By: Joyce Chan /
The word, “Dragon” in Western culture conjures up images of a fire breathing beast, a hoarder of knowledge and treasures. Dragons are likely to be associated with their own slaying by knights in shining armor, seeking to protect a village or rescue maidens from the monster.
In Christianity, dragons are viewed as a symbol of chaos and evil, often associated with the Devil. However, the symbolism of the dragon is complex and varies significantly within many cultures throughout history.
In the East, the dragon is generally regarded in a positive manner, admired and recognized for its dualistic nature. In China, the dragon is thought of as a benevolent being with governance over the watery elements of the universe.
What is a dragon made of?
“The forms the dragon takes–the artistic conventions that guide a particular culture to represent the biologically based beast in sculpture, painting, oral lore, and so on–are learned in a particular social grouping at a particular time.
They will evolve on their own, not as a changing dragon but as changing artistic conventions. The inability to perceive the dragon as a biologically based creature with a great variety of styles of presentation has caused confusion among most dragonologists.
The images of the dragon are not the dragon. Not acknowledging this is like attempting to box in the shadow of a tree as the sun runs its daily course, not understanding that the tree, not the shadow, is the crucial element in the shifting shapes on the lawn.” (Jones, P. 49)
In An Instinct For Dragons, David E. Jones approaches the topic of dragons from an anthropological biological standpoint.
His book heavily focuses on the predator versus prey relationship, postulating that the concept of dragons stems from the primal dynamics of instinctual fear and survival.
Based on the features of dragons described in dragon lore, three predatory animals were named as likely candidates for the universal dragon images. According to David E. Jones, predatory birds, cats, and reptiles—especially snakes—were the likely animals to be amalgamated into a dragon’s physical identity.
Following the theory of evolution where humans evolved from primates, Jones suggests that humans retained the primal fear of predatory animals. As communication and language evolved, the individual animals were transformed to form the ultimate apex predator.
The talons of a predatory bird; the paralyzing gaze and long coiling body of a snake; and the fangs of a Felidae were likely the last features to be seen by a struggling animal of prey. The primates who survived carried the fear of such features.
In this instance, the dragon as a biological creature is regarded negatively, and as an omen of death.
In Western culture, dragons were often depicted with bat-like wings. According to The Mythical Zoo by Boria Sax, bats were regarded as familiars to witches and considered to be the disguise of the Devil.
This view of bats greatly contrasts the Chinese view of bats. In Chinese, the word for bat, “蝠 fú,” is a homonym of the word, “福 fú,” meaning “fortune.”
Along with being regarded as a symbol of good fortune, bats were admired for their filial piety, and tranquility.
While the dragons of the East possessed the ability to fly into the heavens with a single leap, they are not generally depicted with wings.
In China, the debated physical features of dragons varied.
Dragons were even said to have nine decedents or “sons,” bearing a striking similarity to the mythological creatures labeled as dragons around the world. Scholars have debated the names and the features of the descendants because local legends have produced more than nine.
Dragons themselves were described to have a horse’s head; a snake’s neck and tail; scales like a carp’s; talons like a hawk’s; paws like a tiger’s; and ears like an ox.
When taking David E. Jones’ hypothesis of biological, predatory fear into account, the hypothesis does not hold up particularly well in the East despite the physical features. However, it is important to note that dragon images appeared around the Xia dynasty (c. 2070 – c. 1600 BC) when people formed clans.
Similar to European heraldry, animals were adopted as clan seals. Certain clans began to adopt the fearsome traits of other animals, which scholars believe to have resulted in the dragon image. The clans with the dragon images soon became victorious in their annexation of neighboring clans, which lead to the widespread belief that dragons were gods themselves, holding the divine right to rule in Chinese culture.
The first Ming emperor developed the five-clawed dragon and adopted it as his personal emblem. Dignitaries also wore dragon emblems but were forbidden to use the five-clawed dragon.
“The Chinese dragon was closely associated with the Emperor, and the period of the Han dynasty was called the epoch of the fire dragons.
These were sometimes known as dragon kings.
Dragon kings occasionally had a separate identity, having human bodies with serpents on their crowns, and serpent retainers.
They were the guardians of the Buddha.” (Barber, PG. 52)
In Chinese Dragons by Roy Bates, Bates mentioned the slight additions to the dragons’ appearance by 100 BC.
The dragon was described to have whiskers on each side of the mouth; elongated and upturned snouts similar to elephants or tapirs; and a beard under its chin. Bates especially notes the dragons’ preference for consuming swallows and their dislike of iron; little detail was given as to why this may be. (Bates, PG. 16)
Curiously, it appears that dragons and fairies of European folklore both have a dislike for iron. Dragons were once believed to be as infinite as the fish in the sea. It was believed by many that if a snake or carp lived long enough, they would eventually merit transforming into dragons.
“Both snakes and dragons are designated by the same word, draco, in Latin.
We generally regard dragons as snakes, just as zoologists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance did.” (Sax, PG. 233)
When focusing on snakes in relation to dragons, many cultures depict dragons as snake-like creatures.
According to Sax,
“Serpents often represent a primeval androgynous state before the separation of male and female.
In the ancient world, however, serpents were associated with a vast number of Goddesses.” (PG. 228)
In Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, snakes are called Nagas. Nagas were often depicted as having the head of a human—normally female—and the body of a snake; they are described to be a class of semi divine beings that are potentially dangerous but often beneficial to humans. However, in such faiths, Nagas were not exactly considered to be dragons but thought of as creatures within the same family, charged with protecting knowledge and sacred texts.
In comparison, Draconcopedes are similar in physical appearance to the Nagas. Draconcopedes in medieval myth were described as serpents with women’s faces, one of which was speculated to have tempted Eve with the apple in the garden of Eden. The characteristic that links such creatures to the dragons of the East and the West is that they are keepers of knowledge.
The dragon that occurs in the Bible is frequently associated with the serpent of Eden. In Revelation, the battle between St. Michael and the dragon’s expulsion from heaven was mentioned.
“And the great dragon was thrown down, the ancient serpent that was called the Devil…
And I saw the beast rising out of the sea with ten horns, and seven heads, with ten diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads.
And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.”
(Revelation xii,9, xiii,1-2)
In contrast, to the loss and horror experienced from dealing with dragons or serpents in the West, the legend of the Buddha Sakyamuni encountering a dragon should be noted.
Sakyamuni came across a great dragon renowned for wisdom. Seeking enlightenment, Sakyamuni asked many questions, which the dragon answered with ease.
Upon asking the the meaning of life, the dragon refused to answer until its appetite was satiated. Sakyamuni offered himself to the snake, in this case a dragon, and the dragon revealed the ultimate truth.
As promised, Sakymuni offered himself into the the opened jaws of the dragon, which was then transformed into a lotus flower. (Sax, PG. 228)
The attitude of this legend towards the dragon seems to be somewhat benign.
The act of having to offer one’s own flesh is undoubtedly terrifying, but upon the act of self-sacrifice, the Buddha was able to gain the knowledge he sought.
“In many respects the Chinese thought about dragons in the same way that children think about Father Christmas;
to some he is Santa Claus; to others he is Saint Nicholas…
Yet the dragon, like Father Christmas, was always intangible.
Its shape, and its characteristics, varied from place to place.
No one knew for certain what a dragon looked like, and it was not possible to go out into the wilds and see one.”
(Bates, PG. 6)
In Chinese culture, dragons are closely associated with water. When viewing the dragon with a focus on its snake-like features, it is possible that dragons are associated with water because snakes are driven out into the open during earthquakes or monsoon rains. Following a similar thought, the slithering of the serpent in reminiscent of the ripples in water.
In Armenian traditions and Macedonian myth, dragons controlled the heavens and were associated with lightning and thunder.
According to Richard Barber in A Dictionary of Fabulous,
“A quite general belief was the dragon’s association with death.
A dead man was thought to become a dragon, while dragons were believed to be the guardians of treasures in burial chambers…
Dragons’ teeth, in planted, would grow into an army of men, a strange association with reincarnation.” (PG. 49)
From the numerous examples of dragon legend and lore, the themes of life, death, and transformation seem to be prevalent.
The dragon as a birth, death and rebirth creature was prevalent in alchemy.
One of the most popular images among alchemists was the ouroboros, a snake-like creature that held its own tail in its mouth.
The creature would consume itself, which was similar to the gluttonous Toatie in Chinese mythology.
A similar image was the Midgard of Norse mythology, which was depicted as coiling around the earth.
Alchemists viewed the serpent as an animal that joined all of the four elements from which the universe was formed.
The dragon is associated with the earth because serpents slithered on the ground; their forked tongues were reminiscent of flames; many serpents may also be found in water.
As for the element of air, dragons and other serpentine figures are often depicted with wings.
In relation to cosmology and the creation myths, the Dragon Kings in Chinese mythology represented the four seasons, which is loosely associated with the four directions of the world.
When viewing the mythology of dragons, there are parallels of maiden sacrifice and dragons in Eastern and Western cultures.
Unfortunately, the offering of maidens to dragons was a way to appease the monster. Such sacrifices seem to be less emphasized in Eastern culture.
Upon contemplating the possibilities of scenarios, if the dragon was viewed in association with the snake, a well fed snake would be less likely to wreak havoc after being fed. This speculation is in accordance with the dragon as a predatory animal.
Overall, dragons in Eastern culture are seen as auspicious.
Dragons are used to describe unexplained blessings of rain, which likely lead to bountiful crops. Snakes were viewed as sources of food with antidotal properties for certain toxins and as treatment of paralysis, thus leading to the association of life and death.
Dragons are present everywhere, symbolic of wisdom and hidden knowledge.
- In the West, their secret must be fought for and won from the dragons’ slaying.
- In the East, dragons are are companions, teachers of nobility, and sages.
Dragons have long been used as a symbol of those who attain high positions by they own grit.
The dragon as a symbol could be interpreted as a call to adventure.
Adventures in folklore, fairytale, and legends are often filled with transformation for those who embark on the journey.
Thus, it can be said that dragons embody the act of seeking an adventure, and the actual transformation.
- Sax, Boria. The Mythical Zoo. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001. Print.
- Jones, David E. An Instinct For Dragons. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. Print.
- Boulay, R.A. Flying Serpents and Dragons. Escondido, CA: The Book Tree, 1999. Print.
- Hayes, Luther Newton. The Chinese Dragon. Shanghai, China: Commercial Press, 1923. Print.
- Bates, Roy. Chinese Dragons. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2002. Print.
- Lum, Peter. Fabulous Beasts. New York. NY.: Pantheon Books Inc., 1951. Print.
- Barber, Richard. A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. New York, N.Y.: Walker and Company, 1971. Print.
- Huxley, Francis. The Dragon. New York, N.Y.: Mcmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1979. Print.
- Lehner, Ernst and Johanna. A Fantastic Bestiary. New York, N.Y.: Tudor Publishing Company, 1969. Print.