The Greek word drakon comes from a verb meaning “to
see,” to “look at,” and more remotely “to watch” and “to flash.”
The animal called a dragon is a winged crocodile with a serpent's
tail; whence the words serpent and dragon are sometimes
From the meaning a watcher we get the notion of one that
watches; and from the meaning “to flash,” we connect the word with meteors.
Swift, swift, ye dragons of the night:—that dawning
May bare the raven's eye.
This word is used by ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages as the symbol
of sin in general and paganism in particular. The metaphor is derived
from Rev. xii. 9, where Satan is termed “the great dragon.” In Ps. xci.
13 it is said that the saints “shall trample the dragon under their
feet.” In the story of the Fall, Satan appeared to Eve in the semblance
of a serpent, and the promise was made that in the fulness of time the
seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head.
Another source of dragon legends is the Celtic use of the word for
“a chief.” Hence pen-dragon (summus rex), a sort of dictator,
created in times of danger. Those knights who slew a chief in battle
slew a dragon, and the military title soon got confounded with the
fabulous monster. Dragon, meaning “quicksighted,” is a very suitable
word for a general.
Some great inundations have also been termed serpents or
dragons. Hence Apollo (the sun) is said to have destroyed the serpent
Python (i.e. dried up the overflow). Similarly, St. Romanus
delivered the city of Rouen from a dragon, named Gargouille
(waterspout), which lived in the river Seine.
From the idea of watching, we have a dragon placed in the
garden of the Hesperldes; and a duenna is poetically called a dragon:
In England the garden of beauty is kept
By a dragon of prudery placed within call;
But so oft the unamiable dragon hath slept,
That the garden's but carelessly watched after all.
T. Moore: Irish Melodies, No. 2 (“We may roam through this
A spiteful, violent, tyrannical woman is called a dragoness.
The blind dragon,
the third party who plays propriety in flirtations.
“This state of affairs was hailed with undisguised thankfulness by
the rector, whose feeling for harmony had been rudely jarred by the
necessity of his acting the blind dragon” —J.
O.Hobbes: Some Emotions and a Moral, chap. iv.
Dragon in Christian art
symbolises Satan or sin. In the pictures of St. Michael and St.
Margaret it typifies their conquest over sin. Similarly, when
represented at the feet of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The conquest of
St. George and St. Silvester over a dragon means their triumph over
paganism. In the pictures of St. Martha it means the inundation of the
Rhone, spreading pestilence and death; similarly, St. Romanus delivered
Rouen from the inundation of the Seine, and Apollo's conquest of the
python means the same thing. St. John the Evangelist is sometimes
represented holding a chalice, from which a winged dragon is issuing.
Ladies guarded by dragons.
The walls of feudal castles ran winding round the building, and the
ladies were kept in the securest part. As adventurers had to scale the
walls to gain access to the ladies, the authors of romance said they
overcame the serpent-like defence, or the dragon that guarded them.
Sometimes there were two walls, and then the bold invader overcame two
dragons in his attempt to liberate the captive damsel. (See
A flying dragon.
The Chinese dragon.
In China, the drawing of a five-clawed dragon is not only
introduced into pictures, but is also embroidered on state dresses and
royal robes. This representation is regarded as an amulet.
The Green Dragon.
A public-house sign in compliment to St. George. The Red
A public-house sign in compliment to Henry VII., who
adopted this device for his standard at Bosworth Field. It was the
ensign of Cadwallader, the last of the British kings, from whom the
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894