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Dragons have figured largely in eastern and western mythologies alike. Though there is significant variation across cultures, the dragon was usually depicted as a large and powerful serpent with magical qualities. Beyond this they vary widely. In Medieval Europe, the dragon was considered a malevolent and destructive fire-breathing creature, while Chinese dragons were regarded as supreme beings that protected the weak and were consequently worshipped, not out of fear, but out of love.
Dragons appeared in a number of European mythologies—Norse, Slavic, and Iberian among others-- all of which ultimately derived from classical Greek and Roman legend. They were often depicted as devilishly greedy and enamored of shiny thing; in the Old English epic Beowulf the eponymous hero fights a dragon that dwells in a cave and protects a huge treasure hoard. J. R. R. Tolkien, himself a medieval scholar who translated Beowulf, used a traditionally medieval dragon in The Hobbit, in the figure of Smaug, the dragon whom Bilbo Baggins meets in his lair and whose treasure he must win. The folklore of Celtic Britain contained associations between dragons and the legendary House of Pendragon, from which King Arthur was descended through his father Arthur Pendragon.
In particular, Welsh mythology featured a red dragon which, while still a destructive and dangerous force, came to symbolize success of the Britons of Wales. There is the legend of Myrddin, a warrior who went insane after a crushing military defeat. Myrrdin fled to the woods to live among its wild creatures; it was here that he acquired the power of prophecy (Myrddin is likely a prototype of the later Arthurian figure Merlin). Among his prophecies was a vision of a red dragon and a white dragon; respectively they represented the Britons of Wales and the invading Saxons. In the Middle Welsh tale of Llud and Llefelys, the hero King Llud had to defeat a dragon locked in combat with a foreign dragon. Their piercing screams were heard throughout the lands of the Britons every year and caused every pregnant woman to miscarry. Llud defeated the dragons by setting a trap and drugging them with mead; intoxicated, they fell asleep, and Llud buried them together in a stone chest. According to Nennius, in his History of the Britons, the dragons remained underground until King Vortigern began to build a castle on the spot, when a mysterious force began destroying the castle’s foundations and walls in the night. When a boy born of no natural father (another proto-reference to Merlin!) told the king the tell of the two dragons buried beneath his grounds, Vortigern freed them and they continued their fight. Eventually, the red dragon defeated the white one; this likely has to do with the early medieval defeat of the invading Saxons by the Britons of Wales in the 5th century. Today, the red dragon appears on the Welsh national flag.
Dragons also occupied a prime position in Chinese mythology. As guardians of the basic Elements (Earth, Fire, Water, and Air), Chinese dragons were often were believed to possess powers that were related to nature and were associated with natural elements like rainfall, droughts and storms. Their powers were spiritual and forces of good, and the dragons were revered for associations with divinity. There were many varieties of Chinese dragons, but one of the most prominent was the long dragon, whose fossilized remains were found in the 4th century BC (later these remains would be identified as dinosaur bones). The philosopher Wang Fu (c. 78-163) described the long dragon as a composite of nine different creatures; it possessed the horns of a stag, the head of a horse, the eyes of a demon, the neck of a serpent, the belly of a clam, the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, the paws of a tiger, and the ears of a cow. Today, the Chinese people on occasion call themselves “the Descendants of the Dragon;” while it’s function is mainly decorative today it still possesses much of its former mystical power- it is taboo in China to disfigure an image of a dragon.
Bates, Roy. Chinese Dragons. New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2002.
Lofmark, Carl A History of the Red Dragon Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 1995
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.