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Here There Be Dragons

January 28, 2010

It is no spoiler to reveal that the short story I’ve been working on involves Dragons.  Dragons have been one of the primary mainstays of fantasy literature since the early days – and though not as in vogue today as in the past, they’ve never fully fallen out of favor.  Much of the allure of the dragon comes the deep and rich mythology passed down through the ages to us.  Because of the long association between this mythology and fantasy literature, and because I draw on some of those themes in my short story, I couldn’t help but write about this, my favorite fantasy trope.

The intriguing thing about dragons in mythology is that it is nearly universal.  Though the nature and depiction of dragons varies across cultures, most cultures seem to recognize them in their mythologies.  There have been several theories to try to explain this.  A recent one is detailed in a book by anthropologist David Jones called An Instinct for Dragons.  His theory contends that the depiction of dragons across mythologies stems from a vestigial, evolutionarily inherrited fear of the natural predators of our most primitive ancestors (apparently some kind of squirrel-monkey creature), those predators being snakes, big cats, and predatory birds, and dragons being a conglomeration of those.  This theory, though interesting, lacks scientific rigor.  But another leading theory, that stories of dragons evolved as an explanation for early dinosaur fossil discoveries, also rings as improbable.  It’s difficult to say why images of the dragon are so widespread across many different cultures.  Nevertheless, the mythologies of dragons generally fall into two groups: Western, or European Dragons and Eastern, Oriental, or Chinese Dragons.

The word “dragon” comes to us from Greek “drako”, via Latin “draco”, meaning “serpent” (and originally from a word meaning “to see”).  But the concept of the dragon goes back much farther than that.  Since the earliest of times, there has been a strong association between serpents, snakes, and dragons.  The same association has also extended to sea monsters and sea serpents.  In Ugaritic and Mesopotamian mythology, Lotan (known in Hebrew stories as Leviathan) was a great seven-headed dragon or serpent of the seas and oceans.  Lotan came to be associated with the Babylonian sea goddess Tiamat, who was slain by the god-hero Marduk.   There is more to these stories than I have space to recount, but in these early incarnations, the dragon was associated with the destructive power of the sea, floods, and storms. 

This association continues through Greek mythology with the Hydra, a multi-headed serpentine creature.  The Hydra is considered a water creature, whose lair was in the lake of Lerna, and is the offspring of Typhon, a very dragon-like Greek Titan.  The Hydra had toxic breath, but its most frightening ability was the reduplication of its severed heads.  For each head cut off, two more would spring up.  These ancient accounts also have the roots of the heroic dragon-slayer motif: whether Marduk slaying Tiamat or Hercules slaying the Hydra.

In Hebrew stories, the Leviathan was slain by God.  Some interpretations have this as an analogy of the triumph of the Hebrew religion’s one God over all other gods, which are equated with demons and devils.  Indeed, throughout Hebrew, Jewish and later Christian stories, serpents and dragons both are regularly used to symbolize the forces of evil, and are interchangeable with Satan or the Adversary.  This  may be the root of the evil nature of dragons in Western mythology.

Through the Middle Ages, dragons slowly began to take on a personality and appearance distinct from sea serpents and snakes.  But they never fully lost their mythic meaning as a force of nature.  Dragons, as winged creatures, still serpentine but generally with legs – either two or four – were used as heraldic devices to represent strength and power. 

As these stories evolved, so did the dragons.   For instance, the Wyvern, a type of dragon typically depicted with only two legs, claws on its wings, and a poison-barbed tail, shares etymological roots with the word “viper”.  The more common depiction of dragons today, as four-legged beasts with wings and a snake-like tail, bears a closer resemblance to the Welsh Dragon, Y Draig Goch

Stories of heroic knights and saints slaying dragons that terrorized villages and kidnapped princesses abounded throughout this period.  The most famous of these is the story of Saint George and the Dragon.  The dragon terrorized the town of Silene, and to appease the beast, the people fed it their children, chosen by lottery.  The lot came to fall to the king’s daughter.  But as she was tied up to be fed to the dragon, Saint George happened by.  He slew the dragon, saved the princess, and by his deed the people of Silene were converted to Christianity.  But Saint George’s tale is repeated across Europe in different forms with different heroes and other dragons: whether Dobrynya Nikitich slaying the Slavic dragon Zmey Gorynych, the French Tarasque tamed by Saint Martha, the Norse Fafnir slayed by Sigurd, Thor battling Jormungandr the Midgard Serpent, or a dozen other knights, saints, gods and heros fighting a dozen other dragons.  From Fafnir and Sigurd, and other sources I’m sure, we also see the motif of the Dragon guarding the treasure emerge, and dragons came to symbolize greed and avarice.

Later, on maps, wild and unknown or undiscovered places, it is said came to be marked with the latin phrase “Hic Sunt Dracones”: “Here be Dragons”.  With all of this, dragons in western mythology have come to symbolize power, strength, a force of nature, the unknown, avarice, and evil.  Clearly, just mining this mythology, Dragons make for a potent,  loaded symbol.  But then we can turn to Oriental mythology.  Next time I’ll continue to wax draconic, and conclude this essay on Dragons.

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