Mythical sea dragons have been a part of human folklore for thousands of years, with stories being passed down through the generations and becoming ingrained in many cultures worldwide.
For centuries, cultures around the world have recounted stories of these giant sea serpents. Like prehistoric sea creatures, could there be any truth to these myths? Read on to learn more about the history of the mythical sea dragons.
History of the Sea Dragon
If you were to ask someone today what a dragon is, they would likely describe it as a large, intelligent, reptilian creature with wings and an affinity for gold.
The dragon is one of history’s most well-known mythical creatures, but it isn’t the only one. In fact, almost every culture in the world has its own ideas about these beasts.
Dragons in modern pop culture are often shown as living in caves or flying, however many ancient cultures believed they dwelled in the sea. The Chinese have the most well-known dragons of this type, but other cultures had their own unique mythical sea dragon
There are many mythical sea creatures with different meanings across cultures, but they also share some similarities!
Sea Dragons in Chinese Mythology
Dragons maintain a significant presence in Chinese culture through art, festivals, and even the zodiac.
Some Chinese dragons had the features of turtles or fish, but most were serpentine. They had long bodies and four legs, fearsome faces, and often large horns.
According to archaeological evidence, creatures similar to dragons were depicted in art as early as the 5th millennium BC. By the time of the Emperors, dragons had become symbolically associated with power and prestige.
People used to believe dragons were knowledgeable, physically tough, and great. Those who displayed these characteristics were often said to be like dragons. While those seen as weak and immoral were more likely compared to animals such as worms or insects.
Because of the longstanding association between dragons and greatness, they became a symbol of imperial authority. Consequently, many emperors included features related to dragons in their official imagery or architecture.
Some of the myths about dragons portray them as being connected to the ruling class. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Chinese myths feature dragons in various roles – some good and some bad.
The Yellow Emperor was a significant individual in not only Chinese culture, but also the introduction of animal domestication and agriculture. He is best known for being the first ruler of China and spreading various foundations that are now commonplaces.
After the Yellow Emperor ruled for a century and passed away, he was remembered as a dragon that looked like his former imperial emblem.
The Yellow Dragon
The Yellow Dragon was both the center of creation and the ancestor of Han Chinese people. Because of this, many refer to themselves as “Children of the Dragon.”
Dragons had a hand in governing water in Chinese mythology. Other cultures believed that Gods or nymphs were related to large bodies of water, but the Chinese specifically believed that dragon kings held power over rivers and seas.
People in ancient times would pray to and offer sacrifices to the dragon king that ruled over their local river or waterfall. They did this in order to win the dragon’s good favor and prevent natural disasters such as floods and droughts.
In olden tales, slaying ferocious dragons was often a metaphor for controlling the waterways. Dams, irrigation systems, and drainage networks were all ways of getting rid of or taming a dragon that had once caused floods and difficulty.
The four most powerful dragons in Chinese mythology were the dragon kings who ruled over each of the cardinal directions and corresponded to specific colors.
In ancient literature, sea dragons were often depicted as gods with power over their domains. They would commonly appear as both benevolent and malevolent figures.
The Dragon Kings
The dragon kings, who are often spoken about as if there is only one, were actually gods of weather. They had the power to bring rain, floods, and droughts when angered but could also be helpful if people pleaded with them nicely.
The dragon kings were both human and dragons–often shown in a masculine, serpentine form. They represented qi energy and power.
Not only are dragons significant in Chinese culture, but you can also see their influence during certain festivals. For example, dragon boat races occur during some celebrations, while others feature dragon dances where people parade with elaborately crafted dragon figures.
Over the span of thousands of years, China’s cultural influence led to mythical sea dragons becoming integral in the cultures of Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and other East Asian countries.
Mythical Sea Dragons in Egypt
Outside of China, mythical sea dragons were more often seen as gods rather than the enemies of god.
One of the earliest possible examples of a sea dragon in the West comes from Egyptian mythology. There, these creatures were said to be directly linked to the underworld.
According to Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra traveled through the sky in a Boat of Millions of Years. Each night before Ra went to sleep he would sail over the western edge of earth and descend into Duat, which is known as the underworld.
The most powerful demon Ra encountered while sailing through the underworld was Apep.
At 16-meters long, Apep was a ginormous serpent according to one of the most conservative sources. He represented the forces of chaos and darkness as he tried each night to kill Ra which would then prevent the sun from rising again.
Apep was often portrayed as a gigantic snake winding under Ra’s boat in artwork. He was also called the Serpent from the Nile or the Evil Dragon on occasion.
The often fought battles between the gods were said to be natural explanations of phenomena. For example, thunderstorms and earthquakes which are linked with sea creatures, were crafted by the underworld serpent.
Apep was enormous and intensely powerful, often leading to him being called “world-encircling.” He was likely symbolically tied to another figure from ancient Egyptian history.
The ouroboros is a symbol that originated in Egypt but has been used by many other cultures. It shows a great serpent biting its own tail, forming a complete circle.
The ouroboros was not originally a sea dragon, but its form became a popular way of representing such creatures in later years.
In the Levant
Many myths and legends from the Levant describe creatures that greatly resemble dragons as we know them. These mythical beasts were said to represent different aspects of nature, such as storms or land animals.
The Canaanites believed in a great serpent called Lotan who had been defeated by the storm god Ba’al long ago.
Lotan served the sea god Yam, who was Ba’al’s adversary. Even though Lotan may not be familiar to many people today, more have heard of the Biblical monster that this story inspired.
Isrealites, who were influenced by Canaanite lore, created the Leviathan. According to the Book of Psalms, this great serpent is defeated by Yahweh.
Although some passages in the Bible hint that the monster Leviathan was slain at creation, others suggest it was only tamed. It won’t be completely defeated until Judgment Day.
The Bible predicts that the sea dragon will eventually be destroyed when Messiah defeats all of Israel’s enemies.
Greek Drakaines and Sea Monsters
Sea dragons were also prominent in Greek and Roman mythology, which was likely due to the influence of Levantine cultures.
Serpents were attribute to many monsters in Greek mythology, most of which were connected with water in some way since the Greeks were a sea-faring culture. Therefore, dragon-like creatures existed frequently in their lore.
In fact, the English word “dragon” can be traced back to Greek mythology. These creatures were called drakainesin Greek.
Both male and female drakaines were capable of terrorizing the gods and men. It was however the females who often gave birth to other monsters and beasts.
The drakaines were a group of creatures with serpentine features that were seen as sea monsters. Creatures like Echidna, Lamia, and Scylla were all connected to the power of the sea.
The cetea more closely resembled the modern idea of a sea dragon.
In many stories, the cetea were sea monsters that Poseidon used to punish seaside cities he was angry with.
The most well-known cetus, for example, was killed by Perseus while he journeyed back from slaying another beast with reptilian qualities, the Gorgon Medusa.
In this instance, the cetus that attacked Ethiopia had been sent by Poseidon at the request of the nymphs who lived in the sea. When the Ethiopian queen had boasted that her daughter Andromeda was more lovely than any of the nymphs, Poseidon punished her kingdom for its hubris.
The city of Troy was also attacked by a cetus, after their king refused to pay a debt he owed to Poseidon.
According to many old stories, there was often a similar plot line involving the cetea. For instance, in several tales, Poseidon would send the creature and resulting floods to punish those who displeased him with their arrogance or lack of respect .
The floods not only wrought their own devastation but also granted the sea monster access to the city and its outskirts. The cetus hunted the city’s populace and employed its massive size to wreak havoc on buildings and crops.
According to prophecy, libations of blood were the only way to satiate a cetus, an ancient sea monster. In Ethiopia and Troy, innocent maidens were sacrificed as part of this brutal ritual. Young princesses were left bound to rocks by the ocean’s edge until a hero fought the creature and saved their lives– along with their city from further despair.
sailors often said they saw the cetea when sailing. They didn’t usually get a great look at them, but sometimes described large shapes under the water or seeing a big creature’s back come out of the surface of the water.
Artistic depictions of cetea vary, sometimes showing them as enormous fish, and other times resembling sea dragons. They typically had long snake-like bodies, canine heads, and either pointed ears or horns. Unlike Chinese dragons however, Greek cetea had fins instead of legs.
Although the cetea were destructive creatures that caused widespread terror, they were also shown to be more mundane animals in the sea.
Nereid sea nymphs sometimes rode them like horses and one writer said that they weren’t originally evil beings. However, their large size and strength made them destructive nonetheless.
Jormungandr, the great serpent of Norse mythology, is one of the most icon sea dragons in European lore. This mythical creature combines different aspects from real-life sea dragons, making it much more dangerous than other imaginary beings.
Jormungandr was one of the offspring of Loki, the Norse trickster god. Like his siblings, he was destined to be an enemy of the gods from birth.
After the gods discovered Loki’s children, they banished each one to a place where it was unlikely they would cause any more harm. The wolf Fenrir was chained and Hel became the queen of the Underworld while Jormungandr was thrown into the deep sea.
Jormungandr, also known as the World Serpent, was said to be incredibly large. In fact, he was so big that he filled the sea and completely encircled Midgard – the world of humans.
Jormungandr’s image is most likely based on the ouroboros, which came to Europe through trade between Greece/Rome and Egypt. He is usually represented as being so large that he can only stay in the ocean by biting his own tail.
Similarly to Near Eastern monsters, the Germanic sea dragon was also Thor’s arch-nemesis. He had two face-offs withThor during the storm god’s lifetime.
In one story, Thor and a giant went fishing. Despite being in a small boat, Thor insisted on rowing far out to sea.
Hymir was amazed when Thor, his fellow traveler, used the head of Hymir’s biggest ox as bait. Even after catching two whales, Thor continued to want to go further out.
Finally, after immense effort, Thor caught a fish. He barely managed to reel in the line and succeeded only due to his brute strength in pulling Jormungandr’s massive head out of the water.
Thor grabbed Mjolnir, his massive hammer, to end the sea dragon. But before he could swing, the petrified Hymir cut the line and Jormungandr vanished underwater.
In another story, the giant Uthgard-Loki challenged Thor to a test of strength by having him pick up Loki’s pet cat. Despite seeming like an easy feat, this was not the case for Thor.
The famously powerful god Zeus reached down for the cat, but he could barely move it. Using all his might, he only managed to lift one of its paws off the ground.
Even though Uthgard-Loki was greatly pleased with Thor’s effort, the cat had actually been Jormungandr in a magically disguised form. Lifting even a tiny fraction of its enormous weight was an impressive feat.
Norse mythology dictated that the greatest conflict between Thor and the world serpent was yet to come. They would face off at Ragnarok, the last battle of the gods.
Before Jormungandr would begin a battle, he would haul himself out of the water and onto dry land. After years of winter and warfare, many places were already ravaged by his presence, with crushed buildings and destroyed landscapes in his wake.
In ancient times, when the gods went to war with one another, Thor would fight against a mighty sea dragon. The battle was always so evenly matched that Thor was unable to help any of the other gods in their own duels.
Thor killed the dragon and turned to see his father, Odin, fighting Fenrir. He took a few steps before falling dead due to the dragon’s venom.