Terrifying dragons have long been a part of many religions, and there’s a reason for their appeal

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Emilie Zarka, Arizona State University

The premiere of HBO’s prequel to “Game of Thrones,” “House of the Dragon,” will undoubtedly draw more attention to the fierce dragon. Two-legged or four-legged, fire-breathing or metamorphosed, scaled or feathered, dragons fascinate people around the world with their legendary power. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Long before “Harry Potter”, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and other modern interpretations increased the dragon’s notoriety in the 21st century, artifacts from ancient civilizations indicated its importance in many religions across the world.

As a scholar of monsters, I’ve found dragons to be an almost universal symbol for many civilizations. Scientists have tried to find explanations for the myth of dragons, but their enduring existence testifies to their narrative power and mystery.

Dragons can symbolize the chaos of the natural world. Photo by Rock Vincent Guitard for Unsplash., CC BY-SA

Ancient dragons, ancient stories

Religions and cultures around the world are full of traditions about dragons. In fact, in the vast majority of religions, there is a mythical trope that some scholars call Chaoskampf, a German word that translates to struggle against chaos. This term, used by mythologists, refers to a ubiquitous motif involving a heroic figure who slays a “monster” of primordial chaos, often with serpentine or dragon-like features and a massive size that dwarfs humans.

An ancient example is found in the “En?ma Eliš”, a Babylonian creation text from around 2000–1000 BC.

In the text, Tiamat, the primordial female deity of salt water and matriarch of the gods, gives birth to 11 kinds of monsters, including the dragon. Although Tiamat herself is never described as a “dragon”, some of her children, or “monsters”, include several different types of dragons with explicit references to her dragon children. The iconography then evolved so that its appearance began to take on serpentine features, linking its image to another famous mythological clawed predator, the dragon.

Colorful dragon wrapped around a column near the ceiling.
The dragon, lord of the scaly animals, represents one of the four animals of Chinese mythology corresponding to the directions and the seasons. Photo by Raimond Klavins for Unsplash

Dragons in Chinese and other cultures

The presence of the dragon in China, where it is called Long, is also ancient and an integral part of various cultural, spiritual and social traditions.

Dragons are members of the Chinese zodiac, one of the sacred guardian creatures that make up the four benevolent animals and vindicate imperial dynasties. Different types of these aquatic, intelligent, and semi-divine beings form a hierarchy in ancient Chinese cosmology and appear in the creation myths of various indigenous traditions.

When Jesuit missionaries reintroduced Christianity to China in the 16th century, the existence of the dragon went unchallenged. Instead, they have become associated with a more westernized explanation – the devil.

Today, dragons are celebrated and revered in Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian traditions as symbols of strength and enlightenment.

Dragons also appear in Anatolian religions, Sumerian myths, Germanic sagas, Shinto beliefs, and in Abrahamic scriptures. The repeated and prominent presence of the creature across world religions and cultures raises an interesting question: why did dragons appear?

symbolic power

A long-proposed theory is that there are natural explanations for dragons. This is not to say that mythical beasts existed in real life, but rather that fossils, living animals, and geological features existing in the natural world inspired their creation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scientist Carl Sagan has written a book on the subject, claiming that dragons evolved from a human need to merge science with myth, the rational with the irrational, in part of an evolutionary response to true predators. His thoughts are an expansion of ideas proposed from the 19th century or earlier, as newly discovered fossils were linked to depictions of dragons around the world.

Complete or partial remains of many extinct species can explain the physical attributes of dragons. In 2020, two scholars, DorothyBelle Poli and Lisa Stoneman, even proposed that the fossilized remains of Lepidodendron, a scale-like plant, could be the origin of the worldwide presence of dragons.

Fossilized scale-like bark of Lepidodendron may inform dragon mythology. Print by De Agostini Editorial via Getty Images

Human encounters with flying lizards, oars, crocodiles, Saharan horned vipers, large snakes, and certain species of lizards and birds have also been offered as possible explanations for the dragon lore, given their physical resemblance with different dragons.

Scholars have also cited natural geological processes as explanations for the dragon lore, especially when associated with natural disasters. Fire-breathing dragons, for example, could be an explanation for mysterious fires that observers have tried to rationalize as a dragon’s flame. Natural gas vents, methane produced from decaying materials, and other sources of underground gas deposits can produce a fire if accidentally ignited. Before the mechanics of combustion were fully understood, such occurrences were believed to be indicators of a dragon’s presence, providing a cause for what seemed implausible.

Eternal Dragons

A colorful dragon sculpture lit from within against a black background.
The ancient mythology of the dragon continues to inspire art and drama. Photo by Thomas Despeyroux for Unsplash., CC BY-SA

One of the reasons why dragons keep appearing in our world could be that they represent the power of nature. Stories of people taming dragons can be viewed as stories about humans’ ability to dominate forces that cannot always be controlled.

Taking control of a dragon underscores the problematic idea that humans are superior to all other animals in nature. The dragons challenge the concept of human biological supremacy, raising questions about what it would mean if humans were forced to reposition themselves as lower members of the food chain.

More importantly, I believe, the beauty, terror, and power of the dragon evoke mystery and suggest that not all phenomena are easily explained or understood.

Emily Zarka, English trainer, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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