How to Learn about Dragons - A Mythological Guide with Famous Drackenosopher Professor Zoya Agnis
Dragons have turned up throughout history. It doesn’t matter where or when a group of people lived, chances are they have at least one mythological story about a Dragon. The fact of the matter is, for thousands and thousands of years, people have loved the idea Dragons!
We wanted to find out more about Dragon history. After all, which cultures believed in them? Were dragons thought of as kind or cruel? What about Dragon Slayers? Were they always the good guys?
But who would we turn to in our time of Dragon-need? Which expert would help answer our questions? Thankfully, as if by magic, world-famous Drackenosopher Professor Zoya Agnis appeared to guide us on our dragon discovery tour. Zoya has written a gorgeous new book called ‘The Secret Lives of Dragons: Expert Guides to Mythical Creatures’, so is clearly a fountain of scaly-knowledge on all things Dragons.
We had loads of Dragon-related questions, so let’s get stuck into the interview!
Imagining History - Hey Professor, thank you so much for joining us! We loved 'The Secret Lives of Dragons' and we’d love to pick your brain about Dragon history. Could you tell us more about The Hindu Dragon, Vritra? What was this incredible creature like?
Professor Zoya - Hi everyone! It’s a pleasure to be invited along – I always love meeting fellow dragon enthusiasts. and especially ones with an interest in history.
Vritra is a super interesting dragon, being one of the oldest on record. Vritra’s story first appeared in an ancient Indian text called the Rig Vedas and has appeared (with different variations) across Hindu texts since, including the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata.
I’m really interested in where dragons appear throughout human history.
Whether it’s in artworks or religions, carved into walls, or written into parchment, it tells me something about how incredibly connected humans are throughout cultures, time, and place.
The dragon Vritra is famous for his battle against Indra, a God of thunder and the monsoon rains. Considering how important rain is for crops, animals, the earth, and humans; this makes Indra a very important God. In their battle, Indra eventually killed Vritra the dragon, but what is absolutely certain is that Vritra was also incredibly powerful. In order to be a worthy challenger to the great God of thunder, he had to be. A battle wouldn’t be impressive if the opponents weren’t equally matched. The best way to describe Vritra? A dragon worthy of challenging the gods.
Then there’s Lung Wang, an Ancient Chinese Dragon. What sort of Dragon was Wang? A nice-one? A nasty-one?
Most definitely a nice one! Historically, dragons in Eastern cultures such as China, Japan, and Korea were seen as benevolent creatures. They were considered kind and generous, with the power to grant luck and fortune to those in their care. Lung Wang was one of these dragons. In fact, he was known as King of the Dragons – he was responsible for the seas, the ocean tides, the weather as well as other dragons.
He was hugely important, particularly among people who lived along the coast and relied on fishing and travel and trade by boat. Even today across China, dragons are considered a symbol of luck and are celebrated through beautiful artworks, festivals, and the designs of special buildings. Ever since the time of Lung Wang, they represent fortune, strength, wisdom and kindness. Not bad for a lasting legacy.
Are there any other famous Dragons from history we should know about?
There are tons! What is surprising and delightful about the history of dragons is that you’ll find them everywhere – in nearly every culture around the world, no matter how far apart those cultures lived. It’s almost harder to find one that didn’t feature creatures of a dragony-likeness. Isn’t that incredible?! Ancient Mesopotamian children were told about dragons around 5,000 BCE just as the young Vikings did thousands of years later. Some of the stories are very similar and others quite different.
I didn’t have space to include Ayida-Weddo, a serpent-like dragon of Benin in West Africa. She was a gargantuan dragon whose seven thousand coils wrapped themselves around the bottom of the world. When she passed mountains she sliced out riverbeds. And as the rains fell, the water created a rainbow off her scales. She is remembered as the rainbow serpent in Vodou texts from West Africa to the Caribbean.
Some of the dragons you can look out for include a Sumerian dragon called Kur. An English dragon called the Lambton Worm, could coil her body around the local hill seven times due to her size. Also Watatsumi, a Japanese dragon whose story is told in the Kojiki, 'Record of Ancient Things.'
I’m afraid we’d like to ask you about some of those terrible Dragons Slayers you mentioned in your book – sorry! Perseus, we’ve covered him previously in our blog, but it turns out he’s a dragon slayer?
Not to worry! In history, it’s important to discuss the gruesome stuff and we wouldn’t understand dragons without looking at their slayers.
Perseus (as many of your readers and historical detectives will know) was a demi-god in Greek mythology. He was made famous among the Greeks for killing Medusa, a Gorgon with the power to turn people to stone.
On his way back from beheading Medusa (whose head he decided to take home with him!), Perseus comes across Andromeda, the Princess of Ethiopia. She’s been tied up along the coast and is going to be devoured by a sea dragon called Cetus. On seeing the princess, Perseus decides to come to her rescue but in doing so he must face Cetus who has been ordered by the sea god Poseidon to devour the princess.
That is the (very short) story of Perseus and Cetus. Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about this dragon. Like many sea creatures in these waters, Cetus served the sea God Poseidon and obeyed Poseidon’s orders. Perseus rescued the princess and Cetus was killed. Poor young Cetus was only following Poseidon’s instructions.
I think most of our readers will be familiar with the tale of St George and the Dragon, but who was the real goodie in this tale?
That’s a very good question and doesn’t have an entirely clear answer I’m afraid.
For those that don’t know the tale of St. George and the dragon, the story goes that a dragon had emerged from the marshes near a village and was terrorising the locals. To keep the dragon at a comfortable distance, the villagers sacrificed two sheep a week until their sheep and then their livestock had completely run out. Eventually, they had to sacrifice their children (history can be very gruesome). When it was the turn of the King’s daughter to be taken away, St. George appeared. He was horrified by what he discovered so off he went to kill the dragon, which he managed to do, to the villagers’ relief.
The dragon without doubt was acting terribly – but as a dragon historian I would love to know why, and what the other side of the story might be. And as for whether St George was good – he certainly had good intentions but I’m left to wonder whether slaying is the only answer to a problem?
The tale of Beowulf has always fascinated us – could you tell us and our readers more about this ferocious fella?
He was ferocious indeed! Beowulf’s strength has been compared to a bear or a wolf (think of the sound of his name when you say it aloud). He is said to have had the strength of 30 people, could swim underwater for a supernatural amount of time, and even went into a battle unarmed to defeat a monster called Grendel.
The story of Beowulf is written as a poem – one of the most important surviving Old English poems. It takes place on the coast of Scandinavia and the North Sea, around the fifth and sixth centuries (approximately 510 BCE). The story is an epic – much like the stories of Odysseus who readers might be more familiar with – Beowulf, his adventures and deeds are at the centre of this epic.
Beowulf journeys from his homeland, slays monsters and eventually becomes King and rules peacefully for 50 years. He died as an old man when battling an old dragon. It’s a sad end for both Beowulf and the dragon who had also lived peacefully in Beowulf’s lands for over 300 years. Their battle started after a cup was stolen from the dragon’s lair, which you can imagine annoyed the dragon a great deal.
We love Vikings here at Imagining History, and we loved reading about Siegfried in your book. Who was he and why has he become known as such an infamous dragon slayer?
Yes, the Vikings were fascinating. The story of Siegfried was very popular among the Vikings who took tales of his adventures with them wherever they sailed. This one ended up being written down in Iceland. Siegfried was a descendant of Odin and son to King of Volsungs, and was even said to be semi-supernatural, with the ability to shapeshift into other people.
‘The Saga of the Volsungs,’ where we find Siegfried’s story, is filled with adventure. Odin features a lot and helps Siegfried throughout – he even helps Siegfried pick out a horse which, luck would have it, is a descendant of Odin’s own eight-legged horse. In the stories there are hordes of treasure which include a ring of power, a magic helmet, and a golden coat of chainmail, there are dwarves and giants, and of course, the dragon Fafnir who is killed by Siegfried. It’s an epic tale of adventure, but also a story that traces Viking ancestors.
You may have already picked out a few similarities to a story that has become quite well-known today. Think of powerful rings, dragons, and dwarves … The story of Siegfried Fafnir was a great inspiration to J R R Tolkien who famously wrote The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Whether we realise it or not, ancient stories are all around us.
Are you working on any new books Professor that you would like to tell our readers about?
I am but it’s currently TOP SECRET! I’m excited to share when the time is right. Just watch this space.
Awesome! What a teaser! We cannot Wait!
Thank you Zoya, our brains our now cram-packed with more Dragon trivia than you can shake a large pointy claw at!