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Dragons are one of the most wide-spread mythological creatures across human cultures, legends, and religions. As such they literally come in all shapes and sizes – long snake-like bodies with two, four or more legs, giant fire-breathing, winged monsters, multi-headed hydras, half-human and half-snake nagas, and more.
In terms of what they can represent, dragon symbolism is just as diverse. In some legends, they are evil creatures, hell-bent on sowing destruction and suffering, while in others, they are benevolent beings and spirits that help guide us through life. Some cultures worship dragons as gods while others view dragons as our evolutionary ancestors.
This impressive and often confusing diversity in dragon myths and symbolism is one of the many reasons dragons have remained so popular through the ages. But, to help us understand these myths a little better, let’s bring some order and clarity into all that chaos.
Why Are Dragons A Popular Symbol In So Many Seemingly Unrelated Cultures?
Myths and legends live their own lives and few mythical creatures exemplify this more than the dragon. After all, why is it that almost every single ancient human culture has its own dragon and serpent-like mythological creature? There are several main reasons for that:
- Human cultures have always interacted with one another. People didn’t have effective transport and communication technology other over the ages but ideas still managed to travel from culture to culture. From traveling merchants and peaceful wanderers to military conquests, different peoples of the world have remained in frequent contact with their neighbors. This has naturally helped them share myths, legends, deities, and mythological creatures. The sphinxes, griffins, and fairies are all good examples but the dragon is the most “transferable” mythological creature, likely because of how impressive it is.
- Virtually every human culture knows snakes and reptiles. And since dragons are usually portrayed as a giant hybrid of the two, it was very intuitive for people of all ancient cultures to create different mythological creatures based on the snakes and reptiles they knew. At the end of the day, every mythological creature we’ve come up with was originally based on something we knew.
- Dinosaurs. Yes, we’ve only come to know, study, and name dinosaurs in the last couple of centuries but there’s evidence to suggest that many ancient cultures from the ancient Greeks and Romans to Native Americans have found dinosaur fossils and remains during their agriculture, irrigation, and construction work. And with that being the case, the jump from dinosaur bones to dragon myths is pretty straight-forward.
Where Does The Dragon Myth Originate?
For lots of cultures, their dragon myths can be traced back thousands of years, often before the development of their respective written languages. This makes “tracing” the early evolution of the dragon myths rather difficult.
Additionally, many cultures like those in Central Africa and South America are almost certain to have developed their own dragon myths independently from the cultures in Europe and Asia.
Still, Asian and European dragon myths are the most famous and recognizable ones. We know that there’s been a lot of “myth sharing” between these cultures. In terms of their origins, there are two leading theories:
- The first dragon myths were developed in China.
- The first dragon myths came from the Mesopotamian cultures in the Middle East.
Both seem very likely as both cultures predate most others in both Asia and Europe. Both have been found to have dragon myths going for multiple millennia BCE and both stretch to before the development of their written languages. It’s possible that the Babylonians in Mesopotamia and the Chinese developed their own myths separately but it’s also possible that one was inspired by the other.
So, with all that in mind, let’s delve into how dragons look and act, and what they symbolize in different cultures.
Asian dragons are often viewed by most westerners as just long, colorful, and wingless beasts. However, there’s actually an incredible diversity in dragon myths across the giant continent of Asia.
1. Chinese dragons
The likely origin of most dragon myths, China’s love for dragons can be traced back for 5,000 to 7,000 years, possibly more. In Mandarin, dragons are called Lóng or Lung, which is a bit ironic in English given that Chinese dragons are portrayed as extra-long reptiles with snake-like bodies, four clawed feet, a lion-like mane, and a giant mouth with long whiskers and impressive teeth. What’s less known about Chinese dragons, however, is that some of them are also portrayed as derived from turtles or fish.
Either way, the standard symbolism of Chinese dragons is that they are powerful and often benevolent beings. They are viewed as spirits or gods with control over water, be it in the form of rain, typhoons, rivers, or floods. Dragons in China have also been closely associated with their Emperors and with power in general. As such, dragons in China symbolize strength, authority, good fortune, and heaven in addition to being “just” water spirits. Successful and strong people were often compared with dragons while incapable and underachieving ones – with worms.
Another important symbolism is that dragons and phoenixes are often viewed as the Yin and Yang, or as the male and female in Chinese mythology. The union between the two mythological creatures is often viewed as the starting point of human civilization. And, just like the Emperor is often associated with the dragon, the Emperess was typically identified with the feng huang, a mythical bird like the phoenix.
As China has been the dominant political power in East Asia for millennia, the Chinese dragon myth has influenced most other Asian cultures’ dragon myths as well. Korean and Vietnamese dragons, for example, are very similar to Chinese ones and bear almost the exact same features and symbolism with few exceptions.
2. Hindu Dragons
Most people believe that there are no dragons in Hinduism but that’s not exactly true. Most Hindu dragons are shaped like giant serpent and often don’t have any legs. This leads some to conclude that these aren’t dragons but just giant snakes. Indian dragons were often cloaked like mongooses and were frequently portrayed with multiple beastly heads. They also sometimes had feet and other limbs in some depictions.
One of the most prominent dragon myths in Hinduism is that of Vritra. Also known as Ahi, it is a major figure in the Vedic religion. Unlike Chinese dragons which were believed to bring rainfall, Vritra was a deity of drought. He used to block the course of rivers during the drought season and was the main advisory of the thunder god Indra who eventually slew him. The myth of Vritra’s death is central in the Rigveda book of Indian and ancient Sanskrit hymns.
The Nāga also deserves a special mention here as they too are viewed as dragons by most Asian cultures. Nāgas were often portrayed as half-men and half-snakes or as just snake-like dragons. They were believed to typically live in undersea palaces littered with pearls and jewels and were sometimes viewed as evil while other times – as neutral or even benevolent.
From Hinduism, the Nāga rapidly spread to Buddhism, Indonesian and Malay myths, as well as Japan and even China.
3. Buddhist Dragons
Dragons in Buddhism are derived from two main sources – the Indiana Nāga and the Chinese Lóng. What’s interesting here, however, is that Buddhism incorporated these dragon myths into their own beliefs and made dragons a symbol of Enlightenment. As such, dragons quickly became a cornerstone symbol in Buddhism and many dragon symbols adorn Buddhist temples, robes, and books.
A good example of that is Chan (Zen), a Chinese school of Buddhism. There, dragons are both a symbol of Enlightenment and a symbol of the self. The famous phrase “meeting the dragon in the cave” comes from Chan where it’s a metaphor for facing one’s deepest fears.
There’s also the famous folk tale of the True Dragon.
In it, Yeh Kung-Tzu is a man who loves, reveres, and studies dragons. He knows all dragon lore and has decorated his home with statues and paintings of dragons. So, when one dragon heard about Yeh Kung-Tzu he thought, how lovely that this man appreciates us. It would surely make him happy to meet a true dragon. The dragon went to the man’s house but Yeh Kung-Tzu was sleeping. The dragon coiled by his bed and slept with him so that he could greet Yeh when he woke up. Once the man woke, however, he was terrified by the dragon’s long teeth and shiny scales so he attacked the big serpent with a sword. The dragon flew away and never returned to the dragon-loving man.
The meaning of the True Dragon story is that Enlightenment is easy to miss even when we study it and search for it. As the famous Buddhist monk Eihei Dogen explains it, I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the true dragon.
4. Japanese Dragons
As with most other East Asian cultures, the Japanese dragon myths were a mix of Indiana Nāga and Chinese Lóng dragons plus some myths and legends native to the culture itself. In the case of Japanese dragons, they too were water spirits and deities but many of the “native” Japanese dragons were more centered around the sea rather than lakes and mountain rivers.
Many indigenous Japanese dragon myths featured multi-headed and multi-tailed giant sea dragons, either with or without limbs. Many Japanese dragon mths also had dragons transitioning between reptile and human form, as well as other deep-sea reptile-like monsters that could also be categorized as dragons.
As for the inherent symbolism of Japanese dragons, they weren’t as “black and white” as dragons in other cultures. Depending on the particular myth, Japanese dragons could be good spirits, evil sea kings, trickster gods and spirits, giant monsters, or even the center of tragic and/or romantic stories.
5. Middle Eastern Dragons
Moving away from East Asia, the dragon myths of the ancient Middle Eastern cultures also deserve a mention. They are rarely talked about but they’ve most likely played a huge role in the formation of European dragon myths.
Ancient Babylonian dragon myths are in contention with Chinese dragons for the oldest dragon myths in the world with many of them going thousands of years in the past. One of the most famous Babylonian dragon legends is that of Tiamat, a serpentine but also winged monster deity which threatened to destroy the world and return it to its primordial state. Tiamat was defeated by the god Marduk, a legend that became the cornerstone myth of many Mesopotamian cultures, dating back to 2,000 years BCE.
In the Arabian peninsula, there were also water reign dragons and giant winged serpents. They were usually viewed as evil elemental monsters or more morally neutral cosmic forces.
In most other Mesopotamian dragon myths these serpentine creatures were also evil and chaotic and had to be stopped by heroes and gods. From the Middle East, this representation of dragons has likely transferred to the Balkans and the Mediterranean but it has also played part in early Judeo-Christian myths and legends.
European or Western dragons differ quite a bit from East Asian dragons both in their appearance, powers, and symbolism. Still with reptilian origins, European dragons typically weren’t as slender as the traditional Chinese Lóng dragons but instead had wider and heavier bodies, two or four legs, and two massive wings with which they could fly. They also weren’t water deities or spirits but instead could often breathe fire. Many European dragons also had multiple heads and most of them were evil monsters that needed to be slain.
1. Eastern European dragons
Easter European dragons pre-date those from the western part of the continent as the dragon myths were imported both from the Middle East as well as from India and Central Asia. As such, Eastern European dragons come in a variety of types.
The Greek dragons, for example, were evil winged monsters that traditionally protected their lairs and treasures from traveling heroes. The Lernaean Hydra from the Herculean myths is also a type of multi-headed dragon, and Python is a four-legged snake-like dragon who killed the god Apollo.
In most Slavic myths there were several different types of dragons too. Slavic lamia and hala dragons were malevolent serpentine monsters who would terrorize villages. They would usually crawl out of lakes and caves and were the subject and chief antagonists of folk stories in many Slavic cultures.
The more famous type of Slavic dragon, however, is the Zmey which is also one of the main templates for most Western European dragons. Zmeys have the “classic” European dragon body but they were also sometimes depicted as multi-headed. Depending on the country of origin zmeys could be either evil or benevolent. In most Northern and Eastern Slavic cultures zmeys were evil and were meant to be slain by the hero for enslaving a village or demanding virgin sacrifices.
Many Slavic Zmeys were often given Turkic names because of the centuries-long conflict between the Ottoman Empire and most Eastern European Slavic cultures. However, in some southern Balkan Slavic cultures like Bulgaria and Serbia, zmeys also had a role as benevolent guardians who would protect their region and the people in it from evil demons.
2. Western European Dragons
Serving as the template of most modern fantasy literature and pop-culture dragons, Western European dragons are very well-known. They are mostly derived from Slavic zmeys and Greek treasure-protecting dragons but they were often given new twists as well.
Some dragon myths had the giant reptiles guarding piles of treasures, in others, they were intelligent and wise beings giving advice to the heroes. In Britain, there were Wyverns who were flying dragons with only two hind legs which tormented towns and villages, and the sea serpent Wyrms with no limbs that crawled on land like giant snakes.
In Nordic legends, the sea serpent Jörmungandr is viewed as a dragon, a creature with great significance as it starts Ragnarok (the apocalypse). This happens when it grows so large that it could bite its own tail while circling around the world, like an Ouroboros.
In most Western European countries, however, dragons were also often used as family crests and as symbols of power and royalty, especially around the middle ages. Wales, for example, has a red dragon on its flag because in Welsh mythology the red dragon, symbolizing the Welsh, defeats a white dragon, itself symbolizing the Saxons, i.e. England.
North American Dragons
Most people rarely think about it but the natives of North America also had a lot of dragon myths in their cultures. The reason these aren’t well-known nowadays is that the European settlers didn’t really mix with the Native Americans or engage in much cultural exchange.
It’s not completely clear how much of the dragon myths and legends of the Native Americans were brought in from Asia and how much they created while in the New World. Regardless, the indigenous American dragons resemble East Asian dragons in quite a few aspects. They too have mostly serpent features with their elongated bodies and few or no legs. They were usually horned and they were also viewed as ancient spirits or deities, only here their nature was more morally ambiguous.
As with most other native American spirits, dragon and serpent spirits controlled many forces of nature and would often meddle in the physical world, especially when called upon.
These native dragon myths together with the European myths the settlers brought with them, however, make for quite a significant presence of dragon-related legends in North America.
Central and South American Dragons
Dragon myths and legends are very common in South and Central America even if that’s not commonly known across the rest of the world. These myths were much more diverse and colorful than those of the North American natives, as were the entire religions of southern and central Americans.
Some dragons like one of the dragon aspects of the Aztec deity, Quetzalcoatl, were benevolent and worshipped. Other examples of that are Xiuhcoatl, the spirit form of the Aztec fire deity Xiuhtecuhtli or the Paraguayan monster Teju Jagua – a huge lizard with seven dog-like heads and a fiery gaze which was associated with the god of fruits, caves, and hidden treasures.
Some South American dragons, like the Inca Amaru, were more malevolent or morally ambiguous. Amaru was a Chimera-like dragon, with a llama’s head, a fox’s mouth, a fish’s tail, condor wings, and a snake’s body and scales.
Overall, whether benevolent or malevolent, South and Central American dragons were widely worshiped, revered, and feared. They were symbols of primordial strength and nature’s forces, and they often played huge roles in the origin myths of most South and Central American religions.
Africa has some of the most famous dragon myths in the world. Benin dragons or Ayida Weddo in West Africa were rainbow serpents from the Dahomean mythology. They were loa or spirits and deities of wind, water, rainbows, fire, and fertility. They were mostly portrayed as giant serpents and were both worshipped and feared. The Nyanga dragon Kirimu from Eastern Africa is a central figure in the Mwindo Epic. It was a giant beast with seven horned heads, an eagle’s tail, and a huge body.
However, Egyptian dragon and serpent myths are the most famous from the African continent. Apophis or Apep was a giant Serpent of Chaos in Egyptian mythology. Even more famous than Apophis, however, is Ouroboros, the giant tail-eating serpent, often portrayed with several legs. From Egypt, the Ouroboros or Uroboros made its way into Greek mythology and from there – into Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and alchemy. It’s typically interpreted to symbolize eternal life, life’s cyclical nature, or death and rebirth.
Dragons in Christianity
Most people don’t imagine dragons when they think of the Christian faith but dragons are quite common in both the Old Testament and later Christianity. In the Old Testament, as well as in Judaism and Islam, the monstrous Leviathan and Bahamut are based on the original Arabic dragon Bahamut – a giant, winged cosmic sea serpent. In the later years of Christianity, dragons were often portrayed as symbols of paganism and heresy and were shown trampled under the hooves of Christian knights or skewered on their spears.
Probably the most famous myth is that of St. George who was commonly depicted killing a slithering dragon. In the Christian legend, St. George was a militant saint who visited a village plagued by an evil dragon. St. George told the villagers that he would kill the dragon if they all converted into Christianity. After they villagers did so, St. George promptly went ahead and killed the monster.
The myth of St. George is believed to come from the story of a Christian soldier from Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey) who burned down a Roman temple and slew many of the pagan worshippers there. For that deed, he was later martyred. This reportedly happened around the 3rd century AD and the saint started being portrayed killing a dragon in Christian iconography and murals several centuries later.
The image and symbolism of dragons have existed around the globe since ancient times. While there are variations to how dragons are portrayed and what they symbolize, based on the culture they’re viewed in, it’s safe to say that these mythical creatures share common characteristics. Dragons continue to be a popular symbol in modern culture, frequently making appearances in books, movies, video games and more.