Have you seen any dragons before? In real life? No? Then, how can you picture and describe it so well? That’s because myths of dragons are ever-present around the world and in popular culture too. From Mesoamerica to China, you can find myths of dragons everywhere. These mythical monsters get more stage time than actual animals that walk the earth.
The myths of dragons were always alive in scroll paintings and illustrations, even without the CGI dragons in Hollywood whether they made the dragons be man’s best friend like in “How to Train your Dragon” or the personification of evil like in “Lord of the Rings.” The legendary myths of dragons have always depicted the creatures to have a massive serpent-like body along with the capability to fly.
Though most dragons are imagined to have four legs, they have two legs or no legs in some myths. In the folklore of medieval Europe, dragons breathe fire, fly, and are generally perceived as malevolent creatures. In eastern cultures, the notion of dragons is contradictory, as they are wingless and accompanied by the weather, specifically flood and rainfall, and they are considered as auspicious beings. But before we delve into the different types of myths of dragons across the world, we should know the origin of the dragons. So, let’s dive into it!
Origin of the Myths of Dragons
In the Babylonian myths of dragons, there was Tiamat, a deity monster with a serpentine body who appeared from the sea to menace the cosmos with a return to the ancient chaos. Marduk, the heroic young God, rose to the challenge and slew the monsters while saving all of creation. The myth of Tiamat can be traced back to the second millennium B.C.
In the Bible, you can find evocation of the Tiamat myth with other Mesopotamian mythologies. The other references include the myth of the Psalms and the Book of Job which will inform you of the war between Leviathan, a combination of a snake and a whale, and the God of Israel who annihilated the former. Several variations of the Tiamat myth can be discovered many times in European and Mediterranean cultures. The major characteristics of the myths of dragons in the Western region consist of a dragon or a similar creature and a protagonist with heroic qualities who has to kill that threat of the beast.
You can divulge the battles with a serpent-like being in Greek mythology too. For instance, Zeus secured his throne on Earth and Heaven by killing the fire-breathing dragon Typhon who had snakes for legs with his thunderbolts. The myth of Typhon follows a legend from the neighboring civilizations, involving the Hittites.
From the Greek word “drakon” comes the term dragon but it’s not an apt translation as the Greeks used drakon to mean big snake. In turn, the phrase “drakon” comes from a verb that means “to watch” and the relationship becomes visible in the legend “Jason and the Golden Fleece.”
In the story, the sleepless dragon guards precious yet heavy outerwear. Medea, the significant other of Jason, was trained in folk pharmacology and they managed to get the giant beast to fall asleep for a bit. Greek mythologies like this are full of additional motifs which in this scenario is to highlight the trait of dragons as jealous protectors of a golden treasure.
Dragon Legends in Medieval Europe
The Legend of Saint George and the Dragon
From Perseus and Tiamat, it’s not a long way to go to explore the myths of dragons of medieval Europe and the legend of Saint George. Although it is believed that the Saint was alive during the third century AD, the legend of his war with the dragon was widely spread after a millennium during the Medieval era. The story can be discovered in “The Golden Legend,” a collection of biographies about saints. During the thirteenth century, Italian archbishop of Genoa and chronicler named Blessed Jacobus da Varagine had compiled the story, and William Caxton printed it in the English language in 1483 for the first time.
As per “The Golden Legend,” Saint George was born into Christian parents in Cappadocia which is modern Turkey and when he grew up, he joined the Roman army. The legend says that the saint was traveling to Libya and came across a town called Silene. A dragon lived in a pond near the town which encompassed the whole countryside and the dragon threatened the townspeople. The townspeople proffered sacrifices to the dragon to save their lives which include two sheep at first but then turned into the youth and children of the town.
When Saint George came to town, it was the day when the princess of the town was chosen to be sacrificed. Upon listening to the tale of the dragon from the princess, the saint was resolved to slay the dragon and rescue the townspeople along with the princess. When the dragon emerged from the pond, Saint George made the sign of the cross and, on his horseback, he charged at the dragon, and using his lance, he speared the monstrous being.
After wounding the dragon, he asked the princess for her belt to tie the beast who was now tamed, and accompanied the pair to the town. Saint George offered the townspeople to kill the dragon if they become Christian. They agreed to the proposal and converted and the saint beheaded the dragon.
The Story of Saint Margaret of Antioch
Though the story of Saint Margaret of Antioch is not as popular as the one with Saint George, he is not the only dragon slayer in the Western myths of dragons. The contemporary of Saint George, you can find the legend of Saint Margaret in “The Golden Legend” too.
She was thrown into prison at the age of fifteen as she refused to relinquish her faith in Christianity and marry the Roman official named Olybrius. She prayed while she was captivated that the evil spirit that she fought off would be presented before her. After she prayed to God, the Devil in the guise of a dragon appeared in front of her.
In one version of the legend, the saint immediately made the sign of the cross as the dragon attacked her. However, in another version, she was swallowed by the dragon and while she was in the belly of the beast, she signed the cross and was freed from the stomach as it burst open, completely unhurt. She was then sentenced to death because she constantly refused to give up Christianity.
Myths of Dragon in the Eastern Region
As I mentioned above, the myths of dragons are different in the Eastern region as the dragons are considered benevolent beings in the cultures. In the mythologies of Japan, China and Korea, Dragon Kings are found and believed to be responsible for water-related phenomena, especially for rain.
Dragon Kings are vehemently regarded as they bring rain for advancing agriculture. In these cultures, it is requisite to keep the dragon kings happy, as an angry dragon king can cause severe damage like typhoons, floods, and storms. In the Eastern region, the dragon kings are also considered anthropomorphic beings, as they reside in the palaces under the ocean and rule over the creatures of the ocean.
The Distinction among the Eastern Dragons
The dragons in Japan are believed to have three toes and they firmly believe that all Eastern dragons have been generated from Japan. They also believe that the Japanese dragons gain toes as they go far away from Japan. Thus the other dragons have more toes. The myth of dragons conveys that the breath of a Japanese dragon turns into clouds that can produce fire or rain. If they choose, they can ascend to Heaven because of the size of their heads.
Like the Japanese, the Chinese also believe that the Eastern dragons are born from their land, though the Chinese dragons have five toes. They started to lose toes as they flew further from China. So, Japanese dragons have three toes while Korean ones have four. Koreans also believe their country to be the birthplace of all Eastern Dragons. If a Korean Dragon flew towards China, they gained toes but they lost toes if they flew towards Japan.
There are differences between male and female dragons in Eastern culture. For example, while female dragons hold fans in their tails, male dragons hold clubs. In the myth of dragons, the eastern dragons are described as the descenders from the sky or the clouds. You can also see a pearl sometimes, which is called “The Pearl of Wisdom” that the Eastern dragons possess. The horns on the male dragon are thinner at the base and strong and thicker at the top of the horn. The female dragons have nicer and rounder manes than the male ones. The female dragons also have straight noses and thin scales with thicker tails.
The Myth of the Oriental Dragons
All nine kinds of Chinese dragons are referred to as the Oriental Dragons. Did you know that nine is a lucky number for Chinese people? These nine Oriental Dragons include the horned dragon, the spiritual dragon, the celestial dragon, the dragon of hidden treasure, the winged dragon, the yellow dragon, the coiled dragon, and the dragon king.
Although the Horned Dragons are deaf, they are also the most powerful among the Oriental Dragons. They are also called Lung and they have the power to bring down rain. You should know that in the myth of dragons, their tails face towards the north while their head faces towards south. The Horned dragons represent the Sun and the east.
The Dragon King is four dragons who watch over the four major seas. The Chinese go to them if there is little to no rain as the Dragon King is revered and honored. The four Dragons inhabited East, West, North, and South waters.
The Unique Appearance of Chinese Dragon
According to the myth of dragons, a remarkable Chinese ruler named Huangdi, the ancestor of the Chinese had fought against nine tribes at the Yellow River Valley. The legendary ruler mixed the totem of each tribe with his dragon totem which depicts the appearance of nine distinctive animals in a Chinese dragon. Therefore, the Chinese dragon is a composite being with the antlers of a deer, eyes of a shrimp, nose of a dog, the whiskers of a catfish, the mouth of a bull, the mane of a lion, the claws of a hawk, the scales of a fish and the tail of a snake.
The Myth of Dragons in Africa
The Myth of Ayida-Weddo
It’s not like only Eastern cultures have benevolent dragons. The practitioners of Vodou, specifically those who lived in Haiti and Benin, believe in the spirit of Vodou called Ioa referred to as Ayida-Weddo. They are also called the Rainbow Serpent. Neither like an Eastern dragon nor like a Western one, they still have the body of a giant snake with iridescent scales.
It is believed that the Ayida-Weddo are Ioa of the rainbow, snake, water, and fertility. According to myths of dragons, there was a huge serpent that circled the earth to hinder it from crumbling. With the first rainfall, Ayida-Wedo emerged and the former serpent named Damballah-Wedo fell in love with her and married her. While the Eastern dragons have provided their people with basic necessities, Ayida-Weddo and her husband have taught humankind the secrets of life and how to lead a spiritually fulfilling and meaningful life.
The Myth of Apep
Another instance of a myth of an African dragon is Apep. Though Apep has a large serpent-like body like Ayida-Weddo, it wasn’t a benevolent creature like the former, as it was the dragon of destruction, chaos, and darkness. One of the renowned stories of Apep was the battling stories with the Sun God Ra.
The Egyptians of ancient times believed that the Sun went through the sky on a solar bark and every night, it had to go through the underground and Ra had to protect the Sun from the evil forces of the underground, of which Apep was the most dangerous. The myth is unclear on the residence of Apep in the underground. While some thought that the demon lived just below the horizon, others believed it to be the heart of the underground or the ‘tenth region of the night.’ As the serpent was also known as the “World Encirler,” it explains that the residence of the demon was in so many places.
The battle between Apep and Ra was inevitable and the serpent could use its hypnotic powers on Ra to immobilize him and his followers. Only the God of Chaos Set could bypass it and so, Set would pierce the demon and the Sun would continue its journey. In another myth, Apep would succeed in devouring the Sun but Ra and his followers would cut a hole inside the demon and it would free the Sun.
Legends of Dragons in America
The Myth of the Piasa Bird
The myths of dragons can be also found in the new world of the United States in a creature named the Piasa Bird which is described in a cliff face that is overlooking the Mississippi River to the north of Alton, Illinois. The earliest accountant of the painting is Jacques Marquette who wrote in 1673 that he saw two monsters in the painting. With the deer horns on their heads, they were the size of a calf, red eyes and a man’s face with tiger’s beard, a serpent-like body with a long tail that ended with a fishtail.
In 1836, John Russell published the backstory of the painting in which he claimed that the name of the creature is Piasa, meaning “the bird that devours man.” he also said that the bird killed many warriors in Native American villages. Ouataga, a chief, set a trap to capture and kill the bird by offering himself as bait. The plan worked and twenty warriors came from their hiding spots to throw their poisoned arrows to kill the bird. Later, it was known that Russell told his son that he fabricated the story a little bit but by then the story of Piasa was wildly popular.
The Myth of Teju Jagua
In the south-central part of South Africa, resides the indigenous tribe named Guarani who spoke of the dragon called Teju Jagua. This creature is believed to have a lizard body and seven dog heads. It was capable of shooting fire from its eyes. According to the Guarani legend, the creature was the firstborn of an evil spirit named Tau and a mortal woman named Karana.
Though Teju Jagua has a terrifying appearance, the supreme God, Tupa, has made him into a harmless creature. The diet of Teju Jagua primarily includes fruits. However, the favorite food of Teju Jagua is honey. His brother Jasy Jatere would bring him a honeycomb.
For further information on the myths of dragons, visit here.
And here we are at the end! I hope you have found this article interesting and will seek to know more. Or, you will personally visit one of the places. Until then, travel well, be well.
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