Dragons in European mythology and folklore are almost always portrayed as being malevolent (with some exceptions such as The Red Dragon of Wales).
Photo by Geordie Michael
They are depicted as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and usually possessing scaled or feathered bodies. Dragons can have any number of legs: none, two, four or more. Often they have a hard, armoured hide and possess wings; though they rarely fly. They are endowed with large eyes adept at diligently watching treasures. Some myths portray them with row of dorsal spines. They live in underground lairs or inaccessible caves.
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The word dragon entered the English language in the early 13 the century (the usage lasted till 18th Century) from Old French dragon, which in turn comes from Latin draconem (nominative draco) meaning “huge serpent”.
You may wonder what it was that inspired dragon myths in the first place? Here are some possible explanations:
It could be that the whole mythology of European dragons stemmed from a cult of snakes; as folklore and mythological accounts of dragons often shared similar traits with huge snakes inhabiting nearby rivers or the sea. Also the Nile crocodiles in ancient times enjoyed a much larger range, with some even able to swim across the Mediterranean Sea, they could have been spotted in the southern parts of Europe. These supposed wayward crocodiles could have easily been the budding source for dragon myths.
Another possibility could be that many tales about dragons, monsters and giant heroes might have been spun from the accidental discoveries of the skeletons of whales, as well as dinosaur or mammalian fossils that could very well have been mistaken for the bones of dragons and other mythological creatures. Case in point: A discovery in 300 B.C. in Wucheng, Sichuan, China, was labelled as such by Chang Qu.
In Australia, stories of such creatures may have referred to land crocodiles, Quinkana, a terrestrial crocodile which grew to 5 to 7 metres long. Today the Komodo monitor lizard Varanus Komodoensis, is known in English as the Komodo Dragon.
Anthropologist David E. Jones, in his book entitled An Instinct for Dragons explored the hypothesis that humans have inherited instinctive reactions of fear when it comes to large cats, birds of prey and most certainly, slithering snakes. Dragons have the same characteristics that are combinations of all three. This would account for similar features been attributed to dragons appearing in various cultures throughout the world. The influence of drugs used in many religious ceremonies may also have vastly contributed to the fantastic, exaggerated imagery.
In any case, in various cultures around the word, Dragons often held major spiritual significance.
Incidences of a monstrous serpent opponent always overcome by a heroic deity had its roots in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, including Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. The 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. Presumably the accounts of spitting cobras may have evolved into the myths of fire-breathing dragons. In the New Testament, the Devil, in his battle against Archangel Michael, takes the form of a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.
In modern times Dragon images have evolved to depict a huge fire-breathing lizard or snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs or a huge, scaly, horned dinosaur-like creature with leathery or bat-type wings growing from its back, four legs and a long muscular tail. Sometimes they have feathered wings, crests, fiery manes, with ivory spikes running down their spine and various exotic colorations.
A dragon like creature with no front legs is known as a wyvern. This is after the discovery of pterosaurs that walked on the ground. Some Dragons have been portrayed since, without front legs and using the wings as front legs Pterosaur-like when on the ground.
More recently depictions of dragons have been a bit kinder, perhaps a result of the heightened interest in dinosaurs. Who doesn’t like dinosaurs? Their cousin the Dragons, benefiting from this popularity, now are depicted as the guardians and friends of humans, with evil dragons (for we must have them also) as a misunderstood anomaly. They are now represented as intelligent creatures who can talk and possesses (or be under the spell of) potent magic. A dragon’s blood also has magical properties, for example in the opera Siegfried dragon’s blood let Siegfried understand the language of the Forest Bird. In most fables the dragon inhabits a cavern or a castle filled with gold and treasure. The dragon is often associated with a great hero who at first tries to slay him, is eventually won over and quickly develops into reciprocal bond, with the hero often seeking help or receiving advice from the Dragon.
Though they are grouped together under the dragon label, many cultures have varying descriptions and stories about them. Bad dragons still persists in some fables. These ones not only breathe fire but they can also be poisonous, such as the one depicted in Beowulf.
Beowulf, the oldest extant heroic poem in English literature, is usually credited as being the first one to explore the concept of a dragon slayer; though in fact the legend of the dragon slayer had already existed in Norse and Icelandic sagas, such as the tale of Sigurd and Fafnir. The poet of Beowulf would have had access to similar stories from Scandinavian oral tradition. The dragon fight occurring at the end of the poem, symbolizes Beowulf’s stand against evil and destruction, and as the hero, he knows that failure will bring destruction to his people after many years of peace.
J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit has expanded on Beowulf’s dragon, clearly demonstrating the lasting impact of Beowulf poem. There is a slight variation however. The dragon fight ends Beowulf, whereas in The Hobbit Tolkien uses the same dragon motif (namely the dragon’s love for treasure), to trigger a chain of events that form the narrative of the book.