Stone head of a dragon with a fish in its mouth

Dragons were hot long before Game of Thrones

Let’s learn a bit more about dragons from different cultures

Susan Muthalaly (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Season 4 of Game of Thrones is back with Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons and her fire-breathing babies. Judging by the premiere episode of the season, we will probably be seeing a lot of these mythical, winged creatures. So let’s learn a bit more about dragons from different cultures.

The two most prominent cultural depictions are the European dragon and the Chinese dragon. The image of the European, winged, fire-breathing reptile developed from folk traditions that may be traced back to Greek and West Asian mythology. The formula in these tales is one monstrous beast + one heroic person who slays it.

Gilgamesh and Humbaba (Chuwawa)

Humbaba was a ‘fire-breathing dragon-fanged beast’ sometimes described as a dragon in the Mesopotamian poem ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, which is among the earliest surviving works of literature. Humbaba was the Guardian of the Cedar Forest where the gods lived, and was slayed by the hero Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. This clay tablet (below) in Sumerian describes the episode of the Cedar forest.

Biblical beasts of terror

Dragons feature heavily in Christianity. Due to their serpent-like depiction in these stories, there is an allusion to Adam and the serpent. Killing the dragon was therefore symbolic of overcoming sin. Here we have Saint George who killed a dragon to save the king’s daughter.

The virgin St Margaret from Antioch (Turkey) was swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon when she refused to renounce Christianity. But she escaped when the cross she carried irritated its belly.

Apart from the Christian association of dragons with evil, they were also seen as symbols of ferocity. Abu Mansur Sabuktigin was a 10th century ruler of Afghanistan. After his death, his two sons Mahmud and Ismail fought fiercely for the throne. The picture below shows the dust in the form of dragons to depict the ferociousness of the battle.

In the Chinese tradition, dragons are mostly depicted as snake-like with 4 legs. Unlike the Western tradition, Chinese dragons are auspicious and symbols of power, strength and good fortune for those who deserve it. So much so that there are numerous phrases and idioms in the language that refer to the beasts.