“A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow in gold.”
J.R.R. Tolkien (p. 16, sources below)
The dragon is known as a mythic creature in many cultures. The word derives from latin “draco”, or greek “drakon”, which probably comes from the verb δρακεῖν (drakeîn) “to see clearly”. Though in the east he has more positive connotations as a a symbol of good luck and fertility, in the west a dragon commonly symbolizes chaos and perdition. Especially in the middle ages. Since the bible was the most wide-spread book back then, it’s not surprising that its mention of the dragon in the Book of Revelation (which tells about the apocalypse) had a great impact. Here is the bit:
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”[a] And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12,1-6)
This is the only time the dragon is mentioned in the bible. Archangel Michael fights with the seven-headed dragon who, yes, you might already have guessed that, is Satan himself. So this is one of the reasons the dragon is seen as a hideous creature.
Probably much older are conceptions of ancient Germanic mythology. For example the Midgard Serpent or Jormundgard (Old Norse: Midgarðsormr) was involved in the creation of the world as well as its destruction.
In most medieval epics, though, the dragon antagonizes the human hero. Beowulf, Dietrich of Bern, Siegfried (“Nibelungenlied”), Tristan or St. George for instance, are all dragonslayers. As Winder McConnell puts it: “If you have not slain a dragon, as a hero, you are noone.” Interestingly, in medieval heroic epics dragons seldom fly. Thinking about it now, I have not encountered a dragon in the works I have read that was explicitly said to have taken flight (“Tristan”, “Iwein”, “Sigenot”, “Nibelungenlied”…) Being called wyrm or trachen in middle high German, they seem to be crawling rather than flying. Which does not make them any less of an opponent for the hero, but maybe I’ll go expand the notion found in Röhrich’s article and suspect this might be a newer concept. Lecouteux seems to be of the same opinion.
In medieval legends the dragon represents evil, chaos, and the struggle of the holy saint against it. The most famous is St. Georg, who is still to be found in various art.
One of the positive aspects about dragons is that dragon blood, or sometimes a stone to be found inside the dragon’s head (after you decapitated it, of course) was said to have healing powers. It was believed to cure almost anything. In Siegfried’s case, who is said to have killed a dragon in the “Nibelungenlied” (~1200), bathing in the dragon’s blood makes him able to understand the birds. It would have made him absolutely invincible too, if there hadn’t been that thrice-damned basswood leaf that covered up a small spot on his back, so Hagen could kill him anyway (oops, Spoiler!).
Another interesting aspect about western dragons and their appearance that might explain the wing-theory: They were pieced together from various bits and pieces. You might have heard of so called bestiaries. They were related to encyclopaedias like Isidor’s of Seville, but mainly collected animals and sorted them. Also, they interpreted them, mostly in a christian context, for they were mainly made in monasteries and used in their lectures.
For example, here is one description of what is said about dragons in various bestiaries or encyclopaedias.
Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 4:4-5): The dragon is the largest serpent, and in fact the largest animal on earth. Its name in Latin is draco, derived from the Greek name drakon. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling. Not even the elephant is safe from the dragon; hiding where elephants travel, the dragon tangles their feet with its tail and kills the elephant by suffocating it. Dragons live in the burning heat of India and Ethiopia. (Book 16, 14:7): Dracontites is a stone that is forcibly taken from the brain of a dragon, and unless it is torn from the living creature it has not the quality of a gem; whence magi cut it out of dragons while they are sleeping. For bold men explore the cave of the dragons, and scatter there medicated grains to hasten their sleep, and thus cut off their heads while they are sunk in sleep, and take out the gems. (text from Medieval Bestiary)
Here is another:
Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): The Dragon is most greatest of all serpents, and oft he is drawn out of his den, and riseth up into the air, and the air is moved by him, and also the sea swelleth against his venom, and he hath a crest with a little mouth, and draweth breath at small pipes and straight, and reareth his tongue, and hath teeth like a saw, and hath strength, and not only in teeth, but also in his tail, and grieveth both with biting and with stinging, and hath not so much venom as other serpents: for to the end to slay anything, to him venom is not needful, for whom he findeth he slayeth, and the elephant is not secure of him, for all his greatness of body. Oft four or five of them fasten their tails together, and rear up their heads, and sail over sea and over rivers to get good meat. Between elephants and dragons is everlasting fighting, for the dragon with his tail bindeth and spanneth the elephant, and the elephant with his foot and with his nose throweth down the dragon, and the dragon bindeth and spanneth the elephant’s legs, and maketh him fall, but the dragon buyeth it full sore: for while he slayeth the elephant, the elephant falleth upon him and slayeth him. Also the elephant seeing the dragon upon a tree, busieth him to break the tree to smite the dragon, and the dragon leapeth upon the elephant, and busieth him to bite him between the nostrils, and assaileth the elephant’s eyen, and maketh him blind sometime, and leapeth upon him sometime behind, and biteth him and sucketh his blood. And at the last after long fighting the elephant waxeth feeble for great blindness, in so much that he falleth upon the dragon, and slayeth in his dying the dragon that him slayeth. The cause why the dragon desireth his blood, is coldness of the elephant’s blood, by the which the dragon desireth to cool himself. Jerome saith, that the dragon is a full thirsty beast, insomuch that unneth he may have water enough to quench his great thirst; and openeth his mouth therefore against the wind, to quench the burning of his thirst in that wise. Therefore when he seeth ships sail in the sea in great wind, he flieth against the sail to take their cold wind, and overthroweth the ship sometimes for greatness of body, and strong rese against the sail. [This is usually said of the sawfish.] And when the shipmen see the dragon come nigh, and know his coming by the water that swelleth ayenge him, they strike the sail anon, and scape in that wise. (from Medieval Bestiary)
Sooner or later, descriptions of dragons and other animals must have interlocked, maybe that’s how it got its wings. I enjoyed reading about the other animals as well. To the modern reader, some of these notions about the pelican or the elephant seem so absurd that it is almost funny. But you have to remember that knowledge back then was very unevenly distributed and easily distorted. So what I wanted to show here is that the depiction of other (fictional) animals had a great impact of how a medieval author must have imagined the dragon.
E.g. the crocodile (seen in action here)
or the Griffin (also in action devouring something).
For example, the dragon Phetan in ‘Wigalois‘ is said to have yellow coloring at his sides like the crocodile in the ‘Etymologiae’, and feet similar to the Griffin (cf. Lecouteux p.26). So the visual nature of the dragon is very heterogenous around 1200 and can vary because of the interferences with other popular works.
If you want to read up on anything, you might enjoy these German sources:
Lecouteux, Claude. Der Drache. In: ZdfA 108 (1979). S. 13-31.
Röhrich, Lutz. Drache, Drachenkampf, Drachentöter. In: Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Bd. 3. Hg. von Brednich, R. W. [u.a.]. Berlin [u.a.]: de Gruyter, 1999. Sp. 787-820.
McConnell, Winder. Mythos Drache. In: Dämonen, Monster, Fabelwesen. Hg. von Ulrich Müller. St. Gallen: UVK, Fachverlag für Wissenschaft und Studium, 1999. S. 171-183.
Tolkien, John R. R. Beowulf. The Monsters and the Critics. In: The monsters and the critics and other essays. Hg. von Christopher Tolkien. London [u.a.]: Allen & Unwin, 1983. S. 5-48.