Last week in Episode 4 we talked about the creatures of Chinese mythology, the focus was on the multitude of creatures that weren’t dragons. By looking at the wide variety of different beasts, we could use them to inspire better characters and enemies, or find one that fits inside of our games. This time I wanted to be very specific, let’s look at one type of creature, and see that by doing some research there is actually a ton of options of back story, abilities, and variations that you can bring to your games. The dragon… kind of limiting right?
The most common image that comes to mind when you think of Chinese Mythology is the dragon. It has influenced many cultures to a point where it is almost considered history instead of mythology. In movies such as Dragonheart, Eragon, and Reign of Fire, in TV shows such as H.R. Pufnstuf and Game of Thrones, dragons have become common place. Of course games have also had their share of dragons; from Spyro the Dragon, the Dragon Age series, Panzer Dragoon, Dragon Up and even Dragon’s Lair. Of course we can’t forget the Fantasy role playing games, starting with Dungeons & Dragons and more recently World of Warcraft which feature dragons.
If there is one thing that we can learn from this wide array of movies, games, and myths, it is that there is a lot of variation in the stories of dragons, and what those dragons are… if you are really interested in seeing how someone has used that variety effectively, just watch DreamWorks How to Train Your Dragon.
Last week we talked about Chinese mythology. Their most famous creatures are dragons. The Chinese dragons go by the name Long, and they have five types of dragons. The imperial dragons that guard treasures, celestial dragons that guard the gods, spirit dragons that are responsible for wind, rain and flooding, and the earth dragons who keep the waters clean and make the oceans deeper. Although we have heard the stories and myths of dragons in Chinese and English literature and media, you probably had no idea just how widespread they go. It kind of makes you wonder, why would all of these cultures all have such a similar creature…. hmmmm?
As you dig into the history of the dragon myths, you can certainly see that snakes, serpents, and lizards have had a major influence in the creation of these stories. Perhaps as the stories are told of encounters with the real life creatures, you can imagine how they might change as those stories are retold, and the mythology begins… or maybe they are just distant relatives? Let’s take a trip around the world and look at just how embedded this Dragon mythology really is.
There is a lot of dragon myths that vary tribe to tribe, most are based on large snakes and serpents. Some of them have two legs, and many ate elephants. Let’s look at a couple of the stories.
Aido Wedo - The most known African Dragon is Aido-Hwedo in West Africa. Aido-Hwedo was a companion to the god Nanu-Buluku, together they created the world. Nanu-Buluku would ride in the dragons mouth and travel between heaven and earth. Aido-Hwedo was coloured like a rainbow, and would arch across the sky. His droppings created mountains and soil, and as he thrashed he formed rivers and valleys. Knowing that the dragon didn’t like the heat, Nanu-Buluku created the ocean for him to live in. It is said when Aido-Hwedo gets hungry he will start to eat his own tail which will throw the earth out of balance, causing earthquakes and landslides… hmmm, maybe he’s hungry?
Another myth tells of a dragon repeatedly attacking villages. The natives thought if they sacrificed a girl of their tribe to the dragon that he would stop terrorizing them. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, until one day, one of the girls was going to be sacrificed, and her lover stood up to the dragon and slayed him.
Bolla - In the Albanian mythology, Bolla is a type of demonic dragon-like creature with a long, coiled, serpentine body, four legs and small wings. Bolla has a unique hibernation, he sleeps 364 days of the year, and wakes up looking for humans. Once it finds a human, it eats the unlucky person and goes back to sleep for another year. After 12 years Bolla grew larger wings, as well as horns and spines and learned how to breath fire, once that happened his name was changed to kuçedra (hydra).
Vishap - Vishap are related to the European dragons, but varying stories show some differences. The Vishap were said to have poisonous blood, which made battle with them very dangerous. The bravest of knights could cut a Vishap with their weapons, and then use their weapons in battle to create a poisonous blade. The Vishap were also known to create thunderstorms when they got angry, perhaps being cut by knights all the time would do that?
Vishap drawing by Ken Rolston (http://www.kenrolston.com/) check out his site for amazing Dragon sketches every day.
Xiuhcoatl - Xiuhcoatl was a serpent from Aztec mythology. he was thought to be a spirit form of the Aztec fire god Xiuhtecuhtli.
Drac - Catalan dragons breath fire and poison, their poison eventually rotting anything it comes in contact with. With only 2 legs and a large pair of wings, the unique look of these dragons come from their faces which are often shown as lions or cattle.
Věri Şělen - Chuvash dragons are the pre-Islamic mythology of the dragons, from the 15th century. The Věri Şělen are depicted with multiple heads and leave a path of fiery destruction as they fly.
Apophis - Most often depicted as a giant snake Apophis was also shown as a crocodile or a dragon. He was described as the dragon of Thunder, Lightning, and Sandstorms. The story had him trying to swallow the sun, but each day that he tried Ra would win the battle and the sun would rise.
Wyvern - Wyverns are the most commonly shown dragons in medieval stories. These are the typical fire breathing dragons of hollywood, battling against a knight after they have abducted a princess.
Dragon - The French dragons are very symbolic, they represent the pagans, and the hero that slays the dragon represents Christianity. Their heroism over the pagans/dragons resulted in them giving their cavalry the name dragoons.
Lindworm - Much like the English Wyverns in stories, the Lindworms are more serpent-like dragons sometimes with 2 legs, sometimes with none. Known to travel at great speeds, and rumoured to grow in length each year of their life, they are most dangerous because of their acute sense of smell.
Drákōn – The Greek story of Cadmus fighting the Ismenian dragon dates back prior to 550 B.C. The Greek dragons mythology was almost always based in them protecting important objects or places, such as the Colchian dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece and the Nemean dragon which guarded the sacred groves of Zeus.
Sárkány – Most of the Sárkány are giant dragons with multiple heads, the mythology of heroes showed that the dragons strength was in their heads, and by removing each head in battle, the dragon would become weaker. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it?
Cuélebre – The Cuélebres are much like the Greek dragons, they live in caves and guard treasures. Known as very dangerous dragons, they fed on humans and cattle, and used their poisonous breath to kill their prey. The stories tell of them living for centuries, and growing larger each year. One of the stories had a dragon that tormented a monastery, picking off monks one by one, until a wise monk left a loaf of bread for the dragon, little did the dragon know the bread was filled with pins and died immediately.
Lagarfljótsormurinn – This mouthful of a name, the Lagarfljótsormurinn was a lake monster or dragon living in a lake in Iceland. Very similar in stories to the monster of Loch Ness or the infamous Ogopogo of British Columbia, Canada.
Amaru - Amaru is the dragon of Inca Mythology based in the Andean region. A mixture of many creatures, it had a llama’s head, the wings of a condor, the body of a snake, the tail of a fish, and scales of a dragon.
Nāga - The Nāga was a dragon very common in the mythologies of Hinduism. More snake like than typical dragons, it had a large cobra like hood, and it’s rank was represented by the number of heads it had. The mythology has them being told to only bite the truly evil, and if they don’t they would die prematurely.
Naga - Very similar to the Indian Nāga, these dragons were often known as guardians of doors, and have been depicted in carvings that adorn roofs and structures. The most famous of dragons in Indonesia still exist today, the Komodo Dragon, large lizards (like monitors) with a venomous bite… they have been featured in many movies including James Bond.
Ascultone - The immortal dragons of Italy were more likely a basilisk (a legendary serpent). In Sardinia, Italy they were known as ascultone, and could kill a human just with their gaze.
Ryū - The Japanese dragons were very similar to Chinese dragons, except they had three claws instead of four. The mythologies of Ryū usually had them associated with water, and resulted in them granting wishes. In Street Fighter Ryū is the main character through the series, but I digress…
Neak - The Khmer dragon, or neak, is also similar to the Indian nāga. It has a large cobra-like hood, and has been depicted with as many as nine heads. Apparently, if it has an odd number of heads it’s a boy, and an even number of heads indicates a girl… at least with these ones you don’t have to lift their tail to tell which sex they are, ’cause that is dangerous.
Yong - The Korean Yong dragons are very similar to the Chinese lóng dragons. Some stories show a difference as Korean dragons have the eyes of a rabbit and the belly of a frog, and four claws. The Korean mythology has the dragons originating in Korea, and as they travelled West or South an extra claw would grow, that is why Chinese dragons have five claws. If they travel East or North they lose a claw, and that is why Japanese dragons have 3 claws. The Korean dragons never made it to Europe because traveling that far they would have lost all of their toes and could walk no further.
Slibinas - Not a lot of info can be found on this dragon which is sometimes shown with one head, and sometimes with multiple heads. They do make very cool downspouts though.
Bakunawa - Making its home in the sea, the Bakunawa has a very unique myth. A very hungry dragon, the people of the Philippines knew that the Bakanuwa would come out of the sea and try to swallow the moon, causing an eclipse. To protect the moon, the locals would all come out banging pots and pans to scare the Bakanuwa and he would spit the moon back into the sky.
Smok Wawelski – The Wawel dragon of Kraków was especially destructive, ruining the countryside, pillaging homes for treasure, eating livestock and killing people. Apparently his favourite meal was young maidens, and a deal was struck where if a young girl was left in front of his cave each month, he would leave the town alone. Every time the king would send a knight to defeat the dragon, the knight was burned by the dragons breath. The town was spared until there was only one young girl remaining, the king’s daughter. Not wanting to sacrifice his daughter, the king promised her hand in marriage to whoever could slay the dragon. Warriors and Knights traveled great distances to win her hand, but every one was struck down by the dragon. Finally, Skuba, a poor cobbler’s apprentice, took a lamb and filled it with sulfur, he placed it outside the dragon’s cave, and waited. When the dragon emerged, he saw the lamb and ate it, but the sulfur made him very thirsty. No matter how much water the dragon drank, he could not quench his thirst. After drinking half of the Vistula river, the dragon was so full that he exploded. The poor cobbler’s apprentice married the king’s daughter… and they lived happily ever after.
Coca - Every year the Portuguese celebrate a traditional dragon myth, they re-enact a battle between St. George and the Coca (dragon). A long time ago a female dragon entered the town of Moncao, Portugal, and St. George rode out to protect the town and a long battle ensued. When it looked like he might be defeated, St. George cut off one of the dragon’s ears, causing her to lose her strength, and finally he slayed that dragon. To celebrate this victory, every year Coca is pitted against St George in a battle. If the dragon wins, the harvest that year will fail, but if St. George wins, it will be a bumper crop. What makes it truly hilarious, is every year when they re-enact the battle, most people cheer for the dragon!
Balaur - The Balaur are very similar to the Slavic zmey (see below). They are thought to be very large dragons, with fins and as many as 12 heads. Part of the mythology of Balaur is that his saliva can be collected to form precious stones. The story of Balaur is based around him kidnapping a princess, and a brave knight named Făt-Frumos must slay this dragon (representing evil) to rescue her.
Zilant - The Zilant is the symbol of Kazan, and is similar in description and abilities to the English Wyvern. The mythology is quite varied, but one of the stories tells of a young maiden who did not like the long walk to get water, so asked her husband to move to Zilantaw hill. The husband knew he had to keep his wife happy, but it was known that many large and dangerous snakes lived on this hill. A wizard advised him that the grass eating snakes would go to a pile of straw after winter, and he could light the straw on fire. Zilant escaped the fire and fled to the Qaban lake, where every year he came back to take out his revenge on the people of the town.
Zmey, zmiy, żmij, змей, or zmaj - Zmey is similar to the conventional fire-breathing European dragon, but they have three heads. There has been a conflict between the Slavs and the Turks for many years, resulting in many dragons being given Turkic names out of spite. In Serbian and Bulgarian mythology, the dragons use lightning to protect their crops from a destructive demon named Ala.
Yilbegän - Related to European Turkic and Slavic dragons, most often the stories focus on their man-eating tendencies. They are not a friendly dragon, often going out of their way to destroy towns and hunt down dinner (humans).
Zmajski - The Ljubljana dragon is the protector dragon of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. One mythology tells the story that Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts fame, was the founder of Ljubljana, and after defeating a dragon, he brought it back to stand guard over the bridge. The locals tell stories that when a virgin crosses the bridge the dragons wag their tails… pervy dragons.
Ejderha - The Turkish dragon has a unique twist, it shoots flames from its tail, and may be much more snake-like than it is dragon-like. In fact, most Turkish myths describe dragons as gigantic snakes. Using a quartz crystal ball they controlled thunder and rain. Dragons are also accepted as a symbol in the ancient Turkish Calender of 12 animals. In Eastern Turkey, dragons were accepted as the symbols of strength, wisdom, and durability, but in the West, they symbolized evil.
(I couldn’t find a good picture of Ejderha, and I really wanted to include Daenerys Targaryen in my article anyways)
Rồng - These dragons’ bodies curve into 12 sections, each curve representing one month of the year. They are able to change the weather, and are responsible for crops. They are always shown with a long mane, a stylish beard, and they always keep a châu (gem/jewel) in their mouths as a symbol of humanity, nobility, and knowledge.
Y Ddraig Goch – In Welsh mythology, one of the greatest stories involves a massive battle between a red dragon and a white dragon. The symbology was that the red dragon symbolized the Welsh, and the white dragon symbolized the Saxons, and the story foretold the defeat of the English by the Welsh. The red dragon, known as ddraig goch, now appears on the Welsh flag.
So what can you learn from all of this? The mythology of dragons goes way back. It has a place in almost every culture, and has a variation in looks, abilities, stories and meaning. This gives us great freedom to come up with our own twist on creatures that may be well known, or do some research and discover some elements that you maybe didn’t know existed.
If the Vampires of Twilight can go in sunlight, and have sparkly skin, surely we can use our own creativity if we want to include a dragon or other well known creature in our games. Or, we can just dig deeper and find that ancient mythology that fits our storylines and game mechanics for the creature that we really want to use.
Tune in next time as we look into other cultures and their Mythologies.
Dave Warfield is the Head of Game Design at VFS