Many are the fabulous beasts created in the stories by human kind. For thousands of years, we have told of fantastic creatures of supernatural powers, some of the forces of good and others of the forces of evil. But of all these sensational monsters, none has slithered into as many of man's legends than dragons and serpents.
Dragons and serpents vary in description according to culture, although many striking features are retained throughout the written, oral and artistic traditions of the world. They are usually depicted as gigantic snake-like reptiles, with a long, sinuous body armoured in either green, blue or red scales. The head is typically massive, with a broad mouth full of enormous, sharp teeth and a long, forked tongue. The snout is long and sometimes horned; the eyes are usually very large and cold. Often, these creatures possess long ears and a frilled neck, resembling either a crest of feathers or webbed skin. The body itself is usually decorated with an array of small, triangular spines extending from the head down the back to the long, barbed tail.
Dragons normally posses four, short limbs with long claws, although some serpents have no legs at all. In some cultures, dragons are also equipped with enormous, bat-like wings; in others, they have the ability to breathe fire. They can live in mountains, caves, seas, lakes and even the heavens.
Just as their appearances differ from culture to culture, dragons and serpents represent many contrasting ideas for different groups of people. Dragons are perhaps most well recognised in Chinese tradition. The Chinese recognised the dragon as one of the four sacred creatures to contain all elements of yin and yang - dark and light - in addition to the Phoenix, the Unicorn and the Turtle. The Chief of all scaly creatures, the dragon symbolised wisdom, strength, goodness and the element Water. In China, dragons were often drawn with whiskers and antlers on their heads. When depicted with five claws, it represented the Emperor and was known as the Imperial Dragon. In som traditions, dragons were attributed to controlling the weather, and ritual dances were performed to encourage the dragon to send down the rains.
The Japanese had a similar belief in dragons to the Chinese. Their traditional religion, Shinto, also tells of kingdom of serpent people under the sea, where the Dragon King, Ryu-wo, ruled in a spectacular palace of crystal and coral. He was said to have a human body, and a serpent entwined in his crown. Known for his nobility and wisdom, Ryu-wo was a guardian of the Shinto faith. People who have fallen into the sea are said to have lived on in the kingdom of Ryu-wo.
Japanese legends also tell of another serpent king, who, unlike Ryu-wo, possessed scales and a flicking tongue. He was a bringer of destruction and chaos, who would invade villages and devour innocent children. He was only hindered by the goddess of love, Benten, who was charmed by his words of love. After making him promise to end his wrath against mankind, she agreed to marry him. On the Pacific coast of Japan, a great temple was built at Kamakura to commemorate the occasion.
For Buddhists and Taoists of China and Japan, dragon sculptures were often used to decorate the exterior of temples. They represented the many obstacles that humans face throughout life that must first be overcome before true happiness and inner peace, or enlightenment, can be attained.
Dragons and serpents are often viewed as guardians of sacred places and objects. The ancient Greeks and Romans, who revered dragons for their wisdom but feared them for their tremendous powers, both shared this belief. One of the twelve tasks of the legendary hero Hercules (or Heracles) had to perform was to pick three golden apples from a sacred tree, protected by a fearsome dragon or Serpent. A similar story tells of a nymph named Psyche, who was ordered by the goddess Venus to fetch sacred water from mountain stream guarded by dragons.
One of the most feared monsters of the Greeks and Romans was the Hydra, a dragon with multiple heads and poisonous breath. Another task of Hercules was to slay a Hydra which inhabited a dangerous marsh. However, every time Hercules cut off one of the heads of the beast, more grew back in place. Only by burning the necks with fire, and crushing the body with a boulder, was Hercules able to defeat the Hydra.
Throughout Europe, tales of dragons and serpents grew far and wide. Most of these stories were written in Medieval times, when dragons and serpents were said to live in caves or lakes where they hoarded huge riches. Occasionally, the monsters would wander into villages, and cause great destruction and death. This lead to many brave knights attempting to hunt down and slay dragons, as recounted in many medieval writings. In some cases, the knights were successful, but in others they were defeated by the dragon's immense power.
The most terrifying monster of all in European mythology was not, however, the great fire-breathing dragon but a tiny black serpent called the basilisk. Only one foot long and crowned with a white crest, the basilisk, also known as the cockatrice since it hatched from a cockerel's egg, was so deadly that the poison from its spit could split rocks in two, and it could kill a man merely by looking at him. The only things which could kill a basilisk were weasels, which overpowered the monster with their powerful jaws and smell, and crystals. A man could look at a basilisk through the crystal, and the creature's own deadly power would be reflected back, killing it instantly.
We do, however, occasionally read of friendly dragons in European myths. The town of Lucerne in Switzerland was famed for its winged dragons which were said to look like flying crocodiles. A tale is told there of a man who once fell into an underground cave from which he could not escape. To his horror, he realised that this was the home of two dragons. However, the dragons did not see this strange visitor as an intruder or as food; instead, they were intrigued, and rubbed themselves against his body, like domestic cats.
The man lived in the cave for five months, so the legend says, living on nothing but a trickle of water which oozed through the rocks. When the spring came, the dragons decided to leave their home, and took off into the air. The man realised that this was his only chance to escape, and, clasped to the tail of one of the creatures, let himself be carried out of the cave. Sadly, the legend goes on to tell us that he had been without food for too long, and he died shortly after returning to his home village.
The Celtic peoples often showed great reverence for dragons and serpents, depicting them by the side of their gods. They came to represent wisdom and nobility, in a similar way to the dragons of the Orients. Even today, the red dragon can still be seen on the national flag of Wales, one claw raised as a warning of its power and its neck arched in readiness. This respect clashed with the beliefs of the new religion, Christianity. According to both Christian and Jewish texts, dragons and serpents were incarnations of evil.
The dragon was said to bring destruction during the end of the world, as read in the Revelations, while the serpent was blamed for bringing sin to man kind by tempting Eve into eating the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. The legend of St. George, in which he defeats a dragon, perhaps represents Christianity overpowering the Celtic religion. The image St. George crushing a struggling serpent or dragon under his feet was widely used in Christian art, and again may symbolise Christianity's dominance over paganism.
Stories are told of serpents so unimaginably vast that they encircled the world itself! Jormungand the Midgard Serpent was one such a monster, said by the Norse cultures such as the Vikings to live deep under the sea. The West African Fon tribe speak of Aido-Hwedo the Rainbow Serpent, who lies coiled in the ocean under the land to prevent it from sinking. In both cultures, the serpent plays an important part at the end of the world.
The most reverential of cultures towards snakes were the Aztecs of pre-Columbia. One of their principal gods was the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. One of the most enigmatic and fascinating figures in ancient religion and mythology, Quetzalcoatl was most often portrayed as a green serpent with a feather-crested head, similar in many ways to the Chinese dragon. He came to represent water, rain, the wind, human sustenance, penitent, self-sacrifice, re-birth, the morning star of Venus and butterflies.
Unlike most other Aztec deities, Quetzalcoatl was said to oppose all forms of sacrifice apart from self-bleeding. However, his brother Tezcatlipoca was jealous of the god's purity and goodness, and cast an evil spell totransform Quetzalcoatl into a pale-skinned, bearded human. Shortly afterward Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself in order to return again, with the bones from the Underworld which would be made into human beings. Quetzalcoatl taught his creation all he knew, and bestowed gifts of fire and maize. He could also heal the sick. Once satisfied, Quetzalcoatl was said to have sailed into the West on a raft of serpents, with the promise that he would one day return.
Many historical maps show sea serpents in areas of the ocean where they were thought to dwell. Even in modern times there have been a high number of reported sea serpents. This is also true of the serpentine monsters thought to dwell in many lakes all over the world. The most famous of these is the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie, whose immense body is usually seen as three humps above the surface of the water. Similar lake serpents have been reported in every continent of the world, excluding Antarctica.
So why have so many different cultures on Earth told stories of these giant, wonderful reptiles? A common explanation is that the ancient peoples were so inspired by the deadliness and beauty of reptiles such as snakes, lizards and crocodiles, they began to imagine them as giant, magical beings with supernatural powers.
Indeed, we have named several species of reptile with their mythological persona in mind: the Komodo Dragon, the Bearded Dragon, the Water Dragon and the Flying Dragon are all living lizards who bare dragon-like characteristics. But all of these creatures are much smaller than the dragons of legend - even the largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon, only measures a few metres in length. Additionally, these "dragons" have a very restricted habitat, many only inhabiting remote islands or forests. They cannot be fully responsible for spawning the vast widespread beliefs in dragons and serpents.
It is widely suggested that Sea Serpents and Lake Serpents are just ordinary aquatic animals, such as eels, whales, seals or sharks. However, this theory also has a severe short-coming, in that a large majority of precise descriptions of aquatic serpents do not resemble any of these creatures in shape, behaviour or movement. It must also be noted that there are far more reported observations of sea serpents than there are of known existing sea animals, like beaked whales and giant squid.
Dragons and serpents have come to represent a huge variety of different ideas, but perhaps the one prevailing symbolism that unites them all is man's fascination and fear of the unknown. As long as mankind is plagued by mystery, our lakes, skies, seas and even our souls will never be freed from the clutches of dragons and serpents.
by Marilyn Cameron