How Dragons Conquered The World
Smaug from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Source: (pinterest.com)
Unlike creatures such as the Minotaur and the Hydra which are rarely seen outside of Greek mythology, dragons have endured across many cultures and range from fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding monsters to peaceful, childhood companions. They are a fixture of high fantasy as well as an important symbol in Chinese culture and continue to appear in film and television as well as in books and video games. But no one really knows where or when dragon folklore originated.
What historians do know is that dragon lore existed at least as early as ancient Greece, during which time they were depicted as flying serpents. One of the twelve labors of Heracles was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. These apples were guarded by a dragon named Ladon. The serpentine appearance of the Greek dragon was likely carried over from Asia, particularly the Chinese dragon which looked like a snake with four taloned legs.
While the dragons of ancient Greece ranged from protective to dangerous, Chinese dragons represented strength and good fortune and were considered to be wise creatures. Dragons became the symbol of many Chinese emperors, including Liu Bang who founded the Han dynasty and reigned from 202 to 195 B.C.
Dragons of the ancient world were not limited to Europe and Asia. Across the ocean in South and Central America, feathered serpents were worshipped as deities. As early as 900 B.C., the Olmec people of Mexico depicted such a creature rising up behind a shaman conducting a ritual. The Aztecs and the Mayans also worshipped dragon-like creatures around the first century B.C. By the medieval period, the serpent deity had spread across Mesoamerica. The Incans worshiped a double-headed serpent called Amaru and the feathered serpent of the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl, had the Great Pyramid of Cholula dedicated to it.
Dragons went from divine to downright evil with the rise of Christianity in Europe. The book of Revelations describes Satan as a dragon. Similarly, the leviathan, also mentioned in Revelations, share many of the characteristics of dragons, including the ability to breathe fire. With comparisons like these, it is no wonder that dragons began appearing in stories as a beast to be slain by the hero. Just as it did in Mesoamerica, the dragon lore had spread across Europe by the medieval period, with each culture having their own spin on it. For example, Norse mythology had the lindworm which had the snake-like appearance of the Chinese and Greek dragons but did not have wings.
For many people, the dragon legend was a way to explain things they didn’t understand, such as the discovery in 1335 of an Ice Age wooly rhinoceros skull. In a world that knew nothing of dinosaurs, dragons were the most logical explanation for the discovery of giant bones.
Several works of literature aided the popularization of dragon mythology. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of dragons in his tales of King Arthur. Then there’s the famous story of St. George and the Dragon, which dates back to the sixth century and tells the story of an evil dragon which terrorizes a village, eating their sheep and eventually their children, before being subdued by St. George.
These dragon tales became so popular that by the eighteenth century, French philosopher Denis Diderot complained that there were too many of them. Obviously, his opinion was not shared by everyone as dragons have increased, rather than decreased, in popularity since that time. One need only to observe the continued popularity of twentieth and twenty-first-century writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and George R. R. Martin, as well as video games like Final Fantasy or even children’s movies like How to Train Your Dragon, to see that the populace has not yet tired of dragon stories.