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Dragons Were Actually Just Snakes

December 20, 2012

What we now know of as dragons pretty much didn’t exist in Western mythology. Perhaps the “fire drake” in Beowulf was the only such dragon.

What did exist were serpents, and those serpents became more dragon-like as time went on.

According to Alan Brown:

For so well known a creature, the occidental dragon has had a surprising number of mutations during its literary history. The original [dragon], an everyday snake, evolved rapidly into the venomous, ruin-inhabiting serpent par excellence, which then acquired the impressive trait of flight from Arabian winged serpents mentioned by Herodotus, and a scientific justification for its extreme size from Indian and African constrictors described by Pliny the Elder. Even the quite inconsistent feature of legs (two or even four of them) which crept in, so to speak, much later on, can presumably be attributed to medieval illustrators for whom a serpent was a beast much like any other, that is, looking a good deal like a dog…

Still it sometimes comes as a surprise to moderns to learn that what Goldsmith calls the “large feature” of fiery breath is closely associated with the dragon of European tradition can be traced back no further than to early Insular literature, notably the Old English Beowulf.

Greek mythology supposedly had dragons, but they were serpents. The word “draco” is supposedly Latin for “dragon” and there is a Draco constellation that represents a serpent from ancient Greek mythology—a serpent called “Ladon” or “Landon.” Ladon was a guardian of a garden with trees growing apples that turn people immortal. (There is a similar tree, serpent, and garden in the Bible.)

Additionally, the word “dragon” originated from the ancient Greek word “drakon,” which literally meant “snake” or “serpent.”

Norse mythology also had at least one dragon that might be more than a serpent—“Fafnir” who was known to guard his collection of treasure. However, Fafnir did not have fire breath or wings.

fafnir by arthur rackham

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2012 5:01 pm

    Interesting bit of lore. I still like my dragons with wings, legs, and a potent breath weapon of some sort.

    • December 20, 2012 9:20 pm

      Perhaps we imagine dragons that way because they wanted to make stories more exciting over time, and it added to the excitement.

  2. January 3, 2013 8:04 am

    Asian dragons can be found going back thousands of years ago, such as iin artifacts from the Chinese Shang and Zhou dynasties dating back to the 16th century BC… and many other cultures around the world recognized dragons with feet and claws (not just serpents).

    • January 3, 2013 8:18 am

      I was just talking about Western dragons here. Asian dragons were actually quite a different thing that we translated as “dragon” out of convenience. A lot of times people act like two different monsters are the same kind of monster just because they are similar in certain ways.

      • January 3, 2013 8:29 am

        I don’t blame you for ignoring Wikipedia… it does seem to be mostly a cyber-squatter’s realm. Perhaps you’ll be interested to note that writers at the Smithsonian point out that scholars say belief in dragons likely evolved independently in Europe, China, the Americas and Australia. In fact the myth of dragons is so wide-spread in the world (I’ve been doing research in exactly this area over the past year) that some researchers have wondered why that might be. In his book, “An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones argues that belief in dragons is so widespread among ancient cultures because evolution embedded an innate fear of predators in the human mind. It’s one interesting theory, anyway!

      • January 3, 2013 8:41 am

        Yes, if you think that “dragon” refers to similar monsters found around the world, then I’m sure many of them arose independently. We know how the western Dragon arose from a snake to something else, and I doubt Chinese dragons arose that way. However, I don’t know that they even arose for similar psychological reasons. The dragons of China are friendly and intelligent. I think it’s pretty obvious that the Western ones came about in order to make the stories more interesting — a snake is not that scary, but a giant fire breathing monster is. The stories were probably elaborated to be more fun.

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