European dragons are legendary creatures in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe. Roman dragons evolved from serpentine Greek ones, combined with the dragons of the Near East, in the mix that characterized the hybrid Greek/Eastern Hellenistic culture. From Babylon, the muš-ḫuššu (formerly also read as sirrušu, sirrush) was a classic representation of a Near Eastern dragon.
In the Roman Empire, each military cohort had a particular identifying signum (military standard), after the Parthian and Dacian Wars of Trajan in the east, the Dacian Draco military standard entered the Legion with the Cohors Sarmatarum and Cohors Dacorum (Sarmatian and Dacian cohorts)—a large dragon fixed to the end of a lance, with large, gaping jaws of silver and with the rest of the body formed of colored silk. With the jaws facing into the wind, the silken body inflated and rippled, resembling a windsock.
In the modern period, the European dragon is typically depicted as a huge, fire-breathing, scaly, horned, lizard-like creature; the creature also has leathery, bat-like wings, four legs, and a long, muscular prehensile tail. Some depictions show dragons with feathered wings, crests, fiery manes, ivory spikes running down its spine, and various exotic decorations.
In folktales, dragon’s blood often contains magical properties. For example, in the opera Siegfried, dragon’s blood allows Siegfried to understand the language of the Forest Bird. The typical dragon protects a cavern or castle filled with gold and treasure and is often associated with a great hero who tries to slay it.
Though a winged creature, the dragon is generally to be found in its underground lair, a cave that identifies it as an ancient creature of earth. Possibly, the dragons of European and Mid-Eastern mythology stem from the cult of snakes found in religions throughout the world.
John’s Book of Revelation—Greek literature, not Roman—describes Satan as “a great dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns”. Much of John’s literary inspiration is late Hebrew and Greek, but John’s dragon is more likely to have come originally through the Near East.
Several vague incarnations of evil in the Old Testament were given the translation draco in Jerome’s Vulgate, to undergo changes in meaning and become broad embodiments of evil.
Draco – the constellation
Draco is a constellation in the far northern sky. Its name is Latin for dragon. Draco is circumpolar (that is, never setting) for many observers in the northern hemisphere. It was one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, and remains one of the 88 modern constellations today. The north pole of the ecliptic is in Draco. Draco can be seen all year from northern latitudes.
In Greco- Roman legend, Draco was a dragon killed by the goddess Minerva and tossed into the sky upon his defeat. The dragon was one of the Gigantes, who battled the Olympic gods for ten years. As Minerva threw the dragon, it became twisted on itself and froze at the cold North Celestial Pole before it could right itself.
Dragons play a great role in Greek mythology. Homer describes the dragons with wings and legs. In some mythology, Draco had one hundred magnificent heads, guarded the golden apple tree, and was put in the sky as a constellation for protecting the apples with valor. The constellation has been subject to many more myths, but ones that are obscure.
Dragons in Greek mythology that may have inspired the constellation’s name include Ladon, the dragon who guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides. Hercules killed Ladon during his 12 labors; he was tasked with stealing the golden apples. The constellation of Hercules is depicted near Draco.
The Garden of the Hesperides is Hera’s orchard in the west, where either a single apple tree or a grove grows, producing golden apples that grant immortality when eaten. The trees were planted from the fruited branches that Gaia gave to Hera as a wedding gift when Hera accepted Zeus.
The Hesperides were given the task of tending to the grove, but occasionally picked apples from it themselves. Not trusting them, Hera also placed in the garden a never-sleeping, hundred-headed dragon named Ladon as an additional safeguard. In the myth of the Judgement of Paris, it was from the Garden that Eris, Goddess of Discord, obtained the Apple of Discord, which led to the Trojan War.
In later years it was thought that the “golden apples” might have actually been oranges, a fruit unknown to Europe and the Mediterranean before the Middle Ages. Under this assumption, the Greek botanical name chosen for all citrus species was Hesperidoeidē ( “hesperidoids”) and even today the Greek word for the orange fruit is Portokali – after the country of Portugal in Iberia near where the Garden of the Hesperides grew.
Traditional Arabic astronomy does not depict a dragon in modern-day Draco, which is called the Mother Camels. Instead, two hyenas, represented by Eta Draconis and Zeta Draconis are seen attacking a baby camel (a dim star near Beta Draconis), which is protected by four female camels, represented by Beta Draconis, Gamma Draconis, Nu Draconis, and Xi Draconis. The nomads who own the camels are camped nearby, represented by a cooking tripod composed of Upsilon, Tau, and Sigma Draconis.
In Greek mythology, the Lernaean Hydra was an ancient serpent-like water monster with reptilian traits. It possessed many heads – the poets mention more heads than the vase-painters could paint – and for each head cut off it grew two more. It had poisonous breath and blood so virulent that even its scent was deadly.
The Hydra of Lerna was killed by Heracles as the second of his Twelve Labours. Its lair was the lake of Lerna in the Argolid, though archaeology has borne out the myth that the sacred site was older even than the Mycenaean city of Argos, since Lerna was the site of the myth of the Danaids. Beneath the waters was an entrance to the Underworld, and the Hydra was its guardian.
The Hydra was one of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna (Theogony, 313), both of whom were noisome offspring of the earth goddess Gaia. Mythographers relate that the Lernaean Hydra and the crab were put into the sky after Heracles, represented in another constellation, slew them.
According to legend, if one of the Hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would grow in its place. However, Hercules burned out the roots of the heads he severed to prevent them from growing again, and thus overcame the hydra.
In an alternative version, Hera’s crab was at the site to bite his feet and bother him, hoping to cause his death. Hera set it in the Zodiac to follow the Lion. When the sun is in the sign of Cancer, the crab, the constellation Hydra has its head nearby.
The Greek constellation of Hydra is an adaptation of a Babylonian constellation: the MUL.APIN includes a “serpent” constellation (MUL.DINGIR.MUŠ) that loosely corresponds to Hydra. It is one of two Babylonian “serpent” constellations (the other being the origin of the Greek Serpens), a mythological hybrid of serpent, lion and bird.
The shape of Hydra resembles a twisting snake, and features as such in some Greek myths. One myth associates it with a water snake that a crow served Apollo in a cup when it was sent to fetch water; Apollo saw through the fraud, and angrily cast the crow, cup, and snake, into the sky.
In Hindu Mythology the star that equivalents Hydra is Ashlesha. In Chinese astronomy, the stars that correspond to Hydra are located within the Vermilion Bird and the Azure Dragon. In Japanese culture, the stars are known as Nuriko.
Sometimes, Draco is represented as the demon son of Gaia, Typhon, the most fearsome monster of Greek mythology. The last son of Gaia, fathered by Tartarus, Typhon was, with his mate Echidna, the father of many famous monsters. The Greeks also frequently represented him as a storm-demon, especially in the version where he stole Zeus’s thunderbolts and wrecked the earth with storms (cf. Hesiod, Theogony; Nonnus, Dionysiaca).
Typhon may be derived from the Greek tuphō “to make smoke, fume, singe, burn slowly” from the Proto-Indo-European *dhuH-/*duh2-/*du̯eh2-, “smoke, steam”, by means of an enlargement *-bh-.
Typhon is the father of hot dangerous storm winds which issue forth from the stormy pit of Tartarus, according to Hesiod. Likewise, the rumblings of Typhon emitted from deepest Tartarus could be clearly heard within the underground torrent near Seleuceia, now in Turkey, until his presence was neutralized by the building of a Byzantine church nearby.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Typhon was the son of Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus: “when Zeus had driven the Titans from heaven, huge Earth bore her youngest child Typhoeus of the love of Tartarus, by the aid of golden Aphrodite”. Apollodorus adds that Gaia bore Typhon in anger at the gods for their destruction of her offspring the Giants.
Numerous other sources mention Typhon as being the offspring of Gaia, or simply “earth-born”, with no mention of Tartarus. However, according to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Typhon was the child of Hera alone. Hera angry at Zeus for having given birth to Athena by himself, prayed to Gaia to give her a son as strong as Zeus, then slapped the ground, and became pregnant. Hera gave the infant Typhon to the serpent Python to raise, and Typhon grew up to become a great bane to mortals.
Several sources locate Typhon’s birth and dwelling place in Cilicia, and in particular the region in the vicinity of the ancient Cilician coastal city of Corycus (modern Kızkalesi, Turkey). The poet Pindar calls Typhon ‘”Cilician”, and says that Typhon was born in Cilicia and nurtured in “the famous Cilician cave”, an apparent allusion to the Corycian cave. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Typhon is called the “dweller of the Cilician caves”, and both Apollodorus and Nonnus have Typhon born in Cilicia.
It was in Cilicia that Zeus battled with the ancient monster and overcame him, in a more complicated story: It was not an easy battle, and Typhon temporarily overcame Zeus, cut the “sinews” from him and left him in the “leather sack”, the korukos that is the etymological origin of the korukion andron, the Korykian or Corycian Cave in which Zeus suffers temporary eclipse as if in the Land of the Dead.
Typhon attempts to destroy Zeus (perhaps at the will of Gaia, because of Zeus’s destruction of the Giants). Typhon overcomes Zeus in their first battle, and tears out Zeus’ sinews. However, Hermes recovers the sinews and restores them to Zeus. Typhon is finally defeated by Zeus, who traps him underneath Mount Etna.
Typhon started destroying cities and hurling mountains in a fit of rage. With the exception of Zeus, Dionysus, and Athena, the gods of Olympus fled from their home to Egypt, where they hid themselves by taking the forms of various animals.
When Athena accused Zeus of cowardice, he regained his courage and attacked the monster. The battle raged, ending when Zeus threw one hundred well aimed lightning bolts on top of Typhon, trapping him.
The inveterate enemy of the Olympian gods is described in detail by Hesiod as a vast grisly monster with a hundred serpent heads “with dark flickering tongues” flashing fire from their eyes and a din of voices and a hundred serpents for legs, a feature shared by many primal monsters of Greek myth that extend in serpentine or scaly coils from the waist down. The titanic struggle created earthquakes and tsunami.
Once conquered by Zeus’ thunderbolts, Typhon was either cast into Tartarus (Hesiod, Theogony), the common destiny of many such archaic adversaries, or confined beneath Mount Etna (Hesiod, Theogony; Pindar, Pythian Ode 1.19–20; Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 370), where “his bed scratches and goads the whole length of his back stretched out against it”, or in other volcanic regions, where he is the cause of eruptions. Typhon is thus the chthonic figuration of volcanic forces, as Hephaestus (Roman Vulcan) is their “civilized” Olympian manifestation.
The b scholia to Iliad 2.783 preserving a possible Orphic tradition, has Typhon born from Cronus. Gaia angry at the destruction of the Giants, slanders Zeus to Hera. So Hera goes to Zeus’ father Cronus (who Zeus had overthrown) and Cronus gives Hera two eggs smeared with his own semen, telling her to bury them, and that from them would be born one who would overthrow Zeus. Hera, angry at Zeus, burries the eggs in Cilicia “under Arimon”, but when Typhon is born Hera, now reconciled with Zeus, informs him.
The region of Cilicia in southeastern Anatolia had many opportunities for coastal Hellenes’ connection with the Hittites to the north. From its first reappearance, the Hittite myth of Illuyankas has been seen as a prototype of the battle of Zeus and Typhon.
Walter Burkert and Calvert Watkins each note the close agreements. Watkins’ How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford University Press) reconstructs in disciplined detail the flexible Indo-European poetic formula that underlies myth, epic and magical charm texts of the lashing and binding of Typhon.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell also makes parallels to the slaying of Leviathan by YHWH, about which YHWH boasts to Job. Comparisons can also be drawn with the Mesopotamian monster Tiamat and her slaying by Babylonian chief god Marduk. The similarities between the Greek myth and its earlier Mesopotamian counterpart do not seem to be merely accidental. A number of west Semitic (Ras Shamra) and Hittite sources appear to corroborate the theory of a genetic relationship between the two myths.
In Greek mythology, a drakaina is a female serpent or dragon, sometimes with human-like features. Examples of the Drakaina included Campe, Delphyne, Echidna and Sybaris. The drakaina was a monster generally slain only by gods or demigods. Zeus slew Delphyne and Campe, Apollo slew Python, and Argus Panoptes slew Echidna.
However, although the word “drakaina” is literally the feminine form of drakon (Ancient Greek for dragon or serpent), most drakainas had some features of a human woman. Lamia, Campe, Echidna, and many representations of Ceto, Scylla and Delphyne had the head and torso of a woman.
Though usually this monster is the serpent Python, the earth-dragon of Delphi, always represented in Greek sculpture and vase-paintings as a serpent, in the oldest account of this story, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the god kills Drakiana, a female serpent or dragon, sometimes with human-like features, subsequently called Delphyne, who had been Typhon’s foster-mother.
In Greek mythology, Echidna (“She-Viper”) was a monster, half-woman and half-snake, who lived alone in a cave. She was the mate of the most fearsome monster Typhon, and known primarily for being the mother of monsters, including other dragon-like creatures, and many of the more famous monsters in Greek myth were said to be her offspring.
Echidna’s family tree, varies by author. The oldest genealogy relating to Echidna, Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 8th – 7th century BC), is unclear at several points. According to Hesiod, Echidna was born to a “she” who was probably meant by Hesiod to be the sea goddess Ceto, making Echidna’s father (presumably) the sea god Phorcys, although the “she” might possibly refer instead to the naiad Callirhoe, which would make Chrysaor Echidna’s father. Pherecydes of Leros (5th century BC) has Echidna as the daughter of Phorkys, without naming a mother.
Other authors give Echidna other parents. According to Epimenides (as attributed by Pausanias), Echidna was the daughter of the Oceanid Styx (goddess of the river Styx) and one Peiras (otherwise unknown to Pausanias), while according to Apollodorus, Echidna was the daughter of Tartarus and Gaia. In one account, from the Orphic tradition, Echidna was the daughter of Phanes.
According to Hesiod, Echidna gave birth to Cerberus, Orthrus, the Chimera, the Nemean lion, the Sphinx and the Hydra (Other ancient authors, such as Hyginus, attribute even more monsters as children of Echidna such as the Caucasian eagle, the Crommyonian Sow, the Colchian dragon, the Harpies, Scylla, and Charybdis).
Although for Hesiod, Echidna was immortal and ageless, according to Apollodorus, Echidna continued to prey on the unfortunate “passers-by”, until she was finally killed, while she slept, by Argus Panoptes, the hundred-eyed giant who served Hera.
From the fifth century BC historian Herodotus, we learn of a creature who, though Herodotus does not name as Echidna, is called an echidna (“she-viper”) and resembles the Hesiodic Echidna in several respects. She was half woman half snake, lived in a cave, and was known as a mother figure, in this case, as the progentitor of the Scythians (rather than of monsters).
A possibly related creature to the Hesiodic Echidna is the “Viper” (Echidna) cast into an abyss in the apocryphal Acts of Philip, an unorthodox episodic apocryphal mid-to late fourth-century narrative, originally in fifteen separate acta, that gives an accounting of the miraculous acts performed by the Apostle Philip, with overtones of the heroic romance.
Called a “she dragon” (drakaina) and “the mother of the seprents”, this Echidna ruled over many other monstrous dragons and snakes, and lived in a gated temple, where she was worshipped by the people of that land. She, along with her temple and priests, was swallowed up by a hole in the ground that opened beneath her, as the result of Philip’s curse.
Echidna was perhaps associated with the monster killed by Apollo at Delphi. Though usually this monster is the serpent Python, in the oldest account of this story, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the god kills a nameless she-serpent (drakiana), subsequently called Delphyne, who had been Typhon’s foster-mother.
Echidna and Delphyne, the name of the female dragon who was appointed by her mother, Gaia, to guard the oracle of Delphi, share several similarities. Both were half-maid and half-snake, and a plague to men. And both were intimately connected to Typhon, and associated with the Corycian cave. Python, slain by Apollo, and the earliest representations of Delphyne, are shown as simply gigantic serpents, similar to other Greek dragons.
Delphyne is sometimes called Python and may, in the stories, be replaced with or accompanied by a male dragon (either Python or Typhon). She is sometimes equated with Echidna, who was the consort of Typhon.
In one tale, Delphyne (here half maiden, half snake, like Echidna) guards the sinews of Zeus, which had been stolen by her mate Typhon. She was slain by Apollo. Apollo’s title Delphinius is, in some stories, interpreted as having come from his slaying of Delphyne (or from showing the Cretan colonists the way to Delphi whilst riding on a dolphin).
In Greek mythology, Python (derived from the verb pythō, “to rot”) was the earth-dragon of Delphi, always represented in Greek sculpture and vase-paintings as a serpent. He presided at the Delphic oracle, which existed in the cult center for his mother, Gaia (“Earth”). Hellenes considered the site to be the center of the earth, represented by a stone, the omphalos or navel, which Python guarded.
The Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo recalled that the ancient name of this site had been Krisa, Pytho being the place name that was substituted for the earlier Krisa. Others relate that it was named Pytho and that Pythia, the priestess serving as the oracle, was chosen from their ranks by a group of priestesses who officiated at the temple.
The priestess of the oracle at Delphi became known as the Pythia, after the place-name Pytho, which Greeks explained as named after the rotting of the slain serpent’s corpse in the strength of Hyperion (day) or Helios (the sun).
Python became the chthonic enemy of the later Olympian deity Apollo, who slew him and remade Python’s former home and the oracle, the most famous in Classical Greece, as his own. Changes such as these in ancient myths may reflect a profound change in the religious concepts of Hellenic culture. Some were gradual over time and others occurred abruptly following invasion.
There are various versions of Python’s birth and death at the hands of Apollo. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, now thought to have been composed in 522 BCE during Classical times, a small detail is provided regarding Apollo’s combat with the serpent, in some sections identified as the deadly Drakaina, or her parent.
The version related by Hyginus holds that when Zeus lay with the goddess Leto, and she was to deliver Artemis and Apollo, Hera was jealous and sent Python to pursue Leto throughout the lands, so that she could not deliver wherever the sun shone.
Thus when Apollo was grown he wanted to avenge his mother’s plight and pursued Python, making his way straight for Mount Parnassus where the serpent dwelled, and chased it to the oracle of Gaia at Delphi; there he dared to penetrate the sacred precinct and kill it with his arrows beside the rock cleft where the priestess sat on her tripod.
Robert Graves, who habitually read into primitive myths a retelling of archaic political and social turmoil, saw in this the capturing by Hellenes of a pre-Hellenic shrine. “To placate local opinion at Delphi,” he wrote in The Greek Myths, “regular funeral games were instituted in honour of the dead hero Python, and her priestess was retained in office.”
The politics are conjectural, but the myth reports that Zeus ordered Apollo to purify himself for the sacrilege and instituted the Pythian Games, over which Apollo was to preside, as penance for his act.
Erwin Rohde wrote that the Python was an earth spirit, who was conquered by Apollo, and buried under the Omphalos, and that it is a case of one god setting up his temple on the grave of another.
Karl Kerenyi points out that the older tales mentioned two dragons, who were perhaps intentionally conflated; the other was a female dragon (drakaina) named Delphyne in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, with whom dwelt a male serpent named Typhon: “The narrators seem to have confused the dragon of Delphi, Python, with Typhon or Typhoeus, the adversary of Zeus”.
The enemy dragoness “… actually became an Apollonian serpent, and Pythia, the priestess who gave oracles at Delphi, was named after him. Many pictures show the serpent Python living in amity with Apollo and guarding the Omphalos, the sacred navel-stone and mid-point of the earth, which stood in Apollo’s temple”.
This myth has been described as an allegory for the dispersal of the fogs and clouds of vapor which arise from ponds and marshes (Python) by the rays of the sun (the arrows of Apollo).
Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis. “Python” is claimed by some to be the original name of the site in recognition of Python which Apollo defeated. Hellenes considered the site to be the center of the earth, represented by a stone, the omphalos or navel, which Python guarded.
In myths dating to the classical period of Ancient Greece (510-323 BC), the site of Delphi was believed to be determined by Zeus when he sought to find the centre of his “Grandmother Earth” (Ge, Gaea, or Gaia). He sent two eagles flying from the eastern and western extremities, and the path of the eagles crossed over Delphi where the omphalos, or navel of Gaia was found.
Earlier myths include traditions that Pythia, or the Delphic oracle, already was the site of an important oracle in the pre-classical Greek world (as early as 1400 BC) and, rededicated from about 800 BCE, when it served as the major site during classical times for the worship of the god Apollo.
Apollo was said to have slain Python, “a dragon” who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth. Apollo’s sacred precinct in Delphi was a panhellenic sanctuary, where every four years, starting in 586 BC athletes from all over the Greek world competed in the Pythian Games, one of the four panhellenic (or stephanitic) games, precursors of the Modern Olympics.
The victors at Delphi were presented with a laurel crown (stephanos) which was ceremonially cut from a tree by a boy who re-enacted the slaying of the Python. Delphi was set apart from the other games sites because it hosted the mousikos agon, musical competitions.
These Pythian Games rank second among the four stephanitic games chronologically and based on importance. These games, though, were different from the games at Olympia in that they were not of such vast importance to the city of Delphi as the games at Olympia were to the area surrounding Olympia.
Delphi would have been a renowned city whether or not it hosted these games; it had other attractions that led to it being labeled the “omphalos” (navel) of the earth, in other words, the center of the world.
In the inner hestia (“hearth”) of the Temple of Apollo, an eternal flame burned. After the battle of Plataea, the Greek cities extinguished their fires and brought new fire from the hearth of Greece, at Delphi; in the foundation stories of several Greek colonies, the founding colonists were first dedicated at Delphi.
In the early Vedic religion, Vritra (Vṛtra “the enveloper”), is an Asura and also a serpent or dragon, the personification of drought and adversary of Indra. Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi (“snake”). He appears as a dragon blocking the course of the rivers and is heroically slain by Indra.
According to the Rig Veda, Vritra kept the waters of the world captive until he was killed by Indra, who destroyed all the 99 fortresses of Vritra (although the fortresses are sometimes attributed to Sambara) before liberating the imprisoned rivers.
The combat began soon after Indra was born, and he had drunk a large volume of Soma at Tvashtri’s house to empower him before facing Vritra. Tvashtri fashioned the thunderbolt (Vajrayudha) for Indra, and Vishnu, when asked to do so by Indra, made space for the battle by taking the three great strides for which Vishnu became famous. Vritra broke Indra’s two jaws during the battle, but was then thrown down by Indra and, in falling, crushed the fortresses that had already been shattered.
For this feat, Indra became known as Vritrahan “slayer of Vritra” and also as “slayer of the first-born of dragons”. Vritra’s mother, Danu (who was also the mother of the Danava race of Asuras), was then attacked and defeated by Indra with his thunderbolt.
In one of the versions of the story, three Devas – Varuna, Soma and Agni, the god of fire, were coaxed by Indra into aiding him in the fight against Vritra whereas before they had been on the side of Vritra (who they called “Father”).
In one verse of a Rig-Vedic hymn eulogising Sarasvati, she is portrayed as the one who slayed Vritra. Mention of this occurs nowhere else. Hymn 18 of Mandala IV provides the most elaborate account of the Vedic version. The verses describe the events and circumstances leading up to the battle between Indra and Vritra, the battle itself, and the outcome of the battle.
In Hittite mythology, Illuyanka was a serpentine dragon slain by Tarhunt (IM), the Hittite incarnation of the Hurrian god of sky and storm. It is known from Hittite cuneiform tablets found at Çorum-Boğazköy, the former Hittite capital Hattusa. The context is a ritual of the Hattian spring festival of Puruli. The myth is found in Catalogue des Textes Hittites 321, which gives two consecutive versions.
In the first version, the two gods fight and Illuyanka wins. Teshub then goes to the Hattian goddess Inaras for advice. Having promised her love to a mortal named Hupasiyas in return for his help, she devises a trap for the dragon. She goes to him with large quantities of food and drink, and entices him to drink his fill. Once drunk, the dragon is bound by Hupasiyas with a rope. Then the Sky God Teshub appears with the other gods and kills the dragon.
In the second version, after the two gods fight and Teshub loses, Illuyanka takes Teshub’s eyes and heart. To avenge himself upon the dragon, the Sky God Teshub marries the goddess Hebat, daughter of a mortal, named Arm. They have a son, Sarruma, who grows up and marries the daughter of the dragon Illuyanka.
The Sky God Teshub tells his son to ask for the return of Teshub’s eyes and heart as a wedding gift, and he does so. His eyes and heart restored, Teshub goes to face the dragon Illuyanka once more.
At the point of vanquishing the dragon, Sarruma finds out about the battle and realizes that he had been used for this purpose. He demands that his father take his life along with Illuyanka’s, and so Teshub kills them both with thundery rain and lightning.
This version is illustrated on a relief which was discovered at Malatya (dating from 1050-850 BC) and is on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey.
The Hittite texts were introduced in 1930 by W. Porzig, who first made the comparison of Teshub’s battle with Illuyankas with the sky-god Zeus’ battle with serpent-like Typhon, told in Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke (I.6.3); the Hittite-Greek parallels found few adherents at the time, the Hittite myth of the castration of the god of heaven by Kumarbi, with its clearer parallels to Greek myth, not having yet been deciphered and edited.
The Latin word draco, as in the constellation, Draco, comes directly from Greek drákōn, gazer. The word for dragon in Germanic mythology and its descendants is worm (Old English: wyrm, Old High German: wurm, Old Norse: ormr), meaning snake or serpent. In Old English, wyrm means “serpent”, and draca means “dragon”.
Illuyanka is probably a compound, consisting of two words for “snake”, the illuy- part is cognate to the word illa, and the -anka part is cognate to angu, a word for “snake”. Proto-Indo-European *h₁illu- and *h₂eng(w)eh₂-. The same compound members, inverted, appear in Latin anguilla “eel”. The *h₁illu- word is cognate to English eel, the anka- word to Sanskrit ahi. Also this dragon is known as Illujanka and Illuyankas.
Since the words for “snake” (and similarly shaped animals) are often subject to taboo in many Indo-European (and non-Indo-European) languages, no unambiguous Proto-Indo-European form of the word for eel can be reconstructed. It may have been *ēl(l)-u-, *ēl(l)-o-, or something similar.
Finnish lohikäärme directly translated means “salmon-snake”, but the word lohi- was originally louhi- meaning crags or rocks, a “mountain snake”. The prefix lohi- in lohikäärme is also thought to derive from the ancient Norse word lógi, meaning “fire”, as in Finnish mythology there are also references to “tulikäärme” meaning fire-snake, or fire-serpent.
An eel is any fish belonging to the order Anguilliformes, which consists of four suborders, 20 families, 111 genera and about 800 species. Most eels are predators. The term “eel” (originally referring to the European eel) is also used for some other similarly shaped fish, such as electric eels and spiny eels, but these are not members of the Anguilliformes order.
The Anguillidae are a family of fishes that contains the freshwater eels. The 19 species and six subspecies in this family are all in genus Anguilla. They are catadromous, meaning they spend their lives in freshwater rivers, lakes, or estuaries, and return to the ocean to spawn.
The English name “eel” descends from Old English ǽl, Common Germanic *ǣlaz. Also from the common Germanic are German Aal, Middle Dutch ael, Old High German âl, and Old Norse áll.
Katz (1998) identifies a number of Indo-European cognates, among them the second part of the Latin word for eels, anguilla, attested in its simplex form illa (in a glossary only), and the Greek word for “eel”, egkhelys (the second part of which is attested in Hesychius as elyes).
The first compound member, anguis (“snake”), is cognate to other Indo-European words for “snake” (compare Old Irish escung “eel”, Old High German unc “snake”, Lithuanian angìs, Greek ophis, okhis, Vedic Sanskrit áhi, Avestan aži, Armenian auj, iž, Old Church Slavonic *ǫžь, all from Proto-Indo-European *oguhis, ēguhis).
The word also appears in the Old English word for “hedgehog,” which is igil (meaning “snake eater”), and perhaps in the egi- of Old High German egidehsa “wall lizard”. According to this theory, the name Bellerophon, attested in a variant in Eustathius of Thessalonica, is also related, translating to “the slayer of the serpent” (ahihán).
On this theory, the word is an adjective form of an older word meaning “snake”, which is directly comparable to Hittite ellu-essar- “snake pit”. This myth likely came to Greece via Anatolia.
The daylight passage in the spring of elvers upstream along the Thames was at one time called “eel fare”. The word ‘elver’ is thought to be a corruption of “eel fare.”
As noted by Herodotus, Typhon was traditionally identified with the Egyptian Set (also spelled Setesh, Sutekh, Setekh, or Suty), a god of the desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners in ancient Egyptian religion, who was also known to the Greeks as Typhon.
In Egyptian mythology, Set is portrayed as the usurper who killed and mutilated his own brother Osiris. Osiris’ wife Isis reassembled Osiris’ corpse and resurrected him long enough to conceive his son and heir Horus. Horus sought revenge upon Set, and the myths describe their conflicts. The death of Osiris and the battle between Horus and Set is a popular theme in Egyptian mythology.
As early as pre-dynastic Egypt, Set’s mascot or emblem was the Set animal; the Greeks and later classicists referred to this unidentified aardvark-like creature as the Typhonic beast. In the Orphic tradition, just as Set is responsible for the murder of Osiris, Typhon leads the Titans when they attack and kill Dionysus, who also became identified with the earlier Osiris.
Set is not, however, a god to be ignored or avoided; he has a positive role where he is employed by Ra on his solar boat to repel the serpent of Chaos Apep. Set had a vital role as a reconciled combatant. He was lord of the red (desert) land where he was the balance to Horus’ role as lord of the black (soil) land.
Apep or Apophis was the ancient Egyptian deity who embodied chaos (ı͗zft in Egyptian) and was thus the opponent of light and Ma’at (order/truth). Ra was the solar deity, bringer of light, and thus the upholder of Ma’at. Apep was viewed as the greatest enemy of Ra, and thus was given the title Enemy of Ra, and also “the Lord of Chaos”.
He appears in art as a giant serpent. His name is reconstructed by Egyptologists as *ʻAʼpāpī, as it was written pp(y) and survived in later Coptic as Aphōph. Apep was first mentioned in the Eighth Dynasty.
As the personification of all that was evil, Apep was seen as a giant snake or serpent leading to such titles as Serpent from the Nile and Evil Lizard. Already on a Naqada I (ca. 4000 BC) C-ware bowl (now in Cairo) a snake was painted on the inside rim combined with other desert and aquatic animals as a possible enemy of a deity, possibly a solar deity, who is invisibly hunting in a big rowing vessel.
Also, comparable hostile snakes as enemies of the sun god existed under other names (in the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts) already before the name Apep occurred. The etymology of his name (pp) is perhaps to be sought in some west-semitic language where a word root pp meaning ‘to slither’ existed. A verb root pp does at any rate not exist elsewhere in Ancient Egyptian. (It is not to be confused with the verb pı͗/pp: ‘to fly across the sky, to travel’).
Apep’s name much later came to be falsely connected etymologically in Egyptian with a different root meaning (he who was) spat out; the Romans referred to Apep by this translation of his name.
Apophis was a large golden snake known to be miles long. He was so large that he attempted to swallow the sun every day. Some elaborations said that he stretched 16 yards in length and had a head made of flint.
Tales of Apep’s battles against Ra were elaborated during the New Kingdom. Since everyone can see that the sun is not attacked by a giant snake during the day, every day, storytellers said that Apep must lie just below the horizon. This appropriately made him a part of the underworld. In some stories Apep waited for Ra in a western mountain called Bakhu, where the sun set, and in others Apep lurked just before dawn, in the Tenth region of the Night.
The wide range of Apep’s possible location gained him the title World Encircler. It was thought that his terrifying roar would cause the underworld to rumble. Myths sometimes say that Apep was trapped there, because he had been the previous chief god overthrown by Ra, or because he was evil and had been imprisoned.
The Coffin Texts imply that Apep used a magical gaze to overwhelm Ra and his entourage. Ra was assisted by a number of defenders who travelled with him, including Set and possibly the Eye of Ra. Apep’s movements were thought to cause earthquakes, and his battles with Set may have been meant to explain the origin of thunderstorms. In some accounts, Ra himself defeats Apep in the form of a cat.
Ra was worshipped, and Apep worshipped against. Ra’s victory each night was thought to be ensured by the prayers of the Egyptian priests and worshippers at temples. The Egyptians practiced a number of rituals and superstitions that were thought to ward off Apep, and aid Ra to continue his journey across the sky.
In an annual rite, called the Banishing of Chaos, priests would build an effigy of Apep that was thought to contain all of the evil and darkness in Egypt, and burn it to protect everyone from Apep’s evil for another year, in a similar manner to modern rituals such as Zozobra.
The Egyptian priests had a detailed guide to fighting Apep, referred to as The Books of Overthrowing Apep (or the Book of Apophis, in Greek). The chapters described a gradual process of dismemberment and disposal.
In addition to stories about Ra’s winnings, this guide had instructions for making wax models, or small drawings, of the serpent, which would be spat on, mutilated and burnt, whilst reciting spells that would kill Apep. Fearing that even the image of Apep could give power to the demon any rendering would always include another deity to subdue the monster.
As Apep was thought to live in the underworld, he was sometimes thought of as an Eater of Souls. Thus the dead also needed protection, so they were sometimes buried with spells that could destroy Apep. The Book of the Dead does not frequently describe occasions when Ra defeated the chaos snake explicitly called Apep. Only BD Spells 7 and 39 can be explained as such.
Sea serpents feature prominently in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, attested as early as the 3rd millennium BCE in Sumerian iconography depicting the myth of the god Ninurta overcoming the seven-headed serpent. Its body was hung on the “shining cross-beam” of Ninurta’s chariot.
Anzû, before misread as Zû (Sumerian: AN.ZUD, AN.IM.DUGUD.MUŠEN; cuneiform: An.Zud.Mušen, also known as Imdugud), is a lesser divinity or monster in several Mesopotamian religions. He was conceived by the pure waters of the Apsu and the wide Earth, or as son of Siris, the patron of beer who is conceived of as a demon, which is not necessarily evil. Anzû was seen as a massive bird who can breathe fire and water, although Anzû is alternately seen as a lion-headed eagle (like a reverse griffin).
Stephanie Dalley, in “Myths from Mesopotamia,” writes that “The Epic of Anzu’ is principally known in two versions: an Old Babylonian version of the early second millennium [BC], giving the hero as Ningursu; and “The Standard Babylonian” version, dating to the first millennium BC, which appears to be the most quoted version, with the hero as Ninurta. However, the Anzu character does appear more briefly in some other writings, as noted below.
It was relatively common for ancient near-eastern mythology to include a cosmic battle between a creator god and chaos god of the sea, usually in the form of a dragon or sea serpent. In this type of myth, the battle represented the creation of order out of chaos, as represented by the sea serpent. Often, the battle between deity and dragon pre-dated creation, as in the Babylonian myth of the god Marduk’s battle with the serpent goddess Tiamat. When she was defeated, Marduk used the body of Tiamat to create the heavens and the earth.
The mušḫuššu (formerly also read as sirrušu, sirrush) is a creature depicted on the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of the city of Babylon, dating to the 6th century BC. As depicted, it is a mythological hybrid: a scaly dragon with hind legs resembling the talons of an eagle, feline forelegs, a long neck and tail, a horned head, a snake-like tongue, and a crest.
The form mušḫuššu is the Akkadian nominative of the Sumerian MUŠ.ḪUS, lit. “reddish snake” sometimes also translated as “fierce snake”. One author, possibly following others, translates it as “splendor serpent” (MUŠ is the Sumerian term for “serpent”. The reading sir-ruššu is due to a mistransliteration in early Assyriology).
The mušḫuššu is the sacred animal of Marduk and his son Nabu during the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It was taken over by Marduk from Tishpak, the local god of Eshnunna.
The constellation Hydra was known in Babylonian astronomical texts as MUL.dMUŠ, “the serpent (with divine and star determinatives)”. It was depicted as a snake drawn out long with the forepaws of a lion, no hind-legs, with wings, and with a head comparable to the mušḫuššu dragon. This monstrous serpent may have inspired the Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology and ultimately the modern Hydra constellation.
Bel and the Dragon, a deuterocanonical Biblical text, relates a story that Koldewey thought involved a mušḫuššu/sirrush. In a temple dedicated to Bel (Nebuchadnezzar’s god), priests had a “great dragon or serpent, which they of Babylon worshipped.”
Daniel, the protagonist of the Book of Daniel, was confronted with this creature by the priests in the apocryphal text. (see Additions to Daniel) They challenged him to match his invisible God against their living god. Eventually, Daniel poisoned the creature.
In the Baʿal cycle of the Canaanite religion, Ba’al conquers Yam (meaning “sea”) in order to be enthroned as the leader of the Canaanite pantheon. Of all the gods, despite being the champion of El, Yam holds special hostility against Baal Hadad, son of Dagon.
Yam is a deity of the sea and his palace is in the abyss associated with the depths, or Biblical tehwom (Tiamat), of the oceans. This is not to be confused with the abode of Mot, the ruler of the netherworlds.)
In Ugaritic texts, Yam’s special enemy Hadad is also known as the “king of heaven” and the “first born son” of El, whom ancient Greeks identified with their god Cronus, just as Baal was identified with Zeus, Yam with Poseidon and Mot with Hades.
Yam wished to become the Lord god in his place. In turns the two beings kill each other, yet Hadad is resurrected and Yam also returns. Some authors have suggested that these tales reflect the experience of seasonal cycles in the Levant.
Yam is the deity of the primordial chaos and represents the power of the sea, untamed and raging; he is seen as ruling storms and the disasters they wreak. The gods cast out Yam from the heavenly mountain Sappan (modern Jebel Aqra; Sappan is cognate to Tsephon).
The seven-headed dragon Lotan is associated closely with him and he is often described as the serpent. He is the Canaanite equivalent of the Sumerian Tiamat, the primordial mother goddess.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell also makes parallels to the slaying of Leviathan (“twisted, coiled”), a sea monster referenced in the Tanakh, or the Old Testament, by YHWH, about which YHWH boasts to Job. The word has become synonymous with any large sea monster or creature.
Later Jewish sources describe Leviathan as a dragon who lives over the Sources of the Deep and who, along with the male land-monster Behemoth, will be served up to the righteous at the end of time.
When the Jewish midrash (explanations of the Tanakh) were being composed, it was held that God originally produced a male and a female leviathan, but lest in multiplying the species should destroy the world, he slew the female, reserving her flesh for the banquet that will be given to the righteous on the advent of the Messiah (B. B. 74b).
The Leviathan of the Middle Ages was used as an image of Satan, endangering both God’s creatures—by attempting to eat them—and God’s creation—by threatening it with upheaval in the waters of Chaos.
St. Thomas Aquinas described Leviathan as the demon of envy, first in punishing the corresponding sinners (Secunda Secundae Question 36). Peter Binsfeld likewise classified Leviathan as the demon of envy, as one of the seven Princes of Hell corresponding to the seven deadly sins.
Leviathan became associated with, and may originally have referred to, the visual motif of the Hellmouth, a monstrous animal into whose mouth the damned disappear at the Last Judgement, found in Anglo-Saxon art from about 800, and later all over Europe.
As early as 1894, scholars began to note the similarity of these earlier stories and the references to the sea serpent Leviathan’s battle with Yahweh found in the Tanakh. Isaiah 27:1 uses similar phrases to describe Leviathan (although in this case the name “Leviathan” may refer to an unnamed historical/political enemy of Israel rather than the original serpent-monster).
However, in Psalm 104, Leviathan is not described as harmful in any way, but simply as a creature of the ocean, part of God’s creation. It is possible that the authors of the Job 41:2–26, on the other hand, based the Leviathan on descriptions of Egyptian animal mythology where the crocodile is the enemy of the solar deity Horus (and is subdued either by Horus or by the Pharaoh).
This is in contrast to typical descriptions of the sea monster trope in terms of mythological combat. It is likely that authors of these later books had attempted to naturalize Leviathan as part of a process transforming understanding of it from a serpent god of chaos, to a demon, and finally to a non-supernatural animal.
In literature (e.g., Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick) it refers to great whales, and in Modern Hebrew, it simply means “whale”. It is described extensively in Job 41 and mentioned in Job 3:8, Amos 9:2, Psalm 74:13-24, Psalm 104:26 and Isaiah 27:1.
In the Ugaritic texts, the dragon Lotan or Lawtan, or possibly another of Yam’s helpers, is given the epithets “wriggling serpent” and “mighty one with the seven heads”. He is the seven-headed sea serpent or dragon of Ugaritic myths. He is either a pet of the god Yamm or an aspect of Yamm himself; the cosmic ocean of myth is often known as a great stream.
In the Hebrew/Caananite analogue Lotan is also known as Yam (Sea) and the Leviathan. He represents the mass destruction of floods, oceans, and winter. He lives in a palace in the sea. He fights with Baal Hadad, who scatters him.
The beast (Greek: Thērion) refers to two beasts described in the Book of Revelation. The first beast comes from “out of the sea” and is given authority and power by the dragon. This first beast is initially mentioned in Revelation 11:7 as coming out of the abyss. His appearance is described in detail in Revelation 13:1-10, and some of the mystery behind his appearance is revealed in Revelation 17:7-18.
The second beast comes from “out of the earth” and directs all peoples of the earth to worship the first beast. The second beast is described in Revelation 13:11-18 and is also referred to as the false prophet.
The two beasts are aligned with the dragon in opposition to God. They persecute the “saints” and those who do “not worship the image of the beast [of the sea]” and influence the kings of the earth to gather for the battle of Armageddon. The two beasts are defeated by Christ and are thrown into the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation 19:18-20.
Saint George and the Dragon
The episode Saint George and the Dragon appended to the hagiography of Saint George was Eastern in origin, brought back with the Crusaders and retold with the courtly appurtenances belonging to the genre of Romance.
The earliest known depictions of the motif are from tenth- or eleventh-century Cappadocia and eleventh-century Georgia; previously, in the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy, George had been depicted as a soldier since at least the seventh century. The earliest known surviving narrative of the dragon episode is an eleventh-century Georgian text.
The dragon motif was first combined with the already standardised Passio Georgii in Vincent of Beauvais’ encyclopedic Speculum Historiale, and then Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (ca 1260) guaranteed its popularity in the later Middle Ages as a literary and pictorial subject. The legend gradually became part of the Christian traditions relating to Saint George and was used in many festivals thereafter.