Dragon History: Medieval Dragons vs. Modern Fantasy Dragons
The Difference Twixt Real Historical Dragons & Dragons From Modern Fantasy Mediums
Welcome to the blog all about depicting the Middle Ages realistically in fantasy. Let’s talk about dragons! Today, dragons are everywhere. Dragons in the Middle Ages, too, were everywhere, but not on cotton T-shirts, video games and plastic cups from the dollar store. The medieval dragon existed in such things as heraldry, aquamanilia, architecture and folklore. Anyone can tell you what a modern fantasy dragon looks like, but do dragons in our society have the same function as dragons in the Middle Ages? What are the different magical and physical characteristics of dragons throughout history? In order to give these questions justice we’re forced to learn a lot about dragons as they were depicted in medieval Europe—learn how to tame them if you will. Then, we’ll have to remove ourselves from Europe to observe the majestic dragons of the East because it could potentially be argued that the dragons that swam and flew from Chinese, Persian and Turkish cultures did more to influence what we think of when we say “dragon” today than the dragons of ancient Greece and Rome. We’ll conclude by taking a look at a few modern fantasy dragons in popular entertainment and nitpick their differences from the dragons of the past.
Dragons shown in monastic bestiaries and described in epic poetry throughout the Middle Ages all agree that a dragon can breathe fire, and, in a world without guns, a giant fire-breathing beast must have been terrifying to imagine. Admittedly, there are more two-legged dragons in medieval heraldry and more four-legged dragons in modern fantasy, but the two-legged dragons of medieval heraldry could arguably be called wyverns rather than dragons, even though they meet all the criteria for what a dragon should be, including the ability to breathe fire, and medieval bestiaries show four-legged dragons as well (Barnet 5). Both medieval European dragons and modern fantasy dragons are more lizard-like than snake-like overall, with early Anglo-Saxon dragons even being vermiform. Much like Smaug the cave-dwelling dragon in Tolkien’s The Hobbit which takes a mountain as its habitat, the ancient Greek dragon Python which lived in the caves of Mount Parnassus was also slain by a mighty hero, Apollo (Bulfinch 43).
Although the “Western” dragon tradition may be Greek in origin, if not then Babylonian or a much older civilization for the “Eastern” dragon tradition is much older, dragons in medieval England derived from a much different concept, wyrm. Wyrm is an Old English umbrella-term for all that which slithers on the earth, including maggots, worms and snakes, and it stands as a symbol for death and the decay of corpses in their graves (Reed, slide 3). Visual depictions of wyrm are dragon-like but vermiform, resembling an insect-like monster that can devour your buried corpse, and they’re seen on the backsides of Anglo-Saxon memorial crosses and other Christian structures. Furthermore, in Norse mythology the concept of wyrm is embodied by Níðhöggr in the Prose Edda which “gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil” (Reed, slide 4). Christian dragons embody the sins of wrath, greed and gluttony, just like Smaug in The Hobbit. The dragon in Beowulf, exactly like Smaug, lives in a cave and resides over a vast treasure of gold. As we’ll see later when we discuss the dragon in Eastern contexts, the idea of dragons representing the sins of greed and gluttony is somewhat unique to the West. Why’s that?
According to Cruden’s Concordance, the Bible mentions either “dragon” or “dragons” twenty-five times altogether. Perhaps the most famous account of the Biblical dragon is in the Book of Revelation, where Satan’s depicted as being a seven-headed dragon. In later medieval Christian texts, too, the dragon continues to be associated with Satan and his demons in Hell. Dante’s Divine Comedy features Draghignazzo, whose name according to Wikipedia translates to “big nasty dragon,” as one of the twelve Malebranche, a group of demons in Hell (Alighieri 30). In addition, a six-legged dragon in the Divine Comedy attaches itself to a man until the two seem as one as if to show sinning as a dehumanizing process (Alighieri 36, 37). Transforming into a dragon because of sin, however, is a concept not unique to Dante. The Völsunga Saga features Fafnir, a dragon who had once been a man whom lost his humanity to greed. He resides over a hoard of treasure and hides it away from the world (Finch 32).
Beowulf’s fight with a dragon has been compared to Thor (Þórr) and his fight with the Midgard Serpent, Jörmungandr (Fulk 50). Both of these dragons, like Python and Smaug, have mountains as their habitat. They can also be compared to stories from ancient Rome: Cadmus slays a dragon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and together Capaneus and Hippomedon slay a sacred dragon in Statius’ Thebaid (Fulk 46). Siegfried, too, slays a dragon in the Nibelungenlied. Great heroes, whether it’s Sigurd or Apollo, Saint George or Saint Samson of Dol, rise to earn their hallows in delimbing these monstrous beasts. Each hero across time shares a quality and each dragon across time shares a feature, but every hero and dragon has differences, too, whether depicted by artists or described by poets. For instance, Sigurd in the Völsunga Saga avoided Fafnir’s blood because it was poisonous but Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied bathed in the dragon’s blood to gain invincible skin (Finch 30, 31). These have been the dragons of stories. Now, let’s examine the dragons as depicted in the material culture of the Middle Ages.
A thirteenth-century illustration of the condemnation of Christ from the Psalter of Bonmont depicts a servant washing Pontius Pilate’s hands by pouring water out of a dragon-shaped aquamanile, perhaps symbolizing Pilate washing his hands in sin for the way he condemned God’s anointed one (Barnet 5). Although medieval dragons typically represented sin and evil, they’re also sewn onto ecclesiastical vestments where we’d least expect sin and evil to be represented. In these cases, this suggests that dragons symbolize strength and power like the heraldic Red Dragon of Wales or the lion which became associated with Christ for his courage, being the king of all men as the lion is the king of all beasts (Barnet 9). The Pictor in Carmine, a thirteenth-century manual on painting, however, echoing the preaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, scolds the use of these “misshapen monstrosities” in the sanctuaries of God (Barnet 9). Despite this, we continue to see grotesques on cathedral gargoyles (gutters) and violent images of Saint Michael slaying dragons on tympanums, perhaps altogether symbolizing the evil that only lurks outside sacred walls (Barnet 9).
Now, as promised, it’s time to look at the dragons of the East. My main source for taking a look at “exotic” dragons is Titley’s Dragons in Persian, Mughal and Turkish Art. Generally speaking, Eastern dragons are much longer and snake-like than the wyverns of European heraldry or the lizard-like dragons in English bestiaries. The design of dragons in Persian and Mughal paintings were highly influenced by Chinese ceramic and textile imports during the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties, and Chinese dragons, as we all know, are giant tails without necks, but many Persian dragons were also lizard-like with defined necks, much like the Babylionian dragon of Antiquity (Titley 3). The Chinese dragon was often a peaceful creature, but the Persians associated dragons with wrath like the dragons of classical Greece and Rome (Titley 4).
Much like Sigurd and Beowulf, heroes in the Persian Book of Kings (Shahnameh) must slay evil dragons, but these stories are much different from European stories, as the Persian dragon isn’t as symbolic of greed nor gluttony (Titley 4). These Islamic dragons of pure wrath are generally more elegant than the greedy and gluttonous dragons of European folklore, and some are able to talk like Fafnir in the Völsunga Saga. Some Persian dragons are leonine, occasionally sporting tiger stripes and “rudimentary inner toes” like a cat’s paw to emphasize their strength and power in the animal world (Titley 4). Other Persian dragons have a red crest on the tops of their heads like a cock’s comb or a single horn on their forehead, but the dragons must grow their horns when they’re young like gazelles (Titley 5, 7). Even more Eastern dragons have beards under their chins and wild, wavy hair behind their legs, and in Iran there are dragons in paintings that even have lobster claws (Titley 9, 21)! Persian dragons generally spit fire like how snakes spit venom rather than breathe it, and their teeth are often fangs like that of a snake, too (Titley 5). The Persian hero Bahram Gur fights a dragon with four legs, but some earlier Persian epics describe dragons as giant worms (Titley 6).
Among the Persian stories of heroes is one of Alexander the Great whom must battle a dragon, although he does so in a clever way—starves it then feeds it with poison (naptha) stuffed in ox-skins (Titley 9, 24). Nevertheless, Alexander isn’t the only historical figure whose life has been mystified in this way. Ali, the son of Muhammad the Prophet, battles dragons in his own heroic epics (Titley 27). Sometimes these Eastern dragons do things we never see in Western tradition. For instance, in one of the stories of the hero Rustam and his loyal horse Rakhsh there’s a dragon that can turn invisible and other Iranian illustrations show dragons battling each other (Titley 21, 18).
Now might be a good time to discuss the modern fantasy dragon because they do even stranger things. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series features dragons harnessed by people as weapons in war, but this isn’t unique to the world. Eighteenth-century paintings from Mughal India illustrating much older stories show dragons at the head of human armies as they march off to slay a host of evil demons together (Titley 24). DreamWorks Animation’s How to Tame Your Dragon goes even further by showing dragons as cute, cuddly creatures that get along with humans, but this, too, isn’t unique to the world. Miniatures in Mughal manuscripts show friendly, human-loving dragons, inspired by the dragons of China (Titley 7). Already, we can see how cultural heritage has affected the dragons of today. Dragons in the Japanese animated series Dragon Ball Z tend to be the neckless, snake-like variety of the East while dragons in the British television program Merlin show the long-necked, lizard-like variety of the West. After briefly covering the history of the dragon, you, a reader whom lives in the modern world, can easily see that dragons are nothing new. According to Wikipedia, the word dragon comes from the ancient Greek word “drakōn” which inspired the Latin word “draco.”
Over all, it’s fair to say that most fantasy, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has done a great job at preserving the essence of the medieval dragon. Persian dragons came in nearly every color imaginable, so it’s not strange to see a purple dragon in the video game series Spyro. However, if a fantasy medium was trying to stay authentic to what people believed in medieval Europe we must remember that European dragons embodied sin and they were not the pliable, friendly dragons of China and Mughal India. European dragons were wrathful, typically isolated and often kept a huge store of treasure.
The idea that a knight can ride a dragon, despite the Mughal dragon helping people to slay demons, is perhaps unique to our own time, especially as a real knight, if he was chivalrous, wouldn’t want to associate himself with the sins of gluttony and greed for everyone to see.
The liberty given to modern artists when they create computer-animated dragons is no different from the liberty given to painters throughout the Middle Ages. Every miniature and illumination we have of a dragon from the Middle Ages is slightly different in design. After all, medieval artists didn’t have copying machines. With that said, however, some of the dragons we see in computer-animated scenes, such as those in HBO’s Game of Thrones, are rendered in a lot more detail than what medieval scribes could draw. If we want to stay authentic to the medieval dragon of Europe in our own art, we must imitate the miniatures presented in bestiaries or other sources. Although each bestiary dragon is slightly different, they’re still fairly similar to each other compared to how extremely different fantasy dragons are from each other today. For instance, video game designers take huge liberties in giving dragons many physical features that we would never see in a medieval bestiary. Even Smaug in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film series, with its extra spikes and dinosaur-like physique, is very much unlike the simpler dragons of the bestiaries. It’s not a problem that modern artists are taking these liberties, but to conclude I’ll say it would be nice to remember the history of the dragon when we’re viewing modern images. After all, the history of the dragon is awesome!
For more insightful information on dragons, check out this lecture by Jordan B. Peterson, starting at 27 mins and 44 seconds:
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. William Benton, 1952.
Barnet, Peter, Pete Dandridge, eds. Lions, Dragons, and other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table. Yale University Press, 2006.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Greek and Roman Fables Illustrated. Viking Press, 1979.
Finch, Ronald G., ed. The Saga of the Volsungs. Nelson, 1965.
Fulk, Robert Dennis, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber’s Beowulf. University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Reed, Michael. “Wyrm and Death.” Medieval Studies 200, 1 Feb. 2019, University of Victoria. Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.