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Mythology and Folklore


military emblem, Nibelungenlied, English kings, having wings, prows

Dragon, a legendary reptilian monster similar in form to a crocodile and usually represented as having wings, huge claws, and a fiery breath. In some folklore of antiquity, the dragon symbolizes destruction and evil. This conception is found, for example, in Enuma Elish, a Mesopotamian creation epic written about 2000 bc. One of the central figures of the legend is the goddess Tiamat, a dragonlike personification of the oceans, who headed the hordes of chaos and whose destruction was prerequisite to an orderly universe. In the sacred writings of the ancient Hebrews, the dragon frequently represents death and evil. Christianity inherited the Hebraic conception of the dragon, which figures in all the important apocalyptic literature of the Bible, notably in Revelation, and appears in later Christian traditions. In Christian art, the dragon is a symbol of sin. It is often represented as crushed under the feet of saints and martyrs, symbolizing the triumph of Christianity over paganism.

In certain mythologies, the dragon is more generally credited with beneficent powers. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that dragons had the ability to understand and to convey to mortals the secrets of the earth. Partially as a result of this conception of the monster as a benign, protective influence, and partially because of its fearsome qualities, it was employed as a military emblem. The Roman legions adopted it in the first century ad , inscribing the figure of a dragon on the standards carried into battle by the cohorts. The folklore of the pagan tribes of northern Europe contained both beneficent and terror-inspiring dragons. In the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried kills a dragon, and one of the principal episodes of Beowulf deals with a similar achievement. The ancient Norsemen adorned the prows of their vessels with carved likenesses of dragons. Among the Celtic conquerors of Britain the dragon was a symbol of sovereignty. The legendary monster was also depicted on the shields of the Teutonic tribes that later invaded Britain, and it appeared on the battle standards of the English kings as late as the 16th century. Beginning in the early 20th century, it was inscribed on the armorial bearings of the Prince of Wales.

The dragon also figures in the mythology of various Asian countries, notably Japan and China. It is deified in the Daoist (Taoist) religion and was the national emblem of the Chinese Empire. Among the Chinese people, the dragon is traditionally regarded as a symbol of good fortune.

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