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The History of Dragons

by Luke Shen

A creature known for its strength, wisdom, and size; the dragon is a famous symbol of power throughout history. Its inspirations can be far and wide going from dinosaur skeletons to whales bones! The massive scale of these skeletons could only imply the frame of a massive, intimidating creature that easily dwarfs the average bear or lion. At least, that’s what people back in the day thought.

It’s important to distinguish that there are many kinds of dragons. Despite not having much connection to each other culturally, different variants of dragons have arisen from several areas across the globe. David E. Jones, an anthropologist, hypothesizes that the creation of dragons may come from “an innate fear of snakes, genetically encoded in humans from the time of our earliest differentiation from other primates” He explains that people may invent stories with such scary, serpentine creatures to keep children away from dangerous areas. As mentioned before, other evidence points towards the discovery of dinosaur fossils. Naturally, both creatures are similar in build and may imply the dinosaurs inspiring the creation of dragons.

With an abundance of dragons in mythology, what exactly are dragons like? There are four significantly iconic dragons that come to mind. The most standard dragon are the European dragons, four legged giant lizards with sharp, horned snouts and massive wings sprouting out of its back. European dragons are known for being wicked and dangerous, often being associated with Satan or sin. These dragons are also notorious for being the fire breathing monsters, which is associated with “the mouth of hell” Along with having the ability to breathe fire, European dragons also hoard giant treasures in caves. Long story short, European dragons have a negative connotation, having many sinful qualities.

European dragons are found throughout art, such as tapestries of knights fighting dragons for glory and treasure. For example, the prominent dragon slayer and patron saint of England, Saint George killed an evil dragon that preyed on a local village. With its common motif as a malicious being, dragons are also used in propaganda. For example, in the image shown below, the propaganda in WWI uses a dragon to represent the militaristic, aggressive German army while the allied soldiers charge heroically against the menace.

On the flip side, Chinese dragons, or 龙 (pronounced lóng), are seen are seen in a positive light, being kind and wise rather than the sinful, evil European dragons. Chinese dragons also breathe clouds instead of fire, being associated with changing the seasons. More differences arise when the appearances of European and Chinese dragons are compared. Chinese dragons, like European dragons, can fly, but without wings! Instead, they rely on magic, using their snake like body to weave through the sky. Chinese dragons also have a sharp face, but their nostrils tend to be more exaggerated, with long wispy facial hair and mane. Chinese dragons along with their benevolent traits, are also associated with good harvests (since they control the weather and seasons), good fortune, nobleness and more!

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