The origin of the species Dragons

first_imgWelcome back to Geek.com’s Origin of the Species. Each time out we’ll take a look at one of our favorite fantasy, science fiction or horror races or species, going in-depth exploring their origins in fiction, mythology and etymology. Check out our previous installments on the history of orcs, zombies, and robots!Thanks to Game of Thrones, we are currently in the midst of what is, quite possibly, the most dragon-saturated period in pop culture history. Not that we’re complaining though! As even the youngest children can tell you, dragons absolutely rule. They’re like big, magical, fire-breathing dinosaurs. What’s not to like? But while you may very well be familiar with the Targaryens’ pets, devious old Smaug from the Hobbit, or even the difference between metallic and chromatic dragons in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons… we’re guessing you might not be as familiar with the creatures’ deeper origins.When discussing dragons and their place in pop culture, literature, and mythology, the first thing you need to understand is that there are two competing dragon traditions. Though they have, in more recent years, heavily impacted one another, cross-pollinating many different ideas about the beasties. They are an example of parallel evolution, arising, as best we can tell, completely independently of one another. Though the terms aren’t entirely, unimpeachably accurate, for the ease of discussion, we’ll be referring to these as European and Chinese dragons.The European dragon is, understandably given the Euro-centric focus that America has had for most of its history, the more popular of the two, at least on this continent. European dragons are generally seen as big winged lizards, typically capable of breathing fire and, more often than not, in possession of a horde of gold or other treasure. They have not only four legs, but also a completely separate set of wings sprouting out of their back. Big lizard monsters with two legs and a pair of wings? Those would be wyverns, which might be a shocking revelation to those who mostly know of dragons from Game of Thrones.But the most important facet of the European dragon, the thing that separates it most distinctly from its Chinese cousin, is the fact that they are, traditionally, and typically evil. While more recent fictional explorations of dragons depict the creatures having a variety of alignments (in Dungeons & Dragons, chromatic dragons are generally evil, while metallic ones are good), going all the way back into antiquity, the European dragon has been seen as a terrible threat, one to be overcome and vanquished by a brave hero. It’s the knight/dragon dynamic that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever heard a fairy tale or two.But it’s the origins of this dynamic, however, that make the European dragon so fascinating. While we refer to the beast as European, once examining where the concept came from, we learn that it’s a bit of a misnomer, as this particular interpretation of the dragon has its origins in the Ancient Near East. Canaanite, Hittite, and Mesopotamian mythologies all feature an important clash between a hero, representing the forces of order, and a dragon-like creature, representing those of chaos. This is a foundational bit of human myth-building, and it spread like wildfire not only through the Middle East, but in Europe and Northern Africa as well.This trope, referred to by the German name Chaoskampf, meaning “struggle against chaos,” can be seen in Thor’s fight against the Midgard Serpent, Zeus vs Typhon, the Egyptian chaos god Apep and, perhaps most notably, numerous times within the Judeo-Christian tradition. While dragons today are most frequently depicted as giant lizards, originally they were more serpentine in nature. Understanding this fact will lead you to see dragons practically everywhere in the Bible and Christian tradition, including Adam’s run-in with the devil in the Garden of Eden, the archangel Michael’s fight against a dragon in the Book of Revelation, and even Saint George’s legendary slaying of a draconic beast. These stories were all influenced and inspired by this much older mythological trope, and they, in turn, went on to inspire countless stories of European dragons as vicious, cruel antagonists.This depiction is contrasted sharply with that of the Chinese dragon. While it is also serpentine in nature, perhaps even more so as it has resisted the evolution that the European dragon has and typically does not even possess wings, the Chinese tradition sees the dragon as a benevolent creature. They are normally depicted as wise and capable of human speech, with some traditions even crediting them with teaching language to humanity.The Chinese dragon, like Chinese characters and that culture’s take on Buddhism, spread throughout East Asia, most notably in Japan and Korea, where the predominant view of the creature is in keeping with that of their neighbors. The dragon is seen as a sign of good luck, and is closely connected with the Chinese emperor, with multiple myths, tales, and even proverbs and expressions prominently featuring the creature in a warm fashion.The Chinese term for a dragon, long, should be familiar to anyone who is a fan of the Dragon Ball series, which prominently features Shenlong, a take on a specific dragon from Chinese mythology. This difference in depiction explains why the Shenlong is so far removed in both aspect, behavior, and motivation from most dragons in the European tradition.Which form of dragon do you prefer? Do you have favorite dragons from pop culture, fiction or mythology? Make sure to tell us about them in the comments below.Aubrey Sitterson is the creator of the ongoing sword & sorcery serial podcast SKALD, available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, & Podomatic. There are no dragons in there as of yet, but you never know… Find Aubrey on Twitter or check out his website for more information.last_img

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