The origins of dragon mythology

Dragons have appeared independently in the art, mythology and folklore of many cultures and civilisations throughout history.

The word ‘dragon’, first entered the English language in the 13th century, derived from the Latin ‘dracōnis’ and the Greek ‘drakōns’.

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One of the earliest depictions portray dragons as giant snakes in the mythologies of the ancient Near East, particularly in Mesopotamian art and literature, where dragon-like creatures are described in the Epic of Creation, the Enuma Elish, from the late 2nd millennium BC.

Other draconic creatures, the Bašmu and ušumgal also appear in text from the Akkadian Period, with the most recognised being the Mušmaḫḫū, meaning ‘reddish snake’ or ‘fierce snake, depicted on the Ishtar Gate at the city of Babylon.

In Ancient Egyptian mythology, Apep or Apophis is a giant serpentine creature who resides in the realm of the dead or below the horizon. First mentioned during the 8th Dynasty (2181 BC to 2160 BC), Apep was born from Ra’s umbilical cord and was the opponent of light and Ma’at, locked in epic duels through the ages with Ra.

Nehebkau is another giant serpent who guards the Duat and aided Ra in his battle against Apep. Although originally considered an evil spirit, he later functions as a funerary god associated with the afterlife and one of the forty-two assessors of Ma’at.

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The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, an ancient Egyptian funerary text found in the tomb of Tutankhamun depicts the ouroboros, an ancient symbol showing a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. The symbol persisted in Egypt into Roman times, when it frequently appeared on magical talismans, sometimes in combination with other magical emblems.

In Zoroastrian literature from Iran and Persia, dragons such as Aži Dahāka, meaning ‘Avestan Great Snake’, were seen as the personification of sin and greed. In Persian Sufi literature, Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī also suggests that dragons symbolise the sensual soul, greed and lust, that needs to be mortified in a spiritual battle.

Dragons (Ancient Greek: drakōns) played a significant role in Ancient Greek mythology, often appearing with a poisonous spit, although fiery breath is attested in several myths. Some depictions also show the drakaina, a female serpent with several features of a human woman.

Many Greek heroes fought or encountered draconic creatures. Heracles slayed the Lernaean Hydra, Jason drugged a sleepless dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, Zeus battled the monster Typhon, and Cadmus fought the dragon of Ares.

The Romans had little interest in developing new dragon (Latin: dracōnis) traditions of their own, mainly adapting the mythology of the Ancient Greeks to suit their needs. During the 2nd century AD after the Dacian wars, the Roman military used the draco as their military standard of the cohort, as the eagle (aquila) was that of the legion.

In Asia, notably China, dragons (Chinese: lóng) were associated with good fortune and would traditionally symbolise potent and auspicious powers. Dragons would often accompany gods and demigods as their personal mounts or companions, while Chinese Emperors would use a dragon symbol to project his imperial strength.

The earliest draconic zoomorphic depictions date from the Xinglongwa culture between 6200–5400 BC, while the Hongshan culture may have introduced the Chinese character for ‘dragon’ between 4700 to 2900 BC.

The traditional image of the Chinese dragon appeared during the Shang (1766 to 1122 BC) and Zhou (1046 BC – 256 BC) dynasties, evolving into the Yinglong, a winged dragon that the scholar, Chen Zheng, proposes is the origin of the ‘image of the real dragon’.

Artistic creations would evolve Yinglong to have flame or cloud patterns instead of wings, eventually replacing Yinglong with the image of a wingless Yellow Dragon in Chinese art forms.

A cosmological diagram of the Dragon God presents the concept of dragons in Chinese culture and the cosmological Sihai Longwang ‘Dragon King of the Four Seas’. Each Dragon King is associated to a colour and a body of water, with the Azure Dragon or Blue-Green Dragon representing the east and the essence of spring, the Red Dragon the south and the essence of summer, the Black Dragon the north and the essence of winter, the White Dragon the west and the essence of autumn, and then there’s the yellow dragon, who is the zoomorphic incarnation of the Yellow Emperor.

It is most likely that the Chinese dragon influenced many Asian countries, with Korea dragons being depicted with longer beards and sometimes shown carrying a giant orb known as the yeouiju. Korean mythology describes dragons originating from serpent like proto-dragons called imugis, that aspired to become a true dragon if it caught a Yeouiju which had fallen from heaven.

In Japan, dragon legends are heavily intertwined with Chinese dragons, even using Chinese loanwords for dragon names. It is believed that Buddhist monks from across Asia transmitted dragon and snake legends from Buddhist and Hindu mythology to Japan, although there are some examples of indigenous dragons described in ancient texts such as the Kojiki and Nihongi.

In Philippine mythology, Bakunawa, meaning ‘bent snake’ is a serpent-like dragon believed to be the cause of eclipses, earthquakes, rains, and wind. Bakunawa is also sometimes known as Naga, from syncretisation with the Hindu-Buddhist serpent deity, Nāga. It was also syncretised with the Hindu-Buddhist navagraha pair, Rahu and Ketu, deities who were responsible for eclipses of the sun and moon, respectively.

Many Philippine serpents were associated with swallowing the moon, with legends of Láwû, a serpent from Kapampangan mythology, Olimaw, a winged phantom dragon-serpent from Ilokano mythology and Sawa, a serpent monster from Tagalog and Ati mythologies

India also has its own dragon legends. The Rigveda, an ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns describes how Indra, the Vedic god of storms would battle a giant serpent called Vrtra.

The people of the Americas created their own draconic legends completely independent from the rest of the world. The Yucatec Maya worshiped Kulkulkan, a Mesoamerican serpent deity whose origins come from the Classic Period, later adopted by the Postclassic Kʼicheʼ Maya as Qʼuqʼumatz.

The Aztecs worshiped Quetzalcoatl, whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and means ‘Precious serpent’ or ‘Quetzal-feathered Serpent’. Xiuhcoatl, translated as ‘turquoise serpent’ in Classical Nahuatl was another serpent deity who was the Aztec fire god interpreted as the embodiment of the dry season and was the weapon of the sun.

In mythology of Andean civilisations of South America, the Amaroca, Amaruca or Katari is a mythical serpent or dragon, most associated with the Tiwanaku and Inca empires. In Inca mythology, Amaruca is a huge double-headed serpent that dwells underground at the bottom of lakes and rivers.

Several dragons also appear in the cultures of Indigenous American peoples. In the mythology of the Illini people, murals painted on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River depict the Piasa Bird, a draconic figure that may have been an older iconograph from the large Mississippian culture city of Cahokia.

One of the most common forms of native American dragons, a recurring figure among many indigenous tribes of the Southeast Woodlands and other tribal groups is the Horned Serpent, associated with water, rain, lightning and thunder.

The modern, image of a dragon developed in Europe during the Middle Ages through the combination of the snakelike dragons of classical Graeco-Roman literature, references to Near Eastern European dragons preserved in the Bible, and European folk traditions.

The 11th and 13th centuries saw the height of European interest in dragons as living creatures. The oldest recognisable image of a fully modern European dragon appears in a hand-painted illustration from the medieval manuscript MS Harley 3244 which was produced around AD 1260.

European dragons are generally depicted as greedy and gluttonous monsters, with voracious appetites living in rivers or having an underground lair or cave. They are often identified with Satan, due to the references to Satan as a ‘dragon’ in the Book of Revelation.

Dragons and dragon motifs are featured in many works of modern literature, particularly within the fantasy genre. One of the most iconic modern dragons is Smaug from J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit, with prominent works depicting dragons in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, the Harry Potter series of children’s novels by J. K. Rowling, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, and George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire.

Scholars dispute where the idea of a dragon originates from and a wide variety of hypotheses have been proposed. Because the earliest attested dragons all resemble snakes or have snakelike attributes, it has been suggested that dragons are the creation of our innate fear of snakes.

Adrienne Mayor, a historian of ancient science and a classical folklorist suggests that dragon images are based on folk knowledge or exaggerations of living reptiles alive today. She also argues that dragons may have been inspired by ancient discoveries of fossils belonging to dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

This is evidenced at the Wawel Cathedral, where several bones purported to belong to the Wawel Dragon hang outside the cathedral, but the fossils actually belong to a Pleistocene mammal. Ancient Chinese also referred to unearthed dinosaur bones as dragon bones and documented them as such. For example, Chang Qu in 300 BC documents the discovery of “dragon bones” in Sichuan.

Header Image : Mušḫuššu bas-relief in the Pergamon Museum – Image Credit : Allie Caulfield – CC BY 2.0


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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