each time Heracles cut off one of its heads, two more would grow in its place. This challenging feat represented the hero’s bravery and strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Another well-known Greek dragon was the monstrous Typhon, who was said to have been so immense that his head touched the stars. He was considered a threat to the gods themselves and engaged in a fierce battle with Zeus. Zeus ultimately defeated Typhon, and the dragon was buried under Mount Etna, where his fiery breath caused volcanic eruptions.
The Chinese Dragon
In ancient Chinese mythology and culture, Dragons were associated with good fortune and potent auspicious powers. The Chinese dragon was seen as a benevolent and wise creature, often symbolizing imperial strength and authority. The traditional image of the Chinese dragon evolved over time, from the Yinglong, a winged dragon, to the more familiar wingless dragon seen in Chinese art.
Dragons were often depicted as beings that could control the elements and bring rain for a bountiful harvest. They were also believed to protect the Chinese people and their emperors. The Chinese New Year celebrations include dragon dances, where people perform with long dragon puppets to bring good luck and prosperity for the coming year.
Additionally, Chinese dragons were associated with the four cardinal directions and the four seasons, each represented by a different dragon color.
The Zoroastrian Dragon
In Zoroastrian literature from Iran and Persia, dragons like Aži Dahāka were seen as the personification of sin and greed. Aži Dahāka, also known as Zohak, was a fearsome dragon king with three heads and six eyes. According to Zoroastrian texts, he ruled for a thousand years, spreading evil and chaos. He was eventually defeated by the hero Thraetaona, who was assisted by the god Ahura Mazda.
Persian Sufi literature also suggested that dragons symbolized the sensual soul, greed, and lust, needing to be mortified in a spiritual battle. In these myths, dragons represented the forces of darkness and temptation that humans had to overcome to achieve spiritual enlightenment and purity.
The American Dragon
In the mythologies of Indigenous American peoples, several dragons and serpent-like creatures were present. For example, the Illini people depicted the Piasa Bird, a draconic figure in murals overlooking the Mississippi River. The Piasa Bird was believed to be a guardian spirit or a creature associated with water and weather phenomena.
The Horned Serpent was a recurring figure in the mythologies of many indigenous tribes of the Southeast Woodlands, associated with water, rain, lightning, and thunder. Some tribes believed that the Horned Serpent brought beneficial rains, while others saw it as a fearsome creature that needed to be respected and appeased.
In these cultures, dragons and serpent-like beings often represented powerful natural forces and spirits, and their myths were intertwined with their understanding of the natural world.
The Christian Dragon
The Medieval European dragons were often depicted as greedy and gluttonous monsters, with voracious appetites. They were frequently associated with Satan and represented evil and chaos. Dragons became prominent in Christian theology, and they were often portrayed as adversaries that had to be defeated by righteous and godly heroes.
One of the most famous dragon-slaying myths in medieval Europe was the tale of Saint George and the Dragon. According to the legend, Saint George, a Christian knight, rescued a town threatened by a terrible dragon by slaying the beast. The story became a popular motif in European art and literature, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.
Dragons were often used as allegorical representations of sin and temptation, and vanquishing a dragon was a metaphor for overcoming one’s own inner demons. Medieval European dragons also appeared in heraldry, where they were used as symbols of strength and power for noble families and kingdoms.
Dragons of Science
The belief in dragons was once reinforced by the discovery of fossils belonging to prehistoric animals, including dinosaurs. Ancient cultures, lacking knowledge of paleontology, may have interpreted these fossils as evidence of dragons.
For example, in ancient China, dinosaur bones were referred to as dragon bones. The myth of dragons as giant, fire-breathing creatures may have originated from ancient encounters with the fossils of large reptiles, such as dinosaurs and marine reptiles.
As scientific understanding of paleontology developed over time, the notion of literal dragons faded, and the creatures became firmly entrenched in the realm of myth and fantasy. However, dragons still retained their symbolic and cultural significance, and their influence on human imagination and storytelling remained undiminished.
Dragons of Fantasy
In modern fantasy, dragons have become diverse and versatile creatures, appearing in a wide range of settings and roles. They can be depicted as wise and benevolent beings, powerful and majestic creatures, or malevolent and fearsome foes.
Dragons have become iconic figures in popular culture, featuring in everything from children’s books like “How to Train Your Dragon” to epic fantasy series like “Game of Thrones.” In the realm of tabletop gaming, dragons play a central role in role-playing games like “Dungeons & Dragons,” where different types of dragons possess unique abilities, personalities, and characteristics.