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The Age of Dragons - A historical look at these Legendary Creatures

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The Age of Dragons

A historical look at these Legendary Creatures

Ben L. Hughes

Copyright 2017 Ben L. Hughes

 

Edited By: Jen Hughes

 

Revision Date: March 11th, 2017

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

Table of Contents:

Dragons in Chinese Culture

Dragons in Greek, Roman, and Babylonian Cultures

Dragons in Celtic, Saxon, and Viking Cultures

Dragons in Central and Southern America

Dragons and Christianity

Dragons: Mythological Beast or Forgotten Animal?

Photographic Credits:

Dragons in Chinese Culture

In 1987, a team of archaeologist unearthed a five-foot long dragon mosaic made from shells inside a 6,500 year-old tomb of a Yangshao chief. This remarkable discovery is the oldest known artifact depicting a dragon anywhere in the world.

 

Yangshao Culture Dragon Mosaic, Hunan Province, China, 5000-3000 B.C. (2)

 

One of the most amazing things about the discovery is that the dragon in the mosaic is nearly identical to the modern day chinese dragon, even though the two are sepearted by sixty-five centuries. The artifact is so old that the people who created the mosaic didn’t even have a written language at the time. (The first wrtings appeared in China around 1,200 B.C., some 3,300 years after the dragon mosaic was created.)

 

The Azure Dragon of the Qing Dynasty used on the Chinese flag from 1889-1912 (3)

 

When archaeologists excavate ancient burial sites, the artifacts they recover help us understand a culture’s beliefs and customs. The discovery of a dragon mosaic inside a burial tells us that Yangshao not only believed in dragons, they also thought they had the power to protect their loved ones as they passed from one life to the next. The dragon’s role of guardian was not unique to the Yangshao. Their neighbors the Hongshan carved C-shaped dragon amulets out of jade. Small dragon amulets were worn by individuals to ward off evil spirits, while a large carving was hung in a central location to protect the whole village.

 

Hongshan Culture Jade Dragon, 4700 BC – 2900 B.C. (4)

According to Chinese mythology, the first Emperor of China, Huang-Di, transformed into a dragon as he ascended into heaven. Since the Chinese believe they are his descendants, they consider themselves “the children of the dragon.” Following Emperor Huang-Di’s rule, the dragon continued to symbolize Imperial power for another 4,000 years. When China become a republic in 1912, the dragon was removed from their flag, but continued on as the predominate symbol of the Chinese culture. To this day, more children are born in the year of the dragon than in any other year of the Chinese Zodiac, and it is a crime to deface an image of a dragon.

 

1998, Peoples Republic of China, 10 Yuan silver coin celebrating “The Culture of Dragons” (5)

Dragons in Babylonian, Greek, and Roman, Cultures

The dragon was the most sacred of animals of the Babylonian deity Marduk. In the early years Marduk was a lesser known god, but as his followers gained power, he and his dragon displaced other deities until Marduk was recognized as the chief deity of Babylon. When archaeologists excavated the ancient city, they discovered the Gate of Ishtar and Processional Way, a richly decorated walkway leading from the entrance of the city to the Temple of Marduk. Both the gate and processional way are covered with tile mosaics honoring the animals favored by the Babylonian gods. Marduk’s dragon proudly stands amongst Lions and Bulls, and is one of the most unusual looking dragons from the ancient world. Despite its rather feline like appearance, it has claws, scales, horns, and a forked tongue like most other dragons.

The Gate of Ishtar and Processional Way was once considered one of the Seven Wonders of World, and Marduk and his dragon are two of the main characters in the Apocrypha of Bel and The Dragon. Bel was the name given to Marduk by his followers after he rose to power.

The Dragon of Marduk – Ishtar Gate & Processional Way, Ancient City of Babylon, 604-562 B.C. (6)

Water Dragons appear in both Greek and Roman mosaics as a creature called the Cetus, which means sea monster. Well preserved examples are common throughout the Mediterranean region as pictured below.

The Dragon Mosaic of Caulon, an ancient Greek colony located in southern Italy, 400 B.C. (7)

A Sea Dragon depicted in the Roman mosaic of Krk, Croatia, 100 A.D. (8)

Terrestrial dragons play the role of guardians in several Greek fables. A dragon named Ladon guarded an apple tree that grew in the Garden of Hesperides. It was said that anyone who ate of its golden fruit would never die. An apple that was stolen from the garden by the mischievous Greek goddess Eris is credited for triggering the events that lead up to the Trojan War. The dragon that guards the Garden of Hesperides is also mentioned in the Twelve labors of Hercules. In that tale, Hercules was tasked with stealing the apples from the garden in his pursuit of immortality, which he achieved after completing all twelve labors that had been bestowed upon him.

In the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason sets out on a perilous adventure to find the Golden Fleece, the one thing that his uncle demanded before he would hand down the throne to Jason. When Jason finds the Golden Fleece after surviving countless ordeals, he discovers its guarded by a mighty dragon. Just as Jason was about the take the fleece, the dragon swallows him whole. Luckily Jason’s companion Medea, who was a sorceress, had given him a sleeping potion which he used on the dragon, enabling him to escape with the fleece.

 

1674 French Medal, Garden of Hesperides (9) 1683 Spanish Netherlands, Dragon holding the Golden Fleece, pictured as a lamb (10)

Dragons in Celtic, Saxon, and Viking Cultures

During the Iron Age, the Celts spread out from central Europe in all directions, bringing with them advances in weaponry, metallurgy, and a cultural identity that has survived down through the ages. (11)

 

 

The influence of dragons during the earliest years of the Celtic culture is difficult to assess due to a lack of a written language. There are a handful of Celtic coins and artifacts with ‘dragon-like’ motifs on them that date back as far as 50 BC, but the dragons are highly stylized, making a clear connection difficult.

Towards the end of the 5th century, Roman rule over the British Isle started to wane. In their absence, many of the Saxon mercenaries who fought for Rome remained in the British Isle claiming the land as their own. This quickly led to conflicts with the Celts who were intent on regaining control of the lands they held prior to the Roman occupation. The resulting struggle between the Celts and the Saxons was romanticized by the legend of King Arthur. The historical basis of the legend can be traced back to the Celtic King Uther Pendragon, and his son Arthur. Legend has it that they led the rebellion against the Saxon invaders, which prevented them from taking complete control of the Celtic Realm.

King Arthur and his father were both known by the last name Pendragon, which translates to ‘Chief Dragon’, and their family crest, a red dragon, appears on the National Flag of Wales.

 

Y Ddraig Goch – The Red Dragon of Wales (12)

 

When the Saxons divided parts of the Celtic Realm into Kingdoms, they adopted the dragon as a symbol of their power. In 752 A.D., King Cuthred of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex flew a flag with a golden dragon on it at the Battle of Burford. A dragon also appears on the Northumbrian coinage of the Anglo-Saxon King Eadberht and his successors, who reigned from 738–796 A.D.

 

The Kingdom of Wessex Golden Dragon (13) The Dragon of Northumbria (14)

 

Dragons took on a more menacing form in Viking mythology, and they used the growing fear of dragons as a weapon. When the Vikings attacked the Celtic Realm in 793 A.D., their warships were designed to look like dragons. It was a tactic that seemed to work, as the Vikings conquered a large part of northern Europe, sacking such notable cities as Dublin, Paris, and London. At the height of their power they controlled Iceland, Greenland, and a large portion of the Celtic Realm. The Vikings are also credited with being the first Europeans to reach North America, making landfall in 1000 A.D. some 492 years before Christopher Columbus.

 

Although Dragons were often described as menacing creatures in Viking lore, their art and jewelry seems to portray them in a different light. The Urnes Stave Church in Norway is famous for its elaborate medieval carvings, one of which is known as the Urnes Dragon. The highly stylized creature appears on Viking rune stones throughout the region, and on many bronze artifacts.

 

1925 Coin Featuring a Viking Longship with Dragon Prow^(15)^ Urnes Style Dragon Brooch, 1100 A.D. (16)

To this day, Iceland continues to honor its Viking heritage with Dreki the Dragon, one of the four Viking guardians that watch over their land. Dreki appears on the Presidential flag of Iceland, and on the Iceland Kroner.

 

1994, 1000 Kroner, Iceland’s Four Guardians, The Dragon, The Eagle, The Bull, & The Giant (17)

Dragons in Central and Southern America

The Olmec’s were one of the earliest civilizations to inhabit Mesoamerica, an area that covers the southern half of Mexico and the northern half of Central America. Among the many gods that they worshiped, two could have been new world dragons; the Feathered Serpent and the Olmec Dragon. The Olmec dragon artifacts portray a stylized reptile with sharp teeth and a forked tongue, while the feathered serpent is more snake-like with a feathered frill. After the Olmec culture faded, the Feathered Serpent was worshiped by the Teotihuacans, Mayans, Toltecs, and the Aztecs.

 

Olmec Feathered Serpent, 1400-400 B.C. (18) Pre-Columbian Terracotta (Dragon), 250-1500 A.D. (19)

The Mesoamericans believed that the feathered serpent brought humans into existence, and then protected and guarded them. As a result, the feathered serpent’s image adorns temples, pyramids, and artifacts throughout the region.

Further to the south, a recent archaeological dig at El Cano, Panama has yielded a large number of artifacts from the Nata Chief’s burial sites. Among the many items recovered, was a large 1000 year-old gold breastplate with a dragon motif.

In Peru, Huaca del Dragon, (House of the Dragon), is an 1100 year old adobe pyramid covered in Chimu cultural icons. Among those are a number of dragon-like creatures for which the site derives its namesake.

 

Gold Breastplate, El Cano, Panama, 700-1000 A.D. (20) Huaca del Dragon – Trujillo, Peru, 1000 A.D (21)

Dragons and Christianity

When Christianity spread throughout Europe in the middle ages, dragons went from being seen as benevolent creatures that guarded over the land and its inhabitants, to evil monsters due to biblical symbolism. A clear example of that can be found in Revelations 12:9, “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world.” Revelations’ portrayal of the devil as a dragon became a religious icon in which the devil was often depicted as a dragon or a demon with dragon-like features.

 

14th century stained glass window where Saint George is “slaying the dragon”

Christ Church, Dublin, Ireland (22)

 

With such powerful imagery, and the spreading influence of Christianity, it is easy to see how dragons became vilified and feared when they believed the devil might appear as one. It also makes sense that the devil would choose the form of a dragon, rather than a cuddly little bunny, because dragons represented power, and the devil wanted to seem as powerful as possible, so he could subjugate the masses. Since people believed that the devil could masquerade as a dragon, it created the perception that dragons were evil creatures. It might come as a surprise that in order to dispel that myth, one must take a closer look at the other ways in which dragons were portrayed by the church in the middle-ages. One of the best examples comes from Pope Gregory XIII, whose family crest was a dragon. Known as the Boncompagni Dragon after his family’s sir name, he incorporated the dragon into his Papal Crest. If dragons only represented evil, then it is hard to imagine a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church using it as a symbol of Christianity. What does make sense is that the church knew that dragons could symbolize two completely different things; a heraldic animal like the eagle and the lion, or a symbolic representation of the devil, because that was how he was described in the Book of Revelations. Further proof that the church did not believe that dragons were inherently evil is evidenced by the book, Delle Allvsioni, which is a collection of over 170 etchings in which Pope Gregory XIII acts out scenes from the Bible. What is most striking about the book is that in every etching, Pope Gregory XIII is depicted as a dragon fighting against evil, or protecting his flock.

 

Etching # 106 from Delle Allvsioni by Natale Bonifacio, 1588 A. D.

Pope Gregory XIII pictured as a dragon fighting the devil, who is depicted as the

seven-headed dragon-like creature from the Book of Revelations. (23)

 

The Boncompagni dragon at foot of the Pope Gregory XIII Tomb, St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican (24)

 

Pope Gregory XIII was not the only Pope to use dragons as a symbol of Christian power; Pope Paul V used a dragon as part of his Coat of Arms, and a dragon appears on many of Pope Pius VI and Pope Sixtus V coins and medals.

 

Dragons: Mythological Beast or Forgotten Animal?

It’s easy to dismiss dragons as mythical creatures in the modern age because we have not seen one for generations. Even so, there is an abundance of tantalizing artifacts and historical clues that help to bring these creatures to life. The first such clue comes from the Chinese zodiac which is made up of twelve animals, eleven of which we still see today. Given the close connection the Chinese share with the animals of the Zodiac, it seems odd that they would include one animal that is mythical alongside eleven others that are real. The Zodiac is not the only paradoxical occurrence where dragons are depicted alongside other animals that are known to exist. The Ishtar Gate in Babylon includes Lions, Bulls, and Dragons, all in such lifelike form that it suggests a familiarity with each one. Another example is the Grecian Mosaic of Caulon, Italy, where Dolphins and Sea Dragons are pictured side-by-side. Based on the number of artifacts in which dragons and other well-known animals are depicted together, there is little doubt that our ancestors believed they were real. Another intriguing element of the various depictions of dragons is how strikingly similar they look to one another across the various cultures. In every depiction they are reptilian, with claws, horns, scales, and a barbed or flared tail. Water dragons were more likely to be wingless and bipedal, whereas land dragons typically had wings and could be a biped or quadruped. In some cases, the similarities in the depictions could have resulted in one culture ‘borrowing’ what a dragon looked like from another culture, as seen in the Greek and Roman mosaics. This is probably not the case when comparing the Mesoamerican dragon with the Chinese dragon, because they never came in contact with each other. What is even more remarkable, is that not only did those two isolated cultures envision the same creature with nearly identical physical characteristics, they also held similar beliefs about them. In nearly every culture, dragons are seen as guardians that watch over humans in life and in death. Dragons are often gifted with supernatural powers, having the ability to change the weather, or influence their surroundings in some meaningful way. The Mayans believe that the Feathered Serpent brought humans into existence and could transform into a human at will. The Chinese believe they are the children of the dragon because Emperor Huang-Di transformed into one when he ascended into heaven. In both cultures, humans and dragons seem to share a connection that goes beyond the natural world, and has influenced nearly every other culture along the way.

Archaeological finds around the world prove that our ancestors revered dragons, and real or not, they immortalized them. But artifacts only tell part of the story… what really brings those legendary creatures to life is the eye-witness accounts made by the very people who believe they were real. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a historical record detailing the history of the Saxons year by year. The entry from manuscript D & E, dated 793 AD reads as follows: ‘In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people: these were excessive whirlwinds and lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these tokens; and a little after that, in the same year, on the 6th of the Ides of June, the havoc of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne, through rapine and slaughter.’ This passage describes the warning signs that preceeded one of the first Viking raids on Northumbria, England. The events described in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are believed to be historically accurate which supports the idea that people living at that time believed that dragons existed.

Another literary source that provides a number of clues about dragons is the King James Bible. It references Dragons twenty-two times in the old testament as the Hebrew word Tannin, and twelve times in the new testament as the Greek word drakon. In many of the passages, dragons are used to symbolize evil or desolation (Revelation 20:2, Jeremiah 9:11), but in a number of instances, dragons are described as animals with specific traits such as being able to make a wailing sound (Micah 1:8), or sniff the wind (Jeremiah 14:6). The Bible also goes to some lengths to describe the habitat in which dragons were known to live… in the wilderness (Malachi 1:3), in a marsh (Isaiah 35:7), or living in a den (Jeremiah 10:22).

Whether or not the Bible’s description of dragons is literal or figurative is a matter of belief, but it does add another interesting dimension to the debate about their existence. On that note, older versions of the Bible mention dragons with some frequency, in newer version of the bible the word ‘dragon’ has been replaced with ‘Jackal’ or other animals that we might see today. The replacements are typically justified by claiming that the word for ‘dragon’ was mistranslated in those earlier versions of the Bible. So now we have ‘Jackals’ living in a marsh, along with other ‘corrections’ that make less sense now than they did when the passage simply read dragon…

 

Dewi the Dragon resides about 1 mile east of Harlech Castle, Wales, United Kingdom. (25)

Although we may never know if our distant kin lived in a world where dragons once roamed, those legendary creatures have inspired us from the very beginning, and they continue to inspire our art and our culture, and they live on in our imaginations…

 

If you enjoyed learning about dragons, please order a copy of one of my dragon inspired fantasy books which are available on Amazon.com under the keyword: Ben L. Hughes. If you have any comments or questions about this guide, feel free to email me at: [email protected]

 

Thank you, Ben L. Hughes

Photographic Credits:


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Changes made to the original photograph: colors subdued, pearl removed to better show the dragons basic body shape for comparison to the Yangshao dragon.

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Attribution: Sailko. Changes made to the original photograph: cropped, enlarged, and enhanced to show the detail of the dragon.

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The Age of Dragons - A historical look at these Legendary Creatures

The Age of Dragons is a short non-fiction education guide that explore the origin and impact that dragons have had on a variety of cultures. Questions such as... what is the oldest artifact inspired by dragons? Are dragons evil? What does the Bible say about dragons?... and many more questions are answered in this pictorial guide.

  • ISBN: 9781370652228
  • Author: Ben L. Hughes
  • Published: 2017-03-12 02:50:49
  • Words: 3692
The Age of Dragons - A historical look at these Legendary Creatures The Age of Dragons - A historical look at these Legendary Creatures