From China to the Mediterranean and More, Here’s How Different Cultures Envision Dragons

In some parts of the world, the mythical creatures are monsters. In others, they’re more benign beings

illustration of a three-headed dragon
The mythical beasts have fired up cultures around the world. Bridgeman Images

Humans have been telling stories of dragons for millennia. Depending on the region of the world, a dragon might be a god or a monster, a bringer of water or fire, or a figure of fortune or death. These scaly, mythical creatures appear in the lore of countless societies, from the pool-dwelling, peaceable dragons of the East to the fiery, venomous demons of the West.

As anthropologist David E. Jones theorized in his 2000 book, An Instinct for Dragons, dragon stories may be linked to humans’ fear of snakes and other dangerous animals. Anatomically unfamiliar and sometimes venomous, snakes are one of the most common phobias. Our fear of them was hard-wired through evolution, as evidenced by primates’ natural aversion to serpents. Jones argued that the idea of the dragon “was formed by the nature of our own shadowy progenitors’ encounters with the creatures who hunted them over millions of years.” In the centuries since, tales of the mythical beasts have spawned religious concepts, iconic literature and entertainment franchises alike.

But while the otherworldly dragons, lizards and giant serpents scattered throughout cultural history may share scales, fangs and tails, their abilities—as well as their reputations—vary. These are some of the world’s most prevalent dragon myths.


A 16th-century Ming dragon medallion
A 16th-century Ming dragon medallion Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dragons’ claws plunge 4,000 years deep into Chinese culture. In Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, these legged, fanged serpents are not fire-breathers, but rather guardians of water who bring rain and breathe clouds from their nostrils. Said to reside at the bottoms of pools and lakes, dragons symbolized majesty and power in ancient China. As one scholar wrote in the 11th century, “None of the animals is so wise as the dragon.” During China’s Han dynasty, emperors co-opted dragon imagery, using the symbol to lend power to the monarchy.

To this day, the dragon remains an important Chinese cultural symbol. A substance known as dragon bone (crafted from the fossilized remains of prehistoric creatures) is still an ingredient in traditional medicine. Every year, Chinese New Year parades are anchored by colorful dragon puppets held aloft by puppeteers.


An Edo period painting of a Japanese dragon
An Edo period painting of a Japanese dragon National Museum of Asian Art

To the east in Japan, mythical snake-like beasts don’t enjoy quite the same reputation as in China. The most famous such Japanese monster is perhaps Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed serpent. According to Shinto mythology, the creature resembled a giant snake-dragon hybrid, embodying pain, sorrow and destruction. Orochi moved across Japan, menacing its people and thriving on a diet of humans—specifically, virgin girls. Like most famed dragons, he was due for a slaying.

Legend says that Orochi conducted his last reign of terror in the region of Izumo, where he demanded one girl for each of his eight mouths. Orochi’s conduct earned him the disdain of even the Shinto trickster god, Susanoo, who formed a plan of revenge. The god lured Orochi to a place where the serpent thought eight fresh virgins were waiting for him—a veritable feast. Instead, he found eight jugs of sake set out by Susanoo. Orochi consumed the wine and became very drunk. While the serpent was vulnerable, the trickster god cut off his heads.


An illustration of Indra killing Vritra
An illustration of Indra killing Vritra Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

One of Hinduism’s most fearsome antagonists is Vritra, leader of the dasas—demonic creatures with innumerable eyes and heads. Often depicted as a three-headed dragon, Vritra was an anti-god who prevented and snuffed out life through many means. Like his Chinese counterparts, this dragon was a keeper of water, but he took the task more literally. Vritra withheld rain, causing drought and death. He also stole and ate cows, sacred animals symbolic of divine goodness in Hinduism. And sometimes, Vritra hid the sun.

According to the Rig Veda, an Indian text dated to more than 3,000 years ago, the Hindu deity Indra, king of the gods, defeated Vritra’s misanthropic habits once and for all. To end the draconic demon’s droughts, Indra battled and killed Vritra, freeing the rain, enabling sunlight and creating a new order.

The Middle East

a warrior fighting a dragon
Tiamat, a Mesopotamian goddess sometimes portrayed as a serpent or dragon Alamy

The ancient people of Mesopotamia—a region that stretched over what’s now Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey—believed the world began with a dragon slaying. In a Mesopotamian creation myth, the god Marduk battled the goddess Tiamat, mother of the gods and embodiment of the sea, sometimes portrayed as a serpent or dragon. Marduk drove an arrow through Tiamat’s heart, then split her body in two, creating the heavens from one piece and the earth from the other. In the popular roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, a five-headed, draconic deity bears the goddess’ name.

The slightly newer legends of Persia—the region now known as Iran—employ dragons in a more familiar way: as earthly monsters cut down by humans, often in service of helpless girls. Such stories cemented heroic reputations for a select few Persian men. In the Shahnama, or The Book of Kings—an epic history of Iran’s ancient rulers—Bahram Gur, a king of the ancient Sasanian dynasty, slayed dragon-like beasts known as azi. In another story, the hero Thraetaona killed an azi named Dahaka, rescuing a shepherd’s two daughters who’d been abducted by the beast. In yet another, a prince named Isfandiyar defeated a fire-breathing, coiled dragon in one of seven challenges he had to complete to free his captive sisters.

The Mediterranean

An artist's depiction of a dragon fighting an elephant
An artist's depiction of a dragon fighting an elephant Alamy

Dragons and evil serpents are recurring figures in classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome. The genre’s most notable monster is the Hydra, defeated by Hercules (also known as Heracles) of Greek myth and Disney fame.

Hercules, a bastard son of Zeus, murdered his wife and children while under the influence of a curse by his jealous stepmother, Hera. As punishment, he was ordered to complete 12 labors, the second of which was killing the Hydra, a nine-headed, serpentine monster that lived in the swamps of Lerna. Accompanied by his nephew, Iolaus, Hercules lured the beast out of the water by shooting flaming arrows at it. During the hand-to-scale combat that followed, the Hydra wrapped its tail around Hercules’ foot. The hero tried to avoid the monster’s venom-filled fangs while striking its heads with his club. Each time Hercules snuffed one out, two more heads grew in its place, forcing the demigod and his nephew to come up with an alternative strategy. As Hercules cut off the Hydra’s heads, Iolaus cauterized the stumps with a burning torch to prevent new growth, allowing the pair to defeat the monster.

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote a good deal about dragons, too, once reporting that the beast could strangle an elephant with its tail. While this description resembles the abilities of an earthly python, even that powerful, squeezing snake couldn’t accomplish such a feat. And Pliny wasn’t exactly an authority on animal facts: He also recorded the traits and habits of the unicorn.

Western Europe

Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the Dragon​​​​​​​, circa 1470
Saint George and the Dragon, Paolo Uccello, circa 1470 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The dragons that permeate modern Western literature share few characteristics with their ancient Chinese counterparts. China’s dragons are respected, majestic and life-bringing, while Europe’s are pure evil and nuisance. They’re malevolent, greedy, fiery and sometimes even symbols of Satan.

The archetypal European dragon hails from the north. A Germanic creature that flies by flapping its leathery wings, the dragon possesses a fearsome, lizard-like face and tail, and it breathes fire to get its way. These dragons love treasure, and when they find some, they guard it with their lives.

Perhaps the oldest and most influential dragon in Western literature comes from the Old English epic poem Beowulf. The story’s horde-guarding beast “flies by night encircled by fire,” according to one translation. After a man stole from its treasure, the enraged dragon began to wreak havoc on a village. The epic poem’s eponymous hero, then an aging warrior, stepped in. He and his companion managed to pierce the beast’s soft underbelly with blades, but not before it bit Beowulf in the neck, inflicting a fatal wound. “He at once understood that the poison within [the dragon’s] breast welled up with deadly evil,” the translation states.

The dragon featured in Beowulf has inspired many modern Western epics. Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit will recognize similar traits in the talkative dragon Smaug. Witches and wizards are tasked with stealing from treasure-protecting beasts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. And fans of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series might recognize the same anatomical attributes in the “children” of Daenerys Targaryen. As all such stories illustrate, humans’ near-universal, ancient interest in fangs and scales has yet to fade.

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $19.99

This article is a selection from the July/August 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.