European Dragons

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

"Fire leaped from the dragon's jaws. He circled for a while high in the air above them lighting all the lake; the trees by the shores shone like copper and like blood with leaping shadows of dense black at their feet. Then down he swooped.... A sweep of his tail and the roof of the Great House crumbled and smashed down. Flames unquenchable sprang high into the night. Another swoop and another, and another house and then another sprang afire and fell; and still no arrow hindered Smaug or hurt him more than a fly from the marshes."
--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937

Grim Destroyer

The dragons that lurk in European stories are powerful, wicked and dangerous. In Christian tradition, they can symbolize Satan or sin. Some nest in caves and guard marvelous treasure. When hungry, they may snatch and devour sheep or cattle that wander too near. They may also eat humans--particularly young girls. Epic poems from the Middle Ages tell of warriors and knights who battle cruel and voracious dragons. In some stories, the hero slays his foe and wins fortune and honor. In others, he fails and is killed.

Dragon illustrations from 1678 book by German naturalist Athanasius Kircher
© D. Finnin/American Museum of Natural History Library

Dragon Country

In 1678, German naturalist Athanasius Kircher described the habits of dragons in his sweeping work on geology, Mundus Subterraneus, or "Underground World." One illustration shows the legendary dragons of Mount Pilatus, Switzerland, which were said to cause terrible storms. Another portrays a local hero: Around AD 1250, the Swiss knight Heinrich von Winkelried allegedly killed a belligerent dragon, but died after touching its poisonous blood.


Basilisk from Aldrovandi, rare book collection
© D. Finnin/American Museum of Natural History Library

Serpent King

In European stories, a dragonlike creature known as a basilisk was sometimes described as an enormous snake or lizard with a crown-shaped crest. Some authors called it the king of serpents and claimed it could kill a man with a single glance.

A Familiar Face

The dragon has remained a potent symbol of treachery well into the industrial age. This political cartoon shows Allied troops fighting the German army in the form of a dragon near the beginning of the First World War.

Trotsky slaying the dragon of counterrevolution. Cartoon probably by Damblans in Le Petit Journal 20 September, 1914.
© Mary Evans Picture Library

At a Glance: European Dragon

In European tales, dragons often live deep inside caves, or in marshes near places where farm animals graze. Some sleep during the day, and go on the rampage after night falls.

  • may have wings.
  • kills people with its fiery, poisonous breath.
  • can strangle large animals with its tail.
  • creeps on four legs, two legs or none.

So They Say

The dragon began to belch out flames
and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow
that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger
would leave nothing alive in his wake."
--Beowulf, AD 700-1000

Encyclopedia of Snakes

Winged dragon illustrations from Aldrovandi and Gesner, rare book collection
American Museum of Natural History Library RF-1-J

European naturalists once considered the dragon a close relative of the snake. In a text from 1640, Ulisse 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."

Letters of Saint Paul, Coptic, Ethiopia, date unknown
© AMNH Anthropology

Religious Text

The legendary dragon slayer Saint George is a popular symbol of the Christian faith. He has long been venerated in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has roots reaching back more than 1,700 years.

During the Middle Ages, dragons became popular figures in heraldry, appearing on banners, seals and other emblems of authority and military might. Dragon-killing saints adorn coins from Christian kingdoms but can be found in the Islamic world as well. In Turkey and Syria, the dragon slayer Christians know as Saint George is sometimes revered as Al Khidr, a Muslim patron of spring and fertility.