Dragons in Mythology (Part 1 of 3)

People all over the world have always been fascinated by dragons. They appear within the mythologies of over two dozen cultures and even today are a common within popular literature, television, and more. 

Yes, yes, yes, to some degree, the popularity of dragons has led to an overabundance of them within the fantasy genre. And if you’ve read enough books where the dragons are poorly done or seem tacked-in, it can get exhausting to read about.

I sympathise with readers who tire of the same things over and over again (and I’m not just talking about dragons!). Still, most things that are popular gain that popularity for a reason.

Simply put, dragons are pretty badass. Fire-breathing reptiles with dominance over the skies? Sign me up. Assuming it’s not me they’re going to burn.

Often times, however, dragons in world mythologies didn’t exist because they were simply cool. They were sources of fear, respect, or reverence, sometimes more than one.

But where did the idea of dragons come from?

Dragon Origins

People have asked about the birth of dragons within human consciousness for years without finding a satisfactory answer. I’m not going to provide any groundbreaking ideas on this matter, as that’s not the goal of this blog post, but I do want to be clear that their history is a lot foggier than many would like.

It is difficult to explain how mythologies of fierce dragons popped up—pardon my terrible example—like agriculture, which was individually developed, created, and implemented around the world thousands of years ago.

There are several theories, however, one being the ancient discoveries of dinosaur bones. Although in our day and age, we can explain and understand ancient bones with science and well-developed identification techniques.

Thousands of years ago, though? People likely saw these strange, deceased creatures as proof of terrifying monsters that eventually developed into the fire-breathing-baby-stealing dragons we see today.

Although that theory is less popular than others, it does hold some merit. We do use our surroundings and discoveries to make sense of the world around us, after all.

A more likely conclusion is that ancient peoples embellished upon the fears of real, live, animals like snakes, crocodiles, and other reptiles. Snakes and crocodiles especially, in some parts of the world, would have attributed to many deaths and were worshipped by many civilizations.

It’s difficult to deny the influence snakes have had on dragons all over the world, at least. Dragons from China, Japan, and other Eastern countries are often described and depicted as serpentine.

Naga from Hindu and Buddhist mythologies are semi-divine, snakelike creatures from the underworld and can sometimes take human form. They’re said to be depictions of the king cobra, and Naga in Sanskrit means cobra or snake.

There are many more examples, but I wanted to save most of the specific dragon talk for further along in the post.

Interesting enough, serpentine dragons aren’t something we often see in the West, if at all. Western dragons take on a reptilian appearance, perhaps more in line with depictions of dinosaurs different predators feared by ancient Western cultures.

Not only do the appearances of dragons differ between the West and East, they often manifest different properties as well. Chinese dragons, for example, often appear in mythologies as benevolent forces bringing rain for the growth of crops or mediators of storms.

Meanwhile, dragons in the West are often depicted as vicious beasts to be overcome by a hero. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I’ll show you some examples…

In the West

There are two main myths surrounding the Sigurd (or Siegfried) hero. First, there is the Norse epic the Völsunga Saga, where Sigurd is sent to slay the dragon, Fafnir, by his foster father, Reign.

In this version of the epic, Fafnir is a dwarf who turned into a dragon because of his greed for gold. After Sigurd defeats Fafnir, it is revealed that his foster father intended to kill him and take the treasure for himself. Sigurd kills him before he has the chance.

The second version of the myth, the Nibelungenlied, is of Germanic origins. In it, Sigurd is born in the wilderness to a mother in exile, who dies shortly after he is born.

Mimir attempts to raise him, but Sigurd proves to be a difficult child. He eventually sends Sigurd to Reign, who has turned into a dragon, hoping that he’ll eat the child. Instead, Sigurd slays Reign, bathes in his blood and gains invulnerable skin, and then returns to kill Mimir.

In both of these tales, the dragon serves as a vicious obstacle set in the hero’s path by someone with deadly intentions.

Another related tale is the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. In this myth, the long-established hero and King Beowulf sets off to defeat a dragon who, after being robbed of a single goblet from its hoard, begins burning everything in search of it.

Beowulf dies after the encounter, but it is his heroic qualities that ultimately led him to attempt fighting the dragon alone.

“Dragons in the East are symbols of rain, power, and good luck. In the West, they are symbols of fire, death, and fear.”

In the East

Abzû and Tiamat, two dragons from ancient Babylonian myth, are described as the mother and father of creation.  Abzû was said to be the God of fresh water and spread knowledge and happiness over Earth, while Tiamat was the Goddess of salt water and was a source of chaos. They are both killed not by heroes, but by their children, younger gods, who wish to usurp their father’s throne.

Although Abzû and Tiamat are not always referred to as dragons (usually sea serpents), that has become a common representation of them through popular culture including Dungeons and Dragons.

The dragons in Chinese mythology have power over water and associated weather phenomena, including rain, floods and typhoons. Within Chinese culture, dragons are considered symbols of prosperity and good luck and were the symbols of many Chinese dynasties.

Apparently, for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government was going to use a dragon for the mascot, but decided against it because of the differing symbolism between dragons in the East (good) and in the West (bad). That’s something I didn’t know about until doing the research for this blog post, but I couldn’t find any more information about it besides a note in a Wikipedia article, which I don’t want to assume as a reliable source.

Nonetheless, I wanted to mention it because, regardless of the dubious source, it does reinforce the idea of different views of dragons in the East and the West. This isn’t a new thought by any means, either, as I’ve seen similar discussions of the disparity between the perspectives on dragons.

Ultimately, Dragons in the East are symbols of rain, power, and good luck. In the West, they are symbols of fire, death, and fear.

Some Exceptions

Not all dragons in the East are good and benevolent, but as hard as I searched, I couldn’t find anything to convince me that dragons were seen as anything other than evil in the West. I have read countless stories about heroes defeating demonic dragons in Greek myth, where dragons are often depicted as protectors of powerful objects and places. But even those dragons were up to no good.

Case in point: The dragon protector of Nemea, Zeus’s sacred grove, killed the infant prince Opheltes and was thus killed in return.

Other examples from Greek myth include:

  • Typhon, the serpentine creature who attempted to overthrow Zeus, failed, and was sent to Tartarus.
  • Ladon, a dragon with as many as one hundred heads who guarded the golden apples in the garden of Hesperides, slain by Heracles.
  • Ismenian dragon, guardian of the Ismerian spring, killed Deioleon and Seriphus, slain by Cadmus.
  • and I could go on…

Photo taken from Wikipedia.

I have two examples of not-so-good dragons from the East, the first being the the Vishap from Armenian myth.

In Armenian Mythology, the demi-god Vahagn Vishapakagh the God of fire, thunder, and war, was referred to as a dragon slayer. Although dragons in Armenian myth were associated with water, like a lot of other Eastern dragons, the Vishap were thought to kidnap children, cause whirlwinds, and the like. People were terrified of them, not worshipping them for good luck.

Another would be Leviathan from Levantine and Jewish myth. The Leviathan is a sea serpent or monster sometimes referred to as a dragon; there was initially both a male and female Leviathan, but the female was supposed to have been killed because, otherwise, they would have bred and overtaken the world.

Similarly, the Leviathan keeps its association with water in Christian myth, but is portrayed as Sataneating and destroying God’s creations. Needless to say, that’s not a good thing for the reputation of dragons.

The appearances of dragons in these myths, legends, and stories solidifies their position as creatures of infinite fascination across the globe. In modern Western literature, where dragons are often fiery, aggressive monsters to be slain and defended against, they have become an icon of the fantasy genre—including books, video games, television, and more.

You might have noticed a distinct lack of reference to Japanese dragons in this blog post—which, considering my interest in Japan, might look a little strange to anyone who knows me.

But fear not!

In part two of the “Dragons in Mythology” series, I’ll be discussing dragons specifically within Japanese mythology and culture. This includes dragon gods, yokai, and dragon-esque creatures! You can check that out here!

I’ll wrap up part three of this series with what I like to call “dragon fatigue” and an honourable mention for wyverns and other kinds of dragons.

As a bonus, I’ll be giving an overview and comparison of the dragons, wyverns, and dragon yokai within the Wyvern Wars universe.

Finally, if you have any questions, or would like me to discuss a certain dragon or myth in more detail in the future, leave a comment below!


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