Or is the resemblance closer to this?
Dragons of Medieval Europe
The first picture that we have shown you is a dragon of Medieval Europe. The word “dragon” has its roots in the Greek word δράκων (drákōn), which means ‘serpent’. Often portrayed as being evil and malevolent, the dragons of Medieval Europe were much feared. Many were depicted as huge fire-breathing, lizard-like creatures, armoured in a hide of scales. Complete with (leathery, bat-like) wings, four massive legs and a long muscular tail, we can see why dragons of Medieval Europe made such formidable villains in the stories passed down through generations.
As we usually see in movies, these fearsome creatures are also frequently portrayed standing guard over hoards of treasures. One example would be Smaug from the movie “The Hobbit”.
Those courageous and brave enough to venture into caves, and who manage to successfully slay the massive beasts, become heroes. In addition, fame and fortune would be bestowed upon them.
And to link to what we have learnt in class so far, we have discovered from a source that western dragons could have been derived from Roman dragons, having been transformed and adapted from the Greek and Persian dragons, that “characterised the hybrid Greek/Eastern Hellenistic culture”. Traditions in Christianity in the past also tended to portray dragons as Satan or sin. There were stories of warriors and knights who battled with these ferocious beasts in several epic poems from the Middle Ages too.
Dragons of Ancient China
On the other hand, the third picture (counting down from the top of our post) shows an oriental dragon (龙 long). Unlike the dragons of Medieval Europe, dragons in ancient China seem to be a combination of parts from nine different animals: the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a hare, ears of an ox, neck of a snake, abdomen of a large cockle, scales of a carp, paws of a tiger, and claws of an eagle. Quite an amazing creature, don’t you think so? (:
Usually described as benevolent creatures, dragons of ancient China were quite the opposite of our imposing European Dragons. The people of ancient China regarded the dragon as an auspicious creature with the power to bless and influence their lives. As an empire that relied heavily on agriculture and natural resources, the climate played a vital role in the people’s livelihoods. Oriental dragons, often associated with water, were thus highly regarded and honoured, since they were deemed to be protectors of water bodies, rivers, seas and lakes.
In addition to its auspicious nature, Eastern dragons symbolise strength, wisdom and good luck. The Chinese take pride in calling themselves the “descendants of the dragon”, and this is exemplified by the anecdote in the “Records of the Grand Historian” (《史记》shǐjì). In ancient China, there is the belief that a dragon appearing in a pregnant mother’s dream was an auspicious sign indicating she would give birth to a future emperor. This is how the birth of Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Western Han Dynasty (206BCE-25CE), was rumoured to be.
The important symbolism of dragons in the Oriental world gave rise to various Chinese cultures and traditions such as - Dragon boat races, dragon dances, the significance of the dragon zodiac year, and many words and idioms in the Chinese language as well. Till today, many of these traditions continue to live on among the Chinese. For example, dragon dances continue to be performed during the Chinese New Year, as they signify prosperity and good fortune.
Other traditions or superstitions that persist, include the notion that babies born in the year of the dragon, will bring good fortune to the family. As such, this influences how the Chinese plan their pregnancy, so as to deliver a ‘dragon’ baby. Last but not least, examples of the influence of dragons on the words in the Chinese language can be seen in:
龙卷风 (for our non-Chinese speakers, it's pronounced as long juan feng) --> tornados, literally, the dragon rolls up the wind (recall the influence of oriental dragons on water and wind)
龙袍 (long pao) --> imperial robes embroidered with curling dragons
The robe embroidered with dragon patterns was made for the exclusive use of an emperor during the Qing dynasty. Dragons were a symbol of imperial authority, with carvings of them often found in palaces too.
Comparing the dragons of ancient China and Medieval Europe, we get to catch a glimpse of the roles held by dragons in both civilisations. At the same time, it allows us to gain a better idea of the cultural beliefs in each civilisation then, and how such symbolisms could have influenced how people lived.
To end off, here’s an interesting video that summarises what we have discussed regarding Oriental dragons. It includes some very fascinating video footages that seem to really witness the existence of dragons, what do you think? Do you think dragons are real? ;)
Thanks for reading, and till next time :)