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The Dragon in Art

Dragons or dragon-like creatures occur in many legends around the world. The word 'dragon' comes from old Greek. It means 'a huge serpent' among other things, and is a mythical creature with special qualities. Chinese dragons are usually thought to be benevolent - and revered as symbols of luck and rain - whereas European dragons are not benevolent. There may be exceptions.

The Ouroboros is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world. Ouroborus, 'the tail-devourer', is the serpent or dragon that circles and eats its own tail. When shaped like this, the dragon becomes a symbol of eternity - but in fact it has been used to represent many things. Jungians have their own "spin" on it.

Many new pages here have a dragon on top. The very decorative Chinese dragon is a cultural contribution. It represents yang, or heaven's activity and maleness in the yin-yang of Chinese cosmology. You need some yang to live. "Yang is conceived of as heaven, male, light, active, and penetrating; it is present in odd numbers, in mountains, and is represented by the dragon, the colour azure, and an unbroken line," whereas "Yin is conceived of as earth, female, dark, passive, and absorbing; it is present in even numbers, in valleys and streams, and is represented by the tiger, the colour orange, and a broken line." - "The two are both said to proceed from the Supreme Ultimate (T'ai Chi)," the Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us, and that Yin and Yang are very often depicted as the light and dark halves of a circle.

Yin yang symbol

One yang depiction, then, is a majestic four-legged beast with a scaled, snakelike body, horns, claws, and large, demonic eyes dwells in rivers, lakes, and oceans and roams the skies, associated with heavenly beneficence, fecundity, and the securing of good fortune. Hence, it came to be considered the king of animals and as such became the emblem of the Imperial family and remained so till 1911, when the republic was formed.

Chinese dragons are usually without wings and are still regarded as powers of the air. From Chinese antiquity there were really four types of them: the Celestial Dragon guards the heavenly dwellings of the gods. There is also the Dragon of Hidden Treasure. The Earth Dragon controls the waterways. And the Spiritual Dragon controls the rain and winds.

In Japan the dragon also became capable of changing its size at will, even becoming invisible in so doing. [Ebu "dragon", "yin-yang"]

A basilisk, holding the pearl of immortality.

Traditionally, the dragon has scales like a snake and breathes fire. It may have wings too. In pre-Christian Europe and in the East dragons were considered helpful and friendly animals, and Wales has a red dragon in its arms (heraldic devices).


Dragons in Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was the Roman scholar that wrote the huge Natural History [Tnh]. Here are clippings from it to show that they reckoned with dragons in the old days.

Dragons licked the ears of Melampodes, and bestowed upon him the power of understanding the language of birds. [Book 10, ch 70]

Dragons in India

It is India that produces the largest [elephant] as well as the dragon . . . of so enormous a size, as easily to envelope the elephants with its folds, and encircle them in its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both. [Book 8, ch 11]

The dragon . . . watching the road . . . darts down upon [elephants] from a lofty tree. The elephant knows that it is quite unable to struggle against the folds of the serpent, and so seeks for trees or rocks against which to rub itself. The dragon is on its guard against this, and tries to prevent it, by first of all confining the legs of the elephant with the folds of its tail; while the elephant, on the other hand, endeavours to disengage itself with its trunk. The dragon, however, thrusts its head into its nostrils, and thus, at the same moment, stops the breath and wounds the most tender parts. When it is met unexpectedly, the dragon raises itself up, faces its opponent, and flies more especially at the eyes; this is the reason why elephants are so often found blind, and worn to a skeleton with hunger and misery. [Book 8, ch 12]

In the parching heats of summer, [elephant blood] is sought by the dragon with remarkable avidity. It lies, therefore, coiled up and concealed in the rivers, in wait for the elephants, when they come to drink; upon which it darts out, fastens itself around the trunk, and then fixes its teeth behind the ear, that being the only place which the elephant cannot protect with the trunk. The dragons, it is said, are of such vast size, that they can swallow the whole of the blood; consequently, the elephant, being thus drained of its blood, falls to the earth exhausted; while the dragon, intoxicated with the draught, is crushed beneath it, and so shares its fate. [Book 8, ch 12]

In the East, where there were no safe places of deposit for money, it was the custom to bury it in the earth; hence, for the purpose of scaring depredators, the story was carefully circulated that hidden treasures were guarded by serpents and dragons. [Book 7, note 34].

The dragon of Ethiopia

Æthiopia produces dragons, not so large as those of India, but still, twenty cubits in length . . . We are told that on those coasts four or five [dragons] are found twisted and interlaced together like so many osiers in a hurdle, and thus setting sail, with their heads erect, they are borne along upon the waves, to find better sources of nourishment in Arabia. [Book 8, ch 13]


The eagle . . . has . . . terrible combats with the dragon, and the issue is . . . doubtful, although the battle is fought in the air. The dragon seeks the eggs of the eagle with a mischievous avidity; while the eagle, in return, carries it off whenever it happens to see it; upon these occasions, the dragon coils itself about the wings of the bird in multiplied folds, until at last they fall to the earth together. [Book 10, ch 5]

Serpents will feed on eggs, and the address displayed by the dragon is quite remarkable.—For it will either swallow the egg whole, it its jaws will allow of it, and roll over and over so as to break it within, and then by coughing eject the shells: or else, if it is too young to be able to do so, it will gradually encircle the egg with its coils, and hold it so tight as to break it at the end, just, in fact, as though a piece had been cut out with a knife; then holding the remaining part in its folds, it will suck the contents. In the same manner, too, when it has swallowed a bird whole, it will make a violent effort, and vomit the feathers. [Book 10, ch 92]

Good uses of the dragon

It is related that—a most fortunate omen—Cæcina of Volaterræ beheld two dragons arising from the entrails of the victim; and this will not be at all incredible, if we are ready to believe that while King Pyrrhus was sacrificing, the day upon which he died, the heads of the victims, on being cut off, crawled along the ground and licked up their own blood. [Book 11, ch 77]

The dragon is a serpent destitute of venom. Its head, placed beneath the threshold of a door, the gods being duly propitiated by prayers, will ensure good fortune to the house, it is said. Its eyes, dried and beaten up with honey, form a liniment which is an effectual preservative against the terrors of spectres by night, in the case of the most timorous even. The fat adhering to the heart, attached to the arm with a deer's sinews in the skin of a gazelle, will ensure success in law-suits, it is said; and the first joint of the vertebræ will secure an easy access to persons high in office. The teeth, attached to the body with a deer's sinews in the skin of a roebuck, have the effect of rendering masters indulgent and potentates gracious, it is said.

But the most remarkable thing of all is a composition, by the aid of which the lying magicians profess to render persons invincible. They take the tail and head of a dragon, the hairs of a lion's forehead with the marrow of that animal, the foam of a horse that has won a race, and the claws of a dog's feet: these they tie up together in a deer's skin, and fasten them alternately with the sinews of a deer and a gazelle. It is, however, no better worth our while to refute such pretensions as these, than it would be to describe the alleged remedies for injuries inflicted by serpents, seeing that all these contrivances are so many evil devices to poison men's morals.

Dragon's fat will repel venomous creatures; an effect which is equally produced by burning the fat of the ichneumon. They will take to flight, also, at the approach of a person who has been rubbed with nettles bruised in vinegar. [Book 29, ch 20]

Pliny gives several recipes against troubles inflicted by dragons and sea-dragons, and some recipes where they are embarrassing ingredients.


Dragons in the West

In folklore the dragon at times has great treasures and an ample supply of lovely but not always fully satisfied women. Folklore's looks essentially like a snake with feet. In Christian art the dragon came to be symbolic of sin, though. The biblical dragon of Revelation, "the old serpent, " was many-headed like the Greek Hydra. Norse warriors painted dragons on their shields and carved dragon heads on the prows of their ships. Perhaps it was done to scare enemies.

Before the Norman Conquest of England, the dragon was chief among the royal ensigns in war there, as instituted by the father of King Arthur. But in the Far East, the dragon is known as a beneficent creature.

The term dragon is also popularly applied to the Komodo dragon, the largest extant lizard of the monitor lizard family. It was discovered on Komodo, in Indonesia. it becomes about 3 m long and 135 kg, and a hundred years old. They can run fast and kill humans. [Ebu "dragon", "Komodo dragon"]

Sea Serpents

In the Old Testament there are several allusions to a primordial combat between God and a monstrous adversary called Leviathan. The references to Leviathan usually indicate a dragon-like creature, a sea monster. Analogies to this combat are found throughout the ancient Middle East. A battle between the god Marduk and the multi-headed serpent-dragon Tiamat is recorded. The story of Marduk's combat with Tiamat is thought to be a precursor of the Christian legend of St. George and the dragon.

The history of sighting "sea monsters" is lengthy, and the findings inconclusive. [Ebu "sea serpent"]


Dragons, Literature  

EB: Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015.

Nha: Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Translated by John Healy. London: Penguin, 1991.

Tnh: Pliny the Elder. The Natural History. Trs. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. On-line.

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