How Dragons Work

Though they may look as fearsome as any other dragon, in Taoism dragons symbolize yang -- the light forces in nature.
Though they may look as fearsome as any other dragon, in Taoism dragons symbolize yang -- the light forces in nature.

Sightings of fire-breathing, flying reptilian creatures have been documented all over the world and in many different cultures. Whether a dragon sighting is considered a good thing (or a very, very bad one) varies according to the mythology associated with it. For some people, dragons were cursed creatures known to ferociously devour fair maidens. For others, dragons could be a good omen. In Japanese culture, for example, most dragons were seen as benevolent creatures that protected people's earthly treasures.

Dragons have captured people's imaginations around the world-- and have been immortalized in their art -- since ancient times. Dragons' likenesses have appeared on stoneware vessels, paintings, woven tapestries and other artifacts. Some of the most famous dragon-themed artworks are the three Nine Dragon Walls located throughout China. The most intricate and colorful of the trio is the wall in Beijing's BeiHai Park. Built in the mid-1700s, it stands 69 feet (21 meters) long and 49 feet (15 meters) high. The sculptural wall appears to depict a row of nine dragons, but closer inspection will reveal an additional 626 smaller dragons [source: Shea].


Dragons were so notorious in medieval Europe that early cartographers penned the phrase "Here be dragons" onto maps to mark unfamiliar and potentially dangerous territories -- dragons represented the mysterious and hazardous unknown.

Today, dragon mythology still influences everything from popular culture to psychology. Dragons played a pivotal role in the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling and are even studied in classes exploring analytical psychology methods pioneered by Carl Jung.

In this article, we'll look at some of the dragon's most recognizable characteristics, delve into the facts and fictions that have created dragon mythology, and explore the symbolism surrounding dragons' lives and deaths. But how, exactly, do these winged creatures work? Find out on the next page.

The Inner Workings of Dragons

Go behind-the-scenes and check out the artistic process of bringing dragons to life for Animal Planet's documentary, Dragons Made Real.
Go behind-the-scenes and check out the artistic process of bringing dragons to life for Animal Planet's documentary, Dragons Made Real.
Animal Planet

Throughout history, descriptions of dragons and their habitats have varied. Some have wings and sharp claws; others have flippers or no legs at all. Some dragons, like the mythical Jormungand, are large enough to coil around the earth, while others are the size of small birds. Their supposed lairs range from mountain caves to glacier-caved lakes [source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Nigg]. Most dragons, however, share a few central features: scales, a serpentine body, batlike wings, a barbed tail, razor-sharp teeth and, of course, the ability to breathe fire [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].

While no one really knows what biological process might allow these mythical creatures to snort flames, fantasy novels like "The Enchanted Forest Chronicles" by Patricia Wrede and "The Flight of the Dragons" by Peter Dickinson have examined the act in detail.


Like most omnivores, a dragon is assumed to be equipped with sharp teeth for tearing meat and flat teeth for grinding plants. It might also use its flat teeth to grind rocks. Although the rocks hold little nutritive value, they would be a necessary digestive aid because they help the hydrogen-producing bacteria in the dragon's belly pulverize inedible material like bones. Birds use a similar process when they swallow rocks to help digest seeds, nuts and rodents [source: Backyard Nature].

For dragons, however, the process could have an incendiary side effect. When a dragon grinds large rocks into bite-sized pieces with its molars, the platinum-rich rocks leave residue on their teeth. And when the dragon releases a build-up of hydrogen byproduct produced during digestion, and when the gas mixes with oxygen in the air, the platinum residue acts as an ignition switch. Voila! Fire spews, at will, from the dragon's mouth.

While this built-in blowtorch probably comes in handy when fending off valiant knights or roasting the occasional royal cow, there's very little record of dragons' dietary preferences. Unless scores of European folktales -- and the lyrics of modern folklorists like the Brobdingnagian Bards -- are to be believed. In the song "Do Virgins Taste Better," it seems dragons are discerning diners, at least when it comes to fair maidens. And a quick listen to "The Dragon's Retorte" reveals why. The dragon avoids orphaning any of the village's children and delights in an annual meal that provides a welcome break from its typically vegetarian repast [source: Brobdingnagian Bards].

In addition to ridding the world of innocent maidens, what other ways did dragons leave their mark? Discover more dragon mythology on the next page.

Popular Dragon Myths

In the movie "How to Train Your Dragon," one of the most ferocious dragons -- known as the Monstrous Nightmare -- has a reputation for setting itself on fire and swallowing people whole. The lore surrounding this dragon specimen has deep roots in myths about the havoc that dragons can wreak upon humans.

Egyptians, for example, believed the dragonlike god Apepi ruled the underworld, and in the Bible, a seven-headed dragon symbolized sin [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]. Some Eastern civilizations associated dragons with power and self-preservation. In the West, dragons were believed to be dangerous and petulant creatures known for devouring entire herds of cattle and sheep, as well as the occasional villager. Dragons were such popular villains that they were inserted into contemporary settings in artwork and stories, a practice fueled by tall tales of dragon sightings.


A fresco completed around 1340 by an Italian painter depicts a chained dragon in the city of Rome. In 1366, the book "Travels" chronicled the journey of an English knight throughout the Middle East and references a number of dragon sightings. The English classic "Beowulf," written around 1000 A.D., features a dragon named Grendel [source: Ploeg].

There's also been some controversy about whether dragons could have actually existed as descendants of dinosaurs -- or whether finding dinosaur bones merely stoked our ancestors' imaginations. It's easy to see why the two could get mixed up, what with their shared terrible-lizard characteristics, even in the absence of tangible proof that any fossilized bones are actually from dragons. Dinosaur species found in China, like the Dilong paradoxus, often have the Mandarin term for dragon ("long") in their name [source:]. And the culture's herbalists used to grind "dragon" bones for use in medical remedies. Modern scientists now believe the bones actually belonged to extinct animals like woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and some species of Stegodon and Hipparion [source: Dharmananda].

Some believe the world's largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, is a descendant of dinosaurs -- and possibly dragons. Komodo dragons can grow up to 10 feet (3 meters) in length, and, although they don't breathe fire, they do have destructive tendencies, like attacking animals and humans with their sharp teeth and claws.

Actual fire-breathing dragons may not be spotted with the same kind of frequency anymore, but they still have a role to play as symbols and myths in modern society. Case in point? A dragon currently appears on the Prince of Wales' coat of arms and on the Welsh flag, where it symbolizes the military battles fought while the area was under Roman rule [source: BBC, Prince of Wales]. Read more about what dragons have been said to symbolize on the next page.

The Symbolism Behind Dragons

Winning success and love by smiting savagery, inside and out.
Winning success and love by smiting savagery, inside and out.

One of the West's most famous dragon slayers was immortalized in the English book "The Golden Legend," published in the 1480s. Believed to be part fact and part fiction, this story of England's patron saint -- St. George -- tells of a knight who came to the aid of a town besieged by a ravenous dragon.

The townspeople fed it two sheep a day to prevent further attacks on their children, and the king begrudgingly agreed to appease the dragon with his daughter. As the princess awaited a fiery death by dragon, St. George happened upon them both. He smote the dragon into submission and told the princess to lead it home -- at which point St. George killed it in front of the king [source: BBC].


Dragons like the one slain by St. George symbolize more than the natural forces of destruction. According to Carl Jung, who founded Jungian psychiatric theory, when a hero is fighting a dragon he is actually battling his own subconscious. And when a hero struggles to save an innocent hostage -- usually a beautiful maiden -- it serves a dual purpose: Not only does he save an innocent life, but the act of rescuing her requires the hero's personality to develop [source: Kalsched].

Not all dragons represent the Id, though. In Japan, O Goncho was a white dragon whose appearance signaled impending famine. (White, not black, is the color traditionally associated with death in Japan.) In many cultures, maleficent dragons like O Goncho are typically depicted with their heads pointing down, while dragons that symbolize benevolence are shown with their heads pointing toward the heavens.

This dichotomy between good and evil is what differentiates most Eastern and Western dragons. Western dragons symbolize destruction and death, while Eastern dragons symbolize fortune and great power, both good and bad. In Korea, for example, a dragon signifies the circle of life and is often portrayed with its body in a circular position to symbolize the culture's cyclical view of time [source: Popeater]. The Chinese zodiac, which includes a dragon, further illustrates this view: The sign, along with its 11 brethren, repeats every 12 years [source: Chinese Culture Center].

Luckily, you won't have to wait that long to celebrate all things dragon. Once a year, the city of Atlanta hosts Dragon*Con weekend, which you can learn more about on the next page.

Modern Dragons and Pop Culture

Not all dragons are purported to have had wings and lived in mountaintop caves. Some, like the much-debated Loch Ness monster, are believed to have fins and live in the water -- as in, live currently, today.

About 1,500 years ago, native people living near a lake in northern Scotland drew pictures of a serpentine water beast with flippers. And since the 1930s, reports of "Nessie" sightings have surfaced at least once a decade, including a June 2011 glimpse by local shop owners [source: The Inverness Courier]. However, scientists dispute the Loch Ness monster's existence, citing the nebulous nature of eyewitness sightings and out-of-focus photographs. Others, though, believe Nessie may be a dinosaur. If that's the case, this shy lake creature could be a plesiosaur -- a giant reptile with four fins, and a long tale and neck -- thought to have been extinct for 65 million years [source: Lyons].


Modern-day dragons aren't found only in European lakes. There's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" book and movie series by Stieg Larsson, a resurgence in Dungeons & Dragons game fans and, of course, the animated dragons in movies like "Shrek" and "How to Tame Your Dragon." Clothing designers like Ed Hardy and Martin Ksohoh have added dragons' likenesses to pricey clothing and accessories. And former reality star Jon Gosselin got a large, Korean-style dragon tattoo on his back after his public divorce [source:].

Thanks in part to the work of cryptozoologists -- researchers who study legendary or extinct creatures -- dragons continue to turn up in our collective consciousness. Although critics argue that cryptozoology is pseudoscience, supporters point to discoveries of outlandish animals that have proved real. The okapi, which looks like a cross between a giraffe, donkey and zebra, was once thought to be fictional. However, in the 1800s, scientists pursued the myth and discovered that the okapi is alive and well, and living in Africa [source: Naish].

Maybe we will someday say the same of dragons.

Lots More Information

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  • Backyard Nature. "Bird Digestion." (Sept. 25, 2011)
  • BBC. "Saint George." July 31, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2011)
  • BBC. "Wales." July 2007. (Sept. 28, 2011)
  • Botsford, Judy. "Chinese Dragon: A Powerful Metaphor in Chinese Cultural History." July 16, 2009. (Sept. 24, 2011)
  • Brobdingnagian Bards. "Do Virgins Taste Better (A Cliché Revisited)." (Sept. 30, 2011)
  • Brobdingnagian Bards. "The Dragon's Retort." (Sept. 30, 2011)
  • Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. "The Chinese Animal Zodiac." (Sept. 30, 2011)
  • Dharmananda, Subhuti. "Dragon's Bones and Teeth." (Sept. 25, 2011)
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  • Nigg, Joe. "The Book of Dragons and Other Mythical Beasts." (Sept. 25, 2011)
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