From the ‘wyverns’ of English folklore to the slaying of a dragon in a Japanese legend, this article concentrates on the differences of these mythical beasts. For example, the Slavic dragon was considered evil, while some Japanese dragons were seen as a positive symbol and were often linked to water.
With two legs and two wings, the English called their dragons ‘wyverns’ during medieval times. The winged reptilian creature was mentioned in legends and had the head of the dragon, but the lower body of a lizard or snake. A barbed tail capped off the rest of its appearance. Interestingly, the wyvern was one of the ‘creatures in hell’ mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.
The dragon is called many different things in the Slavic language and you may encounter ‘zmey,’ ‘zmiy,’ ‘zmaj,’ zmif,’ ‘drak,’ and ‘smok.’ The Slavic dragon resembles the traditional image of a European dragon, but has multiple heads. They are fire breathing or leave behind flames when they fly. In Slavic and related tradition, the dragons symbolize evil. In some cases, a specific dragon is used as a symbol in story telling. For example, there is a dragon that represents the long-standing conflict between the Slavs and Turks. In Serbian and Bulgarian folklore, the dragon is a defender of crops and fights against malevolent demons.
The Japanese Dragon
One of the differences between a Chinese dragon and one associated with the Japanese is the number of claws. Japanese dragons have three, while Chinese dragons have four. The Japanese dragon (also called Ryu) is typically a positive symbol that is often linked to water. Some believe that the creatures can grant wishes.
A Japanese tale involving a dragon starts with an emperor who has become quite ill. He is unable to sleep at night because he hears a disturbing noise. When the sun sets, a dark black cloud appears from the East and settles on the roof of his palace. Soon, he learns that the cloud is actually a monster with large claws. As the nights passed, the dragon returned. Night after night, the health of the emperor declined. It became the consensus that if the monster was not destroyed, then the emperor would die.
There was only one knight with enough courage to encounter the dragon. His name was Yorimasa. He dressed in his armor and placed on his ceremonial cap instead of his usual helmet. With his best bow in hand and steel-tipped arrows, he went to fight the beast. Yorimasa was successful in killing the dragon, which was as big as a horse and had body parts that resembled various animals, such as an ape, tiger, bird, and serpent. Its body was covered in the scales of a dragon.
As soon as the dragon was killed, the emperor’s health quickly improved. In his treasure house, the emperor stored away the scales of the dragon. He gave Yorimasa a sword dubbed “the King of Lions.” The tale goes on to state that Yorimasa took Lady Ayame (the most beautiful lady-in-waiting at the imperial court) as his wife.