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Dragons: An (Un)natural History

Have you ever wondered why dragons are so ubiquitous in world mythology? In celebration of Chinese New Year, here’s an exploration of dragons from across the world.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

Edited by Francesca Benson
author

Francesca Benson

Copy Editor and Staff Writer

Francesca Benson is a Copy Editor and Staff Writer with a MSci in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham.

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A photo showing the silhouette of a child on a wooden horse with a crown and a sword preparing to fight a dragon on a stick. The shadows are cast on a white sheet.

Dragons appear across cultures and seem to have emerged independently. So here's an examination of some examples from across the world and why we have always had a thing for this fabulous beasties. 

Image credit: Tatiana Bobkova/Shutterstock.com

Dragons are probably among the most recognizable and ubiquitous fantasy beasties in history. Across the world, from Europe to China, as well as the Americas and Australia, ancient and completely independent cultures have depicted and described similar creatures in their stories, art, folklore, and mythologies.

Given the widespread appearance of these iconic creatures across enormous geographic and cultural divides, it would be easy to assume they were inspired by the same thing. But the history of dragons, where they came from, and how they became so significant is a complex and illustrative story about human observations of the natural world and our propensity for storytelling come together. And, much like the case of the dragon, what it produces can be amazing and monstrous.  

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Slithering and swimming into sight

One of the earlier depictions of what we in the West would identify as a “dragon” appears in the representation of the Babylonian entity called Tiamat, a primordial goddess that created yet more gods. In the Mesopotamian creation epic, the Enūma Eliš, Tiamat is described as an enormous serpent-like being associated with the sea. Tiamat, so the story goes, met her end at the hands of the storm god Marduk, who split her body and used the remains to make the heavens and earth.

Then there’s the Mušḫuššu (meaning “reddish snake” or “fierce snake”), a classic example of a composite creature depicted as having the hind legs of an eagle, lion forelimbs, a long serpentine neck and tail, horns on its head and a snake-like tongue. This creature was the symbol of Marduk and also served as his servant. The Mušḫuššu is famously depicted on the Ishtar Gate at the city of Babylon, in modern Iraq.

In Ancient Egypt, dragon-like beings appear in several instances. Firstly, Apep (or Apophis), a giant serpentine creature born from the Ra’s umbilical cord, was described as living in the realm of the dead. Apep was locked in a never-ending conflict with Ra, who was aided in this struggle by Nehebkau, another snake-like giant.

In Zoroastrian traditions, dragons like Aži Dahāka ("Avestan Great Snake") were a symbol of sin and greed, in a way that may anticipate later Christian depictions of this trope as well as their versions of dragons during the Medieval period.

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For the Ancient Greeks, drakōns – where we get the word “dragon” from – were common opponents for mythological heroes who had to slay them to achieve their legendary deeds (another trope that became important to Medieval stories). Notable examples include the Lernaean Hydra, the Colchian dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, the giant serpent Typhon, and the dragon of Ares.  

The dragons of Asia, notability the Chinese “long”, were far less destructive and menacing than their Western counterparts. These creatures were associated with good fortune and auspicious circumstances. Dragons have a vibrant and unparalleled history within Chinese culture, where they were and still are revered.

The traditional image of the Chinese dragons first appeared in the Shang (1766-1122 BCE) and Zhou (1046-256 BCE) dynasties. Eventually, these depictions turned into the Yinglong, a winged dragon that was also a rain deity. However, over the centuries, this depiction evolved, and the dragon lost its wings and became the iconic serpentine entity recognized in Chinese art today.

These dragons were likely so influential that they went on to inform many other Asian depictions, including those in Korea (often depicted with bears and grasping an orb) and Japan. Many other dragon traditions appear in the Philippines and India.

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In the Americas, the Aztecs worshiped Quetzalcoatl, the “precious serpent”, which was their version of the feathered serpent god that appeared throughout Mesoamerican mythologies. As with the Asian version of dragon gods, Quetzalcoatl was not a destructive figure, but rather the god of wind, patron of priests, and possibly the inventor of books and calendars.

Similarly, in South America, the Andean civilizations had the Amaroca or Amaru, a giant two-headed serpent that dwells deep underground. In Inca mythology, Amaroca lived at the bottom of lakes and rivers.

To be sure, these are just a few of the many forms of dragons that exist in cultures across the world. There are plenty of others that could have been added to this discussion, so this is just an illustrative few. But given the variety of depictions, where did the idea of dragons come from?

Imagining dragons

Despite their separation across vast distances, many of the dragon stories discussed above have similar features or tropes. In many cases, they are serpentine entities with other characteristics borrowed from different animals (such as bird-like wings or lion-like limbs). Scholars have long debated where such ideas came from, which has led to the hypothesis that the dragon may be a creative expression of our innate fear of snakes. But this would not be so applicable to more gentle examples from non-European contexts.

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However, it could capture something of the mystique associated with large snakes and other reptiles. Observations of natural snakes and exaggerations born from folklore and storytelling may have transformed some species into creatures of mythical proportions. According to Adrienne Mayor, this process may have also been aided by the discovery of dinosaur fossils by ancient peoples who lived in the areas where dragon stories emerged.

An example of this form of “mistaken identity” is present in the story of Chang Qu, a Chinese historian from the 4th century BCE who likely mistook a fossil for a long-dead dragon.

Equally, people in Australia may have been influenced by large reptiles like the Goanna, monitor lizards with deadly bites that can cause lethal infections. And in places like Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa, sightings of saltwater crocodiles may have inspired some of the stories that later traveled into Europe concerning vicious monstrous dragons (usually ones that were subsequently killed by a “heroic” saint – looking at you, George).

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Outside of reptiles, sea-faring peoples may have conflated stories about sea serpents inspired by whales and other large aquatic mammals and fish, with ideas about dragons. Whale bones washed to shore could also be the seeds for more monstrous interpretations.

Regardless of the sources of inspiration for the various creatures we regard as “dragons” today, it seems they all represent a meeting point where human imagination meets natural observations. But how we then understand that “creature” and what it means for our stories is very much shaped by our cultural heritage.


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