Main article: Dragons in Greek mythology
In Ancient Greece the first mention of a “dragon” is derived from the Iliad where Agamemnon is described as having a blue dragon motif on his sword belt and a three-headed dragon emblem on his breast plate.7 However, the Greek word used (δράκων drákōn, genitive δράκοντοϛ drákontos) could also mean “snake”. δράκων drákōn is a form of the aorist participle active of Greek δέρκομαι dérkomai = “I see”, derkeîn = “to see”, and originally likely meant “that which sees”, or “that which flashes or gleams” (perhaps referring to reflective scales). This is the origin of the word “dragon”. (See also Hesiod’s Theogony, 322.)
In 217 A.D., Philostratus discussed dragons (δράκων, drákōn) in India in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (II,17 and III,6-8). The Loeb Classical Library translation (by F.C. Conybeare) mentions (III,7) that “In most respects the tusks resemble the largest swine’s, but they are slighter in build and twisted, and have a point as unabraded as sharks’ teeth.”
According to Aelian’s On Animals, Ethiopia was inhabited by a species of dragon that hunted elephants. It could grow to a length of 180 feet and had a lifespan rivaling that of the most enduring of animals.8
Main articles: European dragon and Saint George and the Dragon
European dragons exist in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe. Despite having wings, the dragon is generally depicted as having an underground lair or cave, making it an ancient creature of the earth element. European dragons are usually depicted as malevolent though there are exceptions (such as Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales).
Dragon sculpture on top of Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan.Main article: Chinese dragon
Chinese dragons (simplified Chinese: 龙; traditional Chinese: 龍; pinyin: lóng) can take on human form and are usually seen as benevolent. Dragons are particularly popular in China and the five-clawed dragon was a symbol of the Chinese emperors, with the mythical bird fenghuang the symbol of the Chinese empress. Dragon costumes manipulated by several people are a common sight at Chinese festivals.
Main article: Japanese dragon
Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India. Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese ones are water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water, and are typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. Gould writes (1896:248),9 the Japanese dragon is “invariably figured as possessing three claws”.
In the early Vedic religion, Vritra (Sanskrit: वृत्र (Devanāgarī) or Vṛtra (IAST)) “the enveloper”, was an Asura and also a “naga” (serpent) or possibly dragon-like creature, the personification of drought and enemy of Indra. Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi (“snake”), and he is said to have had three heads.
The following detailed account comes from The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus:10
The whole of India is girt with dragons of enormous size; for not only the marshes are full of them, but the mountains as well, and there is not a single ridge without one. Now the marsh kind are sluggish in their habits and are thirty cubits long, and they have no crest standing up on their heads, but in this respect resemble the she-dragons. Their backs however are very black, with fewer scales on them than the other kinds; and Homer has described them with deeper insight than have most poets, for he says that the dragon that lived hard by the spring in Aulis had a tawny back; but other poets declare that the congener of this one in the grove of Nemea also had a crest, a feature which we could not verify in regard to the marsh dragons.
And the dragons along the foothills and the mountain crests make their way into the plains after their quarry, and prey upon all the creatures in the marshes; for indeed they reach an extreme length, and move faster than the swiftest rivers, so that nothing escapes them. These actually have a crest, of moderate extent and height when they are young; but as they reach their full size, it grows with them and extends to a considerable height, at which time also they turn red and get serrated backs. This kind also have beards, and lift their necks on high, while their scales glitter like silver; and the pupils of their eves consist of a fiery stone, and they say that this has an uncanny power for many secret purposes. The plain specimen falls the prize of the hunters whenever it draws upon itself an elephant; for the destruction of both creatures is the result, and those who capture the dragons are rewarded by getting the eyes and skin and teeth. In most respects they resemble the largest swine, but they are slighter in build and flexible, and they have teeth as sharp and indestructible as those of the largest fishes. Now the dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden colour, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eyebrows are more prominent than those of the plain, and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance. And they give off a noise like the clashing of brass whenever they are burrowing under the earth, and from their crests, which are all fiery red, there flashes a fire brighter than a torch. They also can catch the elephants, though they are themselves caught by the Indians in the following manner. They embroider golden runes on a scarlet cloak, which they lay in front of the animal’s burrow after charming them to sleep with the runes; for this is the only way to overcome the eyes of the dragon, which are otherwise inflexible, and much mysterious lore is sung by them to overcome him. These runes induce the dragon to stretch his neck out of his burrow and fall asleep over them : then the Indians fall upon him as he lies there, and despatch him with blows of their axes, and having cut off the head they despoil it of its gems. And they say that in the heads of the mountain dragons there are stored away stones of flowery colour, which flash out all kinds of hues, and possess a mystical power if set in a ring, like that which they say belonged to Gyges. But often the Indian, in spite of his axe and his cunning, is caught by the dragon, who carries him off into his burrow, and almost shakes the mountains as he’ disappears. These are also said to inhabit the mountains in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea, and they say that they heard them hissing terribly and that they saw them go down to the shore and swim far out into the sea.
—Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana
Aži Dahāka is the source of the modern Persian word azhdahā or ezhdehā اژدها (Middle Persian azdahāg) meaning “dragon”, often used of a dragon depicted upon a banner of war. The Persians believed that the baby of a dragon will be the same color as the mother’s eyes. In Middle Persian he is called Dahāg or Bēvar-Asp, the latter meaning “[he who has] 10,000 horses.” Several other dragons and dragon-like creatures, all of them malevolent, are mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture. (See Zahhāk).
In Jewish religious texts, the first mention of a dragon-like creature is in the Biblical works of Job (26:13), and Isaiah (27:1) where it is called Nachash Bare’ach, or a “Pole Serpent”.11 This is identified in the Midrash Rabba to Genesis 1:21 as Leviathan from the word Taninim (תנינים) “and God created the great sea-monsters.”12 In modern Hebrew the word Taninim is used for Crocodiles but this is a 20th century usage unconnected with the original Biblical meaning.
In Jewish astronomy this is also identified with the North Pole, the star Thuban which, around 4,500 years ago, was the star in the Draco constellation’s “tail”.11 However this can also have been either the celestial pole or the ecliptic pole. The ancient observers noted that Draco was at the top of the celestial pole, giving the appearance that stars were “hanging” from it, and in Hebrew it is referred to as Teli, from talah (תלה) – to hang.13 Hebrew writers from Arabic-speaking locations identified the Teli as Al Jaz’har, which is a Persian word for a “knot” or a “node” because of the intersection of the inclination of the orbit of a planet from the elliptic that forms two such nodes. In modern astronomy these are called the ascending node and the descending node, but in medieval astronomy they were referred to as “dragon’s head” and “dragon’s tail”.14
Rahab, as described in Psalms 89:9-10 and Isaiah 51:9-10, also has “dragon-like” characteristics.[original research?]
The Merthyr Synagogue features a dragon on the front gable.15
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