When we say dragon, we usually have one idea in mind: We think of a huge green scaled creature, usually with wings. In most cases, he breathes fire. That’s a fine definition for most dragons.
Oh, there are differences. For example, Western dragons tend to be evil, whereas Oriental dragons are usually related with good fortune. Dragons also vary in appearance.
At one extreme, the cockatrice, sometimes called a basilisk, has the feet of a cock. A wyvern has the feet of an eagle. They all have wings and usually a barbed tail. The head of this cockatrice is like a cock, but a wyvern may have a more lizardlike head. On top of his head, he may have a rooster-like comb, a crown, or a coronet-type decoration.
The poet, Shelley, refers to “the green and golden basilisk.” This dragon often breathes fire, and his glance can kill.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he refers to “The death-darting eye of Cockatrice.” This is the classic dragon of heraldry, and is often called a heraldic dragon.
At the other extreme, there is the amphiptere, which used to be a term for a massive, snakelike creature with no legs and — in some traditions — no wings.
As recently as the late 17th century, these were discovered in England. There has been speculation that the amphiptere is actually a reticulated python which, in India, can reach a length of 30 feet.
But, as popular terminology changes, “amphiptere” now seems to include snake-like creatures with wings. And sometimes legs. But that blurs the distinctions, so I like to look at the roots of each category.
The main difference that remains is: amphipteres seem to be more snake-like.
Between these two extremes, there are many varieties of dragons.
Even more dragons
Drakes have legs and breathe fire (or snow/ice), but most of them don’t have wings.
A lindworm, lindworm snake, or lindwyrm has a head like a large snake or lizard, and often has no legs. He’s just a huge, snakelike creature. Sometimes he has wings, sometimes he doesn’t. Generally, the lindworm is considered an amphiptere.
Likewise, the Irish peist dragon is often described as a huge snake. In the Irish language, the word peist means worm, monster, or sometimes reptile.
There are dragons who fit neither category, and seem quite unrelated. One of these is the chimera, which comes from the Latin, chimaera, meaning she-goat or monster. The chimera is fire-breathing, with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.
The earliest references to dragons suggest that the live in or near the water. In the Bible, in Psalms 74:13, “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength; thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.” Similarly, in Isaiah 27:1, the Bible refers to “the dragon that is in the sea.”
New Testament references to dragons are almost always figurative, not literal.
Today, the Irish peist or ollipeist lives in the sea, where St. Patrick confined this dragon while banishing the snakes from Ireland. As one peist fled to the sea, he cut a path through the landscape which is now the Shannon Valley. In general, the peist–often associated with Co. Clare–is generally regarded as a sort of watchdog for some of the fae.
There has been speculation that the Loch Ness Monster is actually a water-dwelling dragon.
Sea serpents may be dragons, too. We don’t have enough information to be certain.
Many dragons live on or under the land. In the Arthurian legends of Merlin, we learn about two dragons, one red and one white, which live in a hill where Vortigern attempts to build a castle.
In England, several hills are famous because dragons used to curl around them as they slept.
In Oriental lore, many dragons live in caves or under hills, as well as on land. However, there are also dragons who live in wells and waterways, and some that begin as a fish and later become dragons on land.
The Jabberwocky story suggests that the Sockburn Worm started life as a small worm in a nearby fishing area. However, in later years he traveled on land, terrorizing the area.
So some dragons live in both the water and on land at different times during their lives. We can’t use habitat as a clearly defining characteristic.
However, it’s safe to guess that water-dwelling dragons are more likely to be the snake variety, without legs.
Learn more about the history of dragons
(and 20th century sightings) in our article,
A brief history of dragons