Dragons have always been among the most, if not the most popular mythical creature. These majestic, magnificent, yet also potentially dangerous beings have always appeared in many folklores, stories, and legends throughout various cultures, from the West to the East. For gamers, dragon is probably so familiar, but this time, let’s not talk about dragons in gaming but rather, the dragons in real life. What are they? Where did they come from? Are they real? Let’s find out!
The term “dragon” first came from the Greek word “drakon”, or the Latin word “draco.” Rather, these two original words do not exactly mean the “dragon” figure we have nowadays but rather, they normally refer to giant serpent-like creatures.
Dragons in the Ancient Egypt
If we take it’s meaning as “giant serpent-like creatures,” the dragon’s origin can be traced back to the Ancient Egypt in which there are two prominent figures: the Egyptian deity Apep and the symbol of Ouroboros.
Apep, or also called as Apophis, is an Egyptian deity represents “chaos.” He is often depicted as a giant evil serpent who is the greatest enemy of Ra – the other Egyptian deity revered as the bringer of light.
In case of Ouroboros, it is a symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. It is supposed to represent the union between the god Ra and Osiris, the god of underworld, and thus, represent the beginning and the end of time. Later on, it was mostly used as the symbol of alchemy.
Dragons in the Middle East
Of course, Ancient Egypt is not the only civilization which features dragons. Some other civilizations in the Middle West also have figures which considered as dragons, like the “sirrush” originated from the ancient Mesopotamian mythology. Nowadays we can see this symbol from the “Ishtar Gate,” which features the “sirrush” dragon symbols associating with the national god of Babylon – Marduk.
Another famous “dragon” figure can be found from Jewish mythology, featuring the Leviathan – a ginormous sea dragon which is killed by God (or Yahweh in Jewish mythology) and given as food to the Hebrews.
Dragons in the Ancient Greece
Moving forward to the Ancient Greece where the word “drakon” originated, here we can also see tons of mythical creatures considered as dragons. Interesting enough, most of these draconic creatures are often depicted to be evil monsters causing havoc to mankind. For example, there is Typhon, a monstrous winged serpent monster which fought against Zues to rule the cosmos. However, it was ultimately defeated by Zues and banished to Tartarus.
Then there is Python, a creature which has fairly similar appearance to the Medieval-version dragon. It was said to be slew by the god Apollo either because it prevented him from finding his oracle, or because it had persecuted Leto who is Apollo’s mother.
And here we have probably the most famous sea-serpent monster in Greece mythology: the Lernean Hydra, or also simply known as the Hydra. It is the infamous monster which dwells in the marshes of Lerna near Argos. The monster occasionally caused disaster upon the people of Lerna. Worse, it has 9 heads; one of among them is immortal. Even if a person is “luckily” enough to cut off one of its head, two additional heads will just emerge from the wound. And so, it’s up to Hercules to deal with this disastrous monster. In order to slay the beast, Hercules needed his nephew Iolaus to help him burn the serpent’s wound right after he cut its head. Eventually, he successfully defeated the beast by cutting the immortal head and burying it under a heavy rock.
Compared to the Ancient mythologies mentioned above, the European dragons during the Middle Ages have drastically different changes in terms of appearance. They are often described to have humongous reptile-like body along with giant bat wing and capability of breathing fire.
For some reason, the dragons tend to appear in heroic stories in which they are protector an invaluable treasure (or a beautiful princess). Surely, these creatures probably do not have any need for money and stuffs but rather, they pose as the ultimate challenge for the heroes to overcome.
One popular depiction of dragons is from Christianity in which the dragon is associated with evil, specifically, Satan himself. Again for some reason, dragons are described to represent the evil being dwelling in dark cave. They are greedy, dangerous beings with unquenchable hunger. And as mentioned, some even relate the dragon figure with Satan. The most prominent example for this idea is the story of St. George the Dragon Slayer who saved a terrorized town from a dragon. According to the story, the dragon demanded sacrifices from townsfolk and it would wreck their land if such condition was not fulfilled. And so, St. George repelled the dragon by using the sign of the cross and finally slew the beast. Inspired by the hero’s deed and bravery, the townsfolk quickly came to Christianity.
And while such evil depiction of the dragon is arguable, it may make sense given its malevolent depiction back in Ancient Greece mythology. Even so, we can still find many influences of this legendary creature in Middle Ages European’s culture, typically the heraldry. One prime example is Uther Pendragon, the British King of legend and also father of Arthur Pendragon. It is said that Uther took the epithet “Pendragon” (which literally means “Head Dragon” or “Chief Dragon”) when he saw a dragon-shaped comet, which occurred at same time of his brother Ambrosius’s death. Also, he decided to take the dragon image for his flag.
In case you’re curious, yes, there are variety of draconic creatures. If you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons or the most recently The Witcher 3, there are several names you may feel familiar like: Wyvern – referring to dragon-like creatures yet with only 2 legs; Cockatrice – a hybrid draconic creature between serpent and rooster which is said to have lethal poisonous breath; and Basilisk – a type of serpent which also has venom and especially deadly glare.
Fortunately for the dragons in the Eastern mythologies, they are mostly revered as majestic entities (or even deities) which have intelligence and power beyond mankind’s comprehension. In addition, Eastern dragons also have drastically different appearance then the Western ones. Specifically, they often have serpent-like body (somewhat similar to snake) and often associate with water or air element.
Dragons in China
In Asian dynasties like China, dragons (or “long” in Chinese) were often associated with water and rain). They were supposed to be responsible for causing rain and also, drought was considered to be the dragons’ fault for being lazy. And so, the villagers from rural areas often conducted “pray-for-rain” ritual dedicated to their respective dragon kings. Since China is a huge country, there are various villages in various regions, resulting in different dragon kings. That said; this custom did not happen until Han Dynasty when Buddhism arrived at the land. Ever since, dragons were considered to be divine deities who were in charge of rain – one of the most vital element for agriculture. Furthermore, for those who visited China during Spring Festival or Lantern Festival, you probably witnessed their traditional custom of “dragon dance” which originally performed to bring good weather and harvest. Nowadays, the custom is mostly for entertainment purpose though.
In Chinese cosmology, dragons were also put into 4 types: the Celestial Dragon (Tianlong), who guards the lands of the gods; the Dragon of Hidden Treasure (Fuzanglong); the Earth Dragon (Dilong), who controls the waterways; and the Spiritual Dragon (Shenlong), who controls the rain and winds. And because rain and water were so important for agriculture in China, Dilong and Shenlong are often considered to be the most important. Since dragons had so much significance in Chinese culture, it is only natural for them to be considered as the king of animals. Interesting enough, only emperors were worthy enough to use dragon figures as the symbol of imperial power.
Dragons in Japan
Just like many other Asian countries like Korea and China, Japan also adopted the dragon (or “ryuu” in Japanese) into their own culture and religions. Similar to China, Japanese dragons also have similar appearance: powerful entities with long, serpent-like body and they have affinity with water and rain.
Yet unlike Chinese dragons, the Japanese dragons tend to have more… notorious reputations. The best example is Yamata no Orochi (or just Orochi for short) – an 8-headed, 8-tailed dragon which devoured one of the two earthly gods kunitsukami’s daughters every year. The story started with Susanoo, the Shinto god of sea and storms who was banished from heaven due to his trickeries towards Amaterasu. And so, Susanoo travelled the land and met the kunitsukami near the Hi River. The kunitsukami was in despair since their last daughter – Kushinada-hime – was about to be devoured by Orochi. Susanoo offered to deal with Orochi; in return he would get to marry Kushinada-hime. To defeat this entity, Susanoo asked the kunitsukami built a tub filled with sake. And when the ginormous dragon appeared, it drank all of sake and got drunk. Susanoo made use of the opportunity and slashed the beast into pieces with his sword. When he sliced that beast’s tail, he found a sacred sword which later on called as Kusanagi no Tsurugi. And for fans of Japanese culture, you probably have heard of this sword, which is one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan besides the mirror Yata no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama.
That said, there are also benevolent dragons like Watatsumi (or Ryujin), who is revered as Owatatsumi no kami, or “the great god of the sea” in English. According to his legend, Watatsumi dwells in his underwater palace known as Ryugo-jo. It is said that he is the guardian of Shinto religion and he would welcome any human who fell into the sea to his land. The dragon god also has many daughters who frequently appeared in many other stories.
Nowadays we can pretty much confirm that dragons are only entities of legends only. After all, it is unlikely that those creatures could fly in the sky without human’s notice. That said; there were several cases of people trying to find dragons in real life. For example, there was a Scottish folklore of a mysterious creature called as Loch Ness, or Nessie, inhabiting the Loch Ness Lake. Yet so far, there have been no information found regarding the beast.
The only “dragon” the world has witnessed is Komodo dragon, a special specie of lizard which lives in Indonesian islands of Komodo. The Komodo dragon is the largest, biggest reptile specie to date, and to certain extent, they do look like dragon creature depicted in Western mythologies, except that they do not have wings. Yet, the Komodo dragons do not breathe fire like the dragons in legend (it would be terrifying if they could), but rather, they are said to have extremely dangerous bacteria in their mouth. However, Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland found the otherwise. He discovered that the Komodo dragon’s mouth is rather… clean. Instead, it has venom glands which induced toxins capable of lowering blood pressure, causing massive bleeding and shock. So to certain extent, we can say the Kodomo dragon is like cockatrice or basilisk in European mythologies?
In any case, it seems we can never find dragon in real-life (except for the Komodo dragon). The only way we can see “actual dragons” is from entertainment platform like games or films. There are numerous video games featuring dragons like The Witcher 3, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age Inquisition, and more… But that will be a story for later; and for now, thank you and stay tune for more news in the future!
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