Why You Can't Drown a Dragon (and Other "True" Facts About Dragons)

Dragons in world myth and legend

Mythical Creatures: Dragon
Embroidered Chinese Dragon Banner. Jeff Spielman/Getty Images

You can't drown a dragon, no matter how you might try. Not through chivalry, not through valor; not through martial intensity nor advanced technological might; not by magic, not by luck; not by any method you can dream up can you succeed in causing a dragon to expire by underwater asphyxiation. This is a well known, if consternating, fact. And the reasons for it are at least twofold, if not manifold.

To begin with, the realms of dragons, the places where they are most in their element, are watery, moist regions. This is the first reason. Often they inhabit streams and lakes; sometimes they float bodily and dreamily through stormy skies. Dragons don’t have gills, but they can store up vast amounts of water and spew out torrents through their halitosis mouths; at least some of the really big ones can. It used to be that during a drought a human sacrifice might have to be made, commonly a princess — being a dragon’s most toothsome choice — so that the rains would return. In some places, however, the beast might be supplicated merely with flags, dances and incense.

Dragons, West and East

Now dragons can most unequivocally be slayed, and many have been, predominantly in Europe and the West. In these places dragons most haplessly became associated with the devil, with mighty forces of evil and other unsavory qualities, and by slaying one a person almost automatically became a hero.

Dragons appear in stories throughout the world and so, naturally enough — that is, due to the natural selection inherent in great storytelling traditions — they come in a large variety of shapes and sizes. Usually serpentine and covered with scales, you can have a dragon with a lion’s head, or maybe that of an eagle or a camel; you may see horns and a tail and you may not; and you might see either claws or talons for feet, and there will be two, four, or more of them.

They have the underbellies of oysters and the tongues of snakes. There is even a huge elephant dragon of India. That’s one I like; I’d have mine with silly little wings and dainty feet.

In the East, however, particularly in China, dragons represent good luck, fortune, wisdom, even spiritual tranquility. There they are often exalted and visionary creatures. The very word "dragon" is related to other ancient words having to do with vision, such as the Sanskrit darc, to see, the Avestic darstis, meaning sight, and the Old Irish derc, or eye. And like most wise and powerful beings, they guard secrets and confer favors.

The tale of Black Cui

As an example, there is the Chinese tale about poor Black Cui who made his living by carrying his tools about and mending things for people. One day he came upon a small baby dragon and took it home to feed it. Eventually the dragon grew too large to take care of so he moved it to a cave in North Mountain, where it thrived, and in time a large and powerful ginseng plant grew up at the cave’s entrance, but people feared to harvest it because of the great dragon that inhabited the cave. Eventually the emperor himself heard about the plant and decided he must have it.

When it was learned that Black Cui had raised the dragon, he was told to bring the plant to the emperor or he would have his head chopped off. So Black Cui hurried to the dragon and asked for the plant, reminding it that he had raised and cared for the creature when it was small, and so the dragon let him take the powerful plant.

Some time later the emperor’s wife contracted an eye disease. Nobody could cure her and eventually she went blind. The emperor was told that with just one touch from a dragon’s eye his wife’s eyesight could be completely restored. Again Black Cui was called for and told that if he could obtain a dragon’s eye for the emperor he would be appointed as a minister; and if he could not, his entire family would be killed. Fearing death, certainly, and desiring a high station, Black Cui again returned to the cave and begged the dragon to relinquish its left eye.

To this the dragon slowly nodded and allowed its eye to be cut out, afterwards shedding a big tear. The cure worked and the emperor’s wife could see again, and Black Cui was appointed a minister.

As Black Cui became ever richer and more powerful he began to enjoy his easy life and by stages he hardened into a cold-hearted and selfish man. Caring not for other people, he sought only his own happiness and to possess ever more riches. One day he recalled the valuable treasure of the dragon’s eye, so he set off for the cave in North Mountain. Once again he reminded the dragon of the care it had received from his own hands, and he asked for the dragon’s other eye. And once again the dragon slowly nodded. But when Black Cui came near to cut out the dragon’s other eye, the dragon opened its great mouth and swallowed him up whole.

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Springing as they do from our own imaginations, dragons have much to teach us. And this, finally, is the second main reason that a dragon can never be drowned, ultimately submerged, or ignored. They are all but figments. Bold and often fearsome figments, to be sure, but figments all the same. They arise from our unconscious minds to take form as great spectral beasts, embodiments of some of our worst and deepest fears, threatening to overcome and even annihilate us. Nevertheless at times they can be paraded about peacefully and ceremoniously, emblems of the gracious, beneficent sources of life itself, full of powers and mysteries and magic.

Since dragons can be found in nearly all Old World cultures and in most cultures of the New World, it seems certain that plentiful dragons will populate the Future World as well. Such wonderful, magical beings are never likely to become extinct from the human imagination.