By Eilis Flynn
Here a dragon
There a dragon
Yes, that’s right! Everywhere you look around the world, there’s something about dragons. The names may change and the situations may change, but whatever you call them, dragons have been both kind and mischievous, good and evil, sometimes a symbol of order and sometimes of chaos. How much do you know about dragons? To find out, here’s a sorta-quiz. Check out how much you really know!
Q: Why don’t we have dragon stories in North America?
A: Of course we do!
B: It’s because dragons originate in Europe
C: What’s your definition of “dragon”?
The answers are (A) and (C). Yes, we have dragon stories in North America! There’s Manipogo up in Manitoba, Mishipizheu around the Great Lakes, Thunderbird, and even the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl! And if you’re surprised at seeing Quetzalcoatl included as a dragon, that’s because descriptions of dragons differ drastically from region to region. The typical Western dragon is a large, scaly creature resembling a large lizard. It usually has wings and can fly, and often it will breathe fire or noxious gases, as opposed to the dragons of the East, which are usually water-based, associated with rainfall and bodies of water, usually wingless, serpentine. So Quetzalcoatl fits into the dragon described in the Far East!
Q: Why do Western dragons seem to have a thing about maidens and treasure?
A: They’re insecure
B: They have money problems
C: It’s a metaphor, dummy
Yessirree, it’s (C)! Most likely. It’s not just Western dragons that guard or hoard treasure, it’s Eastern dragons too. And the thing about maidens? Well, they ARE a treasure… A classic European story involving dragons is one out of the south of London. A local legend out of Lyminster had a dragon who had both a treasure and a taste for maidens. The king put out a reward of his daughter’s hand in marriage if the dragon were killed, which was done, happy ending. A variation of this story has the dragon killed after being poisoned by a pudding. The difference with this story is that the mighty killer inadvertently dies from the same poison. Oops.
Q: We always hear about those English dragons! Does France have any?
A: It’s hard to tell. They dress in black and spend their time in bistros.
B: It’s hard to tell. They’re too snooty to admit to any.
(B) There’s a dragon tale in southwestern France, where a female dragon named Tarasque was as impolite a neighbor as any English dragon. Warriors and knights from all over the continent tried to slay her, but they were powerless against her massive size, armor, and fire. Using only her faith, purity, and a jug of holy water, St. Martha negotiated with Tarasque — and the villagers killed the dragon and sliced her up. And that was the end of Tarasque. In honor of the event, the town was renamed Tarascon. (Which is why the French dragons won’t admit to existing, maybe!)
Q: Are there Greek dragons?
A: I doubt it
B: I vaguely recall reading something about it in the Greek myths
C: You’re going to tell us, aren’t you?
(B) The dragons we encounter by the time we get down past the Mediterranean have less and less in common with the dragons we encounter in northern Europe. In classical Greek culture, one of the earliest mentions of a dragon is 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 breastplate.
Q: Are there any mentions of dragons in the Bible?
A: I don’t remember. It’s been a while
B: If Kirk Douglas didn’t fight one, I’m kinda doubting it
C: I’m guessing there was?
(C)! The references to the “sea-monster” or “pole serpent” in the Bible, the “leviathan” of the Biblical stories, seem to be very close to the idea of the dragon.
Q: Are dragons of the East connected to the desert?
A: This question is planted here, right?
B: I’m guessing no
C: Are there any deserts in the Far East?
(A). As opposed to the dragon legends of the West, the dragons of the East are usually water-based, associated with rainfall and bodies of water, usually wingless, serpentine, often positive, often seen as an authority figure, and still very much part of contemporary culture. And yes, there are deserts in the Far East, but there are no dragon myths connected to them. As far as I can tell. Yet.
Q: Are Eastern dragons lizardlike the way they are in the West?
A: Have you been paying attention to this quiz at all?
B: Define “lizardlike”
C: More snakelike than lizard
The answer, of course, is (C). The Vedic god of storms, Varuna, is regarded as the king of the naga, the local version of the dragon. The naga, also known as a snake-spirit, guarded great treasures, just like so many stories in Western myths about dragons. The naga is often regarded as a deity in many Hindu cultures, and the king cobra is one of the images you’ll find when you look for naga. (We’ll see more references to the naga elsewhere in the East, specifically the Southeast Asia region.)
Q: What about Chinese dragons? Are Chinese dragons anything like the Indian ones?
A: Are there Chinese dragons?
B: A vague resemblance
C: Kissing cousins, really
(C). If you know anything about Chinese culture, you know that dragons are integral to their society. The Chinese dragon was the symbol of Chinese emperors, with a commonly cited life span of about 3,500 years.
Q: Are they evil or are they good?
A: Define “good” and “evil”!
B. Depends on the day of the week, right?
C. Is there chocolate involved?
(A). Dragons are good guys in China, powerful, a symbol of imperial power. To say that someone is a dragon is a very good thing, even though there are occasional references to the same streak of orneriness that we see in Indian naga culture.
Q: What’s the deal with the different-numbered claws?
A. I got nothin’
(A). The Chinese dragon had specific categories. In various dynasties, the symbol of the golden and five-clawed dragon was assigned to the emperor, the four-clawed dragon to the nobility, and the three-claws to the bureaucrats. In any case, the term “descendants of the dragon” has been used by the Chinese to refer to themselves.
Q: So how long have dragons been a big deal in China?
A: Since the 1980s
B: Since the 1890s
C: Since the 18th century
D: Since long, long ago
(D). At least seven thousand years, if the discovery of a dragon statue from around the fifth millennium BCE is any clue. Dinosaur bones were assumed to be those of dragons, of course, the way they were in other places.
Q: What kind of dragon kings does China have?
A: There are four according to Chinese legend, each representing one of the known seas in traditional Chinese culture. In fact, one king was referred to as the “Sea Dragon King” because of his work in bringing water to his people.
Q: Back to the naga. Is the naga origin story pretty common?
A: While the Cambodian origin myth has the people descended from a naga princess and a human man, the Vietnamese creation myth has the people descended from a dragon and a fairy. According to the story, the king of the dragons married a goddess, the daughter of the bird king. The daughter produced 100 eggs, which hatched into 100 sons and established the Vietnamese people, thus giving the old Vietnamese proverb, “Children of the dragon, grandchildren of the gods.”
Q: What about the Japanese dragons? Are they still big snakes?
The dragons of Japan are a lot like the Chinese dragons in appearance, but not identical; they are both water gods, connected with rainfall and lakes and rivers, usually seen as very big, wingless, serpents with clawed feet. The Chinese dragons are more serpentine, while the Japanese dragons usually are shown to have spines on their backs. Japanese dragons are also considered to be the founders of the society itself. The Japanese regard themselves as "children of the dragon."
Q: What could be dragons described as in the Pacific region?
Yes. The Asia Pacific dragons are the water-based creatures you see all over the Far East, but the farther east we go, the more and more you read about dragons that sound distinctly crocodile-like. The Philippine dragon called the bakunawa, however, is said to have a mouth the size of a lake, a red tongue, whiskers and gills, and not one but two sets of wings. (Quick, what does a catfish look like?)
And this is just the tip of the ol’ iceberg when it comes to dragonlore! Every culture’s dragon represents something unique to that culture, that society. Sometimes those dragons are good, protectors of the people, and sometimes those dragons are wicked and evil, and must be killed (or converted to Christianity, as in the case of the alternate endings of the St. George story; there’s also a corresponding story about a dragon being converted to Buddhism in the east). Sometimes those dragons can fly; sometimes they’re sea serpents. Sometimes they’re snakes, but not in the West, because the snake represents evil incarnate there. Sometimes the dragons have five claws, or four, or three, or none at all. Sometimes the dragons sound like giant catfish. Sometimes the dragons sound like crocodiles. But there are stories about dragons.
Curious? If you want to know more—and there’s LOTS more—Jacquie Rogers and I will be presenting an online workshop for the Futuristic Fantasy & Paranormal chapter of RWA about dragons around the world from March 3 through 16! Sign up now!
Eilis Flynn is an editor by day, and she wants to edit YOUR work! She's also a writer when she has time. Find out about her editorial life at emsflynn.com, and her books at eilisflynn.com.