Few creatures can conjure feelings of mystery, awe, and excitement so well as the dragon. Dragon legends are a far-reaching phenomenon. Almost every culture on earth has had some sort of dragon legend at one time or another. From the classic European dragon, to the wingless worms of China, to the Native American thunderbird, to the rocs of Arabian lore, dragon tales come in all shapes and sizes. The ancient astrologers saw the forms of dragons in the stars, as with the constellation Draco. Dragons even appear in the past legends of modern-day religions, as seen in the tale of St. George and the Dragon.
Dragon legends are as diverse as the people who tell them. Sometimes they are portrayed as wise, helpful creatures, other times they are portrayed as vicious beasts who wreak havoc upon unsuspecting villages. Some are tiny and some are big enough to hunt elephants. Most dragons fly, but not all of them have wings. The wingless dragons are often referred to as “worms” and have many serpent-like characteristics. On the other hand, some legends give dragons several sets of wings.
A few legends involve swimming dragons. These dragons use their wings much like fins to propel themselves through water. There are many African dragon legends telling of beasts that inhabited lakes and waterways. The Rainbow Serpents of Australia are also water dragons.
The European dragon is probably the most commonly recognized form, with its huge stature, fiery breath and large wings. This form of dragon was made famous by the Welsh legend, which recounts a young Merlin predicting that the red dragon would eventually win in battle with a white dragon. The victorious red dragon is pictured on the Welsh flag.
Many dragon stories involve creation myths, in which a dragon is either bearing the earth on its back or helping to create the earth in some way. Medieval alchemists were especially fascinated by dragon legends. They believed without question that dragons existed and often sought out the creatures. A commonly used alchemic symbol was the Uroborus, which depicted a dragon or serpent swallowing its own tail. This was often used to symbolize the fact that matter can never be destroyed, it simply changes form. Like the Uroborus, it has no beginning, and this it has no end.
Dragons were often revered as sources of healing. Many legends speak of the different curative properties of dragon anatomy. Everything from dragon teeth to dragon blood was said to cure something. In Norse legend, Sigurd obtained the ability to speak to birds after swallowing dragon blood. Many physicians and apothecaries in ancient days gave their customers dragon products to ease their ills. Usually, however, the dragon products purchased by unsuspecting consumers really came from common farm animals.
Perhaps one of the most sought after parts of the dragon was the dracontias or dragonstone. The dracontias stone was believed to be a gem found within the head of every dragon. In many legends this dragonstone was the means by which dragons could telepathically speak to one another. The dracontias was often believed to be the philosopher’s stone of healing, in that it could supposedly find and cure almost any ill. However, it was thought that the stone would only work if it was extracted from a live dragon, as the stone lost its power with a dragon’s death. In truth, this particular legend was probably invented by people who wished to justify high prices of their supposedly exotic dragon cure-alls.
With dragon legends so widespread, is it possible that these magnificent creatures ever truly existed? It is believed that the Komodo dragon of Indonesia may have once had the ability to breathe fire. Even now the Komodo dragon retains a toxic saliva. But whether or not there is physical evidence of dragon existence, for those of us who love dragon lore, it is fun to imagine.
Here Be Dragons
The Dragon Stone
Conway, D.J Dancing with Dragons. Llewellyn Publications. September, 2002.