In some settings, dragons tend to guard hoards of treasure – typically by lying on top of it.
This trope is especially ingrained in Germanic Mythology — in fact it is hard to find a dragon in ancient Anglo-Saxon, German or Norse legends that doesn't guard gold. Curiously, there is no consensus as to why dragons do this. Justifications in-story for why a dragon sits on a hoard, including backstories of how hoard and dragon came together, vary considerably.
In some ways, hoard-guarding dragons are no different from other treasure guardians: They make sure it isn't too easy for the hero to get at a desired MacGuffin, and a heap of treasure in itself provides a convincing motivation for a hero to engage in an exciting monster-fight.
Dragons have a peculiarity, though, in that they are especially attached to gold: dragon-hoards almost always contain at least a substantial share of gold. Whatever the reasons, on average dragons show noticeably less interest in other treasures, like silver or even jewels.
People have also long noticed that dragons have no apparent use for treasure: they cannot spend, wear or process it. Dragons, it was concluded, must be pathologically avaricious and stingy — kinda like a species of compulsive hoarders with a Money Fetish. In fact, up to the 17th century, dragons were considered the emblematic representation of Greed.
One possible explanation of the origin of this trope comes from the old hypothesis about dragon legends being inspired by dinosaur fossils. Miners who were digging for gold would sometimes find dinosaur bones buried nearby, hence the association between the two. This is also believed to be the reason griffons are also sometimes associated with treasure, as they're supposedly inspired by ceratopsians, being quadrupeds with beaks.
The association of dragons with greed, combined with their preference for gold, makes that dragon hoards coincide with a certain regularity with outbreaks of Gold Fever.
Treasure-hoarding dragons, once common, became increasingly forgotten in the age of Chivalric Romance: For a Knight in Shining Armor, fighting for so mundane a reward as treasure was no longer deemed noble enough. Hence gold-hoarding dragons were largely superseded by the princess-stealing ones, until the trope was revived by Fantasy literature, especially through the influence of The Hobbit.
In more realistic settings where dragons don't exist, large reptiles may sometimes be encountered guarding treasures.
May involve a Treasure Room. This trope is to Pooled Funds as a waterbed is to a swimming pool.
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Dragon from Shrek sleeps on-top of a mountain of treasure. She doesn't seem that bothered by the collection of treasure in the sequels, though.
The Jungle Book (1994): When the ruthless Captain Boone tries to loot the treasure chamber of a lost city, he is eaten by a giant python.
Reign of Fire: When the young Quinn first stumbles into where the dragon is hibernating, the walls are covered by pyrite... or possibly gold. We don't get long enough to look at it before all the burning and the death starts.
The mockumentary Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real claims that dragons are naturally attracted to shiny objects and may collect hoards of such items, more or less valuable, to allure potential mates.
In the Beast Fable„The Fox and the Dragon“ by Phaedrus (c. 50 AD), a fox discovers a dragon guarding a gold hoard in an underground cavern. When the fox wonders why anyone would waste his life in this way, the dragon admits there is no point to his behavior other than that it is what Jupiter and the Fates have assigned to him. The moral then draws an explicit parallel between human avarice and miserliness and the pointless gold-hoarding of the dragon.
Saga of the Jomsvikings speculates that a sea-serpent seen at the Norwegian coast is the ghost of the Jomsviking captain Bui, guarding two chests of gold he took with him to his watery grave.
Smaug of The Hobbit destroyed the Kingdoms of Lonely Mountain and Dale to rob the kings' treasures. He heaped them up in a vault where he spends most of his time just sleeping on it. This habit also has the advantage that the coins and gems grow into his sticky, glowing hot skin, thus providing him with additional armor.
In The Lord of the Rings, Éowyn mentions that her ancestor Fram killed "Scatha the Worm" and thus won a hoard which the dragon had robbed from dwarves.
Farmer Giles of Ham has the dragon Chrysophylax Dives ("Gold-watcher the Rich"), whose cave contains fantastical riches of all sorts. How the got all that stuff is never explained, nor does anyone ever ask.
In "The Hoard", a ballad from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a dragon kills a dwarf to appropriate the latter's hoard. Later the dragon faces the same treatment through a human warrior.
In The Pilgrim's Regress, "the Northern dragon is so greedy that his anxiety for his gold hardly lets him sleep".
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace stumbles upon a dragon's hoard while the dragon is absent. He gets greedy, falls asleep on top of it, and is transformed into a dragon himself.
In the Earthsea Trilogy, the dragons are obsessed with hoarding jewelry ... at least at first.
In Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane series, dragons love gold because dragon magic resonates with it to produce a narcotic-like effect that dragons easily become addicted to. Some dragons manage to break this addiction, however.
Dragonology explains that dragons hoard treasure to use as armor for their soft underbelly.
In Guards! Guards!, the dragon that takes over the palace of Ankh-Morpork demands all the gold for its hoard. Since Ankh-Morpork is a Vestigial Empire of gilded treasures and heavily diluted coinage, there's a lot of ugliness before the dragon is satisfied.
In the J.W. Wells & Co. series, dragons often appear in the vaults of banks, which is why companies like J.W. Wells find it useful and lucrative to keep a "pest control specialist" in their employ.
In the Myth Adventures novels, Gleep explains that dragons hoard gold because it's so soft and corrosion-proof that it's ideal for baby dragons to teethe on. Dragons with offspring collect it for their young, and grown-up dragons keep it as a sentimental reminder of childhood.
In Heir Apparent, the protagonist needs to sneak into a dragon's lair to steal its treasure.
In Age of Fire, dragons hoard because they need metal to make scales.
In The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the dragon Gyld is old and tired and mostly content to live in Sybel's menagerie, but occasionally longs for his old hoard, which ends up causing some trouble.
John Gardner's Grendel features a dragon who hoards gold, and advises Grendel that the only point of life is to "find a pile of gold and sit on it."
A quest for a fabled Dragon Hoard (inspired by the Golden Fleece, and likewise a case of the dragon being hired to guard a royal treasure) provides the main plot in The Dragon Hoard by Tanith Lee. The trope is also parodied in a story-within-the-story that includes a dragon who can't hoard gold because he's allergic to it.
In Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw (an Anthony Trollope pastiche With Dragons!), dragons have a natural instinct to sleep on piles of hoarded gold. Unfortunately, one cannot do this and invest one's gold in the stock market at the same time.
Parodied in Grunts! by Mary Gentle: A troop of Orcs is ordered to steal powerful artifacts from a dragon hoard. It turns out the dragon was not interested in treasure, but a collector of weapons and militaria.
The Gringotts goblins in Harry Potter invoke this trope by catching dragons and forcing them to guard the vaults. They are only stationed at high-security vaults, though - normal peoples' vaults are a bit more safe. Also, it isn't known whether the dragons know that they are guarding riches, or if they just attack intruders out of aggression.
In Seraphina Dragons hoarded treasure until the treaty and Ardmagar Comonot’s reforms. Interestingly, the new generation of dragons still hoard in a way, collecting books and sitting on them.
Live Action TV
Played with in the Doctor Who episode trilogy "Dragonfire" which has Mel and the Doctor go hunting for a rumored treasure that supposedly is guarded by a dragon below the surface of the ice planet Svartos. The reality turns out somewhat different.
One issue of Dragon Magazine had for its cover a picture of a dragon's hoard, which contained gold, jewels, and many, many less conventional objects, like a kitchen sink.
Chinese Mythology: The fucanglong or "hidden treasure dragon" lives underground, guarding both man-made treasure as well as natural deposits of precious stone or metal. They are also held responsible for volcanism.
Beowulf: The dragon is attracted by gold and makes his home on a treasure hidden in a barrow — because that is how dragons roll. There is also a reference to another dragon hoard won by the dragonslayer Sigemund [sic] by killing a dragon in a cave.
Norse Mythology: The association of dragons with gold-hoarding was strong enough that "dragon's bed" (dreka beðr) is one of the numerous poetical paraphrases for "gold" in Old Norse poetry.
In Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons, a princess raises a tiny little baby dragon by letting it breed on a gold coin. The dragon grows to enormous proportions, in the process hatching a massive pile of gold.
In East and South Slavic, especially Russian Mythology, dragons (zmeys) are shapeshifting creatures that can alternate between a reptilian and a human(oid) form. Accordingly they will not lie on hoards in a cave, but have palaces in far-away lands where they frequently own great riches. When zmeys demand tribute from humans, they will either demand maidens, or gold.
In The BBC's Tolkien parody Hordes of the Things we are told that blue dragons hoard "those woolen foot-garments that men do call socks, stealing one only of every pair". So now you know where they went.
In Dungeons & Dragons, all dragons have hoards, typically three times as much treasure as other monsters of an equivalent power level. Beyond the sheer avaricious pleasure derived from wallowing in their coins like a pig, keeping a mental tabulation of their hoard's current worth, or maintaining an inventory down to the last copper piece, the Draconomicon explains that a dragon's hoard allows it to control the circumstances of its eventual demise. Rather than suddenly succumbing to the weight of centuries in its twilight years, a dragon may consume its hoard and choose to depart the earthly realm peacefully, or merge with the physical world and become a guardian spirit of one of its kind's nesting sites. Dragons also derive status from the size of their hoards, and bored wyrms may take up the (ludicrously complex) game of xorvintaal and compete for each others' treasure with the help of mortal "chess pieces."
The Draconomicon also provides examples of atypical dragon hoards. One eccentric bronze dragon maintains a collection of interesting driftwood and seashells from near her coastal home, a golden great wyrm has amassed an enormous library of rare books ("you can't learn anything from gold"), an unfortunate white dragon's hoard is held hostage by the tribe of ice giants enslaving him, while an enterprising blue dragon's greatest treasure is the salt mine he took over.
Even dragons with more traditional hoards may provide unique challenges. The sand dragons introduced in the Sandstorm supplement keep their treasures buried beneath the desert - hope your party packed a shovel alongside that 11-foot pole.
If a dragon is slain and its hoard looted, it may linger as a ghostly dragon, haunting the mortal plane until its stolen property (or treasure of an equivalent value) is returned to its sacked lair, after which it settles upon the loot one last time and disappears along with it.
The collective wealth and possessions of the dragon Dunkelzahn from Shadowrun basically constitute a hoard, and his comments indicate that dragons in general tend to accumulate them, whether they want to or not (it's described as a matter of collecting representations of their long memories and pasts). Dunkelzahn makes the idiosyncratic (and, among his fellows, controversial) decision to compose a will dividing and bequeathing his hoard in the event of his death (a large portion of which goes into funding an entire foundation dedicated solely to the execution of the will).
Lofwyr's hoard consists largely of Mega Corp. stock certificates, and as CEO and sole owner of Saeder-Krupp Heavy Industries he's the richest known entity on earth.
In the board game Dungeon Quest (original title: "Drakborgen"), the goal is to reach a dragon's hoard and steal as much as possible from it. But if you steal so much that you wake up the dragon, you die.
In Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy (as adapted, with liberties, from Norse Mythology), the giant Fafner kills his hitherto-bro Fasolt for a hoard of gold (The Rhine-Gold) and is later found transformed into a dragon lying on the gold (The Valkyrie), until he is killed by Siegfried (Siegfried).
In the aptly-named Hoard, you play as a dragon and get points for collecting treasure.
In RuneScape, many dragon lairs are littered with piles of gold. The extremely rare runite rocks are also usually found near dragons, because it is a delicacy to them.
In the game Blazing Dragons all the dragons eat gems which annoys the evil King George no end. However they're not fixated on them living lives just like a normal person.
The knight in The Cave has to fetch the gold from the dragon and give it to the princess in order to get her amulet to give to the king to pull the sword from the stone. Things don't go quite as planned....
In Discworld, Rincewind discovers a dragon's hoard. His joy for becoming a rich man is shortlived.
In Ancient Domains of Mystery, there's an underwater one guarded by a female water dragon. Trying to pick up an item there will make her warn you, and ignoring her will result in her trying to kill you.
The Red Dragon in Dragon's Crown is found in a room filled with all sorts of treasure. Said treasure room is very cramped, making fighting the dragon difficult.
In Dragon's Lair, the player's mission is to battle a dragon which also owns a hoard in a treasure room.
In Quest for Yrolg, you play as the imp servant of the evil necromancer Yrolg who has a dragon guarding his treasure room.
SCP Foundation: SCP-1779 are tiny reptiles which feed only on coins and make their nests out of them. They can grow to really big sizes, though...
In the French parodic literature series Kalon Le Barbare, it is stated that only male dragons build hoards, to attract females. It's only revealed after the "heroes" spent a whole chapter fighting a dragon that turned out to be female, and thus had no hoard of her own, much to their disappointment.
The animated The Hobbit movie shows Smaug sleeping on his treasure as if it were a bed.
It's explained in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic that dragons are greedy by nature and will hoard things as an instinctive behavior. They also eat gems. Specific episodes with dragon hoards:
In "Dragonshy", the mane six are sent on a diplomatic mission to a dragon who's taken up residence near Ponyville. Rarity speaks to the dragon and appeals his ego, a strategy that appears to work—until the dragon realizes she's helping herself to his treasure hoard, and he kicks her out.
"Owl's Well That Ends Well" features another full-grown dragon who gets angry and attacks Spike for stealing from said dragon's hoard of gold and gems.
In "Secret of My Excess", it's shown that hoarding behavior can cause dragons to undergo rapid growth—which can lead to a nasty feedback loop, as this growth also decreases their mental faculties and makes them hoard more.
In "Dragon Quest", adolescent dragons are shown playing "King of the Hoard", a game which requires dragons to fight one another over a pile of treasure.