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Dragons: A brief history of the mythical, fire-breathing beasts

A statue of a Dragon against a blazing sunset, located in Ljubljana, Slovenia
(Image credit: Getty/ MassanPH)

Dragons are among the most popular and enduring of the world's mythological creatures, believed to have been real for centuries. 

Dragon tales are known in many cultures, from the Americas to Europe, and from India to China. They have a long and rich history in many forms and continue to populate our books, films and television shows, as brave heroes routinely fight to slay the beasts.

It's not clear when or where stories of dragons first emerged, but the huge, flying serpents were described at least as early as the age of the ancient Greeks and Sumerians. According to Scott G. Bruce in his introduction to “The Penguin Book of Dragons (opens in new tab)” (Penguin Classics, 2021), "In the ancient world they took the form of enormous serpents, ready to crush with their coils and kill with their venomous breath." For much of history dragons were thought of as being like any other mythical animal: sometimes useful and protective, other times harmful and dangerous.

That changed when Christianity spread across the world; dragons took on a decidedly sinister interpretation and came to represent Satan. In medieval times, most people who heard anything about dragons knew them from the Bible, and it's likely that most Christians at the time believed in the literal existence of dragons. After all, Leviathan — the massive monster described in detail in the Book of Job, chapter 41 (opens in new tab)— sounds like a dragon:

"Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth."

Related: Top 10 beasts and dragons: How reality made myth

The belief in dragons was based not just in legend but also in hard evidence, or at least that's what people thought, long ago. For millennia no one knew what to make of the giant bones that were occasionally unearthed around the globe, and dragons seemed a logical choice for people who had no knowledge of dinosaurs.

Dancers dress as traditional Chinese dragons at an annual temple festival. (Image credit: Getty/ Forrest Anderson)

Different types of dragons

Though most people can easily picture a dragon, people's ideas and descriptions of dragons vary dramatically, according to Grunge (opens in new tab). Some dragons have wings; others don't. Some dragons can speak or breathe fire; others can't. Some are only a few feet long; others span miles. Some dragons live in palaces under the ocean, while others can only be found in caves and inside mountains, such as Smaug in JRR Tolkein's "The Hobbit (opens in new tab)."

As folklorist Carol Rose's book "Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (opens in new tab)" (Norton, 2001), dragons "have composite features from many other beasts, such as the head of an elephant in India, that of a lion or bird of prey in the Middle East, or numerous heads of reptiles such as serpents. Their body color may range from green, red, and black to unusually yellow, blue or white dragons."

Zoologist Karl Shuker describes a wide variety of dragons in his book "Dragons: A Natural History (opens in new tab)" (Simon & Schuster, 1995), including giant snakes, hydras, gargoyles and dragon-gods, and the more obscure variants such as basilisks, wyverns and cockatrices. At its root, the is a chameleon — its features adapting to the cultural and literary expectations of the era.

Dragons continue to capture the public's imagination in fantasy books and films, appearing in everything from the kid-friendly 2010 film "How to Train Your Dragon," to the more adult-oriented "Game of Thrones" books and TV series (opens in new tab) and "The Hobbit" book and movies. The popular role-playing game Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (opens in new tab) describes more than a dozen varieties of dragons, each with unique personalities, powers and other characteristics. (Black dragons, for example, are fond of eels — who knew?)

Medieval Painting titled 'Saint George and the Dragon,' by Paolo Uccello  (Image credit: Getty/ Universal History Archive )

Origins of dragons

The word "dragon" comes from the ancient Greek word "draconta," meaning "to watch," suggesting that the beast guards treasure, such as mountains of gold coins or gems, according to Dean Miller in "Legendary Creatures and Monsters (opens in new tab)" (Cavendish Square Publishing, 2014). But this doesn't really make sense because a creature as powerful as a dragon surely doesn't need to pay for anything, right? It's probably more of a symbolic treasure, not for the hoarding dragon but instead a reward for the brave warriors, such as the Knights of Camelot (opens in new tab) who would vanquish the evil beast.

Dragons are one of the few monsters cast in mythology primarily as a powerful and fearsome opponent to be slain. They don't simply exist for their own sake; they exist largely as a foil for bold adventurers. Other mythical beasts such as trolls, elves and fairies interact with people (sometimes mischievously, sometimes helpfully) but their main role is not as a combatant.

The Christian church created legends of righteous and godly saints battling and vanquishing Satan in the form of dragons. The most celebrated of these was St. George the Dragon Slayer, who in legend comes upon a town threatened by a terrible dragon, according to English Heritage (opens in new tab). He rescues a fair maiden, protects himself with the sign of the cross and slays the beast. The town's citizens, impressed by St. George's feat of faith and bravery, immediately convert to Christianity.

Vanquishing a dragon was not only an important career opportunity for any ambitious saint, knight or hobbit, but according to legend it was also a way to raise armies. As Michael Page and Robert Ingpen note in their book "Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were (opens in new tab)"(Viking Penguin, 1987), "The use of dragon's teeth provides a simple method of expanding the armed forces of any country. It was first practiced by Cadmus, King of Thebes. First, prepare a piece of ground as though for sowing grain. Next, catch and kill any convenient dragon and draw all its teeth. Sow these in the furrows you have prepared, cover lightly, and stand well away." Easy, peasy, right?

Next, veteran warriors "clad in bronze armor and armed with swords and shields ... emerge rapidly from the earth and stand in ranks according to the way in which the dragon's teeth were sown." Apparently these draconis dentata soldiers are a quarrelsome lot and will turn on each other lacking a ready enemy, so if you plan to do this, be sure your adversaries are nearby.

Scholars believe that the fire-breathing element of dragons came from medieval depictions of the mouth of hell; for example, art by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, among others. The entrance to hell was often depicted as a monster's literal mouth, with the flames and smoke characteristic of Hades belching out. If one believes not only in the literal existence of hell, but also the literal existence of dragons as Satanic, the association is quite logical.

Komodo dragons have long, forked tongues that they use to help smell and taste. (Image credit: Getty/ Wolfgang Kaehler)

Are dragons real?

Medieval theology aside, few people today believe in the literal existence of dragons in the way they may believe in the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster, for example. The dragon (or at least the dragon version most familiar to Westerners) is simply too big and too fantastic to take seriously or literally. In the modern age of satellite imagery and smart phone photos and videos, it's simply implausible that any giant, winged fire-breathers inhabit Earth's lands or skies unseen.

However, only a few centuries ago rumors of dragons seemed to have been confirmed by eyewitness accounts from sailors returning from Indonesia who reported encountering dragons — Komodo dragons, a type of monitor lizard — which can be aggressive, deadly, and reach 10 feet (3 meters) in length. 

In a possible parallel to dragons, it was previously believed that the bite of a Komodo dragon was especially deadly because of toxic bacteria in its mouth, though that myth was debunked in 2013 by a team of researchers from the University of Queensland (opens in new tab) who discovered that the Komodo dragon's mouths are no dirtier than those of other carnivores. Western scientists only verified the existence of the Komodo dragon around 1910 following the investigation of Lieutenant Jacques Karel Henri van Steyn van Hensbroek and Pieter Ouwens, according to The Guardian (opens in new tab), but rumors and stories of these fearsome beasts circulated long before that.

Dragons, in one form or another, have been around for millennia. Through epic fantasy fiction by J.R.R. Tolkien and others, dragons have continued to spark our collective imagination and show no sign of dying out.

Additional resources

To find out more about Komodo Dragons, this article from the University of Queensland, has a group of researchers discussing the fascinating detail of their mouths. To discover more about the story of St. George, read this entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Bibliography

Benjamin Radford
Benjamin Radford
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.