When the author was very little he had a crocodile-like animal under his bed. It was dangerous to put my hand out of the bedclothes in case it got bitten off. Conversely, in a strange sort of way, I thought the crocodile might protect me if I were in danger. A good example, I think, of the duality of dangerous mythical animals and of their psychological origins. The dragon is universal and inevitably top of the food chain of mythical animals. How did this come about?
There are many varieties of dragons but one of the commonest representations is a combination of a large catŐs head, a bird of preyŐs (raptorŐs) feet and a snake-like body. David Jones in his book ŇAn Instinct for DragonsÓ points out that these animals were the three main predators of our Stone Age ancestors and still of monkeys today. Moreover the most threatening body parts of these three creatures are represented in the dragon. Occasionally the head may also have the forked tongue of the snake. In ancient times the dragon would change according to local threats: a crocodile commonly taking the part of the head or body or the local dragon might be a serpent with wings or a similarly designed sea monster. Mr G Elliot Smith describes the complete dragon as having birdŐs feet and wings, a lionŐs front limbs and head, fishŐs scales, antelopeŐs horns and a serpentine body. Birds of prey may not seem to be much of a threat to us today but Mr Jones provides evidence that things were to the contrary in prehistoric times, with the bones of humanoid children being found in what are considered to be nest sites. Were Stone Age children conditioned to be naturally fearful of these animals and did they too have imaginary dragons under or around their makeshift beds? It is not fanciful to consider such images being reproduced in later life (and times) as psychological representations of adult fears and troubles?
The universality of dragons is remarkable. Mr Jones suggests that the dragon evolves spontaneously in all human societies. It seems likely that some form of mythical monster would indeed evolve everywhere but the similarities of the depictions of the dragons throughout the world seem too great for there not to be a common origin of this particular beast.
There are many depictions of dragons in America, A serpent drawn by the Mayan people, long before the arrival of Columbus, has a remarkable resemblance to the serpents of India and, even more surprising, the dragon is depicted next to a God with what is obviously the head of an Indian elephant! There were no elephants in America. The functions of the elephant God and the serpent were also similar to the equivalent Gods in India. The people who produced these images had arrived in America from across the Bearing Straits or possibly the Pacific Ocean, having traveled from their hill homes in and around Burma. Their local descendant may still be visited in the hills of Bangladesh.
They obviously brought with them their memories of real elephants and mythical Wurms and by the time these images were made they had probably long forgotten the differences in origin.
In the study of many common images and rituals, a brief look at Egyptian mythology will often produce the first known examples. From the early Egyptians we can trace such things as: incense burning, holy water, sacred cows and yes - dragons. Along with agriculture and the first organised religions, these customs and beliefs and many more spread out from Egypt. No doubt such practises and beliefs had been around for many centuries previously but it is the Egyptians who provide us with the first written recordings of these matters. The Egyptians described the God Horus descending to earth in the form of a serpent with falconŐs wings, to wreak havoc with fire. In a related myth, the Goddess Hathor behaved in a similar fashion in the form of a flying lion. These stories, which had probably been circulating from about 3000 BC, became confused and partially merged and the first surviving representation of what we might now regard as a dragon is to be found on a very ancient seal from Susa in Persia, depicting an amalgamation of the Eagle of Horus and the lion of Hathor. The Babylonians produced the first images of what we would now easily recognise as a dragon.
As suggested above the universal success of the dragon is due to its ability to act as the psychological representation of our fears. Taming or killing of the dragon is represented in many metaphorical situations. St GeorgeŐs activities are a metaphor for the triumph of the Christian Church over pagan society. The Wurm of the ancient MayanŐs and their sub continent cousins required the dragon to be overcome by their rain god before it would rain. Traditionally childrenŐs stories involving a dragon would include an element of overcoming fear or some other obstacle. (Latin for dragon is 'Drago', close enough to the Harry Potter 'Draco' to allow for apt connotations.) Sometimes, in a reversal of roles, a friendly dragon might help a child to achieve his or her task: a further example of the duality of the beast. Once the difficulty has been overcome and the metaphorical dragon tamed, the dragon may become a mighty force for the benefit of the tamer. A good example is the association of the dragon (and serpent) with medicine and healing, particularly in the Orient.
David Jones gives some historical examples to suggest that depictions of dragons tend to vary with political climate: tame dragons being more frequent during times of political stability and vice versa. As an illustration of this, the depiction of dragons on shields and heraldry became common in the middle ages. Griffins (or gryphons) with eagleŐs head and lionŐs body were particularly well designed for heraldic purposes. Dragons were to be found on the shields of Beowulf, King Arthur, many English kings and Celtic knights including the Pendragons of Wales. Oliver Cromwell also sported a dragon in his own coat of arms. The last reported sighting of a Welsh dragon was as late as 1812.
Wurms are wingless dragons resembling snakes. Basilisks were the Wurms of the ancient Greeks and were particularly nasty; the name may be translated as Ôlittle kingŐ. Descriptions vary as much as other dragons but Pliny the elder in his ÔNatural HistoryŐ described a Basilisk as a snake only a foot or so long, but all the more unpleasant for that. It had the body of a serpent with no legs and an upright front half with particular markings on its forehead. Its hiss frightened away other serpents and it could burn grass and explode stones with its breath. It had venomous saliva and any animal that gazed upon it died. Holding up a mirror so that it saw itŐs own eyes could kill it.
ÔThe Evolution of the DragonŐ G Elliot Smith. University Press, London / Kessinger, www.Kessinger.net
ÔAn Instinct For DragonsŐ David E Jones. Routledge, New York and London