Where did dragons come from?

Dragons have been captivating us for centuries. Whether in stories, films, or family theatre shows, they hold a unique fascination for people across multiple cultures. But have you ever wondered where dragons came from, and who told stories about them first? Let’s dive into the origins of these scaly beasts.

The oldest dragon story

The oldest recorded example of a dragon is generally agreed to be Tiamat, a mother goddess from the ancient Mesopotamiam creation myth. Tiamat personified salt water and was often depicted as a dragon. She battled against the god Marduk for supremacy over humans, eventually losing.

Some scholars think that dragons subsequently evolved independently in Europe and China, and perhaps even in Australia and the Americas too. The earliest Chinese dragons are sometimes depicted as combinations of all different animal parts: one text describes a dragon with the head of a camel, the neck of a serpent, the belly of a crocodile and the claws of an eagle.

In Western culture, it was the Greeks who popularised dragons. Many of their myths featured these magical creatures: a dragon guarded the Golden Fleece, Perseus rescued Andromeda from a sea snake, and Hercules defeated the many-headed Hydra.

Of course, in England the most famous dragon story is that of St George, who killed a dragon that was terrorising a village. There are many different versions of the tale, but most agree that the dragon lived in a lake and took offerings of livestock and maidens. Eventually a princess was sent to the lake to wait for the dragon, and when St George heard of this, he rode in and bravely fought, slaying the dragon and saving the princess.

What real-life creatures inspired dragons?

Many have speculated about the real-life animals that may have inspired the first dragon myths. Here are some of the creatures that could have given rise to the creation of dragons.

Dinosaurs: It’s possible that ancient people discovered dinosaur fossils in the earth and came up with their own ideas about what these mysterious creatures were. It’s easy to see how a stegosaurus or triceratops skeleton could have sparked the imagination of humans several thousand years ago, and become a mythical being.

Crocodiles: It’s thought by some that the Nile crocodile, now native to Africa, may have sometimes been found in the Mediterranean. These creatures can reach five metres in length, and unlike most other species of crocodile, can walk with their tummies off the ground, giving them a more dragon-like appearance.

Goannas: Large lizards, called Goannas, live in Australia and are important creatures in Aboriginal folklore. Studies suggest they may have a venomous bite, and this - combined with their size and razor-sharp teeth - could have formed the basis of the dragon myth in Australia. 

If you’re a fan of dragons and unicorn shows, don’t miss Dragons and Mythical Beasts, which is currently touring the UK. This magical play introduces you to some of the most enchanting mythical creatures, from trolls to griffins - and of course, dragons.