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Beasts of Legend

Statue of Hercules killing a dragon Statue of Hercules killing a dragon

Dragon stories have thrilled people throughout history and across cultures.
 
The word dragon comes from the Greek word “drakon.” This meant “a creature with scales” and usually referred to a “serpent or sea monster.” In some Greek writings the word “dragon” may have referred to a sharklike sea animal or a normal snake. 
 Garder snakeWatch out for dragons in the garden!


Dragons Across Cultures

A noble knight facing a dragon 
Most dragon stories refer to giant serpents. In Ancient Greece dragons were said to have multiple heads. And they breathed poisonous fumes. These creatures were thought to be the offspring of the gods. In later stories dragons are a species of animal. These dragons have only one head. Often they are known for breathing fire.

Tales of European dragons depict them burning down villages and eating farm animals. They brought death and destruction wherever they went. But other cultures revere the dragon. Their presence is considered a sign of good luck. Of course, dragons don’t really bring good luck or roam the countryside—but it can be fun to pretend!
Dragon in a paradeIn Chinese culture the dragon is thought to be a friendly but powerful creature. It has magical abilities and noble spiritual qualities.

In the Bible the only dragon is in Revelations 12, describing the last days of the world.

Where do the tales of dragons come from?

Dragon stories are widespread across cultures. Some people believe these legends came from real encounters with dinosaurs. Many descriptions of dragons are similar to how scientists think dinosaurs may have looked. As the stories were passed down the descriptions may have altered. Just like the fish that got away – no one quite saw it, yet somehow it gets bigger each time the story is retold!

The Chinese describe dragons as though they are a mix of many animals. They say dragons have the head of a camel, the neck of a snake, the scales of a fish, the antlers of a deer, the paws of a tiger, and the talons of an eagle. 

Who was Saint George (Georgius)?
Saint George and the dragon
Saint George rides in to save the princess from a man-eating dragon. It sounds like a fairy tale. But did it really happen? History has many legends of Saint George, but it’s not clear if he ever lived or what he may have accomplished.

Some legends say there was a man named George who was born around AD 285. He had Christian parents and lived in an area that is now part of Turkey. George became a soldier in the Roman army. Because of his courage during battle he was promoted to the personal staff of the Emperor Diocletian. When Diocletian began persecuting Christians, George resigned and was eventually killed in Palestine for his faith in God.
Painting of Saint George

The oldest account of George does not mention a dragon. However, the Greek Church depicted him with a dragon under his feet. The dragon represented sin or the devil, and George conquered it. There was also a crowned maiden at his side, representing the Church.

Design depicting Saint George and the dragon for a float in a paradeDesign depicting Saint George and the dragon for a float in a parade

The first widely known story of Saint George defeating a dragon came from “The Golden Legend,” a poem from the thirteenth century. In this story George saved the daughter of the king, killed the dragon, and delivered the village from their bad habit of offering sacrifices to the dragon. Similar legends appear elsewhere in Europe. 

Facts compiled and written by Elizabeth Easker. Images from Wikimedia Commons.
Nessie

References

Bodie Hodge, “Dragon Legends – Truths Behind the Tales,” ANSWERS IN GENESIS, September 16, 2011.

Ernest Ingersoll, “To the Glory of Saint George,” Dragons and Dragon Lore, SACRED TEXTS, 1928, 
http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/ddl/ddl17.htm.

Joseph McCullough and Peter Dennis. Dragonslayers: From Beowulf to St. George (Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing), p.6.

Laura Welch and Bodie Hodge. Dragons: Legends & Lore of Dinosaurs. (Green Forest, AZ: Master Books).

“Saint George”, BBC RELIGIONS, July 31, 2009, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/saints/george_1.shtml.

“The Almighty Dragon,” CHINA CULTURE, http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_chinaway/2004-02/25/content_45896.htm