Dragons have fascinated people of every culture throughout history. They appear in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. Some dragons are fierce and dangerous, others are friendly and peace-loving, and all are powerful. The most common image is that of a giant winged, fire-breathing lizard. Dragons are also called serpents, drakes or wyverns. The Latin word for dragon is “draco,” and the Greek word for dragon is “drakon.”
Ancient belief in dragons appears to have been nearly universal. Similar descriptions come from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and other parts of the world. It was widely believed that dragons inhabited the wild, remote regions of the earth. Uncharted regions on maps would be marked with the warning “Here Be Dragons.” Since legends are usually based on facts, even if they have been embellished or exaggerated over years of oral storytelling, perhaps dragons were not purely imaginary. Did the original storytellers make up their dragon tales after discovering dinosaur bones? Or could they have actually seen real dragon-like creatures?
It has been suggested that accounts of dragons were based on several types of living dinosaurs that remained on the earth long after most had died out. Seriously, there is plenty of evidence supporting the theory that humans did encounter such creatures. Flying reptiles were described by the Greek historian Herodotus, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and the Jewish historian Josephus. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote about the natural history of dragons, and so did John of Damascus. The memoirs of Alexander the Great tell of seeing a dragon in a cave, and the Greek biographer Philostratus wrote about the existence of dragons. Scientific books from the 1500’s record the anatomy and physiology of dragons in great detail. As late as 1649 there were reported sightings of winged serpents in Europe.
The Babylonian story of creation told of a serpent-like creature, Tiamat. There is a dragon figure on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, believed to be a representation of a living dinosaur. A Sumerian story dating back to 3,000 BC tells of a hero named Gilgamesh, who went to cut some giant cedar trees in a remote forest and encountered a huge tree-eating dragon which he slew, cutting off its head as a trophy. The Egyptians depicted dragons in hieroglyphics. Dragons were featured in Greek mythology. Roman soldiers carried standards depicting dragons as battle emblems.
The Hebrew word “tanniyn” meaning dragon appears many times in the Bible. (Note: certain modern versions translate the same word as “sea serpent” in some verses and “jackal” in others.) The Old Testament mentions two creatures that sound like a dragon and/or dinosaur, the leviathan and behemoth (Job chapters 40-41). Various other dragons are depicted as dwelling in different types of habitats and as being of various sizes (e.g., Isaiah 34:13; Micah 1:8; Malachi 1:3). According to the Authorized King James Bible, dragons are venomous (De. 32:33); they may be found on land (Is. 34:13) or in the sea (Ps. 74:13); they live in dens (Jer. 9:11); they snuff the wind (Jer. 14:6); they wail (Mic. 1:8); and they can live in a wasted wilderness (Mal. 1:3). In the New Testament, dragons are mentioned in the book of Revelations. Some say “that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan” (Rev. 20:2) was the original Dragon; others claim that he takes the form of a dragon just to terrify humans.
The classic European dragon is large, growing up to 60 feet in length, with broad bat-like wings, long spade-tipped tail, thick scales, massive hind legs, and enormous claws. Some are said to have fiery or poisonous breath. These dragons are ferocious but solitary creatures and often stand guard over precious treasures. Norse Vikings carved dragons as figureheads on the prows of their ships and painted dragons on their shields. Uther, High King of Britain and father of King Arthur, had a vision of a dragon that was considered a mighty omen. Uther began a tradition of using dragon effigies as standards, carrying them into battle to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy. The surname Pendragon, meaning chief dragon, was thereafter used by many English kings. The dragon is the national emblem of Wales. Dragons were especially prominent in the romances of the Middle Ages.
There are references to dragon bones found in China as early as 2,000 years ago; these were probably dinosaur fossils. (The actual word “dinosaur” wasn’t coined until 1841.) Dragons have always been prominent in Chinese art, literature, architecture, songs, and many aspects of Chinese culture. The dragon is the national symbol of China and the imperial family. Oriental dragons are friendly creatures that ensure good luck and wealth. They are also said to control rivers, lakes, rain, and seas. Peaceful and gentle, these dragons have long snake-like bodies, bearded faces, and can be found in an array of colors. In China, the traditional New Year's Day parade includes a group of people who wind through the street wearing a large dragon costume. Japanese dragons are very similar in appearance to Chinese dragons. In India, serpent dragons and crested dragons of enormous size dwelled in the mountains and marshes.
Dragon legends flourished among Native American tribes and the Alaskan Eskimos. In the Caribbean, dragons are called Huracan due to the belief that they cause hurricanes. On the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, dragons are called Kukulcan or Chac and thought to live in water-filled limestone caves. Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican winged dragon from Aztec mythology, has the feathers of a bird and the tail of a serpent. The Incas painted and etched stones depicting dinosaurs and men together. In the American Southwest, petroglyphs that look exactly like dinosaurs and dragons have been found.
Do you think dragons ever really existed? Why or why not?
Next Week: Famous dragons and dragon slayers from history, literature, and movies!
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