What is a Dragon?

wiseGEEK Writer

The dragon is one of the most easily recognized mythical beasts. It is also a pervasive symbol in a variety of cultures, giving rise to many interpretations about exactly what a dragon is, what it represents, and how it behaves. It can be associated with good luck, fortune and wisdom, or with bad luck, elemental evil and heresy. Carl Jung would have called the dragon a symbol of the universal unconscious, since so many cultures have myths associated with a dragon, or dragon like beasts.

In folklore, dragons were often associated with prehistoric burial grounds, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found across Ireland.
In folklore, dragons were often associated with prehistoric burial grounds, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found across Ireland.

The origins of dragon lore are a matter of some debate. It is known that at least as far back as 300 BCE, some bones of prehistoric animals were labeled as coming from dragons. This is a chicken/egg argument. Did misidentifying bones create the dragon, or did concept of the dragon exist prior to archeological finds? No one explanation adequately addresses how lore about dragon became so widespread.

Pewter dragon figurine.
Pewter dragon figurine.

Some credit the Chinese as the inventors of dragons, and this provokes an interesting concept. If at one point some aboriginal Chinese people did cross the land bridge from Asia to North America, and they brought with them some of the beliefs held by Chinese culture, then one could trace back dragon myth origins to prehistory. Of the cultures that have dragon myths, Native American perception of dragons is most closely linked to Chinese perception. Yet there is no way of “proving” such a theory.

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Beowulf's kingdom is threatened by a dragon in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem.
Beowulf's kingdom is threatened by a dragon in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem.

Dragons are usually depicted as snakelike or related to reptiles. Yet most can also fly. Some have feet, and others are shown as legless. A dragon may have one or more heads, normally hatches from eggs, and may be extremely ferocious and powerful. European dragons tend to be perceived as evil, which may account for their numerous uses in Christianity to depict heresy. Legends like St. George and the Dragon focus on the cruelty of dragons and their antithesis to that which is godlike. Some legends tell that dragons were once good, but fell from grace when Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden.

Dragons in Europe were not necessarily large. Some are depicted as smaller than butterflies, or no larger than the average black bear. They also weren’t considered particularly intelligent, as evidenced in literature like Beowulf. One of the most famous English dragons in the 20th century is undoubtedly J.R.R Tolkien’s Smaug, from The Hobbit. He is viewed as completely corrupt but also quite crafty, and able to converse in human speech.

Dragons in China are viewed as good luck, and are associated with power. They are a sign of the Chinese Zodiac, and they may influence the weather and the tides. Dragons were often associated with royalty and many Chinese emperors used dragons as part of their crests or to denote power. Vietnamese dragons are vastly interesting. All people according to old Vietnamese legends are descended from dragons. Most dragons in Asia are good and kind, although a few specific dragons are the exception to this rule.

In all cases, dragons represent power, and they have come to be beloved in modern fantasy literature and film. Even though J.K. Rowling depicts dragons as vicious in the Harry Potter series, one of her main characters, Hagrid, can’t help but love them. Other fictional treatments of dragons in recent years include Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider, and the films, Dragon Heart, Dragonslayer and Reign of Fire. Each fictional interpretation of dragons takes its own position on whether dragons are evil. Many dragon stories for children feature quite benevolent and charming creatures. My Father’s Dragon written by Ruth Stiles Gannet is an excellent book for young readers interested in dragons.

J.R.R. Tolkien's book "The Hobbit" includes a famous dragon.
J.R.R. Tolkien's book "The Hobbit" includes a famous dragon.

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Discussion Comments


The Biblical behemoth and leviathan were similar to the archetypical dragon, and dinosaurs may be fossils of dragon-like beasts. It is either an unconscious invention which spread from the beginning of time or an actual creature which existed in the ancient world. Perhaps it is both.


The association of breath with fire is also a very ancient trend which Jung points out. It symbolizes the power which speech has in creativity and initiative. The power of speech (breath) can also cause dangerous things to happen, much like the breath of a dragon.

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