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Dragons have fascinated humans in many cultures and ages and until about 1500CE it would seem that people still believed in their existence.

Accounts of the dragon slaying saints and heroes were probably taken literally; it would have been assumed that the lack of actual dragons could be explained by the fact that they had all been killed by the saints and heroes at some unspecified time in the past.

The only known existing dragons in the world today are Komodo dragons, the world's heaviest living lizards.

Komodo dragons can be very aggressive and the males can grow to a length of 10 feet (over 3 meters) and weight of 200 lbs (91 kg.). They may still be found on islands in Central Indonesia.  

Accounts of these creatures may have been carried back by early travellers who circumnavigated the globe to apparently confirm the existence of dragons that may in earlier time have been more widespread in the Far East. Of course their actual size and ferocity would have been exaggerated.  Dinosaur bones may also have been mistaken for dragon bones. For example Hua Yang Guo Zhi, a book written by Zhang Qu around 300CE described dragon bones being excavated at Wucheng in Sichuan Province and it would seem to anyone unearthing dinosaur bones that the living dragon must have been gigantic.

Though descriptions of dragons differ, there is a general description of them as huge reptilian or lizard like scaly creatures with claws and usually legs and a long scaly tail, sometimes with huge leathery wings and breathing fire. It was thought in the Oriental tradition that they hatched out of gem like eggs and that it might take a thousand years for the dragon to hatch out and a further three thousand years for it to reach maturity.

The benevolent dragons of China and the Far East

The dragon in China has always been considered luck bringing and was associated with the power of the Emperor.

In the season of drought, the dragons slumber in their subterranean pools or wells. As the dragons rise in the spring and fight or mate, creating welcome rain, it is believed that they scatter pearls and fireballs on to the earth.

At Yuan Tan, the Chinese New Year which is held at the first Full Moon in February, on the fourth day in every land where Chinese or other Far Eastern people from the Orient have settled, a major event is the procession of the Golden Dragon, made of paper, linen and bamboo and worn by a number of people, with a red envelope, called Ang Pao in front of it tied to a pole. This envelope is filled with coins and the procession ends with the dragon retrieving the envelope and scattering them to the waiting crowds which then signifies good luck for the year ahead. People give red envelopes of money especially to the young to transfer the dragonísí luck. Store owners on the procession route will let off fire crackers to attract the Dragonís attention in order to make their businesses prosperous in the year ahead.

The Dragon Boat festival, is an ancient summer sun festival, still celebrated in Southern China, in Hong Kong and Malaysia on the fifth day of the fifth moon. Its aim is to procure a rich harvest and health from the dragon gods. It also remembers the death of a famous poet and politician Chu Yuan who lived around 343-279bc. He was disillusioned by the warring Lords of China and drowned himself to bring about reform. Boats decorated with dragons take to the water and offerings are cast into the rivers.

The Chinese have a Year of the Dragon every twelve years as part of the astrology and years of the Dragon are considered especially prosperous and dynamic as are the people born in the year of the Dragon. Joan of Arc, Salvador Dali and Che Guevara are Dragon people. Dragon years include 1928, 1940 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024 and 2036.

Chinese dragons are often portrayed with a fiery pearl in their mouths, said to give them the power to fly to the heavens, for most do not have wings.

Becoming a dragon

It was considered in China and the Orient generally that to become a dragon was a great blessing; unlike the west where becoming a dragon was considered a punishment for greed, or evil doing.

One legend tells of boy called Nie Lang who lived with his mother in the Szechuan province of China. There was a drought in Szechuan. One day the boy found a dragonís pearl in the dry grass and he hid it in a jar of rice which filled overnight. The boy used the pearl wisely to give his family and friends enough to eat. However the fame of the pearl spread and a rich man or in some versions his master Lord Zhou tried to steal it. The boy swallowed the pearl and was transformed into a dragon. The thief or Lord Zhou was washed away as the transformed dragon rose out of the river. The dragon protects the province to this day (or so the legend promises).

Another Chinese legend says that any carp that is able to jump over the mythical Dragon Gate will become a dragon. One possible location for this Dragon Gate has been given as a huge waterfall on the Yellow River in Hunan Province in Northern China, perhaps because someone saw a carp who did manage to make its way up the waterfall. For this reason carp caught near waterfalls are said to bring health and long life to whoever eats them.

Different kinds of Chinese dragons

Chinese dragons are generally described without wings and with 117 scales.

The Chinese dragon is made up of nine creatures, including the horns of a deer; the neck of a snake; the scales of a carp; the claws of an eagle; the paws of a tiger; and the ears of an ox.

The dragons were seen as central to agricultural life and so Dragon King Temples were created so people could pray and make offerings to the dragons for a good harvest; since the dragons controlled the weather and the seasons. Four Dragon Kings called Lůng WŠng, rule over the four seas.

As well as bringing rain, Oriental weather dragons could apparently divert floodwaters away from towns. The deep pools left by intense storms also caused the growth of healing herbs such as the all-purpose Red Herb. This may be a form of the red Reishi herb, reported in Chinese medicine to help to prolong life span.

However if angered by mortals the dragons would gather all the waters in a basket creating drought. They might even cause an eclipse by swallowing the sun.

Mythical Chinese dragon types include Celestial dragons that live in the heavens and serve the gods, the male air and weather dragons that bring the winds and rain to ensure a good harvest and their earth female counterparts who are responsible for preserving rivers and subterranean waters. There are also dragons who guard subterranean treasures and closest to the westernized dragon and are believed to be responsible for volcanoes and earth tremors and the wise dragons who taught wisdom and writing more than five thousand years ago to the legendary first Emperor Fu Hsi.

Dragons could however be bad-tempered when finding a good home.

From Tongren City, Guizhou Province comes the legend of Nine-Dragon Cave.

Once six yellow dragons lived happily on Liulong Hill (Six-Dragon Hill), which is behind Nine-Dragon Cave. They invited three black dragons living in Jinjiang River, which faces the cave, to come for a celebration. When the nine dragons entered the cave, they realized what a wonderful home it would make. They all wanted to live in the cave, but there was not room so they quarreled. They are, some recount, thought to be still inside the cave today, though they make themselves invisible when tourists come. The rumbling heard within the earth is their continuing bickering and jostling for space.

Dragons in Scandinavian and European traditions

Scandinavian dragons are the true fire and earth dragons, living in deep subterranean caves.

Stemming from the Norse world dragons have a strong tradition in Scandinavia, Germany and other parts of western Europe where the Anglo Saxons settled, for example in England, as guardians of treasure, a quality they shared with Celtic dragons.

Dragons were accorded a certain respect and the Vikings had dragons on the prows of their ships to strike fear into enemies seeing them approaching the dead. These figureheads they would lower when approaching home so not to offend the Land wights on the cliff tops. In the Norse as well as the Anglo Saxon and Celtic traditions, dragons were thought to guard the wealth of chiefs who were sometimes buried with fabulous treasures for their life in the next world.

It was believed that deceased warriors might be transformed into dragons to protect gold hoards from grave robbers, an apt deterrent that may partly explain the Fafnir and Beowulf legends where the stolen treasure is cursed.

Norse and European myths describe dragons in great detail as possessing all or some of the following: eagle's feet, bat-like wings, the front legs of a lion, a reptile/dinosaur's head with a huge mouth and teeth from which smoke and fire pours, huge scales, the horns of an antelope, a soft underbelly and a spade like snake or lizard like tail that may begin close to the head.

Smaller Fire Drakes found in the myths of France and Germany do not have wings but are also cave dwellers, red with fiery breath, where they live with their great hoards, the riches of the earth.

According to Bulgarian dragon lore the male dragon is the fire one and is a benign protector of humans and the crops in contrast to his watery less well disposed sister. Bulgarian dragons have three heads and wings in this tradition.

Scandinavian and European Dragons whom I have already described in the section on dragon slaying saints, were thought to grow up to 60 foot long and though they apparently lay eggs in common with other dragons these hatched much quicker than those of the oriental dragons.

Fafnir was the most famous Norse and German dragon (the Anglo Saxon culture shared many of the Viking myths since the Danish Vikings who ruled parts of Sweden as well as Denmark were descended from the Anglo Saxons).

Norse myth records that the dwarf Regin persuaded his godson Sigurd (called Sigfried in Germany) to seek and kill Fafnir the dragon who had a fabulous hoard of treasure. However Sigurd did not know that Fafnir was in fact the brother of Regin. In one version of the myth, Fafnir had been rewarded with a hoard of gold and gems by the gods. He was so afraid of losing it, he hid in a cave with it and over the years turned into dragon form because, it is said, of his obsessive love for the gold.

Of course the whole dragon slaying idea was actually a plot by Regin to seize the hoard for himself. Sigurd rode with Regin to find the dragon. At Reignís suggestion they hid in a deep ditch and when Fafnir came to drink at a nearby pool Sigurd stabbed his soft underbelly with his magical sword.

Regin cut out the heart of his brother and roasted it, but some of the hot fat dripped on Sigurdís finger. He licked the burn and immediately understood the language of the birds who told him Regin intended to kill him next. Therefore Sigurd beheaded the dwarf and claimed the treasure and the wisdom of the birds.

In another version Fafnir killed his own father in order to take the treasure his father owned and hid in a cave with it. Because of this evil deed he was transformed into a dragon, very different from the Chinese concept I described earlier where becoming a dragon was a blessing.

In a third version of the legend from the Volsungr Saga Fafnir was changed into a dragon after stealing the cursed treasure of the dwarf Andvari.

Beowulf and the Dragon

The poem Beowulf written in the 7th or 8th century CE in England or perhaps later during the 12th century from an earlier oral source, recounts events from the late 5th and early 6th centuries CE and originally comes from Swedish sources(10).

This was the time when the Anglo Saxons, relations of the Danish Vikings, were occupying England. The Anglo Saxon epic poem was possibly recorded by a monk and is said to be the first English literary work.

In one of his many adventures the hero Beowulf overcame a fire breathing dragon. The epic poem tells that when Beowulf was much older and a king, one of his servantís stole a golden cup from a dragonís den and the furious dragon breathing fire came in pursuit. Though Beowulf led his warriors against the dragon, all ran away except for a young warrior Wiglaf. Though they defeated the dragon Beowulf was fatally wounded and was buried in a high place overlooking the sea. Because the treasure was considered cursed, it was buried with him. Cursed treasure, because it was taken from a dragon, is a major feature of Scandinavian dragons and is, though not intended to be, a sound ecological message that humans should not excessively plunder the minerals of the earth.

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