A Brief Account of Life With Dragons
Updated: Jul 23
(Dragons in the Western World)
One of history’s most iconic mythological creatures is, of course, the dragon. Cultures from all over the world have their own dragon myths and legends, and as evidenced by modern books, films and children’s toys the dragon’s popularity remains undying.
There are two types are dragon that are most well-known – one originating in Western mythology, and the other originating in the East. In truth, these two creatures are entirely dissimilar, based on entirely different myths and only combined by a mistake in translation. In terms of their make-up and abilities, the Western and the Eastern dragons are entirely different beasts, and it is the Western dragon that we are going to be looking at today.
This dragon is typically depicted as a large reptilian creature, with leathery wings and the ability to breath fire. The number of legs may vary, with some claiming that a creature with four legs is a dragon, one with two legs is a wyvern and one with no legs a wyrm, although there is no universally agreed system of categorisation.
Different legends around Europe and the Mediterranean will ascribe the dragon varying levels of malice, cognition, and magical ability. In some, the dragon is nothing more than a mythical animal. In others, it is a wily trickster, capable of human speech and humanoid thought. Regardless of minor changes to the legends, the key features of the dragon remain the same and stretch back as far as Ancient Greece and the Middle East – where some of the first dragon myths originated.
Far from the mythological creatures that we know dragons to be today, the dragons described in Ancient Greece may not have been entirely fictional. The word ‘dragon’ originates from the Greek; draken – a word which referred to any serpentine creature of great size. This could be used for both actual snakes, and the fictional ones which appeared in Greek myth. These fictional draken had very little in common with what we would think of as a dragon today. Although, like the Western dragon they were primarily reptilian in nature.
Some of the more famous examples include: the Lernaean Hydra, a reptilian creature living in the waters of Lerna who spewed poisonous gas and had many heads – each time one of its heads was cut off, two more could grow in its place; the serpent Ladon, a snake that coiled around a tree in the Garden of the Hesperides and guarded the golden apples from thieves; and the Colchian Dragon, a creature with a crest and three tongues which did not sleep. Each of these creatures (except perhaps the Hydra) was described as more snake-like than lizard-like, unlike the dragons known today. And while they are associated with poison and with guarding precious treasures, they are not described with one of the dragons most common attributes – the ability to breath fire.
While they are widespread today, legends of dragons which breathe fire originate from the Middle East. One of the earliest is Yalweh, a figure from the Hebrew Bible who is a divine warrior, sometimes depicted as a draconic creature, with smoke and flame pouring from his mouth. Another is the terrible Humbaba, a fire-breathing drakonic beast first described in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In many of the early depiction of dragons breathing fire, however the dragons did not technically breathe fire. They spat it. Or, according to some accounts (notably the epic poem, Beowulf) belched it – in large balls of flame and poison. While this may seem a subtle distinction, it is this that has led to some ascribing to the theory that legends of fire-breathing dragons in fact stem from actual encounters with the very real spitting cobra. When the spitting cobra feels threatened, they rear back and (as the name suggests) spit a mouthful of venom into their aggressor’s eyes. The venom is highly potent and said to create a horrible burning sensation that can cause severe damage, and even blindness. The cobra is both shy and elusive, so the rare human encounter and injury may have elevated this creature to myth as a fire-breathing threat.
Once legends of dragons reached Britain, the creatures described were given an extensive make-over. This was common amongst legendary creatures when they reached the British Isles, and the same thing happened to the Unicorn and the Questing Beast. Dragons began to appear in art as more lizard-like than snakish. They were painted with their classic wings, and a varying number of legs, though four became the typical number. These four-legged dragons became staple features of Arthurian mythology, where they were often omens of victory or defeat. A famous legend from Arthurian myth tells that a young Merlin saw two dragons, one white and one red, locked in combat. The white dragon represented the Anglo-Saxons, and the red dragon the people of Vortigern (the ancestors of the Welsh) – the defeat of the white dragon represented the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons.
Dragons appear again in Arthurian legend when a young Prince Uther saw a burning comet in the sky. The comet was so bright that it can be seen even in the day, and from it a ray of light emerged in the shape of a giant dragon. Again, Merlin was called on to explain this omen. He declared that Uther’s older brother was dead, and that Uther would be king. Furthermore, he declared that Uther would have a powerful son, who would unite Britain and a daughter who would birth kings. The daughter was Morgana, while the son was the legendary King Arthur. After hearing this, Prince Uther gave himself the name Pendragon. And so, the father of Arthur Pendragon took the throne, paving the way for his son to become the once and future king.
One notable thing about the dragons mentioned in the early mythology is that they were not, on the whole, innately evil creatures. Sometimes they were antagonists, yes, but they were not inherently evil. They were beasts, or they were forces of nature – like the ocean they could be wild, or they could be calm, but they were not necessarily malicious. And, even in cases where they did harm humans, this was often (though not always) the result of humans attacking or offending them, for example, attempting to steal a treasure they protected.
In medieval England, however, this changed. As Christianity became more and more prevalent, opinions about dragons began to shift. They were no longer natural, changeable forces, but instead wicked, evil, creatures associated with the devil. In the Book of Revelation, Satan is referred to as a dragon, and a serpent. With their horns, their reptilian nature and their association with fire, it is easy to see how dragons may have come to be associated with the Devil.
Another aspect of this, was that dragons began to become associated with paganism, and more specifically, the overcoming of it. The legend of George and the dragon is a popular British myth – particularly in England of which St George is the patron saint.
The legend goes that once a village was besieged by a terrible dragon. The pagan villagers believed that by sacrificing young virgins to the dragon they would satiate its anger. They each took turns to draw lots and one unlucky youth was given to the dragon and devoured. Eventually the town’s princess, and the king’s only daughter was chosen to be sacrificed. Before the dragon could kill her, St George appeared, calling upon the Holy Spirit to help him slay the dragon. The villagers were so astounded and grateful for this incredible deed that they converted to Christianity. And so, the dragon (and thus, paganism) was defeated.
This legend forms the basis of the classic dragon myth, in which a young princess is kidnapped by an evil dragon and locked in a tower, only to later be rescued by a knight in shining armour. The dragon in these stories is, of course, killed.
In modern times, dragons are not generally thought to exist however this has not always been the case. In fact, the existence of dragons was once thought to be so certain that the excavated skull of a woolly rhinoceros was displayed as a genuine dragon skull outside the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria. The skull was discovered in a quarry in 1335 and remained in display all the way up to 1582. The skull was used as the basis of a dragon statue that now sits in the town square and (although it is not particularly accurate) technically counts as one of the first attempted reconstructions of an extinct creature.
Today, dragons are found more commonly in fiction than in reality. Though the image of a ferocious princess-eating dragon is still alive and well in modern stories, as demonstrated by Disney’s shapeshifting Maleficent and Tolkien’s gold-hoarding Smaug, there is also a trend for more ‘friendly’ dragons. The films and books with these friendly dragons in, tend to be incredibly popular – How to Train Your Dragon, made $43.7 million dollars in its opening weekend. Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle about a boy named Eragon and his bonded dragon, Saphira, also proved incredibly popular. The first two books sold 15.5 million copies worldwide, and the third book sold 4500 copies during the first day of its UK release.
Although they are no longer largely believed in, in the West, dragons remain at the forefront of the public consciousness. From books, to films and children’s cartoon - and even logos and even beer brands, stories of their adventures, defeats, successes and friendships continue to capture the imagination. And so, despite their shift from 'genuine creature' to fictional companion -- the dragon remains on of history, and Europe's, most magical creatures.