Dragon Symbolism & Meaning
What is the Meaning and Symbolism Behind Dragons?
Dragons have very different meanings in the East and the West. In the East, the dragon is a positive symbol associated with rain and storms, bodies of water, good luck, and prosperity. In the West, dragons are almost always evil, ferocious, fire-breathing monsters who guard a treasure and need to be defeated by a brave hero. Let's take a closer look at some of the legends and folklore around these mythical creatures.
Table of Contents
1. Buddhism and Dragons
2. Dragon Symbolism in China and the East
3. The Power of Dragons Over Water
4. Dragons as Ancestors
5. Dragons as an Imperial Symbol
6. The Dragon Boat Festival
7. The Dragon Dance
8. How the Koi Fish Became a Dragon
Dragon Symbolism in Ancient Egypt
Celtic Dragon Symbolism
Christian Influences on Dragon Symbolism
Dragons in Norse or Viking Mythology
Origins of the Dragon Myth
Other Curious Facts and Tidbits Related to Dragons
Dragons have been part of Chinese culture for a long time. Jade dragons dating back to 4500-3000 BC have been found, long before there were written records of them. When Buddhism came to China almost 2,000 years ago, the Chinese incorporated dragons into their Buddhist thinking and art.
Buddhism and Dragons in China
In Buddhism, Nagas are a type of semi-divine being that are half-human and half-cobra who can become either fully human or fully a snake. They are said to live in splendid underground palaces and can be potentially dangerous, but are generally known to be guardians and protectors. They are also seen as a source of knowledge and fertility and said to guard the riches of the earth.
When the Chinese came across the idea of a Naga in Buddhist scripture, it was natural for them to translate it as the word "lung", which means dragon, since Chinese dragons have a snake-like appearance. Eventually, the dragon came to be seen as the protector of Buddha and Buddhist law. They are often shown holding a mani jewel, which represents the teachings of Buddha.
In Chinese dragon art, the mani jewel usually shows up as a flaming pearl clutched by the dragon, held under its chin, or floating between two fighting dragons. The pearl represents spiritual energy, wisdom, prosperity, power, immortality, thunder, and the moon.
Dragon Symbolism in China and the East
Dragon symbolism in the east is about the same whether you are in China, Japan, Korea, or Vietnam. That's because Chinese dragons spread along with Buddhism to other Asian countries.
In China, the dragon's celestial breath, called "sheng chi",
is said to be the essence of life. In this way, the dragon is like the eastern Mother Earth. Its breath is the source of all energy that brings prosperity and fertility to the land, such as rich soil, the nourishing power of rain, and the warmth of the sun.
The eastern dragon is a benevolent, positive symbol that attracts wealth, good fortune, abundance, and success. It has also long been held as a symbol of imperial power, nobility, divine protection, wisdom, and enlightenment.
Generous and kind, it is thought to ward off evil spirits and to protect good and innocent people. In Tibet, it is said that dragons cannot be seen, but announce their arrival with a thunderous sound that awakens people from false beliefs and distorted perceptions. They are also thought to have the power of perfect communication, being able to see through slander, malice, and manipulation.
Children who are born in the Year of the Dragon are said to enjoy health, wealth, and long life. Energetic, optimistic, intelligent, and ambitious, dragon people persevere and overcome obstacles until they reach their goal. Excellent, outstanding people are compared to dragons, while people with no achievements are compared to lesser creatures, such as a worm.
The dragon is often paired with the phoenix to represent a perfect balance of yin and yang. The dragon is yang (male energies), while the phoenix is yin (female energies). Together, they complement each other and symbolize marital bliss and eternal love.
The Power of Dragons Over Water
Eastern dragons are thought to have power over water (especially moving bodies of water like rivers and waterfalls), floods, storms, and represent the life-giving properties of rain. In times of drought, dragons could create rain, and in times of flooding, they could stop the rain and clear the skies. Interestingly, the Chinese word for tornado or hurricane is Lóng juǎn fēng, which means "dragon twisting winds".
The renowned archaeologist, Zhou Chongfa, believes that dragons originated in ancient Chinese agriculture. As the Chinese were farmers, they prayed for storms and rain for their crops. In their imaginations, they created a dragon as an omen for a good harvest. He believes the original inspiration for dragons was lightning and that the sound of the word dragon, lóng, resembles the sound of thunder.
A creation story of the great rivers in China tells of four rebellious dragons who brought rain to the people without the permission of the Jade Emperor. When the unruly dragons were arrested, the Mountain God pinned them down with mountains. The kind-hearted dragons wanted to do good for the people, so they turned themselves into the 4 great rivers of China - the Huang He (Yellow River), the Heilong Jiang (Black Dragon River), the Chang Jiang (Long River, or Yangtze), and the Zhujiang (Pearl River).
The Chinese zodiac story tells of the kindness of the dragon. The myth tells of how the Jade Emperor, the very first of the Chinese emperors and one of the highest ranking gods, said that the order of the animals in the zodiac would be decided by the order in which they arrived to his birthday party. Everyone expected the powerful dragon to arrive first, especially since he could fly, but he came after the rat, ox, tiger, and rabbit. When asked why he was so late, he said he saw a village suffering from drought along the way and stopped to make rain for them and then he saw a small rabbit on a log in the river and blew a puff of air to send it to shore. The emperor was pleased with his kindness and proceeded to make him the fifth animal in the zodiac.
The dragon also has an almost unlimited range of supernatural powers. It is said to be able to shrink itself down to the size of a silkworm, or to become as large as the entire universe. When it is tiny, it can cause small water disturbances like dripping eaves or a leaky roof. It is able to form clouds, turn into water, change colors to blend into the surroundings, and glow in the dark.
Dragons as Ancestors
The Chinese call themselves "Lung Tik Chuan Ren", which means Descendants of the Dragon. It is believed that, on rare occasions, dragons have the ability to turn themselves into beautiful humans, either male or female, and can mate with other humans.
Liu Bang is a peasant who rose through the ranks of society to become the emperor. When he became emperor, legendary tales were created about his birth to legitimize his status. One myth tells of how his mother was caught in a storm and stayed under a bridge. The sky then darkened and lightning struck. When her husband came to find her, he saw a dragon beside her and it is thought that she became pregnant with Liu Bang after this incident. Some people have said that Liu Bang had a high nose, whiskers, and a strange beard that reminded them of a dragon's head. From then on, the Chinese claimed they were descended from dragons.
According to Chinese legend, the earliest emperors were closely related to the dragon. One legend tells of a peasant born with a dragon birthmark who eventually overthrows the dynasty and founds a new one. At the end of his reign, the legendary ruler, Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) was said to have been immortalized as a dragon and ascended to heaven. In Japan, Emperor Hirohito traced his lineage back 125 generations to Princess Fruitful Jewel, the daughter of a sea dragon king.
Emperors felt they were the "sons of heaven" and even thought they were dragons themselves. Their beds were called "dragon beds", the imperial throne was called the "dragon throne", and their ceremonial robes, "dragon robes".
The number of claws on a dragon was of great significance. Five-clawed dragons could only be worn by the emperor. Four-clawed dragons were for princes, nobility, and high-ranking officials and three-clawed dragons were for low-ranking officials and ordinary people.
It was a capital offense for anyone other than the emperor to wear the completely gold-colored, five-clawed dragon. Improper use of the claw number and color was considered treason and punishable by execution of the offender's entire family.
The Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival, which happens on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar, is meant to keep away bad luck, to bring rain for a good harvest, and to celebrate the life of the beloved poet/politician Qu Yuan.
Chinese people believe the 5th month is unlucky and likely to bring natural disasters and illness. The 5th day of this month is even worse, thought to release all manner of poisonous creatures like scorpions, centipedes, and snakes. It was also thought that people born on this day would bring misfortune to their parents.
Dragon boats originated in southern central China more than 2500 years ago. Since then, dragon boat racing has been practiced yearly to honor the Chinese water dragon god in the hopes of encouraging rainfall for an abundant harvest and keeping away misfortune.
The Dragon Boat Festival is also a celebration the beloved poet and politician, Qu Yuan, who lived from 340-278 BC. When his country collapsed, he refused to give himself up to another country and instead committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River.
To keep the fish from consuming his body, the people threw Zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) into the water. Even today, the holiday is celebrated by making these delicious, bamboo-leaf-wrapped dumplings, which is often a family affair because it is such a time-consuming and labor intensive process.
The Dragon Dance
The dragon dance is a traditional Chinese dance performance where dancers use poles to rhythmically move a long dragon puppet. It happens during Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival and dates back more than 2,000 years to ancient China. It was used to entertain foreign diplomats visiting the Chinese court, but was also a folk dance performed as a ritual in various parts of China to help bring rain in times of drought.
The Chinese believe that performing the dragon dance as a part of festivals and celebrations will help drive away evil spirits and bring good luck and blessings to the community.
The dragon puppet is divided into sections, allowing the dancers to give it a twisting and turning movement. The dragon head usually has bulging eyes, an open mouth with a pointy red tongue, horns on its head, and a white beard along its chin. An elaborate process is followed in the making of the dragon. The finishing touch, usually performed by the most respected person in the community, is the dotting of the eyes, which is thought to awaken the dragon's soul.
When the performance starts, a man holding a pole with a "dragon pearl" on the end of it, stands in front of the dragon's head and begins dancing and swinging the pole from side to side. The dragon, held by the team of performers, chases the pearl, but never catches it. Sometimes, there are 2 or 3 dragons chasing the pearl, the dance becoming more and more elaborate the longer the pearl is chased.
How the Koi Fish Became a Dragon
An ancient tale tells of a huge school of fish swimming upstream in the Yellow River in China. When they reached a waterfall at the end of the river, many turned back, allowing the flow of the river to carry them away. The remaining koi refused to give up. Leaping from the river, they tried in vain to reach the top of the waterfall.
Local demons noticed the jumping fish, made fun of them, and proceeded to make the top of the waterfall even higher. After 100 years of jumping, one koi finally reached the top of the waterfall. The gods were impressed by the koi's perseverance and rewarded its efforts by turning it into a majestic golden dragon.
Dragon Symbolism in Ancient Egypt
Apep is the giant serpent god of darkness, chaos, evil, and destruction who lives in Duat, the Egyptian underworld. Ancient myth says that the setting of the sun is caused by the sun god, Ra, descending down to Duat to battle Apep.
Apep was believed to threaten Ra as he made his journey through the underworld each night. As Ra represents the power that creates life and all that is in existence, Apep represents the destruction of creation because the world would plunge into darkness if he succeeded in devouring Ra on any given night.
Apep, also known as the "Serpent from the Nile" or "Evil Dragon", was considered so powerful that he could never be defeated, only subdued until the following evening when he would threaten Ra yet again.
He is often depicted as a giant snake, said to be as long as the height of 8 men, with skin as hard as flint. Terrible thunderstorms and devastating earthquakes were thought to be caused by Apep's roar, and solar eclipses were thought to be the result to Apep attacking Ra in the daytime.
Another notable dragon-like creature from ancient Egypt was Nehabkau. He was originally considered an evil spirit who later became a helpful and protective god. Myth tells of how he swallowed seven cobras and afterwards, could not be harmed by any magic, fire, or water. In other stories, he was able to breathe fire and was a fearsome serpent who devoured human souls in the afterlife.
In a collection of Egyptian funerary spells, the god Atum subdues Nehabkau's chaotic and fearsome nature by placing his fingernail against a nerve in Nehabkau's spine.
After this, Nehabkau became a peaceful and benevolent god and was one of the judges in the Court of Maat, a tribunal of forty-two fearsome deities who represented all types of evil and to whom the souls of the deceased had to prove their innocence.
Once a soul was found innocent by the court, Nehabkau was believed to forgive the soul of all sins, to provide it with food and drink, and to nourish the soul with "ka", the life-force that would allow it to live in the afterlife. Nehabkau's name has been translated to mean such things as "that which gives Ka", "provider of goods and foods", and "bestower of dignities".
Unlike their benevolent eastern counterparts, western dragons are often portrayed as evil and associated with Satan. They are usually large, fearsome, fire-breathing, lizard-like creatures with horns, bat-like wings, 4 legs, and a long, muscular tail.
Often protecting a cavern or castle filled with treasure, they are usually associated with a great hero who eventually kills them. In fact, the word "dragon" comes from the Greek word "draconta", which means "to watch", suggesting dragons watch or guard treasures.
Celtic Dragon Symbolism
For the Celts, although dragons could be dangerous because they were so powerful, they were also a symbol of the continuation of life and health, and heralded a good harvest and plentiful year. They also represented the treasures of the subconscious mind and the supernatural forces that guarded the secrets of the universe.
The modern phrase "the lay of the land" derives from the ancient practice of Druids looking for the "ley of the land". Druids, the priests and seers of the Celts, believed that the presence and movements of dragons influenced the flow of cosmic energies through the physical world. Areas where dragons passed by often, where dragon paths crossed, or where dragons lived or stopped to rest were thought to be more powerful than the surrounding areas.
These ley lines were also referred to as the "path of the dragon". They described how cosmic forces flowed through the land as well as how the area was affected by those forces. The Druids made maps of the lines for the people to show them the best places to till the soil or build a temple or home so they could harness the energies of the dragon.
In fact, Stonehenge is thought to be one of those powerful places.
Christian Influences on Dragon Symbolism
The Celtic people believed that dragons were benevolent dwellers of caves, lakes, the inner earth, and were as natural to the world as mountains and rivers. It was not until Christianity arrived that dragons began to be seen as evil.
The Christian church was very good at taking local beliefs and traditions and distorting them for their own gain. Christians brought people to their religion in whatever way they could, from building churches on old pagan sites, to casting the pagan dragon as the embodiment of evil and then having it defeated by a Christian hero. The church is largely responsible for the image we have today of the dragon as an evil, fire-breathing monster.
References in the Book of Revelation refer to Satan as a "dragon" and images of dragons or serpents are often used to represent evil. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is controlled by Satan.
A famous story about St. George tells of a place called Silene in Libya, where a venom-spewing dragon was poisoning the countryside. To keep the dragon from poisoning the city itself, the people offered it two sheep each day, then a man and a sheep, and finally their children and young people, chosen by a lottery.
One day, the lottery fell on the king's daughter, who was then sent to the lake where the dragon lived, dressed as a bride, to be fed to the dragon. By chance, St. George arrived. When the dragon emerged from the lake, he made the sign of the cross, charged it and severely injured it.
He then asked the princess to throw him her girdle, which he put around the dragon's neck, causing it to become like a "meek beast" on a leash. St. George and the princess led the dragon back to the city, where it terrified the people.
He offered to kill the dragon if the people promised to become Christians and to be baptized. 15,000 men and the king of Silene agreed to convert to Christianity. St. George then killed the dragon and cut off its head.
The king then built a church on the site where the dragon died and a spring flowed from its altar with water that could cure any disease.
Dragons in Norse or Viking Mythology
As a symbol, Norse dragons represented the destructive phase of the creation-destruction cycle. They represented upheavals, chaos, and catastrophe, but also change and renewal.
Nidhogg, whose name means "curse-striker" or "he who strikes with malice" is one of the most important dragons in Norse mythology. He lives underneath Yggdrasil, the world tree which holds the Nine Worlds of the cosmos, and gnaws at its roots, hoping to destroy the tree and pull the world back into darkness and chaos. Nidhogg chews not only the tree's roots, but the corpses of murderers, adulterers, and those who broke their oaths. He was considered the strongest mythical animal in Norse mythology, so powerful that he could not be conquered by the gods.
Jormungandr, whose name means "huge monster", is the brother of Fenrir, the giant wolf, and Hel, the girl born half-dead who later rules over the Viking underworld called Helheim. Upon discovering these three fearsome children, the god Odin decided to put them into places where they would cause the least harm. For Jormungandr, this meant he was thrown into the ocean around Midgard, or Middle Earth, where all humans lived.
Jormungandr grew so large that his body wrapped around the entire earth and he ended up biting his own tail. When he releases his tail, Ragnarok (the end of the world) will begin. A sign of the beginning of Ragnarok is the violent unrest of the sea, as Jormungandr thrashes his way onto land and sprays his venom to both sea and sky.
He goes to battle with the god, Thor, who eventually kills him, but then falls dead himself after being poisoned by the snake's venom.
Fafnir was a dwarf who turned himself into a dragon to guard a cursed treasure. Being ill-natured and greedy, he breathed poison into the land around him so that no one could come near. His brother, Regin, sent a foster-son, Sigurd, to kill him and steal the treasure.
Sigurd managed to mortally wound Fafnir, but before he died, Fafnir told Sigurd that whoever possessed the gold would be fated to die. Sigurd replied that all men die anyway, and many men dream of being wealthy before they die, so he would take the gold without fear.
Sigurd's father, Regin, who originally sent him on the mission to kill the dragon, became greedy and decided he was going to kill his son to keep the treasure for himself. Sigurd, however, learned of his father's plans because, after killing the dragon, he drank some of its blood, which gave him knowledge of the speech of birds. By listening to the discussion of the birds in the forest, he learned of his father's impending attack and was able to kill him first, by cutting off his head.
Origins of the Dragon Myth
It is thought that beliefs in dragons evolved independently in Europe, China, the Americas, and Australia. How could this be? There are several possible explanations:
Dinosaurs - Ancient people may have discovered dinosaur bones and thought they were the remains of dragons. The ancient Chinese referred to dinosaur bones as "dragon bones" and the historian, Chang Qu, from the 4th century BC, mislabeled a fossil as such in the Sichuan Province.
The modern Chinese term for dinosaur is Kǒnglóng, which means "terror dragon". Villagers in central China have long unearthed fossilized "dragon bones" for use in traditional Chinese medicine, a practice which continues today.
Furthermore, a number of small, bird-like dinosaurs called "mei long", meaning "sleeping dragon" have been discovered in China. These dinosaurs have been found in a coiled form, with its tail circling around its entire body.
Nile crocodiles - These crocodiles currently live in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is thought that they lived in a wider area in ancient times. It is possible that they swam across the Mediterranean sea to Italy or Greece. Mature crocodiles can grow up to 18 feet and do something called a high walk, where they are able to lift their bodies off the ground, and so more closely resemble a dragon.
Whales - Ancient peoples may have discovered whale bones and would have had no way of knowing they were sea-dwelling creatures. It would have been easy for them to assume that such large animals were fierce predators.
We imagined them - In "An Instinct for Dragons", anthropologist David E. Jones says that dragons may have come from an innate fear that humans have of predators like snakes, birds of prey, and big cats like leopards. Dragons seem to have attributes that combine all of these. An instinctive fear of these predators may explain why dragons from cultures all around the world have similar features in stories.
Other Curious Facts and Tidbits Related to Dragons
Dragon's Blood - You can buy a substance called Dragon's Blood from various health supplement and herb stores. It's not really related to dragon's at all, but is a bright red resin that can be made from a number of different plants. It has been used continuously since ancient times for such things as:
- the varnish for violins or furniture
- medicine for diarrhea, fevers, ulcers, and respiratory, stomach, and skin disorders
- an additive in an 18th century toothpaste
- to color the surface of writing papers for Chinese New Year
- in magical mojo bags (hoodoo and voodoo) for love and money magic and as an incense to cleanse a space of negative spirits or energies
- in Neopagan witchcraft to increase the potency of spells for protection, love, banishing, and sexuality
- a material called "red rock opium", which is sold to unsuspecting people, but contains no actual opiates and has barely, if any, psychoactive effects.
- a replacement for fire in magic spells; because it is strongly associated with fire, it can be used as a replacement in a spell or ritual when using real fire is not practical or safe.
There is no such thing as "real dragon's blood", but in myths and legends, dragon's blood often had special properties. In Medieval legends, it was considered either poisonous or beneficial. A German legend tells of how bathing the skin or armor in dragon's blood can render it invincible. In Beowulf, the famous Old English epic poem, it is acidic and can seep through iron. In Slavic legend, dragon blood is considered so vile that Mother Earth doesn't want it in her womb and it stays above ground forever.
Draconis Dentata - Killing a dragon was also known as an easy way to raise an army, first used by Cadmus, the mythological king of Thebes. First, a piece of ground needed to be prepared, as if for sowing grain. Then, you would kill any dragon, take out all of its teeth, sow them in rows, and cover lightly with soil.
As soon as this was done, veteran warriors "clad in bronze armor and armed with swords and shields ... emerge rapidly from the earth and stand in ranks according to the way in which the dragon's teeth were sown." These warriors were known to be angry and quarrelsome as soon as they sprouted from the ground, so if a ready enemy was not available, they were said to turn on each other.
Maps - It is believed that early mapmakers used the latin phrase "hic sunt dracones" which means "the dragons are here" or "here are dragons" to denote dangerous or unexplored places on the map. The only historical artifact containing the use of this phrase is the Hunt-Lenox Globe from the early 1500s.
Dragon Lady - This term refers to a stereotype of an Asian woman who is strong, deceitful, domineering, or mysterious. The term arose in America during the late 1800s with the passing of the Page Act of 1875, which made it more difficult for Chinese women to immigrate to the United States. It is also used for any powerful, but prickly woman, usually in a derogatory way.
I hope you enjoyed our short exploration into how the meaning and symbolism of dragons have changed throughout time and across various cultures. Do you have anything to add or do dragons hold a special meaning for you? Let me know in the comments below!
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Naga & Nagini: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Qing Dynasty dish: National Museum in Warsaw / CC0
Chinese zodiac: RootOfAllLight / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Emperors robe: Daderot / CC0
Emperor Fu Hsi: Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-28) CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)
Dragon Boat Festival: Caiguanhao / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Dragon dance: 龙女 / CC BY 2.5 CN (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)
Apep: Public domain
Nehabkau: Excerpt of anonymous 19th Dynasty papyrus painting, curated for the British Museum by Mykola Tarasenko in 2016. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
St. George and the Dragon statue by Dennis Jarvis, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Sinosauropteryx dinosaur fossil: Sam / Olai Ose / Skjaervoy from Zhangjiagang, China / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Crocodile high walk by Vicky Baldwin, http://www.flickr.com/photos/10411218@N03/2052863999/ here
Dragon's Blood: Andy Dingley / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Lenox Globe: Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library / CC0