The Evolution and Elevation of Dragons from Symbols

Much like black cats and the color white, dragons carry symbolism that differs from culture to culture. In Europe during the Middle Ages, of course, dragons were seen as a symbol of evil. In ancient Egypt and Persia, the same. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythologies, dragons represented wisdom and royalty. They were also associated with water, whereas traditional European dragons are paired with fire.

The dynamic and incompatible associations are incredibly fun. In more modern times, a writer named Janet Hoult has argued that dragons are symbols of energy in her book Dragons, Their History, and Symbolism. I haven’t seen anything to substantiate that, but it’s food for thought, anyway.

What I find most interesting about this is the fact that all of these examples of dragons as symbols are at least 500 years past. At some point in the interim, dragons shed their very black-and-white skin to emerge into modern fantasy with a much more nuanced approach. Dragons can be good or evil. They can be both within a single book. Of course, there are set rules as to what makes a dragon a dragon. In appearance, of course, it must either have the wings, horns, and stature of the European dragon or the slender, wingless visage of the Eastern dragon (though the latter we don’t see too much). They are always large (even if there is a smaller variant within the same story, as in Dragonflight and Dragon’s Egg). And they are almost exclusively paired with fire or water.

However, humans have a basic appearance requirement, too: two legs, two arms, no fur—except a little mop at the top (for most of us). There are also basic trait expectations, in that humans are paired with a general higher cognitive processing ability and the unfortunate ability to text while driving with those opposable thumbs. And yet, we know every single person is vastly different from the one before them.

To the point, over the years, dragons have “humanized.” They’re three-dimensional. You can’t say that for unicorns. I’ve only ever read one book where unicorns were anything other than pure symbols of light. I doubt I’ll ever read another.

Can’t say the same thing for books about dragons.

Fun fact: in Greece and Britain, dragons were supposed to be in possession of great wisdom and knowledge of the future. This is just one of many amusing things you can find in Janet Hoult’s Dragons, Their History, and Symbolism.

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