Dragons are legendary creatures, typically with serpentine or otherwise reptilian traits, that feature in the myths of many cultures.

The two most familiar interpretations of dragons are European dragons, derived from various European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, and the unrelated Chinese dragon. The English word "dragon" derives from Greek δράκων (drákōn), "dragon, serpent of huge size, water-snake", which probably comes from the verb δρακεῖν (drakeîn) "to see clearly".

The word dragon derives from Greek δρακων, via Latin draco. It is attested in Middle English from the 13th century, in the context of medieval bestiaries and legends.

The Greek and Latin term referred to any great serpent, not necessarily mythological, and this usage was also current in English up to the 18th century. Today the great komodo lizard Varanus komodoensis is also known in English as the Komodo dragon. The King James Bible uses the words "serpent", "dragon" and "Devil" in a fairly interchangeable manner.

The association of the serpent with a monstrous opponent overcome by a heroic deity has its roots in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, including Canaanite (Hebrew, Ugaritic), Hittite and Mesopotamian. The Chaoskampf motif entered Greek mythology and ultimately Christian mythology, although the serpent motif may already be part of prehistoric Indo-European mythology as well, based on comparative evidence of Indic and Germanic material.

The "European dragon" (and its Near Eastern and Indic cognates) myth has quite different characteristics and origins from those of the Chinese dragon.

Dinosaur and mammalian fossils were occasionally mistaken for the bones of dragons and other mythological creature; for example, a discovery in 300 BC in Wucheng, Sichuan, China, was labeled as such by Chang Qu. Adrienne Mayor has written on the subject of fossils as the inspiration for myths in her book The First Fossil Hunters, and in an entry in the Encyclopedia of Geology she wrote: "Fossil remains generated a variety of geomyths speculating on the creatures' identity and cause of their destruction. Many ancient cultures, from China and India to Greece, America, and Australia, told tales of dragons, monsters, and giant heroes to account for fossils of animals they had never seen alive." In Australia, stories of such creatures may have referred to the land crocodiles, Quinkana sp., a terrestrial crocodile which grew from 5 to possibly 7 metres in length, or the 4 tonne monitor lizard Varanus priscus (formerly Megalania prisca) a giant, carnivorous goanna that might have grown to as long as 7 metres, and weighed up to 1,940 kilograms, or rainbow serpents (possibly Wonambi naracoortensis) that were part of the extinct megafauna of that continent.

In the book An Instinct for Dragons anthropologist David E. Jones suggests a hypothesis that humans just like monkeys have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats and birds of prey. Dragons have features that are combinations of these three. Our instinctive fear for these three would explain why dragons with similar features occur in stories from independent cultures on all continents. Other authors have suggested that especially under the influence of drugs or in dreams, this instinct may give raise to fantasies about dragons, snakes, spiders, etc., which would explain why these symbols are popular in drug culture. The traditional mainstream explanation to the folklore dragons does however not rely on human instinct, but on the assumption that fossil remains of dinosaurs gave raise to similar speculations all over the world.

Greek mythology

In Ancient Greece the first mention of a "dragon" is derived from the Iliad where Agamemnon is described as having a blue dragon motif on his sword belt and a three-headed dragon emblem on his breast plate.However, the Greek word used (δράκων drákōn, genitive δράκοντοϛ drákontos) could also mean "snake". δράκων drákōn is a form of the aorist participle active of Greek δέρκομαι dérkomai = "I see", derkeîn = "to see", and originally likely meant "that which sees", or "that which flashes or gleams" (perhaps referring to reflective scales). This is the origin of the word "dragon". (See also Hesiod's Theogony, 322.)

In 217 A.D., Philostratus discussed dragons (δράκων, drákōn) in India in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (II,17 and III,6-8). The Loeb Classical Library translation (by F.C. Conybeare) mentions (III,7) that “In most respects the tusks resemble the largest swine’s, but they are slighter in build and twisted, and have a point as unabraded as sharks’ teeth.”

According to Aelian's On Animals, Ethiopia was inhabited by a species of dragon that hunted elephants. It could grow to a length of 180 feet and had a lifespan rivaling that of the most enduring of animals.


European dragons exist in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe. Despite having wings, the dragon is generally depicted as having an underground lair or cave, making it an ancient creature of the earth element.


Chinese dragons (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: lóng) can take on human form and are usually seen as benevolent, whereas European dragons are usually malevolent though there are exceptions (one exception being Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales). Malevolent dragons also occur in the mythology of Persia (see Azhi Dahaka) and Russia, among other places.

Dragons are particularly popular in China and the five-clawed dragon was a symbol of the Chinese emperors, with the mythical bird fenghuang the symbol of the Chinese empress. Dragon costumes manipulated by several people are a common sight at Chinese festivals.


Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India. Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese ones are water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water, and are typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. Gould writes (1896:248), the Japanese dragon is "invariably figured as possessing three claws".


In the early Vedic religion, Vritra (Sanskrit: वृत्र (Devanāgarī) or Vṛtra (IAST)) "the enveloper", was an Asura and also a "naga" (serpent) or possibly dragon-like creature, the personification of drought and enemy of Indra. Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi ("snake"), and he is said to have had three heads.



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