European Dragons: What You Might Not Know About Them

So, I've noticed over the years that a lot of people tend to think that European dragons were all just one kind of creature, which they often refer to as a "Western dragon." But the thing is, the creature they're thinking of is largely a 20th century construct that ignores and dismisses a very rich and complicated history of art and folklore. So, I'm going to attempt to demonstrate how our modern conception of dragons paints a misleading picture of the past, and show you what dragons were really like.

I do want to make one thing clear: this article is absolutely not a comprehensive guide to European dragons; it definitely won't tell you all there is to know about them. However, it will hopefully be enough to demonstrate that the so-called "Western dragon" was not actually the standard image of a dragon, and that European dragons in general have always been diverse.

I also want to emphasize that mythology and folklore isn't static - it's constantly evolving. So it's important to keep in mind that something might only be a few hundred years old, rather than a few thousand. The beliefs and lore of 2000 years ago won't be the same as the beliefs and lore of 5000 years ago. This doesn't make newer ideas unimportant or invalid, of course; it's just something to keep in mind.

First uploaded: April 26, 2021. Last updated: May 26, 2021.

Table of Contents

What did European dragons actually look like?

When many people today imagine European dragons, they think of the so-called "western dragon" - a fully reptilian creature with four legs, two batlike wings, and a pair horns, ala Draco from Dragonheart. There's just one little problem, though: although there were plenty of dragons who did look more or less like this, many didn't! Dragons were actually depicted in a variety of ways. To give you some idea, I'll link to some artwork that was definitely intended to depict dragons.

First, let's start with illustrations of the story of Saint George, a well-known story that was often illustrated. (Content warning: these pictures show Saint George attacking a dragon. I'll specifically mark ones that depict gore/blood with a ⚠.)

No wings.
No wings, no horns.
No wings, no horns.
No wings, no horns.
Very tiny wingless and hornless dragon.
Dragon with two legs and a furry body.
Dragon with two legs.
Dragon with two legs, no horns.
Various Eastern Orthodox depictions, most serpentine; varying numbers of legs.

Another well-known and oft-illustrated story is that of Saint Margaret of Antioch. The titular Saint Margaret is swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon, but miraculously survives. (Content warning: these pictures depict Saint Martha emerging from the body of a dragon, albeit with varying amounts of graphic gore. I'll mark the ones that show graphic gore and/or blood with a ⚠.)

Two legs, no wings, big floppy dog ears.
Two legs, no wings, fluffy feet.
Feathery wings, feathery head crest, no horns.
Another dog-faced dragon.
Two legs, bird wings, no horns.
Two legs, fuzzy tail, beard.

We also have the constellation Draco - which as we all know, "draco" literally means "dragon."

No wings, two legs.
Serpentine body, no legs.
Serpentine body, no legs, no horns.

And we can't forget the Prince of Darkness himself - Revelation 20:2 describes Satan as a "serpent" and a "dragon," and many illustrations depicted him accordingly.

Serpent with horns.
Serpentine dragon.
Serpentine dragon with feathered wings, horns, and two legs.

So from these illustrations, we can see that Europe didn't have one single idea of what a dragon looked like, and had no concept of "true dragons" versus any other kind of draconic being. They were all dragons.

This leads us to another question, though: with all of this variety, what actually made a creature a dragon? Did they have any substantial traits in common, or was "dragon" effectively a catch-all term for a number of unrelated creatures?

In fact, dragons did have certain characteristics in common - though what some those characteristics are might actually surprise you. In the next section, we'll take a look at them.

So what does make a dragon?

So, we've established that European dragons could look extremely different from each other, which leaves us with another question: what made a creature qualify as a dragon?

Many European languages (such as Italian, French, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, English, German, and Old Norse) have one or more words for draconic creatures that derive from the Latin word draco. This in turn comes from the Greek word drakon. Drakon is believed to come from dérkomai, meaning "one who stares." And on its own, that doesn't really tell us a lot, because European dragons aren't largely known for staring.

What we can do is look at what kind of creatures the ancient Greeks classified as drakones, and see what they all have in common with each other. In ancient Greek myth, the Ismenian dragon was depicted as a snake. Ladon, the Hesperian dragon, was a multi-headed snake. The Lernean Hydra? Also recognized as a serpent. I could keep going, but basically, your ancient Greek drakones were all some kind of serpent.

As it turns out, a lot of people throughout history agreed that dragons are a kind of serpent. Some even claimed that dragons killed their prey through constriction, which is a very snakey trait. European Christians also recognized the Jewish sea serpent Leviathan as a dragon. (Here's one illustration, by the way. Check out those tusks!)

So there we go: Dragons were considered a kind of serpent, though they were much more than ordinary snakes. They were also great beasts and divine monsters. They could have many forms and features - two legs, four legs, or no legs; two wings, no wings, bat wings, or bird wings; horns, ears, etc.

So what about other characteristics commonly associated with European dragons - fire breathing, princess kidnapping, wreaking havoc and destruction, etc? Those things definitely appeared, but when we take a closer look we find that they weren't actually as universal as we think. Additionally, many show traits we don't often think of when we imagine European dragons.

Now, before folks start trying to get pedantic with language and tell me that some of the creatures I'm going to talk about aren't really dragons because they were known by another name or something - I'm going to explain why that's not the case.

Let's take, for example, terms such as the German "lindwurm" or "lindorm," the Swedish "linnormr," the Dutch "lintworm," and the English "lindworm." Lindworms are often considered wingless creatures with two legs (such as depicted here), which is still well within the bounds of what we've established dragons to be. Some variants of the Saint George story even describe him as fighting a lindworm. Then we have depictions of lindworms that look like this and this, further demonstrating that lindworms and dragons are pretty much the same general concept.

Same thing basically goes for the word "wyvern." While creatures labeled "wyverns" have been pretty consistently depicted as serpents with two legs and two wings, this is well within the bounds of things considered and depicted as dragons. The very word "wyvern" goes back to the Old French word "guivre," which just meant "snake." Therefore, the assertions that wyverns are not dragons just doesn't hold water.

The same thing goes for pretty much all of these creatures. If you look at the actual concepts you'll see that they all tend to share many of the same essential traits, and very often the name will trace back to something meaning "snake" or "serpent." The Russian word zmey and Zmey Gorynych is a good example of this.

So what other traits are there?

This might surprise folks who aren't familiar with European dragon lore, but an association with water is extremely common. As mentioned earlier, the sea serpent Leviathan was recognized as a dragon. The Ismenian dragon guards the sacred spring of Ares. Ladon, the name of the Hesperian dragon, is also the name of a river (and the name of a minor deity personifying that river). The Greek Python was born from the stagnant muck left behind after the Great Deluge. The Lernean Hydra lived in the swamps of Lerna. (Bonus content: a medieval illustration describing the Hydra as a dragon.) The dragon in the story of Saint George lives in a pond. In a variant of the story from Saxony, the dragon lives in a lake. A Lusatian variant on the Saint George story has dragons and lindworms living in swamps and lakes. The red and white dragons of Welsh mythology slept beneath a lake. The Norse dragon Nidhoggr lives at the bottom of Yggdrasil in the Well of Hvergelmir. Jormungand, the World Serpent, lives in the sea. The French vouivre is often known for bathing in springs. The young Lambton Worm was fished out of a stream, then tossed into a well.

We often think of dragons as vicious, greedy hoarders (and Fafnir was certainly that!), but this isn't always the case; Ladon, the Ismenian Dragon, and the Colchian Dragon were more like guardians. And this brings us back to the Greek word drakon; as it apparently comes from a word meaning "one who stares," this suggests that the Greeks associated dragons with watchfulness rather than greed.

Breathing fire definitely happened (such as with the dragon Beowulf fought), but it's not univeral. Many dragons were said to breathe poison; examples including the Lernean Hydra and the Mordiford Dragon. (In my opinion, this one makes a lot of sense if they're associated with swamps and other stagnant waters.) The Lambton Worm was described as having poisonous blood. Fafnir was also said to be venomous, as was the dragon fought by Tristan.

It's often asserted that European dragons are all cruel or destructive. While this is true of many of them, there are some notable exceptions. The French folkloric figure of Melusine has been depicted as a dragon, and was far from cruel or evil. Serbian lore also has it that dragons are extremely wise and rather fond of getting it on with the human ladies, which produces a number of half-dragon children. Serbian lore has it that half-dragons can fight demons that cause bad weather, and that carp can transform into dragons. These dragons are described as serpents with the heads of rams - which leads us to another interesting fact.

The Gundestrup Cauldron, a Celtic artifact found in Denmark, depicts a horned god holding a ram-headed serpent in his left hand. This motif has apparently also been spotted in other places, such as Val Carmonica (scroll down to the bottom). This could suggest that dragons may have widely had a much more positive role at one point.

Another thing that wasn't limited to Serbian culture was a belief in amorous dragons. The 16th century Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus believed dragons would take human form to get it on with witches - this is mentioned in Paracelsus And The Substance Of His Teachings (Squick warning for certain bodily fluids associated with amorous activities, though.).

In Germany, dragons could be shapeshifting tricksters or bargained with to gain wealth.

On some occasions, dragons are even associated with knowledge and wisdom. Fafnir was extremely eloquent, and upon tasting his blood the hero Sigurd could understand the speech of birds. Listening to the birds, he learned that eating the dragon's heart would give him wisdom.

In the 16th century, Heinrich Cornelius Arippa wrote that the constellation Draco could make one crafty, ingenious, and valiant, and that the constellation Hydra granted wisdom and riches.

So as you can see, European dragons are not just one thing - they're a lot of things. While they all share the trait of being an extraordinary serpent of some kind, they can exhibit many other qualities as well. And not a single one of them is more or less a "true dragon" than another.

In closing

Again, this article is absolutely not a comprehensive dive into European dragon folklore, but I hope it's enough to demonstrate that "dragon" is not an exclusive term, that modern dragon classification systems bear very little relation to how dragons were actually conceived and depicted, and that the very term and concept of the "Western dragon" demeans and erases an incredible diversity of belief and folklore.

Overall, we need to be much more critical of anything that tries to essentialize culture or turn it into a monolith, or that centers the perceptions of modern English speakers and treats everything else as some kind of reflex or redux. Heck, for years many of us have accepted that the Hero's Journey is a thing, when in reality it's a 20th century construct that glosses over and dismisses the diversity of real folklore. Sure, it's one thing to acknowledge that there are lots of stories about heroes, but to act like every hero has the same exact experience is out of line.

Certain people like to claim that "Western civilization" is a certain way, and that in these ways it is completely unique. When we define our dragons as creatures of fire, and their dragons as creatures of water, or draw some other kind of arbitrary distinction, we're doing the same thing. We're exaggerating and essentializing differences to make ourselves seem more alien from each other than we really are.

Also, more of us need to reach a place where we can acknowledge similarities and respect differences. Unfortunately, too many of us are stuck on an either/or model, where we think that everything is either the exact same thing or completely unrelated. We also tend to think that everything must have had one single point of origin or must have popped fully formed from the aether, when in reality syncretization was the norm and everything has complicated organic origins. We know that oral cultures can pass down information for thousands of years, and we know that people across the globe have been highly connected to each other. We might never have the full picture of what happened, but I think it's a safe bet that it was complicated and spanned a lot of time and territory.

We know that different groups of proto-humans didn't independently evolve into modern humans across over the planet. But neither did modern humans evolve and spread out from one single point of origin, either. Research has favored the new braided stream model - modern humanity evolved everywhere because groups of humans all over were constantly coming into contact with each other and producing offspring. I think it's a fair guess that something similar happened with culture throughout the ages as well.

Also, it's just fun to show up those jackasses who act like they're the ultimate authority on what is and isn't a dragon when everything they know about dragons is informed by modern fantasy media.

If you liked this article, please share it with your friends and on social media. Also, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great day!

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