Western Dragons

Dragons have a rich heritage in the mythology and symbolism of Western culture.

Western dragons have traditionally been a symbol of evil. A typical Western dragon can fly and breathe fire. Many legends describe dragons as greedy, keeping hordes of gold and other precious treasure. In myths and folklore, dragons were monsters to be conquered. As dragons may be seen to represent the dark side of humanity, including greed, lust, and violence, the conquest of a dragon represents the confrontation and extinguishment of those evil instincts.

The dragon has also been used as a symbol of war. The Viking longship, also called a drakkar or dragon ship, was used to transport Viking warriors on their raids across Europe. Often, sea-going dragon ships would have a dragon head mounted at its stern to ward off sea serpents and evil spirits.

Dragoons, which are a particular kind of soldier originating in the 16th century, received their name from their primary weapon, called a dragon. The dragon was a short Wheelock gun with a muzzle decorated with the head of a dragon. The mounted infantryman with his loose coat and the burning match at a gallop resembled a mythical dragon.

King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, received his name Pendragon from his older brother, who saw a dragon-shaped comet. Pendragon also means "chief dragon," which refers to Uther's status as chief of warriors.

Tiamat, a god in Babylonian mythology, was sometimes depicted as a beautiful dragon queen. (In Dungeons & Dragons, Tiamat was viewed in a substantially different way, as a queen and mother of evil dragons.)

Dragons also appear in Greek mythology. Apollo, the son of Zeus, slew a dragon with a bow and arrow when he was only four years old. Zeus himself overcame the dragon Typhon using a thunderbolt. In the epic of Jason and the Argonauts, the heroes sought a golden fleece which was guarded by a fierce dragon.

An important English legend is St. George and the Dragon. As the story goes, Saint George was a Christian martyr who killed a dragon in order to rescue the princess Silene. Saint George is the patron saint of England. Other English tales include The Loathsome Dragon and the story of the Lambton Worm.

The French have a tale of Saint Martha and the Dragon. In this tale, a dragon called Tarasque had been terrorizing the small town of Nerluc, situated near the Rhone River. The town had made attempts to slay the dragon, but to no avail. Finally, they called upon a holy lady, Martha, in the town of Saint Marie de la Mer. Martha bravely tamed the beast and led it back to town, where it was killed as punishment for its wickedness. The town changed its name to Tarascon to honor Martha's deed.

Another French tale is that of The Vouivre: The Flying Serpent. Once a year, the serpent Vouivre would leave her guarded treasure to drink and wash herself. A woman named Louise brought her son with her to the dragon's cave to take her treasure, but was discovered by Vouivre. They were captured and imprisoned for an entire year before they finally escaped, carrying with them some of the dragon's gold.

The Yellow Dragon is a Bukovinian gypsy tale about a cowardly dragon. In this story, a poor old man set out to find a honey cake. He fell asleep, and when he awoke, the cake was covered with flies. He killed 100 flies with one block of wood and wrote, "I killed a hundred with a stroke." A cowardly yellow dragon passed by and saw the words. The old man, perceiving the dragon's fear, tricked the dragon into thinking him the strongest man on earth. By tricking the dragon, he earned a huge sack of gold to support his family.

The Ukrrainian folk tale Ivanko and the Dragon regards a boy named Ivanko, who had once been a sapling. The old woman he called mother had a sweet voice. The dragon asked a smith to forge her a voice as sweet as Ivanko's mother's, and then uses it to kidnap Ivanko. Ivanko escaped the fate of being cooked in the dragon's oven, and returned to his parents.

One of the most famous dragon legends in the western world is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. After some of its treasure was stolen by a man, the dragon went on a rampage in the country of Geats where Beowulf is king. Beowulf, though an old man, set out to kill the monster. With the help of his companion Wiglaf, the dragon was slayed, but Beowulf was mortally wounded.