Everybody knows what a dragon is: an enormous, fierce, bloodthirsty creature appearing in fairy tales and legends as an accessory whose main function is to set off the bravery of knight challenging him. The dragon is an obscure, mysterious character, described in broad terms, and is little more than foil to enhance the hero's valor.
Dragon is a legendary beast in the folklore of many European and Asian cultures. Legends describe dragons as large, lizardlike creatures that breathe fire and have a long, scaly tail. In Europe, dragons are traditionally portrayed as ferocious beasts that represent the evils fought by human beings. But in Asia, especially in China and Japan, the animals are generally considered friendly creatures that ensure good luck and wealth.
According to some medieval legends, dragons lived in wild, remote regions of the world. The dragons guarded treasures in their dens, and a person who killed one supposedly gained its wealth. The English epic hero Beowulf died in a fight with a treasure-guarding dragon.
In China, the traditional New Year's Day parade includes a group of people who wind through the street wearing a large dragon costume. The dragon's image, according to an ancient Chinese belief, prevents evil spirits from spoiling the new year. Another traditional Chinese belief is that certain dragons have the power to control the rainfall needed for each year's harvest.
However the dragon is something else. He is admirable, intelligent and educated creature, who leads a most interesting life. He has some fascinating characteristics in addition to those occasional glimpses we are given through fairy tail and legends.
In the world of fantastic animals, the dragon is unique. No other creature has appeared in such a rich variety of forms. It is as though there was once a whole family of different dragon species that really existed, before they mysteriously became extinct. Indeed, as recently as the seventeenth century, scholars wrote of dragons as though they were scientific facts, their anatomy and natural history being recorded in painstaking detail.
The naturalist Edward Topsell, for instance, writing in 1608, considered them to be reptilian and closely related to serpents: "There are divers sorts of dragons, distinguished partly by countries, partly by their quantity and magnitude, and partly by the different form of their external parts." Personifications of malevolence of beneficence, paganism or purity, death and devastation, life and fertility, good or evil. All these varied, contradictory concepts are embodied and embedded within that single magical word.
The dragon has always been slandered and misjudged, persecuted and hounded by man, simply because they are different. Like so many other living beings, he has experienced death and persecution in the name of so-called superiority of civilized man.
Perhaps, in the future, man will learn with the death of a single animal or plant species an irreplaceable asset - something more precious than all the wealth in the world - is lost. Only then will the Earth continue to be a brilliant blue jewel in the universe, for in its heart will be locked the priceless treasure of the diversity of the species, and man will have recognized his duty to cherish every single one.