Game of Thrones and the True History of Dragons

Correction appended, 12:20 p.m.

With Game of Thrones returning to HBO on Sunday, fans may finally find out what happened to the fictional dragons they were left wondering about almost a year ago. But while that particular story will have to wait at least a few more days, there's plenty of real dragon history to tide us over—and it's not always so far from what happens in George R.R. Martin's fantastical universe.

Not that it's easy to pinpoint the first dragon myth, says Christopher Fee, a professor of English at Gettysburg College who has published several books related to dragon-lore, including Mythology in the Middle Ages. Part of the reason is that it's not easy to pinpoint dragons as an idea.

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“In today’s world we often define a dragon as a giant, scaly, winged, reptilian beast, often that can breathe fire," he says. "In the ancient world this wasn’t always the case. They were very often giant serpents of various kinds."

And that's not to mention dragons in Asian cultures or the early Mexican deity of the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, who are further from the dragons on Game of Thrones. Or that tons of different archaic words have been translated into English as "dragon." Or the fact that many myths have been refracted through the lenses of various conquering cultures, maintaining their monsters but often losing some of their more complicated pre-monotheistic worldviews. Though some dragon myths are probably independent—anywhere with snakes or lizards could conceivably be a place that generates its own mythical scaly things—they became interwoven over time, Fee says, as travelers and traders brought stories from distant lands. (That same "telephone game" process of communicating myths happens with real creatures too, he says, as can be seen with early rumors about crocodiles and hippopotami.)

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Some of the most famous dragons from the history of mythology include, but are not limited to: the dragon battled by St. George, which may be a Christianized interpretation of the Greek mythological Cetus; the Norse wyrm Fafnir, a "great worm," and the Norse death dragon Nidhogg, who gnaws on the roots of the World Tree that holds up the universe; Zohak from the Iranian Book of Kings; the Babylonian dragon Tiamat; the dragon Vritra in Indic mythology; and the dragon in Beowulf, who helped inspire the dragon Smaug of The Hobbit.

But Game of Thrones fans may be interested in one particular dragon myth, says Fee. It was a dragon-shaped comet that inspired one early British King, Uther, to take the name "Pendragon," meaning "Chief Dragon," in honor of the omen. Uther's son would be Arthur Pendragon—better known as King Arthur. That particular myth has the Red Messenger comet of GoT fame and the link between a royal family and dragons.

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One important takeaway for Game of Thrones fans from the real history of dragons is that, as Fee puts it, "they certainly can be evil, but not necessarily."

In addition to a connection with royalty, many mythological dragons have been ascribed a power of mystical foresight. (In fact, some scholars believe that the word is related to an Indo-European root meaning "sight.") And, though Dragons can symbolize greed and protectiveness, that symbolism can be turned around to mean protection. For example, a Viking ship with a dragon prow would have been scary for other people but comforting to the people in the ship. Some of the shift toward seeing dragons as primarily villainous, at least in Europe, may be traced to the way conquering societies mess with the myths of their subjects, Fee says. As Christianity became dominant, the idea of a protective dragon power became problematic—after all, Christians ought not need protection from anyone other than Christ—so dragons lost some of their positive associations.

That precarious balance between power and protection, fear and foresight, is something that any Game of Thrones fan could recognize in Daenerys' uncertain relationship with the dragons on which she depends.

"They’re powerful forces that we can’t understand," Fee says. "They represent things about the world that we may fear but also admire.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly described Christopher Fee. He is an English professor.

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