Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body like a huge lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from their mouths. The European dragon has bat-like wings growing from its back. A dragon-like creature with no front lets is know as a wyvern. Following discovery of how pterosaurs walked on the ground, some dragons have been portrayed without front legs pterosaur-fashion when on the ground, as in the movie Reign of Fire.
Although dragons occur in many legends around the world, different cultures have varying stories about monsters that have been grouped together under the dragon label. Some dragons are said to breathe fire or are poisonous. They are commonly portrayed as serpentine or reptilian, hatching from eggs and possessing typically scaly or feathered bodies. They are sometimes portrayed as having especially large eyes or watching treasure (very similar to gryphons-see posts below), very diligently, a feature that is the origin of the word dragon (drakein-"to see clearly").
Some myths portray them with a row of dorsal spines. European dragons are more often winged, while Oriental dragons resemble large snakes. Dragons can have a variable number of legs: none, two, four, or more when it comes to early European literature. Modern depictions of dragons tend to be larger than their original representations, which were often smaller than humans, but grew in myths and tales over the years.
Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, a religion and the universe. They are often associated with wisdom-often said to be wiser than humans-and longer lived. They are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power, and are often associated with wells, rain and rivers.
In some cultures, they are also said to be capable of human speech. The term dragoon, for infantry that moved around on horseback yet still fought as foot soldiers, is derived from their early firearm, the "dragon" a wide-bore musket that spat flame when it fired, and was then named for the mythical creature.
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 swordbelt and a 3-headed emblem on his breastplate, however, the Greek word used-drakon-genitive drakontos could also mean "snake." In 217 AD, Philostratos discussed dragons in India in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (II, 17 and III, 6-8). The Loeb Classical Library translation (by C.F. 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 unbraided as shark's 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.
European Dragons: 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. Chinese Dragons: Chinese and Oriental dragons generally, can take on human form and are usually seen as benevolent, whereas European dragons are malevolent though there are exceptions (one exception being Y Draig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales). Malevolent dragons also occur in the mythology of Persia and Russia, among other places.
Dragons are particularly popular in China and the 5-clawed dragon was a symbol of the Chinese emperors with the phoenix or fenghuang the symbol of the Chinese empress. Dragon costumes manipulated by several people are a common sight at Chinese festivals. Japanese Dragons: Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India. Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese dragons 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) in his book Mythical Monsters: "the Japanese dragon is "invariably figured as possessing three claws."
Vedic Religion: In the early Vedic religion, Vritra, was an Asura (power-seeking beings, sometimes seen as deities and sinful) and also a "naga" (serpent) or possibly dragon-like creature, the personification of drought and enemy of Indra (The king of the Gods of Devas, Lord of Heaven). Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi ("snake"), and he is said to have had three heads.
Persian Dragons: Azi Dahaka is the source of the modern Persian word azhdaha or ezhdeha, (Middle Persian azdahag) meaning "dragon," often 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 Dahaq or Bevar-Asp, the latter meaning "[he who has] 10,000 horses." Several of the dragons and dragon-like creatures, all of them malevolent, are mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture.
I hope people enjoy this next series on mythical/imaginal creatures. I wanted to get more done this morning in this post, but am typing too slow and have to get ready for Thanksgiving. By the way, I hope any Americans dropping by have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend, and any people from other nations a wonderful Thursday and upcoming weekend also! Thanks again for your thoughtful and intelligent comments and links-I really appreciate them!