Made popular nowadays thanks to Game of Thrones, How to Train Your Dragon, and The Hobbit, dragons are one of the mythological creatures that have stood the test of time. So, it’s no surprise that plenty of people want to get inked with a creature as ferocious and powerful as this.
But aside from the sheer size, strength, and power a dragon holds, is there any other meaning to a dragon tattoo? Here’s an overview of dragon mythology and what dragons mean for different cultures.
Dragons: An Overview
Fortunately for us humans, dragons aren’t a real animal like owls or butterflies people would normally get for a tattoo. Dragons have been a staple in ancient folklore and legends throughout the world.
There are two general types of dragons based on folklore. On one hand, you have the western cultures’ four-legged, winged, horned and fire-breathing dragons. On the other hand, eastern cultures depict dragons as four-legged, wingless, intelligent, serpent-like creatures.
It’s likely that the myth of dragons came from giant crocodiles that are now extinct. Dragons are serpentine creatures, resembling giant snakes with added attachments. And though they are associated with ancient myths and legends about deities and demigods, the idea of dragons persist in fantasy literature and ancient culture practices still being observed today.
Origins of Dragons
No one knows which culture came up with dragons, as almost all cultures around the world have their own mythology surrounding them. Every culture has its own name for a dragon, possibly because aside from crocodiles, dragons were based off Komodo dragons, iguanas, alligators and other reptiles.
The term “dragon” most likely entered the English language in the early 13th century after the Old French “dragon,” which comes from the Latin word “draconem,” which meant a huge serpent. This may derive from the Green verb “ἔδρακον (édrakon),” which means “I see.” This refers to something with a deadly glance, being uncommonly bright and having sharp eyes.
The earliest dragons resembled snakes, so it’s possible that dragons were formed from man’s primal fear of snakes, cats, and birds of prey (hence the reason dragons have characteristics from all three). The earliest dragons were said to live in the bottom of the sea, dank caves, and haunted forests, but at the time these were dangerous areas for early humans.
Dragons in Ancient Egyptian Mythology
The Egyptian deity Apep or Apophis embodies chaosand is said to be a giant serpentine creature living in the underworld. Apophis was said to be the height of eight men and was the cause of thunderstorms, earthquakes, and solar eclipses.
Another dragon in Egyptian mythology is Nehebkau, a serpent that guards the underworld. He is said to be so huge that the Earth rests on his coils. A third serpent named Denwen nearly destroyed all the Egyptian gods but was ultimately defeated by the Pharaoh of the time, giving the Pharaoh and all their heirs the divine right to rule.
Egyptian mythology is where the ouroboros symbol came. This is a symbol of a dragon eating its own tail in a circle. The earliest depiction of this can be found on the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Dragons in Asian Culture
Given the different Asian cultures, the portrayal and significance of dragons can be split between South Asian depictions, West Asian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.
Dragons were often depicted as monsters that terrorized people, thus required gods and brave mento slay them. After slaying a dragon, the heroes were showered with glory and rewards like gold, treasure, and women.
In modern-day Bhutan, the country has a Druk or “Thunder Dragon” as one of its national symbols. In fact, the word “Bhutan” translates to “Land of Druk” or “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” The Druk symbol represents a dragon holding jewels as a way to represent wealth.
In the Chinese animal hierarchy, dragons were at the top of the rankings. It’s unknown when dragons entered Chinese folklore, but by the Bronze Age there were already early depictions of dragons found in pottery and ritual vessels. Stories of people becoming dragon tamers are a part of Chinese folklore, and high respect was given to those who could raise and tame dragons.
Dragons are also associated with deities who blessed certain individuals. It was believed that a dragon called Ying Long (Responding Dragon) helped the Yellow Emperor Huangdi to defeat the reigning tyrant at the time, while Zhulong (Torch Dragon) created the universe in his body. Heroes in Chinese folklore was also said to have been born after their mothers conceived children with dragons.
Chinese Dragons and Water
Dragons are associated with rain and water in Chinese culture. In the Houhanshu, there’s a story which tells of a woman named Shayi who gave birth to ten sons after being touched by a tree trunk floating in the water while she was fishing. The tree trunk turned into a dragon and asked Shayi if he can see his sons. All the sons fled at the sight of him except for the youngest, which he named Jiu Long. Jiu Long went on to become king and their descendants became the Ailaoyi people. They practiced a culture of tattooing dragons on their backs in honor of their ancestor, the dragon.
The Han Chinese also have a story of a dragon called Short-Tailed Old Li. Legend has it, a poor woman gave birth to a black dragon and fainted at the sight of him. When her husband came home and saw Li, he hit him with a spade and cut a part of his tail. Li flew in fear to the Black Dragon River (known today as the Heilong Jiang, one of the world’s longest rivers), where he became the god of that river. Every year on his mother’s death, Old Li returns to his home to make it rain.
Old Chinese superstition believed that dragons were the cause of rain and drought. If areas suffered a drought, it was said that a dragon was lazy and people needed to offer prayers to convince the dragon to bring rain.
Chinese Dragons Today
Dragons are still a huge part in Chinese culture. In many holidays, Chinese people hold a dragon dance where multiple skilled dancers maneuver a large paper and wood dragon. This was originally meant for good fortune, good weather, and profitable harvest.
Japanese dragons are also associated with water and rain. They are depicted to be wingless, serpentine creatures with three claws. Dragons are depicted as wild spiritual creaturesthat were either slain or had to be tamed. Someone who could tame a dragon were considered noble heroes, brave, or spiritual enough to conquer such a large creature.
Korean dragons are often depicted with long beards and an orb known as the Yeouiju. It was said that whoever wielded the Yeouiju had the powers of omnipotence and creation at will, and only four-toed dragons with opposable thumbs were capable of holding these orbs.
Korean dragons are much more benevolent than their Chinese counterparts. Dragons are also associated with water, and it’s believed that large bodies of water are home to dragons. Korean monarchs were also believed to have been descended from dragons, so dragon patterns were exclusively used by the royal family.
Dragons in European Folklore
Although stories involving serpentine creatures date back as early as its western counterparts, the winged and fire-breathing depiction of a dragon dates back as early as 1260 AD. It had two sets of wings, a long tail and the ability to spew fire from its mouths. Like eastern cultures, western dragons were also associated with water.
Dragons were much eviler in European culture and were depicted as greedy and gluttonous, hoarding food and wealth, leaving very little for people. Those depicted to slay dragons were hailed as brave heroes who helped their fellow people.
It’s believed that gargoyles are a product of dragon mythology. In France, a dragon known as La Gargouille was the cause of floods in the river Seine, so the people in the town of Rouen offered a human sacrifice every year to appease it. In 600 AD, a priest named Romanus slayed the dragon and mounted its head on the walls of the city, creating the trend of gargoyles carved into buildings.
Modern Meaning of Dragon Tattoo
Today, most people know that dragons are a part of mythical legend, but many of the stories, practices and cultures associated with it are still alive.
Dragons are a popular figure in fantasy literature. A few of these include Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” and George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” (a source of the red three-headed dragon tattoo, in reference to House Targaryen in that fantasy world).
Dragons are ferocious creatures that are difficult or impossible to tame and can only be slayed, tamed, or defeated by special heroes and heroines. However, some literary works depict dragons as benevolent creatures: although intimidating,they serve as a friend or mentor to the hero of the story.
What Does a Dragon Tattoo Mean?
With various meanings and symbolisms of dragons all around the world, a dragon tattoo can have various meanings. If you like water or feel most powerful in water (e.g. swimmers, fishers, lifeguards, or someone who just enjoys a rainy day), a dragon tattoo can be a more unique way of representing your water sign.
You may get a dragon tattoo to symbolize power. Dragon mythology around the world attests to how huge and powerful a dragon can be. Are you powerful enough to cause chaos and destruction to your enemies, or will you use your power and abilities to be a helpful dragon to your friends and family?
Dragon tattoos are also a reference to the heroes of the folklore. These are the people brave enough to tame a dragon or slay one despite the odds against them. A dragon can represent a bad part of yourself that you, the hero of your own story, have finally overcome. A dragon tattoo can remind you that you have your own dragons to slay, and you’ve won.
Is It Bad Luck to Get a Dragon Tattoo?
If you’re looking to get a dragon tattoo, take note that Chinese superstition may have a say in how your dragon tattoo is made. Whether you’re having a small minimalistic dragon tattoo that will take an hour to make or a complex design covering your whole sleeve or back that will take multiple tattooing sessions, Chinese culture strongly recommends doing the dragon’s eyes last.
In Chinese culture, the eyes are the window to the soul. If your tattoo artist starts with the eyes, the soul of your dragon will enter the tattoo and feel the pain of the rest of the tattooing session as it is trapped into your tattoo too early. And a pained and injured dragon will not be able to protect or bless you as well as it can.
So however your dragon tattoo turns out, always insist on doing the dragon’s eyes last.
Are you interested in getting a dragon tattoo? Let us know in the comments what kind of dragon tattoo you’re getting and what it means to you!