The "Ljubljana Dragon" in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Stone carving of Chinese dragons at a temple in Fuzhou, China
Carved imperial dragons at Nine-Dragon Wall, Beihai Park, Beijing

A dragon is a legendary creature, typically with serpentine or reptilian traits, that feature in the myths of many cultures. There are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons: the European dragon, derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, and the Chinese dragon, with counterparts in Japan, Korea and other East Asian countries.

The two traditions may have evolved separately, but have influenced each to a certain extent, particularly with the cross-cultural contact of recent centuries. The English word "dragon" derives from Greek δράκων (drákōn), "dragon, serpent of huge size, water-snake", which probably comes from the verb δρακεῖν (drakeîn) "to see clearly".[1] In the New Testament, the Devil takes the form of a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, in his battle against Archangel Michael.



An illustration of an Eastern dragon.

Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body like a huge lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from their mouths. The European dragon has bat-type wings growing from its back. A dragon-like creature with no front legs is known as a wyvern. Following discovery of how pterosaurs walked on the ground, some dragons have been portrayed without front legs and using the wings as front legs pterosaur-fashion when on the ground.

Although dragons occur in many legends around the world, different cultures have varying stories about monsters that have been grouped together under the dragon label. Some dragons are said to breathe fire or to be poisonous, such as in the Old English poem Beowulf.[2] They are commonly portrayed as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and possessing typically scaly or feathered bodies. They are sometimes portrayed as having especially large eyes or watching treasure very diligently, a feature that is the origin of the word dragon (Greek drakeîn meaning "to see clearly").[3] Some myths portray them with a row of dorsal spines. European dragons are more often winged, while Chinese dragons resemble large snakes. Dragons can have a variable number of legs: none, two, four, or more when it comes to early European literature.

Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom—often said to be wiser than humans—and longevity. They are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power, and are often associated with wells, rain, and rivers. In some cultures, they are also said to be capable of human speech. In some traditions dragons are said to have taught humans to talk.

The term dragoon, for infantry that moved around on horseback yet still fought as foot soldiers, is derived from their early firearm, the "dragon", a wide-bore musket that spat flame when it fired, and was thus named for the mythical creature.

Origin and etymology

Dragon head on a roof of a temple in Taiwan

Origin and etymology

The word dragon entered the English language in the early 13th century from Old French dragon, which in turn comes from Latin draconem (nominative draco) meaning "huge serpent, dragon," from the Greek word δράκων, drakon (genitive drakontos, δράκοντος) "serpent, giant seafish", which is believed to have come from an earlier stem drak-, a stem of derkesthai, "to see clearly," from Proto-Indo-European derk- "to see" or "the one with the (deadly) glance." The Greek and Latin term referred to any great serpent, not necessarily mythological, and this usage was also current in English up to the 18th century.

The association of the serpent with a monstrous opponent overcome by a heroic deity has its roots in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, including Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. The Chaoskampf motif entered Greek mythology and ultimately Christian mythology, although the serpent motif may already be part of prehistoric Indo-European mythology as well, based on comparative evidence of Indic and Germanic material. It has been speculated that accounts of spitting cobras may be the origin of the myths of fire-breathing dragons.[4]

Oriental dragon

In China, depiction of the dragon (traditional:龍;simplified:龙) can be found in artifacts from the Shang and Zhou dynasties with examples dating back to the 16th century BC.[5] Archaeologist Zhōu Chong-Fa believes that the Chinese word for dragon is an onomatopoeia of the sound thunder makes.[6] The Chinese name for dragon is pronounced "lóng" in Mandarin Chinese[5] or "lùhng" in the Cantonese.[7] Sometime after the 9th century AD, Japan adopted the Chinese dragon through the spread of Buddhism.[5] Although the indigenous name for a dragon in Japanese is tatsu (たつ?), a few of the Japanese words for dragon stem from the Chinese word for dragon, namely, "ryū" (りゅう?) or "ryō" (りょう?) (traditional:龍;simplified:竜).[5] The Vietnamese word for dragon is "rồng" (hán tự:龍) and the Korean word for dragon is "ryong" (hangul:용) (hanja:龍).

Animals that may have inspired dragons

Nile crocodiles, today very restricted in range, were in ancient times occasionally found in Southern Europe, having swum across the Mediterranean. Such wayward crocodiles may have inspired dragon myths.[8] Skeletons of whales, as well as dinosaur and mammalian fossils were occasionally mistaken for the bones of dragons and other mythological creatures; for example, a discovery in 300 BC in Wucheng[disambiguation needed ], Sichuan, China, was labeled as such by Chang Qu.[8][9] Adrienne Mayor has written on the subject of fossils as the inspiration for myths in her book The First Fossil Hunters, and in an entry in the Encyclopedia of Geology she wrote: "Fossil remains generated a variety of geomyths speculating on the creatures' identity and cause of their destruction. Many ancient cultures, from China and India to Greece, America, and Australia, told tales of dragons, monsters, and giant heroes.."[10] In Australia, stories of such creatures may have referred to the land crocodiles, Quinkana sp., a terrestrial crocodile which grew to 5 to possibly 7 metres long, or the 4 tonne monitor lizard Varanus priscus (formerly Megalania prisca) a giant carnivorous goanna that might have grown to 7 metres, and weighed up to 1,940 kilograms, or rainbow serpents (possibly Wonambi naracoortensis) that were part of the extinct megafauna of Australia.[11] Today the Komodo monitor lizard Varanus komodoensis is known in English as the Komodo dragon.

In the book An Instinct for Dragons[12] anthropologist David E. Jones suggests a hypothesis that humans just like monkeys have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats and birds of prey. Dragons have features that are combinations of these three. An instinctive fear for these three would explain why dragons with similar features occur in stories from independent cultures on all continents. Other authors have suggested that especially under the influence of drugs or in dreams, this instinct may give rise to fantasies about dragons, snakes, spiders, etc., which would explain why these symbols are popular in drug culture. The traditional mainstream explanation to the folklore dragons does however not rely on human instinct, but on the assumption that fossil remains of dinosaurs gave rise to similar speculations all over the world.

By region

Greek mythology

In Ancient Greece the first mention of a "dragon" is derived from the Iliad where Agamemnon is described as having a blue dragon motif on his sword belt and an eblem of a three-headed dragon on his breast plate.[13] However, the Greek word used (δράκων drákōn, genitive δράκοντοϛ drákontos) could also mean "snake". Δράκων drákōn is a form of the aorist participle active of Greek δέρκομαι dérkomai = "I see", derkeîn = "to see", and originally likely meant "that which sees", or "that which flashes or gleams" (perhaps referring to reflective scales). This is the origin of the word "dragon". (See also Hesiod's Theogony, 322.)

In 217 A.D., Flavius Philostratus (Greek: Φλάβιος Φιλόστρατος)[14] discussed dragons (δράκων, drákōn) in India in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (II,17 and III,6–8). The Loeb Classical Library translation (by F.C. Conybeare) mentions (III,7) that “In most respects the tusks resemble the largest swine’s, but they are slighter in build and twisted, and have a point as unabraded as sharks’ teeth.”

According to a collection of books by Claudius Aelianus (Greek: Κλαύδιος Αιλιανός)[15] called On Animals, Ethiopia was inhabited by a species of dragon that hunted elephants. It could grow to a length of 180 feet and had a lifespan rivaling that of the most enduring of animals.[16]

Dragon effigy, the Graoully, in Metz, France


European dragons exist in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe. Dragons are generally depicted as living in rivers or having an underground lair or cave.[8] They are commonly described as having hard or armoured hide, and are rarely described as flying, despite often depicted with wings.

European dragons are usually depicted as malevolent though there are exceptions (such as Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales).


Dragon sculpture on top of Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan.

Chinese dragons (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: lóng) can take on human form and are usually seen as benevolent. Dragons are particularly popular in China and the five-clawed dragon was a symbol of the Chinese emperors, with the mythical bird fenghuang the symbol of the Chinese empress. Dragon costumes manipulated by several people are a common sight at Chinese festivals.


Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India. Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese ones are water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water, and are typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. Gould writes (1896:248),[17] the Japanese dragon is "invariably figured as possessing three claws".


In the early Vedic religion, Vritra (Sanskrit: वृत्र (Devanāgarī) or Vṛtra (IAST)) "the enveloper", was an Asura and also a "naga" (serpent) (Sanskrit: नाग)[18] or possibly dragon-like creature, the personification of drought and enemy of Indra. Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi ("snake") (Sanskrit: अहि),[19] and he is said to have had three heads.

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus:[20] contains a long detailed description of India heavily infested with dragons, but this does not correspond with modern Indian belief, and likely not with Indian belief as it was in his time, whether Apollonius invented this story, or whether he believed someone else who told him it.


Aži Dahāka is the source of the modern Persian word azhdahā or ezhdehā اژده ها (Middle Persian azdahāg) meaning "dragon", often used of a dragon depicted upon a banner of war. The Persians believed that the baby of a dragon will be the same color as the mother's eyes. In Middle Persian he is called Dahāg or Bēvar-Asp, the latter meaning "[he who has] 10,000 horses." Several other dragons and dragon-like creatures, all of them malevolent, are mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture. (See Zahhāk).


In Jewish religious texts, the first mention of a dragon-like creature is in the Biblical works of Job (26:13), and Isaiah (27:1) where it is called Nachash Bare'ach, or a "Pole Serpent".[21] This is identified in the Midrash Rabba to Genesis 1:21 as Leviathan from the word Taninim (תנינים) "and God created the great sea-monsters."[22] In modern Hebrew the word Taninim is used for Crocodiles but this is a 20th century usage unconnected with the original Biblical meaning.[citation needed]

In later Biblical texts, the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Job, and Psalm 89 refer to a sea-demon called Rahab (not to be confused with Rahab, the woman of Jericho mentioned in the Book of Joshua). Isaiah 51:9 equates this Rahab with a dragon or monster. "Rahab" is the English transliteration of רהב (reb) with the several meanings: pride, a mythical sea-monster, or Egypt (as an emblematic name).[23] In the Douay-Rheims version, translated via Medieval Latin from the Vulgate, the word reb is rendered "the proud one" in Isaiah 51:9 and Job 26:12 and "the power of the sea" in Psalm 88:10 (Psalm 88 is equivalent to Psalm 89 in other versions due to different verse numbering in the Vulgate). The connection between the sea-monster and "Leviathan the serpent" is made in Isaiah 27:1.[24]

In Jewish astronomy this is also identified with the North Pole, the star Thuban which, around 4,500 years ago, was the star in the Draco constellation's "tail".[21] However this can also have been either the celestial pole or the ecliptic pole. The ancient observers noted that Draco was at the top of the celestial pole, giving the appearance that stars were "hanging" from it, and in Hebrew it is referred to as Teli, from talah (תלה) – to hang.[25] Hebrew writers from Arabic-speaking locations identified the Teli as Al Jaz'har, which is a Persian word for a "knot" or a "node" because of the intersection of the inclination of the orbit of a planet from the elliptic that forms two such nodes. In modern astronomy these are called the ascending node and the descending node, but in medieval astronomy they were referred to as "dragon's head" and "dragon's tail".[26]

The Merthyr Synagogue features a dragon on the front gable.[27]


Vietnamese dragons (Vietnamese: rồng or long 龍) are symbolic creatures in the folklore and mythology of Vietnam. According to an ancient creation myth, the Vietnamese people are descended from a dragon and a fairy. To Vietnamese people, the dragon brings rain, essential for agriculture. It represents the emperor, the prosperity and power of the nation. Like the Chinese dragon, the Vietnamese dragon is the symbol of yang, representing the universe, life, existence, and growth. Extant references to the Vietnamese Dragon are rare now, due to the fierce changes in history that accompanied the sinicization of the Nguyễn Dynasty.

Modern depictions

Toy dragons, on sale in a California gift shop, 2005

In the early 20th century sculpture of the Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland, inspired by Medieval art, dragons are a frequent theme—as symbols of sin but also as a nature force, fighting against man.

There are numerous examples of dragons in modern media, especially the fantasy genre. In the 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the major antagonist is a dragon named Smaug. Other dragons appearing in Tolkien's works include Glaurung, the "father of dragons" created by Morgoth, along with Ancalagon the Black and Scatha. Also, in Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham, a dragon named Chrysophylax Dives is encountered.

The popular role playing game system Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) makes heavy use of dragons, and has served as inspiration for many other games' dragons. In D&D, dragons are typically associated with an element, which makes itself apparent in the dragon's color and the type of its breath weapon. Though dragons usually serve as adversaries, they can be both good and evil, with their alignment being determined by their color. For example, a Red Dragon is evil and associated with fire. Dragons in D&D grow throughout their lives, both physically and mentally, and are capable of attaining weights in excess of a million pounds.

Dragons also appear frequently in the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling, and are described in the Harry Potter-related book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by the same author.

Dragonriders of Pern is an extensive science fiction series of novels and short stories created and primarily written by Anne McCaffrey. Since 2004, McCaffrey's son, Todd McCaffrey, has also published Pern novels, both in collaboration with Anne and on his own. The Pernese use intelligent firebreathing creatures called dragons, who have a telepathic bond with their riders, formed by mental impressions which the dragons receive when they hatch from their eggs.

Some modern pseudo-biological accounts of dragons give them the generic name Draco, although the generic name Draco is used in real-world biology for a genus of small gliding agamid lizard. An infectious disease called Dracunculiasis, caused by infection with the Guinea worm which grows up to 3 feet (0.91 m) long before emerging from its host, also derives its name from dragons (literally "infestation with little dragons"), based on the burning pain experienced by sufferers.

Some creationists believe that dragons of mythology were actually dinosaurs, and that they died out with other creatures around the end of the ice age.[28][29]


There is a widespread belief that earlier cartographers used the Latin phrase hic sunt dracones, i.e., "the dragons are here", or "here be dragons", to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the infrequent medieval practice of putting sea serpents and other mythological creatures in blank areas of maps. However the only known use of this phrase is in the Latin form "HC SVNT DRACONES" on the Lenox Globe (ca. 1503–07).[30]

See also


  1. ^ Δράκων, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, at Perseus project
  2. ^ [The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1 by MH Abrams (1999), 6th Ed.
  3. ^ Wiktionary.org
  4. ^ Cohen, Daniel (1989). The encyclopedia of monsters. Michael O'Mara Books, Limited. p. 231. ISBN 9780948397943. 
  5. ^ a b c d A to Z Photodirectory of Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Retrieved June 5, 2011
  6. ^ People's Daily On-line (2001), Chinese Dragon Originates From Primitive Agriculture: Archaeologist. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  7. ^ Caihua Guan. English-Cantonese Dictionary: Cantonese in Yale Romanization.
  8. ^ a b c Ørmen, Torfinn (2005) (in Norwegian). Drager, mellom myte og virkelighet (1st ed.). Oslo: Humanist forlag A/S. pp. 252. ISBN 9788290425765. 
  9. ^ "Dinosaurs And Cave People". Abc.net.au. 2005-04-14. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2005/04/14/1334145.htm. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  10. ^ Adrienne Mayor in Encyclopedia of Geology, ed. Richard Selley, Robin Cocks, and Ian Palmer. Elsevier:2004
  11. ^ Mackness, B.S. 2009. Reconstructing Palorchestes (Marsupialia: Palorchestidae) — from Giant Kangaroo to Marsupial ‘Tapir’. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales 130: 21–36.
  12. ^ David E. Jones (2000). An Instinct for Dragons. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92721-8. http://books.google.com/books?id=P1uBUZupE9gC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  13. ^ p.79, Drury, Nevill, The Dictionary of the Esoteric, books.google.com
  14. ^ Ελλήνων δίκτυο. ΛΗΜΝΙΑ ΓΗ. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from http://hellinon.net/NeesSelides/Limnos.htm
  15. ^ Η φυσιογνωμία ενός λαού θεμελιών. Μύθοι για την Ελιά. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from http://www.etwinning.gr/projects/elia/muthoi.htm
  16. ^ Theoi.com
  17. ^ Gould, Charles. 1896. Mythical Monsters". W. H. Allen & Co.
  18. ^ naga का मतलब हिंदी में. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from http://dict.hinkhoj.com/shabdkosh.php?word=naga
  19. ^ अहि का मतलब अंग्रेजी में. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from http://dict.hinkhoj.com/meaning-of-%E0%A4%85%E0%A4%B9%E0%A4%BF-in-english.html
  20. ^ Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, translated by F. C. Conybeare, volume I, book III. chapters VI, VII, VIII, 1921, pp. 243–247.
  21. ^ a b p. 233, Kaplan
  22. ^ p.51, Freedman
  23. ^ Brown, Driver, Briggs and Gesenius. "Rahab (lexicon entry)". The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon. http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/rahab-2.html. Retrieved 2011-08-01. 
  24. ^ "Isaiah 51, note 4". New American Bible. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc.. 1991. http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/isaiah/isaiah51.htm#foot4. 
  25. ^ p. 1670, Jastrow ref to Genesis 38:14, Y.Sot.I 16d (bot.)
  26. ^ p. 235, Kaplan
  27. ^ Kadish, Sharman (2006) Jewish Heritage in England: an architectural guide. Swindon: English Heritage ISBN 190562428X; p. 203
  28. ^ Unlocking the secrets of creation by Dennis R. Peterson
  29. ^ The Genesis Flood by John C. Whitcomb Jr.
  30. ^ Erin C. Blake (1999). "Where Be "Here be Dragons"?". MapHist Discussion Group. Maphist.nl. http://www.maphist.nl/extra/herebedragons.html. Retrieved February 10, 2006. 


  • Drury, Nevill, The Dictionary of the Esoteric, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 2003 ISBN 8120819896
  • Freedman, Rabbi Dr. H. (translation), Simon M., editor, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, Volume one, The Soncino Press, London, 1983
  • Littleton, C. Scott. Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. Thunder Bay Press (CA). ISBN 1571458271. 
  • Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia; Giorgi, Rosa; Giammanco Frongia, Rosanna M.; Zuffi, Stefano (2005). Angels and demons in art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. ISBN 0892368306. 

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