In the Mideast, there seems to have been a meeting ground for dragons, some being like Chinese dragons, others more like Western dragons. Phrygian history tells of dragons that reached ten paces in length, lived in caverns near the River Rhyndacus, and moved with part of their bodies on the ground, the rest erect. Islam gives hints of Muhammad’s magick horse rising to heaven with the aid of dragon’s breath. An illustration from a Turkish manuscript now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris shows this scene.
The Egyptian Apep was described as a huge serpent-dragon that lived in the Underworld. The Canaanite god Ba’al is said to have killed the dragon Lotan and made the world from its body; the Hittites had a similar legend about the dragon Illuyankas. The Mesopotamian god Marduk killed the she-dragon Tiamat and created the world from her body. Ancient heroes of Persia battled with dragons.
In the Classics, the Greeks told of their hero Herakles slaying the seven-headed hydra, a form of dragon. While still in his cradle, he slew two giant serpents sent by Hera. Later the hero save Hesione who was chained as a sacrifice to a sea dragon. Perseus did the same for Andromeda. As a baby, Apollo also killed a serpent (dragon) sent against his mother by Hera. Jason killed a hydra (many-headed dragon) to get the Golden Fleece; scenes of this story can still be seen on Greek dishes from about 480 – 490 BCE, showing a definite dragon creature. Both the Greek Medea and the Roman Ceres were said to ride in chariots pulled by dragons. Ancient Greece and Rome considered the dragon both beneficent and evil, depending upon the activities of the creature. The Purple Dragon became the emblem of the Byzantine emperors. There is a wall painting of a dragon still existing in the ruined Roman city of Pompeii.
In legends from India there was ordinarily no conflict between the gods and the Nagas, or serpent-dragons, as shown by the stories of Krishna and Vishnu. Both of these gods have a fine working relationship with Ananta, king of the serpent-dragons, and the Nagas. The greatly revered Indian god Vishnu was on good terms with Ananta, the Endless One, a giant serpent with eleven heads. Vishnu slept on Ananta while the serpent guarded him. Ananta is considered by the Hindus to be the symbol of cosmic energy which is vital for creation.
The one exception to this friendship between the Nagas and the gods was the slaying of Vritra, a great serpent who coiled around the navel of the Earth, holding back the waters, Indra killed him to create the world-mountains.
The Nagas were known for their great magickal powers and the pearls of great price that they carried in their foreheads. The Nagas, also patrons of lakes, rivers, rain and clouds, lived in wonderful palaces, often visited by the gods. But as with all dragons in whatever form the Nagas were capable of killing people and causing problem when annoyed. There are stories of their creating drought, pestilence, and great suffering when humans broke their rules.
Sometimes the Nagas were pictured with serpent heads and human bodies. They were said to live at the top of Mount Meru, where they had a golden palace full of music, gems that fulfilled wishes, wonderful flowers, and beautiful companions. In the center of this garden, which once belonged to Varuna, stood a dragon-guarded tree of life and reincarnation.
In Africa, the country of Ethiopia was said to be heavily populated with dragons at one time. The Roman poet Lucan and other Classical authors wrote the African dragons could fly, that their brilliantly colored scales shone brightly and that some of them were so huge that they could be mistaken for hills when they lay asleep.
Generally speaking Western dragons were different in physical structure from Eastern dragons. Most of them had two strong hind legs, two shorter forelegs, a thick body and a long tail. Their wings were membranes, like those of bats, and had long ribs or bones. Their wedge-shaped heads were carried on long sinuous necks. Western dragons were fully armed with long claws and sharp teeth, besides their fiery breath. They talked with humans by means of telepathy and were extremely cunning and wily.
The ancient Celts had traditions of dragons, considering them wily but wise. Unfortunately so much of Celtic lore was lost to deliberate destruction that we have only remnants of tales and fragments of dragon lore left today from that culture. The Celtic ram-snake or dragon is connected with Cernunnos, the antlered Earth god. This Celtic ram-dragon is also connected with the number eight, this being the number of spokes on the solar wheel; the solar wheel is set in motion by the ram-headed dragon. What few carving we have of the god Cernunnos picture him with a bag of gold at his feet and a double-headed ram-snake belt about his waist. This belt with its two ram-dragon heads symbolizes the spiritual bridge between various planes of existence. The Celtic shaman-magician-priest knew that in order to travel this bridge, she/he must go inward to meet the dragon guarding the bridge. A lack of self-discipline and self-knowledge would prevent any seeker from being able to pass the dragon and enter the realms of the Otherworlds.
Conchobar of Ireland was said to have had both a divine and a human father. He was born at the Winter Solstice with what the story calls a water-worm in each hand. From the description these water-worms were probably baby dragons.
The Irish hero Finn MacCumhaill also killed dragons. Some magickal systems would look at Finn’s activities as not physical but as battling his own destructive inner thoughts.
The dragon has been depicted on the Welsh banner since at least the departure of the Roman legions. And in England, Scotland and Ireland the dragon has been drawn with four legs and the wyvern with two since the 16th century. On the European continent, however, the two-legged wyvern is still called a dragon, the same name given to the four-legged variety. Even today, the dragon, alone or with other designs, is part of the heraldic heritage of some two hundred English families and some three hundred from Euope.
In Scandinavian legend, the hero Sigurd (called Siegfried in Germany) killed the dragon Fafnir. This story clearly details the benefits from a dragon’s blood. Sigurd accidentally swallowed a drop of it and immediately could understand the language of birds. This saved his life from the dragon’ss treacherous brother who was plotting to kill him for the treasure. Sigurd also was bathed with the blood when he struck Fafnir from a pit. This made him invulnerable to weapons, except where a leaf covered a tiny spot.
The god Thorr once caught the World-Serpent while fishing. Considering the power and negativity of the great serpent-dragon, Thorr was fortunate that his companion cut the line. The god did not feel that way about it though and clouted his friend alongside the head for letting his big “fish” get away.
If one reads the very best of translations of the story of Beowulf, it is quickly seen that he fought three dragons. Although the first he killed was described as a young two-legged male monster who was raiding for food among the houses at night, it could have been a wyvern (who has two legs) or a four-legged dragon who walked upon its hind legs or a dragon in human disguise. The second creature was a mature female, finally killed in her spawning ground, who definitely took on human form. The third dragon came later in his life, and was specifically listed as a dragon. This one was a mature flying male with a poisonous bite. Well into middle ages at the time, Beowulf used himself as batitto draw the last dragon out of its lair so it could be killed.
“Dancing with Dragons”
D. J. Conway