Dragons in Ancient Literature
In literature, dragons are certainly a virtually universal ancient motif. Dragons are found in the early literature of the English, Irish, Danish, Norse, Scandinavians, Germans, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians. Among the American Indians, legends of dragons flourished among the Crees, Algonquins, Onondagas, Ojibways, Hurons, Chinooks, Shoshones, and Alaskan Eskimos.
One of the most famous Danish dragon tales is from "Sigurd of the Volsungs" and concerns "The Slaying of Fafnir." Sigurd, the hero of the epic, is afraid of Fafnir the dragon because his tracks seem great. This surely would have been true of the large dinosaurs, whether the footprints themselves, or the sound of their approach were being considered. Sigurd hides in a pit, and when the dragon crawls to the water, he strikes up into its heart. Again, if a man were to slay a large dinosaur, this would be an intelligent way to do it, for one would be out of the way of the creature's powerful tail and sharp, meat-rending teeth. Probably the head, neck and heart were the only truly vulnerable areas on the huge body. Most dinosaurs were basically water creatures. Therefore, everything in this scene is totally realistic, and makes good dinosaur-hunting strategy.
Sigurd is afraid he will drown in the dragon's blood, which may be another indication as to the size of the creature. If the dragon had fallen over the mouth of the pit, Sigurd's drowning in its blood would have been a distinct possibility.
As the dragon approaches, it blows poison before it. The dragon talks to Sigurd. In the talking we undoubtedly have some embellishment, but this is not surprising in an early folk tale that was passed down for uncounted generations. Sigurd's friend, Regin, cuts out the dragon's heart, and asks Sigurd to roast it and serve it to him. When Regin touches the dragon's blood to his to his tongue, he understands the speech of birds. Here again we probably have an embellishment, perhaps associating dragons in a symbolic way with wisdom, a frequent association in early literature.
Both the dragon in this early Danish epic and the dragon in the Old English epic, Beowulf, guard a treasure. We can only speculate as to the origin of this idea. It's possible that a dinosaur did in fact make off with some loot, or it's possible that the abode of dinosaurs was so unapproachable that ancient peoples imagined their dens to be loaded with treasures. Did the two dragons come from the same early legend? We do not know.
The unnamed dragon in Beowulf also vomits flames. It is fifty feet long, as measured after its death. As with Fafnir, "earth dwellers much dread him." He is a night creature, associated with evil, and described as "smooth" and "hateful."
Dragons in Legend and Folklore
Greek heroes who are supposed to have slain dragons are Hercules, Apollo, and Perseus. Indeed, the World Book Encyclopedia (1973) says "every country had them in its mythology." In Norse mythology, a Great Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, which was thought to support the whole universe, had three immense roots. One extended into the region of death. Niflheim and the dragon Nidhogg perpetually gnawed at the root of the tree. This precarious situation, which seems to place the whole universe at Nidhogg's mercy, perhaps shows the conscious or subconscious deeply rooted fear of the proto-norse for dinosaurs, those terrible lizards. If the fearsome creatures were threatening the ancestors of the Norse peoples, one can easily see how such a myth could have developed.
The Egyptians wrote of the dragon Apophis, enemy of the sun god Re. The Babylonians recorded their belief in the monster Tiamat. The Norse people wrote of Lindwurm, guardian of the treasure of Rheingold, who was killed by the hero Siegfried. The Chinese wrote of dragons in their ancient book, I Ching, associating the creatures with power, fertility, and well being. They also used dragons in early art, ancient pottery, folk pageantry and dances as a motif. The Aztecs' plumed serpent may have represented a hybrid in their thought between a dragon and another creature. The pottery of ancient Nazca culture of Peru shows a cannibal monster much like a dragon.
In British Columbia, Lake Sashwap is believed to be home to the dragon Ta Zam-a, and Lake Cowichan to Tshingquaw. In Ontario, Lake Meminisha is the reputed home of a fish-like serpent feared by the Cree Indians. Angoub is the legendary Huron dragon, Hiachuckaluck the dragon believed in by the Chinooks of British Columbia.
Dragons are so widely accepted a part of Irish folklore that Robert Lloyd Praeger, naturalist, says they are "an accepted part of Irish zoology." Dr. P.W. Joyce, historian, in his book on Irish place-names, says, "legends of aquatic monsters are very ancient among the Irish people" and shows that many Irish place names resulted from a belief in these dragons.