Updated: Feb 28
Welcome back, to another end of month and another blog! I gave a hint in my last blog about the topic for this one; I must admit, however, that I forgot this month also had Valentine's day (to all those potential loves – sorry!). If I’d remembered I would have done a blog on romance and marriage in the Roman world – maybe I’ll leave that for next time. Let us not linger on that, though, and get onto this month’s rather ‘fiery topic’. A legendary topic. A phenomenal topic that spreads across both the world and history, captivating all who imagine such things, and a creature that is the sole symbol of fantasy and myth. An entity of strength, wisdom, and sometimes destruction and rage – but always of true and real power. Dragons.
Dragons have always held a special place in human culture, forms of which can be found almost within every ethnicity and historical period in the world – certainly since the first “historical” stories were told, and very likely before. Dragons have been a key character in many of history's most famous myths – both from the classical period later – consider the stories of St George and St Patrick you might be asking why Patrick as he only got rid of snakes. Snakes are the reason.
I was to say now, think of a dragon, you may immediately think of either two images. One image may be of the Chinese dragon due to the global universalisation of Chinese New Year and culture; a divine being that can fly, with an elongated body, and a face that almost looks a mixture of a tiger and lizard. The second, possibly more likely image, is of a giant creature with four left, wings, long neck and tail, and a lizard like face. Oh, and it can breathe fire. This latter would the epic creature we would call the western dragon. However, this dragon, like the term ‘dragon’, is a relatively modern conception, formed by overlapping inspirations and beliefs through history. The question, then, is what a dragon in its original form look like?
To understand the original form of dragons, one must first understand the origin of the term. The word dragon is an evolved form of the Latin Draconis, which itself derived from the Greek Drakon - meaning ‘snake’. Therefore, the original word for dragons did in fact refer to snakes, which is exactly what the original dragons were, and what they continued to be for many centuries. Forget the movies showing dragons of old being what audiences would associate with the word, and instead picture giant serpents.
Many of the greatest tales of Greek myth involve a Drakon in some scenarios. Arguably, the greatest of them all was the Drakon, Typhon. Typhon appears to be the most celebrated of Greek myth through his popularity in surviving literature, though his artistic representations rare. Typhon’s beginning is uncertain but was possibly created by Earth and Tartarus to overthrow Zeus following the defeat of the Titans. Typhon is described as being gigantic, with wings and one hundred heads. When he is depicted in extant art, he may only have one head and, more noticeably, appear the same head height as his lighting-wielding opponent. Due to the limits of space on whatever is being painted, keeping opponents at head-height was common practice – still allowing for decorative details to be added above and maintain a sense of order. However, to show height differences, it is not the head levels to look at, but the legs; where one figure may be standing up straight, their opponent may have legs bent or even kneeling, emphasising that should that individual stand up to their full height, they would tower above the other. The same is done with Drakons. Artistry might show Zeus and Typhon at the same head height, but where Zeus might be in a proud or full stance, Typhon will not. Now, you may be saying to yourself ‘but snakes do not have legs anyway’, but what emphasised height in the context is how many coils the body of the Drakon has; Typhon may be the same height of Zeus it seems, but his body may sprawl across much of the “canvas” that he would dwarf Zeus should he rise to his true height. During an epic clash between him and Zeus, Zeus eventually wins (with some help); imprisoning Typhon within Mount Etna in Sicily. Take a moment to imagine yourself in Sicily, and everytime Mount Etna erupts, or trembles, or there’s a storm, that’s a gigantic Drakon of unimaginable power trying to escape!
Speaking of multi headed entities of a slivery nature, one cannot think of Greek myth, and ignore the infamous Hydra (and no – I'm not referring to the infamous downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D - if you don’t know what I mean, you need to waste some hours watching Marvel). The Hydra was again (though not to the extent of Typhon) a snake of epic proportions. If I mention the Hydra, you may picture the scary, cave dwelling, purple threat from Disney’s Hercules (Hercules is a good topic of discussion, too). The Disney version was not a complete farce, but the story element certainly changed from the original – of which I’ll come back to. Like Typhon, when depicted in art, the body of the Hydra often consists of several coils to make it fit within the spatial limitations, but still indicating the true extent of its height. Furthermore, like Typhon, the Hydra suffers the same issues when painting potentially hundreds of heads in 2D, thus is either shown as single-headed, or with only a few heads; even with one head, the viewer can tell it’s the Hydra through the clear identity claims we see from Herakles – most notably a club and lion pelt.
The fight between Herakles and the Hydra was again another epic confrontation, with both both receiving help; the Hydra had help from a big crab (yep – and it on some vase paintings), and Herakles being aided by Iolaus. Herakles kept crushing each head with his club but to no avail. In the end Iolaus set fire to the nearby woods, and when one head was knocked off, Herakles would us the flame to cautorise and seal the neck – thus preventing heads respawning; eventually he took off the immotal head and buried it under a large rock – thus ending the Hydra. The slaying of the Hydra was one of the twelve labours of Herakles. After winning (narrowly), Herakles dipped his arrows in the Hydras blood – the blood considered to be highly venomous and deadly; this, in the end, would be the great hero’s undoing. After shooting the centaur, Nessus, Nessus, while dying, told Deianeira, Herakles’ wife, that could create a potion to keep Herakles desiring only her; she was to take the centaur’s semen, and his blood from the arrow Herakles shot at Nesses (remember what Herakles did with his arrows...), blend them with olive oil and smear it on Herakles’ tunic. When Herakles was making a sacrifice, he called for his religious tunic, but before her wore it, Deinaeira secretly smeared the potion onto it. When Herakles put the tunic on, the Hydra got its posthumous revenge; Herakles’ body was destroyed by intense heat from the venom – leading to the death of Mythology's greatest legend.
The physiology of dragons are gigantic snakes is not limited to Greek and Roman legend. In Norse mythology, creatures that today might have been transformed into our recognized modern forms, also took the form of gigantic snakes. While not called Drakon, or Draco, the name differs culturally, but what unites them all is in each instance, the creature of power, strength, and often destruction, is serpentine (as well as often immortal or of very long life). Probably the most famous Norse serpent if the great World Serpent, Jormungandr. Jormungandr was the offspring of Loki, along with Hel, and Fenris (Yep – there’s a lot Marvel misses out with the sons of Odin). According to the Prose Edda, Odin took the serpent and threw it into the seas of Midguard; there, Jormungandr grew so large that it encircled the entire world – and even had to bite its own tale. Jormungandr’s moment of legend would be that of Ragnarok – the end of times. As Fenris attacks Asguard and battles all the warriors of Valhalla, and Odin (in which he eventually slays the great god), Jormungandr would rise out of the sea and flood all the world. It would be then that the world serpent battles the Thor; Thor would eventually kill Jormungandr, but slain himself by the snake’s poisonous breath – another aspect that links all great serpents of myth together.
Another example if Fafnir – mentiond in the Tale of the Volsungs (if you’re a Tolkien fan – read this and you’ll be where he got so much of his fantastic inspiration from). Fenris was a dwarf – and a greedy one at that. When Fafnir got hold of a magic but cursed ring, it changed him (*cough* Gollum *cough*) and transformed him in a giant worm. In the tale, Sigmund was charged with Slaying Fafnir. Fafnir was said to be invincible; an impenetrable hide (origin of the quality of dragon hides) and destroying all life around him with his destructive breath (again – think about the desolation of Smaug, and barren lands around where dragons dwell). Sigmund knew the path Fafnir often took, and was told there is one spot under his hide that could be pierced (possibly a missing scale – ring any bells with Smaug’s ending, too?). Sigmund dug a trench along the path of Fafnir and hid in it. When Fafnir appeared, he ‘slithered’ over the trench and over Sigmund; there, when Sigmund saw the weak-spot, thrust his sword into – slaying the worm. Afterwards, Sigmund went to Fafnir’s lair and saw the vast treasures hoarded there (again the foundation for Dragons’ love for gold – and the term ‘dragon disease’.
It was during the late Medieval period onwards, that dragons began evolving into morphs we more associate with them today. The wings were not new as some dragons, like Typhon, had wings; some could fly without them, so dragons having airborne abilities was relatively established. The elongated neck and tail are reminiscent of their serpentine origins. The legs and claws, however, are additions, but were possibly inspired from other dangerous and wondrous predators of the time (big cats, wolves, bears), but also possibly from other mythical sources such as the Sphynx, Chimera, Griffon – there is even some evidence to suggest that Drakon and Draco also extended to some creatures such as the Cerberus (or ‘Fluffy’ if you prefer the mix-match works of Rowling). The interesting feature of dragons is they’re fire breathing ability. This likely evolved from the deadly venom featured in the original stories, and often associated with words like burning, heat, and desolation. Their origin is likely the intense feeling of heat one gets after receiving a bite from a venomous snake – which in many cases can be fatal. This the most dangerous thing about venomous snakes and accounts for why the legends often feature venom that burns (think back to Herakles and his skin ravaged by the intense heat), or breath that desolates (Fafnir); this, like the other forms, evolves and eventually refers to the dragon breathing actual fire – in modern fantasy fiction, there are often chemical compounds erupting that cause the fire to be spewed. If you are down in Portsmouth, pop into the Mary Rose museum and you’ll see linstocks, used to ignite the big guns and cannon on the ship; some of these are carved in the shape of dragon heads – symbolism of the dragons (now) most destructive ability.