The world is brimming with stories of dragons. These magnificent beasts are not just found in West European mythology; in fact, they are nearly a universal feature of human mythologies, as a rule. Everywhere you look, from East Asia to South America, you’ll find serpentine monsters and deities.
There are also many variations on the dragon myth. Some dragons are terrifying; others bring good luck. Some swim in the sea; others fly in the sky. Some breathe fire; others cause earthquakes. Some have legs, like a lizard; others are legless, like a snake.
It’s almost impossible to narrow down the sheer breadth of reptilian mythologies into a single article. But here are some of my favorites.
The Legend of the Boitatá
Long ago, there was a time of darkness and worldwide flooding that killed many animals. A hungry anaconda left its cave in search of food and fed on the eyes of the dead, which shone brightly in the darkness.
As the anaconda consumed these eyes, its body began to shine, even as it weakened from the subpar diet. The serpent died with a great burst of light that escaped to the sun, ending the days of darkness.
The Fiery Serpent of Brazilian Folklore
This story of the Boitatá, or the fiery serpent, originates with Brazil’s native Tupi people. Though the creature died, its spirit is said to live on, haunting the Amazon jungles. Today the Boitatá can appear at night as glowing, fiery eyes — but be careful! Gazing into its eyes can turn you insane.
The Boitatá can also breathe fire and will incinerate those who harm the rainforest, either by chopping trees or starting fires. It is even known to disguise itself as a tree trunk and burn alive any lumberjack who tries to chop it down.
Sounds like a good reason to respect the jungle, if you ask me.
Pakhangba (South Asia)
Pakhangba, The Metei Dragon
Pakhangba is the supreme deity of Meitei mythology, or Sanamahism, a religion that predates Hinduism. He can change forms at will, from human to serpentine, with horns. In total, there are a whopping 364 different forms he can take, all of which are documented in the ancient manuscript Paphal Lambuba.
Pakhangba is considered the great dragon lord, the ruler and protector of Earth, and the destroyer of evil. His father is Atiya Kuru Sidaba, another dragon lord and the creator of the universe.
Today, Pakhangba is the heraldic emblem of the Indian state of Manipur. Many people in Manipur understand themselves to be Pakhangba’s descendants.
Bakunawa and the Seven Moons
The Bakunawa is a great sea creature from Philippine mythology. He is typically described as having a mouth the size of a lake, a red tongue, whiskers, gills, and two sets of wings.
The ancient story says that the creator god, Bathala, first illuminated the sky with seven moons. One day, a monstrous dragon from the deep sea, Bakunawa, gazed upon the seven moons in awe. Unable to control his admiration and hunger for the beautiful moons, he leaped up to the sky and swallowed one whole.
The Philippine Dragon and Ancient Eclipses
That night, however, the moon dissolved in Bakunawa’s stomach, so the next day he rose up and swallowed another. This continued until, finally, Bathala realized what was happening, and angrily forbade Bakunawa from eating the final, remaining moon.
For the most part, Bakunawa obeyed this edict. But every so often, his desire overwhelms him and he tries to eat the moon again. Whenever there was an eclipse in ancient times, people in the Philippines would make noise with pots and pans to scare the terrible serpent into spitting out the moon back into the sky.
Apophis, Egyptian God of Darkness
Apophis was a powerful and feared deity of Ancient Egyptian mythology. He was the embodiment of chaos and darkness, and the greatest enemy of Ra, the sun god. He was also known as Apep, the Serpent of the Nile, the Evil Dragon, and the Lord of Chaos.
This massive serpent was described as 50 feet in length, with a head made of flint. He had a terrifying roar that would cause the underworld to rumble and his movements created earthquakes.
Rituals Against the Evil Snake
The Ancient Egyptians practiced rituals to assist Ra in his daily battles against Apophis, who tried to stop Ra from bringing the dawn. The stakes were high; if Apophis ever succeeded, it would mean the end of the world.
Every year, priests would burn an effigy of Apophis to ward off his evil. People would also create wax models or small drawings of the detested deity that they would spit on, mutilate, and burn, while reciting spells to harm him.
Apophis had the rare misfortune of being a god that no one worshipped. If anything, he received anti-worship. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re intent on destroying the world.
Dragon God of Mesoamerica
In the Nahuatl language, Quetzalcoatl means “precious serpent” or “Quetzal-feathered serpent.” This deity was worshipped by many different Mesoamerican cultures for more than a millennia, including the Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs.
Quetzalcoatl’s non-human form is a feathered serpent that can fly, with plumage around the head and along the body. He can also take a human form, which varied in different cultural depictions, but may have included a red beak, a plumed headdress, and shell jewelry.
The Aztec Story of Quetzalcoatl
This colorful dragon was the Aztec god of wind and air, as well as a creator god. He was also the patron of arts and knowledge, and the inventor of the calendar. His name was even a priestly title. Out of all the gods in the Aztec pantheon, he was one of the friendliest towards humans.
One important story tells of how Quetzalcoatl journeyed into the underworld at the beginning of the Fifth Sun (the current age). There he faced the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, who guarded humanity’s bones. Quetzalcoatl tricked Mictlantecuhtli and stole the bones, bringing them up to the paradise of Tamoanchan.
There, Quetzalcoatl and the other gods brought humanity to life by shedding their own blood over the bones. This burdened humanity with a debt that had to be continuously repaid by human sacrifices.
Ninki Nanka (West Africa)
Monster of West African Folklore
The Ninki Nanka is a river monster said to inhabit the swamps of West Africa. Descriptions of the creature vary, but it is known to be reptilian and dragon-like. The Ninki Nanka is sometimes said to have three horns, and a long neck and body with mirror-like scales. But all who tell stories of the beast agree on one thing: It is huge and it is dangerous.
Some say that if rebellious children go into the swamps, they will be taken by the monster. And if you are unfortunate enough to see the Ninki Nanka, you will die within a few weeks. To this day, rumors of Ninki Nanka sightings exist in Gambia and other West African countries and are blamed for some people’s deaths.
Zmey (Slavic mythology)
Dragons of Slavic Mythology
There are many variations on the dragon myth in various Slavic cultures. It is common for Slavic dragons to have numerous heads, in multiples of three. Sometimes, these heads can grow back if you don’t cut off all of them. It is also common for these dragons to be ancient, once-ordinary snakes that grew into their current form.
One type of Slavic dragon is called the zmey (also zmei or zmaj). Zmeys are intelligent and can be benevolent, depending on who you ask. They have four legs, bat’s wings, and can breathe fire.
Zmey Gorynych and Dragon Slayers
Zmeys have a problem, however: They are notorious for lusting after humans. Many stories tell of zmey dragons transforming into handsome youths and wooing maidens. If a human fell in love with a dragon, it did not necessarily end well for them. A zmey might capture a maiden and make her serve him in his cave. But there were also dragon slayers who hunted the creatures and rescued princesses from their clutches.
One of the most famous dragons from Slavic mythology is Zmey Gorynych, a dangerous, three-headed zmey faced by many folk heroes.
Naga (South Asia)
Naga, The Snake Creature of South Asia
Nagas are alluring, semi-divine beings with human and serpentine attributes. They originate in Hinduism but also can be found in Buddhism and throughout South and Southeast Asian traditions.
Nagas can take three forms: Half-human and half-snake, wholly human, or wholly snake. They are not evil, but they are powerful and easily angered. You definitely don’t want to get on a naga’s bad side or get in the way of any treasure they might be guarding. When provoked, a naga can be an intimidating foe that may spread disaster and disease.
Serpents of the Underworld
These shapeshifting creatures live both underwater and underground. In Hinduism, they live in an enchanted underworld filled with beautiful palaces and precious gems. In Buddhism and a number of other traditions, the nagas live in bodies of water or caverns.
Nagas are also eternal enemies to the Garudas, semi-divine birdlike beings from Hindu mythology.
Long (Chinese dragon)
Mythology of Chinese Dragons
The Chinese dragon (also the long or lung) is an ancient symbol of power, strength, prosperity, and good luck. Dragons in Chinese culture are kind and wise, and being compared to one is considered a compliment. The dragon was also associated with the Emperor of China and represented imperial power during many dynasties.
Chinese dragons control water and weather and can bring storms and floods. They rule over moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas. Traditionally, Chinese villages would come together in times of drought or flooding and make sacrifices and rites to appease the local dragon.
Physical Appearance of Chinese dragons
The physical appearance of Chinese dragons is very detailed. They are snake-like with four legs and have the head of a horse, camel, or crocodile. They have claws, whiskers, demonic eyes, palms like a tiger, and a goatee like a goat.
There is a lump on a Chinese dragon’s head called a “chimu” that gives him the mystical ability to ascend to the sky.
Bonus: Bahamut (Arabia)
Bahamut Mythology of Islam
Bahamut is closely connected with the Behemoth of Hebrew mythology, famously described in the Book of Job. In the Arabian myths, Bahamut is an incomprehensibly massive sea creature who swims in the waters beneath the cosmos. He holds the earth on his back, keeping the structure of the world together. Without him, all of humanity would be plunged into darkness.
The Fish That Became a Dragon
The original stories of Bahamut paint him more as a giant fish than as a dragon. It is only recently in pop culture that he has shifted to dragon form, thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, which painted him as the dragon god of justice.
Since then, Bahamut has appeared as a dragon in multiple universes, including The Rage of Bahamut (a collectible card game and anime series), the Shadowverse collectible card game, and the Final Fantasy video game series.
Share Your Dragon Stories
Do you have a dragon story from your cultural background that you’re dying to tell? Share it with us!