The story of dragons goes further back in history than you realize.
From Chinese Dragon Bones, the birth of the Spartans, and monstrous apocalyptic beasts, join me as I discover just how strange the origin of the dragon is, and also just how much the monster has shaped our modern notions of evil and chaos.
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Hello my friends, and welcome back to another episode of Strange Origins. This week after a lot of back and forth, I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before, which is to focus on a single topic for two episodes. While I usually wait a while before researching a subject that was too big to fit into just one episode, I’m simply just too interested in the story of Dragons to wait.
After the past few weeks of researching the history of birthdays, ghosts, and dipping my toes into esotericism, I was originally planning on researching something easy for the 45th episode. But the more I got into the history of Dragons, though, the more I realized that this is anything but a simple subject.
That is why in this episode I will be focusing on all of the ancient precursors to Dragons. This will include a few of the beasts found in religious texts that some historians believe may have helped to contribute to the fire-breathing creatures we reference in children's tales today. For my next episode, which will come out shortly, I will be researching the modern versions of Dragons, and how they diverged into several different branches in different cultures.
Please also know that if you need some clarification on anything I’m saying, I always update my episode transcripts at fascinatingpodcasts.com. And if you are interested I also have another article I recently published on the history of Witch Bottles up on my blog. And if you need a good laugh you can always go check out my Instagram at StrangeOriginsPodcast. That’s also where I publish most of my updates on the podcast. That being said, I think it’s time to get into the origin of the classic creature known as the Dragon.
Dragons in Pop Culture
Have any of you noticed that Dragons seem to pop up in just about every piece of fantasy these days? Personally, I’ve noticed they have become iconic in films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Hobbit, and Game of Thrones. Children's movies, especially, seem to feature dragons. That includes movies such as in Spirited Away, Shrek, or one of my personal favorites, How To Train Your Dragon. One of the most well-worn books I had on my shelf as a kid was Eragon. Like a lot of you might remember, Eragon is the story of a young man who finds an egg that hatches into a dragon named Saphira. And I don’t know about you, but it also seems like every reference to a medieval story is about a knight in shining armor saving a princess from an evil Dragon. So if Dragons didn’t actually exist, how in the world did they manage to seep into the cracks of modern culture the way they have?
One explanation is that, much like they did in my Unicorns episode, Ancient Greek scholars were known to have written in natural history books about the quote-unquote “existence of Dragons.” Around 200 AD the Greek writer Philostratus noted that quote:
"The dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden color, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance."
Later on, Pliny the Elder, someone I’ve mentioned countless times on this pod who is also the father of the modern Thesaurus, wrote around 50 AD that one of the strengths of a dragon was its ability to strangle an elephant with only its tail. That was written down despite the fact that we have very, very little evidence of Dragons having ever existed in anything but the minds eye . Much like a lot of other myths, such as Mermaids, it’s believed that the idea of Dragons evolved independently in both China and Europe, meaning that while a physical source for the modern idea of a Dragon is impossible to pin down exactly, the idea flourished in several, extremely different cultures. You can see those differences today in just how Europeans or Asian cultures view the idea of a dragon. In the stories of one culture, they play the part of the villain, while in places like China they are revered for their strength, power, and luck.
So where did the form of a dragon even come from? And just how different are the original monsters from what we see today in pop culture?
Similar Stories in Strange Origins
Just to go back and reference little ol’ me, I wanted to point out that I have already talked about a few different stories that may have contributed to the modern idea of what a Dragon is. The first one was the story of the Christian Saint referred to as the Romanus of Rouen.
In the late 1300’s it was said that one of Romanus’ many good deeds was his killing of a gargouille, or gargoyle, in Paris, France. This gargouille was said to have stalked and eaten anyone who walked to the river Seine. To save the people of Paris Romanus hunted it down with the help of a man who was sentenced to death as punishment for his crimes. When they found the gargouille, the Saint drew the sign of the cross on it and it then allowed them to put a leash on it where they were able to lead it away. Some say they drowned the creature as a way of making sure it didn’t kill any more people, while others say they led it to the front of the cathedral in the middle of town where they set it on fire.
Another story I mentioned that may be related to Dragons is that of Melusine and her mother Pressyne, who you might remember from my episode on Mermaids. Around 1300 AD, Pressyne, a half-woman, half-snake creature married the King of Albany, a country that is now known as Scotland. She agreed to this marriage only under the condition that her husband would never look in on her while she was bathing, especially not while she was in the water with their three infant daughters. As stories like this usually go, the King ended up sneaking a look at her and noticed that his wife, while in the water, no longer had legs, but the bottom half of a snake. Pressyne took Mesuline and her sisters and fled to the isle of Avalon. The same thing would later happen to the daughter Mesuline after she had married a nobleman. Something else that is mentioned in some versions of the stories is that these women were able to escape their husbands so quickly because of their ability to shapeshift into creatures with wings.
Something I didn’t realize when I had previously mentioned this story was that an older version of it, mentioned in a memoir called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, recounted a legend about the daughter of the philosopher Hippocrates. It’s said that the young woman was able to transform into a hundred-foot-long dragon and was given this power by the Roman goddess Diane, whom some of you might recognize as the Greek Goddess Artemis.
The dragon woman lived in an old castle and was known for only coming out three times a year. While the legend stated that she would only be turned back into a human woman if a knight kissed her while in dragon form, it seems that the two knights who decided to attempt the quest ran away from her when they saw just how hideous she looked. The woman did end up getting the last laugh though as she threw one of the knights off the edge of a cliff and into the sea.
The First Dragons
While those stories are a great introduction to the idea of a Dragon, they definitely weren’t the first mention of a Dragon in history. While it took a lot of research for me to pinpoint, I have to say there are a few different stories as objects that we can point to today as being where the idea of Dragons began or at least became popularized and mythologized.
As for actual physical evidence of a belief in Dragons, I did find a reference in the oldest object at the British Library. It was dated with the help of NASA and found to be more than 3000 years old. The object is a bone referred to as a “Chinese Oracle Dragon Bone.” On one side of the bone is carved an account of the Lunar Eclipse. NASA was able to date it as happening between 9:48 and 11:30 on December 27th of 1192 BC, which is pretty impressive in my opinion.
These “Dragon” Bones were later found out to be either ox bone or turtle shells and were wide enough for people to be able to write on them. They were used as a way for diviners to ask questions of deities by writing on the outside of the bone. After they applied heat to the bone it would crack in half. By looking at the patterns of the insides of the bones they were then apparently able to read the images that were on the inside, much like people do today with tea leaf readings. Something interesting about these bones is that they were often dug up by villagers later on and ground up as a poultice to be used as a treatment for malaria. That means that these bones, with their inscriptions, are pretty hard to find today.
In 1986 it was also discovered through an archeological dig in Puyand that there was burial art that included the image of a dragon. They dated the burial art to about 6400 years of age and were made of pieces made out of clamshells. On one side of the burial there was a depiction of a tiger and on the other side, a dragon. This clamshell piece was aptly named by the archeologists as “The First Chinese Dragon.”
In literature one of the first mentions of a dragon-like creature was in one of four ancient Hindu texts called the Rigveda. These collections of stories and customs somehow managed to survive to this day after being passed down by word of mouth three to four thousand years ago, which is proof of just how amazing and important the passing down of history is. The Rigveda discusses a great number of subjects such as the placement of the stars and ways in which to worship deities. It even asks the age-old question of “why exactly are we here?” and “what is the meaning of life?” meaning it’s one of the oldest books in the world to discuss philosophy.
In Rigveda, and I’m sorry but there will probably be a bunch of butchered pronunciations in this episode, there is a story about a creature called Vritra. While it’s unclear as to whether Vritra is a snake, a demon, or a dragon, it is known that Vritra was thought to symbolize droughts, evil, and chaos, which seems to be a lasting theme of dragons. One reason Vritra is seen as so evil is that it appears as a human-like serpent that blocks rivers and causes famine. A deity named Indra, who much like the Greek God Zeus was associated with the sky and thunderbolts, went on to defeat Vritra in a dramatic battle, to say the least. This earned him the nickname of quote “the slayer of the first-born of dragons.” I don’t know about you but I would love that nickname.
In Mesopotamia, a resident God by the name of Marduk was linked with the city of Babylon. One of the reasons Marduk, who was associated with justice, fairness, healing, and magic, was so famous was the myth that he fought a draconic goddess by the name of Tiamat in a battle that led to the creation of Earth and also the humans that live here. He accomplished the task by shooting Tiamat and splitting her in half. From her eyes sprang the major rivers that are today known as the Tigris and Euphrates. Also from her tail was formed the milky way galaxy. From her body, Marduk also created the Heavens. So as you can imagine Tiamat was an extremely large being. His reasoning for creating humans was so that they would do the work that the Gods simply didn’t want to do. With all of that free time they could instead focus on the other, more philosophical questions of the universe.
Something interesting I didn’t know before is that the temple dedicated to Marduk was believed to have later been used as a template for the Tower of Babel in the Bible. If you guys aren’t familiar with the biblical tale, the Tower of Babel is the structure built by the generations that survived The Great Flood and who decided to build a tower that could reach Heaven. Observing their actions God decided to make is so that they all spoke different languages, hindering their ability to keep building, and scattered them to the different corners of the Earth.
Another reason Marduk was strongly associated with Dragons is that he also had a pet by the name of Mushussu. While it’s said he was a snake creature, the early formings of a dragon can be seen in his physical description. Mushussu was known to have the hind legs and talons of an eagle, the forearms of a lion, a very long neck and tail, a head with horns, and a snake-like tongue. He’s also known for being covered in scales much like a modern dragon is.
There’s not a lot known about Mushussu, or why he’s linked to Marduk, but you can still see his iconic form on the world-famous blue Ishtar gates of Babylon located in Iraq. Along with the fictional Mushussu, the beautiful gates made out of glazed brick also depict real-life creatures such as lions and bulls. It’s said in certain religious texts that the prophet Daniel killed a dragon named Bel who quote “the Babylonians revered.” Some historians believe that Bel was actually Mushussu. Daniel did this by feeding the dragon quote “cakes of pitch, fat, and hair” which then caused him to burst open.
Going back to my earlier story, if you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you might recognize Tiamat as the mother of all evil dragons. As a lot of fantasy does, the namesake is pretty accurate to its source of inspiration, according to the original mythology. While it’s a pretty hotly debated topic among historians, it’s believed by some that Tiamat is the mother of a lot of different scaly mythological beasts, including dragons, serpents, scorpion men, and even mermaids. That’s probably why the origin of Dragons is so hard to pinpoint and shares a lot of history with similar monsters.
Lastly, I thought I would bring up the tongue twister of Iranian Zoroastrianism. If you didn’t know Zoroastrianism is known as being the oldest religion in the world, and in its mythology, dragons were thought of as being more demonic, and therefore spiritual, as opposed to being real-life creatures. Much like in my episode on Angels, it's pretty difficult to imagine what something like the resident dragon of Zoroastrianism would look like exactly.
In the Zoroastrian text known as the Avesta, the dragon's name is known as Zahhak the Shoulder Snake, but it was also called different names through the years, so it’s difficult to give a perfect description of the creature. He is described as being a sorcerer who ruled with the help of demons and had three mouths, six eyes, and three heads. Something interesting that people called these creatures were quote “ those who swallowed horses, who swallowed men. . . over whom poison flowed the height of a spear.” So essentially, Azi’s were evil and you should really avoid them if you can.
Greek Dragon Stories
Since it’s going to be a big section, I thought I would dive into the Greek portion of the history of Dragons. An area of interest I didn’t know much about before I researched this episode was the history of the constellations, and how they came about their names. It was actually the astronomer Ptolomy who named the constellations, including the grouping of stars referred to as Draco, which is Latin for Dragon. He did this seeing as it was the cluster of stars that guarded Polaris, which is the star that all of the other stars circle around.
In Greek mythology, it’s said that this grouping of stars was created at a time when giants fought the Olympian gods. It’s said that the goddess Athena, who is known for her great skill on the battlefield threw the creature Draco up into the sky. There it became twisted up and froze in place all the way up near the North Pole.
Later on, in Greek mythology dragons are first mentioned in The Iliad but only played a small role in the story. Featured is the description of a blue three-headed dragon on the armor of King Agamemnon. This emblem is pretty reminiscent of the way that the Norse used to have dragons carved on the front of their boats to symbolize their bravery and strength.
One of the bigger Greek myths involving a dragon is the story of the hero Hercules, who was told to complete twelve impossible tasks. One of those tasks was to steal golden apples from a special grove. In one version of this labor, Hercules had to kill a ten-headed dragon with a bow and arrow, which was previously thought to be an impossible task to accomplish. Today it’s believed that these “Golden Apples” were actually just what we today would call oranges and that since they were not native to the Mediterranean that long ago, they were prized for just how rare they were. Today the botanical name for citrus fruits is called Hesperidoids, in reference to the nymphs that helped to guard the golden apples, but who also were sometimes caught picking the fruit for themselves.
Other than those stories, there are two major Ancient Greek tales that feature Dragons pretty prominently. The first is about a Phoenician prince called Cadmus. Something interesting about Cadmus is that he was said to be the founder of the city of Thebes. The story is complicated, as most Ancient Greek stories are, and it involved several kidnappings and even the appearance of a special cow leading up to the part that involves dragons. But what’s important is that two of Cadmus’ men were killed by a water spirit that is referred to as a Lernean Hydra. You might remember the hydra from the story of Hercules. I most vividly remembered it from the Disney animated film, where Hercules cuts off his head only to have several more grow back in place. What was also so dangerous about Hydras was that they were extremely poisonous. You couldn’t smell its breath, and even if you somehow got close enough to wound it, the smell of its blood would instantly kill you.
Something I thought was interesting about the Hydra is that it was believed to be the offspring of Typhon, who was known for battling the almighty Zeus for power, and Echidna, who was a half-woman, half serpent monster who mostly kept to herself inside of her cave. His father, Typhon, was believed to be associated with volcanoes, and the origin of his name is also thought to be mean “abyss” which would make him, technically a serpent from the deep. It’s interesting to me that these two things, with their very different elements, combined to create what pretty much is the description of a modern-day dragon. Half snake, half fire-wielding, cave dweller.
Besides the Hydra, together Typhon and Echidna they were known for creating some of the most terrifying monsters of Greek Mythology. This included Cerberus, the multi-headed dog who was known for guarding the underworld, the Sphinx, and a particularly mean pig that went by the name of The Crommyonian Sow.
Going back to the Hydra, the reason the creature was referred to as Lernean Hydra was that Lerna was believed to be where the entrance to the underworld existed. In fact, a lot of the quote-unquote “dragons” in Ancient Greek myths were said to be guardians of certain sacred places. For example, the Colchian Dragon was tasked with guarding the Golden Fleece but was later killed by Jason and his Argonauts. And the Nemean Dragon was in charge of the sacred groves of Zeus.
In the story of Cadmus, the Hydra was a very large, very dangerous creature that was tasked with guarding and protecting sacred waters. When the friends of Cadmus trespassed into the waters they were killed by the Hydra. After their death, Cadmus, being the ancient Greek hero he was, killed the water spirit and under the instruction of the Goddess Athena, he even went so far as to take its teeth with him. He was then told to plant the teeth in the ground and to wait until they grew into soldiers. The ones who survived a small tussle were then tasked with helping Cadmus build the city of Thebes. According to this story, it was dragons' teeth that gave rise to the famous Spartans who were known for being professional soldiers. Their name, Spartans, comes from the Greek word for Sown, meaning to be “planted in the ground.”
Another mention of dragons in Greek Mythology is that of Drakon Kholkikos and is in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. If you remember me talking about the character of Medea in my episode on Ladies in White, you may remember that she helped out a lot with Jason's mission. She’s especially famous for putting the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece to sleep with narcotic herbs in order for Jason to be able to kill the beast. Later on, she is also pictured riding around in a carriage pulled by dragons, which in my opinion fits her personality very well.
Later on, Dragons were also, much to my surprise, included in religious texts such as the Bible. There is the infamous creature called the Leviathan which is mentioned in several texts including Psalms, the Book of Job, the Book of Isaiah, and the Book of Amos.
Leviathan is described as being chaos itself, and symbolic of the sin of envy. Later on, it became another adjective for something that is fantastically large. Just to put it into perspective the largest animal in the world, which is a blue whale, could fit eighty passengers on its back. It’s said of the Leviathan that it is so large that he eats at least one whale a day. Some religions believe that the water-dwelling creature Leviathan, and its land-dwelling counterpart, named Behemoth, will someday play their part in the real-life apocalypse.
In Jewish text, it’s even said that the meat of the giant Leviathan will one day feed the righteous while they sit in a tent made of its skin. It’s a pretty funny thing to think about, seeing just how much there is written about how disgusting of a smell the creature emits. Certain parts of Christianity, and interestingly enough, also Satanism, view him as symbolic of being the Devil himself. If not the Devil he at least plays a roll as one of the seven princes of Hell.
In Job 41:1-34 of the Hebrew Bible, it’s said that the Leviathan could exhale fire and smoke and that his skin is tough and impenetrable, which might have been the beginning of the association between dragons and fire breathing. It’s even said that quote “He regards iron as straw, and copper as rotten wood. No arrow can put him to flight, slingstone turn into stubble for him. . . He looks at all high things; he is king over all proud beasts.”
Also under the umbrella of Abrahamic religions, the Islamic religion had its own relationship with the idea of dragons. It’s said that in early Islam they were used to symbolize chaos and disorder. Instead of embodying the evil of the world, as they do within the context of other religions, dragons are more of a symbol of yin and yang. This means that they were a natural force that help to keep balance in all things. In essence, they, or at least the darkness that dragons symbolize, are a necessary part of life.
Today you can see exceptional depictions of dragons in paintings done by Islamic painters in incredibly small artworks called Miniatures. Much like the artwork done by monks with their illuminated manuscripts of the Medieval age, they are incredibly detailed and beautiful.
In literature, a prominent story featuring a dragon can actually be found in The Hamzanama, which is a cycle of fantastical tales featuring the uncle of the prophet Muhammad. The story, in the end, features the belly of the dragon heroically cut open in time to save a man who was eaten alive. Later on in Indian artwork Dragons can even be seen alongside the entire collection of animal species that we know, leading me to wonder yet again why these fictional monsters were so consistently depicted alongside the creatures that exist in our very real animal kingdom. To get a better understanding of the artwork I’ve been talking about in this episode, be sure to check out my Instagram page, StrangeOriginsPodcast.
While I will be giving my final thoughts at the end of the next episode of Strange Origins, which will also be about Dragons, I find myself at a loss for words with the ending of this portion of the subject. I really enjoy the fact that while I thought Dragons were going to be a relatively easy subject, it led me into a giant whirlpool of religious history and mythology. While today dragons are a pretty classic icon, and I feel as if any of us could draw one on a paper napkin in a pinch if we needed to, it’s incredible just how little they grew from. There’s not a lot of information out there about the beginnings of dragons, but it seems nonetheless that they were born from royal blood, and were born from the largest and most fearsome religious and mythological creatures such as the Hydra and the Leviathan. In due time I’m excited to dive into the medieval history of dragons and take you around the world in order to see just how many different versions of them there are.
For right now, though, I can tell you one thing: the dragons of centuries past held a substantial amount of power, and because of that, they deeply influenced the way we tell stories to this day. Even the classic storytelling mold of good versus evil that seems to be the plot of just about every Hollywood movie was shaped with the help of dragons. After researching their earlier history and their association with religious demons, I’m starting to believe that they are the animal we created in order to symbolize our fear of the moral or spiritual unknown. A great quote I read about Dragons, which is from the author David Whitland, goes as follows:
"Imagine a land where people are afraid of dragons. It is a reasonable fear: dragons possess a number of qualities that make being afraid of them a very commendable response. Things like their terrible size, their ability to spout fire, or to crack boulders into splinters with their massive talons. In fact, the only terrifying quality that dragons do not possess is that of existence."
Thank you so much for hanging out with me and for supporting Strange Origins, my friends. Stay safe out there, be the good in the world, and don’t forget to keep it strange.