europe

Curious Curator Mini: European Vs. Asian Dragons

After a few blog posts about war and fashion, we’re taking a break to look at mythology. Arguably, the most famous mythological beast is a dragon. Both Europe and Asia have their own types of dragon developed independently from one another. In English, both share the name dragon, though they are somewhat different creatures. Dragon means “serpent of huge size,” which is a fair assessment of both creatures.


Appearance

O to be a dragon, a symbol of the power of Heaven - of silkworm size or immense; at times invisible.
— Marianne Moore, O To Be A Dragon
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Both dragons are reptilian, covered in scales. Most types of dragon from both regions have four legs with claws and a tail. The European dragon more closely resembles a lizard or crocodile while the body of the Asian dragon is much more serpentine in nature, with winding, slender bodies. The European dragon may have horns or spines on its head, down its back, and on its tail. The Asian dragon, specifically referring to the Chinese dragon, is said to be a chimeric animal comprised of 9 different features from other animals:

  1. Antlers of a deer

  2. Head of a camel

  3. Eyes of a demon

  4. Neck of a snake

  5. Belly of a clam

  6. Scales of a carp

  7. Claws of an eagle

  8. Paws of a tiger

  9. Ears of an ox

Both types of dragons can fly, but only European dragons have wings, which resemble bat wings. (There are a few rare Asian dragons that do have wings.) Asiatic dragons fly magically through the clouds.

Traits

My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!
— Smaug in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
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Dragons are powerful, dangerous, and intelligent creatures no matter where one goes. Their ability to communicate with humans, however, varies. In some stories, both in Europe and Asia, they can speak with humans. In China, dragons are considered one part of a harmonious whole - the bright, masculine, solar yang to the fenghuang’s (phoenix) dark, feminine, lunar yin. European dragons are almost always at odds with people - stealing their wealth, killing their livestock, or burning down their homes.

Asiatic dragons are more associated with water, wind, and rain. They are said to reside at the bottom of bodies of water or in the sky, whereas European dragons usually have lairs in caves or castles. European dragons can breathe fire, but most Asian dragons can’t. If a dragon in Asian mythology spouts fire, it is generally seen as a malevolent being sent from heaven as punishment.

Benevolence or Malevolence

Come not between the dragon, and his wrath.
— William Shakespeare, King Lear
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European dragons are mostly featured as evil creatures, greedily hoarding gold, breathing fire on innocents, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Asian dragons, however, are benevolent creatures, bringing good luck and prosperity wherever it goes. Both are powerful creatures, but Asian dragons are seen as a figure of authority, often relating to or representing the emperor. Emperors would use the Chinese character for “dragon” to represent items that belong to the emperor. For example, the emperor’s seat or the emperor’s bed would actually read, in English, dragon’s seat or dragon’s bed. Asian dragons are to be respected. Chinese people claim to be descendants of dragons. They are also represented in the Chinese zodiac for certain lunar years. (If you were born in 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, or 2000, your zodiac sign is the dragon and is characterized by the traits: confident, intelligent, and enthusiastic.) Birth rates spike during Years of the Dragon. European dragons are to be feared and defeated by great knights or hobbits with rings of invisibility.

In recent years, a different interpretation of European dragons has entered into media with the possibility of benevolent or helpful European dragons from Daenerys’ dragons in Game of Thrones to the dragon in Shrek to the Luckdragon in The Neverending Story.

I wouldn’t kill him because he looked as frightened as I was. I looked at him and saw myself.
— Hiccup about the dragon Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon