European dragon

From Academic Kids

 versus the dragon, , c. 1880. This small dragon has the look of a  or a .
Saint George versus the dragon, Gustave Moreau, c. 1880. This small dragon has the look of a griffin or a wyvern.

In European mythology, a dragon is a serpent-like legendary creature. The Latin word draco, as in the constellation Draco, comes directly from Greek δράκων (drakōn). The Dragon is sometimes known by the Nordic word ormr. In Old English wyrm means "serpent", draca means "dragon". Though a winged creature, the dragon is generally to be found in its underground lair, a cave that identifies it as an ancient creature of earth, like the mythic serpent, that was a source of knowledge even in Eden.


Dragons in modern times

The dragon of the modern period is typically depicted as a huge, scaly and horned dinosaur-like creature, with leathery wings and the ability to breathe fire. It is sometimes shown with feathered wings, crests, fiery manes, and various exotic colorations. Iconically it has at last combined the Chinese dragon with the western one. Many modern stories represent dragons as extremely intelligent creatures who can talk, associated with (and sometimes in control of) powerful magic. Dragon's blood often has magical properties: for example it let Siegfried understand the language of the Forest Bird. The typical dragon protects a cavern filled with gold and treasure and is often associated with a great hero who tries to slay it, but dragons can be written in to a story in as many ways as a human character.

Greek dragons

For the Greeks of the Classical times, dragons were terrifying serpentlike earth-born remnants of an earlier age, dark creatures that had to be heroically eliminated. Dragons were guardians of underground sources of power, and often guarded the more literal sources, springs, where the watery underworld burst to the surface. The water-dragon most widely depicted was called the Hydra. The serpentlike dragon guardian of the spring or cleft, whose healing and oracular properties must not be approached without caution, was a protector of the original inhabitants of Greece (Pelasgians) and their prehistoric lore. Always, in the literary myths that have survived, the hero from the new Olympian age is seen to destroy the dragon, never to consult it; the dragon has been reinterpreted as having terrified and threatened the local populace (as the sea-dragon in the myth of Perseus and Andromeda). At Delphi the ancient oracle came from the Goddess's serpentlike dragon deep in the cleft, the Python and his seeress; but Apollo "saved" the inhabitants of Delphi from its "ravages" — then assumed the oracular powers for himself. Maintaining its ancient role, a dragon guarded the Golden Fleece in the ancient story of Jason that we know from the late Alexandrian epic Argonautica.

Dragons were often classed among the noisome brood of Typhon and Echidna.

The word "dragon" came from Greek drakōn, which originally meant "that which sees" or "that which flashes", from the root of the verb derkomai = "I see". The word may originally meant a type of snake with shiny reflective scales. There is at least one Greek text which in the same line of poetry calls the same animal a snake and a drakōn.

Roman dragons

It it is theorized that western dragons have descended from Roman dragons. Roman dragons evolved from serpentine Greek ones, combined with the dragons of Persia, in the mix that characterized the hybrid Greek/Eastern Hellenistic culture. From Babylon, the "Dragon of Marduk" in molded glazed terracotta bricks that was part of the 6th century Gate of Ishtar has come to rest at the Detroit Institute of Arts ( The later Babylonian dragon worshiped by the court of the Persian Cyrus the Great, in the Hebrew narrative in Bel and the Dragon probably dates to the late 2nd century BCE. John's Book of Revelation — Greek literature, not Roman — describes Satan as "a great dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns". Much of John's literary inspiration is late Hebrew and Greek, but John's dragon, like his Satan, are both more likely to have come originally through Persia. Perhaps our distinctions between dragons of western origin and Chinese dragons (q.v.) are arbitrary. A later Roman dragon was certainly of Iranian origin: in the Roman Empire, where each military cohort had a particular identifying signum, (military standard), after the Dacian Wars and Parthian War of Trajan in the east, the Draco military standard entered the Legion with the Cohors Sarmatarum and Cohors Dacorum (Sarmatian and Dacian cohort) — a large dragon fixed to the end of a lance, with large gaping jaws of silver and with the rest of the body formed of colored silk. With the jaws facing into the wind, the silken body inflated and rippled. This signum is described in Vegetius Epitoma Rei Militaris, 379 CE (book ii, ch XIII. 'De centuriis atque vexillis peditum'):

Primum signum totius legionis est aquila, quam aquilifer portat. Dracones etiam per singulas cohortes a draconariis feruntur ad proelium
(The first sign of the entire legion is the eagle, which the eagle-bearer carries. In addition, dragons are carried into battle by each cohort, by the 'dragoneers' )

and in Ammianus Marcellinus, xvi. 10, 7 (Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898: 'Signum'). It is hard to resist giving this Romanized Parthian dragon a distant Chinese origin.

Dragons in Slavic mythology

Dragons of Slavic mythology hold mixed temperaments towards humans. For example, dragons in Bulgarian mythology are either male or female, each gender having a different view of mankind. The female dragon and male dragon, often seen as brother and sister, represent different forces of agriculture. The female dragon represents harsh weather and is the destroyer of crops, the hater of mankind, and is locked in a never ending battle with her brother. The male dragon protects the humans' crops from destruction and is generally loving to humanity. Fire and water play major roles in Bulgarian dragon lore; the female has water characteristics, whilst the male is usually a fiery creature. In Bulgarian legend, dragons are three headed, winged beings with snake's bodies.

In Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian lore, dragons are generally evil, four-legged beasts with few if any redeeming qualities. They are intelligent, but not very highly so; they often place tribute on villages or small towns, demanding maidens for food, or gold. Their number of heads ranges from one to seven or sometimes even more, with three- and seven-headed dragons being most common. The heads also regrow if cut off, unless the neck is "treated" with fire. Dragon blood is so poisonous that Earth itself will refuse to absorb it.

The , showing a red dragon passant
The Welsh flag, showing a red dragon passant

Dragons in Celtic mythology

Most dragons in Celtic mythology have a similar appearance, being wormlike in shape, without legs, although they sometimes had wings, and having poisonous bites or stings as opposed to breathing fire.

An exception is the Welsh Dragon, which adorns the Welsh flag and has represented Wales for centuries.

Celtic dragons often represented sovereignty or kingship, such as in the word 'Pendragon', meaning 'chief'.

In Celtic culture, particularly associated with their form of mysticism, there is a strong relationship with Eastern representations of dragons. They were usually serpentine and were considered symbols of wisdom due to their long lifespans. Merlin, holding his staff, is often depicted with facing dragons at the head of the staff, and it has been suggested that this represents a balance between opposing forces.

Dragons in Germanic and Norse mythology

The most famous dragons in Norse mythology and Germanic mythology, are:-

  • Nidhogg who gnawed at the roots of Yggdrasil;
  • Jormungand, a form of serpent so big that the earth-disc can be encircled by it;
  • the dragon encountered by Beowulf;
  • Fafnir, who was killed by Siegfried. Fafnir turned into a dragon because of his greed.
  • Lindworms are monstrous serpents of Germanic myth and lore, often interchangeable with dragons.

Many European stories of dragons have them guarding a treasure hoard. Both Fafnir's and Beowulf's dragons guarded earthen mounds full of ancient treasure. The treasure was cursed and brought ill to those who later possessed it.

Dragons in the emblem books popular from late medieval times through the 17th century often represent the dragon as an emblem of greed. (Some quotes are needed) The prevalence of dragons in European heraldry demonstrates that there is more to the dragon than greed.

Though the Latin is draco, draconis, it has been supposed by some scholars, including John Tanke of the University of Michigan, that the word dragon comes from the Old Norse draugr, which literally means a spirit who guards the burial mound of a king (compare Tolkien's 'barrow-wights'). How this image of a vengeful guardian spirit is related to a fire-breathing serpent is unclear. Many others assume the word dragon comes from the ancient Greek verb derkesthai, meaning "to see", referring to the dragon's legendarily keen eyesight. In any case, the image of a dragon as a serpent-like creature was already standard at least by the 8th century when Beowulf was written down. Although today we associate dragons almost universally with fire, in medieval legend the creatures were often associated with water, guarding springs or living near or under water.

Other European legends about dragons include "Saint George and the Dragon", in which a brave knight defeats a dragon holding a princess captive. This legend may be a Christianized version of the myth of Perseus, or of the mounted Phrygian god Sabazios vanquishing the chthonic serpent, but its origins are obscure. Saint George is the Patron Saint of England.

The tale of George and the Dragon has been modified for modern works, with Saint George portrayed as an effete wally who faints at the sight of the dragon in a play [1] ( and a poem by U. A. Fanthorpe based on Paolo Uccello's painting, which hangs in the British National Gallery. In the poem, Saint George is a thug, the Maiden considers the relative sexual merits of the dragon and saint, and the Dragon is the only sane character. Certainly, Uccello's fifteenth-century painting, in which the Maiden has the dragon on a leash, is itself not the most conventional representation of the story.

It is possible that the dragon legends of northwestern Europe are at least partly inspired by earlier stories from the Roman Empire, or from the Sarmatians and related cultures north of the Black Sea. There has also been speculation that dragon mythology might have originated from stories of large land lizards which inhabited Eurasia, or that the sight of giant fossil bones eroding from the earth may have inspired dragon myths (compare Griffin).

Dragons in Catalan mythology

Dragons are well-known in Catalan myths and legends, in no small part because St. George (Catalon Sant Jordi) is the patron saint of Catalonia. Like most dragons, the Catalan dragon (Catalan drac) is basically an enormous serpent with two legs, or rarely, four, and sometimes a pair of wings. As in many other parts of the world, the dragon's face may be like that of some other animal, such as a lion or bull. As is common elsewhere, Catalan dragons are fire-breathers, and the dragon-fire is all-consuming. Catalan dragons also can emit a fetid odor, which can rot away anything it touches.

The Catalans also distinguish a vbria or vibra (cognate with English viper and wyvern), a female dragon with two prominent breasts, two claws and an eagle's beak.

Dragons in fantasy fiction

See List of dragons in fantasy fiction

Dragons in decoration

Missing image
Transom decoration, Belvedere Castle Central Park, New York. This is actually a cockatrice

See also

External links

da:Europisk drage (mytologisk) de:Drache (Mythologie) fr:Dragon (crature fantastique) he:דרקון אירופאי ja:ドラゴン nl:Draak (fabeldier) kw:Dragon pt:Drago th:มังกร zh:西方龍


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