When I get a story idea, I often research. My research today: Dragons!
Read more here.
It’s interesting to look at the history around some of the legends that we have today in books, movies, and even in video games. One of these interesting aspects is the dragon.
When we often think of dragons, we have images of Celtic, Nordic or even Asian traits of the large, serpentine creatures. That’s not far off, really. The European dragon and the Asian dragon (more specifically, Chinese dragon with counterparts in Japan, Korea and other East Asian countries) may have evolved separately, but they also shared some unique attributes that possibly came from cross cultural contact in recent centuries.
In English, the word dragon is derived from the Greek drakon, meaning “dragon, serpent of huge size, water snake” and may come from the verb drakein, or “to see clearly”.
Even the Christian Bible has references to a dragon, where in the New Testament the Devil takes the form of a red dragon with seven heads to fight against the Archangel Michael. This may have produced the unfortunate aspect in fiction which depicts all red dragons as evil.
While both European and Asian dragons share aspects, they overall look and appearance of such creatures is largely different. European dragons are usually thought of having great wing spans and long, serpentine bodies with legs numbering none, two, four or more. Chinese dragons, on the other hand, resemble large snakes. In European lore, a dragon that has two back legs and no front legs is often called a wyvern. Mind you, following the discovery of fossils that described the pterosaurs, the myth of dragons may have changed to act similar in style to these ancient dinosaurs.
The word itself, dragon, comes from Old French dragon, which in turn comes from Latin draconem (draco), which in turn comes from Greek drakon, which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European derk (which translates loosely to “to see” or “the one with the [deadly] glance”). The Greek and Latin terms can refer to any great serpent, not necessarily fictional.
The myth and lore of a mighty serpent being defeated by a heroic individual (whether mortal or deity) stretches back to the Ancient Near East, which includes Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. This eventually entered Greek mythology and ultimately Christian mythology. Mind you, the serpent or dragon may have been a part of prehistoric Indo-European mythology, as there are comparisons in Indic and Germanic materials. Spitting cobras may actually be the origin of the mythic fire breathing dragon.
In China, dragons can be found as far back as the Shang and Zhou dynasties with examples dating to the 18th century BC.
Some animals that may have inspired dragons, besides spitting cobras, may have included the Nile Crocodile which today has a restricted range but in ancient times occasionally were found in Southern Europe. Skeletons of whales as well as dinosaur and mammalian fossils were sometimes mistaken for the bones of dragons.
Dragons have different tales based on the region. Read more about dragons in Greek, European, Chinese, India, Persian, Slavic, Jewish, Vietnam and Java cultures.