Are Dragons Evil, Part 2 – Ancient Mediterranean and Middle East
Dragons in Greek mythology are ambivalent. They are very often antagonists, but are much less often outright evil. Greek Dracones usually guarded a sacred spring, grove or golden treasure. This would put them solidly into a “good antagonist” territory – a person who opposes the hero not out of malice, but out of the sense of duty. Individual dragons however can vary.
Colchian Dragon was a giant serpent which guarded the Golden Fleece. It was slain by Jason and Argonauts, but its malevolence was a consequence of its task – which itself was an exploitation of dragon’s attachment to gold. Thus it could be considered neutral.
Dragon Chyhreides or Dragon of Cychreus was a giant serpent which terrorized the island of Salamis. It was slain by King Cychreus. In other accounts it was the king who had raised the beast, and it was instead driven from the island by the hero Eurylokhos. But dragon could not have been wholly evil, since it was welcomed to Eleusis by Demeter – goddess of harvest and agriculture – and made her attendant. Neutral.
Dragon of the Giant-War participated in the war as the enemy of the gods, and was turned into constellation Draco by the Goddes Athena. Evil.
Hesperian Dragon or Ladon was tasked with guarding the golden apples of Hesperides and tormenting the heaven-bearing Atlas. While latter is definitely antagonistic, fact that he was “tasked” with both makes it neutral.
Lernean Hydra was a nine-headed water serpent which haunted the swamps of Lerna. Heracles was sent to destroy her. Other information states that it was raised by Hera to destroy Heracles. Thus it was definitely antagonostic, though not necessarily morally evil. However, it might also have terrorized the people of Argos. Conclusion: Evil or Neutral.
Ismenian Dragon was son of Ares who guarded a well that was near newly-built Thebes, and killed people sent to fetch water from there. Cadmeus slew the dragon with help of Athena, but was still punished for doing so. As dragon was fulfilling the task, it was neutral.
Dragons of Medea were a pair of serpents which drew the flying chariot of witch Medea. They were thus neutral.
Nemeian Dragon was a monstrous serpent guarding the sacred grove of Zeus at Nemeia. When the infant prince Opheltes was lain the grass by his nurse as she directed the army of the Seven Against Thebes towards a nearby spring, the dragon found and killed him. Adrastos and his company then slew the beast and established the Nemeian Games in honour of the child and the god Zeus. Dragon however was only acting in its capacity as a guard (Greek gods were jerks). Thus it was neutral.
Dragon of the Serpent-Born was a giant serpent which guarded a sacred grove of the goddess Artemis in north-eastern Mysia. It impregnated a maiden named Halia when she was visiting the shrine and she birthed Ophiogenes “the Serpent-Born”, ancestor of the Ophiogenees tribe. Since it was not stated whether impregnation was forcible or not, it will be classed as ambivalent.
Pitanean Dragon was a giant serpent turned to stone by the gods in the region of Pitane in Aiolia, Anatolia. It is thus ambivalent, as there is nothing on how it behaved.
Python was a monstruous serpent set by Gaia to guard the sacred oracle by Delphi. Apollon slew it when he laid claim to the shrine. He may also have slain it to avenge his mother who had been pursued by the monster during her long pregnancy. Ambivalent or evil.
Dragons of Rhodes were giant serpents which terrorised the island of Rhodes. They were slain by the hero Phorbas. Evil.
Thespian Dragon was a monstruous serpent which ravaged the land of Thespiae in Central Greece.It was destroyed through the sacrifice of the hero Menestratos who leapt between the jaws of the beast wearing a spiked breastplate. Evil.
Trojan Dragons were less dragons and more large sea snakes which were sent by Poseidon to kill Laocoon and his sons, for opposing the course of events which would lead to the destruction of Troy. Due to being merely executors of divine will, they can be classed as ambivalent.
The Cetea were the monsters of the sea, often depicted as serpentine sharks. Two greatest were were the Ketos (Cetus) slain by Perseus in Aithiopia (Ethiopia) and the Ketos slain by Herakles at Troy. Both were sent by Poseidon, and as such Trojan dragons could then be classed as ambivalent. In fact, Trojan Cetus was sent by Poseidon because King Laomedon had refused to pay him for building the city walls.
Campe was a monstruous dragon sent by Titan Kronos (Cronus) to guard the giants trapped in the pit of Tartaros. She was killed by Zeus. Due to doing its duty, it can be classified as ambivalent.
Ceto was the goddess of dangers of the sea but, more specifically, of sea monsters. She consorted with her brother Phorcys to produce a brood of fearsome monsters – Echydna, Scylla, Ladon, Graiai and Gorgones. Generally she can be considered evil.
Echidna was a monstruous she-dragon with the head and breast of a woman and the tail of a coiling serpent. She is sometimes equated with Python, “the rotting one”, or believed to be a Tartarean lamprey. Hesiod makes her a daughter of monstrous sea-gods, and associates her with rotting sea-scum and fetid salt-marshes. Presumably evil.
Argive Echidna was a Drakaina (She-Dragon) with the upper body of a woman and the tail of a serpent who murdered travellers throughout the lands of Argos and Arkadia. She was eventually slain by the hundred-eyed giant Argos Panoptes. Very definitely evil.
Poene was a Drakaina summoned from the underground by god Apollon to punish the Argives for the cruel death of his infant son Linos. She was slain by hero Coroebus. Thus she was neutral.
Dracaena Scythia was the first ruler of the land of Skythia. She was a woman from the waist up with the tail of a serpent in place of legs. She stole some of Heraclius’ herd before demanding the hero mate with her to make her return the herd. He did so, and so she became an ancestor of the line of Scythian kings. Thus she could be considered ambivalent to evil.
Scylla was a sea-monster who haunted the rocks of a narrow strait opposite the whirlpool of Kharybdis (Charybdis). Ships who sailed too close to her rocks would lose six men to her ravenous, darting heads. Definitely evil.
Overall, out of 23 dragons listed here, none are good, 12 are ambivalent, 3 ambivalent-to-evil and 8 outright evil. Thus it can be seen that Greek dragons definitely tend towards the “evil” side, but are also not “evil” as such.
Dragons in Roman mythology are, as so much about Roman mythology and culture, stolen from Greece. Or rather, their stories are. In form, Roman dragon combines Greek serpentine dragon with the dragons of Near East, thus producing what is today considered a “classical” European dragon. It could be considered to be actually of Near Eastern origin, specifically Iranian. Each cohort had a dragon standard after Parthian and Dacian wars of Trajan. The standard entered the army with Cohors Sarmatarum and Cohors Dacorum. The standard was a large dragon fixed to the end of a lance, with large gaping jaws of silver and with the rest of the body formed of colored silk, resembling in many ways a windsock. Dragon continued to be used as a symbol even after Christianization: Byzantines used drakoneion, which was a dragon standard. Drakoneion was purple, with a chi-ro symbol below the dragon. Drakonphoroi (latin dracontarii – bearers of dragon standard) were mentioned as late as 6th century by Johannes Lydos, and Justinian also mentioned ten draconarii in his edict in 534. After 6th century however drakontia disappears from records, though dracontarii as a rank are mentioned as late as 10th century. In fact, dragon standard may have survived as late as 12th century, and two-dimensional images of dragons were still used as late as 14th century.
The one unique story is that of the mud dragon. A dragon made its lair in mud outside of a prominent Roman city. For centuries, dragon protected the city, destroying any enemy that attacked, but there was a price to that. Every month the city had to perform a ritual that ended with a virgin bringing a basket of food to the dragon in his mud cave. The girl had to hand feed the dragon and if her purity flagged while feeding him, he ate her. If she did not flinch, the dragon would return her to the city unharmed.
Near-Eastern / Middle-Eastern Mythology
Near Eastern serpents and dragons were creatures of huge strength and size. They often had elements of other animals, such as lion’s head, eagle’s talons and/or scorpion’s tail. Many were sea creatures, embodying the unpredictable, chaotic and destructive nature of the sea. While they were originally merely agents of chaos, without any attachment moral value, with time they came to represent not just chaos but evil as such. As religions of Middle East moved into Europe, this view came to influence European views of dragons.
Dragon symbolized the four elements of the nature: earth, air, fire and water. It lived in the depths of earth or water, flew through the air, and would often breathe flame. This tendency to live in depths led to dragons being often associated with dark forces. Dragons however were not always evil. While untamed dragon symbolizes destruction and evil, it assumes the role of a guardian when it had been conquered and subdued.
Babylonian Epic of Creation details the struggle of Apsu, god of the primordial waters under the earth, and his consort Tiamat, the sea goddess, against Ea, god of wisdom, and his son Marduk, a god-hero. Ea killed Apsu and took over his domain. To gain revenge, Tiamat created an army of giant snakes and filled their bodies with venom. She also made dragons bear mantles of radiance, making them god-like. But Marduk defeated Tiamat in combat and split her down the middle. Afterwards he captured the dragon and Tiamat’s other monsters. Gods thus bestowed kingship upon Marduk, and the dragon took its place at his feet, becoming his emblem.
Marduk’s dragon Mušhuššu was a hybrid, a scaly animal with hind legs resembling the talons of an eagle, lion-like forelimbs, a long neck and tail, a horned head, a snake-like tongue, and a crest. During the Neo-Babylonian empire, it was a sacred animal of Marduk and his son Nabu, becoming Marduk’s symbolic animal and servant after Marduk had banished it.
Abzu and Tiamat, two dragons from ancient Babylonian myth, are described as father and mother of creation. Abzu was said to be the God of fresh water, and spread knowledge and happiness over Earth. Tiamat was the goddess of salt, and was a source of chaos. Both were killed by their children who wanted to usurp their throne.
In Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra travels through the underworld each night. This journey is fraught with danger, but he is aided by the dragonlike creatures that guard the tomb of Osiris, god of the underworld, and the fire-breathing cobras that guard the gates and passageways. Ra confronts his mortal enemy, Apepis, a giant sea snake and a symbol of darkness and chaos. He slays and dismembers Apepis, and then sails up from the east to shine as the sun for the next twelve hours. Apepis, however, is resurrected each time he is slain. Come nighttime, the battle begins again.
Persial literature is filled with stories of heroes outwitting and slaying dragons. Rustam, the most courageous, long-lived and celebrated of Persian heroes, once unwittingly chose to sleep in a dragon’s lair. When the dragon approached to attack the hero, his horse Rakhsh whinnied loudly and ran to protect its master. When Rustam awoke, the dragon had disappeared. The second time this happened, Rustam threatened to punish the horse if he should be disturbed again. The third time the dragon emerged, the horse roused Rustam just as it was about to attack. Together they defeated the beast, and Rustam cut off its head.
Dragons represented the embodiement of evil in Khamseh, and so the Perian Kings – who were the embodiement of good – tested their mettle against dragons.
In Armenian mythology, the Vishap were evil despite their association to water. They were thought to kidnap children, cause whirlwinds and similar. Demi-god Vagan Vishapakagh was referred to as a dragon slayer.
Muslims believed that dragons could devour the Sun and the Moon. With the Mongol invasion of Iran and Iraq in the first half of the thirteenth century, the Chinese dragon replaced the more snake-like creature of the original myth. Chinese-style dragons are found on Persian fifteenth- century blue-and-white ceramics in imitation of Chinese prototypes, as well as on the pages of Persian, Turkish, and Mogul Indian manuscripts of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries.