This article describes the mythological creature. For other uses, including extant animals, see dragon (disambiguation)
A dragon is a mythological beast widely featured in human literature and lore. There are two major divisions: the dragons of the Western and Eastern traditions. Western European dragons are usually cast as the "bad guys" in stories, while Eastern and particularly Chinese dragons are seen as more benevolent. Dragons are imagined as reptilian; European dragons are portrayed with wings, while Chinese dragons are understood to be more like large snakes.
Modern authors, particular in the fantasy genres, often develop stories in which dragons feature prominently. Occasionally there are tales in which dragons are portrayed sympathetically, and some stories are even told from the dragon's point of view.
The dragon in Beowulf shows the standard characteristics of the European dragon. It is a malevolent being, called a dragon (draca) or serpent (wyrm), implying that it is reptilian. It inhabits a burial mound full of treasure and flies out, in flame, at night to devastate the surrounding countryside. It breathes fire, and its bite is venomous. Although it waits till nightfall to fly on its forays, it can fight by daylight.
Stories of dragons
In Beowulf, the dragon has taken possession of a burial mound full of treasure and has been quite content to rest there, though it is of no use to him, until a runaway slave enters the mound and steals a jewelled cup. It then starts to devastate Beowulf's kingdom. The aged king goes to deal with the menace and faces it alone, but eventually needs the help of one of one his companions who goes to his aid. He breaks his sword on the dragon but eventually kills it. The dragon's poisonous bite leads to his death.
In the Elder Edda and the prose Völsunga Saga the human Fafnir becomes a dragon by seizing and brooding over a treasure given to his father by the gods for killing Fafnir's brother Otter. Fafnir's second brother Regin urges the hero Sigurd to kill the dragon, which he does by striking up at him from a pit. Regin claims the heart for himself, to eat, but while it is being cooked Sigurd tastes it, and understands the language of the birds.
A similar story is later told in the German Niebelungenleid In this version, there is a huge treasure on the bottom of the Rhine river, carried there by Alberich the dwarf, and guarded by the Rhine maidens. At one point, Odin stole it to pay the Giants for building Valhalla. Alberich cursed the gold and all people who would ever own it. Fafnir, one of the Giants, killed his father and exiled his brother so that he alone would possess the treasure. He watched over it for years, day and night, without sleeping. Eventually he turned into a dragon. Siegfreid kills Fafnir, and by bathing in Fafnir's blood makes himself invincible, except for one spot where a leaf fell on him and the blood did not cover. He drinks the blood as well, and by doing this he is suddenly able to understand the languages of birds, and many other mysteries.
Motifs from these stories have been used by 20th century writers. In J.R.R. Tolkien's tale of Turin Turambar, Turin kills the dragon Glaurung by striking up at him as he passes over a chasm. In C.S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace turns into a dragon while coveting a dragon's treasure.
Western dragons generally haunted wells, springs, rivers, or other important sources of water. They would refuse to allow people to use the water unless they sacrificed something--usually young maidens--to the dragon. Medieval Christians associated dragons with Satan, and thus they could be overcome by Christian saints such as Saint George, or by faith.
According to one Rhine legend, a dragon cult demanded the continual sacrifice of young maidens. One such woman was so beautiful that a prince who belonged to the cult pled for her release. However, the powerful priests in control of the cult refused to allow this. The woman, however, was unfazed by being brought before the dragon. She merely held up her crucifix in front of the monster, which fled into the Rhine river and drowned. The cultists, including the young prince, were converted by her faith.
A similar tale is told on the Rhone river, only this time it was Saint Martha who delivered the people by sprinkling the dragon with holy water and holding up her crucifix. The animal was thus tamed. The people of one of the towns continued to have dragon parades into this century to commemorate the event. The word "gargoyle" is derived from the name of one famous dragon, called "Gargouille".
Symbols and portents
Although Western dragons are generally evil, they were used as symbols of the kings of England, Egypt, Babylon and Rome, signifying power .
They tended to appear occasionally as portents of things to come. For example, the British (Welsh) king Uther was supposed to have seen a vision of a flaming dragon in the skies, foretelling his future rise to the throne. It was because of this vision that he took the name "Pendragon" or "dragon head".
The dragon has been part of human culture and imagination since prehistoric times. In the east, dragons were commonly associated with water and water deities. In China, the phoenix was the foremost of air creatures; the ki-lin or unicorn the foremost of the land creatures, and the dragon the foremost among water creatures.
Earliest recorded religions contain references to dragon-like creatures; from the Babylonian Tiamat, symbol of chaos and darkness, the serpent in the Biblical garden of Eden, the Egyptian monster Apep who swallowed the sun, to the Indian naga.
In appearance, eastern dragons tend to be longer and thinner than western ones, with horse-like, whiskered heads and two horns instead of ears. They are rarely winged.
Dragons love to collect great wealth. Eastern dragons use it to adorn their beautiful underwater/underground palaces. They are often kindly toward humans. They tend to share their wealth rather than just hoard it. They are more like water spirits or deities than water hoarders who would prevent humans from having drinking water. They are often the symbol of hidden wisdom or knowledge, the teachers of sages and kings. In a single bound they could leap from earth to heaven.
Eastern dragons tended to have undersea palaces, made of crystal with pillars of jade, coral, pearls, and filled with precious stones. They are often associated with magic pearls, or with a ball which they are always grasping for but is just out of reach. The ball is probably either the moon or the sun.
Eastern dragons breathe clouds rather than fire, and they cause rain when they breathe out clouds and then jump on them. Their voices are "like the jingle of copper pans", and lightning flashes from their eyes. Dragons can cause severe storms and floods when they are angered.
The wisest and bravest fish might become dragons, if they can jump upstream at the "dragon gate" (Lung Men) in Honan.
Chinese dragons had their own government, with departments such as the Treasury of Waters, Supreme Council, Body of Dragon Ministers, Ministry of Salt Waters, and Department of Sweet Waters. They caused the water cycle to function properly.
If there was a drought, people would carry a dragon made of wood and paper, or even an embroidered banner, through the town. At each house, they would sprinkle it with water. Beside this procession, someone would run along sprinkling water from a willow branch onto the ground and proclaiming "Here comes the rain!" To prevent floods, people would throw offerings and written prayers into local bodies of water.
Apparently dragons loved to eat sparrows, and if you eat sparrows you shouldn't go near water for fear of a dragon jumping out and eating you.
Like fairies, dragons were easily offended, and dangerous when so disturbed. They cause storms and floods when angry. However, they also were subject to heaven and were sometimes punished for causing extreme storms or floods.
Eastern dragons often appeared as humans. They usually had wide mouths and long green beards, sometimes still having their horns. In one such story, they wore purple and carried a jade tablet. They can also alter their size, going from the size of a caterpillar to big enough to fill heaven and earth.
A dragon's lifespan is 10,000 years.
Similarities to Naga
The Indian Naga is similar in many ways to the Chinese dragon. There are four types of Naga, and four types of dragons:
"Heavenly Nagas" upheld and guarded heavenly palaces. " Divine Nagas" caused clouds and rain. "Earthly Nagas" cleared out and drained off rivers, and "Hidden Nagas" guarded treasures.
"Celestial Dragons" guarded and supported mansions of gods. " Spiritual Dragons" caused winds and rain. " Earth Dragons" marked out the courses of rivers and streams, while " Hidden Treasure Dragons" watched over wealth concealed from mortals.
There were also four dragon kings, each ruling over one of four seas which border the habitable earth.