Dragons are among the most popular and incredible mythological creatures in the world. Dragon tales are known in many cultures, from the Americas to Europe and India to China. Although they populate our books, films and television programs, they have a long and rich history in many forms.
The truth is that we do not know exactly when and where the dragon stories began to appear, but already the ancient Greeks and Sumerians described huge flying snakes. For much of history, dragons have been regarded as any other animals: sometimes useful and protective, other times harmful and dangerous. But this changed radically when Christianity spread throughout the world; the dragons took on a sinister appearance and came to represent Satan.
In medieval times, most people who heard of dragons knew them from the Bible, and it is likely that most Christians at the time believed in the literal existence of dragons. After all, Leviathan, a massive monster described in detail in Job’s book, chapter 41, seems to describe a dragon in detail (see here).
The belief in dragons was not only based on even older legends, but also on tangible evidence or at least, it seemed at the time. For millennia, no one could explain the discovery of giant bones that were sometimes discovered all over the world, and dragons seemed a logical choice for those who had no knowledge of dinosaurs.
While most people can give way to their imagination, the perception and descriptions of dragons vary considerably. Some dragons have wings, others don’t. Some dragons may speak or spit fire, others not. Some are only a few metres long, others extend for miles. Some dragons live in underwater palaces, while others live only in caves and clouds.
As the folklorist Carol Rose explains in her book “giants, monsters and dragons: An encyclopedia of folklore, legends and myths”, dragons often have features similar to many other well-known land animals, such as the head of an elephant in India, that of a lion or bird in the Middle East, or many reptile heads such as snakes. Their body colour can range from green, red to black, to exceptionally yellow, blue or white dragons.
The zoologist Karl Shuker describes a wide variety of dragons in his book “Dragons: A natural history“, including giant snakes, hydres, gargoyles and god-dragons, as well as more obscure variants such as basilics, vouivres and so on…. In any case, the dragon is clearly a chameleon, its features adapting to the cultural and literary expectations of the time.
Today, dragons continue to captivate the public’s imagination in fantasy books and films.
The origin of the word “dragon” comes from the ancient Greek word “draconta”, meaning “observe”, suggesting that the beast was watching valuables. Dragons generally kept treasures such as mountains of gold coins, precious stones or priceless relics.
Dragons are one of the rare monsters of mythology, mainly described as a powerful and formidable opponent to kill. They exist not only for their own good, but also as a piece of paper for daring adventurers who want to tell their story. Other mythical creatures such as trolls, elves and fairies interact with people but their main role is not as combative as the dragon.
Later, the Christian church began to create legends of righteous and pious Saints who fought and defeated Satan in the form of dragons. The most famous of them was St. George the Dragon Killer, who in legend arrives in a city threatened by a terrible dragon. He saves a young woman, protects himself with the sign of the cross and kills the beast. The citizens of the city, impressed by St. George’s faith and courage, immediately converted to Christianity.
Overcoming a dragon was not only an important career opportunity for every saint, knight or ambitious hobbit, but according to legend, it was also a way of raising armies (and replenishing a new vocation: Christianity).
Even today, researchers and scholars think that the dragon’s breath of fire came from medieval representations of the mouth of hell. Indeed, the door of hell was often portrayed as the mouth of a monster, with flames and smoke escaping from it. If one believes not only in the literal existence of hell, but also in the literal existence of dragons as a Satanic creature, association makes perfect sense.
Apart from medieval theology, few people today believe in the existence of dragons as they might believe in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, for example. The dragon (or at least the dragon version most familiar to Westerners) is simply too big and too fantastic to be taken seriously. In the modern era of satellite imagery, photos and videos taken with increasingly intelligent phones, it is simply unbelievable that an unknown giant inhabits the Earth’s sky or other sky without being seen.
The dragon is then a creature classified in the imagination. Despite this, he is inspiring and possesses a horde of dreamy fans behind him.
Image credit on the front page: Pexels