Dragons are among the most popular and enduring of the world’s mythological creatures. Dragon tales are known in many cultures, from the Americas to Europe, and from India to China. They have a long and rich history in many forms and continue to populate our books, films and television shows. It’s not clear when or where stories of dragons first emerged, but the huge, flying serpents were described at least as early as the age of the ancient Greeks and Sumerians.
when Christianity spread across the world; dragons took on a decidedly sinister interpretation and came to represent Satan. In medieval times, most people who heard anything about dragons knew them from the Bible, and it’s likely that most Christians at the time believed in the literal existence of dragons. After all, Leviathan — the massive monster described in detail in the Book of Job, chapter 41 — sounds like a dragon: “Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth.”
Zoologist Karl Shuker describes a wide variety of dragons in his book “Dragons: A Natural History” (Simon & Schuster, 1995), including giant snakes, hydras, gargoyles and dragon-gods, and the more obscure variants such as basilisks, wyverns and cockatrices. At its root, the is a chameleon — its features adapting to the cultural and literary expectations of the era
Medieval theology aside, few people today believe in the literal existence of dragons in the way they may believe in the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, for example. The dragon (or at least the dragon version most familiar to Westerners) is simply too big and too fantastic to take seriously or literally. In the modern age of satellite imagery and smart phone photos and videos, it’s simply implausible that any giant, winged fire-breathers inhabit Earth’s lands or skies unseen.
The word dinosaur wasn’t around until scientist Sir Richard Owen introduced it in the mid-1800s. Before then, large reptilet were called dragons. But the term dinosaur is more narrow, referring only to reptilian land animals whose hip structures raise them off the ground. So dinosaurs, we would say, are specific types of dragons.
Biblical creationists are not surprised by artifacts depicting dragons that the idea is consistent with the Bible. Genesis 1tells us that on Day Five of Creation God created great “sea creatures” (Hebrew word tanninim,) and flying creatures, so this would have included swimming pliosaurs and flying pterodactyls, which we would call dragons. God made land animals, including dinosaurs and other land dragons, on Day Six, the day He created man. So man lived among these creatures from the beginning. The serpent, dragon, sea-monster.” It likely refers to certain reptiles, including giant marine creatures and serpentine land animals. Though translated several different ways and differing in precise meanings based on context, tannin can denote a dragon and therefore can potentially refer to a dinosaur since all dinosaurs are dragons.
In other similar instances we find that translations list elephant or hippopotamus in the footnotes in Job 40 when discussing behemoth. Take a closer look at the behemoth to give this more context. In the book of Job, God describes the behemoth that “eats grass like an ox” and “moves his tail like a cedar” with bones that “are like beams of bronze” (Job 40:15–18). The beast the passage describes fits well with something similar to a sauropod dinosaur like Brachiosaurus. Next, God describes at length a leviathan, a fire-breathing sea monster with impenetrable scales that none could face except its Creator. Job 41, Leviathan is mentioned in five passages of Scripture and is identified as a type of tannin in Psalm 74:13–14 and Isaiah 27:1. Dragons are real—created creatures, some of which terrorized in the waters and others that roved the land and air.
The burden against the beasts of the South. Through a land of trouble and anguish, From which came the lioness and lion, The viper and fiery flying serpent, They will carry their riches on the backs of young donkeys, And their treasures on the humps of camels, To a people who shall not profit. (Isaiah 30:6)
While this denizen of darkness is most famous as a snake or goat footed demon, he is also often noted for taking the form of a dragon. Some say that he was the original Dragon. Others claim that he uses the shape just to terrify humans. Either way his name has been associated with dragons for ages. In the old testament the word Dragon most often refers to some sea creature or snake of enormous size. In this way the reference may even be to a non religious animal. In the new testament however, the word Dragon is almost always associated with satan or one of his minions. The Apocalyptic stories especially refer to the dragon satan.
This dragon is a tremendous beast that can hurl entire mountains at his enemies. He is most famous for his battles against Zeus and the other greek deitys. He was originally the last son of Gai, in conjunction with Tartarus. This means he was created from mother nature and the void, making him immensely powerful and dangerous. After escaping, Zeus and the other Olympians fled to Egypt. However Zeus was outraged when called a coward, and returned single handedly to fight the monster. After engaging in a titanic struggle, Zeus managed to smash the monster underneath a mountain, Mount Aetna, and restore peace to the setting.
Dragons have been part of Chinese culture for at least 7,000 years. In China, dragons have long symbolized power, creativity, heaven, and good fortune. They are thought to have authority over bodies of water, rain, floods, and storms.
In the 6th century, Chan (Zen) emerged in China as a distinctive school of Buddhism. Chan was nurtured in Chinese culture, and dragons make frequent appearances in Chan literature. The dragon plays many roles—as a symbol of enlightenment and also as a symbol for ourselves. For example, “meeting the dragon in the cave” is a metaphor for confronting one’s own deepest fears and obstacles. Many generations of Chan and Zen teachers, including Dogen, have mentioned the true dragon story in their teachings. For example, Dogen wrote in Funkanzazengi, “I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the true dragon.”
In The Mahabharata, a Hindu epic poem, nagas are depicted as mostly villainous creatures bent on harming others. In the poem, the enemy of nagas is the great eagle-king Garuda.
In the Pali Canon, nagas are treated more sympathetically, but they remain eternally at war with garudas, except for a brief truce negotiated by the Buddha. In time, nagas came to be depicted as guardians of Mount Meru and also of the Buddha. Nagas play an important role in Mahayana mythology as protectors of the sutras. You may find pictures of the Buddha or other sages sitting under the canopy of a great cobra’s hood; this would be a naga. As Buddhism spread through China and on to Japan and Korea, nagas came to be identified as a kind of dragon. Some stories told in China and Japan about dragons originated as stories about nagas.
What Happened to the Dragons?
Land and air dragons would have been taken on Noah’s Ark and probably existed for some time afterward, based on the descriptions we see in the Bible and legends and artifacts worldwide. But they died out due to the curse of sin, with factors such as environmental and habitat changes, food source problems, genetic mutations, and diseases. Also, man most likely played a role in the demise of dragons, as we read in the legends of dragon slayers.
Dragons in History
Reports of creatures very much like the fire-breathing, winged dragons of film and fantasy have been reported since far back in time, from civilizations all over the world. One such very early account comes from England, and describes how the Briton king Morvidus was killed in 336 BC by a great dragon that rose from the Irish Sea and “gulped down the body of Morvidus as a big fish swallows a little one.” The ancient explorer Titus Flavius Josephus also brought back tales of strange flying reptiles in ancient Egypt and Arabia, and the third century historian Gaius Solinus spoke of these creatures as well, further adding that they had potent venom that could kill a man even faster than he could realize that he had even been bit
Many of the more spectacular early accounts of dragons were provided in the 4th century by Alexander the Great and his men after invading India. One account was reported by Alexander the Great himself, who claimed that he had seen an enormous hissing serpent lurking within a dank cave, and that the local tribes had worshiped it as a god, and his lieutenant, Onesicritus, also reported that there lived in India enormous serpents measuring 100 to 200 feet long. This is very interesting, because there are accounts of such creatures in India going all the way back to the 1st century, when the Greek historian Strabo described fearsome winged reptiles in his book Geography: Book XV: On India, of which he says, “In India there are reptiles two cubits long with membranous wings like bats, and that they too fly by night, discharging drops of urine, or also of sweat, which putrefy the skin of anyone who is not on his guard.” Also from India is the account from the 3rd century historian Flavious Philostratus, who also claimed that India was home to dragons, and not only a habitat for them, but by his accounts absolutely crawling with them. He wrote in his The Life of Apollonius of Tyanna:
In the 8th century we have the curious account given by a St. John of Damascus, who wrote that during a battle against Carthage a huge dragon measuring 120 feet long had appeared behind the Roman army to approach them. The army had then reportedly attacked and killed it, and had the skin sent to the Roman Senate, although what happened to it after that no one knows. This report is quite curious because it is a matter of fact account, without any obvious embellishment and sitting within other more mundane chronicles of the battle. He would even go as far as to state that these dragons were not magical creatures in any way, but rather just large, reptilian animals. In later centuries we have the tales of the great explorer Marco Polo, who travelled around Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia in the late 13th century and brought back all manner of fantastical tales of these exotic lands, their people, and their animals. Some of these reports included what can only be described as dragons. Within Polo’s work The Travels of Marco Polo, there is a passage concerning a place in the Far East that he called “Karajan,” which was apparently infested by the fierce beasts
The 16th century is actually a treasure trove of real dragon encounters. In 1543 the historian Gesner wrote of a dragon-like creature in Germany, which he describes as having “feet like lizards, and wings after the fashion of a bat, with an incurable bite.” The historian and author Charles Gould would write of another historical case of the era concerning a man named Cardan. Another rather interesting description of dragons was given in the early 16th century tome called the Aberdeen Bestiary, which goes into great depth on the appearance and behavior of the creatures and treats them as if they were all completely real
more recently, in 2001 an apparent dragon was purportedly seen by naturalists investigating a quarry in Wales. They described it was being “two and a half foot in length, serpentine dragon with four limbs and a head resembling that of a seahorse.” The creature apparently hovered through the air without the aid of any noticeable wings, and the startled men watched it flit about for a full 4 minutes before it descended into one of the many dark caves dotting the area. While it seems preposterous that the dragons we know from fiction, fairy tales, and fantasy could possibly have ever been real in any sense, the fact remains that remarkably similar stories have been reported throughout history by a wide range of disparate civilizations and cultures, so why is it that the dragon myths and tales are so universal? Could there have possibly have ever been anything to this? Theories have ranged from that these were just misidentifications and romanticized accounts of known animals, some form of outsized reptiles such as crocodiles or snakes, an undiscovered species, relic populations of dinosaurs surviving into modern times, perhaps even having evolved to their environment to take on a different appearance and abilities.
Konrad Gesner, who was a great naturalist in the 16th century and wrote of dragons as if they were any other mundane animal, and gives one description of a beast seen in the 10th century of a dragon seen in Ireland with a horse-like head, a thick powerful tail, and stumpy, clawed legs.
Another famed 16th century naturalist by the name of Ulysses Aldrovandus also wrote seriously of dragons, and related several tales of the beasts, such as that of a herdsman who had been driving his herd of cattle in rural Bologna when he had encountered a small dragon that had blocked his path and hissed at him. The herdsman had then apparently killed the creature and saved the carcass. Aldrovandus claimed to have come into possession of the body and to have even had it mounted, and spends a lot of time contemplating this specimen, speculating that it had been a juvenile dragon. Where the body went is anyone’s guess, but Aldrovandus did have a watercolor portrait made of it. The 16th century is actually a treasure trove of real dragon encounters. In 1543 the historian Gesner wrote of a dragon-like creature in Germany, which he describes as having “feet like lizards, and wings after the fashion of a bat, with an incurable bite.”