One of the most enduring creatures of myth, legend, and fantasy is that of the dragon, a great fire-breathing serpent with wings. At least that is how most of us from the Western tradition think of a dragon.
When you look into the history of this legend, though, you will see that stories of these creatures permeate many cultures, and although similar, they are not all the same.
The stories of dragons go back a long time. Satan is described as “a great dragon” in the Biblical book of Revelation, and dragons appear in Greek and Roman legends as well. The word “dragon” comes from the Latin, draco, which comes from the Greek word drakon.
The Hellenistic and Roman dragons are more serpentine than our familiar lizard-like dragons. They often have a poisonous bite, and may or may not have legs, or the capability to breath fire.
The Anglo-Saxons and the Celts of 7th century Britain certainly had their dragon legends, told around the fire on a cold winter’s night, no doubt. A dragon appears in the marvellous poem Beowulf, and it is in fact a dragon that finally kills Beowulf himself. In the poem, a slave steals a jewelled cup from a dragon’s lair, awakening the beast, who goes on a rampage of destruction, prompting Beowulf to gather some men to go kill it.
So the king of the Geats [i.e. Beowulf]
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed. (2575-2583)
There are many familiar dragon-elements in this story: the treasure, the scales, the breath of fire, and the fact the dragon lives underground, in a mound.
Beowulf is the first mention of a heroic dragon-slayer in English literature, but he is certainly not the last.* In fact, St. George, the patron saint of England, famously slew a dragon to rescue a doomed princess, given as a sacrifice to appease the creature. And this motif appeared many times in the centuries to follow. What would King Arthur’s knights have done with themselves if they hadn’t had lots of princesses to rescue from lots of dragons?
Speaking of Arthurian legend, the dragon on the Welsh flag is said to refer to the legend of Merlin where he saw a vision of a red dragon, representing Britain, fighting a white dragon, which represented the Saxon invaders.
Dragons were called wyrm in Saxon legends as well as draco. Wyrm means worm, and it indicates both the earth-dwelling nature and the snake-like appearance of the creature.
Around the seventeenth century another dragon-like creature appeared in legend, that of the wyvern. This is similar to a dragon but with two legs instead of four, and often are portrayed as as smaller and less intelligent than dragons, at least in more modern-day interpretations.
In all of the depictions of dragons in the European continent, they are generally viewed as evil creatures, greedy and bestial. But another important source of dragon legends comes from the Far East. Dragons there are seen as bringing good luck and prosperity. They also can be shape-shifters. They do not have wings, but can fly using magic means. They start out as water-serpents, and eventually change into dragons, with scales. This is just a brief sketch of the typical Eastern dragon – there is lots of information about them if you want to spend a fascinating afternoon searching the web!
Dragons are a staple of fantasy literature. At the beginning, dragons generally were portrayed in stories as evil, mirroring the myths they were based on. Tolkien’s Smaug was a deliberate nod to Beowulf’s dragon, and many others followed suit.
But interestingly enough, dragons have undergone a bit of an evolution in fantasy stories. I believe Anne McCaffrey started this trend in modern times, with her fantastic Dragonriders of Pern series, the first of which, Dragonflight, was published in 1968.. Her Pern dragons were intelligent, sensitive creatures who bonded telepathically with their riders, becoming their constant companions and partners for life. They used their fire-breathing capabilities to flame the deadly Thread which rained down on Pern every few years, causing massive destruction if it wasn’t destroyed before it hit the ground.
These books are treasures, and if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them. Naomi Novik’s popular Temeraire series, beginning with Her Majesty’s Dragon, owes a huge nod to Pern. Novik’s dragons are similar to the Pern dragons, and their riders also share a special bond with them. Novik plays on the differences between European dragons and Asian dragons in her series too, which is fun.
Thankfully, stories about dragons aren’t going away soon. I often wonder if these stories, which go back so very far in human history, have some basis in reality. Some speculate they stem from snakes that spit poisonous venom, or pterodactyls that survived the dinosaur extinction, or Komodo dragons. I don’t know. These myths are so ancient, I’d like to think they are pointing back to a deeper reality than we can even imagine. Maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll find out that dragons actually existed.**
Wouldn’t that be cool? (Or hot, I suppose.)
*If you want to see an epic clip of Beowulf fighting the dragon from the 2007 movie Beowulf, click here.
**The cautionary note to that wish is found in the 2002 movie, Reign of Fire.
Featured image by David REVOY, via Wikimedia commons.