by thefourpartland

So, this is a bit of a departure from the pieces I normally put up here. It’s a bit of curious exploration behind the life of dragons, and the cultural impact they have. Because of my background, most of these tales will be drawn from Europe.

Dragons are a universal constant. They exist in stories from Wales to China, and all the countries in between. In the Western world, whenever you open a fantasy story, bets are it will have dragons. The most famous roleplaying game of all time is called Dungeons & Dragons. The Hobbit has a dragon. Whole series are based around the premise of dragons (Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern). And yet the myths and legends that tell of the first dragons are ancient, far enough back that some of them are lost to the mists of time.

Grendel, from the old Germanic tale of Beowulf, is one of the early examples of a creature that has fallen under the title of dragon. Then there is King Arthur, and the tales of slaying a dragon. Or St. George and the Dragon. The Welsh flag is Y Ddraig Goch, “The Red Dragon”. Stories abound in Wales about dragons.

What I am curious about is where does this universal constant come from? Why are dragons so old that they disappear back before recorded time in European and Asian history? What about these giant lizards makes them so mythical and special? Is it their alien size and immense power, their wisdom, their magic? All of those are constants across cultural boundaries, but something must give dragons the special place they hold in the hearts of humanity. I’m hoping you can answer the question in the comments.


  1. Adam Byatt on 10.12.2010

    Comparing mythology shows some interesting correlations and human nature seems to have similar dispositions in the world. Perhaps they embody deep seated instincts. A name study and etymology might provide a line of thinking. In The Hobbit, Smaug is called a worm/wyrm, giving it that more serpent descriptor and hence the distinction that dragons are often ‘evil’ stemming from Edenic mythology. That is a more modern Western interpretation; I can’t speak for Eastern concepts.

  2. The Four Part Land on 10.13.2010

    Dragon myths do seem to go very far back, especially if you drop in serpentine as an analogous descriptor. At that point, it goes back to the creation myths, not just in the Christian world, but also in the Aztec and Mesoamerican, where there are the Quetzalcoatl, who share many of their characteristics with dragons.

    Interestingly, I think most of the ‘evil’ dragons are Western. I could be wrong, but most of the time they occur in Western mythology (St. George, King Arthur, Beowulf to name a few), they are the embodiment of evil and deployed as a foil for the titular hero, where as in China, if I remember correctly, dragons are supposed to be wise and lucky for the fortunate few who meet them.

    Now if only there was a study on the history of draconic myths I could acquire…

  3. Gracie on 10.13.2010

    Here’s a website I just found with brief overviews of particular dragon origins: http://www.draconian.com/history/history.htm

    They do have a lot to do with creation myths. Conspiracy theorists link them to alien reptilian overlords who make up the shadow governments of the world. O.o

    They’re associated with deep currents of earth energies which can be tapped magically to affect events, as Merlin is purported to do (my favorite).

    Maybe you should think of writing that book about their origins that you’re looking for. 🙂 It’s a very rich subject, indeed.

  4. The Four Part Land on 10.13.2010

    Much as I would love to, the amount of research required to do that book precludes it from being within my scope. In simpler terms, I’m lazy.

    However, that’s a really interesting website, although the information about alien reptile overlords seems a bit beyond the pale. Although…it might make for a rather interesting novel idea. A dystopian Dragonriders of Pern, perhaps?

    As for the creation myths, they do show up all over the place. Aztec, Christian (the serpent), Old Germanic, Celtic, there are a lot of different mythologies that in some way place a dragon at or near the core of the creation of a religion, a country, a culture.

    I had not heard of them being associated with earth magic, although the concept of the ‘World Serpent’ seems rather prevalent. Also the notion that a serpentine creature represents infinity, in the form of a snake eating its own tail.

    I would personally have attached dragons to brimstone, fire, and the air if I though of what type of magic they would have had.

  5. Gracie on 10.13.2010

    Yes, the Chinese associate them with fire, for sure. You could look at those earth energies I mentioned as being the fundamental elements, earth, air, fire, water, and then it makes more sense. What’s the Loch Ness Monster if not a dragon (in my head, at least)? And Celtic/English/Welsh dragons seem to be associated largely with mountains and caves, like the Lambton Wyrm, which is very earthy.

    I could go on… I’m far too lazy to write such a book, too, though I agree it would be interesting and fun. 🙂

  6. The Four Part Land on 10.13.2010

    There are caves in Wales where they have been redecorated so that they can tell the Arthurian myths within them, and the boat that you travel on to get there is shaped in the form of a dragon.

    And you are correct that almost all of the dragons that exist in British mythology live in caves and underground, and are not gifted with flight like some of their other cousins. In fact, the only ones I can think of where flight is a common trait is the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, where their ability to fly is one of their defining characteristics.

    I’d call the Loch Ness monster a sea-serpent. Then there’s the question of whether that is a dragon. It certainly falls into the larger mythological area of serpentine creatures, which go back for millenia. I’d probably put it in a separate category of creatures that are primarily associated with water, and unable to escape from it except under extreme circumstances.

  7. Erithal on 02.15.2011

    Well, if you want to ask where dragons came from, you only have to look at the probable origin of cyclops legends: elephant skulls. The hole where the trunk would go is just as large as a cyclops’ eye, and the skull is gigantic. So if it were a humanoid creature, it would be a cyclops, straight out of the Odyssey.

    Now, imagine those same storytellers finding Dinosaur bones…

  8. The Four Part Land on 02.15.2011

    I have actually seen a recent news report about the cyclops probably being a dwarf elephant (I think that was the name), and certainly the skull looked like it could fit.

    What always has me curious with dragons is that by and large the skull they are normally pictured with doesn’t fit any of the classical dinosaurs, but that just might be an artefact of how they are now viewed, and not where the myths once came from.

  9. Erithal on 02.15.2011

    Well, the classical western and eastern dragons are about as like a tyrannosaur skull as a cyclops is like a dwarf elephant– which is to say they aren’t.

    It’s not a question of what the bones really came from, but rather the richness of the collective human imagination. The mythical origins of the bones in the prehistoric mind. It’s what early humans *imagined* those bones came from that’s important. That imagined dragon is the common ancestor of the tyrant lizards of yore.

    Stone age humans saw huge bleached bones from washed out fossil banks on a hill far beyond their hearths, and they knew: “Here there be dragons.”

    Yes, they’re only as real as stories told by firelight for thousands of years since… but that’s quite real indeed.

  10. The Four Part Land on 02.15.2011

    I wonder where those stories came from on a geographical basis, since dragons appear across the globe. Because they would have to come from fairly early in human history to have survived the diaspora from Africa to the rest of the world.

  11. Erithal on 02.15.2011

    If I had to guess? The group of people who spent the most time around fire pits twelve thousand years ago were the Natufians. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natufian_culture). It’s the first human culture to have large amounts of free time, due to the natural abundance of the precursors of our staple grains. Their stories could have spread with the cereal crops they gathered.

    The Natufians were semi-sedentary, living in the best part of the fertile crescent prior to the development of agriculture. They had the most leisure time of any prehistoric peoples, which resulted in one of the richest material cultures among their contemporaries. All that leisure must have left plenty of time for story telling. And those stories would have survived the glaciation, even if the Natufian way of life didn’t.

    Sadly, they predated writing.

    Who knows what stories they told in their rounded huts? Did dragon’s fire already smolder in our species’ imagination? I’d really like to know, even though there’s no way I could… : |

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