A dragon is a reptile-like legendary creature that appears in the folklore of many cultures worldwide. Beliefs about dragons vary considerably through regions, but dragons in western cultures since the High Middle Ages have often been depicted as winged, horned, four-legged, and capable of breathing fire. Dragons in eastern cultures are usually depicted as wingless, four-legged, serpentine creatures with above-average intelligence. Commonalities between dragons’ traits are often a hybridization of feline, avian, and reptilian features. Scholars believe huge extinct or migrating crocodiles bear the closest resemblance, especially when encountered in forested or swampy areas, and are most likely the template of modern Oriental dragon imagery.


An early appearance of the Old English word dracan in Beowulf
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 Ancient Greek δράκων, drákōn (genitive δράκοντος, drákontos) “serpent, giant seafish”. The Greek and Latin term referred to any great serpent, not necessarily mythological. The Greek word δράκων is most likely derived from the Greek verb δέρκομαι (dérkomai) meaning “I see”, the aorist form of which is ἔδρακον (édrakon). This is thought to have referred to something with a “deadly glance,” or unusually bright or “sharp” eyes, or because a snake’s eyes appear to be always open; each eye actually sees through a big transparent scale in its eyelids, which are permanently shut. The Greek word probably derives from an Indo-European base *derḱ- meaning “to see”; the Sanskrit root दृश् (dr̥ś-) also means “to see”.

Myth origins

Several bones purported to belong to the Wawel Dragon hang outside of Wawel Cathedral, but actually belong to a Pleistocene mammal.
Draconic creatures appear in virtually all cultures around the globe and the earliest attested reports of draconic creatures resemble giant snakes. Draconic creatures are first described in the mythologies of the ancient Near East and appear in ancient Mesopotamian art and literature. Stories about storm-gods slaying giant serpents occur throughout nearly all Indo-European and Near Eastern mythologies. Famous prototypical draconic creatures include the mušḫuššu of ancient Mesopotamia; Apep in Egyptian mythology; Vṛtra in the Rigveda; the Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible; Grand’Goule in the Poitou region in France; Python, Ladon, Wyvern, Kulshedra in Albanian Mythology and the Lernaean Hydra in Greek mythology; Jörmungandr, Níðhöggr, and Fafnir in Norse mythology; and the dragon from Beowulf.
Nonetheless, scholars dispute where the idea of a dragon originates from and a wide variety of hypotheses have been proposed.
In his book An Instinct for Dragons (2000), David E. Jones (anthropologist) suggests a hypothesis that humans, like monkeys, have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats, and birds of prey. He cites a study which found that approximately 39 people in a hundred are afraid of snakes and notes that fear of snakes is especially prominent in children, even in areas where snakes are rare. The earliest attested dragons all resemble snakes or have snakelike attributes. Jones therefore concludes that dragons appear in nearly all cultures because humans have an innate fear of snakes and other animals that were major predators of humans’ primate ancestors. Dragons are usually said to reside in “dank caves, deep pools, wild mountain reaches, sea bottoms, haunted forests”, all places which would have been fraught with danger for early human ancestors.

In her book The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times (2000), Adrienne Mayor argues that some stories of dragons may have been inspired by ancient discoveries of fossils belonging to dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. She argues that the dragon lore of northern India may have been inspired by “observations of oversized, extraordinary bones in the fossilbeds of the Siwalik Hills below the Himalayas” and that ancient Greek artistic depictions of the Monster of Troy may have been influenced by fossils of Samotherium, an extinct species of giraffe whose fossils are common in the Mediterranean region.[20] In China, a region where fossils of large prehistoric animals are common, these remains are frequently identified as “dragon bones” and are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine.[21] Mayor, however, is careful to point out that not all stories of dragons and giants are inspired by fossils[21] and notes that Scandinavia has many stories of dragons and sea monsters, but has long “been considered barren of large fossils.” In one of her later books, she states that “Many dragon images around the world were based on folk knowledge or exaggerations of living reptiles, such as Komodo dragons, Gila monsters, iguanas, alligators, or, in California, alligator lizards, though this still fails to account for the Scandinavian legends, as no such animals (historical or otherwise) have ever been found in this region.”
Robert Blust in The Origin Of Dragons (2000) argues that, like many other creations of traditional cultures, dragons are largely explicable as products of a convergence of rational pre-scientific speculation about the world of real events. In this case, the event is the natural mechanism governing rainfall and drought, with particular attention paid to the phenomenon of the rainbow.

Egyptian folklore

Illustration from an ancient Egyptian papyrus manuscript showing the god Set spearing the serpent Apep as he attacks the sun boat of Ra.
In Egyptian mythology, Apep or Apophis is a giant serpentine creature who resides in the Duat, the Egyptian Underworld. The Bremner-Rhind papyrus, written in around 310 BC, preserves an account of a much older Egyptian tradition that the setting of the sun is caused by Ra descending to the Duat to battle Apep. In some accounts, Apep is as long as the height of eight men with a head made of flint. Thunderstorms and earthquakes were thought to be caused by Apep’s roar and solar eclipses were thought to be the result of Apep attacking Ra during the daytime. In some myths, Apep is slain by the god Set. Nehebkau is another giant serpent who guards the Duat and aided Ra in his battle against Apep.[26] Nehebkau was so massive in some stories that the entire earth was believed to rest atop his coils. Denwen is a giant serpent mentioned in the Pyramid Texts whose body was made of fire and who ignited a conflagration that nearly destroyed all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon. He was ultimately defeated by the Pharaoh, a victory which affirmed the Pharaoh’s divine right to rule.
The ouroboros was a well-known Egyptian symbol of a serpent swallowing its own tail.The precursor to the ouroboros was the “Many-Faced”, a serpent with five heads, who, according to the Amduat, the oldest surviving Book of the Afterlife, was said to coil around the corpse of the sun god Ra protectively. The earliest surviving depiction of a “true” ouroboros comes from the gilded shrines in the tomb of Tutankhamun.[30] In the early centuries AD, the ouroboros was adopted as a symbol by Gnostic Christians and chapter 136 of the Pistis Sophia, an early Gnostic text, describes “a great dragon whose tail is in its mouth”.[31] In medieval alchemy, the ouroboros became a typical western dragon with wings, legs, and a tail. A famous image of the dragon gnawing on its tail from the eleventh-century Codex Marcianus was copied in numerous works on alchemy.
Asian folklore
The word “dragon” has come to be applied to the legendary creature in Chinese mythology, loong (traditional 龍, simplified 龙, Japanese simplified 竜, Pinyin lóng), which is associated with good fortune, and many East Asian deities and demigods have dragons as their personal mounts or companions. Dragons were also identified with the Emperor of China, who, during later Chinese imperial history, was the only one permitted to have dragons on his house, clothing, or personal articles.

Chinese dragon
Archaeologist Zhōu Chong-Fa believes that the Chinese word for dragon is an onomatopoeia of the sound of thunder ] or lùhng in Cantonese.The Chinese dragon (simplified Chinese: 龙; traditional Chinese: 龍; pinyin: lóng) is the highest-ranking creature in the Chinese animal hierarchy. Its origins are vague, but its “ancestors can be found on Neolithic pottery as well as Bronze Age ritual vessels.” A number of popular stories deal with the rearing of dragons.[35] The Zuo zhuan, which was probably written during the Warring States period, describes a man named Dongfu, a descendant of Yangshu’an, who loved dragons and, because he could understand a dragon’s will, he was able to tame them and raise them well. He served Emperor Shun, who gave him the family name Huanlong, meaning “dragon-raiser”. In another story, Kong Jia, the fourteenth emperor of the Xia dynasty, was given a male and a female dragon as a reward for his obedience to the god of heaven, but could not train them, so he hired a dragon-trainer named Liulei, who had learned how to train dragons from Huanlong. One day, the female dragon died unexpectedly, so Liulei secretly chopped her up, cooked her meat, and served it to the king, who loved it so much that he demanded Liulei to serve him the same meal again. Since Liulei had no means of procuring more dragon meat, he fled the palace.

The image of the Chinese dragon was roughly established in the Shang and Zhou dynasties, but there was no great change for a long time. In the Han dynasty(202 B.C.-220 A.D.), Yinglong, as a symbol of feudal imperial power, frequently appeared in Royal Dragon vessels, which means that most of the dragon image designs used by the royal family in the Han Dynasty are Yinglong patterns. Yinglong is a winged dragon in ancient Chinese legend. At present, the literature records of Yinglong’s winged image can be tested from “Guangya” “wide elegant” during the Three Kingdoms period, but Yinglong’s winged design has been found in bronze ware from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties to stone carvings, silk paintings and lacquerware of the Han Dynasty. The literature records of Yinglong can be traced back to the documents of the pre-Qin period, such as “Classic of Mountains and Seas”, “Chuci” and so on. According to the records in “Classic of Mountains and Seas”, the Chinese mythology in 2200 years ago, Ying long had the main characteristics of later Chinese dragons – the power to control the sky and the noble mythical status.

However, since the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279 A.D.), the image of the real dragon symbolizing China’s imperial power was no longer the Yinglong with wings, but the common wingless Yellow Dragon in modern times.For the evolution of Yinglong and Huanglong(Yellow Dragon), Scholar Chen Zheng proposed in “Yinglong – the origin of the image of the real dragon” that from the middle of the Zhou Dynasty, Yinglong’s wings gradually became the form of flame pattern and cloud pattern at the dragon’s shoulder in artistic creation, which derived the wingless long snake shape. The image of Huanglong was used together with the winged Yinglong. Since then, with a series of wars, Chinese civilization suffered heavy losses, resulting in the forgetting of the image of winged Yinglong, and the image of wingless Yellow Dragon replaced the original Yinglong and became the real dragon symbolizing China’s imperial power.On this basis, scholars Xiao Congrong(肖聪榕)put forward that the simplified artistic creation of Ying Long’s wings by Chinese ancestors is a continuous process, that is, the simplification of dragon’s wings is an irreversible trend. Xiao Congrong believes that the phenomenon of “Yellow Dragon” Replacing “Ying Long” can not be avoided regardless of whether Chinese civilization has suffered disaster or not.
One of the most famous dragon stories is about the Lord Ye Gao, who loved dragons obsessively, even though he had never seen one. He decorated his whole house with dragon motifs[37] and, seeing this display of admiration, a real dragon came and visited Ye Gao,but the lord was so terrified at the sight of the creature that he ran away. In Chinese legend, the culture hero Fu Hsi is said to have been crossing the Lo River, when he saw the lung ma, a Chinese horse-dragon with seven dots on its face, six on its back, eight on its left flank, and nine on its right flank.[38] He was so moved by this apparition that, when he arrived home, he drew a picture of it, including the dots.[38] He later used these dots as letters and invented Chinese writing, which he used to write his book I Ching. In another Chinese legend, the physician Ma Shih Huang is said to have healed a sick dragon. Another legend reports that a man once came to the healer Lo Chên-jen, telling him that he was a dragon and that he needed to be healed.[39] After Lo Chên-jen healed the man, a dragon appeared to him and carried him to heaven.[39]
In the Shanhaijing, a classic mythography probably compiled mostly during the Han dynasty, various deities and demigods are associated with dragons. One of the most famous Chinese dragons is Ying Long (“responding dragon”), who helped the Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, defeat the tyrant Chiyou. The dragon Zhulong (“torch dragon”) is a god “who composed the universe with his body.” In the Shanhaijing, many mythic heroes are said to have been conceived after their mothers copulated with divine dragons, including Huangdi, Shennong, Emperor Yao, and Emperor Shun. The god Zhurong and the emperor Qi are both described as being carried by two dragons, as are Huangdi, Zhuanxu, Yuqiang, and Roshou in various other texts. According to the Huainanzi, an evil black dragon once caused a destructive deluge,[35] which was ended by the mother goddess Nüwa by slaying the dragon.

Hongwu Emperor with dragon emblem on his chest.
A large number of ethnic myths about dragons are told throughout China. The Houhanshu, compiled in the fifth century BC by Fan Ye, reports a story belonging to the Ailaoyi people, which holds that a woman named Shayi who lived in the region around Mount Lao became pregnant with ten sons after being touched by a tree trunk floating in the water while fishing. She gave birth to the sons and the tree trunk turned into a dragon, who asked to see his sons. The woman showed them to him, but all of them ran away except for the youngest, who the dragon licked on the back and named Jiu Long, meaning “sitting back”. The sons later elected him king and the descendants of the ten sons became the Ailaoyi people, who tattooed dragons on their backs in honor of their ancestor. The Miao people of southwest China have a story that a divine dragon created the first humans by breathing on monkeys that came to play in his cave. The Han people have many stories about Short-Tailed Old Li, a black dragon who was born to a poor family in Shandong. When his mother saw him for the first time, she fainted and, when his father came home from the field and saw him, he hit him with a spade and cut off part of his tail. Li burst through the ceiling and flew away to the Black Dragon River in northeast China, where he became the god of that river.[43] On the anniversary of his mother’s death on the Chinese lunar calendar, Old Li returns home, causing it to rain. He is still worshipped as a rain god.

In China, dragon is thought to have power over rain. Dragons and their associations with rain are the source of the Chinese customs of dragon dancing and dragon boat racing.Dragons are closely associated with rain and drought is thought to be caused by a dragon’s laziness.[46] Prayers invoking dragons to bring rain are common in Chinese texts.[45] The Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals, attributed to the Han dynasty scholar Dong Zhongshu, prescribes making clay figurines of dragons during a time of drought and having young men and boys pace and dance among the figurines in order to encourage the dragons to bring rain.[45] Texts from the Qing dynasty advise hurling the bone of a tiger or dirty objects into the pool where the dragon lives;[46] since dragons cannot stand tigers or dirt, the dragon of the pool will cause heavy rain to drive the object out. Rainmaking rituals invoking dragons are still very common in many Chinese villages, where each village has its own god said to bring rain and many of these gods are dragons. The Chinese dragon kings are thought of as the inspiration for the Hindu myth of the naga. According to these stories, every body of water is ruled by a dragon king, each with a different power, rank, and ability, so people began establishing temples across the countryside dedicated to these figures.
Many traditional Chinese customs revolve around dragons. During various holidays, including the Spring Festival and Lantern Festival, villagers will construct an approximately sixteen-foot-long dragon from grass, cloth, bamboo strips, and paper, which they will parade through the city as part of a dragon dance.[48] The original purpose of this ritual was to bring good weather and a strong harvest, but now it is done mostly only for entertainment.[48] During the Duanwu festival, several villages, or even a whole province, will hold a dragon boat race, in which people race across a body of water in boats carved to look like dragons, while a large audience watches on the banks.[48] The custom is traditionally said to have originated after the poet Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River and people raced out in boats hoping to save him, but most historians agree that the custom actually originated much earlier as a ritual to avert ill fortune. Starting during the Han dynasty and continuing until the Qing dynasty, the Chinese emperor gradually became closely identified with dragons, and emperors themselves claimed to be the incarnations of a divine dragon. Eventually, dragons were only allowed to appear on clothing, houses, and articles of everyday use belonging to the emperor and any commoner who possessed everyday items bearing the image of the dragon were ordered to be executed. After the last Chinese emperor was overthrown in 1911, this situation changed and now many ordinary Chinese people identify themselves as descendants of dragons.

The impression of dragons in a large number of Asian countries has been influenced by Chinese culture, such as Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and so on. Chinese tradition has always used the dragon totem as the national emblem, and the “Yellow Dragon flag” of the Qing dynasty has influenced the impression that China is a dragon in many European countries.