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Dragons: from mythological beasts of history to the fire breathers of fantasy

It’s brought its own unique brand of magic to everything from Game of Thrones to Harry Potter, but how did the modern dragon come into being? Daniel Ogden traces the six stages of the creature’s evolution in the west – from ancient serpent to medieval fire breather...

Saint Michael and the DragonSaint Michael and the Dragon
Published: August 21, 2022 at 3:05 pm
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Every small child of the modern west can describe a dragon: it is a broadly serpentine creature (colour of choice: green); it has an animalian head; between its longish neck and longish tail it has a fattish body; it has four legs; it has a pair of wings; it can be somewhat spiky. Adults might add the further observation that the dragon of this shape is a thing of beauty. The internet is awash with contemporary fantasy images of the creatures, lovingly tricked out in elaborate detail.

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And this points up a paradox: although the function of dragons is to be creatures of ultimate terror, we just love them. Who cares about St George and his damsel in distress? It’s the dragon that makes the legend. And are the dragons not the cherries in the cakes baked by JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin?

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But the universality of this dragon-shape across the west should not blind us to the fact that it is artificial, a random collection of body parts drawn from different creatures of the natural world. So where does this amalgamation come from? How did the dragon so familiar to modern fans of fantasy fiction come to be?

Daniel Ogden gets up close to the six evolutionary stages of the dragon...

1

The massive snake dragons of antiquity

To start answering the question of where the ubiquitous image of the dragon came from, we must first return to classical Greece. The word “dragon” derives, via medieval French, from the Latin draco, which is itself a borrowing of the ancient Greek term drakōn.

So what was a drakōn? Its basic form was that of a snake of enormous proportions, and it’s worth remembering that this is the creature that lies at the heart of all dragons. (The convention of referring to dragons as “serpents” helps us to bear this in mind.) There was one curious exception to their pure-snake form, however: they sported beards. These seem to have been markers not of their sex but of their supernatural nature (beards being attached to males and females alike). Already, like our modern dragons, they were fiery, this being an imaginative extrapolation of the burning sensation caused by viper venom.

One such creature was the Dragon of Ares. When the hero Cadmus needed some pure water to make a sacrifice as he founded the city of Thebes, he sent his men to the spring of Dirce. But the spring was guarded by this terrible dragon, which destroyed them. It was now up to Cadmus to redress the situation. He took on the dragon himself and slew it – and then he hacked out the dragon’s teeth and sowed them.

Soon, these teeth had seeded a race of armed warriors: they were known as the Spartoi, the “Sown Men” (nothing to do with Sparta!). These provided Cadmus with his first generation of Thebans. In a mysterious final twist, both Cadmus and his wife, Harmonia, were reputed to have been transformed into dragons at the end of their lives. Perhaps this was a divinely organised compensation for his killing of the Dragon of Ares.

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We find several similarly serpentine dragons elsewhere in Greek myth: Python, the Dragon of Delphi, slain by the god Apollo; the Dragon of Colchis, guardian of the golden fleece stolen by Jason; Ladon, the Dragon of the Hesperides; and the famous Hydra, slain by Heracles. She was of the same form as these other dragons, save that she was, of course, multi-headed – and multi-bearded!

2

The great creature lurking beneath the waves

A sea monster depicted in a mosaic from third-century BC Italy
A sea monster depicted in a mosaic from third-century BC Italy. This dragon-like figure may have been inspired by the humble seahorse (Photo by Alamy)

In another myth from classical Greece, when the hero Perseus was flying home on his winged sandals after decapitating the Gorgon Medusa, and passed over Joppa (Jaffa), he saw a beautiful girl pinned out on a sea-cliff below. This was princess Andromeda.

Andromeda’s mother, Cassiepeia, had boasted foolishly that she herself was more beautiful than the Nereids (the nymphs of the sea). In anger, they had prevailed upon Poseidon, god of the sea, to send a sea monster (kētos) to ravage Joppa in revenge. King Cepheus, Andromeda’s father, learned from the Oracle of Ammon that the only way to bring an end to the creature’s depredations was to sacrifice his daughter to it.

On learning all this, Perseus struck a quick deal with Cepheus that, if he delivered Andromeda from the sea monster, he could take her in marriage. Perseus duly defeated the monster, either with his distinctive scythe-shaped sword, or with the super-weapon he had ready to hand, the head of Medusa, with which he was able to petrify it into a rock-formation.

The shape of this sea monster was similar to that of the sea-monster form familiar from ancient art. This was a massive, serpentine creature, but with a central body more bulbous than a snake’s; it had a rather dog- or horse-like head; it had a prominent pair of fore-flippers, which tended to mutate into clawed legs in the Roman era; it had a fish-tail; and it had spikes on its head and along the ridge of its back.

The origin of this mysterious configuration is lost in the mists of time: it may have originated in part in a gargantuan inflation of the innocent seahorse. At any rate, it can be seen at once that the creatures that have enchanted readers of Harry Potter and The Hobbit resemble more closely the classical sea monster than the snake-like classical dragon.

3

A locust-spewing beast becalmed by a Christian angel

For much of the classical Greek era, the dragon and the sea monster were regarded as distinct creatures. But, by the second century AD, the two had begun to merge in the western mind.

Evidence for this is provided by the Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian text (composed in c130–50 AD), in which Hermas reports a number of visions he has experienced. In one, he tells that, as he was walking down the road to Campania in southern Italy, he saw a dust-cloud approach. Out of this a terrible beast charged at him with such force that it could have destroyed a city. From its mouth poured a stream of fiery locusts.

It made for a terrifying sight, but as the beast approached Hermas, it stretched itself out on the ground and let its tongue loll out. Hermas was then met by a lady in white, an embodiment of the church, who explained to him that, because of his faith, the Lord had sent the angel Thegri to bind (metaphorically) the beast’s mouth.


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The description of the creature makes it clear that it is a dragon, as does the surrounding imagery: the church in the form of a lady and the binding angel are clear nods to the great dragon of the Book of Revelation, which attacks the church in the form of a parturient woman and is bound by the archangel Michael.

However, Hermas does not call the creature a “dragon” (drakōn), but a “sea monster” (kētos). This merging of leviathan and land-lubbing beast explains why the modern dragon boasts an animalian head, a bulbous central body – and, of course, the spikiness of a sea monster.

4

The dragon takes flight

In the Acts of Philip (written in the late fourth century AD), the superhero apostle takes on a dizzying array of dragons in and around Ophiorhyme (“Snake Town”). This is a pagan city identified with Hierapolis, now in Turkey, presided over by the wicked Echidna or “Viper Goddess”.

Philip has a team to help him that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern franchise like Guardians of the Galaxy. These include St Bartholomew, Mariamne the cross-dressing nun, and a leopard and a goat endowed with human speech. In one episode, Philip forces some problematic demons to come forth from the rocks beneath which they lurk. They initially manifest themselves in the form of 50 dragons, each 90 feet in length, and they are presided over by an even vaster dragon of 150 feet in length, covered in soot and belching forth fire and venom.

Philip has a team to help him that wouldn’t be out of place in Guardians of the Galaxy. These include St Bartholomew, Mariamne the cross-dressing nun, and a leopard and a goat endowed with human speech

Philip compels them to build a church for him. At his behest, they are transformed into the shape of winged humans (the familiar shape for a demon), and each flies off in this form to bring back a column for the building.

Our anonymous author leaves it unclear whether the demons’ base-form is that of a dragon or that of a winged human. But it seems that for him the two entities belong fully together and are simply two faces of the same coin. So here we see a further step on the road to the development of the modern dragon: this is the source of the creature’s wings.

5

The fire-starting, tail-swishing image is almost complete

The next stage in our supernatural journey consists not of a tale, but rather of a vignette. The Gospels of Hincmar is a beautifully illustrated manuscript of the later ninth century AD, now in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Reims. The book opens with the so-called Eusebian canons, lists of the parallel episodes across the four gospels, laid out in fine, architectural tables surmounted by pediments.

A range of playful serpents and dragons of different forms perch on and scamper over these pediments, but in among them are a pair of creatures of the following shape: an animalian head and bulbous body, with legs in the fore-flipper position (these courtesy of the sea monster); a pair of wings (these courtesy of humanoid, winged flying demons); and a coiling snake-tail (this, almost alone now, courtesy of the classical dragon).

The pair reassure us of their fundamentally dragon nature by blowing out blasts of fire in the direction of a harmless bird perching on the apex of the pediment.

These two creatures are fully formed modern dragons. Well, almost. All they’re missing are their back legs. Until then, they might be designated more particularly as “wyverns” – the technical term for a winged, two-legged dragon.

6

Standing on its own legs: the dragon of today

A four-legged dragon depicted in a Persian scientific book
in a Persian scientific book (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Between the wyvern and the more familiar form of the dragon we know today, there stands only the second pair of legs. Examples of four-legged dragons are found in illustrated manuscripts and paintings of the saints from at least the beginning of the 12th century, but it is difficult to demonstrate that these are significant for the future of the creature: artists often like to freestyle with the forms of their dragons.

The real four-legged revolution falls at the turn of the 15th century. It is from c1400 that four-legged varieties come to predominate in representations of the Revelation dragon, confined to the abyss by St Michael. The same is true of images of the dragon of Lasia, slain by St George, and also of images of the dragon that swallows St Margaret of Antioch, only to have her burst forth from its belly (which permits this virgin martyr to become the patron saint of childbirth).

A good example is to be found in a fine Italian painting, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, dated to c1405. Here, the archangel Michael brandishes his sword over the supine body of the Revelation dragon: it has a coiling tail and a pair of wings, but is otherwise broadly crocodilian in configuration, not least in its four stumpy legs.

It is those legs that propelled the dragon along the final steps of its journey – via flightless serpent, spiky sea monster and flying fire-breather – to the creature we know and love today.

Daniel Ogden is professor of ancient history at the University of Exeter. His latest book is The Dragon in the West: From Ancient Myth to Modern Legend (Oxford University Press, 2021)

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This content first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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