When people are asked about their knowledge of mythology, sometimes they will talk about the divinities from their region of the world, their country’s folktales, or even some story about a creature either good or evil that has some relevance to their ancestral history. Interestingly, when it comes to the creatures talked about, some version of the prototypical dragon can be found in every corner of the world. Even more amazing is the degree to which they have characteristics in common that transcend the vast distances and times between the cultures in which they were created.
As an American who is a fan of the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons and has seen the Hobbit movies and the fourth Harry Potter movie, the dragons were generally portrayed as large scaled, serpent like creatures that are rare, powerful and, most of all, dangerous to any man that might dare to cross them. In roleplaying games and stories like the Hobbit, dragons often have a benevolent or malevolent intelligence, though often the latter, and are general integral to the campaign or story. Even in fiction like the Harry Potter novels, which portrays dragons as more bestial, passion driven creatures than rational thinking beings, all seem to agree that these creatures should only be tangled with in the most dire of circumstances.
Much of these details are similar in folklore from around the world, though there are some differences by region. In Asia there are dragons found in stories in India, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines among others. These stories in this part of the world even go as far back as the ancient cultures of Sumeria and Babylonia.
In the Chinese hierarchy of animals, the dragon stands atop them all as the highest ranking. Its origins can be traced all the way back to Neolithic pottery from thousands of years ago. So important are dragons to China’s cultural history, they even play a role in the inspiration of Fu Hsi to eventually turn a picture of a dragon with dots that he saw into the system of Chinese writing, which he eventually penned into the book I Ching.
The benevolence of some of the Chinese dragons stands in contrast to how they are generally portrayed in the cultures of Europe. Generally, these dragons are portrayed as living at the bottom of rivers or in underground lairs like caves, and they are characterized as being greedy and gluttonous, with appetites very hard to satisfy. The ultimate demonstration of the ill-will held towards the European dragon is how often they are identified with Satan in the Book of Revelation.
Perhaps the most famous European legend of a dragon is from the Golden Legend story presenting the struggle between St. George and a Dragon. In this tale, a dragon is repeatedly pillaging the town of Silene in Libya, where it voraciously consumes all of the sheep it can consume. Finally, after a shepherd is eaten, the people of the town provide two sacrificial sheep every morning by the lake where the dragon resided. Over time the people were forced begin offering up their children once the sheep were all eaten. Much like many European legends, it was only once the King’s daughter was offered up to the dragon that our hero, St. George, comes upon the situation and acts to gallantly save the Princess. Eventually St. George subdues the creature by stabbing it with his lance and making the sign of the cross. Leading the rescued Princess to Silene with the beaten dragon in tow, he promises the people that he will slay the beast if they but convert to Christianity. Though this is one of the most famous stories, more exist about dragons from Spain, Great Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland to include a few examples.
North and South American dragons have received a bit less attention, but they are nonetheless impressive creatures in their own right. In North America one you have most likely heard of is Quetzalcoatl from the Aztec culture.
According to the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl is a deity whose name means “feathered serpent.” To the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl was the god of wind, air, and learning. There have even been some scholars who speculate that a belief that Spanish conquistadors like Cortés were actually their peoples gods contributed to their being an easier target to be conquered, though this has been thrown into question in recent decades due to the almost exclusively Spanish origin of the original sources.
In South America is the Amaru of the Incan culture.
For the Incans, the Amaru or Katari was a mythical serpent of massive size that dwells underground, often under lakes or rivers. Interestingly, it was often presented as having the heads of a bird and pumas, and said to be capable of traveling between the spiritual afterlife and the subterranean world where it lived.
The last region of importance to folklore about dragons are those from Africa. My personal favorite is the Ancient Egyptian serpent of chaos known as Apep or Apophis.
This deity was said to embody pure chaos and stood in opposition the solar divinity Ra who represented light, order, and truth. Apep was generally depicted as a giant snake stretching over sixteen yards in length and a head made of flint, though he is also sometimes presented as a crocodile.
Given the fantastical nature of these creatures, and exactly how much overlap there is across cultures all around the world, there are a number of theories about why these similar myths emerged at different times and in different cultures around the world in isolation of one another.
The first of the three explanations presents the possibility of ancient peoples discovering different dinosaur fossils and, without a frame of reference, extrapolating what would become dragon-like creatures from the physical evidence. Seeing the size of many of these fossils, particularly the vicious looking teeth in some cases, and it is quite possible this explanation has some merit.
A second explanation ties in current animals as being the source of dragon stories. Diving into particular examples, this one carries some weight as well. For example, the Incan Amaru often shares some puma-like characteristics, while the Egyptian Apep has been found to be portrayed as having crocodile features.
Lastly, the third potential explanation can be best encapsulated by a book by David E. Jones book titled An Instinct for Dragons which argues that evolution imprinted an innate fear of predators in the human mind as a means to increase the odds of the survival of humanity’s ancestors by encouraging wariness towards these creatures which, in the past several thousand years has been manifested in folklore as dragon myths.
Each of these three theories can to some degree explain why myths of dragons and dragon-like creatures emerged the way they did around the world independently from each other. For my part, I’m extremely glad they did since the stories dragons appear in make for such interesting reading that I think the world would be poorer for them never being imagined.
This concludes the first of many planned articles on creatures from mythology and folklore. I hope you enjoyed it! My next post will be examining some of the individuals on the side of these kinds of tales: Dragon Slayers.
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