Frikar in Dragons Temple on Vimeo
A dragon is a legendary creature, typically with serpentine or reptilian traits, that features in the myths of many cultures. It is a mythological representation of a reptile. In antiquity, dragons were mostly envisaged as serpents, but since the Middle Ages, it has become common to depict them with legs, resembling a lizard.
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 the Greek word drakon (genitive drakontos) “serpent, giant seafish”. The Greek and Latin term referred to any great serpent, not necessarily mythological, and this usage was also current in English up to the 18th century.
Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body like a huge lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from their mouths. The European dragon has bat-like wings growing from its back. A dragon-like creature with wings but only a single pair of legs is known as a wyvern.
Although dragons occur in many legends around the world, different cultures have varying stories about monsters that have been grouped together under the dragon label. Some dragons are said to breathe fire or to be poisonous, such as in the Old English poem Beowulf.
Dragons are commonly portrayed as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and possessing typically scaly or feathered bodies. They are sometimes portrayed as hoarding treasure. Some myths portray them with a row of dorsal spines. European dragons are more often winged, while Chinese dragons resemble large snakes. Dragons can have a variable number of legs: none, two, four, or more when it comes to early European literature.
Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom – often said to be wiser than humans – and longevity. They are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power, and are often associated with wells, rain, and rivers. In some cultures, they are also said to be capable of human speech. In some traditions dragons are said to have taught humans to talk.
Narratives about dragons often involve them being killed by a hero. This topos can be traced to the Chaoskampf of the mythology of the Ancient Near East (e.g. Hadad vs. Yam, Marduk vs. Tiamat, Teshub vs. Illuyanka, etc.; the Biblical Leviathan presumably reflects a corresponding opponent of an early version of Yahweh).
The motif is continued in Greek Apollo, and the early Christian narratives about Archangel Michael and Saint George. The slaying of Vrtra by Indra in the Rigveda also belongs in this category. The theme survives into medieval legend and folklore, with dragon slayers such as Beowulf, Sigurd, Tristan, Margaret the Virgin, Heinrich von Winkelried, Dobrynya Nikitich, Skuba Dratewka/Krakus.
In Biblical myth, the archetype is alluded to in the descendants of Adam crushing the head of the Serpent, and in Christian mythology, this was interpreted as corresponding to Christ as the “New Adam” crushing the Devil.
The blood of a slain dragon is depicted as either beneficent or as poisonous in medieval legend and literary fiction. In German legend, dragon blood has the power to render invincible skin or armor bathed in it, as is the case with Siegfried’s skin or Ortnit’s armor.
In the Slavic myth, the Earth refuses it as it is so vile that Mother Earth wishes not to have it within her womb, and it remains above ground for all eternity. The blood of the dragon in Beowulf has acidic qualities, allowing it to seep through iron. Heinrich von Winkelried dies after the blood of the dragon slain by him accidentally drips on him.
There are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons: the European dragon, derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, and the Chinese dragon, with counterparts in Japan, Korea and other East Asian countries.
The two traditions may have evolved separately, but have influenced each other to a certain extent, particularly with the cross-cultural contact of recent centuries. The English word “dragon” derives from Greek (drákōn), “dragon, serpent of huge size, water-snake”.
The association of the serpent with a monstrous opponent overcome by a heroic deity has its roots in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, including Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. Humbaba, the fire-breathing dragon-fanged beast first described in the Epic of Gilgamesh is sometimes described as a dragon with Gilgamesh playing the part of dragon-slayer.
In Akkadian mythology Humbaba (Assyrian spelling) or Huwawa (Sumerian spelling), also Humbaba the Terrible, was a monstrous giant of immemorial age raised by Utu, the Sun. Humbaba was the guardian of the Cedar Forest, where the gods lived, by the will of the god Enlil, who “assigned Humbaba as a terror to human beings.” He is the brother of Pazuzu and Enki and son of Hanbi.
Teshub (also written Teshup or Tešup) was the Hurrian god of sky and storm. He is related to the Hattian Taru. His Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun (with variant stem forms Tarhunt, Tarhuwant, Tarhunta), although this name is from the Hittite root *tarh- “to defeat, conquer”.
Teshub is depicted holding a triple thunderbolt and a weapon, usually an axe (often double-headed) or mace. The sacred bull common throughout Anatolia was his signature animal, represented by his horned crown or by his steeds Seri and Hurri, who drew his chariot or carried him on their backs.
According to Hittite myths, one of Teshub’s greatest acts was the slaying of the dragon Illuyanka. Myths also exist of his conflict with the sea creature (possibly a snake or serpent) Hedammu. This monster was born of Kumarbi’s union with the daughter of a sea-god and emerged from the sea to devour animals and humans. It was eventually subdued by Teshub’s sister Sauska/Ishtar who caused the seawater to act as a sleeping draught.
In Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing, healing and fertility. . The cognate deity in wider Germanic mythology and paganism was known in Old English as Þunor and in Old High German as Donar, stemming from a Common Germanic Þunraz (meaning “thunder”).
Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor, is depicted in Norse mythology as one of the most fearsome weapons, capable of leveling mountains. Tanngrisnir (Old Norse “teeth-barer, snarler”) and Tanngnjóstr (Old Norse “teeth grinder”) are the goats who pull the god Thor’s chariot in Norse mythology.
In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr (Old Norse: Jǫrmungandr, pronounced [ˈjɔrmuŋɡandr]), often written Jormungand, or Jörmungand and also known as the Midgard Serpent (Old Norse: Midgarðsormr), or World Serpent, is a sea serpent, the middle child of the giantess Angrboða and Loki.
According to the Prose Edda, Odin took Loki’s three children by Angrboða, the wolf Fenrir, Hel and Jörmungandr, and tossed Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircles Midgard. The serpent grew so large that he was able to surround the earth and grasp his own tail. As a result, he received the name of the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent. When he lets go, the world will end.
Jörmungandr’s arch-enemy is the god Thor. It comes from the ouroboros. The Ouroboros is symbolized by a snake biting its own tail. It comes from the Greek word “Ouron” which means “To make water”, explaining the references of Jormungandr to the sea. It symbolizes balance in nature, hence, when he “lets go”, it would be similar to Atlas letting go, which means there would be chaos and no order.
The legless serpent (Chaoskampf) motif entered Greek mythology and ultimately Christian mythology, although the serpent motif may already be part of prehistoric Indo-European mythology as well, based on comparative evidence of Indic and Germanic material. It has been speculated that accounts of spitting cobras may be the origin of the myths of fire-breathing dragons.
European dragons exist in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe. Dragons are generally depicted as living in rivers or having an underground lair or cave. They are commonly described as having hard or armoured hide, and are rarely described as flying, despite often being depicted with wings.
European dragons are usually depicted as malevolent though there are exceptions (such as Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales).
Tarhunt the god of thunder and his conflict with the serpent Illuyanka, which is to find in the religion of the Hittites and Luwians, resembles the conflict between Indra and the cosmic serpent Vritra in Vedic mythology, or Thor and the serpent Jörmungandr in Norse mythology.
In the early Vedic religion, Vritra (Devanāgarī) or Vṛtra “the enveloper”, was an Asura and also a “naga” (serpent) or possibly dragon-like creature, the personification of drought and enemy of Indra. Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi (“snake”) and he is said to have had three heads.
In Asia, the concept of dragon appears largely in a form of a Long, a beneficent dragon-like creature from Chinese folklore. Another dragon-like creature which appears in the form of Naga, which is prevalent in some Southeast Asian countries with more direct influence from Vedic religion.
Nāga, snakes that may take human form, is the Sanskrit and Pāli word for a deity or class of entity or being, taking the form of a very great snake — specifically the king cobra, found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
In the great epic Mahabharata, the depiction of nagas tends toward the positive. An epic calls them “persecutors of all creatures”, and tells us “the snakes were of virulent poison, great prowess and excess of strength, and ever bent on biting other creatures” (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 20). At some points within the story, nagas are important players in many of the events narrated in the epic, frequently no more evil nor deceitful than the other protagonists, and sometimes on the side of good.
Stories involving the nāgas are still very much a part of contemporary cultural traditions in predominantly Hindu regions of Asia (India, Nepal, and the island of Bali). In India, nāgas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought.
In China, depiction of the dragon can be found in artifacts from the Shang and Zhou dynasties with examples dating back to the 16th century BC. The Chinese name for dragon is pronounced “lóng” in Mandarin Chinese or “lùhng” in the Cantonese. Archaeologist Zhōu Chong-Fa believes that the Chinese word for dragon is an onomatopoeia of the sound thunder makes.
The origin of the Chinese dragon is not certain. The presence of dragons within Chinese culture dates back several thousands of years with the discovery of a dragon statue dating back to the fifth millennium BC from the Yangshao culture in Henan in 1987, and jade badges of rank in coiled form have been excavated from the Hongshan culture circa 4700-2900 BC.
Dragons or dragon-like depictions have been found extensively in neolithic-period archaeological sites throughout China. The earliest depiction of dragons was found at Xinglongwa culture ) (6200-5400 BC) sites. Yangshao culture sites in Xi’an have produced clay pots with dragon motifs. The Liangzhu culture also produced dragon-like patterns. The Hongshan culture sites in present-day Inner Mongolia produced jade dragon amulets in the form of pig dragons.
One such early form was the pig dragon. It is a coiled, elongated creature with a head resembling a boar. The character for “dragon” in the earliest Chinese writing has a similar coiled form, as do later jade dragon amulets from the Shang period.
The Chinese dragon is the highest-ranking animal in the Chinese animal hierarchy, strongly associated at one time with the emperor and hence power and majesty (the mythical bird fenghuang was the symbol of the Chinese empress), still recognized and revered.
Chinese dragons are occasionally depicted with bat-like wings growing out of the front limbs, but most do not have wings, as their ability to fly (and control rain/water, etc.) are mystical and not seen as a result of their physical attributes. Many pictures of oriental dragons show a flaming pearl under their chin. The pearl is associated with wealth, good luck, and prosperity.
Chinese dragons are strongly associated with water in popular belief. Just as water destroys, they said, so can some dragons destroy via floods, tidal waves and storms. They suggested that some of the worst floods were believed to have been the result of a mortal upsetting a dragon.
They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas. They can show themselves as water spouts (tornado or twister over water). In this capacity as the rulers of water and weather, the dragon is more anthropomorphic in form, often depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king’s costume, but with a dragon head wearing a king’s headdress.
According to Chinese legend, both Chinese primogenitors, the earliest Emperors, Yandi and Huangdi, were closely related to ‘Long’ (Chinese Dragon). At the end of his reign, the first legendary Emperor, Huangdi, was said to have been immortalized into a dragon that resembled his emblem, and ascended to Heaven. The other legendary Emperor, Huangdi’s brother, Yandi was born by his mother’s telepathy with a mythic dragon.
Since the Chinese consider Huangdi and Yandi as their ancestors, they sometimes refer to themselves as “the descendants of the dragon”. This legend also contributed towards the use of the Chinese dragon as a symbol of imperial power.
The dragon, especially yellow or golden dragons with five claws on each foot, was a symbol for the emperor in many Chinese dynasties. The imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. During the late Qing Dynasty, the dragon was even adopted as the national flag. The dragon is featured in the carvings on the steps of imperial palaces and tombs, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In some Chinese legends, an Emperor might be born with a birthmark in the shape of a dragon. For example, one legend tells the tale of a peasant born with a dragon birthmark who eventually overthrows the existing dynasty and founds a new one; another legend might tell of the prince in hiding from his enemies who is identified by his dragon birthmark.
In contrast, the Empress of China was often identified with the Fenghuang, mythological birds of East Asia that reign over all other birds. The males are called feng and the females huang. In modern times, however, such a distinction of gender is often no longer made and they are blurred into a single feminine entity so that the bird can be paired with the Chinese dragon, which is deemed male. In the West, it is commonly referred to as the Chinese phoenix or simply Phoenix.
Its origins are vague, but its “ancestors can be found on Neolithic pottery as well as Bronze Age ritual vessels.” Images of an ancient bird have appeared in China for over 8000 years, as earliest as the Hongshan neolithic period, on jade and pottery motifs, then appearing decorating bronze as well as jade figurines. Some believe they may have been a good-luck totem among eastern tribes of ancient China.
Tradition has it composed of nine different animals, with nine sons, each with its own imagery and affiliations. It is the only mythological animal of the 12 animals that represent the Chinese calendar. 2012 was the Chinese year of the Water Dragon.
In modern times, belief in the dragon appears to be sporadic at best. There appear to be very few who would see the dragon as a literally real creature. The worship of the Dragon Kings as rulers of water and weather continues in many areas, and is deeply ingrained in Chinese cultural traditions such as Chinese New Year celebrations.
Sometime after the 9th century AD, Japan adopted the Chinese dragon through the spread of Buddhism. Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India. Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese ones are water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water, and are typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. Gould writes (1896:248), the Japanese dragon is “invariably figured as possessing three claws”.
Although the indigenous name for a dragon in Japanese is tatsu, a few of the Japanese words for dragon stem from the Chinese word for dragon, namely, “ryū” or “ryō”. The Vietnamese word for dragon is rồng and the Korean word for dragon is “ryong”.
Vietnamese dragons (rồng or long) are symbolic creatures in the folklore and mythology of Vietnam. According to an ancient creation myth, the Vietnamese people are descended from a dragon and a fairy. To Vietnamese people, the dragon brings rain, essential for agriculture. It represents the emperor, the prosperity and power of the nation. Like the Chinese dragon, the Vietnamese dragon is the symbol of yang, representing the universe, life, existence, and growth. Extant references to the Vietnamese Dragon are rare now, due to the fierce changes in history that accompanied the sinicization of the Nguyễn Dynasty.