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Dragons in the Myth of Ancient Greece

The word ‘dragon’ in English is related to the Greek words ‘δράκων’ and ‘δράκοντας’ which are translated as ‘snake’. This is in contrast to the Greek word ‘όφις’ which is derived from the Indo-European ‘angu̯(h)i-‘, ‘snake, worm’. The word ‘dragon is derived from the Indo-European ‘derk̑- ‘to look’. The significance of the word dragon may involve the concept of the evil eye. Plato seems to reference this concept in the Phaedo 95b when he writes, “’My friend,’ said Socrates, ‘do not be boastful, lest some evil eye put to rout the argument that is to come. That, however, is in the hands of God.'” Snakes are thought to hypnotise their victims with their eye glance so a snake is quite related to the concepts of evil eye. Most monsters in ancient Greece are female but not dragons. ‘δράκων’ is male and δράκαινα is a shedragon.

The word How the concept of dragon went from snake to creature with wings and four legs is not that clear. The idea of legs on a dragon may have come from China over the silk road long ago since Chinese dragons have legs. But they can fly without wings according to many illustrations of them. Perhaps later artists added wings to symbolize the fact that they could fly. This is consistent with the fact that dragons are pictured with four legs and wings while neither flying birds nor mammals have four legs and wings.

Dragons in Ancient Greece

  1. Jason had to fight a dragon to get to the garden of the golden fleece
  2. The Sleepless Dragon that guarded the golden Fleece at Colchis and was killed by Medea.
  3. The Dragons that carried Medea away after she murdered her children.
  4. Cadmus killed a dragon when he found Thebes and sowed the teeth that grew into warriors. This myth is described by Euripides in Phoenissae, line 657
  5. Heracles succeeded in taking the apples of the Hesperides after slaying Ladon (Ophis), the dragon that guarded their tree. “And he came to those minstrel maids, to their orchard in the west, to pluck from golden leaves the apple-bearing fruit, when he had slain the tawny dragon, whose terrible coils were twined all round to guard it;” Euripides, Heracles E. P. Coleridge, Ed. line 394
  6. Python, the dragon that guarded the oracle at Delphi (Apollodorus, Library 1.4)
  7. “There (Nemea) the heroes with red shields, the best of the Argives held games for the first time in honor of Archemorus, whom a fiery-eyed monstrous dragon killed in his sleep” Bacchylides, Epinicians Ode 9.
  8. The monster that threatened Andromeda is not termed a dragon, but rather a ‘θαλασσίῳ κήτει’, ‘sea monster’. Even so it is this story that supposedly gave rise to the story of Saint George and the Dragon in Medieval times.
  9. A similar monster (κήτει) threatened Hesione.

Descriptions of Dragons

  • Python — guard of the oracle at Delphi. Identified with Ekhidna
  • Aesch. Pers. 81 “With eyes flashing with dark glare of a deadly dragon” — “κυάνεον δ᾽ ὄμμασι λεύσσων
    φονίου δέργμα δράκοντος,”
  • Aristoph. Kn. 175 “The dragon is long and so also is the sausage; the sausage like the dragon is a drinker of blood.” — “δράκων γάρ ἐστι μακρὸν ὅ τ᾽ ἀλλᾶς αὖ μακρόν. εἶθ᾽ αἱματοπώτης ἔσθ᾽ ὅ τ᾽ ἀλλᾶς χὠ δράκων:”
  • Cadmus and the Dragon
  • Aristophanes, Wasps 438 ‘tail of a dragon’ ποδῶν Δρακοντίδη,
  • Bacchylides, Epinicians 9.14 ‘whom a fiery-eyed monstrous dragon killed in his sleep’ ‘τὸν ξανθοδερκὴς
    πέφν᾽ ἀωτεύοντα δράκων ὑπέροπλος’
  • Euripides, Medea, 480, ‘The dragon who kept watch over the Golden Fleece, sleeplessly guarding it with his sinuous coils,…’, ‘δράκοντά θ᾽, ὃς πάγχρυσον ἀμπέχων δέρος σπείραις ἔσῳζε πολυπλόκοις ἄυπνος ὤν,’
  • Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris, line285, “Don’t you see hell’s dragon, how she wants to kill me, fringed with her dreadful vipers against me?”, “τήνδε δ᾽ οὐχ ὁρᾷς
    Ἅιδου δράκαιναν, ὥς με βούλεται κτανεῖν
    δειναῖς ἐχίδναις εἰς ἔμ᾽ ἐστομωμένη;”
  • Pindar, Pythian 4
    “the ravenous jaws of a dragon [245]
    which, in length and breadth, exceeded
    a fifty-oared ship
    wrought by iron-nailing blows. “δράκοντος δ᾽ εἴχετο λαβροτατᾶν γενύων, 245ὃς πάχει μάκει τε πεντηκόντορον ναῦν κράτει,”
  • The glaring-eyed snake with speckled back,” “κτεῖνε μὲν γλαυκῶπα τέχναις ποικιλόνωτον ὄφιν”

Dragon Evolution

I have a tentative evolution of the concept of dragons like those seen in ‘Avatar’ and “How to Train your Dragon”. Three ancient cultures developed the concept of dragon. The word ‘dragon’ comes from the Indo-European culture via Greece. The word is related to the idea that a snake can hypnotize its victim by looking at it. The ancient Chinese developed the concept of a dragon spirit of nature based on the saltwater crocodile. When Buddhism came to China the dragon in China was influence by the snake (Naga) culture of India and became more like a snake with legs. Wings were sometimes placed on the back of this creature to represent its ability to fly. This concept was exported along the silk road to Greece so that the Greek snake acquired legs and wings. It was this concept that went to Medieval Europe. The Greek dragon was more malevolent than the Chinese Dragon and this allowed the dragon to become the classic opponent of the hero. Oddly the monsters that threatened women in ancient Greece were more like whales and they seem to be related to the Minoan seafaring culture. I suppose this is a component also.

The Chinese dragon concept is quite similar to the god Zeus in the ancient Greek culture. Like Zeus the dragon is a thunder god. In close association with the image of the dragon in the Chinese culture is the thunder ball. Chinese dragons are seen playing with a ball in their mouths. This ball is pictured with flames about it. In the case of rain the thunder occurs when the dragon spits out the ball. When the clouds hide the moon the dragon has eaten the ball.

Pictures of Dragons