Dragons are not new. Game of Thrones tells us that they date back to some arguably medieval time, which may or may not predate the adventures of Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit. In the nonfiction world, Christian legend tells of St. George slaying a dragon, and that tale probably derives from pre-Christian stories. Dragons show up in Chinese mythology as well—and in Bhutan, the Druk, or thunder dragon, is emblazoned on the national flag. And in fact, anthropologists have found dragons in art spanning thousands of years and independently created by people from all over the world.
The ubiquity of dragons across time and space may be related to fears inherited from some of humans’ most adorable ancestors: vervet monkeys. In his book An Instinct for Dragons, David E. Jones cites a study showing that these primates have an innate fear of lions, snakes and eagles. That’s a recipe for a dragon if I’ve ever heard one! Thus, humans may be evolutionarily predisposed to fear these animals.
But this only leads to more questions: What about the fire-breathing capabilities of European dragons, or the rain-bringing skills of Asian dragons, or the people-eating habits of Maori dragons? And why do some dragons fly while others slither?
The appearance, behavior and general level of horror of dragons vary wildly across cultures. These differences can tell us something about the natural history of their creators; this is where both local fears and local fauna play a role.
In northern China, around 300 B.C., workers digging a canal came across a fossilized animal skeleton. Remember that the theory of evolution wasn’t a thing yet, so people assumed this was the skeleton of an existing creature rather than the extinct nonavian dinosaur that it probably was. It went on record as a dragon skeleton—more fuel for the long-existing fire of Chinese dragon mythology.
Dragons appear in Chinese art from at least as far back as 1100 B.C. These dragons are relatively tame-looking and typically serpentine, with multiple sets of legs and a vaguely lion-like head. They don’t have wings, but they can fly. Two ancient Chinese rulers declared themselves to be direct descendent of dragons, and so dragons in many Chinese cultures became symbols of power. Contrary to the gut feeling you might be having right now, these dragons are generally seen as wise and benevolent—heroic, even—bringing rain to dry crops and pretty much saving entire civilizations.
In Europe, on the other hand, dragons are usually the bad guys. European dragon myths feature dragons as vicious monsters whose raison d’être involves getting slain by saints who need hero credibility. St. George, known primarily as a dragon-slayer, is now the patron saint of England and even has his own holiday on April 23.
Appearance-wise, these European dragons are a little wackier than their Asian cousins. They look more like snake/eagle/lion combinations straight out of your worst fever dreams. Usually they have legs and wings and a snake tongue, sometimes fur, sometimes scales, sometimes both. For good measure, they can also breathe fire—the fire-breathing animals in Hieronymus Bosch’s delightful Renaissance-era paintings of hell may have been an inspiration for this feature. The very real and very prehistoric-looking Nile crocodile might also have been an influence, as it regularly swam up to European shores from Egypt and traipsed around on land.
Further south, in New Zealand, the taniwha are dragon-like creatures from Maori mythology. In this case, take the basic snake/eagle/lion innate-fear combo and add something more local: the great white shark. In fact, the Maori word for great white shark is mangō-taniwha. But don’t worry too much, as these creatures can be benevolent protectors—sometimes. At other times, they can be totally horrifying people-eaters. As a cherry on top of that nightmare cake, note also that in some stories, taniwha have shape-shifting abilities.
After thousands of years of international dragon mythology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that their moment has passed.
But dragons continue to spark our curiosity and captivate our imaginations; today, they make appearances in pop culture via The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons (and by extension, Stranger Things), Game of Thrones and even in band names like Imagine Dragons and DragonForce.
These pop dragons are mostly European-style in appearance, but their roles are more complex than the traditional Western “set ‘em up, knock ‘em down” scheme. They run the gamut from the occasionally disagreeable allies in Game of Thrones to the well-spoken monster in The Hobbit.
Either way, stay vigilant, dear reader, because if Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that “the night is dark and full of terror.”