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The Dragon in Art

Chinese Dragon Banner

Dragons or dragon-like creatures occur in many legends around the world. The dragon is one of the oldest, most wide-spread and persistent monsters in the mythology, religion and folklore of the West. There were dragons underground, dragons in the water, dragons of the air, and fire-breathing dragons - a dragon for each of the four elements.

The word 'dragon' comes from old Greek. It means 'a huge serpent' among other things, and is a mythical creature with special qualities. 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 coat of arms (heraldic visual design). Further, Chinese dragons are usually thought to be benevolent - and revered as symbols of luck and rain.

The Dragon in the Far East

In Far Eastern mythologies, [dragons] are not the vicious monsters of the medieval Western world, but friendly, lovable and benevolent creatures . . . of strength, . . . of vigilance and protection, the guardians of treasures and wisdom. Among the Chinese and the Japanese, dragons are the most potent symbols of the beneficent, rain-giving powers of the gods of water and clouds, and of power, royalty, and sovereignty. In Japan the dragon is the emblem of the Mikado, and in China of the Emperor. . . . In Chinese mythology the dragon is one of the four important types of intelligent and protective beasts, the chief of the scaly reptiles. (The other three are the Unicorn - king of the hairy beasts; the Phoenix - lord of the feathered creatures; and the Tortoise - master of the shelled animals.) In Persian mythology the dragon Azhdaha is the guardian of all ganj - the subterranean treasures of the earth. One of the most important and colorful Oriental festivals is the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, during which dragon-shaped boats are raced on all waterways in China, and special rice cakes dedicated to His Majesty the Dragon are eaten by a merrymaking crowd. This festival is in reality a nation-wide prayer for a good harvest resulting from the fecund rains of which Lung - the Dragon - is the celestial guardian. (Ernst and Johanna Lehner 2004:38)

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. The Spiritual Dragon controls the rain and winds. The Earth Dragon controls the waterways. There is also the Dragon of Hidden Treasure. In the words of the Lehners:

China . . . has four important groups of protective dragons: the Tien-Lung, celestial guardians of the mansions of the gods; the [spiritual] creator dragons of wind, clouds and rain for the benefit of mankind; the Li-Lung, benevolent earth, sky and water dragons which ascend to the sky as waterspouts or typhoons; and the guardian dragons of wealth and wisdom. (Ernst and Johanna Lehner 2004:38)

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

The Dragon in the West

The biblical dragon of Revelation, "the old serpent, " was many-headed like the Greek Hydra. With advent of Christianity, European dragons were not held to be benevolent. In Christian art the dragon came to be symbolic of sin. Christian lore is full of saints who have fought, killed or transfixed many an evil dragon: St. George, St. Margaret, St Martha, St. Romain, St. Samson, St. Philip of Bethsaida and many more. The dragon image was widely used in medieval times in the Western world to symbolize evil - in religious works, in mystic and magic philosophies, and in demonology, astrology and alchemy. It represented superstition, and much else and worse. (Ernst and Johanna Lehner 2004:21)

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. In folklore the dragon at times has great treasures and an ample supply of lovely but not always fully satisfied women. Folklore's dragon looks essentially like a snake with feet, a large lizard. Here is one of those less endearing fantasy creatures:

The Tatzelwurm was one of the dragon-like monsters of Germanic folklore; a gigantic, winged, fire-breathing serpent with four legs and claws. It dwelled in the crags and caves of the Alpine mountains of Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland, and was the terror of the Alpine peasantry, preying on their cattle and on lost children. (Ernst and Johanna Lehner 2004:31)

More from the History of the Dragon in the West

The Ouroboros is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world. Originating in Ancient Egyptian iconography, Ouroborus, 'the tail-devourer' serpent or dragon circles and eats its own tail. Then, shaped like a ring, the "full circle" dragon becomes a symbol of eternity - but in fact it has been used to represent many things. Carl Gustav Jung and many followers have their own "spin" on it.

The dragon-slaying mythological and religious folk-hero or saint was a feature of the Western world only, from the Euphrates in the east to the Iberian peninsula in the west, and from the Nile valley in the south to the forests in the north.

In antiquity there was the Greek sun-god Apollo, who slew the dragon-serpent Python, guardian of the chasms of darkness on Mount Parnassus; and the legendary Phoenician prince Cadmus who killed a dragon sacred to the Greek god Ares (later called Mars by the Romans). From the teeth of this dragon, which he sowed in the earth, armed men sprang up and went on to fight each other until only five were left alive. These five helped Cadmus found and build the city of Thebes.

In medieval times there were dragon-slaying folk-heroes such as Siegfried, hero of the Teutonic Nibelungenlied, who killed the dragon Fafnir, guardian of the Nibelungen Hoard; or Beowulf, hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic, who slew the treasure-guarding dragon ravaging his kingdom, Geates. (Ernst and Johanna Lehner 2004:31)

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. It can run fast and kill humans. [EB "dragon", "Komodo dragon"]

A mythical reptile, a basilisk, holding the pearl of immortality. The basilisk (dragon, lizard or serpent) is taken to have a lethal gaze or breath, after first being hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad. In Medieval Europe, the description of the basilisk began taking on features from cockerels. (EB "Basilisk")


Dragons in Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was the Roman scholar that wrote the huge Natural History [Pliny 1855]. 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.


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. [EB "sea serpent"] Ernst and Johanna Lehner sum it up:

Sea serpents arc the most widely-publicized monsters of the deep. From the time of the Biblical sea monster Nahas (Amos 9:3), the Arabian sea serpent Tinnin, the serpents of Neptune who killed Laoccoön in Greek mythology, and the Midgard serpent of Norwegian legend, this creature has cropped up time and again throughout the centuries. There are sea serpents in Hindu mythology and Fijian legend; they have been seen off the Libyan Coast, as recorded by Aristotle; in the Swedish Sea (Baltic); in the Sea of Darkness (Atlantic); off the Isle of Skye; in the Norwegian fjords; and, according to Laplandic sagas, in the Sea of Finland. Sea serpents are reported in the works of Olaus Magnus, Aldrovandus, Pontoppidan, the Bishop Hans Egede, and many others. Records of encounters with sea serpents are found in the log books of numerous ships . . . and so on. There were also landlocked sea monsters, like the Ready sea serpent of Provincetown (seen 1888) . . . Notwithstanding the manifold appearances of this monster species, however, scientists have never been able to capture a single specimen. (2004:87)


Dragons, pliny the elder natural history, dragon of Wales, Literature  

EB: Encyclopædia Britannica, ie, Britannica Online.

Godfrey, Linda S., ed. Lake and Sea Monsters. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. ⍽▢⍽ On sea serpents, among other creatures.

Godfrey, Linda S., ed. Mythical Creatures. New York: Chelsea House, 2009. ⍽▢⍽ Dragons are among the fabulous creatures in the book.

Lehner, Ernst and Johanna. Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, and Other Mythical Creatures. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004. ⍽▢⍽ Many pen drawings of the creatures.

Nigg, Joe (Joseph). Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1995. ⍽▢⍽ "Griffins, the Phoenix, dragons, unicorns, and other traditional animals of the imagination are all around us in words and images. But when you delve into the histories of these creatures, you'll find an incredible wealth of cross-cultural lore intertwined with history, myth, religion, art, literature, science, and specialized areas such as alchemy and heraldry. While looking beyond the popular presence of mythical beasts, you'll discover as much about the history and dreams of the human race as about our animal creations." - Joseph Nigg.

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

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

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