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Monday, December 14, 2015
MONSTROPEDIA A Brief History of Dragons by Simon E. Davies
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRAGONS
dragon is a mythical beast which is typically depicted with large,
serpentine traits and is one of the most recognisable creatures of world
mythology. The oldest recorded image of a dragon can be found in
Australia, where a great and powerful beast, known as the ‘Rainbow
Serpent’, was linked to the creation myth of the aborigine (Dream Time).
Pictures of this serpent can be found on rock art (e.g. Arnhemland), and dates from between 8000 BCE – 20,000 BCE.
This is the only Stone Age reference known to depict a dragon. The next
motif appears in China during the Neolithic, at around 6000 BCE. A
series of jade totems were found, linked to the Yangshao and Hongshan
culture, that were carved into the shape of a coiled serpent with wings.
Early Chinese myths speak of dragons that helped to bring rain to the
early farmers of China, such as the great Yinglong.
dragons of the east were regarded as powerful deities who held sway over
the forces of nature, the dragons of the west were depicted as more
cruel and monstrous. The Egyptian serpent, known as Apep, was said to
reside in the darkness below the earth. Egyptian texts from the Eighth
dynasty, (2200 BCE), say that every night, he attacked the sun god Ra as
he passed through the twelve gates of the underworld.
terrifying dragon to appear in early mythology was Kur, the serpent
under the mountain, who features in ancient Sumerian texts (2100 BCE).
Kur was a stone like dragon, who abducted the goddess Ereshkigal into
the underworld, which eventually became her home. Her brother Enki tried
to save her, but Kur proved too formidable an enemy.
south Asia, the dragon took on an antagonistic role. The great serpent
Vritra was described as the personification of drought in Hinduism. He
was identified as one of the Asura (an underworld demon), and described
as a great snake, who blocked the course of India’s life giving rivers.
It was the god of thunder, Indra, who used his powers to slay the great
serpent, restoring life to his followers.
Not all dragons were
evil, however. Some performed important duties for the gods, such as the
Colchian Drakon from Greece. This huge beast guarded the Golden Fleece
in the sacred garden of Ares. Legend says it never slept (making it the
perfect sentinel). It was eventually slain by the heroes Jason and
Medea, who stole the Golden Fleece to prove Jason’s right to the throne
Although the dragon is found abundantly in Eurasia
and Africa, there are very few references to it in the Americas. There
is one great serpent in Mesoamerica that does fit the bill however.
Quetzalcoatl is a Feathered Serpent, one of the major deities of the
ancient Mexico. Depictions of this god can be found as early as the 3rd
century CE, in the Teotihuacán civilization. He was associated with the
elements of earth and water, bringing fertility to the lands. He also
resided over the arts and crafts, and was a patron of the Aztec
priesthood, inspiring learning and knowledge.
In the West
African religion of Vodou, Ayida-Weddo is regarded as a serpent god of
fertility, associated with rainbows, wind and water. He is known to his
followers as the "Rainbow Serpent". Although the earliest known
references of Ayida-Weddo come from the Fon people at around 500 CE, it
is believed the worship of this snake is connected with the rainbow
snake of Australia. This would suggest that at some point in ancient
history (probably the middle stone age), their ancestors were one and
The Japanese dragon was known as Nihon no Ryū. It
is likely the legends of this mythical beast were imported from China
and Korea, as the Japanese stories and depictions of the dragon seem
very similar in style. Like the Asian dragons, the Japanese Nihon no Ryū
water depicted as a benevolent creature, associated with water and
Back in the West, the Red Dragon of Wales, known as
'Y Ddraig Goch', appeared on the national flag during the 9th century
CE. The oldest recorded use of the dragon to symbolise Wales is in the
Historia Brittonum, written around AD 829, but it is popularly supposed
to have been the battle standard of King Arthur and other ancient Celtic
leaders. In the Mabinogion (welsh mythology), there is a story about a
red dragon fighting with an invading White Dragon.
mythology, the word “zmey” is used to describe a dragon. In Russia and
Ukraine, a particular dragon-like creature, the Zmey Gorynych, has three
heads. It has a great green body and walks on two back paws, its two
front paws much smaller and curled. The beast is renowned for its
ability to spits fire. Russian dragons usually have heads in multiples
of three. Some have heads that grow back if every single head isn't cut
off or the headless neck isn't covered immediately in ash or burnt.
The last dragon on this list is the great Jörmungandr, also known as
the “Midgard Serpent’. He is depicted as a colossal snake that lives in
the ocean surrounding Midgard. He is so enormous that his body forms a
circle around the entirety of the Norse Cosmos. Jörmungandr is the child
of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. It is said Jörmungandr will be
killed by Thor at Ragnarok, but Thor will only walk nine paces before
dying himself, of the serpent's poisonous venom.
features that unite all these mythical beasts of world mythology are
their association with water and fertility. In the Stone Age and
Neolithic era, it seems the dragon was revered as more benevolent
creatures, bringing abundance and prosperity to its people. However,
during the Bronze / Iron Age, the dragon became a more sinister
creature, that was often slain by a heroic warrior or god, returning the
world to order.