European dragons are legendary creatures in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe.
In both the modern period and ancient period, the European dragon is typically depicted as a large, fire-breathing, scaly, horned, lizard-like creature; the creature also has leathery, bat-like wings, four legs, and a long, muscular prehensile tail. Some depictions show dragons with feathered wings, crests, ear frills, fiery manes, ivory spikes running down its spine, and various exotic decorations.
In folktales, dragon’s blood often contains unique powers, keeping them alive for longer or giving them poisonous or acidic properties. The typical Christian dragon protects a cavern or castle filled with gold and treasure. An evil dragon is often associated with a great hero who tries to slay it, and a good one is said to give support or wise advice.
Though a winged creature, the dragon is generally to be found in its underground lair, a cave that identifies it as an ancient creature of earth.
English “dragon” derives (via Middle English, Old French, and Latin) from Ancient Greek δράκων drákōn, “serpent, dragon” or literally “to see” i.e. “sharp-sighted one”. The Greek word probably derives from an Aryan base derk- meaning “to see” and the Sanskrit dŗç- also signifying “to see”. Notwithstanding their folkloric associations, there is no etymological connection between dragons and the ghoulish figures known as draugar in Old Norse, who haunt rich burial mounds.
Greek and Roman dragons
Roman dragons evolved from serpentine Greek ones, combined with the dragons of the Near East, in the mix that characterized the hybrid Greek/Eastern Hellenistic culture. From Babylon, the muš-ḫuššu was a classic representation of a Near Eastern dragon. John’s Book of Revelation—Greek literature, not Roman—describes Satan as “a great dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns”. Much of John’s literary inspiration is late Hebrew and Greek, but John’s dragon is more likely to be symbolizing the dragons from the Near East. In the Roman Empire, each military cohort had a particular identifying signum (military standard), after the Parthian and Dacian Wars of Trajan in the east, the Dacian Draco military standard entered the Legion with the Cohors Sarmatarum and Cohors Dacorum (Sarmatian and Dacian cohorts)—a large dragon fixed to the end of a lance, with large, gaping jaws of silver and with the rest of the body formed of colored silk. With the jaws facing into the wind, the silken body inflated and rippled, resembling a windsock.
Several personifications of evil or allusions to dragon in the Old Testament are translated as forms of draco in Jerome’s Vulgate. e.g Deuteronomy (32:33), Job (30:29), Psalms (73:13, 90:13 & 43:20), Isaiah (13:21, 27:1, 34:13 & 43:20), Jeremiah (9:11), Micah (1:8) and Malachi (1:3).
Dragons in Greek mythology often guard treasure such as Ladon, a hundred headed dragon which guarded the tree of Herdias until he was slain by Heracles. Likewise Python guarded the oracle of Delphi until he was likewise slain by Apollo out of revenge for Python tormenting his mother. The Lerneaen Hydra, a multiple headed serpentine swamp monster is said to be a dragon, being killed by Heracles later, but the matter if he is a true dragon or not is still over controversy.
Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body more like a huge lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from their mouths. This traces back to the continental dragon, commonly referred to as a fire-breathing dragon. The continental, like many other European dragons, has bat-like wings growing from its back.
In Western folklore, dragon-like creatures and christian dragons are usually portrayed as evil, with the exceptions mainly in Asturian and Welsh folklore and modern fiction. In the modern period and late medieval times, the European dragon is typically depicted as a huge fire-breathing, scaly, and horned lizard-like creature, with (leathery, bat-like) wings, with two to four legs and a long muscular tail. It is sometimes shown with feathered wings, a crest, a fiery mane, ivory spikes running down its spine and various exotic colorations. Dragon’s blood often has magical properties. The typical dragon protects a cavern or castle filled with gold and treasure and is often associated with a great hero who tries to slay it. Though a winged creature, the dragon is generally to be found in its underground lair, a cave that identifies it as an ancient creature of earth.
Classical European dragons are often described as illuminating the air. This is often taken by Christian writers[who?] as a metaphor for Lucifer as the “angel of light”.
The poem Beowulf describes a draca (dragon) also as wyrm (worm, or serpent) and its movements by the Anglo-Saxon verb bugan, “to bend”, and says that it has a venomous bite; all of these indicate a snake-like form and movement rather than with a lizard-like or dinosaur-like body as in later belief (though the dragon of Beowulf does show several features that would later become popularized with dragons–namely, it breathes fire–lives underground, and collects treasure).
Germanic dragon-like creatures: Lindworms
The most famous lindworm in Norse and Germanic mythology is Fafnir
The Germanic stories of lindworms have them guarding a treasure hoard. The Fafnir lindworm guarded earthen mounds full of ancient treasure. The treasure was cursed and brought ill to those who later possessed it.
Germanic dragon-like creatures: Sea serpents
Sea serpents are also called orms in Nordic languages, wyrms in Old English and worms in Middle English. These “dragons” are usually evil, much like dragon-like creatures of Greece and other dragons of Continental Europe; however, there are exceptions, and many do not want to go to battle unless they feel threatened. These serpents are limbless and wingless. The most famous sea serpent in Norse mythology is Jörmungandr, who is actually a giant born into the body of a serpent by the Norse god Loki, who will one day kill Thor, Norse god of thunder.
The red dragon features on, and is the name of the national flag of Wales (Y Ddraig Goch). The symbol may originate in Arthurian Legend, or more likely from the Celtic dragon God Dewi (not to be confused for Saint David by later Christian era). Employed by Gwrtheyrn, Merlin tells of a vision of the red dragon (representing the Britons) and the white dragon (representing the invading Saxons) fighting beneath Dinas Emrys. This particular legend also features in the Mabinogion in the story of Lludd and Llefelys.
The Dragon was used as a predominate symbol of Welsh leaders throughout history, such as Owain Glyndŵr and Henry VII of England.
Slavic dragon-like creatures: Alas
In south Slavic mythology there are two types of this dragon-like creatures, alas and zmeys. It is said that a very old snake can become and metamorph into an ala. Some depictions of alas are confusingly said to have the bodies of women. Other alas look similarly to dragons. The number of heads on an ala may vary. Alas are enemies of the zmeys and it is sometimes said in south Slavic folklore that thunder is a product of alas and zmeys fighting. Alas are considered evil or malevolent in south Slavic folklore, while zmeys are usually considered good or benevolent.
Slavic dragon-like creatures: Zmeys
Dragon-like creatures of Slavic mythology hold mixed temperaments towards humans. For example, Drakons (дракон, змей, ламя, (х)ала) in Bulgarian mythology are either male or female, each gender having a different view of mankind. The female dragon and male dragon, often seen as sister and brother, represent different forces of agriculture. The female dragon represents harsh weather and is the destroyer of crops, the hater of mankind, and is locked in a never-ending battle with her brother. The male dragon protects the humans’ crops from destruction and is generally benevolent to humanity. Fire and water play major roles in Bulgarian dragon lore: the female has water characteristics, while the male is usually a fiery creature. In Bulgarian legend, The drakons are three-headed, winged beings with snake’s bodies, in other words wyvern fuses with a green hydra.
In Bulgarian, Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Bosnian, Serbian, and Macedonian lore, the dragon-like creature, or “змей” (Bulgarian: Змей), zmey (Russian: Змей), smok (Belarusian: Цмок), zmiy (Ukrainian: Змій), (Bosnian zmaj), (Serbian: змај or zmaj), zmej (Macedonian: змеј), is generally an evil, four-legged beast with few, if any, redeeming qualities. Zmeys are intelligent, but not greatly so, often demanding tribute from villages or small towns in the form of maidens (for food), or gold. Their number of heads ranges from one to seven or sometimes even more, with three- and seven-headed Zmeys being most common. The heads also regrow if cut off, unless the neck is “treated” with fire (similar to the hydra in Greek mythology). Zmey blood is so poisonous that Earth itself will refuse to absorb it. In Bulgarian mythology these “dragons” are sometimes good, opposing the evil Lamya /ламя/, a beast that shares a likeness with the zmey.
The most famous Polish dragon (Polish: Smok) is the Wawel Dragon or Smok Wawelski, the Dragon of Wawel Hill. It supposedly terrorized ancient Kraków and lived in caves on the Vistula river bank below the Wawel castle. According to lore based on the Book of Daniel, it was killed by a boy who offered it a sheepskin filled with sulphur and tar. After devouring it, the dragon became so thirsty that it finally exploded after drinking too much water. In the oldest, 12th century version of this fantasy tale, written by Wincenty Kadłubek, dragon was defeated by two sons of a King Krak, Krakus II and Lech II. A metal sculpture of the Wawel Dragon is a well-known tourist sight in Kraków. The Wawel Dragon is the coat of arms of the Polish princes, Piasts of Czersk. Other dragon-like creatures in Polish folklore include the basilisk, living in cellars of Warsaw, and the Snake King from folk legends, though neither are explicitly dragons.
Armenian “dragon”: Վիշապ
Iberian “dragons” are almost always evil, such as the Cuélebre, or Cuelebre, a giant winged serpent in the mythology of Asturias and Cantabria in the north of Spain. It usually lives in a cave, guards treasures and keeps nymph-like beings called xanas or anjanas as prisoners.
There is a legend that a “dragon” dwelled in the Peña Uruel mountain near Jaca saying that it could mesmerise people with its glance, so the young man who decided to kill the beast equipped himself with a shiny shield, such that the dragon’s glance would be reflected. When the young man arrived at the cave where the dragon lived, he could kill it easily because the dragon mesmerised itself. This legend is very similar to the Greek myth of Medusa.
Herensuge is the name given to the “dragon” in Basque mythology, meaning “last serpent”. The most famous legend has St. Michael descend from Heaven to kill it, but only once did God agree to accompany him in person. Sugaar, the Basque male god, is often associated with the serpent or dragon but able to take other forms as well. His name can be read as “male serpent”.
Dragons are well-known in Catalan myths and legends, in no small part because St. George (Catalan Sant Jordi) is the patron saint of Catalonia. Like most mythical reptiles, the Catalan dragon (Catalan drac) is an enormous serpent-like creature with four legs and a pair of wings, or rarely, a two legged creature with a pair of wings, called a wyvern, which isn’t a dragon. As in many other parts of the world, the dragon’s face may be like that of some other animal, such as a lion or bull. As is common elsewhere, Catalan dragons are fire-breathers, and the dragon-fire is all-consuming. Catalan dragons also can emit a fetid odor, which can rot away anything it touches.
The Catalans also distinguish a víbria or vibra (cognate with English viper and wyvern), a female dragon-like creature with two prominent breasts, two claws & two wings and an eagle’s beak. Dracs, Víbries and other mythological figures used to participate in correfocs during popular celebrations.
In Portuguese mythology, Coca is a female wyvern that battles Saint George on the Corpus Christi holiday. The fighting has a symbolic meaning: when the coca defeats Saint George the crops will be bad and there will be famine and death; when Saint George defeats the coca he cuts off her tongue and ears, the crops will have a good year and it announces prosperity. Still, she is called “saint” coca just as George is called saint, and the people cheer for her.
Another dragon called drago is also represented in Portuguese mythology and used to take part in celebrations during the Middle Ages.
Wyverns are usually evil in Italy, and there are many stories of wyverns being slain. Dragons also trick demons in Italian legends. The legend of Saint George and the wyvern is well known in Italy, but other saints are also depicted fighting wyverns. For instance, the first bishop of Forlì, Saint Mercurialis, was said to have killed a wyvern to save the city, so he is often depicted in the act of slaying a wyvern. Likewise, the first patron saint of Venice, Saint Theodore of Tyro, was a wyvern-slayer, and a statue representing his slaying of the wyvern still tops one of the two columns in St. Mark’s square. St. Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers, is also frequently depicted slaying a wyvern.
According to the Golden Legend, compiled by the Italian Jacobus de Voragine, Saint Margaret the Virgin was swallowed by Satan in the shape of a hydra, from whence she escaped alive when the cross she carried irritated the hydra’s innards. The Golden Legend, in an atypical moment of scepticism, describes this last incident as “apocryphal and not to be taken seriously” (trans. Ryan, 1.369), which did not prevent the legend from being popular and getting artistic treatments.
More prevalent are the legends about dragons in Italy, particularly in Umbria. One of the most famous wyverns of Italian folklore is Thyrus, a wyvern that besieged Terni in the Middle Ages. One day, a young and brave knight of the noble House of Cittadini, tired of witnessing the death of his fellow citizens and depopulation of Terni, faced the wyvern and killed him. From that day, the town assumed the creature in its coat of arms, accompanied by a Latin inscription: “Thyrus et amnis dederunt signa Teramnis” (English translation: “Thyrus and the river gave their insignia to [the city of] Terni”), that stands under the banner of the town of Terni, honoring this legend.
Another poem tells of another dragon that lived near the village of Fornole, near Terni in the south of Umbria. Pope Sylvester I arrived in Umbria and freed the population of Fornole from the ferocity of the dragon, pacifying the dragon. Grateful for his deed, the population built a small church dedicated to the saint on the top of the mountain near the dragon’s lair in the 13th century. In the apse of the church there is a fresco representing the iconography of the saint.
Early Modern dragons
The emblem books popular from late medieval times through the 17th century often represent the dragon as an emblem of greed. The prevalence of dragons in European heraldry demonstrates that there is more to the dragon than greed.
Agosti Xaho, a romantic myth creator of the 19th century, fused these myths in his own creation of Leherensuge, the first and last serpent, that, in his newly coined legend, would arise again some time in the future bringing the rebirth of the Basque nation.
Dragons have long been portrayed in modern times as greedy treasure-hoarders, lusting for gold and precious gems. In such stories as Beowulf, it is the theft of such treasure that sparks a dragon’s fury. In the fantasy genre, however, there has been a trend of originally depicting dragons in a positive light: as allies instead of enemies, the red dragon of Wales, and the brother dragon of Poland. Dragons are increasingly viewed as friends of humans and as highly intelligent and noble creatures, while still remaining the fearsome beasts of legend. They are frequently shown as guardians and close friends of individual humans.
Many of these modern ideas were first popularised by Anne McCaffrey with her Dragonriders of Pern series, with later authors such as Christopher Paolini also depicting sympathetic dragon characters in Eragon. Ursula K. Le Guin created a meaningful image of dragons in her books about Earthsea. Ffyrnig, the Last Great Dragon of Legend of the Heart Eaters, the first book in the story of Jonah and the Last Great Dragon by M.E.Holley is based on an actual legend of the Welsh Borders, which tells that the last great dragon is asleep under the Radnor Forest, imprisoned there by St. Michael. Bryan Davis’ Dragons in our Midst depicts dragons as noble and kind beasts, having the ability to marry and reproduce with humans.