The History and Mythology of Dragons
July 04, 2024 14 min read

The History and Mythology of Dragons

By Lady Saoirse

Learn about the myths and legends of dragons from around the world and the truth about real dragons. 

One creature of myth that stirs our imaginations perhaps most is the dragon. Some say they fly, spit fire, and devour human beings, and others say they are beautiful spiritual creatures who are protective and just want to live in peace. Few have said they have seen a real dragon, but everybody has heard stories about them. Join us as we learn all about dragons. Find out what they are, what people around the world have to say about them, and discover the scientific evidence about real dragons. 

What are Dragons?

The word dragon first came to be used in the English language from a 13th century French word that meant “ huge serpent”. A similar form comes from ancient Greece, and that is the word drakon, which means “serpent”. Yet another Greek word was “draconta”, meaning “to watch.” Dragons are mythical serpents or reptile-like creatures who are highly intelligent and are believed in throughout the world. No two cultures of people have exactly the same myths about them. Some people believe they can speak the human language, while others believe they don’t. Some myths say they fly with wings, and others say they are earth bound creatures. Other myths say they are spirit creatures and live in the sky.

We don’t actually know where the belief in dragons first originated, but it has been speculated that people living centuries ago unearthed dinosaur bones and assumed it was the remains of dragons of myth that they found. Some dragons were basically creatures that had a combination of the bodies of other animals like elephants, snakes, lions, and large birds. Others have speculated that the Medieval description of the evil dragon that was to be slain by the righteous was constructed by the human imagination from descriptions of the gates of hell itself. While some went so far as to call their devil an old dragon, others saw dragons as protective creatures, and detailed carvings of them were in sacred temples, or adorning the bows of ships in belief their very image would keep people safe.

Besides the myths, there are some other creatures who share some characteristics with dragons. They had scales, sharp fangs for biting, they lived on both land and in water, and they seemed to float effortlessly through their domains. Join us for a tour around the world to learn about the myths of dragons and learn about some of the creatures that are like them. Finally, learn about dragons today and once and for all, decide for yourself whether dragons are real or not. Read about dreams of snakes here: Dreaming of Snakes- Meaning and Symbolism (spiritualblossom.com)

Dragons Around the World

It is fair to say that dragons are international animals, and stories about them are on every continent. The earliest existing myths about them are stories about giant serpents in the Near East, some of whom were terrifying and dangerous to human beings. We begin our mythic journey in Greece, move through China and the Middle East, and then explore Germanic pre-Christian myths before reading about what stories from Christianized medieval Europe said about dragons.

Greece

Multiple kinds of dragons appeared in ancient Greek myth, and they were the terrifying mythic serpentine beings who guarded things like sacred springs. One guarded something very special, the sacred golden fleece and another guarded the sacred golden apples, and it had one hundred heads. Another was called the Hydra, which guarded the springs of Lerna and every time somebody decapitated this dragon to try and kill it, new heads grew in the severed head’s place. Another dragon guarded the grove in Mysia that was for the goddess Artemis. Each of these dragons shared something in common; they would defeat anybody who fought them until special mythic heroes came who could kill them despite the dragon’s great power. They might have been terrifying to humans, but they took their job of protecting sacred places very seriously, and they served faithfully until their deaths.

One such was named Python, and the earth goddess, Gaia, sent it to protect the Oracle of Delphi. It was believed this cite was the center of the earth, and Python protected it well. Unfortunately, Python was also recruited by the goddess Hera. Zeus, Father of the gods, and husband to Hera had an affair with the lovely Leto, who became pregnant with the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis. Hera was enraged, and sent Python to chase Leto so much, she would not have time to give birth. She did, indeed give birth to her children, and Apollo slew Python for revenge. Apollo dared to enter the sacred place of oracle work and slew Python right beside where the priestess did the prophesying. He then took over the holy site as his own, and the oracles continued to practice, but in his honor instead.

China

China

In ancient China, dragons were believed to be wise and benevolent creatures who could, however, destroy when they chose to. They destroyed with storms, typhoons, and floods and it was believed that some of the worst floods were caused by dragons who were upset. Despite this, many depictions of them show dragons holding and sometimes playing a flaming pearl, which represents wisdom, spirituality, immortality, power, and prosperity. So while dragons could cause storms and floods that were devastating, they were not specifically out to harm humans or be destructive.

At one time, four Dragon Kings, or Dragon Gods were believed to rule the Four Seas, or bodies of water that were believed to surround China. Those are the East China Sea, the South China Sea, Lake Baikal and the Qinghai Lake. These formed the borders of ancient China before the Han Dynasty and these Dragon Kings were believed to not only represent these bodies of water, but also to create rain. On the birthday of each Dragon King, festive processions were held, and people would put images of the Dragon King outside their homes and burn incense to them in hopes of making rain.

For the imperial family, dragons were very sacred. It was said the first Emperor of China, also known as The Yellow Emperor, became an immortal dragon at the end of his reign, ascending to heaven and the Yan Emperor was conceived by his mother when she psychically communicated with a dragon. Some people from China consider these legendary emperors to be their ancestors, so they call themselves “the descendants of the dragon.” Many places in the imperial palace, the Forbidden City, are adorned with these sacred dragons, and the very seat of the emperor, his throne, is called “The Dragon Throne.” 

The Middle East

Multiple different dragon-like creatures were written about or portrayed in art in different parts of the Middle East. One is the mushussu, and its name comes from Sumeria, and means “ reddish snake.” The mushussu, also known as the sirrush, had a long, lean body, and was sometimes shown on all fours, and others, standing on its hind legs. It had the front legs and feet of a lion, the back legs and talons like an eagle’s, horns, a serpent tongue, and a tail like a lion’s. In some stories, the mushussu was said to be conquered by the god Marduk, who then took it as his loyal servant. In others, it was originally an attendant to the god Ninazu, and then, the god Tispak, and after some time, it became an attendant to Marduk. Little is known about what the creature did, but that it was a sacred creature of the gods.

The Hebrews had reference to the Leviathan, a massive serpent defeated by their god YHVH, or Yahweh. It was the embodiment of chaos and was said it would eat the souls of the damned. Different sacred scriptures say different things about it. Some say YHVH created both a male and female Leviathan, and other books say he breathes fire, has impenetrable scales, and will be killed by YHVH at the end of time. For some scholars, the slaying of this dragon represents YHVH’s bringing salvation to humanity, and other scholars see it as a retelling of the story of how the god Marduk slew the goddess of Chaos, Tiamat. She was the shining personification of the sea, and artwork depicts her with a dragon-like body.

She and her lover, Apsu ruled in the chaos of the early creation, and it was said Tiamat made all things. However, Apsu planned to kill all the younger gods, and he was imprisoned and killed by the god Enki. In heartbreak and rage, Tiamat created eleven monstrous dragons as her champions who terrorized the gods. She was slain by Anu, and he split her body apart to form the firmament, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the Milky Way galaxy. She created the world twice, basically, once with her lover, and once as being used to form our world.

Germanic

Old Germanic ships often had the bows adorned with the head of a fearsome dragon. It was believed this would protect the ship and her passengers while at sea, and it was a sign of wealth. The dragon head bow was mounted just before the ship departed and was not supposed to be installed nearby home, out of belief doing so would frighten the magical beings that lived on the land. What made dragons so powerful, they commanded fear on land and sea in these people’s eyes?

They were powerful creatures who shook the world at its very foundations. One dragon was named Nidhogg, and lived in Nastrond, a place in Helheim where it chewed on the corpses of those found guilty of the crimes of oath-breaking, adultery, and murder. Yggdrasil, or the World Tree united all the Nine Worlds, and Nidhogg also gnawed on one of its three roots when it was not eating corpses. To have its roots gnawed upon by such a beast is terrifying. One account states Nidhogg flies with corpses on its back, and some take that to be him heralding Ragnarök, or the end of the lives of the gods. Another dragon was Fafnir, who was not always a dragon, but was a man who killed his father dishonorably for some treasure, which he fled with and turned into a worm, or dragon after this. The hero Sigurd and Fafnir’s brother, Regin tracked Fafnir, and killed him, later finding the treasure he took.

The Jormungandr is another terrifying dragon-like serpent in Germanic lore. It was born of the god Loki, and was so big, it could encircle the world and place its tail in its mouth. The lore said when it removed its tail from its mouth it would be the beginning of Ragnarök. It was also prophesied that Jormungandr would kill the god Thor. Once, Thor went fishing in the mighty seas to catch it and slay it before it had a chance to kill him. His companion, Hymer, became terrified after Thor caught it , however. The Jormungandr thrashed so powerfully to get away from Thor, the boat was almost destroyed, so Hymer cut the fishing line. Any creature who was powerful enough to battle the mighty Thor was a terrifying beast indeed. 

Medieval Europe

Myths about dragons began to change in Medieval Europe with Christianization. Dragons like Fafnir and Tiamat had no interest in harming humanity. This new belief in dragons, however, was that they harmed everything and should be destroyed. They were vile, unnatural creatures who ate every animal they could and slaughtered humans. They had insatiable appetites and were unreasonable creatures. It was seen as virtuous to slay a dragon, which had no redeeming qualities, and ridding the world of them was the goal.

Various Medieval stories speak of Saints who defeated dragons. St. Margaret of Antioch was said to be challenged by a dragon, but when she did the sign of the cross, it disappeared. The legend of St. George tells another tale. A horrible dragon was eating people’s sheep, and finally ate a shepherd. People started leaving sheep for it to eat and once it ate all the sheep, they started giving human beings to it to eat. Finally, the princess was offered to the dragon, and before it could eat her, St. George rode in and saved her by taming the dragon. He promised to kill it if all the people converted to Christianity, so they did. He slew the dragon, keeping his promise.

In the Book of Revelation 12:7-10, it was written: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” The story goes that the Archangel Michael chained the dragon, or devil in the Book of Revelation 20-1-2 “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”

Dragons were no longer just destructive beings like in ancient German times, and they were not gods like in the Middle East. They were not protectors of royalty, and they were not ancestral beings. They were seen as a threat to both the creator and human beings in general, and they represented all that was wrong in the world. They were to be cast out, chained, and eventually destroyed. Some see these stories as metaphors for conquering our own evils, and others believe the dragon was Satan himself, and a real being.

Creatures Like Dragons

All myths aside, there are other creatures worthy of mentioning that are very much like dragons. One was the dinosaurs of prehistoric times, but others are the mythical basilisk and the celestial kirin.

Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs have gone extinct, of course, and were reptiles that roamed the earth starting at least 230 million years ago. Over 1,000 different species of them have been identified so far, and discoveries continue to happen often. About 200 million years ago, all the world’s continents were joined into one landmass called Pangaea and once the continents started breaking and drifting apart, dinosaurs started to show differences based on where they lived. Things went along nicely until about 66 million years ago, when some form of catastrophic event caused the extinction of all dinosaurs but some crocodilian species and various bird and aquatic creatures survived to begin a new world for themselves.

Sometimes called the “thunder lizards”, some dinosaurs were huge. One of the largest was the dreadnoughts and it weighed up to 65,000 pounds. The pterodactyl was a huge flying dinosaur, and it could have a wingspan of up to 36 feet. These gigantic creatures’ remains were found by people generations ago, and there are a lot of similarities between dinosaurs and dragons. A lot of dinosaurs had long tails, as many myths say dragons have, and some dinosaurs, like pterodactyls, could fly, as some myths say dragons do. Some myths say dragons are venomous and spit fire, and no evidence of fire spitting has been found for dinosaurs, but the sinornithosaurus may have been a venomous dinosaur. It has grooves in certain teeth that venomous animals have, and they found a cavity where the largest fang could rest that suggest it was venomous. It has been speculated that findings of dinosaur fossils led to speculation of dragons, and this could be where myths about them came from.

The Basilisk

A mythical creature, the basilisk was believed to be birthed when a chicken’s egg is hatched by a serpent or toad sitting on it. It is called a serpent king because it has a crest in its head that looks like a crown. It is considered so venomous that if you so much as look into its eyes, the venom of a basilisk will kill you, and Pliny the Elder wrote it leaves a line of venom when it moves. It wilts all vegetation it comes into contact with, and it is a very small creature, no more than twelve fingers in length, according to Pliny. One of the only things that protects against a basilisk is a weasel, but the weasel will die somehow in the process. The sound of a cock crowing can reduce a basilisk to ashes, however. A surefire way to beat a basilisk is to show the beast its own reflection in a mirror because it will die from seeing its own gaze.

Some accounts say if you kill it with a spear, the venom of the basilisk will travel up the spear and kill you as well! Later accounts added larger size to the basilisk, and some accounts said it was not only venomous, but it also breathed fire, just as some stories said dragons did. The basilisk had a maddening hiss that could paralyze you or drive you insane, at least temporarily, if it did not kill you immediately. It also split apart rocks when it moved by them. Your best bet is to completely avoid the basilisk if it is at all possible. Another creature of myth is the vampire and you can read more here: Are Vampires Real? (spiritualblossom.com)

Kirin

The Chinese Kirin was a less terrifying creature that shared some qualities with dragons. Also known as the qilin, this creature is shaped like a deer or horse, with hooves, antlers, a mane, and scales on its body. Their coloring is like jewels, and some accounts say their bodies are on fire. They appear as harbingers of the birth or passing of a great ruler or spiritual leader. It was said to have first appeared for the first emperor of China, the Yellow Emperor, and it also appeared before the mother of Confucius. It gave her a jade scroll that foretold the greatness her child would embody. They are said to punish the evil and protect the righteous people. In Korea they are considered one of only four sacred animals including turtles, dragons, and the phoenix.

Dragons Today

Today, dragons continue to fascinate us, and fictional writers tell great tales about them. Science fiction and film makers create dazzling dragons to bring stories like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings dragons to life, and cartoons like How to Train Your Dragon enchant audiences of all ages. Few people believe that dragons are real animals, but some people still believe the spirit of dragons exists. In China, some people still believe, and dragon boat racing in honor of the spirit and power of dragons is still done to this day. On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the dragon is believed to be its most powerful and that’s often when they have the races. The veneration of the dragon ensures good rainfall for a bountiful harvest of crops. For some, it is more of a cultural celebration than a religious observance, but it is still very important.

Are Dragons Real?

Do Dragons really exist? There is no scientific evidence that a creature that is exactly like the dragons of lore has ever existed and interacted with human beings. Extinct dinosaurs may be the closest thing to that type of creature to roam the earth. Science shows dinosaurs were extinct over 60 million years before humans existed, but you never know. New findings are announced every day. You might be surprised to read the news one day and see they have discovered that a dragon-like creature lived during the time people have. Besides that, different varieties of lizards like the ten-foot long Komodo dragon exist, and their sheer strength is enough to incite fear into the hearts of many.

In all their terrible splendor, dragons represent chaos and everything that we fear. In all their massive power, they can create and destroy life, and even entire worlds. They are heralds of new beginnings, but also the end of everything. They bring life giving rain and protect from the unknown terrors that lurk beneath the surface of reality. Their beauty and ugliness are unsurpassed, and dragons really do exist, even if the only place they are real is in our imagination. 

Would you like to know more about mystical creatures you saw in dreams? Reach out for a reading and dream interpretation: Online Psychic Readings | Spiritual Blossom

About the Author: LadySaoirse has studied magic and lore for most of her life but started walking her own Magical Path after being spiritually reborn in the desert. Today she is a High Priestess for The Temple of the Goddess, she is a psychic advisor and spiritual counselor, she shares her gifts as a Psychic and Content Writer for Spiritual Blossom, has written for Mysticsense, and she writes for PaganPages.Org emag and Green Egg Magazine.