A mythical reptilian beast, the dragon is featured in numerous cultures throughout history and around the world, with each culture interpreting the dragon in their own unique ways and in accordance with their own societal preoccupations and anxieties. Ranging among the monstrous serpents of classical Greco-Roman antiquity, the wyrms of northern European legend, the demonic dragons of Christian medieval western Europe, and the all-powerful dragons of China and Japan, here we will explore the myths surrounding dragons and the cultures from which they came.
Ancient Greco-Roman Dragons
In Ancient Greek, the word for “dragon” can also signify a snake or serpent. From countless myths, however, these serpents are clearly large in scale and possess supernatural powers. Thus to defeat a dragon is to assert one’s heroic – and even near-godlike – status, as, according to Hesiod’s Theogony, even Zeus himself fought the Typhon, a monster with one hundred serpentine heads which, in true dragon-fashion, breathed fire.
Heracles (or, in Roman myth, Hercules) was the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene. Their union enraged Zeus’ wife, Hera, who temporarily afflicted Heracles with madness, during which time he killed his wife and their children. To atone for this, Apollo tasked Heracles with performing twelve arduous tasks for Eurystheos, the Mycenaean king.
Among these labors was the killing of the Hydra of Lerna, as recorded in Apollodorus of Athens’ Library of Greek Mythology. Even a great hero such as Heracles, however, needed help from his nephew, Iolaus, to defeat this dragon, as whenever Heracles clubbed one of the Hydra’s heads, a further two would spring up in its place. With Iolaus’ help, he cauterized the club wounds so that no further heads could appear and then severed the Hydra’s one immortal head, thus defeating it.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox
Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
The Greek hero Jason is best known as the treacherous husband of Medea and the hero who won the Golden Fleece. In winning the Golden Fleece, however, he had to prove his heroism against the Colchian Dragon, a large serpent who guarded it. In some versions of the myth, he kills the dragon; in others, the dragon is drugged by Medea, and in the red-figure kylix scene depicted above, he is first ingested by the dragon and then disgorged with the help of the goddess Athena.
In his Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid also writes of the part played by a dragon in the foundation myth of Thebes in central Greece. Cadmus, a Phoenician man, came to Greece in search of his sister, Europa, whom Zeus had abducted. After being instructed by the Delphic oracle to follow a cow to find out where he should establish a city, the cow stopped by a spring guarded by a dragon as it was sacred to Ares (Mars).
Cadmus slew the dragon with his javelin and, on the advice of Athena, sowed the dragon’s teeth like seeds. From these, warriors sprung up from the ground and fought among themselves until only five were left standing. These five then called a truce (prompted by Athena) and, with Cadmus, founded the city of Thebes.
Ares, however, was still enraged by Cadmus killing his dragon guard and later turned his wife into snakes by way of revenge.
As well as being the stuff of heroic legends, the Romans also wrote of dragons as natural animals. In writing his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder, for instance, writes of dragons alongside his entry on elephants. The reason for this was, according to Pliny, that dragons and elephants were both native to India and were each other’s mortal enemies.
Pliny also argues that elephants have cool blood, which entices the dragon, who (being so huge) can easily exsanguinate an elephant. However, in doing so, the exsanguinated elephant invariably falls back on the dragon, according to Pliny, thus crushing the dragon to death.
Wyrms in Northern European Legend
“Wyrm” is the Old English word for a dragon and is similar in both etymology and appearance to the Old Norse Ormr (an enormous serpent). A similar parallel exists between the Old English Draca and the Old Norse Dreki, which was winged and, in some instances, also had legs. What all had in common, however, was that they did not breathe fire, as we have now come to expect of dragons, but rather their breath was acidic and poisonous.
As with ancient Greco-Roman mythology, it was a mark of heroism in ancient Germanic myths to be able to slay such beasts. And, as Zeus slew the Typhon, so too did Thor attack Jörmungandr, the world-serpent or Midgard serpent, though, according to Snorri Sturluson, the blow was not fatal.
The archetypal dragon-slayer of Old Norse mythology is Sigurd, who slew the dragon Fáfnir. According to the Völsunga saga, Sigurd was brought up by a dwarf called Reginn. Reginn had a brother named Fáfnir, who guarded a great treasure hoard and had originally been a giant but had been turned into a dragon due to his avarice – a metamorphic origin story that is atypical of most dragons in Old Norse mythology. Reginn tells Sigurd this and even forges him a sword to aid him in his quest to slay Fáfnir. Sigurd accomplishes his quest by digging a pit and waiting until Fáfnir comes to the water to drink. Then, when the dragon is positioned over the pit, Sigurd fatally stabs Fáfnir.
Like Fáfnir, the dragon in the Old English poem Beowulf guards a hoard. The poem’s eponymous hero, however, is old by the time he fights the dragon and, like Heracles, is assisted by the warrior Wiglaf. While Beowulf and Wiglaf do defeat the dragon, Beowulf dies from his wounds.
Dragons in the Middle Ages in Europe
Beowulf bears witness to a cultural shift from heroic paganism (from which tradition the poem is derived) to Christianity. And just as the dragon was a sinister foe in heroic pagan literature, so too was it an ill-omen within the medieval Christian imagination, often anticipating calamity and signifying the devil himself. For example, Hrabanus Maurus writes in his De universo (About Everything) that the dragon can be understood as an allegorical figure, signifying the devil or his minions.
However, in Abbot Herman of Tournai’s Concerning the Miracles of Blessed Mary of Laon, the dragon is presented as a scourge-of-God, meting out retributive justice after the deacon of a church near Winchester snubbed the canons of the cathedral of Laon, who was touring the cathedral’s relics around southern England after the cathedral had burned down. According to Herman, the dragon was sent to destroy the canon’s church while sparing the homes of those who had offered the canons hospitality.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, he includes a prophecy of Merlin’s in which two dragons (one red, one white) are to be read allegorically. Merlin tells King Vortigern that the white dragon’s victory over the red signals the end of Vortigern’s kingdom when the Saxons would invade Britain.
While Geoffrey of Monmouth was himself a cleric, this secular medieval dragon story heralds the interest in dragon stories focusing on the Arthurian court, where knights perform deeds of valor by vanquishing dragons from the twelfth century onwards. For example, Chrétien de Troyes mentions in his tale of Yvain (a knight of the Round Table) that the knight has a lion for a companion after witnessing a fight between the lion and a dragon. Yvain sided with the lion on account of the dragon’s perceived “wickedness,” and together, they defeated the dragon.
Looking East: Chinese and Japanese Dragons
The Chinese dragon (referred to as the loong, long, or lung in pinyin) is associated with good fortune as, unlike its Western counterpart, it was believed to bestow treasure rather than hoard it. Moreover, under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), scholars extolled the medicinal properties of dragons’ bones – though these were, in all probability, dinosaur bones.
Nonetheless, it was believed that, to properly administer dragon bones as medicine, one ought to know the dragon’s likes and dislikes. And so, in his compendium of medical wisdom, herbologist Li Shizhen drew on contemporary beliefs about the medicinal properties of dragons’ bones and, in doing so, crafted a highly detailed portrait of the Chinese dragon. He claimed that the dragon is born from an egg, loves jade but fears iron, feasts on swallows, and can burn even water with its fiery breath.
As dragons were revered as powerful creatures controlling such phenomena as rainfall and typhoons, from the Han to the Qing Dynasties, the Chinese emperors were closely associated with dragons, with some emperors even claiming to be human incarnations of a divine dragon.
In contrast, in The Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki), the earliest surviving Japanese text, Ō No Yasumaro spun a national origin tale that sought to legitimate the royal family’s ruling position by tracing their ancestors back to the kami, including Susanoo-no-Mikoto, who slew the Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed dragon.
Across East and South-East Asia, the dragon is a potent mythical figure with various significations across different cultures. While the examples in this article are by no means exhaustive, they do nonetheless attest to the enduring source of fascination the dragon has provided for cultures around the world and throughout history. The dragon exercises a unique hold on the human imagination, and it shows no signs of abating.