49: Ancient Dragons

Episode 49: Ancient Dragons

Greetings warriors. I am Lucas Livingston, your Dungeon Master on our intrepid journey though the mythical realm known as the Ancient Art Podcast. In recent episodes, we’ve encountered fierce beasts and fantastical monsters, notably that celebrated, timeless creature of legend known as the dragon. Here in episode 49 of the Ancient Art Podcast, we’re going to dig deeper, exploring the ancient legends and origins of dragons, separating fact from fiction and good from evil. Dragons permeate our cultural heritage in many forms and fashions: as ferocious fire-breathing, flesh-eating monsters, noble emblems of honor, and peace-loving creatures of earth, air, and water. But what are the ancient sources for our modern legends? From the salty depths of the Mediterranean, across the sun-scorched deserts of Central Asia, to the misty mountains of China and Japan, where do dragon myths first begin to take root? Can ancient authors help us find the way? Do mysterious remnants of bleached bones hold the key to the dragon’s secrets? Stick around and we may yet find out. So pack your bags, buy your spell components, and polish your long sword, because we’re going dragon hunting!

Last time in episode 48, we learned all about that famous work of late Classical Greek sculpture known as the Apollo Sauroktonos by Praxiteles. Sauroktonos is usually translated as “lizard-slayer.” “Ktonos” comes from κτείνω meaning “to kill” and σαύρα simply means a lizard. But we also threw around the word “dragon” a few times. As we learned, the sculpture alludes to the mythological battle between Apollo and Python over the sanctuary and oracle of Delphi. In Ancient Greek, that titanic serpent Python is called Πυθών, which is just a name and that’s where we get the word “python” from, not the other way around. Now, as you undoubtedly saw while you were closely scrutinizing the footnotes to episode 48, a word we sometimes see to describe Python is δράκαιναν or δράκων, where we can clearly see the origin for our word “dragon.” [1] Artwork from the Middle Ages and beyond generally display a preference for representing Python as a stereotypical winged dragon, but (to play devil’s advocate) representations from ancient Greece usually show Python as being more serpentine than draconian.

Another ancient dragon upon whose lair we recently stumbled is the one depicted on the Ara Pacis in episode 46. Not a lot has been published about this strange and wonderful creature. The woman perched upon the creature has been variously interpreted as a goddess of the sea winds, a Nereid, an aspect of Venus, and other beings. [2] Her and her compatriot’s choice of billowing attire reminds me, appropriately enough, of the Serpentine Dance, an 1896 knock-off of Loïe Fuller’s famous Fire Dance, which was all the rage in the Parisian Moulin Rouge scene.

The creature upon which this mystery woman is seated is usually called a sea creature or sea monster pretty much just as an after-thought. A 1994 articled in the American Journal of Archaeology argues that the creature should be identified as a κῆτος or cetus [ˈsē-təs], which is, well, a “sea monster,” but the author describes it as a sea dragon emerging from the waves of the ocean’s depths. Nereids are said to ride upon a cetus and, if you’re watching your Downton Abbey, then you know that the Greek hero Perseus rescued Andromeda from a cetus sent by Poseidon to devour her after Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, boasted that she was prettier than the Nereids. You might know the cetus better as the kraken, which is actually a creature of Nordic myth and Clash of the Titans certainly took some liberties with this. According to the 1940 publication The Fish-tailed Monster in Greek and Etruscan Art, the characteristic features of the cetus are a canine head, large erect ears, sharp teeth, and a scaly serpentine body. It doesn’t mention wings, as we see on our Augustan-age sea dragon, but wings don’t necessarily have to be a prerequisite to qualify for dragon-hood. That said, however, full-bodied depictions of the cetus from antiquity often show wings or little wing-like membranes, like in this Roman mosaic in the Vatican and this Greek vessel from the Louvre; similarly on this South Italian loutrophoros at the Getty. [3]

Frequently, though, we scarcely see more than the mere head of the cetus and other draconian beasts. Here’s an nifty 6th century BC black-figure Corinthian amphora now in the Berlin Altes Museum. [4] It shows Perseus lobbing stones at the cetus while Andromeda stands behind. Draped over Perseus’s arm is the bag where he has stashed Medusa’s head. [5] One thing that’s interesting is how the head of the dragon seems to be emerging from some Neverland beyond the scene. Perhaps we’re expected to assume it’s emerging from the deep sea, like in other examples. There does seem to be a ripple of water under the beast’s head.

In the Boston Museum of Fine Arts there’s a 6th century BC Corinthian column-krater, which shows a similar fanged beast of whom we see nothing more than the head with its lolling tongue. This is the Dragon of Troy or the Trojan cetus. Similar to the Perseus story, Poseidon sent this cetus to rampage the Trojan coast after King Laomedon failed to pay back Poseidon for helping to build the walls of Troy. To appease the dragon, Laomedon chained his own daughter Hesione to a rock as a sacrifice. Hercules just happened to be passing by after having wrapped up the ninth of his twelve labors. Seeing a damsel in distress, he slew the dragon and rescued Hesione. [6] Does that story sound familiar to you? The hero arriving in the knick of time to save the fair maiden, who was presented as a sacrifice to the dragon? Saint George and the dragon comes to mind. Same story of Hercules and Hesione that was later re-spun for a Christian audience.

Hercules was no stranger to fighting dragons. In his second labor, he was sent to a swamp near Lake Lerna to defeat the Lernaean Hydra, a terrible beast with seven heads (although some say it had 50, 100, even 1000 heads). To make matters more difficult, when one head of this serpentine dragon was cut off another would grow in its place. Hercules was generally not proven to be the sharpest tool in the shed, but his resourceful side-kick Iolaus suggested that they take a flaming brand and cauterize the wounds after chopping off each head so that new heads couldn’t grow back from the stumps. [7] And to come up shortly after his encounter with the Dragon of Troy, Hercules would be sent on his eleventh labor to obtain the golden apples of the Hesperides guarded by the never-sleeping, hundred-headed dragon Ladon [Λάδων]. [8]

Going back to Dragon of Troy on the Boston krater, we see Hercules shooting a volley of arrows as Hesione throws stones at a monstrous head jutting from a dark rocky outcropping. Like the Berlin amphora, this beast is nothing but a head. More so, our imagination can’t even fill in the rest of the creature, since the disembodied head seems to be isolated, lodged into a cliff face. What’s also curious about this image of the Trojan dragon is that its devoid of the fleshy scaliness of other sea-dragons. What does that bleach-white head with its vacant eye socket look like to you? What’s that … a skull, you say? In the 2000 publication, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, Adrienne Mayor convincingly suggested that this is an ancient Greek vase painter’s attempt at rendering a fossilized skull projecting from a rocky outcropping. [9] With its forward-pointing teeth, the author suggests that it could have been inspired by a reptile or toothed whale skull, or perhaps most convincingly the skull of a extinct giant giraffe like the Samotherium, which once roamed the hills of prehistoric Greece and whose fossils were most likely readily visible to any observant ancient Greek naturalist.

The First Fossil Hunters also suggests that fossilized remains of the dinosaur Protoceratops could have inspired legends of the griffin among central Asian merchants traversing the inhospitable Gobi desert. The griffin is fairly well known to us today thanks to the antics of that wizard of Hogwarts, Harry Potter (ok, ok, Mr. Smarty Pants, technically that was a hippogriff). The Protoceratops has a large bird-like beak, long tail, four agile limbs, and … well, if you’re bound and determined to see claws, then you’re going to see claws. All that was needed was the imagination of some sun-scorched travelers to slap wings on this half-lion, half-eagle creation to conjure the griffin into modern consciousness. Most of us probably consider the griffin to be a beast of Greek mythology, but it actually originated in Central Asian, and later made its way to ancient Greece. [10]

The First Fossil Hunters is an interesting read and painstakingly assembles all sorts of ancient Greek and Roman accounts of excavating and interpreting fossilized bones. The evidence stacks up fairly well to suggest that the fossilized remains of Earth’s gargantuan prehistoric animals inspired the many mythological creatures of early cultures, including the dragon in its many forms.

The Ancient Greek World is not alone in its draconian heritage. On his visit to India, the first century Greek philosopher Apollonius described how the whole of India is infested with dragons of enormous size, from the marshes to the mountains, up to 30 cubits in length, with sizable crests on their backs and glittering gold or silver scales. When the dragons of the plains attack elephants, he explained, both creatures perish and the prized dragon carcass goes to the fortunate hunter who passes upon the spoil. The mountain dragon can take down an elephant, but the human hunter will subdue the beast through magical runes inscribed upon a cloak lain before the creatures lair. [11]

What’s puzzling about Apollonius’s account is that there’s isn’t much from Indian mythology that would suggest dragons. There are plenty of Indian myths and legends about giant serpentine deities, like the Nagas ruling over the seas and pools, Ananta, the cosmic serpent of creation upon whom the god Vishnu reclines, and Muchalinda, the serpent king who sheltered the meditating Buddha during a torrential storm with his massive multi-headed hood. The original account by Apollonius is lost, but his tales are preserved in The Life of Apollonius by the second century Greek writer Flavius Philostratus. Philostratus uses the Greek word δράκων, but this may be a prime example where this term could be taken to mean a giant serpent instead of a dragon, although culturally the distinction between giant mythological serpents and dragons is pretty blurry.

To return to the definitive ancient dragon, we need to continue our travels eastward to China and Japan. Throughout much of China’s history, it was not uncommon for merchant caravans traveling the Silk Road or farmers plowing their fields to stumble upon and unearth bone fragments of ancient animals. These relics were dubbed dragon bones and readily sold off to apothecaries where they’d be ground up and consumed for their medicinal value. Dragon bones inscribed with oracular predictions by ancient peoples are especially prized today … both in museums and still in pharmacies. Returning to The First Fossil Hunters, Ancient Chinese people happening upon the fossilized remains of extinct prehistoric species might help to explain certain features of traditional Chinese dragons, like antlers resembling those of prehistoric deer, who once roamed northern China and Mongolia. [12]

Fantastical winged creatures and snarling beasts permeate the artistic heritage of China. A long time ago in episode 8 about cicadas, we already looked at the monster mask commonly gracing ancient bronze vessels as early as the 2nd millennium BC and earlier jade carvings of the 3rd millennium. Winged creatures similar to dragons and griffins often blend into the decorative repertoire of early Chinese art. The distinctive features of the dragon gradually crystalized and soon became a favorite subject of Chinese artists. These meticulously crafted jade dragon pendants of the 5th to 3rd centuries BC gracefully capture the benevolent, ethereal nature of the mythical Chinese dragon as a creature of air and water. The Daoist celestial immortals are said to soar through the sky on the backs of dragons as in this pair of Han Dynasty clay figures in the Art Institute. I’m struck by the similarity to images of Greek Nereids riding their own dragons. What’s really interesting is if you go halfway in between Greece and China along the heavily traveled trade routes of the Gandharan region of ancient Pakistan, at around the same time, circa 1st century BC or AD, you get the same thing, a Nereid riding her sea dragon.

Unlike dragons of western folklore, the Chinese dragon is a nice example of a good dragon. To take a page from the Midwest Buddhist Temple podcast [13] Ok, maybe not as cuddly as Falcor, but hey, we’ll take what we can get. But like Falcor, the East Asian dragon is also a luck dragon. And with its association with water and rain, the dragon becomes a symbol of fertility and fecundity. That makes this a very special time, because 2012 is the year of the dragon. Associated with power and strength, the dragon is the symbol of the emperor of China, and the phoenix the symbol of the empress. Remember the Art Institute’s Ming dynasty blue and white vase from episode 8? Here we see a sinuous five-clawed imperial dragon swirling among wispy clouds with phoenix birds flitting about. It’s a harmonious combination of the feminine empress united with the masculine emperor. Like the the yin and the yang, two complimentary opposites brought together to form a balanced and unified whole.

To close, dragons, of course, continue to be widely celebrated today in both popular culture and fine art. Combining the time-honored traditions of the folding screen, painting, and calligraphy with modern abstraction, the 20th century Japanese artist Morita Shiryu enjoyed expressing his enthusiasm for the ancient creature. This screen in the Art Institute of Chicago called Dragon Knows Dragon literally spells out the title of the piece with the broad strokes of a gargantuan brush in highly stylized calligraphy. The artist used aluminum metallic paint covered by a yellow varnish to give the characters the appearance of shimmering golden dragon scales. The expressive forms of the words seem to animate like the coils of serpentine dragons, the figure to the right poised for the pounce, while the figure at left sails high among clouds with its long tail flitting behind.

I hope you enjoyed our exploration of the origins and appearances of dragons in ancient art. Don’t forget to head on over to ancientartpodcast.org for all sorts of goodies, like detailed credits for all the images, a big bibliography, and transcripts with footnotes. The whole social media thing may not be to your liking. So, to paraphrase one of my favorite podcasts, The World: Technology podcast, there are many ways you can ignore me on social media. You can not friend me at facebook.com/ancientartpodcast and disregard me on Twitter @lucaslivingston. You may patently refuse to leave your comments on YouTube, iTunes, and Vimeo. But for the old school crowd, you can still get in touch with me via email at info@ancientartpodcast.org or send me your feedback on the web at feedback.ancientartpodcast.org. As always, thanks for tuning in and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2012 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


[1] Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo
[2] For a summary of references, see page 67 in Babette Stanley Spaeth, “The Goddess Ceres in the Ara Pacis Augustae and the Carthage Relief,” American Journal of Archaeology 98:1 (Jan. 1994), pp. 65-100.
[3] For a ridiculously large collection of ketos/sea-dragon images, check out the Flickr group Ketos (or Jonah & the seamonster).
[4] Found in Cerveteri, Italy according to Carpenter fig. 159 and p106.
[5] Carpenter mentions that the item on Perseus’s arm is the kibisis, κίβισις, “a pouch, wallet.” For more on the kibisis, see The Myth of Perseus and Medusa. The inscriptions tell us who the players are, but they may look a little funky to you even if you read Greek. It’s an archaic form of Greek substituting different characters.
[6] See Apollodorus, Library, Book II, Chapter 5, Section 9:
“But it chanced that the city was then in distress consequently on the wrath of Apollo and Poseidon. For desiring to put the wantonness of Laomedon to the proof, Apollo and Poseidon assumed the likeness of men and undertook to fortify Pergamum for wages. But when they had fortified it, he would not pay them their wages. Therefore Apollo sent a pestilence, and Poseidon a sea monster [κῆτος], which, carried up by a flood, snatched away the people of the plain. But as oracles foretold deliverance from these calamities if Laomedon would expose his daughter Hesione to be devoured by the sea monster, he exposed her by fastening her to the rocks near the sea. Seeing her exposed, Hercules promised to save her on condition of receiving from Laomedon the mares which Zeus had given in compensation for the rape of Ganymede. On Laomedon’s saying that he would give them, Hercules killed the monster and saved Hesione. But when Laomedon would not give the stipulated reward, Hercules put to sea after threatening to make war on Troy.” (Tran. Sir James George Frazer)  Link to original Greek
[7] See Apollodorus, Library, Book II, Chapter 5, Section 2:
“As a second labour he ordered him to kill the Lernaean hydra. That creature, bred in the swamp of Lerna, used to go forth into the plain and ravage both the cattle and the country. Now the hydra had a huge body, with nine heads, eight mortal, but the middle one immortal. So mounting a chariot driven by Iolaus, he came to Lerna, and having halted his horses, he discovered the hydra on a hill beside the springs of the Amymone, where was its den. By pelting it with fiery shafts he forced it to come out, and in the act of doing so he seized and held it fast. But the hydra wound itself about one of his feet and clung to him. Nor could he effect anything by smashing its heads with his club, for as fast as one head was smashed there grew up two. A huge crab also came to the help of the hydra by biting his foot. So he killed it, and in his turn called for help on Iolaus who, by setting fire to a piece of the neighboring wood and burning the roots of the heads with the brands, prevented them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, he chopped off the immortal head, and buried it, and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus.”
[8 Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.19.8: “Heracles and the apple-tree of the Hesperides, with the snake (δράκων) coiled round the apple-tree.”
Hesiod uses ὄφις (serpent) in Theogony line 334.
[9] Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 157 ff.
[10] Mayor, p. 22-23
[11] Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius, Translated by F.C. Conybeare, §6-10.Link to Life of Apollonius in original Greek.
[12] Mayor, p. 39, note 19.
[13] Dharmatalk: Midwest Buddhist Temple Podcast, 2012.01.08 – Rev Miyamura


guitarguy1985, buzzer.wav (ID: 54047), The Freesound Project <freesound.org>.
Anvil of Crom, Soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian (1982).
Limhal, The Never Ending Story (1984).

See the Photo Gallery for image credits.

2 Replies to “49: Ancient Dragons”

  1. Wonderful fun! Thanks again and again. I’ve followed you since the first podcast and continue to enjoy and learn. I also really appreciate your website giving the transcripts, photos, footnotes and links.
    I’ve voted on iTunes (5 stars of course) and shared with my friends.
    So, to repeat myself, thanks so much for you work and your humour.

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