Created | Updated Mar 26, 2009
Dragons are creatures that are considered mythical, until you run into one. Considering their legendary status, it's surprising just how much first-hand evidence exists. Witness descriptions are varied; however consensus is usually that of a gigantic reptile - breathing fire and having huge talons, the tail of a serpent, bat-like wings, scaly skin and a fierce face bearing an extremely toothy grin. The beast can vary in size, shape, and colour, depending on the species and habitat. Some are good, some are evil, some are downright ridiculous1. Size in particular ranges from the quite small, fitting in the palm of the human hand, to giants that could quite easily digest airliners for lunch.
Dragon-like creatures have been found in the myths of many civilizations. Sometimes seen on flags and among medieval heraldry, they have long captured the imaginations of every culture. From ancient Japan to modern day America, the dragon is as ubiquitous as the sun, moon and stars. Classifications of the common types are as follows:
The Western (or European) Dragon
The Western Dragon is perhaps the stereotypical dragon. It typically has thick scaly skin, four strong legs, wings, a long neck and a wedge-shaped head containing a mouth bristling with many rather large and pointy teeth. Because of this appearance the dragon has long been considered an evil, maiden-stealing, village destroying, fire-breathing beast. The dragon also has many magical abilities including control over the elements2, telekinesis, telepathy, shape-shifting, chameleon qualities (dependant on wants and needs; for example camouflage or mating rituals), and invisibility. They enjoy eating sheep or cattle, but have been known to nibble on just about anything that looks tasty when the usual diet is sparse.
Western dragons were particularly popular during the Middle Ages as knights would seek fame and fortune by attempting to kill the creature. The fame would come from the 'bravery' involved in fighting the dragon, the fortune was from the dragon's den as these creatures were said to hoard gold and jewels in much the same way as the common magpie, an opportunistic bird.
The Eastern (or Oriental) Dragon
Eastern dragons, in direct contrast to their western counterparts, are viewed as wise, intelligent and benevolent creatures able to grant good luck. They traditionally have four legs, long serpent-like bodies, and are often illustrated without wings. Asian dragons come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colours and varieties. Some have the body of a snake, scales of a carp, head of a camel, the eyes of a hare, ears like a bull, the belly of a clam, paws like a tigers and claws like an eagle. They are generally depicted with a lion's mane, antlers and two long whiskers spreading out from their snout. They could also masquerade as horses, so all in all, a very strange looking creature. However, an Eastern dragon's feet will always bely its true heritage. There are three families of Eastern dragons: three-toed, four-toed and five-toed. Three-toed dragons are found in Japan. Four-toed dragons are to be found in much of the Asia Minor, while five-toed dragons are on the most part Chinese.
The Chinese dragon is a very complex creature and is imbued with mystical powers. Its body has 117 scales; 81 infused with yang and 36 infused with yin. This evens out the dragon's temper and personality. In China dragons are known as Lung. There are four types of Lung;
Tien-lung - The Celestial Dragon: gatekeeper and protector of the homes of the Gods.
Shen-Lung - The Spiritual Dragon: controller of the winds and the rain.
Ti-Lung - The Earth Dragon: guardian of rivers and waterways.
Fut's-Lung - The Underworld Dragon: keeper of precious metals and gems.
Asian dragons have strong links to weather and many natural disasters have been attributed to angry dragons in the past. The five-toed dragon is also considered the 'Imperial Dragon'. Ancient Chinese law dictated that only the Emperor could have a five-toed dragon embroidered upon his robes or illustrated on anything the Emperor owned. It was usually a Yellow Dragon, thought to be the most superior of all the coloured dragons in China. If someone other than the Emperor was caught wearing the symbol of the five-toed dragon, they were put to a rather gruesome death3. Roasted swallows are one of the Chinese dragon's favourite foods, and the Chinese people will often celebrate the Year of the Dragon with offerings of this meal. The Chinese New Year also sees the famous Dragon Dance performed to respect the great creature.
The Faerie Dragon is quite simply a very small version of the Western Dragon. The only major difference is that its wings are more butterfly-like in shape and colour than those of its larger relative. Some faerie dragons are carnivorous (eating insects or smaller animals), but on the most part these creatures eat nuts, berries and small flowers. The rarest of all species due to becoming trapped in radiator grilles, the Faerie Dragon is so-named not only because of its diminutive size, but because it is said they are often flying steeds for fairies.
The Wyvern (wiv-urn) is perhaps more of a smaller cousin than brother to the Western Dragon. Altogether more serpent-like with only two hind legs and a longer tail that sometimes wields a sting, it is still winged. In fact its wingspan is considerably larger than the Western Dragons in comparison to size. The Wyvern has a more sleek appearance and is streamlined for flight, rather than fight. Still considered strong and brave like its cousin, it is perhaps not as agreeable, being quick to temper and often a little foolhardy, rushing in to situations without forethought. The Wyvern is generally found in Europe feeding off livestock, but the invention of the shotgun quickly put a stop to this.
The Drake is again closely related to the Western Dragon; however, it is flightless. Its appearance is that of a Western Dragon, only smaller and without wings. The Drake is a very elemental creature and is commonly found either in very hot climates, thus the reddish coloured Fire Drake or in colder places, the bluish-white Frost Drake. There are also Water Drakes and Wind Drakes, but these creatures are more than likely Frost Drakes that prefer the weather a bit warmer and tropical. Drakes are very solitary creatures and feed mostly on smaller animals like fish, deer, sheep or penguins4.
The Wyrm, or Guivre (gyv-ruh) is quite probably the oldest variety of dragon, in evolutionary terms. With no wings or legs this creature is most at home in waterways, forests or even wells. Often mistaken for eels or slow-worms, the Wyrm is found throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. The Wyrm feeds upon most animals that stray near its lair, and due to this can grow to gigantic proportions. A rare sight, it is likely that large Wyrms found the confines of small rivers, lakes or forests coupled with the rapid urbanisation of human culture a threat to their continued survival, and so headed out to sea in order to get away from the inevitable pollution and noise that goes hand-in-hand with a burgeoning civilisation.
Sea Serpents resemble the typical dragon in appearance apart from being wingless and having flippers instead of legs, or no limbs whatsoever. The sea serpent is most content at sea, but there are freshwater variants both feeding on fish and other smaller marine creatures. Ever since humans found that they could make boats and float about on water the sea serpent has become a household name. These creatures were shown on maps early in European history, where unknown territory was marked; Here Be Dragones. Sailors' tales of huge beasts that attacked their ships and ate their friends were commonplace. However, sailors' stories were to be taken with a grain of sea-salt, as they often spoke of making love to mermaids and catching huge fish. It is more likely that sea serpents protected their territory and frightened off the 'brave' and 'fearless' seafarers.
Other Dragons of the World
The dragon comes in many other different forms worldwide. The following are some of the more well-known;
This Egyptian dragon was first described in ancient Greek writings. The creature is a serpent that can curl itself into a circle placing its tail in its mouth. It travels by rolling like a wheel and perhaps has a relative in the Australian Hoop Snake. It is remarkably placcid and has come to represent the circle of life in some Mediterranean cultures.
This two-headed dragon is unique in that one head is where it should be, while the other is at the end of its tail. It is able to curl in a hoop and keep one eye open in both directions to protect its eggs from predators. This African dragon is peaceful, feeding on ants and although venomous, it is unfortunate that its blood is seen as a cure for arthritis and other human illnesses. Fine feathered wings give it the ability to fly, but this is no promise of escape from intrepid hunters.
Indigenous to the deserts of Central Asia, the ground-dwelling lindworm resembles a huge snake, but has two small front legs used for digging into the sand. It is said that the explorer Marco Polo discovered lindworms while travelling through China. He described them in his journals as follows;
Swifter than it looks. Easily able to take down a man on a galloping horse.
Indian mythology tells of the Naga - dragons that have a human head, but the body of a serpent. These creatures are perhaps the Indian equivalent of angels, working with the gods. Guardians of water and the clouds, they can cause flooding or drought if disturbed or angered. In some stories, the Naga can shape-change at will from human to snake form. With tremendous magical power, they are often tutor or muse to those who they see fit.
The Algonquin Indians of North America worshipped a dragon-like creature called the Piasa. With a serpentine body, lion's mane but the head of a human, the Piasa inhabits the waters of the Mississippi River. This dragon did not bother humans until it found dead ones and tried the meat. To its surprise, it liked the taste and often snatches away those who are unwary at the waters edge.
This dragon has its origins in the Americas; Mexican peoples have also long told of a local Amphithere called the Quetzalcoatl (kwet-zahl-co-attle), a winged and feathered serpent that is able to transform itself into stone and feeds upon not only jungle creatures, but anyone who happens to become lost in its territory.
The Rainbow Snake
Australian Aborigines tell of the great Rainbow Snake. This serpent was responsible for the creation of humans, the lands and the animals during the Dreamtime. It also has the power to control the rain and water and to regenerate itself. Not strictly a dragon, but a powerful creature nonetheless.
What makes a dragon a dragon? Dragons have many mysterious powers, but the ability to fly, breathe fire and eat maidens5 are quite probably the most familiar aspects of dragon life.
Dragons have wings. Big wings. Designed in the same manner as those of a bat, the wingspan of even a young dragon is tremendous. The begging question however, is how does it get off the ground? Such huge wings create an enormous amount of lift, but an added buoyancy aid in the dragon's chest containing a mix of lighter-than-air gases assists in keeping the dragon aloft once it is airborne. A dragon's bones are hollow and very light, much like that of a bird, and this also helps the creature in lifting its huge bulk from the ground. Of course many dragons simply fly under the strong influence of magic and without the aid of wings.
The most impressive and perhaps awe-inspiring dragon power is the ability to breathe fire. Even the smallest dragon can belch an arc of flame that can not only incinerate a human to ash, but set fire to an entire forest. A dragons is able to create fire from the same gases in its body used to keep it in the air whilst flying. These gases are produced from the digestive process and stored for later use. When a dragon breathes fire it is the mixing of the chemicals and saliva that is then expelled from the mouth and airway in a fine mist. The resultant external chemical mix produces fire, and this is why the dragon does not burn its own mouth when performing the act. Most dragons only resort to breathing fire as a weapon when feeling ultimately threatened. On the most part it is used to expell excess digestive gas and to slightly cook food for storage in its den.
The dragon's life blood is an amazingly powerful fluid. It keeps the dragon's wings alive, and is pumped around the body by its huge heart. However, dragon's blood has many mystical properties, much sought after by humans. Dragon's blood is said to grant longevity, cure all ills, imbue a person with strength and power, give wisdom and intelligence. To drink a dragon's blood before it has cooled from the dying beast is a knight's greatest dream, for this would make the drinker as magical and powerful as the very dragon they had slain. Of course, the chances of this happening are few and far between, as dragons like to keep their blood in their bodies, and the ability to breathe fire, fly and crush little men in steel suits in their jaws is comforting insurance.
Dragons reproduce in much the same way as other reptiles. It is their mating rituals that are amazingly intricate, involving coupling in flight after a series of flying games, mating calls and presentations of gifts from both partners. After mating the pair will build a nest together from any available sources such as wood, leaves, branches, suits of armour and gold coins. A dragon nest can be an amazingly beautiful site. The female lays her eggs and these are incubated by both the male and female. Before the infant dragon hatches both will forage for food for the young. Once the infant dragons hatch they are reared for a short time by both mother and father. After a few months the dragon infants are left with either the mother or father, then once they are strong enough to hunt are unceremoniously kicked out of home to fend for themselves. And so the circle of life continues.
Dragons of Legend and Literature
Dragons are popular in literature, whether as the snarling villians of legend or gentle heroes. They have become popular in fantasy books and artwork, and are slowly losing negative stereotypes through these stories. Some famous great literary dragons are;
The Greek hero Heracles (or Hercules) fought and killed the great beast Hydra, a multi-headed venomous serpent that was terrorising Argos6. This battle was one of Heracles' famed 'twelve labours'.
Norse legend tells of the warrior Sigurd (also known as Siegfried) who was told by the dwarf Regin that in order to gain fame and power, thus attracting the attentions of lovely maidens, Sigurd must slay a terrible dragon named Fafnir. This tale was made famous by the composer Richard Wagner and his cycle of operas Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), or the Ring Cycle.
Saint George and the Dragon
Saint George conquered a mighty dragon that was 'terrorising' the countryside and in doing so freed the people from 'evil'. To celebrate this victory the English adopted the standard of Saint George, a red cross on a white background, and this flag is still in use.
The Lambton Wyrm
Young knight John Lambton chose to go fishing on a Sunday, despite warnings that it was unlucky. He caught nothing but a small worm and threw it into a well. The worm later emerged from the well, a huge and ferocious beast. Lambton sought advice on how to dispose of the creature from a witch who told him that he must wear a suit of armour bedecked with sharp spikes that would slice the creature into many pieces as he battled it. On killing the creature though, he would have to slay the very next living thing he met. The Wyrm was killed but sadly, it was the knight's father that he next met. Unable to murder his father, Lambton cursed his family into a legacy of untimely deaths.
The Dragons of Cymru7
Welsh legend tells of a battle between a white dragon and a red dragon in the skies over ancient Cardiff. Seen by many as a portent of future events, the white dragon represented an invading English army and the red dragon the Welsh locals. The day was won by the red dragon, thus the Welsh nation adopted Y Ddraig Goch8 as its symbol. The flag of Wales still proudly portrays the creature.
In the story The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, Smaug was a dragon who guarded dwarven riches in the Lonely Mountain, where a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, a wizard known as Gandalf and a troop of thirteen dwarves soon found themselves travelling to. This story and others by Tolkien perhaps inspired the popular game 'Dungeons & Dragons', and others of its ilk.
The Dragons of Pern
The Dragons of Pern books by Anne McCaffrey tell the interesting and complex histories of the dragons of Pern, a planet where both humans and dragons live together in an almost utopian existence.
With the advent of moving pictures, humans decided it a grand idea to represent the fearsome dragon on celluloid. Over time there have been many movies about, including or sensationalising dragons. Some of the more well known are;
The great dragon slayer Bowen travels the land seeking out, well, dragons to kill. He is unrelenting until he meets his match in the last of the dragons, Draco. A temporary friendship unites the pair against a common foe, the evil lord. A 'buddy' movie like no other.
Reign of Fire
It is the beginning of the 21st Century and after an explosive beginning, evil dragons have taken over the planet Earth, destroying all. A small band of human misfits takes on the might of the dragons to reclaim what is 'rightfully' theirs. Inevitable ending, but amusing nonetheless with some nice dragon effects.
The Middle Ages bring about much warring and political intrigue, but throw a few dragons that like to generally eat, kill, burn and make things awkward and the whole of humanity takes the fight to the big nasty invading dragons. A tele-movie riding in on the waves made by Reign of Fire. Not a brilliant plot and some regular acting, but the dragons look good and there's some genuine thrilling moments.
Dungeons & Dragons
A group of freedom fighters made up of wizards, warriors and thieves takes on the evil empire that has long cast a shadow over the land. The Role Playing Game Dungeons & Dragons on the big-screen. Some lovely special effects put a gloss on a poorly acted, plotless, hamfisted attempt at bringing the magic of 'D&D' to life.
It is sixteenth century England and evil fire-breathing dragon Vermithrax is rampaging the countryside. Enter sorcerer's apprentice Galen and his band of miscreants to save the day. Atmospheric adventure film and a wonderfully terrifying dragon deliver a fantastic story.
Orphan Pete runs away from his abusive foster family with his 'imaginary friend' Eliot - a dragon, to try and find a better life. Family classic mixing animation with live action. A fun feel-good movie.
An ogre named Shrek must rescue a fair princess called Fiona from the clutches of a dragon in order to regain his land from an evil prince. To help him in his quest are a motley crew of fairytale characters, and a talking donkey. Hilarious computer animated adventure for adults and children alike.
Fact or Fiction?
There are many theories as to where dragons are now. These theories range from 'Dragons never existed' to 'Dragons left the physical plane and exist on an astral level as guardians'. Ideas of dragon spirits befriending people are also known in some circles, and if you come across a believer in dragons it is best not to insult their belief. You can never be sure, and it is a good way to end up as dinner if you discover they do exist.
Unexplained sightings of creatures, extensive mysterious fires, and the belief that people have seen these fantastic beasts keep the possibility open. Also, while there are still unexplored or uninhabited places on Earth, there are places for dragons to hide. Any burial habits for dragons are unknown, and with the confusion associated with reconstructing dinosaur skeletons it is feasible that some dragon fossils may have been mistaken for dinosaurs, or vice-versa. Some explain dragons away as human sightings of living remnants of dinosaurs, such as the flying Pterosaurs or even the larger Theropods. The famous Loch Ness Monster may even be a long lost dragon relation.
There are dragons not quite as mystical and difficult to find on Earth currently. The Komodo Dragon and many large lizards, particularly in South America and Australia have similar monikers, like the Bearded Dragon and Water Dragons. Sea Dragons (relatives of the sea horse or pipefish) also live in tropical waters. Other various bits and bobs on the planet have been named after the dragon also. There are Dragonflies (beautiful insects), Snapdragons (a lovely flowering plant), Public Houses named after dragons and even a comic book hero called 'Savage Dragon'. So, it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to find dragons living among us.
Advice Concerning Dragons
For more information about dragons, the following text is at the forefront of dragon research and investigation;
- Dr Ernest Drake's Dragonology - The Complete Book of Dragons
However, the best piece of wisdom to give anyone when dealing with dragons is - 'Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.' The condiment that a human would be served with varies upon individual dragon tastes, of course9.