Where did the idea of dragons originate?

I know europeans had this idea… so did the chinese…
but where did they get this idea from?

If I’m not mistaken I believe the Chinese got the idea from the Komoto Dragons. These things are huge! I’ve heard reports that they can get upwards of 10 meters in lenght. This still does not explain the belief that dragons can fly, but the myth is pretty popular.

In ancient Rome and Greece they believed in somthing called a Hydra. Hydra’s are multi headed dragons of a sort. I’m sure there are better qualified people here to answer this question.

Lots of possible answers:

  1. A lot of dragons are really merely snakes. Look in medieval bestiaries and you find that the description of Draco is actually from some Roman natural history writer, and describes a large snake. Medieval illustrators, relying only on the description and their own imaginations, had to construict a picture on their own, and often added ears, legs, and even wings. See, for example, T.H. White’s translation of a bestiary, The Book of Beasts

  2. Reconstructions from fossil bones. I thought this excuse was over-used, but it turns out that many descriptions, illustrations, and even statues can be shown to be inspired by fossil bones – and not only fossil dinosaur bones. One statue of a dragon is based on a wooly rhinocerous skull. See Adrienne Mayor’s excellent The First Fossil Hunters.

  3. I believe that many ideas about flying dragons are actually inspired by lightning. This explains much about Chinese dragons (especially all those extraneous whiskers and filaments) and notions about “fiery serpents” in the Old Testament.

  4. Some dragons may have been inspired by large lizards. I don’t know about the Chinese and Komodo dragons, but Willy Ley has made the suggestion that the Dragon of the Book of Daniel may have been such a large lizard. He even goes so far as to suggest that the Babylonian “sirrush” depicted on the Ishtar Gate might have been a surviving dinosaur (!). I don’t buy that part, but read his interesting essay in Willy Ley’s Exotic Biology and The Unicorn , the Lungfish, and the Dodo. Science fiction/Fantasy/Historical novelist L. Sprague deCamp took this notion and turned it into a very interesting historical novel, The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate.

To be honest the whole thing screams of primitive cyrptozology. But, who knows. We all thought the cealocanth was dead and gone, but yet we found one.

I’ve got to email a link to this thread to jdimbert. She wrote her frickin’ Thesis on this!

There was a discussion in Great Debates a while back (Are Dragons Real?), wherein there were a few theories presented regarding the possible origins of the dragon myth. You might find some useful information there.

I would say European and Asian dragins have nothing in common except the name and that is meaningless because Europeans just used the name of an imaginary European beast to name an imaginary Asian beast which had no name in European languages.

Calling something a dragon doesn’t make it so. Chinese dragons are not dragons as understood in western culture but we just used the same name.

Just like calling something a pomme de terre does not make it a pomme, just by caling something a (Chinese ) dragon, does not make it a dragon.


You can get even more information about dragons here, but the answer to the OP is:

And a history of Chinese dragons .

I had read the dinosaur bone bit in my child’s “Kids Discover” but I doubt that this holds up as a valid cite.

I am confused. It is stated that all these cultures had “dragon myths” but that the creatures are ill described. And the word is not the same in all these different cultures. So how did these creatures all get to be translated as “dragons” by us in Western culture? Does any reference to snake-like or reptilian features in a power image cause it to be identifiied as a dragon?

As to why such imagery is so prevelent- well if you were making up a story about a powerful creature, wouldn’t you look around for some inspiration as to what it might look like, and seeing snakes and crocodiles and lizards let your imagination create from there? I mean after the elephant headed guy.

The Chinese Dragon was first; the Europeans adapted it to their own myths, and slew the dragon, as a symbolic conquest: that of Christianity over Eastern Mysticism.

Unfortunately, the good professor got a whole bunch of legends wrong.

I had read the dinosaur bone bit in my child’s “Kids Discover” but I doubt that this holds up as a valid cite.

One theory has it that dragons evolved from totem worshipping. Many ancient tribes had that custom, of naming some sort of creature as the protector of a tribe. It would appear that snakes can be one of these animals. Consider that snakes are still worshipped in some African regions, this shouldn’t be too much off base.

From there, snakes evolved into dragons.

At least that makes sense with the Chinese version of dragons, which are long, serpentine like without wings.

As to why it was translated to “dragon,” which is completely different from the Chinese version, one can only wonder why.

Dang! Keep forgetting to review my posts. :o

An example of how ideas (such as dragon legends) develop and morph over time can be inferred from Skippman’s first post. He refers to Komodo dragons as Komoto dragons - a minor distortion - and then sends along “reports” of their being “upwards of 10 meters” in length. The longest of the komodo lizards might reach 10 FEET. So, in one little statement, the animal’s name changed and it’s size increased by more than 300%. The internet may do it faster, but it’s pretty easy to see how the “facts” about things can change from telling to telling. Since these lizards live on some Indonesian islands, which MAY have been visited by a few Chinese thousands of years ago, it’s pretty easy to imagine an intrepid explorer discovering one of these beasts, and hot-footing it back to the mainland, reporting on gigantic dragons, and from that telling of events… ya know?

I’m wondering why the cite I gave has been completely ignored.
For the second time:

A little off the subject, but I’ve read that the cyclops was possibly inspired by Elephant skulls. If you look at an elephant skull, you’ll see that the spot where the trunk is looks like one large eye socket.

Sorry for the hijack.


Possibly because it seems that “dragon” legends have originated independently in many cultures, so being “early” doesn’t mean “original.” Also because it is unclear what gets called a “dragon” when Westerners translate these myths into their own idiom. Again, it seems that any big and powerful snake/crocodile/reptilian hybrid figure that flies or swims or whatever is labelled a dragon by translators … the question becomes one of why, since at least the time of Sumerian legend, these are power totems. And did any cultures legends influence the others.

But a good cite. I visited and appreciate the reference.

Well, in an adult Sunday School class in the Church of Christ on the origins of the world, we learned that the legends of dragons were based on stories about people’s encounters with dinosaurs, and so the dragon stories prove the truth of young-earth creationism.

I’m sure you will find that explanation as useful as I do.

  1. IIRC, there is no evidence that the Chinese were aware of the Komodo dragon. But we can dream…

  2. According to Daniel Cohen (Encyclopedia of Monsters, 1982), the oriental dragon and the western one have wholly independent origins. (Although similarities between the 2 creatures led Westerners to originally speculate that they had a common origin.)

  3. Western dragons were portrayed as evil, and were thought to be based upon the serpent (or “worm”). As a simple snake (albeit a large one) was not thought to be a sufficiently intense symbol of pure evil, various appendages were added over time. Hence, the breathing of fire, the wings, the feet etc.

Their are reports of stuffed baby dragons from the middle ages, which cynics suggest resemble bat wings sewed on lizard bodies.

Certain monks were reported to have displayed the remains of a seven headed dragon, which may have resembled seven weasel heads sewn onto a snake’s body.

  1. While oriental dragons are long and fearsome, they were also portrayed as guardians of great fortunes; sometimes they were thought to hand out gifts. Usually (not always) they were benevolent, symbols of royalty and good luck. They often lived in lakes or rivers. Their provenance is thought to be quite different: they are probably based upon the Chinese alligator, since the snake was also thought to be evil in China.

  2. Both the Chinese and the Europeans saw departed dragons in the fossil bones of certain extinct creatures.

There was a relative of the Komodo Dragon that lived in Australia that got really big, I believe over a ton. It’s extinct now but was still around when humans first came to Australia. I’m sure stories about something that impressive would spread.