Dragons have walked and flown all over the earth in every age. They are present from ancient Greece and Rome to ancient India and China, in Norse myths, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Chinese art, and modern literature.
The dragons of the Far East are water serpents who live in the ocean, breathe clouds, and bring rain. They usually have four legs, long snakelike bodies, and horns or a crest. The dragons of the ancient Western world were legless serpents, sometimes killing elephants by coiling around their necks and strangling them.
By the time of the medieval bestiaries, dragons were still serpents but usually with legs (sometimes two, sometimes four) and wings. They had impenetrable scales, breathed fire, and liked to steal and hoard precious objects. The earliest example in literature of this kind of dragon is in Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that described events that took place in the sixth century but was written down between 975 and 1025. The dragon the hero Beowulf must slay is nocturnal, treasure hoarding, airborne, vengeful, and fire breathing.
In medieval Europe, people feared attacks by dragons. Urine from dragons flying overhead would putrefy human skin, and dragons’ breath could poison wells and streams. Satan was able to take the shape of a dragon, motivating heroes and saints to slay him. Saint George famously did so in Palestine in the third century, but slaying dragons could also be women’s work: Saint Margaret of Antioch (289–304) and Saint Elizabeth of Constantinople, who is thought to have lived between the sixth and ninth centuries, slew their fair share.
Because the dragon is associated with Satan, his enemy is the panther, who is a symbol of Christ. Dragons cannot stand the sweet smell of the panther’s breath and hide when the big cat roars. Dragons are also repelled by the peridexion tree, which grows in India, and are harmed if they even fall under its shadow. This is likely why doves, symbol of the Holy Spirit and faithful Christians, roost in the peridexion tree.
Another enemy of the dragon is the ichneumon, a mongoose that doesn’t care much for social propriety. When it sees a dragon, the ichneumon covers itself with mud, closes its nostrils with its tail, and then attacks and kills the dragon immediately.