Dragons

St George and the Dragon (Raphael)

St George and the Dragon (Raphael)

The dragon is a legendary creature, typically with serpentine or reptilian traits, that features in the myths of many cultures. There are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons: the European dragon, derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, and the Chinese dragon, with counterparts in Japan (namely the Japanese dragon), Korea and other East Asian countries. The two traditions may have evolved separately, but have influenced each other to a certain extent, particularly with the cross-cultural contact of recent centuries. The English word “dragon” derives from Greek (drákōn), meaning “dragon, serpent of huge size, water-snake”.

The association of the serpent with a monstrous opponent overcome by a heroic deity has its roots in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, including Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. Humbaba, the fire-breathing dragon fanged beast first described in the Epic of Gilgameshis sometimes described as a dragon with Gilgamesh playing the part of dragon-slayer. The legless serpent (Chaoskampf) motif entered Greek mythology and ultimately Christian mythology, although the serpent motif may already be part of prehistoric Indo-European mythology as well, based on comparative evidence of Indic and Germanic material.

Dragons occur in many legends around the world, but different cultures have varying stories about monsters that have been grouped together under the dragon label. Some dragons are said to breathe fire or to be poisonous, such as in the Old English poem Beowulf. They are commonly portrayed as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggsand possessing typically scaly or feathered bodies. They are sometimes portrayed as hoarding treasure. Some myths portray them with a row of dorsal spines. European dragons are more often winged, while Chinese dragons resemble large snakes. Dragons can have a variable number of legs: none, two, four, or more when it comes to early European literature.

Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom—often said to be wiser than humans and longevity. They are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power, and are often associated with wells, rain, and rivers. In some cultures, they are also said to be capable of human speech. In some traditions dragons are said to have taught humans to talk.

Chinatown Chinese New Year celebration. Photo credit: Choo Yut Shing

Chinatown Chinese New Year celebration.
Photo credit: Choo Yut Shing

There are also stories about a hero slaying a dragon. For example, the Greek God Apollo, and the early Christian narratives about Michael the Archangel and Saint George.

It has been speculated that accounts of spitting cobras may be the origin of the myths of fire-breathing dragons. Nile crocodiles in ancient times occasionally were found in Southern Europe, having swum across the Mediterranean. Such wayward crocodiles may have inspired dragon myths.Skeletons of whales, as well as dinosaur and mammalian fossils may have been occasionally mistaken for the bones of dragons and other mythological creatures; for example, a discovery in 300 BC in Wucheng, Sichuan, China, was labeled as such by Chang Qu
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In Australia, stories of such creatures may have referred to the land crocodiles, Quinkanasp., a terrestrial crocodile which grew to 5 to possibly 7 metres long, or the monitor lizard Varanus priscus (formerly Megalania prisca) a giant carnivorous goanna that might have grown to 7 metres (23 ft), and weighed up to 1,940 kilograms (4,280 lb), or rainbow serpents (possibly Wonambi naracoortensis) that were part of the extinct megafauna of Australia. Today the Komodo monitor lizard Varanus komodoensis is known in English as the Komodo dragon.

Today dragons and dragon motifs are featured in many works of modern literature, television, and movies. They are particularly popular within the fantasy genre.

Adela