Dragons of the Ancient World

by R.W. and C.D.

All ancient cultures have different variations of myths or stories about their gods and monsters. One monster that appears frequently in these legends--albeit in many different shapes and sizes--is the dragon. In many of these legends, the dragon is the enemy of a god or gods. The dragon is defeated and killed by the hero or dragon-slayer in the majority of these tales. In the ancient West, there were different civilizations, each with their own religions, legends, and dragons, but the common thread of an evil dragon being killed by the hero is the uniting theme of them all.

The map above shows the regions from which the myths of dragons came

Egyptian dragon myths

Redrawn by C. Delph

As in many other ancient cultures, dragons were symbols of evil to the Egyptians. The most obvious portrayal of the evil nature of dragons is the legends detailing the constant battle between the serpent dragon, Apep (also called Apophis) and the sun god and creator, Ra. According to Egyptian mythology, Apep was an enormous serpent who lives in the waters of the Nile River. Each day, as Ra travels along the Nile with an escort of other gods, Apep attempts "to obstruct the passage of the solar barge." (Ions, 1968. p. 42) Being a creature of the water, Apep holds a great animosity towards the sun, and so tries "to engulf the frail boat of the sun in darkness. Occasionally (at the time of a solar eclipse) Apep does gain a brief ascendancy by swallowing the solar barge."(Ions, 1968. p. 42) However, Apep is normally defeated and killed by Set (also called Seth or Sutekh), a warlike god who is a part of the escort that travels with Ra in the solar barge. Notwithstanding the danger Apep poses to Ra during the day, he is a greater threat to the sun god during the night. Every night Ra must travel through the realm of darkness and visit each of its twelve provinces where "...the underworld was peopled by monstrous serpents and demons, who threatened the existence of the sun god."(Ions, 1968. p. 42) Ra's purpose for traveling through the underworld was to bring light for a short period of time to the poor dead souls who resided there. Along the journey, Apep attempts to stop the progress of the solar barge. Set defeats him and binds him with chains, but Apep taunts his captor until the enraged Set kills the serpent dragon by cutting off his head with a knife. Each day, however, Apep rises anew to challenge Ra's passage along the Nile.

The role of Apep in this legend helps to explain why Egyptians hated and feared dragons. Apep is depicted as a horrible monster who is trying to take away the sun, which is a fate the Egyptians were justifiably afraid of; without the sun, they would not be able to grow the crops they needed to survive, and they would be forced to live forever in the dangerous darkness of night forever.

Babylonian dragon myths

In the beginning, according to the creation epic of the Babylonian civilization, there was neither land, gods, nor men, there were only two elements call Apsu and Tiamat. Apsu was male, the spirit of fresh water and the void in which the world existed; Tiamat was female, the spirit of salt water and of primeval chaos. She is depicted as a monstrous being with a scaly serpentine body, legs, and horns on her head. Apsu and Tiamat's union produced a large and oddly-assorted brood, among them the first gods of the primordial universe. The new gods soon grew disrespectful of their parents, and Apsu complained bitterly. Tiamat refused to harm her children, so Apsu was forced to turn to another. He plotted with his Vizier Mummu to be rid of his children, but Ea (or Enki) "who knows everything" discovered about their plans. He placed a spell over the two plotters, then killed his father and held Vizier Mummu captive.

After Apsu's murder, Tiamat turned against her first brood, determined to avenge her husband. She spawned another brood to support her; an army of monsters that included giant snakes with bodies filled with poison instead of blood, dragons made godlike so that whoever looked upon them would "collapse in utter terror"(Kramer, 1956, p.72), horned serpents, mushussu dragons, lahmur heroes, ugallu-demons, rabid dogs, scorpion-men, fish-men, and centaurs. She also had eleven more children, one of which was Qingu, whom she made greatest among the others. She gave him leadership of the army, the Tablet of Destinies, and also the Anu-power.

Ea again found out about her scheming and told his father, Anshar, who brought the matter to the rest of the gods. They send Nudimmud, but he turned back afraid. Marduk armed himself with lightning, bow and arrow, a mace, and a fishing-net, and set out in a storm-chariot, escorted by the four winds. Marduk came face to face with Tiamat, and after taunts and threats were exchanged, their epic battle began. After a great struggle, Tiamat was slain, and her helpers were gathered into Marduk's net and bound. According to Kramer (1956), Tablet IV of The Epic of Creation described Marduk's treatment of Tiamat's corpse.

He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it). He sliced her in half like a fish for drying: half of her he put up to roof the sky, Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it. Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape. (p.53)
Hogarth and Clery (1979) expanded on this myth, saying:
The conflict between Marduk and Tiamat is paralleled throughout history in legends of other lands. The dragon, while often attributed other names and other qualities, usually symbolizes evil or primeval chaos, which might explain a frequent association also with the sea and with storms--such unpredictable and violent forces of nature stir human dread even today. Similarly, the monstrous size attributed to Tiamat, -indeed to most dragons, seems to confirm that human psychology has altered little through the centuries we all tend to exaggerate what we find mysterious and -threatening, yet seem to feel the need to visualize what we dread in some familiar form or another. (p. 17)

One of the unusual things about the Epic of Creation is that the outcome [Marduk's success] is "a foregone conclusion... [everything happens] in an orderly fashion" (Dalley, 1991, p. 228), according to preordained rules.

Most of the forms in which Tiamat was originally depicted can be related to ordinary animals feared by local people. The scales of reptiles, the fangs of venomous snakes, horns, legs of the lizards of the region, and claws and wings of a bat or bird of prey added together to form a very dangerous, mobile creature.

There do exist other examples of dragon myths in Babylonian culture besides the most obvious example of the conflict between Tiamat and Marduk. Grimal (1964) told of a dragon that became involved in a feud with the god of storms. The dragon was successful in the first fight, defeating the storm god and taking the god's eyes and heart as prize. Understandably, the storm god was a little bit miffed. He consulted an oracle, who told him how to beat the dragon. Following the oracle's advice, the god had a son with a mortal. When the boy grew up, he fell in love with a beautiful girl who just happened to be the daughter of the dragon. As a wedding present, the boy asked for the eyes and heart of the storm god, as his father had advised him--not knowing that his father was the storm god. With the return of these parts the god was able to kill the dragon. Overcome with guilt for his part in his father-in-law's death, the storm god's son committed suicide, another example of the tragedy that results from association with dragons.

Sumerian dragon myths

According to Samuel Kramer (1972), there are several current translated versions of Sumerian dragons and dragon-slayer myths. They involve primarily the dragon, Kur, committing some great wrong against the gods and either a god or goddess appearing to vanquish it. The myths listed below have been translated by Kramer, though gaps and missing segments still remain. Of these distinct Sumerian versions of the dragon-slaying myths, two of them are almost entirely unknown and have been reconstructed and deciphered by Kramer.

One Sumerian myth translated by Kramer was similar to the Babylonian Creation Epic, entitled "The Feats and Exploits of Ninurta." It has been reconstructed in large part from at least 79 tablets and fragments, though the text is still badly broken at numerous crucial points. The hero of the tale is Ninurta, the warrior-god, son of Ehlil, the air-god. After a hymnal introduction, the story begins with an address to Ninurta by Sharur, his personified weapon. For some reason not stated in the text available, Sharur has set its mind against the dragon, Kur. In its speech, Sharur urged Ninurta to attack and destroy Kur. Ninurta set out to do as bidden, but at first he seemed to have met more than his match, and "flees like a bird" (p.81) Sharur addressed him again, and Ninurta returned to battle. He attacked Kur fiercely with all the weapons at his command, and Kur was completely destroyed. With the destruction of Kur, however, a calamity over takes the land. The primeval waters which Kur had held in check rise to the surface and as a result, no fresh water can reach the fields' gardens. The gods of the land who had charge of irrigating the land and preparing for cultivation became desperate. Ninurta set up a great heap of stones over the dead Kur and heaped it up like a great wall in front of the land. These stones held back the "mighty waters" and as a result the waters of the lower regions no longer rose to the surface of the earth. As for the waters which had already flooded the land, Ninurta gathered them and led them into the Tigris, which watered the fields with the overflow. Ninurta was one of the most successful of Sumerian heros--in the hymn of Gudea, he is attributed with the subjugation of not only a dragon, but a six- headed wild sheep and a seven-headed lion. (Ringgren, 1973) The other version of the myth is a poem consisting of 190 lines of text which has been entitled "Inanna and Ebih." The dragon-slayer of this version is the goddess Inanna, the counter- point of the Semetic god Ishtar. She was conceived not only as the goddess of love, but also as the goddess of battle and strife. In this myth, Kur is also called "mountain Ebih," a district northeast of Sumer. This Kur represents an inimical land, and is not to be identified with the cosmic Kur of the Ninurta version.

The poem begins with a long hymnal passage extolling the virtues of Inanna, followed by a long address by Inanna to An, the heaven-deity. Inanna's demand was clear; unless Kur, which seems quite unaware of, or at least oblivious to her might and power, became duly submissive and ready to glorify her virtues she will do violence to the monster. An answered her with an account of the mischief Kur had wrought against the gods. An continued with a description of the power and wealth of Kur, and warned Inanna against attacking it. Inanna was not taken aback by An's discouraging speech. Full of anger and wrath she opened the "house of battle" and brought out her weapons and aids. She attacked and destroyed Kur, and stationing herself upon the corpse, she glorified herself.

In all cultures, humans use their imaginations to devise ways of explaining the things and events they do not understand. In ancient attempts to explain the creation of man, the world, and solar eclipses, dragons have been seen as almost the ultimate evil; and as such, their physical aspects were commonly portrayed as a combination of body parts of animals feared by those ancient cultures. Some animals commonly featured in these combinations were snakes, birds of prey such as hawks or eagles, and lions. It was these fear-inspiring meins of the ancient dragons, combined with the evil deeds attributed to them, that led ancient cultures to fear and hate dragons.


This webpage was written by R.W. and C.D, 3/20/98, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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