A brief history of dragons

Bodium CastleThe history of dragons is not an easy subject.

Frankly, dragons appear in earliest recorded history. Nobody ever thought about where they came from, just as few people research where frogs come from. They just are.

However, there are few current stories about dragons, unless you include the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s sad that so many people think that dragons are just legends and fairy tales.

Until the early 20th century, people took dragons very seriously.

The earliest written tale of dragons may be the Sumerian/Babylonian/Mesopotamian creation legend, Enuma Elish, in which Mummu-Tiamat is sometimes represented as a dragon/goddess of the ocean or waters.

This story corresponds to the Bible account in Genesis 1:12 (NRSV) which mentions “sea monsters.” Dragons appear throughout the Bible, first as literal beasts in the Old Testament, and then as symbols of evil forces in the New Testament.

Dragons are mentioned steadily throughout written history, through the 20th century. In AD 67, Roman historian Octavus Livy described a battle that he had witnessed, involving a “leviathan” or dragon. Pliny the Elder mentioned dragons in his histories, too.

In the Dark Ages, generally prior to the 12th century, a dragon tormented Drachenfels, Germany and another was seen at Isle St. Marguerite in France. The latter dragon reportedly killed over 3000 people. He may be the same dragon as Drac, who lived in a cave near Beaucaire, France on the Rhone River.

The leading tale claims that St. Patrick banished both snakes and dragons from Ireland.

However, in the 11th century, Tristan reportedly killed a dragon to win the hand of Isolde in marriage, perhaps for his uncle Mark. During that same time, yet another dragon terrorized Kiev, Russia.

In 1222, two years after Henry III’s coronation, dragons were seen over London, England. At the time, the dragons were blamed for ravaging thunderstorms and the flooding which resulted. That is the same year that St. George’s Day became a National Holiday in England, named for the famous dragonslayer.

(Although St. George probably lived in the third and fourth centuries, his dragon tales were popularized far later, in 14th century England. According to a leading legend, he killed a dragon in Pagan Libya, and the entire town immediately converted to Christianity.)

We can find many dragons as we casually browse history:

  • Two dragons fought near Canterbury, England, with many witnesses in 1449.
  • A dragon was killed on Vatican Hill in Rome in 1669.
  • In 1942, the German U-boat Reichland reported a dragon-like sea serpent.

These accounts continue, far more than could be catalogued here. However, these tales follow one after another in steady succession, many with credible witnesses.

The most recent dragon lore may be the 1966 story of a British military unit practicing survival techniques in the Atlantic Ocean. According to this story–which may be urban legend–paratrooper John Ridgeway saw a huge, dragon-like sea serpent rise about him from the ocean.

However, this account may borrow from a more documented story from the VietNam war, involving an exchange between a soldier named Ridgeway and a helicopter called “Dragon.”

Regardless of the accuracy of individual dragon stories, the preponderance of evidence is surprising and almost overwhelming.

In the face of so much history, the bigger question is: Why don’t we believe in dragons today?

Learn more about dragons in my next article, Kinds of dragons

Dragon trivia

photo courtesy of GraphicStock.com

The study of dragons is an immense subject, and could easily fill an encyclopedia. However, in the course of my research, I collected several bits of trivia which may interest dragon enthusiasts:

For example, dragons provide significant words to our language, and tales to our folklore.

Dragon terminology

A female dragon is a dragoness, a word used since the early 17th century.

A small or young dragon is a dragonet.

Anything pertaining to a dragon is dracontine.

Garguiyle was originally the name of an 8th century dragon in Rouen, France who was killed by St. Romanus. The word gargoyle comes from the name of this dragon.At least one dragon was killed by a woman, Tarasque, the dragon of Isle. St. Marguerite. This dragon was conquered by St. Martha.

A dragon’s environment

There are few natural enemies of dragons. Some are the stork, stag, and ichneumon. The latter is a relative of the mongoose, which is known to destroy crocodile eggs in Egypt. According to legend, dragons are terrified of the ichneumon and will cover themselves in mud and try to close their nostrils to avoid attack by the weasel-like animal.

Flora and fauna

In zoology, draco describes an animal’s characteristic of wing-like membranes on its flanks.

Other sciences

In alchemy, caput dragonis, or the “dragon’s head” is the term for the poisonous breath of the winged dragon.

As late as the 16th century, draconite stone was believed to come from the head of a dragon.

Draco, which is the Latin word for dragon, is also the name of a famous constellation, best seen in July. About 4000 years ago, Thuban, the fourth star from the end of the tail, used to be our North Star.

More dragon lore

There are many astronomy terms which relate the moon to dragons. Likewise, in Western and Oriental lore, dragons are supposed to participate in eclipses.

In mythology, Cadmus planted dragon’s teeth and from the ground, armed warriors sprouted.