In myths and legends of the world, dragons are often fire-breathing, reptilelike creatures with wings, huge claws, and a long tail. They are usually portrayed as frightening and destructive monsters. Gods and heroes must slay them in symbolic battles of good over evil. But a few cultures, notably those of China and Japan, view dragons in a positive light and use them as symbols of good fortune.
In ancient times, dragons often represented evil, destruction, and death. The dragon Apophis in Egyptian mythology was the enemy of Ra, the sun god. Babylonian creation myths describe the dragonlike monster Tiamat, who was associated with chaos. Dragons also play a role in the Bible, where they are frequently identified with Satan.
Dragons appeared in various Greek and Roman myths. For example, Apollo * fought the dragon Python, which guarded the oracle at Delphi. In Greece and Rome, dragons were thought to understand the secrets of the earth. They had both protective and fearsome qualities. As a result, the dragon came to be used as a military symbol. Roman soldiers of the first century A . D . inscribed dragons on the standards that they carried into battle. The ancient Celts * also used the dragon symbol on their battle gear, and to this day a red dragon appears on the flag of Wales.
chaos great disorder or confusion
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
In Norse * mythology, the best-known dragon is Fafnir, a giant who transformed himself into a dragon to guard treasure on which
Christian legends generally blended the dragon's satanic image with elements of Greek and other mythologies. Many of the stories had symbolic meanings. In one famous legend, St. George, the patron saint of England, saved the daughter of a king from a dragon, symbolizing the triumph of the church over the devil. The dragon played a similar symbolic role in Christian art, representing sin overcome by saints and martyrs.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
In contrast, the Chinese and Japanese hold the dragon in high regard. In their mythology and tradition, dragons symbolize power, happiness, and fertility and are believed to bring good fortune and wealth. Statues and carvings of dragons are common, and garments are often decorated with the dragon image.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.