Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Why do dragons exist in so many cultures?

I was beginning to write an article about fantasy staples (dwarves, elves, dragons etc) when a more interesting question struck me. Why are dragons present in so many distant and different cultures?

In the large islands south-east of the Asian mainland there’s a better explanation than most. They have komodo dragons, enormous monitor lizards that can eat a whole pig. Admittedly, they have no wings (although dragons don’t necessarily have to have them) and don’t breathe fire, but they are massive, dangerous reptiles. The imaginative leap from a komodo dragon to a real dragon is much smaller than in, say, England.

England is a green (and wet) and pleasant land, but it most certainly is not troubled by marauding reptiles. We have almost no snakes, and of those we do have only one, the adder, is properly dangerous. However, the explanation could be the Book of Revelation (easily my favourite bit of the Bible, due to its bonkers and entertaining imagery). In Revelation, Satan turns into a huge dragon with… 7 heads and 13 horns, I think.

That does beg the question of where the Biblical dragon came from, though. I think the Zoroastrians wrote of Azhi Dahaki, the splendidly named super-dragon that was the offspring of the Father of Lies. The bad news is that at the end of the world Azhi Dahaki breaks free of his bonds and destroys the world.

Which sounds a bit like Revelation. Norse mythology also features dragons, specifically Nidhogg, who chews on the roots of the world-tree, Yggdrasill.

The Far East has its dragons too. The Chinese dragon is pretty famous, and participated in the race to decide the order of the Chinese zodiac. (The dragon came fifth, incidentally, after helping people out by creating rain and assisting a rabbit [who came fourth] reach safety).

Religion seems the common thread between the differing cultures, a common source for stories involving dragons.

Of course, dragons have been popular for a long time, from the Zoroastrians to Christianity and Beowulf, all the way to the present day.

They’ve long been a staple of fantasy as well. The Lord of the Rings does not feature any dragon prominently (I think the Nazgul ride them later on), but they have a larger role in the Silmarillion. More recently, George RR Martin makes excellent use of them in A Song of Ice and Fire (review probably coming on the 21st) and Skyrim will feature them heavily.

Why do they remain so popular?

Probably because a massive, flying, evil, fire-breathing reptile is cool. Just as fantasy has dwarves (likely grumpy smiths with beards) and elves (slender, snobbish archers) it needs a big bad wolf. And that’s the dragon.

Thaddeus

3 comments:

  1. One theory, which I rather like, is that legends of dragons and dragon like creatures arose from attempts in pre-scientific cultures to explain things like fossil dinosaur bones. And of course, once you have a dragon story, they're so cool that the meme is going to go global.

    Fantasy likes actual wolves too, of course. Ask Little Red Riding Hood...

    The steeds of the Nazgul incidentally were meant by Tolkien to suggest pterodactyls, not dragons (though he resisted confirming this canonically) - dragons do appear in the Silmarillion and the Hobbit of course, and they are far more formidable creatures than what the Nazgul ride.

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  2. I'd not considered that. Reminds me of something I saw recently, which suggested the cyclops myth came about because of fossilised skulls which appear to have one big eye socket in the middle. I forget what the skulls belonged to, maybe elephants/mammoths.

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  3. The Americas have their dragons as well (Quetzocatyl). They were completely separated from the other cultures at the time of these 'myths', like England is from Asia, etc.
    Why not flying, fire breathing elephants, snakes, fish, spiders, tigers, et al? Why are all the dragons almost the same. The simplest and most likely answer is - there used to be dragons.

    They were, in our terms, a type of dinosaur. Perhaps the fire breathing is myth but perhaps not. If a beetle can cause a biological explosion, if squids can change color and shape in immediate and amazing variety, and is it really that far fetched that a creature could shoot flame from it's mouth?

    It's no problem for Bible believers, where it's oldest book Job describes dinosaurs (Behemoth and Leviathan). It's not apocolyptic literature like Revelation (which is imagery and symbolism, written for an entirely different purpose than Job and is easy to discern by basic principles).

    I enjoy every time I hear of a 'living fossil', another ceolocanth that was declared 'extinct' for 250 million years popping up alive. Along with all the soft tissue being found more and more frequently. Any fact that might prove dragons lived with man is suppressed by the 'establishment', the God-hating mockers. They slander rather than debate.

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