"The dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden color, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance."
--Greek scholar Philostratus (c. AD 170-245)
European DragonsThe dragons that lurk in European stories are powerful, wicked and dangerous. In Christian tradition, they can symbolize Satan or sin. Some nest in caves and guard marvelous treasure. When hungry, they may snatch and devour sheep or cattle that wander too near. They may also eat humans--particularly young girls. Epic poems from the Middle Ages tell of warriors and knights who battle cruel and voracious dragons. In some stories, the hero slays his foe and wins fortune and honor. In others, he fails and is killed.
The dragons of East Asian legend have sweeping powers. They breathe clouds, move the seasons, and control the waters of rivers, lakes, and seas. They are linked with yang, the masculine principle of heat, light, and action, and opposed to yin, the feminine principle of coolness, darkness, and repose. Dragons have been part of East Asian culture for more than 4,000 years. In the religious traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, they have been honored as sources of power and bringers of rain.
Dragons appear most in fairy tales and myths. In most cases the dragon is the keeper of some treasure, either gold and precious jewels or a maiden in despair. A knight in these stories must come to rescue the girl, or to retrieve the riches. To do this he must slay the dragon.
Dragons are mythical creatures that appear in many different cultures and time periods. Dragons have been described as monsters, serpents, reptiles, or beasts. There is something magical about dragons that has kept our intrigue over many centuries.
Dragons are usually thought to have wings and breathe fire. They also are said to have scales and claws. Some also have horns. Almost always they are said to be venomous. Some dragons may have two or more heads. They may also have more than one tail. They may have two, four or even more legs; however, most are known to have four legs. Dragons are said to eat things such as rats, birds, snakes, bats, or even humans, especially children.
Dragons are very intelligent creatures. They live in remote areas, far away from humans, in places that are dark, damp and secluded, such as caves. Dragons were first thought of as creatures who lived in water. Later they became associated with fire. Sea serpents may have been the first dragons, and may be the reason for this association.
Almost all dragon stories portray the dragon as the villain from whom the hero must protect the city or the princess. But some dragons can take on the form of the protector. The biggest differences in dragons usually come from different cultures, especially the cultures of the East and the West. Each culture seems to have their own idea about dragons.
A dragon statue in Ljubljana, Slovenia
The belief in dragons was based not just in legend but also in hard evidence — or so it seemed. For millennia no one knew what to make of the giant bones that were occasionally unearthed around the globe, and dragons seemed a logical choice for people who had no knowledge of dinosaurs.