Jun 21, 2014

Dragons In Mythology, Legend & History, Part 1

One of the most ubiquitous creatures of all legends and mythologies is the dragon.  Dragons feature prominently in the mythologies of many ancient cultures, including Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.  Dragons are represented in both the archaeology of the ancient world as well as various religious traditions. 

A young dragon, as featured in HBO's Game of Thrones
Today, dragons also appear frequently in works of popular fiction such as the HBO series, Game of Thrones, and the film, How to Train Your Dragon.

What Is A "Dragon?"

The word "dragon" comes from the Greek word, drakon, which means "serpent."  Until the 18th century, in the English language, the word "dragon" was used to mean any large serpent, not necessarily mythological, such as a python or the Komodo dragon

The mythological creature we now refer to as a "dragon" has many different characteristics, depending upon the particular culture one examines.  In some cultures, dragons are viewed as purely malevolent creatures, at odds with either heroes or deities.  Other cultures view them (at least some of the time) as a sign of good fortune.  Frequently, but not always, dragons are depicted as fire-breathing or multi-headed.  Usually, they are scaly, reptilian creatures, but in at least one tradition - the Americas - dragons are depicted as feathered serpents. 

The dragon "Smaug," image courtesy of Wikipedia
Sometimes, they are depicted as having the ability of speech and a love for gold.  Such is the case with J.R.R. Tolkien's dragon, "Smaug," (pictured left) from the classic book, The Hobbit, and also featured in the 2013 film The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug.  According to Wikipedia, this film adaptation built upon popular European and Asian dragons.

In Part One of this multi-part series, we will take a look at the way dragons are portrayed in various mythologies from around the world.  We will also examine dragons as they are depicted in religious iconography and archaeological evidence.

Dragons in Mythology:  Greece & Rome


According to Theoi Greek Mythology, the ancient Greeks recognized four distinct types, or categories, if you will, of dragons.  The first type was the "Dracones."  Essentially, the dracones were nothing more than giant serpents.  However, sometimes, they came equipped with rows of sharp teeth, deadly poison or multiple heads.  As was common in Greek myth, the dracones often guarded a sacred spring, grove or golden treasure.  The Colchian Dracon is an example of this type of dragon, which guarded the Golden Fleece before it was stolen by Jason.

The second type of dragon recognized in Greek myth was the "Cetus," or "sea monster."  These dragons are usually featured in myths involving sacrificial princesses chained to rocks, but who are saved by a hero.  An example of this type of dragon can be seen in the myth of the Ethiopian Cetus.  There, Poseidon sent the Ethiopian Cetus to ravage the land of the Aethiopians. The king offered his daughter, Andromeda, to it as a sacrifice.  However,  Perseus rescued the princess and slew the beast, using the head of Medusa. 

This Greek myth is also depicted in the 1981 and 2010 movies Clash of the Titans, but the creature is referred to as "the Kraken."

The third type of dragon known to the ancient Greeks was the distinctly undragon-like Chimaera (pictured to the right).
Chimera di Arezzo, image courtesy of Wikipedia
The Chimaera was a three headed, fire-breathing monster, with the foreparts of a lion, the hind-parts of a goat and goat's-head rising from its back, and the tail of a serpent.  According to Wikipedia, Homer's brief description of the creature, in the Illiad, is the earliest known reference.

Last, Greek mythology tells us of a fourth type of dragon known as the Dracaenae, or "she-dragon."  Dracaenae had the upper body of a beautiful woman, usually a nymph, but the lower portion of a dragon.  The most well-known representation of this type of dragon from Greek myth is Scylla, who devoured sailors at the Straits of Messina, along with the monster Charybdis.


The Romans did not have unique dragon myths.  Instead, as they did with much of their pantheon of gods, they borrowed the idea of the dragon from Greece and the ancient Near East as the Empire expanded.  Nevertheless, it is the Roman depiction of the dragon - a serpentine, scaly creature, with claws and crested head - that forms the foundation for our more traditional, European conception of dragons.

Despite not having its own dragon mythology, the Romans had many stories that, allegedly, involved dragons, which are often associated with its military.  One such story recounts how a dragon attacked one of Rome's armies in North Africa as Rome battled Carthage.  According to the tale, a dragon crept up and situated itself behind the Roman army’s wall.  General Regulus, who was in charge of the army, ordered his men to kill it.  The men did as they were ordered, but only at great loss of life and only after resorting to siege weaponry.  Apparently, the Roman army's regular arms would not pierce the creature's tough hide.  

After the creature was vanquished, the hide was sent back to the Roman Senate.  When it was measured, it was 120 feet in length.  The dragon's hide was supposedly on display in Rome for 100 years.

In addition to stories such as this, Rome frequently associated its military with depictions of dragons.  For example, Rome adopted "the Draco" as a normal military standard, which was borne by a particular soldier known as a "draconarius."
Draconarius, Roman Re-enactment, image courtesy of Wikipedia

Rome kept "the Draco" as a standard until the Empire fell in 476 CE.
In Part 2 Of This Series...

Check back with us for Part 2 in this series, where we examine the unique, "feathered" dragon mythology of the Americas.

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