The Dragon as an Archetype
An essay by Laurence Mee (Wyrm), previously published
on the AFD literature page.
Before we begin to explore the Dragon as an Archetype, we
first must define what we mean by an archetype in this context.
The word itself is derived from the Latin archetypum and the
Greek arkhetupon (arch as in chief, and tupos as in stamp)
and in context it takes on three meanings. We can use it as
a reference to a prototype, or initial image, something from
which all the various forms of Dragons throughout the world
were based on. We can choose the classical Jungian hypothesis
of the primitive mental image, inherited from man's earliest
ancestors and which is supposedly present in the collective
unconscious. Lastly we can use the definition which describes
a motif that recurs throughout art and literature. The following
parts examine each of these definitions based on the recorded
images and myths concerning Dragons. As probably expected,
the fourth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current
English (published in 1951) does not mention Jung's notion
of the primordial image archetype, it being a relatively new
meaning that had not been popularised at the time.
The Prototype for the Dragon -
In defining the archetypal Dragon as a prototype image, we
are faced with the problem of tracing back all the various
Dragon forms to a single source. This is not made any easier
considering that many of the myths were formed before writing
was developed. To start with, we can explore the very early
Dragon myths and attempt to determine a lineage with the later
In early Egypt, the Dragon was chiefly a representation,
albeit with some embellishments, of the snake. In Egyptian
myth Re, the sun god, travelled through Duat, the underworld,
each night. Whilst travelling through the underworld Re reaches
a two open doors guarded by snakes, some having human heads
and four legs others having three snake heads and wings. Re
passes by these without incident as they are only guards.
Later Re observes the demise of Apophis, the giant serpent
representing chaos, whose severed coils are bound by Aker,
a Dragon representing the earth. There are many occurrences
of Dragons in Egyptian mythology, another example being Denwen.
Denwen was attested in the third millennium BC and is described
as a fiery serpent who would have caused a conflagration destroying
all of the gods if it had not been thwarted by the King. If
one is to draw any conclusion from this it can only be that
the Egyptian mythology was influenced by an early form of
The Chinese Lung, in contrast to the Egyptian image of the
destructive serpent, was more benevolent. The Lung has its
origins in the oracle bones of the Shang and the I'Ching,
and was ascribed lizard like qualities before it's later association
with rain. This association was formed in the second and first
millennium BC and though they would take on varied attributes
through the centuries, this association remained fixed. The
I'Ching was probably used to divine various agricultural concerns
- when to plant and when to harvest. It refers to Dragons
as the bringers of thunderstorms. The Dragons hibernate over
the winter in pools, then in summer they take to the sky bringing
on the rains. Azure Dragons were symbols of spring, the sighting
of one heralded the onset of the spring thunderstorms and
the end of hibernation. The horse-dragon, a creature with
hooves on its four legs and curly hair on its back which could
walk on water as well as fly. It featured prominently in Chinese
mythology emerging from the Yellow River to give the 'River
Map' to the legendary Emperor Fu Xi which formed the basis
of the I'Ching. The first images of the Lung were actually
half-man, half-fish creations, but this soon took on the more
lizard like look of the current Chinese Dragons. These representations
of Dragons also occur in ancient Japan and Korea, both in
the Shinto beliefs and Buddhism.
The Babylonians provide us with a clear picture of a Dragon
in the Epic of Creation from the early second millennium BC.
It details the struggle of Apsu (god of the primordial waters
under the earth) and Tiamat (the sea) against their son Ea.
Apsu is defeated by Ea who takes over his domain and produces
a son, the god-hero Marduk. Tiamat created all sorts of Dragons,
including the mushussu Dragon, in order to have her revenge,
but she is defeated in single combat by Marduk and her body
is split to form the earth and the sky. The mushussu is subdued
by Marduk and takes its place at his feet. In the Babylonian
texts Dragons are differentiated from snakes, and whilst they
are scaly they also have both reptilian and mammalian characteristics.
Thus we have the Babylonian idea of a Dragon as a completely
fictional creature with no basis in nature, both as an image
of chaos and as a guardian. These images were relatively short
lived however, as the Chinese Lungs soon came to dominate
in later Near Eastern mythology.
In early India, images of the Dragon were in some ways similar
to the Egyptian ones in that they represented the form of
the snake. There were those, however, that represented the
form of the crocodile, such as the makara. We see through
Hindu myth that the Indians identified the Dragon with nature.
One of the Indian Dragons, Vritra, caused drought by withholding
water in its body until it is slain by Indra, god of rain,
with a bolt of lightning thus starting the monsoon. While
there are many similarities with the Egyptian images, we can
also see influences from the Chinese Lung. The obvious conclusion
is that the Indian Dragon had the same background of early
snake worship, and to a lesser extent crocodile cults, but
was later influenced by the Chinese images.
All of the Eurasian Dragon images can be traced back to the
early forms of Egypt, the Near East, and the Far East. This
can be clearly seen in the Greek Dragons, the word drakkon
meaning large serpent as well as Dragon. The Greeks carried
on the idea of the Dragon as a Guardian Serpent - Ladon guarding
the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Colchis guarding the
Golden Fleece. We now, however, see the Dragon as a creature
that is slain by the hero, rather than tamed. This imagery
was to last, becoming eventually a symbol of evil.
Dragons in the Islamic world initially started out as astronomical
figures, and were linked to the Egyptian myth of Re's voyage
through the underworld. The Dragon Jawzahr was responsible
for eclipses and comets, the Dragons Draco and Serpentarius
were emblazoned in the stars. There are many tales in Persian
mythology of Dragons representing evil being slain by heroes,
influenced by the Greek legends. It is here that the idea
of Dragons guarding treasure emerges, the treasure eventually
passing to the King who represents good. This, however, was
not to last for when the Mongols invaded Persia they imposed
their own Chinese style images.
Celtic and Nordic dragons were almost certainly derived from
the more ancient myths, though there seems few similarities.
We have the Midgard Serpent with its myriad of snakes gnawing
at the roots of the World Tree - a corruption of the creation
myths of Babylon and Egypt. The story of Sigurd and Fafnir
shows the destructive qualities of the Dragon but also illustrates
the slaying of the Dragon by the hero. The long-ships used
by the Vikings bore on their prows the heads of Dragons, in
keeping with the association of Dragons with water. The Celts
used Dragons as heraldic symbols such as in the story of Hercules,
who after triumphing over Ladon carried the image of the Dragon
on his shield. The best example of this is the Welsh Legend
of the fight between the Red Dragon of Cadwallader representing
Wales and the White Dragon representing the Saxons, also mentioned
in the tale of Lludd and Llevelys. Of these representations,
only the heraldic device would continue to be used after the
Christian ideals spread throughout Europe.
Taking much from the Greek and Arabian legends, the Christians
were responsible for turning the Dragon into the image we
generally associate with it, that of the fire breathing monster.
The Christians used the image of the Serpent, or Dragon, to
represent evil, and commonly Satan himself. They drew much
from the cultures of the lands they encountered - the legend
of St George and the Dragon is taken from the Near East. The
Christian image of the Dragon, however, is a perverted one
being set up in opposition of the pagan religions such as
snake worship. The snake is seen as the Devil in the Garden
of Eden, the Dragon is seen as the incarnation of evil in
many horrific forms to be vanquished by the hero representing
the virtues of God. It is known that the early Christians
brought people into their religion by all manner of ways,
building churches on old pagan sites for example, and casting
the pagan Dragon as the personification of evil and having
it defeated by the Christian Hero was a typical ploy.
Complicating matters further, we have the apparently totally
unconnected development of Dragons in the Americas. There
are the lake spirits of the North American creation myths,
and there is also the plumed serpent of Central and South
America. The Mayan Kukulkan, later the Aztec Quetzalcoatl,
was both good and evil and was though to rule the four parts
of the earth. The greatest god of the Aztecs was Xiuhtecuhtli
who took on many manifestations, one of which being the fire
serpent. There are parallels with the Chinese myths in that
Quetzalcoatl is described as being able to take the form of
the sun and is depicted as being swallowed by the earth serpent
thus causing an eclipse.
We have seen how many of the later Dragon myths derived from
earlier ones, albeit with some embellishment, some reaching
as far back as early snake worship. Yet we cannot ignore the
fact that the various ancient Dragon images appeared around
the same time with different connotations - the Egyptian serpent,
the Babylonian hybrid, and the Chinese lizard. There is no
evidence that these originated from a single prototype, and
given the dissimilarities between these ancient creatures
one must conclude that they arose spontaneously out of the
needs of the people to explain various natural phenomenon.
In Egypt it explained night and day, in Babylon it formed
part of the creation, and in China it was used to predict
the spring rains. All we can infer from this is that there
was no single prototype for the Dragon myth, rather there
were several, probably one for each centre of ancient civilisation.
The Jungian Dragon -
In trying to define the archetypal Dragon in Jungian terms,
we must first understand Jung's notion of the archetype. Jung
refers to the Archetype as the 'type' in the psyche, an inner
mental image (type being derived from the Greek tupos meaning
imprint or blow). Though an archetype as an imprint presupposes
that there was an imprinter in the first place, Jung does
not concern himself with this, rather he concentrates on the
image within the collective unconscious that dominates when
there is no other rational thoughts. The unconscious is said
to modify the conscious. Jung's idea of the archetype as a
Primordial Image required that it was at least common to entire
races, or entire epochs, the most powerful archetypes being
common to all races at all times. It also required that the
image was in close accord to the ancient myths and symbols.
The ancient symbols were supposedly created from the collective
unconscious to explain certain phenomena of the world, rational
thought being impossible at that time.
Jung referred to Dragons in a number of his works. He initially
cites it as the arch-enemy of the Hero archetype, drawing
mainly from the New Testament and Gnosticism. Viewing it as
the mother Dragon which threatens to overwhelm the birth of
the God, thus the Hero must defeat the Dragon before becoming
the Hero. He later views the Tiamat-Marduk myth as the basis
of the Mercurial Serpent image - the Dragon that both destroys
and creates itself and represents the Prime Material (or Philosopher's
Stone). However Jung does fall back on his Mother Dragon theory
in stating that the father figure triumphs over the matriarch
thus signifying the transition of the world towards the masculine.
He identifies the Dragon directly with the unconscious, which
in being vanquished by the Hero indicates the natural state
of the conscious. In a sense, both the mother Dragon and the
Mercurial Serpent are closely linked, both being creators.
So we see Jung's idea of the Dragon as an archetype.
When one considers the various ancient myths, however, one
soon finds problems with Jung's rather simplistic, and overtly
Christian, notion. Tiamat is indeed the mother of creation,
however she created the mushussu which was later tamed by
Marduk. No doubt Jung would again describe this as the victory
of the conscious Hero over the unconscious extension of the
matriarch, but the mushussu is not a matriarchal figure nor
is it vanquished. Instead it is more of a guardian image,
tamed by the Hero and protecting the Hero. The Egyptian serpentine
Dragons bear even less resemblance to Jung's archetype. Though
they are identified as being in conflict with the Gods in
a parallel of the Hero myth, yet they do not represent the
feminine, nor are they anything to do with the Prime Material
- identified in both Osiris and Re. Indeed the conflict between
brothers, which is prominent in Egyptian tales (primarily
Seth slaying Osiris), also falls contrary to Jung's ideal
of the mother-son conflict. Even more at conflict with Jung
are the Chinese Lung, who are identified as life-givers in
that they bring the spring rains. Although this could be though
of as a matriarchal figure, and the association with water
a representation of the Prime Material - said to be a form
of water, there is no conflict and it does not play a part
in the creation. The Aztec images also fall contrary to the
Hero's adversary. If one can salvage anything from the Jungian
archetype, it is that the Dragon may be a representation of
the life-giving mother, though this is not true for all civilisations.
Unable to justify the Mother Dragon archetype in all civilisations,
one has to fall back on Jung's statement that an archetype
is something shared (at least) by the collective unconsciousness
of a single race. We can then ascribe the matriarchal figure
with the Babylonian Tiamat, and as an archetype of the Sumerians.
The Egyptian archetype is that of the snake which destroys
life and has to be defeated before life is reborn - in other
words the Prime Material. Whereas the Chinese archetype is
that of the life-giver, the lizard which emerges with the
onset of the spring rains.
These archetypes were still influencing the conscious a long
time after their inception. The Chinese archetype has remained
intact throughout the centuries, it is still the life-giver.
The Christians, however, took on the notion of the Dragon
as the Hero's adversary identifying it with the alleged Satanic
connotations of Pagan religions. It does surface as the matriarchal
figure, and as that of the Prime Material, through the writings
of the early philosophers however these were eventually denounced
by the mainstream - frightened that the old Pagan religions
might surface again. The Christian teachings show the domination
of the conscious over the unconscious. All in all, though
there is evidence to support separate archetypal Dragons,
there is none to support a single archetype for the whole
The Image of the Dragon -
Throughout the world, there are references to Dragons in
art and literature as far back as the fourth millennium BC.
Is it possible that these all share common symbolisms or motifs?
If one looks at the ancient forms of Dragons which were carved
or engraved before the development of writing in the third
millennium, one sees an apparently unconnected series of images.
The early Chinese and inhabitants of Pakistan favoured ornaments
decorated with snakes and dragon-like composite beasts. The
Chinese Pig-Dragon circa 3500 BC is a case in point, though
it is not known if this image was considered to be a Dragon
or what it symbolised. Early versions of Chinese Lungs were
fishes with the heads of men, more akin to merfolk than Dragons.
Due to the limited knowledge about these very early stages
in civilisation we cannot draw many conclusions from these
When writing was developed, in the third millennium BC, we
begin to see Dragon images more clearly. We have already discussed
the Snake like Serpent images of Egypt, the composite reptile-mammal
Dragons of Sumeria, the Crocodile Dragons of early India,
and the Lizard like Lungs of China. This is not to forget
the Water spirits of North America and the bird-like images
of South America. It is not difficult to see that there is
little parallel in their physical attributes, but they are
still Dragons and they still play a role in the literature
of the time.
Following on from those early images, we see the spread of
the Chinese Lung image over the Eastern world. Supplanting
or enhancing the images from India, and eventually working
their way into Persia. However, though the image spread the
associated meaning did not. The Persian Dragons were seen
as creatures who guarded hordes of treasure and were slain
by Heroes who then inherited the treasure. In this we see
the birth of the typical Western Dragon image. The Greeks
also played their part in developing the Dragon, though they
took their inspiration from the Egyptian myths. It is in Greek
mythology that we first see Dragons identified with trees
- those guarding the Golden Fleece and the Golden Apples are
clear evidence of this. This connection recurs in other Dragon
myths, most notably in the Norse World Serpent at the roots
of the World Tree. The Greek Dragons are still serpentine,
though they do have multiple heads. One explanation for the
multiple head images comes directly from nature where snakes
with two heads are occasionally born and live to a reasonable
age. Once can readily imagine the early Greeks being terrified
of such a creature and promoting them in their legends.
Following on from the Greek and the Chinese influenced Persian
myths, one sees the spread of Christian ideals. Here the Pagan
Dragon is identified with the Devil, something to be overcome
by the Christian Hero. The Christians seemed to have taken
images from all of the early civilisations, the Snake in the
Garden of Eden - yet another association of Dragons with trees,
which is sometimes represented as a winged devil-headed Dragon.
In the Old Testament we find again the identification with
water. These horrific images were readily represented in the
at of the time. The Crusades also had a part to play in the
development of the Dragon in that it brought back previously
discredited tales such as St George and the Dragon - another
example of the connection of the Dragon with water as the
creature lived in a lake in Libya. At this time the Dragon
images were varied, two-footed lizards, beasts resembling
Lions, and various forms of winged serpent. Essentially the
emphasis was on the Hero or Saint in the image rather than
the Dragon, which occurred with regularity - St Philip, St
Margaret of Antioch, and St Martha. Dragons cropped up in
alchemical works, being used as a form of code to keep their
uninformed helpers in the dark as to what they were actually
doing. Lastly, the Christians used Dragons as heraldic emblems,
mirroring Hercules, used to symbolise the horrific power in
an attempt to demoralise their enemies. In wasn't until 1807
that the Red Dragon was used as the King's Badge for Wales
- after being supplanted as a supporter for the Royal Emblem
by the Scottish Unicorn in 1603.
Eventually, through the depictions of Dragons in works by
such artists as Titian, Tintoretto, and van Haarlem we see
the dominance of the four footed, winged serpentine creature.
The hoarding of treasure derives directly from the Persian
myths that the Crusaders came into contact with. It's ability
to breath fire originating with the Egyptians and probably
being later associated with the fires of Hell, or representing
the false prophets. In the story of St Philip the apostle,
the Dragon that the people of Hieropolis in Phrygia were worshipping
as Mars is banished but not before it has killed many with
its poisonous breath, or false prophecies. Hence we have the
image of the Dragon as an evil being, intent on destruction,
sitting atop its pile of gold. This imagery is continued right
up to the present day, the works of Tolkien show this. In
the Silmarillion the representative of the Devil, Morgoth,
creates the Dragons in order to defeat the Godly armies of
the Elves. The Dragons are killed by Hero figures and in the
case of Smaug in the Hobbit, the treasure falls to the righteous.
This Christian image can be said to be artificial, or at best
composite, its meaning having been twisted to suit the ends
of a religion; however we can still see the attributes of
old underlying this blasphemous beast.
The Modern Infestation -
When one looks at the historical references to Dragons, one
sees several distinct images. So what remains of these in
the modern view of Dragons. Well the classical Christian image
of the fire breathing winged monster is still with us, a combination
of the Lizard and Snake images with fire-breathing and wings
as later embellishments. Yet we now see images of Dragons
as benevolent creatures, playful creatures, almost pet-like.
These can be seen as a further development of the Dragon image,
a freeing of the ties of religion and the exploration of something
that was previously forbidden. The image of a Dragon as a
guardian is returning, as can be seen by the increase in cuddly
Dragons that one can buy. The notion of Dragons as pets stems
from the myths of old when Dragons were tamed rather than
slain - going back as far as the Tiamat-Marduk legend. The
Dragon as a playful image is far more removed, there appears
to be no precedent in myth. It could argued that it is a further
development of the Dragon as a pet-guardian having been tamed
to such a degree, or even as an extension of the Dragon as
a riddler as prominent in some Egyptian and Celtic myths.
It can also be seen as a complete rejection of the Christian
image, the Dragon is now something that adorns the mantelpiece
rather than being shunned as blasphemous. There are also connections
with snake-worship in that the shamans 'played' with their
snakes to show their power over the creatures. With the blending
of images in this modern global civilisation one is bound
to see many influences in the modern Dragon, however one can
still see the basic ancient archetypes at the base of them
What evidence is there of the Jungian archetypes in modern
civilisation. Well firstly one must consider what happens
when different races with different archetypes intermix, as
occurs today. Jung is not specific, so one is forced into
conjecture. It could be though that the intermingling of the
various races is the beginning of a new epoch in human civilisation,
which according to Jung would allow a new archetype to be
formed or at least the old archetypes to be abandoned. It
could also be argued that the combination of differing archetypes
causes an imbalance in the collective unconscious allowing
all sorts of images to be visualised. Yet it can also be argued
that the archetypes remain as inviolate and separate as they
always have been.
The ancient Dragon images are still present in modern day
views, though much more suppressed. This can be thought of
as the rational mind dominating over the unconscious image.
The early addition of wings is a very rational step, the Dragons
were present in the sky thus they must have wings so that
they can fly. This shows a tendency towards Jung's Extroverted
Type. The archetypal Dragon is repressed, though it never
loses its original meaning. We see this in the development
of the guardian image, Dragons as pets., the Dragon is consciously
shown to be something that is tamed and controlled. This has
to be understood by the Extroverted Type so as to reduce the
danger of lapsing into a nervous breakdown as the demands
of the unconscious image force themselves onto the conscious
producing extremes of either interest of disinterest in everything.
In the case of the Introverted Type, the mythical Dragons
would take on powerful and terrifying qualities, almost magical.
This would lead to the Introvert fearing all strange and different
forms of Dragon as it would symbolise a magical animation
of the image which is so attached to him. We see this in the
perpetuation of the Dragon as a fearful and powerful creature
- the fire-breathing serpent. This is something the Introverted
Type must come to terms with if they are not to develop neuroses.
In coming to terms with the Dragon archetype, one must explore
its influences over the conscious. This can be best done during
symbolic play sessions where the active imagination can be
left to roam. Jung was convinced of the healing power of play
and the imagination through various media, and its ability
to put people in touch with material that is ordinarily repressed.
The fantasies thus produced are done so in controllable circumstances.
The images these fantasies take are varied and unpredictable
for during the state of play people are able to imagine anything.
This can take the form of playful Dragons, Dragons doing things
that are not in keeping with the Primordial Images. It is
probably the best way in which to discover the influences
that the archetypal image has over the conscious and rational
mind; and in discovering the influences one can come to terms
As for the depiction of Dragons in modern art and literature,
there is certainly a paucity of variation in the image. The
Dragon is almost always shown with four legs, a serpentine
body, and with wings. This is only to be expected due to the
dominance of Christianity and the conformity of artists over
the centuries to this form. Other types of Dragon, such as
the Wyvern and the wyrm, are not given anywhere near the same
amount of emphasis. The only other image that endures is that
of the Chinese Lung which has remained fairly true to the
original despite the additions of successive generations.
This is somewhat strange given the veritable plethora of Dragon
behavioural types present in art and literature. The guardian
Dragon, the playful Dragon, the fire-breathing dragon all
share the same physical attributes - a cross between the Egyptian
snake images and the Chinese lizards with the rational wings.
The fire-breathing notion has been discarded somewhat, it
has no real place in ancient mythology, though some form of
breath weapon still remains in many tales. What we are seeing
is the merging of the ancient archetypes into a composite
image that resembles all of them, yet is also removed from
them. One global image for one global civilisation.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Eighth Edition - R. E. Allen (Editor).
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Fourth Edition - H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (Editors).
Mythical Beasts - John Cherry (Editor).
Mysterious Britain - Janet and Colin Bond.
Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt - R. T. Rundle Clark.
A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses - George Hart.
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe - H. R. Ellis Davidson.
The Mabinogion - Jeffrey Gantz (Translator).
Legend of the Chinese Lung - The Chinese "Dragon" - Dr. Ong Hean-Tatt.
Psychological Types - C. G. Jung.
Psychology and Alchemy - C. G. Jung.
Jung on Active Imagination - C. G. Jung (Joan Chodorow - Editor).
Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts - Herbert Silberer.
The essay itself was written back in 1995, but was then re-visited and eventually posted on the alt.fan.dragons newsgroup on the 18th June 1997. Since then it has been hosted on many web sites (including the AFD Literature page).