Four thousand years of dragon history

More than 4.000 years ago, a scribe from ancient Mesopotamia - the Middle Eastern region located in present-day Iraq - wrote a strange word on a clay tablet: ushum-gal. The word is in Cimmerian, the oldest written language, and is believed to be the oldest known word for dragon. It consists of the words gal (big) and ushum (snake)

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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

From dragon toys to Chinese tornadoes and quaint English villages, these are traces of an ancient myth in real life.

This February's Lunar New Year heralds the Year of the Dragon - but is it really? The Chinese word "lóng", or 龍, is most often translated as "dragon".

But don't let this fool you: the subtle and mystical lucky-bringing Chinese dragons are very different from the raging, fire-breathing monsters of English mythology.

To begin with, they are associated with wind rather than fire - the Chinese word for tornado (lóng juǎn fēng) can literally be translated as whirling-dragon-wind.

And Chinese dragons are also different from Cimmerian royal "ushum-gal" dragons - mythical snake-like creatures with lion's jaws.

All over the world, and in many different languages, people have come up with words that more or less denote dragons - but how they see them and whether they are sacred, friendly, deadly, or even just dangerous, is not the same in different cultures.

All these dragon-like creatures have one thing in common: they share their characteristics with real animals and reflect our interactions and feelings towards nature.

Ahead of you is a journey through history in search of the world's dragon myths and their real-life inspirations - and what they can teach us about our own relationship with nature.

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Oldest word for dragon?

More than 4.000 years ago, a scribe from ancient Mesopotamia - the Middle Eastern region located in present-day Iraq - wrote a strange word on a clay tablet: ushum-gal.

The word is in Cimmerian, the oldest written language, and is believed to be the oldest known word for dragon. It consists of the words gal (big) and ushum (snake).

But what kind of creature is the ushum-gal, and does it still have a living counterpart in the Middle East?

The Cimmerian texts suggest that it was a mythical creature inspired by snakes, but also by lions, says Jay Crisostomo, a professor of ancient Middle Eastern civilization and languages ​​at Michigan State University, whose work includes, among other things, deciphering and translating the original Cimmerian documents written on clay tablets.

"It's one of several mythical creatures (in Cimmerian culture) that combines different animals and traits related to wisdom, strength and protection," he says.

"Ushum-gal is particularly specific for its large, gaping jaws".

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In the Cimmerian telsts, the word ushum-gal is most often used as a metaphor for a lion or in connection with lions as part of some terrible, royal trait, continues Cristosomo: "For example, in the hymn to the moon, the god Suen says: 'Born in the mountains, overflowing with joy, he is a powerful force, a 'dragon' (ushum-gal), an almighty lord. Suen (with) mouth like a 'dragon', ruler of Ur!"

The word also describes a creature that rules over others and can only be defeated by the mightiest of men, he adds: "Some stories envision the god and king as so powerful that even the ushum-gal dare not leave his plain/desert or set foot on his road. I assume that the ushum-gal was originally probably some kind of lion or some other wild carnivore and that it gradually acquired other mythological associations over hundreds of years."

The Cimmerian language has no modern successors.

But those who know Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language related to today's Arabic or Hebrew, borrow the Cimmerian word and use it as "ushumgalu," which translates as "lion-dragon," Cristosomo says.

In Akkadian culture, this lion-dragon was worshiped as a divine being, he says: "Another mythological dragon-like creature in Akkadian is mushhušshu (borrowed from Cimmerian mush mush 'fierce serpent'); this creature translates as 'dragon' and is depicted on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon".

He then concludes, “So is ushum-gal the oldest known word for dragon? It probably is. In any case, it was a creature with features that mesh with our idea of ​​dragons. A powerful, awe-inspiring creature that gods and kings wanted to identify with, a creature steeped in legend and mystery. If it's a dragon, then the dragon is ushum-gal."

Lion statues and carvings from that time have survived to this day.

A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, all with its remaining fragments from the original Babylon, is taking place in a museum in Berlin.

But what about the real lions that once roamed the ancient Middle East?

We cannot know exactly which lions the Cimmerians meant.

But two Asiatic sub-groups of lions that were once relatively widespread are now nearly extinct, except for a small group in India.

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Chinese dragon of change

And while English dragons spewed fire and fought angels, Chinese dragons are holy beings. They rose without wings among the clouds and made winds, not fire, and were a symbol of good luck.

A number of academic theories explain the origins of ancient Chinese dragons, says Marco Maccarelli, a lecturer at the University of Catania in Italy.

It all starts with the idea that they were totemic symbols used by prehistoric clans and which, in turn, were inspired by real snakes or perhaps a giant sea python.

When tribal society became class-based, the dragon became a symbol of rulership, McCarelli wrote in the book Discovering the Long.

Some other theories link the legend to crocodile species, such as the Chinese alligator.

Seven thousand years ago, the wetlands of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River were a paradise for alligators.

But when farmers began to convert their habitats into rice fields, this species began to disappear.

Today it is one of the most endangered species of crocodile in the whole world.

Kite displays evolved from attempts to imitate the noise and spiraling shapes of lightning and thunder.

Good weather was invoked in prayers to dragons, McCarelli says.

That connection with time could help explain the linguistic associations with tornadoes and whirlwinds in Chinese, as discussed above.

But there is an alternative, fourth approach that suggests, according to McCarelli, that dragons evolved from worshiping nature to become a mixture of numerous animals and weather phenomena.

Roel Sterks, professor of Chinese history, science and civilization at the University of Cambridge, supports this theory and is skeptical of attempts to establish a link between Chinese dragons and real animals.

"A lot of nonsense has been written about the origin of Chinese dragons, including by various scientists who tried to identify them as some kind of alligator or other amphibious animals, but also by interpreters of epigraphs who tried to interpret these inscriptions as long pictograms of some kind of reptile," he says. for the BBC.

"The real truth is that this is all just speculation and that the point is that the Chinese dragon is a hybrid creature that has the traits and movements of all the animals combined," he adds.

In other words, the dragon is the embodiment not of an individual entity, but actually of the capacity for change.

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England's "Dragon Village"

In 793, "fire dragons" sailed across the skies above Northumbria - it was a bad omen.

This was followed by a cruel and devastating Viking raid on the island of Lindisfarne in the north of England, which shocked the whole of Europe.

Anglo-Saxon tales are full of ferocious dragons slumbering in burrows at the foot of hills, guarding treasure.

These legends live on in the names of many English places.

There are, for example, Dregley Beck, a hamlet in Lancashire, and Drakelow, a village in Derbyshire.

Both can be translated from "dragon mound" or "dragon hill".

Historically, the English have two common words for dragon: dragon and a now rarely used, ancient word wyrm, which could also be translated into our language as worm.

The word dragon is derived from the Latin word "draco" which means snake or sea fish.

On the other hand, in Christian religious texts the word dragon can also refer to the devil.

The mythological creature changes its features and contours throughout history, so the fire-breathing dragon is also known as a firedrake.

A wyrm, on the other hand, is a crawling, crawling creature, not a winged, flying, or fiery one.

The word wyrm can also be applied to parasites, snakes, and other grave-dwelling creatures in early medieval England.

It was the inspiration for many myths, such as the one about the worm-like Lambton who ate children.

This creepy creature is much more present in English folklore than its winged version and most often lurks in caves, swamps and ponds.

"The wyrm has no legs, it crawls like a snake," says Caroline Larrington, professor of medieval European literature at the University of Oxford.

It differs from fire and winged monsters: "A fire dragon can fly and spit fire," Larrington adds, "while a wyrm spits poison."

Maybe real snakes, Larrington says, inspired the myths.

"Some think that the fossil remains of dinosaurs also played a role in the creation of myths. But there is no clear connection between dragon stories and fossil remains," she says.

Myths inspired by snakes came to England from other territories: there is some evidence that dragon myths migrated with people.

Today, the number of rattlesnakes, which represent the only venomous snake species in England, is constantly decreasing due to increasingly intensive agricultural development that destroys snake habitats and causes fragmentation and isolation.

English dragons, on the other hand, says Larrington, are traditionally invulnerable and a symbol of power.

"If you want to kill them, you have to find their weak point," she says.

Whether you think of dragons as spiraling, swirling symbols of good luck or giant, crawling worms, the Lunar New Year could be a great chance to find traces of them in your languages, everyday life and environment - or, perhaps, immerse yourself with delight in the collective act of imagining and appreciating the nature that allowed the rise of these majestic creatures.

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