Few creatures capture the imagination quite like dragons. Serpent-like and wise, these mythical creatures appear in many forms around the globe. Sometimes, they are terrible monsters, while others are friends to humankind. Not all are fire-breathing lizards; some dragons are furred, the bringers of rain and good fortune. So what do the dragons of the world have in common, and what sets them apart? And do they have a common ancestor? Let’s take a look at some of the most famous dragons in mythology.

Origins of the Dragon Myth

Many scholars have noted the remarkable similarity and global spread of dragon myths. Huge serpents, often capable of flight and/or sporting legs, feature in myths ranging from East Asia to Australia to Europe to the Americas. Short of these creatures actually existing, what could cause such a common motif?

Two major theories have attempted to explain the origin of dragons. The first, and perhaps most widely accepted, is the presence of dinosaur bones. People of the past had no way of knowing these bones belonged to ancient reptiles over 65 million years ago. Enormous bones and fearsome skulls may have inspired most dragon stories.

A separate theory posits that dragons are a construct of universal human fears and local wildlife. Ancient humans, this theory suggests, were naturally afraid of animals like snakes, leopards, and eagles, and so our collective subconscious combines them into a dragon-like form. Animals like crocodiles and large snakes may also have factored into local depictions of dragons. However, this theory doesn’t account for myths where dragons are benign and lucky beings, guardians of humanity rather than their predators.

The Lóng of China and Dragons of East Asia

The dragons of China are some of the nation’s most iconic and enduring symbols. Where European dragons are typically beings of malice, greed, and fire, the Lóng of China are usually kind, generous, and associated with water. The rain they bring feeds crops, sustaining human populations. They have therefore served as symbols of power and prosperity in China for thousands of years. In Chinese astrology, for example, the Year of the Dragon is thought to be an especially auspicious birth year. Cultural heroes like the Yellow Emperor are said to have been related to dragons. His descendants, the Chinese people, therefore can also trace their ancestry to the Lóng.

The Chinese dragon is described as a composite beast, with the head of a camel, the horns of a stag, the ears of an ox, the body of a snake, the scales of a fish, and the legs of an eagle, and the claws of a tiger. Other descriptions may list different animals, but the dragon is depicted with general consistency throughout the history of Chinese art. They are creatures of immense power, including the ability to change size, bring rains and cause mighty floods.

Similar dragons play an important role in the mythologies of other East and Southeast Asian nations such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Bhutan, the Philippines, and more. The dragons of these nations tend to resemble the Chinese dragon, including its nature as a benevolent bringer of water and life.

Dragons of Ancient Mesopotamia

Another source of dragon myths stems from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. Several different serpentine and lion-based dragons figure in Mesopotamian worship and mythology. Tiamat, for example, is a goddess representing the chaos of the seas and creation. She is sometimes depicted as a sea serpent. Her consort, Abzu, was a benevolent serpent of fresh waters. Together, they gave birth to a generation of younger deities. Then there is the Mushhushshu, a creature that combines the traits of a snake, lion, eagle, and scorpion and servant of the god Marduk. An example of a Mushhushshu can be seen on the famous Ishtar Gate.

Ancient Egyptian Dragons

Serpent monsters and deities also feature heavily in the mythology of Ancient Egypt. The most notable of these is Apep, another serpent deity associated with darkness and primordial waters. The great enemy of the sun god Ra, Apep is said to have been born of Ra’s umbilical cord. The snake lurked in the deep waters of the underworld, through which Ra passed each night to bring the rising sun. During the kingdom’s long history, one of the major duties of Ancient Egyptian priests was to pray for the safe passage of Ra each night.

Australia’s Rainbow Serpents

Rainbow serpents feature prominently in the worship and mythology of many Aboriginal Australian cultures. There are many Dreaming stories about rainbow serpents, and not all agree about their nature and characteristics. But common descriptions tend to depict these entities as creator deities associated with water and air. They travel between watering holes, their paths marked by rainbows. According to regional beliefs, there may be a single rainbow serpent or many. The Dreaming stories featuring rainbow serpents take place in the past, present, and future all at once, making these entities an eternal presence in the lives of Aboriginal Australian people who practice traditional worship. They can represent the power of life and water, and shape the earth with their movements.

Greco-Roman Dragons

Our modern English word ‘dragon’ stems from the Latin ‘draco,’ and Ancient Greek ‘drakon’ before it. ‘Draco’ can mean either serpent or dragon. As their name suggests, the dragons of the Greco-Roman world were typically sea serpents or large snakes with poisonous breath. The Colchian Dragon, for example, guarded the Golden Fleece from Jason and his Argonauts. It could only be defeated by luring it to sleep. Another enormous snake, the Python, wrapped its coils around the sacred site of Delphi before being slain by Apollo. The many-headed Hydra is another example of a Greek dragon, this one slain by Heracles.

Dragons of the Americas

Serpent entities also appear in the myths and worship of the thousands of cultures of North and South America. Tales of the Horned Serpent, for example, were told across much of what is now the Eastern United States. While depictions of the Horned Serpent vary by region, it’s generally described as a large sea snake with antlers, brilliant scales, and a large gem or crystal embedded in its forehead. The Horned Serpent was said to not be directly harmful to humans, but those who glimpsed it risked madness or bad luck.

While they may not be considered dragons in the technical sense, the feathered serpents of Mesoamerica also bear a striking resemblance to these mythical creatures. Such entities include Quetzalcoatl and Kukulkan, deities associated with wind and rain.

Medieval European Dragons

Perhaps the most familiar dragon to Western audiences today is the scaly, fire-breathing wyrm of medieval European lore. These creatures are generally portrayed as large reptiles with four legs, bat-like wings, and a long neck and tail. They are likely the descendants of Mesopotamian dragons, Greco-Roman dragons, and Biblical monsters like Behemoth. These influences in highly Christian societies gave European dragons an evil reputation. They were seen as demonic creatures, sitting on hoards of gold and terrorizing the kingdoms around them. It took a brave and virtuous warrior to defeat them and claim their treasures.

Examples of famous European dragons include the dragon of Beowulf and Fafnir of the Norse Sagas. King Arthur and Merlin regularly dealt with dragons, which became a popular heraldic symbol throughout Europe. They are especially associated with the Kingdom of Wales. Perhaps the most iconic European dragon is the one slain by St. George, who became a popular subject of medieval and Renaissance art. In modern media, dragons like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smaug, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the popular tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons continue to inspire modern readers, viewers, and artists.


Blust, Robert. “The Origin of Dragons.” Anthropos, vol. 95, 2000, pp. 519–36. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40465957.

Jones, David. An Instinct for Dragons. Routledge, 2002.

Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters & Dragons - an Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend & Myth. WW Norton, 2001.

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