Dragon Statues from Cultures Around the World
Dragons are one of the most well-known mythological creatures. These fire-breathing fighters are present throughout storybooks as well as pop culture. What is incredibly fascinating about dragons is that around the world, in almost every culture, some sort of elemental serpentine/reptilian creature exists in their lore and legends.
So let’s dive into a few of the most prominent versions of these beasts with an exploration of the visual and narrative differences between dragons from across the globe — and look at examples from across fandoms.
The dragons we are most used to seeing have four legs and two giant wings. You can see artist Greg Rutkowski’s rendition above in Farewell. Known as standard western because of their American and European mythological origins, they walk, fly, and breathe fire. Often they are depicted as dark and dangerous, such as Daenerys Targaryen’s three children Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion from Game of Thrones — who are called dragons in-world, though better resemble wyverns. We will explore this distinction later, since Smaug from Lord of the Rings has also been depicted as having wyvern qualities.
In the show, Drogon becomes vicious and uncontrollable. He has to be locked away because of his bloodthirsty appetite. Across media, when dragons are shown to be violent and unpredictable, Dragon Slayers step in. These warriors, like Bowen from the film DragonHeart, hunt dragons for peace … or for profit.
Western dragons can also be friendly. Toothless the Night Fury from the How to Train Your Dragon series is seen as a threat, but is actually a kind, caring, and compassionate creature. Of course, many dragons in children’s fantasy stories are more sympathetic and lovable.
There can also be scary or evil dragons in kid’s stories. Maleficent’s dragon form in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty needs to be killed to protect the princess. And Tiamat from the interactive Dungeons and Dragons is a high-level monster that players need to defeat. Interpretations of dragons vary as greatly as the concepts of dragons.
Eastern / Chinese
Eastern dragons, and here specifically the Chinese dragon, closely resembles a snake with its long body and lack of wings. Unlike snakes, however, these dragons have four small legs. Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize auspicious powers and are thus associated with luck. They can also have fur, scales and fins, and horns or antlers.
Pictured above is the Great Protector from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. You can read more about the Great Protector’s role in this Marvel movie and mythological origins in “The Chinese Mythological Creatures in Shang-Chi.”
The Japanese dragon or the ryū is a wingless, serpentine creature with three claws upon its reptilian feet. It is often associated with water and rainfall. The ryū is also benevolent. It grants wishes, which has been utilized in the popular anime series Dragon Ball.
The magical dragon from Dragon Ball is called Shenron — translated roughly to “divine dragon.” Although he takes his visual cues from Chinese mythology (because Dragon Ball is based on the classical 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West), the summoning process and unbiased wish granting are more indicative of Japanese culture.
Wyverns have two hind legs and two wings that function as the front appendages. This English dragon type is commonly found in medieval heraldry and folklore. In most of the tales, wyverns are terrors, pests, and villains. Their demise ultimately propels the hero forward on an epic quest.
A popular culture example is Alduin from the Elder Scrolls video games. Also known as the World Eater, The Twilight God, and The First Dragon, Alduin is vindictive and cruel even to his own kind. He is also worshipped as a god. This concept harkens more to the Eastern concept of dragons, who were often water deities.
Quetzalcoatl is a Mesoamerican deity depicted as the Feathered Serpent. His design sometimes resembles a feathered man, or incorporates aspects of dragons and snakes depending on the text and time period. In Aztec culture, Quetzalcoatl is the creator of Earth, god of wind and rain, and a patron of science, arts, and agriculture.
The deity has appeared in media mainly as an antagonist. Animated versions of Quetzalcoatl can be found in Yu-Gi-Oh!, Final Fantasy, and Star Trek, among others. In Marvel’s Eternals, the character Ajak took many of her design and personality cues from this ancient creature. You can read more about their similarities in “Eternals and the Mythological Creatures They Inspired.”
In Old English, the word wyrm was a synonym for sea serpent. These dragons do not have limbs. They curl around their enemies — or entire worlds — like pythons. Wyrms are often compared to or called hydras in ancient texts; in Greek Mythology, Hercules defeats the underwater dwelling Lernaean Hydra who guards the entrance to the Underworld. This hydra has a single, long snake body with many heads.
Modern fantasies such as the Spiderwick Chronicles have updated this concept. The Old World Wyrm appears in the children’s books with many legs, a distinctly feathery tail, and a lizard-like head. These wyrms are incredibly venomous as well as poisonous; their bites are deadly, and even touching one will cause a painful rash.
What is your favorite kind of dragon? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!