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Dragon

[drag-uhn]

The dragon is a legendary creature of which some interpretation or depiction appears in almost every culture worldwide. The physical description and supposed abilities of the creature vary immensely according to the different cultures in which it appears. However, the unifying feature of almost all interpretations is it being a serpentine or otherwise reptilian monster (or at least possessing a serpentine/reptilian part or trait), and often possessing magical or spiritual qualities.

The two most familiar interpretations of dragons are either European dragons, derived from various European folk traditions, or unrelated Oriental dragons, derived from the Chinese dragon (lóng,龍,龙). The word "dragon" derives from Greek δράκων (drakōn), "a serpent of huge size, a python, a dragon" and that from δρακεῖν (drakein) aorist infinitive active of the verb δέρκομαι (derkomai) "I see clearly".

Description

Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body like a big lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from its mouth. The European dragon has bat-type wings growing from its back. A dragon-like animal with no front legs and walking only on its back legs is a wyvern. Following discovery of how pterosaurs walked on the ground, some dragons have been drawn using the wings as front legs pterosaur-fashion when on the ground, as in Blender3D Dragonfight 03.jpg and in the movie Reign of Fire.

Overview

Like most mythological creatures, dragons are perceived in different ways by different cultures. Dragons are sometimes said to breathe and spit fire or poison. They are commonly portrayed as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and possessing typically feathered or scaly bodies. They are sometimes portrayed as having large yellow or red eyes, a feature that is the origin for the word for dragon in many cultures. They are sometimes portrayed with a row of dorsal spines, keeled scales, or leathery bat-like wings. Winged dragons are usually portrayed only in European dragons while Oriental versions of the dragon resemble large snakes. Dragons can have a variable number of legs: none, two, four, or more when it comes to early European literature. Modern depictions of dragons tend to be larger than their original representations, which were often smaller than humans.

Although dragons occur in many legends around the world, different cultures have varying stories about monsters that have been grouped together under the dragon label.

Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom—often said to be wiser than humans—and longevity. They are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power, and are often associated with wells, rain, and rivers. In some cultures, they are also said to be capable of human speech.

The term dragoon, for infantry that move around by horse yet still fight as foot soldiers, is derived from their early firearm, the "dragon", a wide-bore musket that spat flame when it fired, and was thus named for the mythical creature.

Greek; etymology

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 drakōn, genitive δράκοντοϛ drakontos) could also mean "snake". δράκων drakōn is a form of the aorist participle active of Greek δέρκομαι derkomai = "I 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".

Chinese

Chinese dragons and Oriental dragons generally, 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 5-clawed dragon was a symbol of the Chinese emperors, with the phoenix or fenghuang the symbol of the Chinese empress. Dragon costumes manipulated by several people are a common sight at Chinese festivals.

Vedic

In the early Vedic religion, Vritra (Sanskrit: वृत्र (Devanāgarī) or (IAST)) "the enveloper", was an Asura and also a serpent or dragon, 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.

Persian

Aži Dahāka is the source of the modern Persian word azhdahā or ezhdehā اژدها (Middle Persian azdahāg) meaning "dragon", often used of a dragon depicted upon a banner of war. The Persians believed that the baby of a dragon will be the same color as the mother's eyes. In Middle Persian he is called Dahāg or Bēvar-Asp, the latter meaning "[he who has] 10,000 horses." Several other dragons and dragon-like creatures, all of them malevolent, are mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture. (See Zahhāk).

Semitic

In Jewish religious texts, the first mention of a dragon-like creature is in the Biblical works of Job (26:13), and Isaiah (27:1) where it is called Nachash Bare'ach, or a "Pole Serpent". This is identified in the Midrash Rabba to Genesis 1:21 as Leviathan from the word Taninim
and God created the great sea-monsters.

In Jewish astronomy this is also identified with the North Pole, the star Thuban which, around 4,500 years ago, was the star in the Draco constellation's "tail". However this can also have been either the celestial pole or the ecliptic pole. The ancient observers noted that Draco was at the top of the celestial pole, giving the appearance that stars were "hanging" from it, and in Hebrew it is referred to as Teli, from talah (תלה) - to hang. Hebrew writers from Arabic-speaking locations identified the Teli as Al Jaz'har, which is a Persian word for a "knot" or a "node" because of the intersection of the inclination of the orbit of a planet from the elliptic that forms two such nodes. In modern astronomy these are called the ascending node and the descending node, but in the medieval astronomy they were referred to as "dragon's head" and "dragon's tail".

Modern literature

There are numerous examples of dragons in modern literature, especially the fantasy genre.

In the 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the major antagonist is a dragon named Smaug. Smaug hoards a great treasure but is ultimately shot down with an arrow by an archer who was told about a soft patch in Smaug's underbelly armor.

Dragons play an important role in the Harry Potter series of novels by J. K. Rowling. In the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Hagrid, the Hogwarts groundskeeper, owns a baby dragon of a species called "Norwegian Ridgeback". In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire one of the three events the contestants for the tri-wizard tournament involves successfully taking a Golden egg from a Dragon, in Harry's case "a Hungarian Horntail". In the final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has to overcome a blind dragon guarding the treasure in the vaults of the wizarding bank, Gringotts.

Dragonriders of Pern is an extensive fantasy/science fiction series of novels and short stories primarily written by Anne McCaffrey. Since 2004, McCaffrey's son Todd McCaffrey has also published Pern novels, both in collaboration with Anne and on his own. The Pernese use intelligent firebreathing dragons who have a telepathic bond with their riders, formed by mental impressions the dragons receive at the time they hatch from their eggs.

The concept of a dragon bonding at birth with its rider was explored more recently in the 2003 fantasy novel and subsequent motion picture, Eragon, which features a teenaged boy by that name and a young dragon named Saphira. Eragon becomes a Dragon Rider, a magical dragon riding hero, who helps to overthrow an evil and despotic king. The next book in the series, Eldest, posits separate views that dragons are neither creatures of good or evil, but can be used for both, depending on the dragon and rider. Eragon and Saphira use their bond for good, while the king and his dragon, as well as Murtagh and his dragon, use their bonds for evil.

Some modern pseudo-biological accounts of dragons give them the generic name Draco, although the generic name Draco is pre-empted for a genus of small gliding agamid lizard.

Speculation on the origin of dragons

Dragons may be mental representations of natural human fears of snakes, wildcats, birds of prey, as well as teeth, claws, size, and even venom blending with fear of wildfire.

Others believe that the dragon may have had a real counterpart from which the various legends arose — typically dinosaurs or other archosaurs are mentioned as a possibility — but there is no physical evidence to support this claim, only alleged sightings collected by cryptozoologists. Loren Coleman argues that monitor lizards were the basis of some dragon tales and that the breath of the dragon is the fantastic imagery of the steam from the warm Montane Valley monitors emerging from a body of water into the cold air of some Asian locations.

Dinosaur and mammalian fossils were occasionally mistaken for the bones of dragons and other mythological creatures — for example, a discovery in 300 BC in Wucheng, Sichuan, China, was labeled as such by Chang Qu.

The name of the type of soldiers known as Dragoon is generally considered to be derived from "Dragon", and there are various etymological theories on how this derivation came about.

Dragons in world mythology

Asian dragons
Chinese dragon Lóng (or Loong. Lung2 in Wade-Giles romanization.) The Chinese dragon, is a mythical Chinese creature that also appears in other Asian cultures, and is sometimes called the Oriental (or Eastern) dragon. Depicted as a long, snake-like creature with four claws, it has long been a potent symbol of auspicious power in Chinese folklore and art.
Indian dragon Nāga A serpentine dragon common to all cultures influenced by Hinduism. They are often hooded like a cobra and may have several heads depending on their rank. They usually have no arms or legs but those with limbs resemble the Chinese dragon.
Indonesian/Malay dragon Naga or Nogo Derived from the Indian nāga, belief in the Indon-Malay dragon spread throughout the entire Malay Peninsula along with Hinduism. The word naga is still the common Malay term for dragons in general. Like its Indian counterpart, the naga is considered divine in nature, benevolent, and often associated with sacred mountains, forests, or certain parts of the sea.
Japanese dragon Ryū Similar to Chinese dragons, with three claws instead of four. They are usually benevolent, associated with water, and may grant wishes.
Khmer Dragon Neak The Khmer dragon, or neak is derived from the Indian nāga. Like its Indian counterpart, the neak is often depicted with cobra like characteristics such as a hood. The number of heads can be as high as nine, the higher the number signifies rank. Odd headed dragons are symbolic of male energy while even headed dragons symbolize female energy. Traditionally, a neak is distinguished from the often serpentine Makar and Tao, the former possessing crocodilian traits and the latter possessing feline traits. A dragon princess is the heroine of the creation myth of Cambodia.
Korean dragon Yong (Mireu) A sky dragon, essentially the same as the Chinese lóng. Like the lóng, yong and the other Korean dragons are associated with water and weather. In pure Korean, it is also known as 'mireu'.
Imoogi A hornless ocean dragon, sometimes equated with a sea serpent.
Gyo A mountain dragon. In fact, the Chinese character for this word is also used for the imoogi.
Philippine Dragon Bakunawa The Bakunawa appears as a gigantic serpent that lives in the sea. Ancient natives believed that the Bakunawa caused the moon or the sun to disappear during an eclipse. It is said that during certain times of the year, the bakunawa arises from the ocean and proceeds to swallow the moon whole. To keep the Bakunawa from completely eating the moon, the natives would go out of their houses with pots and pans in hand and make a noise barrage in order to scare the Bakunawa into spitting out the moon back into the sky. Some say that the Bakunawa is known to kill people by imagining their death and remote in eye contact.
Vietnamese dragon Rồng or Long (Ly dynasty, Daiviet X) These dragons' bodies curve lithely, in sine shape, with 12 sections, symbolising 12 months in the year. They are able to change the weather, and are responsible for crops. On the dragon's back are little, uninterrupted, regular fins. The head has a long mane, beard, prominent eyes, crest on nose, but no horns. The jaw is large and opened, with a long, thin tongue; they always keep a châu (gem/jewel) in their mouths (a symbol of humanity, nobility and knowledge).
European dragons
Catalan dragon drac Catalan dragons are serpent-like creatures with two legs (rarely four) and, sometimes, a pair of wings. Their faces can resemble that of other animals, like lions or cattle. They have a burning breath. Their breath is also poisonous, the reason by which dracs are able to rot everything with their stench. A víbria is a female dragon.
French dragons Dragon The French representation of dragons spans much of European history, and has even given its name to the dragoons, a type of cavalry.
Sardinian dragon scultone The dragon named "scultone" or "ascultone" was a legend in Sardinia, Italy for many a millennium. It had the power to kill human beings with its gaze. It was a sort of basilisk, lived in the bush and was immortal.
Scandinavian & Germanic dragons Lindworm (early Vandal) Lindworms are serpent-like dragons with either two or no legs. In Nordic and Germanic heraldry, the lindworm looks the same as a wyvern. The dragon Fafnir was a lindworm.
English dragons Wyvern Wyverns are common in medieval heraldry. Their usual blazon is statant. Wyverns are normally shown as dragons with two legs and two wings.
Welsh dragons y ddraig goch In Welsh mythology, after a long battle (which the Welsh King Vortigern witnesses) a red dragon defeats a white dragon; Merlin explains to the Vortigern that the red dragon symbolizes the Welsh, and the white dragon symbolizes the Saxons — thus foretelling the ultimate defeat of the English by the Welsh.
Hungarian dragons (Sárkányok) zomok A great snake living in a swamp, which regularly kills pigs or sheep. A group of shepherds can easily kill them.
sárkánykígyó A giant winged snake, which is in fact a full-grown zomok. It often serves as flying mount of the garabonciás (a kind of magician). The sárkánykígyó rules over storms and bad weather.
sárkány A dragon in human form. Most of them are giants with multiple heads. Their strength is held in their heads. They become gradually weaker as they lose their heads. In contemporary Hungarian the word sárkány is used to mean all kinds of dragons.
Slavic dragons zmey, zmiy, żmij, змей, or zmaj, or drak, or smok

Similar to the conventional European dragon, but multi-headed. They breathe fire and/or leave fiery wakes as they fly. In Slavic and related tradition, dragons symbolize evil. Specific dragons are often given Turkic names (see Zilant, below), symbolizing the long-standing conflict between the Slavs and Turks. However, in Serbian and Bulgarian folklore, dragons are defenders of the crops in their home regions, fighting against a destructive demon Ala, whom they shoot with lightning. Siberian dragon Yilbegan Related to European Turkic and Slavic dragons
Romanian dragons Balaur Balaur are very similar to the Slavic zmey: very large, with fins and multiple heads.
Chuvash dragons Vere Celen Chuvash dragons represent the pre-Islamic mythology of the same region.
Asturian dragons Cuélebre In Asturian mythology the Cuélebres are giant winged serpents, which live in caves where they guard treasures and kidnapped xanas. They can live for centuries and, when they grow really old, they use their wings to fly. Their breath is poisonous and they often kill cattle to eat. Asturian term Cuelebre comes from Latin colŭbra, i.e. snake.
Portuguese dragons Coca In Portuguese mythology coca is a female dragon that fights with Saint George. She loses her strength when Saint George cuts off one of her ears.
Greek dragons Drakōn - δράκων Cadmus fighting the dragon is a legendary story from the Greek lore dating to before ca. 560–550 BC.
Tatar dragons Zilant Really closer to a wyvern, the Zilant is the symbol of Kazan. Zilant itself is a Russian rendering of Tatar yılan, i.e. snake.
Turkish dragons Ejderha or Evren The Turkish dragon secretes flames from its tail, and there is no mention in any legends of its having wings, or even legs. In fact, most Turkish (and later, Islamic) sources describe dragons as gigantic snakes.
Lithuanian Dragons Drakonas This dragon is more of a hydra with multiple heads, though sometimes they do appear with one head.

Cartography

There is a widespread belief that earlier cartographers used the Latin phrase hic sunt dracones, i.e. "Here be dragons" to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the infrequent medieval practice of putting sea serpents and other mythological creatures in blank areas of maps. However the only known use of this phrase is in the Latin form "HC SVNT DRACONES" on the Lenox Globe (ca. 1503-07) .

See also

References

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