Dragons achieved a rather mystical popularity in the West in the latter quarter of the 20th century and have continued to maintain their status among lovers of fantasy and myth. On 23 January, celebration of the lunar New Year will begin and the coming year is ruled by the Dragon.
The Dragon in Chinese mythology is quite different from its Western counterpart, however. In the West, the Dragon essentially is a winged serpent, although in some cases, it was a gigantic creature who lived in the deeps of the oceans. In old Germanic and Norse Lore, it was called a 'worm'. In some tales, its breath was flame. Some dragons were depicted without wings but for the most part, they had the power to fly. Some were distinctly serpentine, but others had clawed feet similar to those of lizards.
Fossils of dinosaurs sometimes are very similar to the Dragons of the ancient West, giving hints as to the real history of the beast. It is interesting to note that the ancient Chinese referred to fossils as 'dragon bones' as well. In Chinese mythology, however, the dragon is an amalgamation of different creatures and therefore more symbolic than real.
The Dragon of the Sung Dynasty, for example, was depicted as a creature with the head of an ox, the muzzle of a donkey, the eyes of a shrimp, horns of a deer, the body of a serpent, covered in the scales of a fish and with the claws of a phoenix. Each Animal, according to the Chinese zodiac, has specific attributes and powers and thus, the Chinese Dragon combined all the powers of the creatures of earth, sea and sky and therefore was one of the most potent of symbols. It is a positive embodiment of power and good fortune.
One of the reasons why the Western dragon always was perceived as an enemy of mankind probably was the fact that it was based upon racial memories of large animals in the prehistoric eras. In fact, descendants of those creatures still walk the earth in the form of the Kimodo Dragon and the Crocodile. Rather than combining the attributes of all animals, the Western Dragon equivocally possessed the nature of a cold-blooded creature, completely alien to humankind.
Yet, even in the West, the Dragon came to represent Wisdom and a Guardian of hidden treasure and as such, a positive symbol in its fashion. In most ancient tales, however, it is the archetypal enemy of the hero, who must slay it in order to save humanity from extinction.
The Dragon and the Serpent of the most ancient myths of humankind probably are one and the same. In these myths, the Dragon Serpent inhabits the World Tree, usually as its guardian. In the tale of Gilgamesh, there were three inhabitants of the World Tree in Inanna's garden: an Owl spirit named Lilith, a zu bird and a Serpent/Dragon. The Zu bird had a nest and was raising its young at the crown of the tree in its branches. The Owl spirit or Lilith resided in the trunk of the Tree and the Serpent made its home at the root or base.
The hero Gilgamesh was given the task of creating a throne for Inanna from the wood of the World Tree. He smote the Serpent/Dragon, while the zu bird flew with its young to the mountains and the Owl Spirit or Lilith destroyed her home and fled. Thus we see that the Serpent/Dragon is the Sacrifice that is required for the harvest of the Tree and its potency.
This myth was borrowed by the writers of the Bible and became the tale of the tempting of Eve by the Serpent who is Lucifer in another guise. The World Tree remains the Tree of Knowledge and Wisdom but God forbids humankind to eat of its fruit. The Serpent 'tempts' the first Woman, Eve with this fruit and she takes it and shares it with Adam, her male counterpart. Both then are expelled from the Garden of Eden and according to some, Sin entered into the world.
The original myth thus is perverted somewhat and, typical of Biblical philosophy, everything is perceived as Good or Evil, Black or White. The Serpent/Dragon loses its original designation as Sacred Guardian and becomes the epitome of Evil. From this stems the portrait of the Dragon as a wholly destructive force in Western lore.
In Chinese myth, the Dragon often is shown with a pearl in its claw. It is a creature of impressive power and wisdom and, like the ancient Serpent/Dragon who dwelled at the root of the Tree of Life, a guardian of Wisdom and Knowledge. Such power, like the Power of Nature herself, is neither Good nor Evil fundamentally but a force that must be used carefully and responsibly. Evil is but one potential result when a mortal takes the power of the Serpent/Dragon into himself or herself.