Dating back to between 4000 and 5000 BC, dragons have been an integral part of our history. From mythology to architecture to collectibles, dragons are magical beings that may or may not have roamed the earth in actuality but have left gigantic footprints in our sensibility.
These extraordinary reptilian/serpentine creatures are found in many different cultures, and each of those dragons is as different as the culture itself. Some live in the center of the Earth, others live in the ocean. Some have wings, some don’t. Some have hundreds of legs, some have four. Some have nine heads, others have one. Some have five claws, most have less. Some are friends and others are fiends. All are a symbol of awesome strength and power.
Studies suggest that the Tiamat, a goddess that personifies the sea, in ancient Babylonian and Assyrian text is the first reference to the existence of dragons. However, scholars argue about whether or not she truly was a dragon, as we define it. It is not believed that most dragons throughout history can be linked to the Tiamat myth.
Perhaps the best documented dragons come from the Chinese culture. These creatures are said to be made of parts from nine different animals: the body of a snake, talons of an eagle, antlers of a dear, head of a camel, belly of a clam, ears of a cow, soles of a tiger, 117 scales of a carp, and eyes of a demon. Dragons in Asian cultures are believed to be benevolent beings who control the water, including the rain, and have the power of transformation. They are forces of nature and the universe; protector of Buddhist law. The dragon is the symbol of wisdom, luck, good fortune, nobility, and divinity.
Western culture introduced us to a different kind of dragon: the malevolent, aggressive dragon. These dragons are like those Hercules battled and Beowolf waged war. In northern Europe, Thor battled the Jormungandr (the World Serpent). West dragons are fierce creatures that guarded (and horded) treasure and that heroes would have to slain to protect helpless maidens (acts that often ended in marriage). These were fire breathing dragons, more like the modern American dragons we are familiar today. Battles with these horrifying creatures became symbols of the battle between good and evil.
In the book of Revelations, Satan is referred to as a “great dragon.” Stories tell of people who are turned into dragons as punishment for greed. Others tell of dragons eating children and even the sun and moon, causing eclipses.
Today, dragons are the symbol of power, of supernatural abilities, and of protection. People adorn their homes and their bodies with representations of the mystical creatures. Movies portray dragons as magical imaginary friends to fantasy adversaries. While we no longer talk about heroes fighting dragons, the creatures are still prevalent in our culture, for better or worse.