Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History

Dragons are included in the myth and folklore of every ancient culture on earth.
Marcia Wendorf

Dragons are hot right now.

The dragon Smaug appears in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Dragons appear in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, the rock group "Imagine Dragons," and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. This last work was turned into the television series, Game of Thrones.

The three dragons in Game of Thrones, Rhaegal, Viserion, and Drogon, became true stars while helping Daenerys Targaryen try to win the Iron Throne. In 2002, dragons lay waste to England in the film Reign of Fire, and dragons were the stars in How to Train Your Dragon in 2010 and the 2016 film, Pete's Dragon.

So, why are dragons so appealing, or so frightening? Is it possible that we remember them from somewhere?

An Instinctive Fear

A remembrance of dragons is the central tenet of Arthur C. Clarke's classic science fiction novel Childhood's End. In the book, the earth is visited by an extraterrestrial race who strike fear into the hearts of all mankind, but not for their current deeds, which are benevolent. Rather, it is because buried deep in mankind's racial memory is a memory of dragons.

In his book, An Instinct for Dragons, which was published in 2000, anthropologist David E. Jones suggests that children have an instinctive fear of snakes, even children living in areas where snakes are rare. Jones cites a study showing that 39 percent of all people are afraid of snakes, but where does this hardwired fear come from?


The Mediterranean

Dragons appear in the folklore and myths of every culture around the world. Dragons first appeared in ancient Mesopotamian art and literature. The Mušḫuššu, pronounced "Mush·khush·shu," was a scaly dragon with hind legs like the talons of an eagle, feline forelegs, a long neck and tail, a horned head, a snake-like tongue, and a crest.

The Mušḫuššu is depicted on the famous Ishtar Gate of the city of Babylon, which dates to the sixth century BC.

Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History
Mušḫuššu on the Ishtar Gate. Source: Allie Caulfield/Wikimedia Commons

Also in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, there was the fearsome Ušumgal.

Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History
Mesopotamian Ušumgal. Source: L. Gruner/Wikimedia Commons

In ancient Egyptian mythology, there was a dragon named Apep who embodied chaos and was the opponent of light and truth. Apep was first mentioned during the Eighth Dynasty, which dates to between 2190 and 2165 BC. It was thought that the setting of the sun was caused by the god Ra descending to the underworld to battle Apep.

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Ancient Egypt also had the Ouroboros who was a dragon eating its own tail. An image of an Ouroboros was found in Tutankhamun's tomb, and it came to be a symbol of the Gnostic Christians. During medieval times, the Ouroboros was a symbol for alchemy.

Egyptian Ouroboros
Egyptian Ouroboros. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

In Job 41:1–34 of the Hebrew bible, the dragon Leviathan is described as exhaling fire and smoke.

The prophet Daniel is described as feeding a dragon "cakes of pitch, fat and hair" which caused the dragon to burst open and die.

Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History
Biblical Leviathan. Source: Gustave Doré/Wikimedia Commons

A dragon is first mentioned in ancient Greek literature in The Iliad, where King Agamemnon has a blue dragon motif on his sword belt, and the emblem of a three-headed dragon on his breast plate.

A Greek dragon, Python, was slain by the god Apollo, and the ancient Greeks thought that Python lived at the center of the earth, which they deduced was Delphi.

Greek Python
Greek Python. Source: Virgil Solis/Wikimedia Commons

India, Scandinavia and Great Britain

At the same time in India, there lived the dragon Vritra who was the personification of drought, and who blocked the courses of rivers. Vritra was heroically slain by the deity Indra.

Farther north, in Norse mythology, are the dragons Jörmungandr, Níðhöggr, and Fafnir. The hero Sigurd catches Fafnir by digging a pit between Fafnir's cave and the spring where he drinks, then Sigurd stabs Fafnir, and on Odin's advice, he drinks his blood. This gives Sigurd the ability to understand the language of birds.

In the Ramsund Carving, on a rock in Sweden that dates to 1030 AD, the hero Sigurd can be seen plunging his sword into Fafnir's underside.

Ramsund Carving
Ramsund Carving. Source: Nordisk familjebok/Wikimedia Commons

In the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, created between 975 and 1025 AD, the hero Beowulf is mortally wounded by a dragon. Also, in ancient Great Britain lived the Wyvern, a two-legged dragon who showed up on various heraldry, such as shields and coats of arms.

Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History
English Wyvern on the Duke of Marlborough arms. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons


European interest in dragons peaked between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. A medieval bestiary, which is a treatise on real or mythical animals, that dates to 1260 AD displays the earliest known Western dragon.

13th-century dragon
13th-century dragon. Source: Theological miscellany/Wikimedia Commons

In the 11th century, France had the story of Saint George and the Dragon. That dragon had a voracious appetite for both sheep and children until George rode into town.

In Russia, there lived the three-headed dragon Zmey Gorynych.

Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History
Saint George slaying the dragon. Source: Verona, Biblioteca Civica/Wikimedia Commons


Dragons appear throughout Chinese history, with their images gracing Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery. The Miao people of southwest China have a story that a divine dragon created the first humans by breathing on monkeys that came to play in his cave.

In China, dragons are closely associated with rain, and there are many Chinese texts containing prayers invoking dragons to bring rain. To this day, during holidays including the Spring Festival and Lantern Festival, villagers construct a sixteen-foot-long dragon from cloth and bamboo and parade it through their villages.

Dragon boat races are common in China, with boats carved to look like dragons.

Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History
Chinese dragon boat. Source: Vatican Museums/Wikimedia Commons

Beginning of the Han dynasty and continuing into the Qing dynasty, Chinese emperors were closely identified with dragons. Dragons appeared on their clothing and within their houses, but it was illegal for anyone but the emperor to display an image of a dragon.

The Americas

In Mesoamerica, there lived Quetzalcoatl, whose name translates to "feathered serpent". If you had to describe a dragon, the feathered serpent comes pretty close.

Quetzalcoatl first appeared on a stela at the Olmec site La Venta, which was built around 900 BC. He was worshipped at the city of Teotihuacan during the first century BC, and he was the Aztec god of wind, air, and learning.

Explore the Mythology of Dragons as Part of Mankind's History
Quetzalcoatl. Source: Jami Dwyer/Wikimedia Commons

Quetzalcoatl also appears at sites such as Chichén Itzá, El Tajín, and throughout the Mayan area.

A Race Memory of Dragons

There is no ancient culture on earth that doesn't include dragons in its folklore and myths. Even the Inuit people have a reptilian dragon-like monster in their folklore, while living far from any actual reptiles.

In Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke describes the visitors to earth as having "the leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail — all were there. The most terrible of legends had come to life, out of the unknown past."