A Brief History of Dragons


If there’s one mythological creature that seems to exist across almost every culture, it’s dragons. We can usually see shades of myths—or archetypes, if you will—cutting across cultures. Sun and moon deities, for example, are quite common. “Vampires” exist in many different forms, depending on how flexible you want to make your definition.

The dragon is one of the few that seems to be universally known—even when it takes on different forms.

An ornamental statue showing a typical dragon design from Southeast Asia.
An ornamental statue showing a typical dragon design from Southeast Asia.

The Giant Serpent

The English word dragon traces its roots back to Ancient Greek. The root here actually means serpent or giant seafish. Many famous dragons exist alongside legendary giant serpents. Think of the Norse Fafnir, who co-exists with Jormugandr, who encircles the world, or Nidhogg, the serpent at Yggdrasil. In the Hebrew Torah, we find mentions of Leviathan, a snake-like giant serpent associated with the sea.

We can look back further as well:

  • Apep of Ancient Egypt
  • The ouroboros, which gnaws on its own tail, much like Jomugandr
  • Vrtra, a giant serpent in the Rigveda
  • The usumgal, a gigantic serpentine monster in Sumerian poetry
  • The mushussu, or furious serpent, of Akkadian Mesopotamian art

The Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat is sometimes described as a dragon. And of course, we all know there’s a good deal of lore around dragons in Southeast Asia, with the creature being particularly revered in China.

Where Did Dragons Come From?

It seems plausible that, given all this, dragons actually started out as monstrous snakes. Monkeys and humans have instinctual fears of many animals, particularly predators or animals that are otherwise dangerous to us.

Snakes are interesting, because most snakes aren’t particularly threatening. There are a few that will kill you. Many of the most venomous types of snakes inhabit Africa, which is where humans seem to have started out. In fact, it’s entirely possible the dragon’s “fire” evolved from the “fiery” bite of a venomous snake.

Most snakes are a lot smaller than us, and many of them aren’t particularly dangerous. Smaller ones might be venomous, while some snakes have an interesting method of killing large prey: constriction.

Boa constrictors are common to both the Old World and the New World. Boas are often associated with jungle habitat. Given that snakes could silently slither up behind us, then squeeze us to death, being afraid of them makes sense. And, given the snake’s ability to unhinge its jaw to swallow prey many times larger than itself, we’re within our rights to think, well, that thing could swallow us whole.

It seems reasonable to say we’re all afraid of snakes, because they’re a bit freaky and they could kill us. Research with children suggests the fear of snakes is innate. Even kids who live in areas devoid of snakes (or at least, devoid of dangerous ones) express fear.

In turn, our fears begin to take on mythic qualities. When we want to imagine a literal big bad, a giant serpent seems like a good bet.

What about the Ocean Connection?

Many prototypical dragons are associated with water. This is a bit harder to trace out. There are sea snakes! Which is horrifying, but it doesn’t explain why many “dragons” are either sea serpents or associated with water.

Some suggest there were creatures that co-existed with our ancestors—sort of like how the Loch Ness monster is a dinosaur.

Modern humans never walked the earth with dinosaurs, although we do have some pretty near descendants. The closest marine ones aren’t quite “serpentine” though.

We do have fossils, so that’s another possible source of the myth. Some areas of China are hot beds of fossils.

Some scholars say Indian folklore arose from the fossilized remains found in parts of the country. This would certainly seem to be plausible for European dragons, which are often imagined as—well—almost dinosaur-like.

There may also be something to the idea that the rotting corpses of whales and other large marine animals sometimes wash ashore, causing great intrigue. Our ancestors may have thought some of these remains were giant serpents.

Crocodiles are another potential connection. But again, they bear more resemblance to the quadruped dragons of European myth than others. Dragons often appear as the gods of bodies of water, like rivers. Some have suggested this association stems from the shape of the rainbow—although that seems like it could be a stretch.

Evolving from Snakes

So, where does the “giant serpent” become a dragon? In many cultures, there’s not much difference. Dragons have certain powers or have a few features that make them less “snake-like,” but they’re still long-bodied, scaly sorts of creatures.

Many cultures give their dragons legs, although many go back and forth on this. The Greeks sometimes portrayed dragons as giant snakes, such as the dragon of Ares. By contrast, the cetus or “sea-dragon” has two front legs and no hind legs.

An early depiction of Fafnir, though, has no legs. That begs the question of whether Fafnir is a serpent like Nidhogg and Jormungandr, or if the two of them are actually dragons.

The first “European” dragon is a relatively late addition to the mythos, appearing in a manuscript around 1260 CE. This dragons has two sets of wings and a noticeably elongated tail, which may be a callback to its “serpentine” forebears.

This medieval drawing shows one of the first "European" dragons, with two sets of wings and a long tail.
MS Harley 3244, dated to the 1200s, shows the first prototypical “European” dragon.

Medieval heraldry added more to the evolution of dragon depictions in the West. Bestiaries began suggesting that, to be a dragon, the animal had to have four legs—no more, no less. A two-legged serpentine creature is a wyvern. No legs? A snake.

It’s hard to explain how Western European arrived at the idea of a dragon as having four legs—crocodiles aren’t native to the area, nor are Komodo dragons or Gila monsters.

It’s possible the influence comes from the Near East, where crocodiles do indeed live. Slavic dragons, from Eastern Europe, have much in common with their Western cousins. It’s possible dragon-like creatures from the Near East moved through the East, then to Western Europe. North Africa’s proximity to the Mediterranean might also have influenced myths.

Dragons in the Sky

Interestingly, the constellation Draco appears to depict a serpentine-dragon. The dragon is usually associated with Greco-Roman myth, such as Draco, the dragon killed by Minerva. The goddess tossed the dragon into the sky, where it froze around the pole star. (Draco is circumpolar and never sets in northern latitudes.)

A depiction of the constellation Draco, in relation to other nearby constellations.
The constellation Draco, shown in proximity to Polaris and Hercules. (WikiPendant/Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA)

Another myth is related to Hercules, who had to kill the dragon guarding the golden apples. This dragon is sometimes Draco and sometimes Ladon. The gods turned the dragon into a constellation as a reward for guarding the apples. The constellation of Hercules, if you follow traditional astronomy, is located near Draco.

Many civilizations have recognized this constellation. Ptolemy included it in his 48 constellations. Arabic astronomers call the constellation the Mother Camels. It depicts four mother camels protecting a baby camel against two hyenas.

Dragons as Another World, Another Time

Given the connection these legendary giant serpents have to the world or even to time immemorial, it seems kind of fitting that dragons have become shorthand for a mythic past and magical realms that may exist somewhere.
It’s also fitting that we connect them to the history of the world—or of realms of forgotten gods. Their connection to powerful magic, ancient magic, also sets them apart. And, in some ways, our own mythology about dragons could arise from the evolution of our own world—dinosaurs and unexplained bones to snakes who look at you with their primordial eyes and seem to speak of a shadowy past nobody quite remembers any more.

That might be some of what’s informing the dragons that appear in Riding the Dragon: ancient, cosmic beings that can bend reality to their whim. They’re responsible for the balance of the universe, to a degree, somewhat like Jormungandr is responsible for the realm of Midgard in Norse mythology. These dragons perform “magic,” while at the same time seeming to draw on some sort of underlying knowledge—instinct, understanding that we’re all subject to, but that we’ve maybe forgotten through the mists of time and evolution.

The cover for Riding the Dragon, Book 2 of the Flirting with the Zodiac series.
Shape-shifting dragons are intimately connected to the order of the universe in Riding the Dragon.

The possibilities for dragons in fiction is endless, even if we do have a somewhat codified conception of what they are and aren’t. The wide range of mythology that surrounds them—that’s been evolving for millennia now—speaks to the durability and versatility of the very idea of serpent-like creatures with magic powers and deeper connections. And that makes them endlessly fun to interpret and reinterpret in fiction.

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About the author


By Cherry

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