Defining the Dragon
This prolegomenon to a cross-cultural study of the dragon seeks to establish a broadly functional definition of the draconic. The study begins with the assertion that worldwide, the single most salient feature of the dragon is its serpentine nature, with wings being a distant second. This fact suggests that dragon narratives are elaborated extensions of primate communications of the danger of snakes and, secondarily, birds (cf. Isbell, L.A. 2006. Snakes as agents of evolutionary change in primate brains. Journal of Human Evolution 51:1-35). Primates have no instinctive fear of snakes, but are biologically predisposed to learn snake alarms. Similarly, the dragon is not a universally recurring archetype, but cultures are predisposed to communicate fundamental human concerns that transcend a simple fear of snakes by using draconic imagery and narratives. This functional definition explains why the image of the dragon persists across cultures, while the specific meaning of the symbol varies so widely. The functional approach also argues that draconic imagery belongs to the realm of cultural belief systems and so is to be understood through expressions of belief such as myth and legend (both memorate and fabulate), as well as the more common nonbelief expressions such as the fairytale and other literary and artistic forms. Finally, examples of selected dragon narrative ecotypes (typical, culture-specific realizations) demonstrate the applicability of the functional definition.
Keywords: Cultural Biology, Dragon, Serpent, Snake, Folklore, Legend
Dr. J. Michael Stitt
Associate Professor of English, Department of English