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What Are the Roles of Dragons in Mythology?

By Alan Rankin
Updated: May 23, 2024

The roles of dragons in mythology depend on the ancient culture where they appear. In European mythology, dragons are often sinister creatures that must be overcome or outwitted. In the cultural myths of China and Asia, they can represent strength, protection, and power. In some myths, they are elementals or earth-spirits or even gods. Dragons in mythology, in almost all cases, possess supernatural powers, providing boons to heroes and kings who can defeat or ally themselves with them.

Dragons and other reptilian creatures appear in the mythology of ancient cultures around the world. In some cases, they take the form of snakes, sea serpents, or mythical beings like the multi-headed hydra of Greek mythology. Some scholars believe dragons were invented as an explanation for the fossil remains of dinosaurs. This would explain why the creatures appear in the myths of cultures throughout the ancient world that had no contact with each other. Even the Aztec culture of Mesoamerica had a revered figure that resembled a dragon, the god Quetzalcoatl.

In ancient Europe, including Greece, the dragons in mythology are monsters and the enemies of heroic figures. Often they are the guardians of treasure or a sacred object. The Greek heroes Jason, Hercules, and Perseus all battled dragons, as did the Danish hero Beowulf and the Roman knight St. George. The Norse hero Siegfried gained superhuman powers after defeating a dragon and bathing in its blood. The dragon was adopted as a symbol of power by various European authorities, including Imperial Roman legions and Vlad Tepes, the real-life inspiration for Count Dracula.

Similarly, the rulers of ancient China often adopted the dragon as a symbol; in some eras, only emperors were allowed to display them on clothing or banners. The dragon was sometimes linked with elemental forces such as the sea or storms. Dragons in mythology throughout Asia symbolized good fortune as well as strength and stability. In Japan, dragons were akin to gods, and like other gods, could be beneficial or deadly to humans depending on the situation. Likewise, in Hindu and Buddhist mythology the naga are godlike beings portrayed as multi-headed serpents or dragons.

Dragons in mythology often influenced later works of art and literature. Images of St. George slaying the dragon have been popular throughout Europe from medieval times to the present, while the legends of Beowulf formed one of the oldest works of English literature. The myths of Siegfried inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, one of the best-known operas in history. J.R.R. Tolkien drew from medieval dragon legends for his novel The Hobbit, as did J.K. Rowling for her Harry Potter series. Dragons inspired by ancient myths have also appeared in a diverse array of films, including 1981’s Dragonslayer and the animated classics Spirited Away and Shrek.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Aug 11, 2014

@Ana1234 - I think that's a bit too simplistic, though, especially since in some cases we're stretching the word dragon a bit far. Since it's a mythological creature there's no reason to believe that it is actually based around the same thing in both cultures at all. Maybe Eastern "dragons" should be considered more closely akin to demi-gods than related to dragon mythology in the West.

Even trying to put a dividing line between the West and the East seems like a foolish thing to do when there are so many different ancient cultures that can't be so easily contained.

By Ana1234 — On Aug 10, 2014

@pastanaga - I've always thought it was kind of interesting to speculate on the cultures that developed such opposing views of relatively similar creatures. Dragons are generally put at the top of the mythical creature hierarchy in both cases, and may be inspired by dinosaur bones or giant lizards like crocodiles or snakes, or marine giants like squids or even whales.

But in one culture they are invariably evil and mindless (at least, until more recent fantasy tropes appeared) and in the other culture they are wise and occasionally beneficent.

Does this say something about how the different cultures view power? Or does it say something about how they view nature in general? Dragons are almost always associated with natural forces. Perhaps in one culture it was seen as something to conquer and in another it was seen as something that could be negotiated with.

By pastanaga — On Aug 09, 2014

I've always liked that quote that people sometimes say about fairy tales, that the reason dragons exist in them is not to show children that monsters are real, but that they can be defeated.

I imagine that a lot of traditional dragon mythology was based around the idea that even big problems could be overcome.

Although I suppose that is a Western idea, since dragons in other cultures were more benign or even benevolent and might have been the ones solving the conflict rather than causing it.

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