Source: Mesoamerican legend
As exam week rolls through, it would certainly be nice to have some answers dropped into your lap. According to some myths, that’s what Quetzalcoatl did for the ancient Mesoamericans. His name comes from the Aztec Nahautl language, but feathered serpents appear in many other Mesoamerican cultures. Usually associated with arts and knowledge, they were first depicted around 900 BCE and had become major regional deities by 600 CE.
Quetzalcoatl certainly does not resemble familiar Western dragons, but he does share superficial traits with the dragons of East Asia, and with other serpentine legends found along the Pacific Northwest. Despite the association with these benevolent dragons, I wouldn’t go asking Quetzalcoatl for any answers – he does seem to have a taste for human flesh.
Image: Quetzalcoatl in serpent form, from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Source: Traditional Russian folklore
Zmey Gorynych is one of the best-known of many dragons, known as zmey, zmaj, or zmiy, in Slavic mythology. Gorynych, like most zmej, resembles the Greek hydra in having three heads, which regrow unless all three are cut off simultaneously. He is the primary antagonist in a famous Russian folktale, in which he captures a noble maiden and is consequently slain by the folk hero Dobrynya Nikitich.
Gorynych is quite similar to the malevolent dragons of Western Europe, but not all zmey are viewed as malicious. Though lustful and greedy, Slavic dragons are also intelligent and well-respected. Indeed, many Slavic heroes are believed to have connections with dragons, perhaps most notably Vlad III Dracula, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire, whose surname translates to “son of the dragon.”
Image: painting of Dobrynya Nikitich & Zmey Gorynych, by Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)
In Memory of Anne Inez McCaffrey (1926-2011)
Anne McCaffrey, author of the long-running “Dragonriders of Pern” series, passed away last week. McCaffrey’s most enduring legacy is the world of Pern, in which dragons and their human riders cooperate to battle Thread, an alien substance that rapidly consumes all organic matter. Pernese dragons are capable of teleportation through both space and time, and Ruth, the only white dragon in Pern’s history, is particularly adept at time travel. Ruth and his rider, Jaxom, make good use of this ability to carry out time-sensitive missions, and even to travel to the distant past.
McCaffrey has created a world in which, generation after generation, humans and dragons cooperate to survive amidst continuous and sometimes catastrophic disturbances. Dragon lovers worldwide are deeply indebted to her work.
Image: Cover of The White Dragon, art by Michael Whelan
Source: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Anyone familiar with the Triwizard Tournament will remember this dragon and Harry’s dramatic aerial showdown with it. Among the diverse magical fauna of Harry’s world, the Horntail is considered the most dangerous, combining a violent temperament with an intense fiery breath and a spiked tail. Despite its size, the Horntail is also among the most agile of dragons, able to seriously challenge even the Firebolt broomstick in aerial maneuvering.
Like so many other dragons of modern fantasy, the Horntail draws its physique and aggression from the Western tradition stretching back to Beowulf’s dragon. However, it lacks the human intelligence that many other dragons show. Instead, it behaves much like other animals, jealously guarding its eggs instead of some human treasure, and emphasizing the element of “wildness” that some other dragons downplay.
Image: from the movie version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, copyright J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros.
Source: Military units of Roman-era Eastern Europe
When Roman legions faced armies of Eastern European tribes during the Dacian Wars, they would have noticed that in place of flags, some Dacian troops carried dragons. The Dacian dragon was constructed somewhat like a windsock, with a fabric tube mounted behind a wolf-like head. Metal strips in the head might have allowed the dragon to “screech” in the wind. After the Dacian Wars, the Roman military adopted this dragon for use in their own regiments.
The Dacian dragon lacks arms, legs, and wings, setting it apart from modern dragons of both the West and East. It most likely had religious significance for the Dacian people, and may have been linked to the sky deity Zalmoxis. The anatomy and religious meaning of Dacian dragons suggest that they most likely have their roots in even older dragon-serpents of the Near East.
Image: a Dacian dragon on Trajan’s column, 113 CE
Source: Spirited Away
Halloween is a time when we are keen on spirits and fantastic creatures, and Haku is both. Though we first encounter him as a human, he turns out to be a river dragon spirit, bound in human form by the witch Yubaba. In human form, Haku aids the human girl Chihiro several times, and Chihiro is eventually able to break Yubaba’s curse. Restored to dragon form, Haku is instrumental in Chihiro’s rescue of her parents and escape from Yubaba.
In physical form, Haku is a typical Far Eastern dragon, with the standard serpentine, 4-legged body plan. However, unlike most classical Far Eastern dragons, which generally remain detached from the lives of individual humans, Haku becomes deeply involved in Chihiro’s quest to return to her reality. Like several other dragons of the late 20th century, Haku takes on the role of “dragon-as-partner.”
Image: from Spirited Away, copyright Hayao Miyzazki.
As one of the most powerful creatures in Yu-gi-oh!, the Blue-Eyes White Dragon has become an icon for the series. In the anime version of Yu-gi-oh!, this dragon is most closely associated with the duelist and corporate magnate Seto Kaiba, who owns three copies that form the core of many of his decks. “Blue-Eyes,” as it is often called, has returned repeatedly during the 13-year history of the series, and always poses a major challenge to the protagonists who face it.
The Blue-Eyes White Dragon is Western in anatomy, and its association with the antagonist Kaiba echoes the medieval Western dragon’s association with evil. The appearance of such a thoroughly Western dragon in a Japanese series may reflect the rapid East-West cultural diffusion of the late 20th century, and suggests that the future holds increasing draconic diversity around the world.
Image: Blue-Eyes White Dragon official card art, copyright Kazuki Takahashi