Perhaps the most popular mythical creature, the dragon is a highly complex symbol with various meanings in different cultures.
Typically depicted as a large beast with serpentine and reptilian traits, the dragon may also have features of other animals as well as humans.
In many traditions, dragons are the embodiment of untamed nature and elements of chaos.
In this guide, we will list some of the most popular historical dragon symbols across different cultures of the world.
The Chinese Dragons
The Chinese dragon is the most essential part of ancient Chinese culture. Ancient China regarded dragons as the most potent symbol of good fortune and energy.
The culture considered dragons to be the heralds of fortune, abundance, success, and prosperity.
Coupled with the Phoenix symbol, the dragon represented perfect balance and harmony.
In many depictions, the dragons carry a pearl under their chin which symbolizes wealth, great fortune, truth, wisdom and enlightenment.
Although most cultures of the world regard dragons as a part of folklore, in Chinese culture, the dragon symbol has deep-rooted significance.
This culture also has the most varied kind of dragons (too many to count, really!) which is why we will put a lot of focus on them in this guide.
1. Azure Dragon
An Azure Dragon on the Flag of the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty (1889-1912)
!Original:清朝政府Vector: Sodacan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Azure Dragon, also known as the blue-green dragon, blue dragon, or green dragon is one of the Dragon Gods who represent the mount or subterranean forces of the Five Forms of the Highest Deity, the manifestation of the Supreme God.
The Azure Dragon is also one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellation and represents the east direction and the season of spring.
At Taoist temples, the Azure Dragon is considered to be a door god, a divine guardian of doors, gates, and thresholds used to protect the people from evil forces entering into a house and encouraging positive forces to come in.
2. White Dragon
A white dragon on a wall in Haikou, Hainan, China
Anna Frodesiak, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The White Dragon is considered to be a symbol of purity and the Song dynasty canonized White Dragons as the spirits of pure and virtuous kings.
In some cases, though, White Dragon is also considered to be an omen of death and mourning or of warning.
In China, the color white is associated with the occult and white animals represent the supernatural, hence the white dragon has influence over these realms.
In addition, it also had power over droughts and thunderstorms.
White Dragons are also associated with the south direction.
3. Red Dragon
The Red Dragon, also known as the Vermillion Dragon, has been canonized by the Song Dynasty as the spirits of kings that bestow blessings on the lakes.
It is also a symbol of good fortune and wealth which is why this symbol is commonly seen at Chinese weddings and other important celebrations to bring good luck and joy.
In fact, the importance of the Red Dragon is such the nickname for China is the Land of the Red Dragon.
4. Black Dragon
Black Dragons symbolize the dragon kings that live in the depths of mystic water. This dragon is powerful, noble, and self-assured.
In ancient China, the Black Dragon were the personification of lightning storms and floods, because the ancient Chinese believed these natural catastrophes were a result of black dragons fighting each other in the celestial sky.
5. Yellow Dragon
Portrait of the Hongwu Emperor in a silk yellow dragon robe featuring embroidered the Yellow Dragon
Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Yellow Dragon is the personification of the Yellow Emperor of the center of the cosmos in Chinese mythology and the Fifth Symbol that completes the Sixiang (Four Symbols).
Legend has it that the Yellow Emperor was given birth by a virgin mother Fubao who conceived him after seeing a yellow light turning around the Northern Dipper, which is the principal symbol of God.
At the end of his life, the Yellow Emperor transformed into the Yellow Dragon and ascended to heaven.
Since the Chinese consider the Yellow Emperor as their ancestor, they call themselves the “children of the dragon.” This is why the symbol of the Chinese imperial power is the dragon.
In addition, the Yellow Dragon also symbolizes the earth as well as the changing of the seasons.
A symbol of a Yinglong from the classic text of Shah Hai Ching
unknown (Chinese), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Yinglong is a winged dragon in China, an oddity since most Chinese dragons are without wings.
The literal meaning of Yinglong means “responsive dragon” or “responding dragon.” In Chinese classics, the Winged Dragon is associated with rains and sometimes floods.
When the people on earth suffer from a drought, they create an image of Yinglong after which they receive heavy rains.
Aside from controlling the rain, the Yinglong dragon also did something else. It used its tails to draw lines in the earth to create rivers.
Hence, Yinglong is accredited with the creation of waterways which is the most important thing for rice cultivators.
It is also related to other Chinese rain and flying dragons like “jiao” (flood dragon), “feilong” (flying dragon), “hong” (rainbow dragon), and “tianlong” (heavenly dragon).
Daoist Xian riding horned dragons
Image courtesy: Wikipedia Creative Commons
Quilong or qui dragon is a one of the most important and powerful dragons in Chinese mythology which is contradictorily defined as the “horned” or “hornless” dragon.
In some depictions, this dragon is colored red with a gold underbelly, square jaw, a beard, and a fringe.
Although this dragon was sometimes shown to have aggressive tendencies, it has also been associated with making rain.
The Horned Dragon was also considered to be the wisest of all dragons and hence became a symbol of imperial power.
Although it is does not have any wings, this dragon can fly with magic.
Fuzanglong dragons chasing a flaming pearl on a Qing Dynasty plate
National Museum in Warsaw, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
In Chinese myth, the Fuzanglong is the Dragon of Hidden Treasures or the underworld dragon which guards natural and man-made treasures, like gold, gems, and works of art.
However, its most import characteristic is that it possesses a magic pearl which is its most precious possession.
These dragons were considered very elusive and humans hardly ever saw them unless they went deep underground to look for forbidden treasure.
According to Chinese folklore, volcanoes were formed when these dragons were woken from their slumber and burst forth from the ground.
It is said that volcanoes erupted when a Fuzanglong is reporting back to heaven.
Bixi is the eldest son of the Dragon King and is often known as the Dragon Tortoise.
This dragon is depicted with a shell like a tortoise on its back which is capable of carrying large and heavy objects.
Because of this, he represents power and strength and its sculptures are often placed at the bottom of pillars to enhance the strength of the building’s foundation.
The tortoise is also associated with long-running good fortune, hence, people would place Bixi in their homes or at the bottom of grave monuments to invite good fortune.
In addition, the dragon also represents uncomplaining nature, resilience, hard work, and toughness.
Chiwen is one of the nine sons of the Dragon King and is depicted with the head of a dragon and a body of a fish.
He also has an enormous mouth and loves drinking water from it. He is considered to be a deity of rain and waterbodies.
Because of this, the traditional Chinese believed that Chiwen could protect them against fire and its statue was often placed on palace and temple walls.
Hence, you can see the likeness of Chiwen standing guard on rooftops of many older Chinese buildings.
Pulao is another son of the Dragon King and lives in the sea. He has an extremely flexible body with which he can easily swim through water and has an extremely loud roar.
Even though he lives in the sea and is a dragon, Pulao is intimidated by whales and often roars when he is attacked.
Because of this loud voice, bells in China are often decorated with the figure of Pulao so that they may sound loud and resound over large distances.
Bian is a son of the Dragon King and some records show he looks like a tiger, although most of its representation consist of only his large dragon head.
Bian is regarded with a lot of reverence and respect as he was known to be just, fair and impartial.
He also has excellent powers of litigation and eloquence and hence you may see his likeness installed in entrances to courthouses.
Since he is also a force of justice, Bian also decorates the door of prisons.
A son of the Dragon King, Taotie does not have a single specific appearance. Instead, he is sometimes seen with the body of a goat or a wolf.
In many cases, the Taotie motif consists of two large eyes, two horns, and a large nose in the middle.
This dragon is associated with food, abundance, and in negative cases, gluttony. Hence, people who indulge in eating and who hoard wealth are known as people of Taotie.
In his positive connotation, though, Taotie is often depicted on bronze food vessels and rice bowls to bring a steady supply of food.
He is also engraved on ritual objects like tripods and bells.
Suanni is the son of the Dragon King and is often depicted with several lion-like characteristics.
He is not an active creature and is often depicted sitting still and observing his surroundings rather than being in constant motion.
Hence, his likeness is represented upon the bases of Buddhist idols.
He is often also represented with a golden body which can be interpreted as flames.
As such, Suanni is associated with fire and smoke and you can often see his image at the incense burners in Chinese temples.
Qiuniu is the youngest of the nine sons of the Dragon King. It has the head of a dragon and the body of a snake with ears and has excellent listening abilities.
Hence, it can recognize most sounds and is considered to be talented in the musical arts.
Since this dragon is associated with music, traditional Chinese would carve the symbol of Qiuniu on fiddles as well as many other ethnic minority musical instruments.
He is also associated with peaceful protection which is why many people used to hang its symbol in and around their home.
Yazi is the son of the Dragon King and is the most fear-inducing dragon of all his brothers.
He is depicted with the head of a wolf or jackal and has a fiery temper. He is often seen wearing a mean glare and has a disposition of being always ready for a fight.
Because of this, Chinese believed that the presence of Yazi can strike fear into the hearts of enemy forces and ensure victory in battle.
Hence, they would often carve the figure of Yazi on their swords and spears. Soldiers who carried these weapons believed their strength was enhanced and their morale was boosted.
It was also believed that Yazi had the power to wipe out all evil spirits.
Jiaotu, also known as Tiao Tu, is one of the sons of the Dragon King. He had a shell like a snail or mussel and enjoyed closing things and keeping them shut.
He lived behind high walls and would only come to the door when he was forced.
Because of this characteristic, Jiaotu was known as a guardian of gates. The ancient Chinese would put the image of Jiaotu on doors to ensure they remain closed for safety.
In ancient buildings, his image was also carved on door handles and knockers. However, most of these motifs show only the dragon’s head and not his entire body.
Dragons In Other Cultures
The dragons of China and other cultures may be similar in physical characteristics, but their symbolic meaning may be drastically different. Let us take a look at some important dragon symbols from around the world:
A painting of Princess Tamatori stealing Ryūjin’s jewel
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In Japanese myth, the Ryujin are patron deity of the sea and the ocean. This dragon had a large mouth and had the ability to transform into a human.
It was believed that the dragon lives in an underwater palace made of red and white coral from where he controlled the tides by using magical tide jewels.
Fish, sea turtles and jellyfish are all considered to be servants of Ryujin.
Since the Ryujin was associated with salt-water bodies, it is considered to be a god deity since the Japanese population depends on the sea and seafood for their livelihood and food.
Ryujin is also worshipped as water kami in the Shinto religion and its followers invoke the dragon through rain prayers, agricultural rituals, and the success of fishermen.
19. Smok Wawelski
A drawing of Smok Wawelski, or the Wawel Dragon of Krakow
Sebastian Münster, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Wawel Dragon is a famous dragon in Polish folktales. According to the legend, the dragon would wreak havoc across the countryside of Krakow, the capital of Poland, eating their livestock and maidens, pillaging their homes, and killing civilians.
A cobbler named Skuba was successful in killing the dragon by stuffing a lamb with sulfur and placing it outside the dragon’s cave.
When the dragon ate it, he became so thirsty that he drank river water until he burst.
The Wawel Dragon is a famous symbol of evil in Poland, though it also has some actual historical significance.
Some historians believe that the dragon is a symbol of the Pannonian Avars on Wawel Hill in the sixth century and the victims devoured by the dragons are a symbol of tribute giving by the Avars.
In some instances, the tale of the Wawel Dragon is also used to interpret human sacrifices in the region.
A religious symbol of Ayida-Weddo and Damballa, always depicted together
chris 論, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ayida-Weddo is known as the “Rainbow Serpent” in the Vodou culture, particularly in the regions of Benin and Haiti.
They are known as Ioa or the patron spirits of wind, water, fire, snakes, and fertility.
Ayida Weddo symbols are the rainbow and the white paquet congo, a Haitian spiritual ceremonial object made by vodou priests.
The colors associated with this snake goddess are green and white and her followers make her offerings of white chicken, white eggs, rice, and milk.
She is often seen with the symbol of Damballa, her husband and male counterpart.
Together, they both serve as a link between blood and life, menstruation and birth and the ultimate sacrament of blood sacrifice.
Apophis being warded off by the deity Atum
See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Apophis or Apep was an ancient Egyptian deity in the form of a giant serpent. It was also sometimes depicted as a crocodile and was inspiration for work such as the Evil Dragon and Serpent from the Nile.
The Apophis was a deity of chaos and thus the opponent of Maat, the god of truth and order.
The greatest enemy of Apophis was Ra, the sun god, who ironically and inadvertently was responsible for the birth of Apophis since the myth goes the giant snake was formed from Ra’s umbilical cord.
Hence, the myth symbolizes that evil is the consequences of a person’s own actions against non-existence.
The ancient Egyptians performed numerous rituals and prayers to aid Ra across his journey in the sky and ward of Apophis with his light.
They also held an annual rite where the priests would build an effigy of Apophis which they believed contained all the sins and evils of the world and burned it to protect the people from Apophis’s evil for another year.
Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Quetzalcoatl translates literally into “precious serpent” or “Quetzal-feathered serpent.” This dragon is considered to be a deity in Mesoamerican cultures and its name in the allegorical sense means “wisest of men.”
Based on the Teotihuacan depictions of this feathered serpent, archeological experts have argued that the Quetzalcoatl was a symbol of fertility and internal political structure contrasting with that of Kukulkan, the War Serpent.
Other experts believe the serpent was the one of the three major agricultural deities: the Goddess of Cave which symbolized reproduction, motherhood, and life; Tlaloc, god of rain, lightning and thunder; and the feathered serpent, which represented renewal of vegetation.
In addition, the Quetzalcoatl was connected to the planet Venus because it is considered to be the harbinger of rainy season. In the Mayan and Teotihuacan culture, Venus is also considered to be associated with warfare.
Historians also argue that the primary function of the Quetzalcoatl was the patron god of culture and civilization.
A wyvern is a legendary winged dragon of European mythology that is depicted with two legs and a tail ending in an arrow or diamond-shaped tip.
Wyverns are the most common type of draconic heraldic symbols in Europe and are depicted in numerous styles.
Its most common representation is that of a creature of protection and valor and it is believed to have a great eyesight. In other cases, wyverns are also a symbol of vengeance.
In artwork depicting battles, the wyvern was shown most probably as a symbol of strength and power.
Very little has been recorded about wyvern crests and their symbolism but many of these creatures have been represented with scales, spiked back, bifurcated tongue, and a whip-like tail, which was how most dragonkind was represented in the Middle Ages.
Dragons may be part of a myth but in most ancient cultures and civilizations, they carried a lot of importance and had far-reaching impacts.
Historically, dragons have been symbols of both positive and evil characteristics. In many Asian cultures, most dragons are benevolent deities who showered people with bounties but sometimes also showed them their wrath. However, in other cultures, they are considered to be incarnations of evil.
We hope that understanding the different dragon symbols throughout history may help you get a better understanding of the various cultures and religions of the historical world.