The Dragon; deadly foe or wise guardian?

The theme for this month’s blog is all things supernatural in the history. The supernatural aspect of history that I have chosen to talk about is the dragon. Thanks to the many forms of media the dragon has returned triumphantly in the popular media, with the next of instalment of the Hobbit trilogy out this Christmas and appearances of dragons in TV (Game of Thrones) it has become very difficult not to see one pop its scaled head up on the screen. I realised that whilst I know all about the dragons in fictional books and movies, I know very little about the history of dragons, their origins, the forms that they takes and what they represent. So this is what I have dedicated this blog post to.

As I tend to look at western interpretations of dragons, I am going to start by looking at the eastern dragons of China, Japan and Korea. The Chinese myth of the dragon has predominantly come from early philosophical tales and images that show the dragon was made up nine different animal features. Each Chinese tribe believed that totem or animal would protect them and ensure that their land flourishes. It was the snake or dragon tribe that gain dominance over many of the other tribes and adopted the totems into the traditional eastern dragon image. The resulting creature became known as the Nine Resemblances, this is also where the Chinese lucky number nine is supposed to have originated from. This myth is approximately six to seven thousand years old and there are other variations of the dragon creation myth. Dragons aided in times of famine and drought by producing rain and helping with harvests and dragons could be awoken by banging gongs. They were also guardians of the sky and as a result had control over the weather. Japanese dragons, like Chinese dragons were water deities associated with rain and healthy harvests. Korean dragons were also very similar to the Japanese and Chinese dragons and the also shared the same trait of being wise and appeared in many texts as being national guardians.

Historically dragons have been heavily associated with the ruling dynasty and became a symbol of divine leadership in most Asian countries. In China the Emperor had a mandate to rule from Heaven, primarily associated with dragons and it was believed that the emperor had dragons blood running in his veins. The dragon was very important to the ruling house, the very items that the emperor used were referred to as the dragon’s seat for example and the sight of a dragon was a sign that the emperor was ruling well. Dragons also appeared on robes from as early as the Tang dynasty (618-906) and become increasingly a symbol of the court and government attire. Dragons, therefore in Chinese and more generally in Asian culture and history played a major spiritual and political role for the society.

The European dragon however is much different to the Asian dragon as it was something to be feared rather the worshiped. A dragon in Europe had many origins from dragons in Roman and Greek mythology to the Christian images of dragons that remain in sight today. In Latin dragon is translated as Draco which means snake or serpent and is associated with snakes and the Devil in Christian religion. Dragons are portrayed as something evil and treacherous and it is often a bold and courageous knight or saint that slays the dragon to free the people from its influence. This is the case of St George and his battle with the dragon in Libya when George saved the princess from the evil dragon. There are many similar stories to the legend of St George across Europe; in Catalonia for example the dragon is also present in mythology and is able to breathe fire.

Appearances of the dragon have almost been constant in history though to different cultures they clearly had different meanings. Both European and Asian dragons appear to be associated with water and tended to live close to or in a body of water. However apart from this they are complete opposites, Chinese dragons are worshiped whilst European dragons are feared and fought. One aspect of the dragons in myth and history that is present across the world is that they were powerful and noteworthy creatures. Records and images of dragons have span three continents and of course there are many different versions that have expanded from these. The creation and longevity of the dragons in mythology and history just goes to show how powerful the supernatural elements of history have been in both the past and in the present. Whilst most of the dragon legends are, well legends (or are they?) the aspects that symbolise dragons; their protection, the fear, their danger and their powerful presence are very relevant to the period that they originate from. And like the creature themselves, the legends are difficult to forget or destroy making dragons presence in history even more interesting to study.

Sources

Asian dragons
http://resources.primarysource.org/content.php?pid=55421&sid=405916
http://www.dragonsinn.net/east-1.htm

European dragons
http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/stgeorge2.html
http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Europeweb/factfile/Unique-facts-Europe31.htm
http://dragonsrenaissance.blogspot.co.uk/

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