Dragons are legendary creatures that appear in the myths and legends of many cultures worldwide. Essentially flying reptiles with serpentine features, dragons have traditionally been portrayed as fire-breathing monsters with ferocious natures. They have historically been depicted in different ways, however, from culture to culture.
Scientists believe that early dinosaur bones were often mistakenly deemed dragon bones in many parts of the world. There are mainly two schools of dragon myth—the European dragon and the Asian or Chinese dragon. But within these two types there is a plethora of dragon legends and depictions. The word dragon comes from the Greek word “drakon” which means water snake or gigantic reptile. Monstrous snakes were a concept borrowed from ancient Mesopotamian cultures. A dragon was mentioned in the Bible, as well, in the Book of Job. Scholars believe the concept of such beasts traveled next to Greece before spreading to many other lands.
European dragons were often represented as evil or destructive. They figure in many Medieval tales as the nemesis of heroic knights. In terms of literature, dragons were the destroyers of villages and the usurpers of civilizations. In most cases dragons were conveyed as harbingers of evil. Usually depicted with wings, scales, and a menacing reptilian face, dragons featured significantly in early Western art. One of the most famous legends is of St. George battling the dragon and many depictions of this battle have been demonstrated in painting.
The Chinese dragon was viewed differently than the European dragon. Chinese dragons were viewed as wise and essentially benevolent and kind; they were often seen as symbolic of China’s emperors. Chinese dragons figure in the Chinese zodiac and are viewed as symbolic of the new year. New years celebrations continue to feature dragons in parades. China has a wide array of folklore that is dedicated to dragons.
The cultures of ancient India, Japan, and Persia also created many myths associated with dragons. Just as in China, the Japanese dragons tended to be essentially benevolent and also wise. In India, however, dragons came to be synonymous with drought and were seen as wicked symbols. The Persians associated the dragon with war and viewed it as a symbol of evil in much the same way as later Europeans would.
While dragons are ancient motifs that were important through history, they continue as popular motifs of fantasy today. There are many examples of dragons from modern literature in works such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. Today’s fantasy genre of literature relies heavily on the use of dragons. As one of the most popularly known mythic creatures, dragons are frequently made into toys and feature heavily in children’s literature and film.