Last modified: September 15th, 2021
Short answer: yes.
Longer answer: yeah, I think so, kinda, for the most part, depending on context…
Really long answer….
In the context of general human collective unconscious, dragons are the ultimate manifestation of a predator. With the traits of a big cat, bird of prey, crocodilian, and snake, they combine qualities of apex predators across biomes. I’m mostly referring to European four-legged, two-winged dragons here, but even ancient Chinese dragons are patchworked together from numerous animals. Dragons have always been chimeric, and they always represent a potential threat, even if they are good-natured. Very rarely do we see a media depiction of a dragon that the people in that world are not afraid of. Dragons represent a fear universal to all creatures: being eaten. Humans don’t have a lot of opportunities to feel the fear of being prey. We occupy a very comfortable (a.k.a. destructive) place in the ecosystem of Earth and very, very few things could ever threaten that – war, massive storms, wildfires and other disasters, pandemic, and a very few select animals like tigers and crocodiles. Interesting, what happens if we combine a tiger and a crocodile, give it the tremendous destructive power of a storm, and possibly even disease- or fire-spreading breath? Uh oh, sounds kind of like a dragon to me…
An Instinct for Dragons by anthropologist David E. Jones proposes that dragons are a sort of archetype that exists in the human unconscious, a hybrid of ancient predators that would stalk our arboreal primate ancestors, a sort of blueprint for all the things that we should fear installed deep in our brains to keep us alive. It’s certainly an interesting idea. In this sense, dragons are definitely monsters – a representation of humanity’s fear of losing our status on the food chain.
Dragons pose another threat, however. Dragons are the Serpent of Eden, the “fiery flying serpents” of Judeo-Christian Biblical lore (Isaiah 14:29), and of course, the apocalyptic seven-headed Great Red Dragon of Revelations. The awkward and clumsy dragons of the Middle Ages, such as the beast that St. George slew, and the milk-drinking worm from the well of Lambton, were less of physical threats, and more of spiritual ones (including their tendency to spread disease – remember, they didn’t have a concept of germ theory, so illness was as invisible and intangible and often believed to originate from curses). They represented sins like greed and sloth, and often demanded tribute or sacrifice – worship. They took gold not for its’ value to themselves, but for its’ value to those who were forced to donate it. Maidens were desired not because the dragon had a particular use or need for them, but because it was detrimental for the small villages who were terrorized by the dragon to lose their healthy young women.
There’s an immediate connection here to Christian morals and spiritual wellbeing. Of course, the symbol of the dragon has existed long before Christianity, even if by other names – Jörmungandr, the World Serpent; Níðhöggr, the Curse Striker and eater of the World Tree’s roots; Apep/Apopis, the Egyptian serpent-god who hunts the sun; Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent-god of Mesoamerica; and of course, countless East Asian dragons, both benevolent and threatening beings of water and rain who are often just as divine and heavenly as they are masters of the earthly elements.
How did dragons, formerly god-like beings of nature, become so heavily associated with outright evil and damnation?
Ah, well, that would be a deliberate strategy to convert Pagans to Christianity by way of corrupting existing symbolism as Christianity spread across the world. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, after all. The only way to make polytheistic people turn to your monotheistic religion is to destroy their existing gods and subjects of worship, by making them look bad and dirty when compared to your god. There are even ancient churches in the British Isles and Scandinavia that feature both Christian crosses and intertwining dragons and therefore were welcoming to the existing beliefs. Of course, they represented the temptations of evil in this much more black-and-white religion, but the symbolism was familiar enough to the protective symbols of sea serpents and dragons so prominent in ancient Viking carvings to feel inclusive.
So of course dragons are monsters, when they are a representation of the Adversary, the Devil, temptation and outright evil. What a shame that a complex symbol of nature, wildness, heaven and earth, rain and sky, hunger and protection, became reduced down to a bland one-dimensional icon of badness. They are still the final boss, the ultimate conquest, but now instead of conquering the forces of nature, killing the dragon was to conquer the manifestation of sin. A laudable goal, sure, but what a waste of an ancient and complicated symbol representing humanity’s struggle with our place in the world..
I could go on about how similar corruptions happened to the imagery of witches and horned wild men (satyrs, fauns, Cernunnos, Herne the Hunter) – both became heavily associated with the Devil. Especially if the original symbol was powerful or had god-like influence over nature or reality in any way, it had to be both de-fanged and made evil in order for the Christian god to be superior to it. Sort of like… retconning deities. “No, no, they were always bad and shitty, our God was always the best.”
So yes, dragons are monsters. But in a delightfully morbid turn of events, they became monsters because they were told that was the only way they could still exist in our world.
I’d be pretty pissed, too.