Western and Eastern dragons – mythology, similarities and differences
(repost from my old tumblr blog)
First thing that has to be considered here is that image of dragons evolved through time. Much like Chinese dragons, Western dragons in Antiquity were seen as benevolent creatures. They were protectors of fertility, crops, and were generally associated with the element of earth, whereas eastern dragons are associated with the elements of air and water. This only changed with the arrival of Christianity, which associated dragons and other pagan imaginery with Devil, and correspondingly associated dragons with the element of fire. This “modern”, Christian dragon archetype is best seen in Tolkien’s dragons, who far from being benevolent spirits of nature, are devils embodied, evil supernatural entities given physical form.
Dragons in Ancient Greece were large, constricting snakes. Typhon was a human-snake hybrid, with head and torso of a human on snake’s tail. He fought Zeus for dominion, but was defeated. Second dragon, Ladon, was a serpent who guarded a tree with golden apples, and might represent an archetype of a treasure-hoarding dragon. If so, there is a significant difference in that Ladon was a guardian, but not the owner, of the treasure. Ladon was slain by Heracles. Lernaen Hydra was a water dragon with poisonous breath as well as blood, and anywhere from five to a hundred heads. It lived in a swamp, terrorizing folk nearby. Later stories added a regeneration aspect where Hydra would regrow two or three heads for each one that was cut off, necessitating burning of the wounds by Heraclus’ nephew Iolaus. The Python was a serpentine earth-dragon of Delphi, and an archnemesis of Apollo who killed it at Delphi.
Colchian dragon, defeated by Jason, was another dragon which guarded treasure. Again, dragon is depicted as a giant serpent. Jason was rather unlucky in that this dragon never slept, necessitating a fight. Its teeth were harvested by King Aeetes, and Jason sowed them into the field of Ares, upon which a tribe of warlike men (Spartoi) sprang fully grown from earth. Similar myth exists about Ismenian Drakon of Thebes. Important aspect of the Colchian dragon was its gaze – it could not be avoided, making stealing the Golden Fleece an impossible task. Other writers also detailed its devotion to gold and anything golden. How dragon is defeated varies – in some versions of the story it is lulled into sleep by magic, in others it is killed through brute force. In former versions, it is Medea who charms a dragon into sleep through a sleeping draught. Dragons also pulled the chariot of sun god Helios.
In Bible, Revelations, dragon is used to depict devil. This dragon has seven heads and ten horns, and is trying to eat the Child. Dragon “and his angels” also said to accept combat against Michael and his angels. Since fallen angels are associated with Devil, this clearly identifies the dragon as Satan. In the end, Dragon – Satan and his angels are cast down on earth. Dragon starts chasing the woman, but she was given wings and allowed to fly away. This again shows that Dragon cannot fly, and is in fact described as a serpent. Dragon tries to drown woman in water, but ground helps the woman and swallows the water.
During Middle Ages, dragons are typically shown with a lizerd-like body, or a snake with lizard-like legs, and able to breathe fire. They often have wings and are able to fly, as can be seen with Welsh dragons. Dragons are typically portrayed as evil, with the exceptions of Welsh and Asturian folklore, possibly as a result of surviving aspects of Celtic mythology in these areas. They hoard gold, and tend to live in caves – a holdover from their original nature as creatures of earth. Dragons are also often called wyrms (worms), indicating a snake type, as opposed to modern lizard-like depiction.
Germanic Lindworms, or serpents, are giant wingless serpents with dragon head and two clawed arms. They slither along the ground like a snake, but also use their arms to help themselves move. Ragnar, king of Denmark and Sweden, frees a girl or a young woman from a dragon that had taken her hostage. They eat cattle and people, sometimes invading cementeries and eating corpses. Germanic folklore also has sea serpents. In Norse mythology, Jormungandr is a sea serpent which encircled the entire world (Midgard, Middle-earth). Saint Olaf is said to have killed a sea serpent.
In Wales, dragon is the symbol of Celtic struggle against invading Anglo-Saxons. In the story Llud and Llefeys, from Mabinognion, the red Welsh dragon fights against an invading white dragon. Both dragos were eventually captured at Dinas Emrys.
Slavic dragons also originated as snakes. This is preserved in etymology: Croatian zmaj (dragon) is phonetically very similar to zmija (snake), and two are sometimes used interchangeably. Dragons in Bulgarian mythology represent forces of agriculture. East Slavic Zmey Gorynych has three heads, is green, walks on back paws and spits fire. Another type of Slavic dragons, alas (aždaja in Serb) are exclusive to Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serb folklore. Dragons are only one depiction of alas; other types can also be observed, as ala is a demon of bad weather. Slavic dragons are typically intelligent, demanding tribute from villages in form of food (maidens) or gold. They have one to seven heads, and heads may regrow unless burnt. Wawel dragon from Poland terrorized Krakow until being defeated, either killed by sons of King Krak – Krakus II and Lech II – or by a boy who offered it a sheepskin filled with sulphur and tar, making dragon so thirsty it exploded upon drinking too much water.
Iberian dragons are evil and immortal, and live in caves. In those caves, they usually guard treasures and keep nymph-like xanas or anjanas as prisoners. Some of them, such as a dragon that dwelled in Pena Uruel mountains near Jaca could mesmerize people with their glance. Said dragon was killed when a youth used a shiny shield to deflect dragon’s glance back upon the dragon himself. Basque mythology has Herensuge, “the last serpent”, killed by St.Michael. Catalan dragons are enormous serpents with two and rarely four legs, and sometimes a pair of wings. They are also fire breathers, and emit fetid odor which can rot away anything it touches. Another type of Catalan dragon is vibria or vibra, a female dragon with two breasts, two claws and an eagle’s beak.
Italian dragons are usually evil, and present demons in Italian mythology. Many Italian saints are depicted as slaying dragons, such as Saint George, Saint Mercurialis etc. According to The Golden Legend, Saint Margaret the Virgin was swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon, but managed to escape alive when the cross irritated dragon’s innards. This incident reaffirms the connection between dragons and the Devil. Another dragon, Thyrus, besieged the city of Therni in the Middle Ages. After a knight killed the dragon, the city accepted dragon in its coat of arms. Another place, village of Fornole, was saved by pope Sylvester I who pacified the dragon.
Other than classical dragons, English mythology also has cockatrice, a dragon with a rooster’s head. It only appears in fourteenth century. Cockatrice is the product of an egg laid by a cock (a male chicken) and incubated by a toad; it eventually came to be seen as an equivalent with a basilisk. It has the ability to kill people by looking at them, breathing at them or touching them. It will however die if it hears a rooster’s crow, or sees itself in the mirror.
Dragon’s blood often has magical properties. Siegfried is left invulnerable after bathing in blood of the dragon – except for the part where a leaf stuck to his back. It also allows him to understand the language of the forrest bird.
Chinese dragons can be turtles or fish, but are typically depicted as snake-like beings with four legs. They have no wings, and instead fly through usage of magic, sometimes sitting on clouds. They are also typically associated with water, controlling rainfall, typhoons, floods, as well as skies – unlike Western dragons who are associated with earth. They are a symbol of power, strength and good luck for people worthy of it, and thus also became a symbol of the Emperor of China. Five-clawed dragons were reserved for use by the emperors only. In the Quing dynasty, dragon appeared on the first Chinese national flag. Unlike European dragons, Chinese dragons are spiritual and cultural symbols representing prosperity and good luck. They are also rain deities and foster harmony. It is also a national, and was state, symbol of Cina.
The ancient Chinese identified themselves as “descendants of the dragon”. Unearthed dinosaur bones were referred to as dragon bones, and modern Chinese word for dinosaur is konglong, translated as “terror dragon”. Name used for a variety of dinosaurs discovered in China, mei long, means “sleeping dragon”. During Han dynasty, Chinese dragon had three joints (head-shoulder, shoulder-breast, breast-tail) and nine resemblances (stag-like antlers, camel-like head, demon-like eyes, snake-like neck, clam-like bellycarp-like scales, eagle-like clawstiger-like soles and cow-like ears). However, variations of nine resemblances exist. They have 117 scales, of which 81 of yang (positive) and 36 of yin (negative) essence, making them forces of good – benevolent, wise and just, until Buddhism introduced the concept of some dragons being evil. Unlike Western dragons, most Chinese dragons can fly despite having no wings, as their ability to fly is mystical, and not physical.
Chinese dragons are heavily associated with water and weather, and are thought to be rulers of moving bodies of water. The Dragon God is the dispenser of rain, and four major Dragon Gods represent four seas: the East Sea, the South Sea, the West Sea and the North Sea. Minor “dragon kings” were seen as protectors of individual villages and had temples dedicated in their honor. Because weather patterns depended on dragon’s temper, Chinese would burn incense and sacrifice plates of food to appease a dragon during bouts of bad weather. Exception to air/water association are fucanlong, underworld dragons which guard buried treasures, and create vulcanoes when they report to Heaven. These fucanlong are likely the closest thing to Western dragon that China has.
Due to importance of dragons in Chinese culture, they were associated with imperial authority. The first legendary ruler, the Yellow Emperor, is said to have been immortalized into a yellow dragon, and ascended into Heaven. Another story credits him with creating a dragon symbol by adding an element of totem animal of each defeated tribe to his own. The other legendary ruler, the Yan Emperor, was born through his mother’s telepathy with a mythical dragon. Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Western Han dynasty, was born after his mother was impregnated by a dragon while sleeping by riverside. The Imperial throne was referred to as the Dragon Throne, and in general Chinese emperors did everything to associate themselves with the dragons. Chinese themselves are said to have descended from two dragons, Fuxi and Nuwa.
Chinese mythology has various types of dragons: tianlong (heavenly dragon), guardian of heavenly palaces; shenlong (god dragon), a god of weather; fucanlong (hidden treasure dragon), underworld guardian of precious metals and jewels; dilong (earth dragon), controller of rivers and seas; yinglong (responding dragon), winged dragon associated with rains and floods; jiaolong (crocodile dragon), a leader of aquatic animals; panlong (coiled dragon), a lake dragon; huanglong (yellow dragon), a hornless dragon symbolizing the emperor; feilong (flying dragon), winged dragon that rides on clouds and mist; quinglong (azure dragon); zhuilong (torch dragon), solar deity; chilong (demon dragon), a hornless dragon or mountain demon; longwang (dragon kings), divine rulers of the four seas; longma (dragon horse); hong (a rainbow dragon), shen (a sea monster), bashe (an elephant-eating snake), and teng (a flying dragon or a snake).
Dragons are sometimes classified into colors. Azure dragons are compassionate kings; vermillion dragons bestow blessings on lakes; yellow dragons hear petitions; white dragons are pure and virtuous kings; black dragons dwell in the depths of mystic waters.
Nine sons of the dragon are used as ornaments based on function: the pulao, dragons which like to cry, serve as bell handles; the quiniu, which like music and adorn musical instruments; the chiwen, which like swallowing and are placed at the ends of roofs to swallow evil influences; the chaofeng, lion-like beasts which like precipices and are placed at four corners of the roof; the yazi, which like to kill and are engraved on sword guards; the bixi, who are fond of literature and are represented on the sides of the grave monuments; the bi’an, which like litigation and are placed over prison gates to keep guard; the suanni, which like to sit down, are represented upon the bases of Buddhist symbols, and the baxia, big tortoises which like to carry heavy things and are placed under grave monuments.
The Chinese believe that all Eastern dragons originate from the Chinese ones. The further away the dragons flew, the more toes they lost. Hence, Korean dragons have four and Japanese have three toes.
Japanese dragons are heavily influenced by Chinese ones. Japanese dragons are water deities, and their breath turns into clouds which produce rain or fire. They are depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. Indigenous Japanese dragons are Yamata no Orochi, “8-branched giant snake”, an eight-headed and eight-tailed dragon slain by the god of wind and sea Susanoo. Watatsumi, “sea god”, also known as Ryujin – “dragon god”, was the ruler of the seas and the oceans. Toyotama-hime, “Luminous Pearl Princess”, was Ryujin’s daughter and ancestor of Japan’s first emperor. Wani was a sea monster, either a shark or a crocodile. Mizuchi was a river dragon and a water deity; emperor Nintoku had to offer human sacrifices to Mizuchi angered by his river engineering projects.
Later dragons were influenced by Chinese and Indian myths. Kiyohime, “Purity Princess”, was a teahouse waitress who transformed into dragon to kill a Buddhist preist who had rejected her. Nure-onna or “Wet Woman” was a dragon with woman’s head and snake’s body, who would wash her hair on a river bank and would kill humans when angered. Zennyo Ryuo, “goodness-like dragon king” was a rain god, depicted as a dragon with a snake on his head, or a human with a snake’s tail.
Japanese also took dragons from Chinese mythology. Among others, Japanese had counterparts for Four Dragon Gods: Goko (Aoguang), Dragon King of the East Sea; Gokin (Aoqin), Dragon King of the South Sea; Gojin (Aorun), Dragon King of the West Sea; Gojin (Aoshun), Dragon King of the North Sea. Unlike Chinese long dragons, who possess four or five fingers, Japanese ryu dragons have three.
Some dragons also arrived with Buddhist monks from China, who transmitted Buddhist and Hindu legends from India and China to Japan. These are Naga, rain deity and a protector of Buddhism (perhaps better known through Fire Emblem series of games); Nagaraja, snake king or dragon king; these invariably show Chinese influences such as undersea “dragon palace”. Additional examples are Hachidai ryuo, “eight great Naga kings”, Mucharinda, a Naga king who had protected Buddha; Benzaiten, a goddes Saraswati, who in Japanese mythology created Enoshima island to protect people from a five-headed dragon, and Kzuryu, nine-headed dragon, deriving from a multi-headed Naga king.
Dragons are believed to live in lakes and rivers near Buddhist temples, and temple names frequently involve dragons. A Buddhist temple in Asakusa holds an annual dragon dance. Japanese dragons are also associated with Shinto shrines. Itsukushima shrine is believed to be the abode of sea-god Ryujin’s daughter, who empowered Emperor Antoku to ascend the throne because his father had offered prayers at Itsukushima and declared it his ancestral shrine. When Antoku drowned himself after being defeated at Dan-no-Ura, he lost the imperial Kusanagi sword.
Vietnamese dragons bring rain, and represent the emperor, power and prosperity of the nation. They also represent the universe, life, existence and growth. The first dynasty of Vietnam was held to be the descendants of Shennon, king of the dragonkind. Vietnamese dragons combine the image of crocodile, snake, cat, rat and bird.
Korean dragons are closely related to Chinese dragons. Like Chinese dragons, Korean dragons bring rain and clouds, and protect agriculture. They are said reside in watery bodies. Ancient texts mention sentient speaking dragons, capable of understanding complex emotions such as devotion, kindness and gratitude. Korean mythology includes imugis, lesser dragons which resembled gigantic serpents and sought to become full dragons. Imugis are large, benevolent, python-like creatures that live in water and caves, and their sighting is associated with good luck. Korean mythology also has an equivalent of European cockatrice, called gye-long, literally “chicken-dragon”. They are sometimes seen as chariot-pulling beasts for important legendary figures.
Modern portrayal and influences
Modern European dragons are typically big, scaly, winged and fire-breathing. However, possibly due to Eastern influences, they are also often shown as benevolent or at least ambivalent beings, no different from humans (eg: Temeraire, A Song of Ice and Fire, Inheritance Cycle). They typically have leathery wings, four legs, horns and spikes. In oldern modern portrayals such as Lord of the Rings, dragons retain their medieval characteristics of evil, greed and cunning. Specific to LotR is the portrayal of dragons as being snake-like, much in keeping with their ancient-medieval portrayal and unlike lizard or crocodilian portrayal of more modern dragons. In fact, Tolkien’s underground-dwelling dragons are heavily inspired by the Old English epic “Beowulf”.
In China today, dragon is typically not seen as a national symbol, but as a symbol of Chinese culture. Old symbolism continues as well.
In both Western and Eastern traditions, dragons had started out as serpentine creatures (contrary to more recent attempts to equalize dragons to giant sea crocodiles). Early Western dragons are not inherently evil; rather, they are agents of the gods, or are themselves gods. However, with arrival of Christianity, Western dragons become associated with Satan, demons and thus evil.
One theme which is present in all stories is association with elements. Greek dragons are associated with earth and water, while medieval dragons are almost exclusively associated with earth and fire. Chinese dragons are associated with water and air. This neatly completes the four-element setup, even if by coincidence.