Origin of Dragons

The ancient Greeks often take the credit for concepts they borrowed from the Ancient Near East. When casting about for the origin of dragons, a staple, if unstable, element of ancient Semitic myths, the credit often lands in ancient Hellas. Those of us influenced by western culture prefer the Greek versions of myths because they tend to be (mostly) coherent and do not have large gaps like those scrawled on fragmented clay tablets. Also, the word “dragon” traces it etymology to ancient Greece where it apparently derives from the verb drakein, “to see clearly.” Often commentators suggest that the rationale for the name is that dragons guard treasure and need to see clearly to do so.

Babylonian dragon

Babylonian dragon

Dragons, however, actually first appeared, like so many western civilizations concepts, in Sumer. In the ancient world, what we would recognize as dragons are always associated with water. Water is an uncreated element, existing as the primordial substance from which everything emerges. It is personified as a dragon that must be subdued for creation to take place. Images of the dragon from somewhat later time periods in Mesopotamia already depict the familiar form we still recognize as draconian.

Marduk astride Tiamat

Marduk astride Tiamat

The Bible has its share of dragons as well, although they never actually existed. Tannin, whose name probably relates to serpentine features, is regularly cited as a biblical dragon. Leviathan, as described in Job 41, has scaly skin, lives in the water, and belches fire (perhaps having taken lessons from televangelists). These characteristics probably played into modern conceptualizations of the dragon. Fire breathing, however, is first attested with Humbaba, the Cedar Forest guardian of the Gilgamesh Epic. Humbaba is not a dragon, but he may be the ancestor of our fire-breathing Leviathan. Some ancient iconography may also show fire projecting from the mouths of dragons as well.

Humbaba (center) on a bad day

Humbaba (center) on a bad day

Traditional Mesopotamian dragon

Traditional Mesopotamian dragon

I would even venture to suggest that the origin of the name dragon could go back to ancient West Asia. The idea of seeing clearly reminds me of the ancient cherubim. According to Ezekiel, they are full of eyes. This complements their role as guardians of the thrones of ancient deities. Cherubim are Mischwesen composed of lions, eagles, humans, bulls, or any other spare parts lying around. In my imagination it doesn’t take much to shape them into dragons, the original watchers.

A true cherub

A true cherub

No matter who coined the word, dragons have been with us from the beginning of human civilization and continue to live on in popular culture. Maybe they are, like the unruly waters, truly uncreated.

6 thoughts on “Origin of Dragons

    • Steve Wiggins

      Hi Jane,

      The original is from a relief on lapis lazuli from mid-ninth century (BCE) Babylon. The line drawing seems to have originated in James Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East in Pictures. I hope this helps.

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  1. Anonymous

    Where did dragons really come from?
    Some say snakes/serpents (the word “dragon” came from the Greek word “drakon” meaning “large serpent”; also, some dragons do appear snakelike), some say dinosaurs (pterosaur, plesiosaur, tanystropheus, etc.), and some say crocodiles.
    But, what animal really inspired dragon legends? just curious.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      That’s the 64-dollar question! We really don’t know. From the earliest written stories, people have included dragons and nobody knows why. They have been one of the most enduring mythological creatures as well. Some suggest there were actual “dragons”—not fire-breathing beasts, but some reptilian species that went extinct. Others suggest they were just imaginary all along. Others have indeed said dinosaurs (generally dinosaur bones) had been found and inspired dragon tales. They are nearly universal monsters, so they may not go back to a single literary tradition. In this case, I guess, the truth is out there.

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