Editorial Feature

The Surprising History of Dragons

Before Game of Thrones, there were these South Asian and the Middle Eastern monsters

Picture a dragon. Chances are that what comes to mind is the leathery, vicious monster with big wings that dominates the Western imagination. From Game of Thrones to Harry Potter, the dragon is a creature of medieval legends and fantasy epics: snarling, evil, and probably breathing fire. You might also think of the dragons from Chinese folklore; those big-eyed, snake-like creatures that appear in popular celebrations around the world during Chinese New Year.

Less well known is the Middle Eastern and South Asian, particularly Persian, origins of the dragon. Whether it’s a terrifying monster terrorizing humans in legends, or a beautiful motif used for decoration, dragons played a big role in mythology, books, and art in the region, and are probably some of the oldest examples of the mythical beast in existence.

Ancient dragons

Ancient Indian sources like the Rig Veda (one of the oldest texts in the world, dated around 1500 BCE) speak of the great dragon Vrtra, who had to be killed by the god Indra to release the waters of heaven onto earth. In Mesopotamian myths, the god Marduk battled with the dragon Tiamat for supremacy over human beings. And in the Zoroastrian tradition of Iran, dragons were known as “azi” or “serpents,” and had important roles in scriptures, mostly as demonic creatures “who swallowed horses, who swallowed men… over whom poison flowed the height of a spear.”

Cuneiform tablet telling the Epic of Creation (From the collection of the British Museum)

Dragons come to the Persian court

Fast-forward several centuries, and there was a surge of dragons in the courts of Muslim rulers from Turkey to South Asia. In the medieval and early modern periods, these regions were knit together by a shared courtly culture steeped in Persian language, lore and traditions. The famous epic the Shahnama (or the Persian Book of Kings) composed by the seminal Persian writer Firdawsi in the late 10th and early 11th centuries was read and re-read across this broad region. It reached towards a pre-Islamic mythic past, drawing on a mix of history, popular folklore, and Islamic cosmology, and its heroes, like Rustum (below), often faced-off dragons.

Rustam and the Dragon, late 12th century (From the collection of Freer and Sackler Galleries)

Dragons cross cultures

One of the strongest heroes in the epic was Bahram Gur, a figure based on the earlier 5th-century Sasanian king, Bahram V. He was commonly depicted in combat against dragons, as in the illustrated manuscript edition of the Shahnama (below). In Persian art, the form of the dragon looks very similar to traditional Chinese ones, with a snake-like body surrounded by wisps of fire. Thanks to a long history of commercial and cultural exchange, Chinese artistic styles had filtered into the workshops of courts in medieval Iran and spread throughout the Persianate world.

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings), by Firdawsi (From the collection of Freer and Sackler Galleries)

As a result, extraordinary dragons appear in art all the way to Ottoman Turkey. This dragon clambering through foliage is one of the many beasts drawn by the famous artist Shah Quli in an imperial Ottoman studio in the 16th century. Shah Quli was a master of the so-called “saz” style that depicted mythical creatures in dense foliage. He had left Iran for Turkey to join the court of the greatest Ottoman emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent.

Dragon in Foliage, by Mir Sayyid Muhammad Naqqash, 1520-1550 (From the collection of Harvard Art Museums)

Mughal dragons spread their wings

Later, dragons also appeared in Islamic miniature paintings. You might think that this art form would have been most prevalent in the Middle East, but the craft of miniature painting actually reached its peak in India under the Turkic Muslim dynasty known as the Mughals. The 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar was a great patron of the arts, and his workshop produced many marvelous illuminated texts. The illustration below comes from an edition of the Hamzanama, a much-loved cycle of fantastical tales about the feats of Amir Hamza, the uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Mughal artists relished details like the spots along the dragon’s hide and the fire blooming around its body.

Folio from the Hamzanama (volume unknown): Umar defeats a dragon, by Akbar, 1557-1577 (From the collection of MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art)

In this late Mughal edition of the Shahnamah from the 19th century, the legendary king Bahram Gur cuts a man out from inside the dragon that swallowed him. As an image, it perfectly sums up the way the image of the dragon has been translated across cultures: it shows a 5th century Sasanian king, reinvented through an 11th century Persian epic, and then remade again through the eyes of a 19th century artist in India.

Leaf from a Shahnamah: Bahram Gur releasing a man from the body of a dragon, 19th century (From the collection of Freer and Sackler Galleries)

But even though dragons often appeared as demonic villains, they weren’t just fodder for the spears of valiant kings. In this 16th-century painting from Mughal India, the dragon (seen clambering up the mountain with its mouth open) attends a meeting of animals seeking to elect a new leader (the crow at the top of the mountain is debating against the owl).

The crow addresses the animals, a mounted miniature in gouache on paper, attributed to Miskin (From the collection of British Museum)

In Persianate art, dragons inhabited a wide and varied imaginative landscape that merged keen observations of nature with elements of myth. The dragon was meant to inspire wonder, not so much in the power of fantasy, but in the real world just beyond the reach of the viewer.

More animal stories:
- Dogs in Art
- Cats in Traditional Korean Painting
- Animals in Indonesian Art

Words by Kanishk Tharoor
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