A wing-beat like the roll of thunder. A shadow that eclipses the sun. A roar and then a wash of heat. You find yourself face-to-face with a scaly monstrosity, a powerful frame. There is a glint in its eyes. You tighten your hand around your sword. Or maybe you exhale, preparing to greet an old friend. Perhaps the creature before is less like a bird or a bat and more akin to a serpent. It could have one head—or two, or three. Perhaps it even has a beard or whiskers like a fish. There are rows upon rows of sharp, almost shark-like teeth and the exhalation of its breath smells of sulphur. You find yourself face-to-face with a dragon.
Descriptions of dragons vary but not dramatically. All are described as having scales and most can fly, whether through the use of wings or other more esoteric functions. Western dragons—those that originated mostly in Europe—usually have a horse-shaped head and the ability to breathe fire. Eastern dragons—mainly those of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythologies—are often more serpentine in appearance, with large whiskers and beards
Dragons appear in stories early on in the historical record and that could be what has made them so ubiquitous to fantasy storytelling today. Mythical creatures like the Sumerian sirrush had “serpent’s scales and lions paws” and the serpentine Egyptian god of chaos Apep was the opponent of the sun god Ra. Dragons appear in Ancient Greek myths as well; a golden dragon is one of the monsters that Jason has to overcome in Jason and the Argonauts. They populate the mythology of ancient China, where the dragon Tianlong guarded the heavenly palaces.
But where did the dragon come from? Most scholars believe that dragons got their start when ancient peoples stumbled upon the bones of dinosaurs or other large lizards; a crocodile’s skull looks a little like a dragon’s skull, after all. This allowed the idea of dragons to develop independently in cultures across the globe, from China to Europe and even in Australia and the Americas.
A competing idea is the natural human aversion to snakes and snake-like creatures. Due to their often venomous nature, ancient humans’ fear or dislike of snakes may have served as the inspiration for dragon-like tales; they served as warnings about the dangers of scaly creatures and eventually those stories became more and more fantastical until the creatures in them and the tales themselves resembled the dragons we see today.
Dragons have long appeared throughout works of fiction; from the terror of the Hungarian Horntail in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to the wise and inscrutable dragons of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, dragons are a common appearance in all fantasy stories. Their depictions are varied: oftentimes they take center stage, other times they appear as part of the background, a part of the scenery of the place where the story occurs. They also feature prominently on book covers and whole books have been devoted solely to their study.
Dragons are among the oldest creature that humans ever dreamed up—to entertain ourselves, to warn us against danger, and to capture our imaginations. Dragons are perhaps the epitome of the mythical creature. They have weaved their way through our storytelling for centuries and are singular in their ability to capture our attention. So get ready, adventurer. Here be dragons!
Miss Mary’s Take and Make
Pick up the Dragon craft kit from the Library’s curbside pickup this week!
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