Are Dragons Evil, Part 1 – Introduction and Bible
“Are dragons evil” is a question which is important for many religious people, but may also interest those who are not religious as well. And since mythology is the basis of fantasy, this question is also important for fantasy authors as well.
The topic will cover dragons as seen in:
- Greek and Roman Mythology
- Middle Eastern Mythology
- Slavic Mythology
- Germanic and Norse Mythology
- Western Mythology
- Chinese Mythology
- Japanese Mythology
- Korean Mythology
- Vietnamese Mythology
Bible uses dragon to describe Satan in the Book of Revelation:
And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9)
This fact has led to artists and early fantasy writers (such as Tolkien) to equate dragon with Devil, or at least to make it evil. While this tendency has been abandoned in the newer fantasy, it does bring up a question: are mythological dragons evil?
For Christianity, above quote would suggest a resounding yes. But things are more complex than this. Main problem is in troublesome translations: with the exception of Book of Revelation, majority of mentions of dragons in the Bible had been removed, as will be seen later. If dragons truly did exist, then according to Christian canon, God must have created them:
All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (John 1:3)
This means that they were created good:
God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)
Thus all dragons must have started out good – and this includes Satan. Of course, a possibility exists that dragon is merely a form which fallen angels had selected for themselves, and which does not exist in nature. But Bible – as can be seen from citations provided later – does not actually support this interpretation, as dragons are mentioned alongside owls once
But Satan is also referred to as a lion:
Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)
RED – negative, GREEN – good, BLACK – ambivalent
- Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps.- Deuteronomy 32:33
- I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls. – Job 30:29
- though Thou hast sorely broken us in the place of dragons, and covered us with the shadow of death. – Psalm 44:19
- Thou didst divide the sea by Thy strength; Thou breakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. – Psalm 74:13
- Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample underfoot. – Psalm 91:13
- Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all deeps, – Psalm 148:7
- And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces; and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.” – Isaiah 13:22
- In that day the Lord with His sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea. – Isaiah 27:1
- And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof; and it shall be a habitation of dragons and a court for owls. – Isaiah 34:13
- And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water; in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. – Isaiah 35:7
- The beast of the field shall honor Me, the dragons and the owls, because I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to My people, My chosen. – Isaiah 43:20
- Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art Thou not It that hath cut Rahab and wounded the dragon? – Isaiah 51:9
- “And I will make Jerusalem heaps and a den of dragons; and I will make the cities of Judah desolate, without an inhabitant.” – Jeremiah 9:11
- Behold, the noise of the clamor is come, and a great commotion out of the north country, to make the cities of Judah desolate, and a den of dragons. – Jeremiah 10:22
- And the wild asses stood in the high places; they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes failed, because there was no grass.” – Jeremiah 14:6
- “And Hazor shall be a dwelling for dragons, and a desolation for ever; there shall no man abide there, nor any son of man dwell in it.” – Jeremiah 49:33
- “Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon hath devoured me; he hath crushed me, he hath made me an empty vessel. He hath swallowed me up like a dragon; he hath filled his belly with my delicacies, he hath cast me out.” – Jeremiah 51:34
- And Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling place for dragons, an astonishment and a hissing, without an inhabitant. – Jeremiah 51:37
- Speak, and say, ‘Thus saith the Lord God: “‘Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers, which hath said, “My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself.” – Ezekiel 29:3
- Therefore I will wail and howl; I will go stripped and naked; I will make a wailing like the dragons and mourning as the owls. – Micah 1:8
- and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.” – Malachi 1:3
- And there appeared another wonder in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. – Revelation 12:3
- And his tail drew a third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered to devour her child as soon as it was born. – Revelation 12:4
- And there was war in Heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, – Revelation 12:7
- And the great dragon was cast out — that serpent of old called the Devil and Satan, who deceiveth the whole world. He was cast out onto the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. – Revelation 12:9
- And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman who brought forth the manchild. – Revelation 12:13
- And the earth helped the woman; and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. – Revelation 12:16
- And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and he went to make war with the remnant of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. – Revelation 12:17
- And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. – Revelation 13:2
- And they worshiped the dragon which gave power unto the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like unto the beast? Who is able to make war with him?” – Revelation 13:4
- And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon. – Revelation 13:11
- And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. – Revelation 16:13
- And he laid hold on the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:2
Many of these are indeed negative. In total, there is 21 negative mention, 9 neutral and 3 positive. However, it should be noted that adder and lion are also used in a negative context in the Bible – and 12 out of 21 negative mentions of dragon come from the Book of Revelation. Since dragon is an animal, this means that there are 12 neutral/positive mentions and only 9 negative mentions of dragon in Old Testament. Further, while many mentions of dragons are in negative context, not in all of them are dragons actually actively malevolent. And in those which are not negative, dragons are mentioned twice to be praising or honouring God: something clearly out of question for a literal Satan. Satan himself does take shape of dragon – most notably in Revelation – but he also takes shape of a snake, and of a lion.
The above is important, since it means that many mentions of dragons are actually those of Satan. Leviathan may have been Satan, since God has to defeat him in person: “In that day The LORD with His sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.” – Isaiah 27:1. This means that further two of listed negative mentions go “out of the window”, so to speak. As for Dragon in Revelation, that is clearly Satan himself. In Job 40:15, Behemoth – also a dragon – is described in rather peaceful terms: “Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.”.
Leviathan is a transliteration of Hebrew livyathan, and from description it is clear that Leviathan is, in fact, a dragon:
“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal- a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.”
In Psalm, Leviathan is said to have “heads”, painting something more akin to the Greek Hydra. In general, it is likely a creature based on a similar, seven-headed serpent from Canaanite mythology, as well as other Pagan mythologies such as the Ugaritic myth. This is not unlikely: early Hebrews were not monotheists, but rather monolaters: they believed in several gods, but worshipped only one – hence the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, and later “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images”. At any rate, Isaiah and Psalm both refer to Leviathan as a serpent, which is a standard term for a dragon.
Things are even more different once one realizes that majority of mentions of dragons in Bible had been censored by translations and replaced by different words. The “great whales” which God created in the Genesis is actually a mistranslation of tannynim, “dragons”. Yet “God saw that it was very good”. In Exodus 7:8-13, God transforms Moses’ staff into a dragon (translated as a serpent), which then eats Egyptian magicians’ dragons/serpents. By using Bible Gateway, King James’ version returns 34 results for “dragon”, but English Standard Version only 18 results. By comparison, 1599 Geneva Bible returns 37 results. Meanwhile, several vague incarnations of evil in the Old Testament were “translated” to dragons (draco) in Jerome’s Vulgate, thus adding numerous “examples” of evil dragons that were not there earlier.
Dragons shout or sing in Babylon’s pleasant palaces (it is often translated as “cry”, but even word “cry” can mean “shout” – to cry out). This is same expression as used for, for example, wolves. They also hiss, as well as “roar together like lions” and “yell as lions’ cubs”. Dragons also inhabit Babylon. At Isaiah 34:13-15, dragons are listed alongside other animals. At one point they are also noted as being alongside Lilith – a demon that eats children; but it is questionable whether demon was truly meant, as Lilith is an Assyrian demon that otherwise never appears in the Bible. But word lylythor means screech owls or night spectre. And the next part leaves no place to doubt that birds were indeed meant: Isaiah 17:2—The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.
Dragons are said to sleep for long periods of time, which means that they have very slow metabolisms. They live in desolate cities, but are not the cause of their destruction. Jeremiah 49:33 states that And Hazor shall be a dwelling for dragons, and a desolation forever: there shall no man abide there, nor any son of man dwell in it.. But again, dragons are not the cause of destruction: they are merely very resillient, dangerous and territorial creatures, similar to lions, hyenas or other beings noted as such. Thus, there is no support for dragons being evil.
Dragons are also referred to as honouring God: “The wild beasts shall honor me, the dragons and the ostriches, because I gave water in the desert, and floods in the wilderness to give drink to my people, even to mine elect.” (Isaiah 43:20). Another case of this is Psalm 148:7, when dragons are referred to as “praising” the God. That they did this without complaint means that dragons are not, in fact, evil – unlike Satan, who also knows that God exists, but trembles at His existence rather than worshipping Him.
Job 41 even describes dragons as being “kings of beasts”. Leviathan – a dragon, not a whale – is described as being extremely powerful, unyielding and completely free, impossible to subdue. It is powerful and graceful, and covered in impenetrable armour. Its “snorting throws out flashes of light, its eyes are like rays of dawn”.
The Book of Revelation in fact does not have anything to do with dragons as such. Satan also takes shape not just of a dragon, but also of an angel of light and may in fact be a fallen angel – yet not all angels are evil. Neither are all humans. Dragon in Revelation has a destructive character, and fights in heaven and the against the heaven after his fall. Dragon’s pursuit of the Woman is invocative of Python’s pursuit of Leto and Seth-Typhon’s pursuit of Isis, and other two beasts act as dragon’s agents. Much like Seth-Typhon, the Dragon in Revelation is of red colour; both of them also cast down stars during their battles.
Political opponents in Rome associated Nero with Typhon and its evil; as Nero was the first great persecutor of Christians, in this should be sought the origins of the Beast from Revelation. This was nothing new: in Egypt, myth of conflict between Horus and Seth-Typhon was used to promote the pharaoh; Ptolemaic rulers used the imagery of the myth rather extensively. In Rome, variation of myth depicting conflict between Zeus/Jupiter and Seth-Typhon was the most relevant. Nero’s rule was often compared to destructive performance of Typhon.
Nero had banished his first wife Octavia to Campania and had her killed in 62 AD. In tragedy Octavia Nero is presented as a malicious man and a complete tyrant. Among other things, it compares Nero’s rule with the destructive performance of Typhon: “Not such a pest was Typhon, whom wrathful mother Earth produced in scorn of Jove; this scourge, worse than he, this enemy of gods and men, has driven the heav-enly ones from their shrines, and citizens from their country. . . . “(Pseudo-Seneca, Oct. 237–41). Nero’s pollution of Heaven fits with Seth-Typhon’s attack on Heaven. With both Seth-Typhon myth and the Revelation, the battle is waged both in Heaven and on Earth in parallel. Nero-Typhon is the enemy of gods and humans both, just as the Beast from Revelation. Hermes shows Heracles contrast between Kingship and Tyranny, and latter is associated with Seth-Typhon.
In general, Revelation uses dragon to discuss the Roman Emperor’s claim to divine kingship. Both Python and Seth-Typhon myths were used to reinforce claims of the emperors to divine kingship by associating them with the divine world, or to undermine that same claim by inverting the myth and associating them with the Python / Seth-Typhon and the forces of chaos. The beast with seven heads likely represents the Rome on its seven hills, and its demands of worship represent the roman Imperial Cult, where Emperor was considered a God / divine being and had sacrifices made to him (or, in earlier times, was “only” associated with Jupiter). Imperial Cult was widespread and known in provinces.
Combining the above means that the Beast represents Rome and the Empire. It turns the imperial ideology upside-down, presenting the Empire not as savour of the world, but rather the cause of chaos and destruction (as the Dragon is). The Dragon and the Beast are presented as the opposites of God and Jesus Christ, and John employs the form of the imperial edict to present the Emperor as both a clone and a tool for Satan.
Overall, while evil dragons do indeed exist, there is no Biblical support for the idea that dragons are inherently evil. Indeed, even devils are not evil from their nature, being in fact fallen angels. Thus while some dragons are certainly evil, not all of them can be – being living beings, they are capable of both good and evil, and some must be good.