Nearly every culture has myths about something called a "dragon", despite the fact none of them can agree on exactly what dragons are. How big are they? What do they look like? How many heads do they have? Do they breathe fire? Or ice? Do they fly (and if so, with or without wings)? How many legs do they have? Are they dumb as planks, or superintelligent? Are they low scaly pests, or ultra-rare Uber-serpents ancient and powerful as the Earth itself? Are they benevolent? Malevolent or even outright demonic? Are they divine entities or spirits, or just really cool animals?
The answers to these questions generally fall within two traditions, "Western" and "Eastern". Even then, in addition to cultural differences, dragons fall into a very wide range of types even in one local mythology.
Eastern dragons, such as in the Eastern Zodiac, come from different traditions and as such aren't technically the same dragon as their Western counterparts; Westerners who encountered stories and images of Chinese lóng and Japanese tatsu/ryuu sprung on the similarities to the European dragon and couldn't think of anything better to call them.
Even within these traditions, however, there is much variability. This has increased in modern times, as Western and Eastern authors have blurred the traditions by mixing and matching attributes from both (benign Western dragons are quite popular these days, for instance). Some authors invent completely new attributes to set their dragons apart from the crowd or just make them cooler. And some authors put dragons in their stories just for the sole reason of making a story look cool.
|Western Dragons||Eastern Dragons|
|Are scaly and reptilian (outwardly, anyway), and usually serpentine.||Are Mix-and-Match Critters, though the exact components vary (generally, they can best be described as "lion-snakes"). They sometimes evolve out of Seahorses or Legendary Carp.|
|Normally associated with fire, which they often breathe as an attack.||Normally associated with water (and the sky, which was considered an ocean in classical Chinese thought), and are often considered bringers of rain. In various fiction, some Chinese dragons are capable of breathing fire.|
|Have around the same size range as houses, at least when fully grown.||Can be as small as a grasshopper or large enough to fill the space between heaven and earth.|
|Are usually antagonistic towards humans, if not an outright Satanic Archetype in older works. More intelligent versions are often manipulative, or, at the very least, love to screw with people; less intelligent versions are beasts and act the part. Due to the influence of works like Dragonriders of Pern, good dragons have become more popular in western media.||Are benign, but capable of destructive force when provoked. They may be rivals with tigers, and/or a male counterpart to the female fenghuang. In Japanese folklore dragons are sometimes portrayed as evil, such as the infamous eight headed Orochi.|
|Kidnap damsels (preferably princesses) and/or hoard treasure. Often greedy and/or insatiable, especially in the latter regard.||Instead of hoarding magical treasures, they make them. The other thing they hoard is wisdom, which they rarely share with mortals.|
|Have a variable number of heads and legs, though one head and six limbs (four legs, and a pair of wings) and a tail is the most common configuration. More divergent types (no legs, multiple heads, etc) seem more likely to be brainless bestial monsters than the "basic" form.||Most often have one head and four legs. The longer a dragon, the more pairs of legs he has.|
|Either fly with bat-like or very rarely bird-like wings, or they lack wings and don't fly.||Can fly via magic even if they lack wings, which they usually do. When they do have wings, they are often birdlike.|
|Have varying levels of intelligence. Prior to Tolkien, they rarely spoke. After Tolkien, they are often portrayed as at least as clever as humans, and frequently (much) more. More traditionally bestial examples still usually have a predatory cunning.||Not only are they intelligent, they are usually a Mentor Archetype.|
|Their scales (and armor made thereof) may be impervious to magic. In addition, they often have some form of innate magic if intelligent. Sometimes they may even disguise themselves as humanoid beings of much smaller size and interbreed with said species, creating half-dragons.||In addition to assuming human form, they also often have the ability to transform into other animals.|
|Live for a very long time, if not actually immortal, but typically may be killed.||May be an out and out Physical God.|
|Are incredibly strong and hard to kill but usually have one or two fatal weak spots. This is traditionally under the chin, but post-Tolkien, it's more likely to be on the chest or belly, and the eye is popular too.||In relation to the above, pretty much invincible... not that people actively seek them out to kill them anyway. Have a single "reversed scale" under the chin, and go into a blind rage if it is touched/rubbed the wrong way.|
|Sometimes have poisonous blood, breath, saliva, or some such. Often, this will kill you after you kill it. If their blood isn't poisonous, it grants special powers such as invincibility.||Since they live and breathe essence of life itself, they are the exact opposite of being poisonous.|
|The original name (drakon) meant Serpent/Snake.||The original name (long) is used to describe Saltwater Crocodiles (smaller crocs are named something else) explaining their ties to water.|
Recently, western dragons' physical variability has created a number of named sub-species◊:
- The most popular variation has been the wyvern, somewhat resembling a bat with the forelimbs being clawed wings and the rear limbs being two legs — this configuration generally being considered more "realistic" as something that could actually evolve. note In some settings, this is the only type and will simply be called "dragons." In other settings, wyverns are not considered "true" dragons at all, but a related, usually less powerful and intelligent species. Wyverns are less likely to breathe fire, and more likely to be venomous (even when dragons in the same setting are not venomous).
The term "wyvern" is less likely to be used if the creature in question walks quadrupedally (using the wings as forelimbs, like a bat or a pterosaur), such as Smaug from The Hobbit, Vermithrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer and the dragons from Reign of Fire.
- Rivaling the wyvern is the Hydra from Greek Mythology, which is often depicted as a flightless dragon-like water or swamp beast with one or more heads; for each head you cut off, two rapidly grow to replace it.note If they have a Breath Weapon, it's often a different one for each head. The original sprayed poison and had poison for blood.
- A drake is usually a creature closely related to dragons but smaller and less intelligent, equivalent to the relationship between humans and chimpanzees. More likely than dragons to come in multiple varieties adapted to different environments (e.g. the drakes that live around volcanos may be the only ones able to breathe fire). Unlike wyverns they have the same body type as other dragons in the setting, though with a tendency towards smaller or non-existent wings. Sometimes they're simply young/adolescent dragons rather than a separate species. In other cases "drake" is interchangeable with "dragon", or is a term for male dragons in particular.
- Very old (Greek and Roman, and some medieval) dragons are presented as more serpentine than the more recent ones — if winged, the wings are usually their only limbs; and some were totally limbless, just very enormous serpents. This type of dragon may be referred to as a wyrm (pronounced just like "worm").
Naturally, all of these may be in play, making "Dragon" more of a higher Taxonomic rank like "Order" or "Class" than Species or Genus. By this reckoning, other reptilian or avian mixed mythological creatures, particularly the Basilisk, Cockatrice and Quetzalcoatl, may be considered types of dragons or similar creatures in some works.
Further, it's also become fairly common for dragons to come in different flavors of Elemental Powers, especially in settings where Elemental Rock–Paper–Scissors are enforced. This may simply manifest in their Breath Weapon, or it may affect all properties of the dragon. Elemental rainbows of dragons are most common in video games and tabletop games where diversity of creatures and gameplay balance are considerations. One-off dragon variants are most likely to be ice elemental, poisonous, or maybe zombified.
As mentioned above, a recent trend has been to try and make dragons that could actually exist in the real world. Naturally, these tend to either use Science Fiction concepts or be very different from traditional dragons. Also common in later works is a tendency for dragons to form a life-long bond with any human or humanoid who is present when they hatch (probably inspired by the 'imprinting' which occurs with most birds in Real Life, which is why birds raised in captivity with the intent to be released must be cared for by puppets). This gives writers a way to give dragons unique psychology without having to come up with unique motivations for them. It also explains why humanoid Dragon Riders can boss them around. Yet another trend appearing here and there is for dragons to be depicted as looking similar to dinosaurs, usually the bigger theropods (like Tyrannosaurus rex), but occasionally sauropods (such as Brachiosaurus) as well. The two are often outright confused with each other. Another common trend in modern fantasy is the miniature pet dragon, suitable for perching on one's shoulder.
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- The fen dragons in early Prince Valiant strips were basically gigantic crocodiles who dwelt in the swamps. A much more recent story arc pitted Val against a truly titanic lizard from a Lost World, which attacked Camelot seeking its stolen egg.
- Todd the Candy Dragon from Phoebe and Her Unicorn is a tiny dragon who says nothing but "Rar" and, true to his name, produces candy and ice cream from his mouth.
- Earth and Sky: Due to dragons being magic creatures, their physical forms change based on their desires. For instance, a dragon that lived by himself in the middle of nowhere grew a second head just so he'd have someone to talk to. This is also apparently why Spike has wings now when he didn't during his greed-induced growth spurt; he didn't want them back then, but has since learned to enjoy the concept of personal flight.
- Hope for the Heartless: According to the Horned King, despite resembling them, gwythaints such as the two he kept aren't dragons. He did once encounter a true dragon, which was built like a gwythaint but had four legs and bronze-colored scales, and was as large as two peasant houses put together. It didn't breathe fire (but he has heard tales from people who have actually seen firebreathers), but spat lava instead, something some dragon types can do by eating rocks and digesting them into a lava-like substance.
- It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door:
- Dragons come from the nation of Carcosa and have their own language, Draketongue, a tonal tongue (meaning that tone and pitch are as important as, if not more important than, the actual sound of words in conveying meaning) noted to be highly melodic and sung more than spoken.
- The komagas, large reptilian creatures that rampage across Gildedale for a month every year, destroying anything in their way (they only do this in one direction and return the next year from the same way as before; no one knows where they go the rest of the time), were, according to Gildedale tradition, dragons who long ago committed some unknown sin and were punished by their gods with the loss of their wings and fire and being cursed to eternally roam the earth, and who over the aeons have degraded into mindless beasts.
- Longs are also mentioned, and apparently live in the nation of Salamar. They are not true dragons, however, and apparently dislike being mistaken for such.
- In addition, Besides the Will of Evil also introduces various dragon-like creatures among the monsters created by Reiziger during the Deer War, which become part of his forces again when he returns:
- Wyverns resemble cobras with dragon wings and blue fire burning in their mouths, eyes, and a slit along their backs.
- Fell beasts are bigger, almost the size of a small dragon. They have only four limbs — wings and taloned legs — and their long necks and tails give them an almost wormlike appearance. Their shrieks cause supernatural terror.
- The Last Draconequus: According to Discord's inner monologue, eastern dragons exist alongside the western kind, and are capable of interbreeding with ponies to create a chimeric species called the long-ma. The draconequi were long-ma who migrated west. The original long-ma followed a different evolutionary path and are still around today, and deny being draconequui at all, but Discord still considers them basically the same species. Western dragons are stated to be an inherently chaotic species, and as such, like the draconequi, can potentially produce an Avatar of Chaos.
- The Palaververse: They used to rule most of the world in the past, but their power began to slip as civilization grew, and was lost in a series of disastrous wars against the Diamond Dogs, the Capric Empire and Equestria, forcing most of them out of Ungula and to the archipelago of the Burning Mountains. They also have their own unique but poorly understood form of magic, hoard treasure as both a way to store food and as a mating display of sorts, and though mostly loners they have a loose society, ruled by the Fire Queen through Dragon Lords acting as intermediaries and viceroys.
- An interesting note is that, although most dragons dismiss religion as something for more mortal beings to bother with, particularly old and powerful dragons almost invariably develop beliefs centering on the size of one’s hoard determining the value and “brightness” of one’s soul, and of a "Last Dark" to be met with as bright a soul as possible, refusing to elaborate on this even to their younger kin.
- The caverns of the underworld are known to be home to blind, flightless dragons that breathe mind-clouding fumes and poison instead of fire.
- RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse: The dragons are the same as in the base canon (i.e., they're of the Western type, have nigh-invulnerable scaly hides, fire breath and six limbs (counting the wings), eat gemstones, and collect a Dragon Hoard because they grow larger the more stuff they possess). However, this is heavily Deconstructed. Because dragons are so individually powerful, and can find their food so easily, they never developed a civilization beyond the crudest level of "might makes right". Very few dragons can even read and write, and the handful of more civilized dragons have to learn other languages just because Draconic lacks the vocabulary to express many of the things they want to say. In addition, since the greatest threat to a mature dragon is another dragon, they never work together, and though they may spawn whelps, they would never take them into their own lairs, for they might steal something. As a result, there are only a few thousand dragons on the planet. As one abnormally wise dragon puts it:
We are dragons. We are mighty. We are the strongest of the mortal races. We have no equals. And because of that... we are dying.
- Gloryhammer: The song "Magic Dragon" from the first album, Tales From The Kingdom of Fife is about a magic dragon who becomes Angus McFife's ally after a magic spell is cast.
Demon attacked me but then it was slain
The dragon appeared and a battle was fight [sic]
I spoke from the words of a powerful scroll
And magical dragon became now allied.
- The protagonist of the "Dragonland Chronicles" album trilogy of the Swedish Heavy Metal band Dragonland is said to descend from dragons. In addition to that to cite an example "Dragondawn", the first song of their first album is accompanied (it's instrumental) by these verses:
As the dragons of the dawn spread their wings
And in the first blazing rays of the flowing morninglight
Set flight over oceans of radiant azure blissfull tides
Over majestic mountains of old, mountains of gold (...)
- Gottlieb's Gladiators has The Beast, a three-headed flying green dragon that is the final boss in the game.
- Dungeons & Dragons has a fire-breathing scaly red dragon as the antagonist.
- The dragons in Flash Dragon apparently like to take photographs of players.
- The "Dragon's Keep" table of Full Tilt! Pinball has a red dragon that breathes fire... and eats pinballs.
- Chikara has Dragon Dragon, a giant stuffed animal who came to life. He was modeled after a dragon (obviously) but doesn't have many of the abilities associated with. His plushy nature allows him to survive things most other wrestlers cannot however, including decapitation.
- Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. Most notably in his regrettable 1991 WWF stint.
- Throughout the years, The LEGO Group has produced a number of dragons:
- In the 1990s, the Castle theme introduced 'big-fig' dragons figures built with only a handful of bricks; bright green bodies, frills, a head-piece shared with alligators, a separate wing pieces. The 2013 revival featured a significantly larger big-fig dragon.
- In the Ninjago theme, the ninjas occasionally use dragons as transport and to assist in combat. They have wildly varying appearances, wyverns, quadrupedal dragons and drakes, and Chinese Lung dragons. Unlike Castle, the dragons are fully brick-built (like a vehicle), and are very posable thanks to ball-and-socket joints. In The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Llyod Garmadon uses a bright green dragon mech based on the Chinese lung dragons.
- In the Elves theme derived from the girl-centered Friends, the elves ride magical winged two or four-legged dragons in all sorts of flashy colors that behave like giant overgrown dogs. As with Ninjago, they are brick-built, albeit with custom head pieces allowing for more expression.
- The Creator theme has had a number of dragons that are 100% brick built and like Ninjago encompass all sorts of body types.