Dragons: Mythical Beasts

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Dragons: Mythic Creatures
Dragon model: A 17-foot-long dragon with a wingspan of over 19 feet guards the entrance to the exhibition.
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Rain-bringing dragons in Asian tales can shrink so small that they fit in a teacup--or grow so large that they fill the sky. Dragons in Europe can slaughter people with their putrid breath, or spit fire and set cities ablaze. The earliest dragon legends date back thousands of years, and the creature still haunts our imagination today.

Fun Facts: Dragons

  • Dragons that lurk in European stories are powerful, wicked, and dangerous. Some nest in caves, guard stockpiles of treasure, and devour sheep or even young girls. The dragon has been reviled in the Christian world as the image of evil. In many stories, a dragon dies by the sword of a brave and honorable hero, ending a furious battle between sin and virtue, darkness and light.
  • Dragons--part of the legends of East Asian cultures for more than 4,000 years--have sweeping powers, including breathing clouds, moving the seasons, and controlling the waters of rivers, lakes, and seas. They are linked with yang--the masculine principle of heat, light, and action--and opposed to yin--the feminine principle of coolness, darkness, and repose.
  • European naturalists once considered the dragon a close relative of the snake. In a text from 1640, Ulissis Aldrovandi, a professor of natural science at the University of Bologna, discusses their habits. "Winged dragons flying through Africa," he writes, "beat enormous animals such as bulls to death with their tails."
  • In Chinese art, the dragon is sometimes paired with the phoenix. Together, they are often equated with the harmony of marriage, and the union of the complementary cosmic elements yin and yang.
  • Chinese scholars classified the dragon as one of the 369 animal species with scales. Long before the development of paleontology, people unearthed fossilized bones in Asia and Europe--and believed they had found the remains of dragons from an earlier age.
  • In traditional Chinese medicine, "dragon bones" are prescribed as a treatment for numerous ailments, from madness to diarrhea and dysentery. Most of the lumps and powders sold in Chinese pharmacies as dragon bone come from fossil remains of extinct mammals, unearthed from China's renowned fossil beds.
  • With their enormous size, reptilian shape, and threatening teeth and claws, some dragons might easily be taken for cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex. Living dinosaurs did not inspire the dragon idea--they died out long before people were around to observe them--but the fossil remains of extinct animals have sometimes been taken for dragon bones, and helped perpetuate old dragon stories.
  • A woolly rhinoceros skull was once kept in the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria. It was said to be the remains of a dragon slain before the city was founded around 1250 B.C.E.