Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Saturday 4 April 2015


Official movie poster from the 1982 film Q – The Winged Serpent (© Larry Cohen (dir.)/United Film Distribution Company)

As the author of two books on dragons – Dragons: A Natural History (1995) and Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013) – I've researched an extremely wide range of these reptilian monsters in my time. So here, excerpted from my two books, and in no particular order, are ten of my all-time favourite dragons and dragon-related subjects – a very diverse selection drawn from mythology, literature, and the media. And what more fitting, timely example with which to begin it than the Lambton worm, whose story supposedly began one Easter, long long ago…


The term 'dragon' is widely believed to derive from the Greek word 'derkein', which translates as 'sharp-eyed', and seems to have been applied originally to a snake. When transliterated into Latin, it became 'draco' – 'giant snake'. This is particularly apt because, morphologically, the basal dragon form was the serpent dragon. As its name suggests, in overall appearance this form, which was both limbless and wingless, resembled a huge snake or even a gigantic worm. Indeed, some serpent dragons were actually referred to as worms, also known as wyrms (an Old English term for snakes), wurms, or orms – all of which are terms derived from the Norse 'ormr' or 'ormer', translating as 'dragon'. Unlike these humble, harmless beasts, however, and betraying its draconian status, a serpent dragon had a head that was horned, long-jawed, and very often bearded.

Many of Britain's dragons were of the worm variety, which was also recorded widely across northwestern Europe. Dragon-headed and generally of immense length, worms not only lacked limbs and wings but also one of the characteristics most readily linked with dragons – the ability to breathe fire. However, this did not make them any less deadly – far from it. Instead of fire, worms emitted noxious clouds of poisonous gas that could lay waste to great swathes of countryside and decimate entire villages, or possessed a venomous bite of lethal propensity.

Worms could also kill by wrapping their huge coils around any potential antagonist, rather like real-life pythons and boas. They could even survive being chopped into several pieces, because the pieces swiftly reconnected with one another unless they were buried separately or burnt immediately.

Perhaps the most famous British worm is the Lambton worm, which reputedly grew from a small black leech-like beast caught in the River Wear, County Durham, on Easter Sunday 1420 by John Lambton - the youthful, impious heir to Lambton Castle, who had gone fishing while everyone else from the town of Washington close by attended church. Cursed for his blasphemy, Lambton sought redemption by journeying to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage after hurling his loathsome-looking catch into a nearby well. When he returned several years later, however, he was horrified to discover that the creature had grown into a monstrous worm that had been terrorising Washington's inhabitants by devouring their lifestock, wilting their crops with its toxic breath, and killing anyone who had dared to challenge it. Even chopping it in two had been futile – the two halves simply rejoined straight away.

Happily, however, Lambton was able to rid the town of this accursed creature. After seeking the advice of a wise witch, he commissioned the creation of an extraordinary suit of armour, bristling with long sharp spines. He then enticed the worm into the River Wear, and as soon as it attempted to crush him in its mighty coils, the spines on his armour sliced it into several segments, which were immediately carried away and dispersed by the river's fast-flowing current, so that they were unable to reconnect. Thus ended the Lambton worm's reign of terror.

The Lambton worm, from an 1894 book of fairy tales illustrated by John D. Batten (public domain)

This famous myth has been preserved through generations of retellings in northern England, but how it originated remains a mystery - unless, perhaps, the worm was in reality some less dramatic wild beast (or even an imaginative personification of a local now-forgotten natural disaster) that John Lambton had successfully combated? Having said that, however, eminent English historian and antiquarian Robert Surtees (1779-1834) claimed that during the early 19th Century he had seen at the village of Lambton (aka Old Lambton) in Washington a piece of preserved skin said to be from the Lambton worm, and which resembled the hide of a bull.

A similar ploy to Lambton's wearing of a spiny suit of armour was utilised in the killing of another British worm. This was when, during the 1300s, Sir William Wyvill wore a suit of armour covered in razor-sharp blades when battling an enormous worm at Slingsby in North Yorkshire. But this time, instead of a river dispersing the worm's body segments, the knight's faithful dog carried each segment away and buried it in a different location. Despite its resourcefulness, however, it could not save its master, or itself, from the worm's baneful effects. When it licked its grateful master's face, drops of the worm's deadly blood upon its jaws transferred inside its mouth and also onto the knight's face, and both man and dog died shortly afterwards.


Wyverns are semi-dragons generally possessing a single pair of hind limbs but no front limbs, a pair of wings, and a long tail usually terminating in a scorpion sting. In addition to this typical wyvern form, however, there were certain other versions that displayed some interesting variations. Notable among these were the jaculus and the zilant.

Referred to as long ago as the 1st Century AD by the Roman poet Lucan (39-65 AD) in his epic multi-volume poem Pharsalia, the jaculus was said to resemble a 10-ft-long winged serpent but with a pair of short forelimbs too, so it presumably resembled an unusually elongate wyvern. It also possessed two tongues, one of which was barbed, and had a passion for collecting gemstones and gold.

When not doing so, however, the jaculus spent much of its time concealed from sight high in the Arabian spice trees that it jealously guarded – hurling itself ferociously like an animated spear (hence its name – 'jaculus' translates as 'javelin') at anyone approaching below, then biting them deeply and lethally in the neck or throat with its long venomous fangs.

Zilant statue in Kazan (Snowleopard/Wikipedia)

The zilant appears in Russian and Tatar mythology and resembled a typical wyvern in basic form except for lacking a sting at the tip of its tail and sometimes sporting two heads instead of just one. It occurs in several legends associated with the founding of Kazan, the capital city of Russia's Tatarstan Republic, and features in Kazan's coat of arms. It was first made this city's official symbol in 1730. According to traditional lore, any snake that lived over a century became a zilant.


There have been many notable small-screen dragons, but thanks to the charmed tenacity of nostalgia, perhaps those that we most readily recall are ones that featured in shows from our childhood.

One of the legendary names in British children's TV is Oliver Postgate (1925-2008), who created and wrote some of the most beloved shows of all time in this special genre of television – 'Bagpuss', 'Clangers', 'Noggin the Nog', 'Ivor the Engine', and 'Pogles' Wood', among others. They were all made by his company Smallfilms (founded with Peter Firman), and screened by the BBC. Some of these featured delightful dragons, remaining cherished childhood memories for generations.

Originally screened from 1969 to 1972 but repeated numerous times thereafter, 'Clangers' was a stop-motion show of 27 10-minute episodes. They featured a family of small whistling aliens, the clangers, with long snouts and knitted waistcoats. These share a tiny hollow planet with a host of exotic fauna and flora, such as the iron chicken, the froglets, the musical trees, and, most notable of all, the soup dragon. It is she who obtains from the planet's volcanic soup wells the delicious blue string pudding and green soup that the clangers adore. It was this character (and her baby dragon) who inspired the name of Scottish alternative rock band The Soup Dragons.

A delightful personal interpretation by fantasy artist Anthony Wallis of the soup dragon from 'Clangers' (© Anthony Wallis)

Consisting of 27 10-minute episodes (six in colour) of limited stop-motion photography and first screened in 1959, 'Noggin the Nog' was a Norse-type saga about a tribe of Northmen, the Nogs, led by King Noggin, and featuring an extensive cast of characters. These include Noggin's villainous uncle Nogbad the Bad, inventor Olaf the Lofty, a giant green bird called Graculus, Arup the great walrus, and an amiable ice dragon known as Groliffe (not to mention a flying machine and a fire machine!). Befriended by Noggin, Groliffe subsequently comes to his aid when he and his friends are in trouble.

Spanning 1959 to 1977 and consisting of 32 10-minute black-and-white episodes and 40 5-minute colour episodes of stop-motion photography, 'Ivor the Engine' was famously set in "the top left-hand corner of Wales". It features a green locomotive called Ivor, his driver (Edwin) Jones the Steam, plus several supporting characters. Notable among them is Idris, a small red heraldic dragon based upon the emblem of Wales, who lives with his wife and two dragon children in an extinct volcano called Smoke Hill, and sings in the local choir.

A dragon called Dennis who combined the best of both geographical types appeared in 'James the Cat' – a cartoon series of 52 5-minute episodes screened by the BBC from 1984 to 1992. One of many animal friends of the show's title character, Dennis is a pink Chinese dragon but breathes fire and speaks with a Welsh accent!

A happiness-bringing luck dragon long before Falkor debuted in the novel and film versions of The Neverending Story, Chorlton was the friendly but somewhat slow-witted star of an enchanting British series entitled 'Chorlton and the Wheelies', originally screened on ITV from 1976 to 1979. In the very first of its 40 stop-motion animated episodes, created by the company Cosgrove Hall, Chorlton hatches from an egg and then arrives in Wheelie World. This is a strange land populated mostly by Wheelies – creatures that have wheels instead of legs, but which are burdened with sadness conjured up by a wicked witch called Fenella...until Chorlton's happiness soon dispels the gloom. In subsequent episodes, Fenella puts into practice all manner of evil schemes to rid Wheelie World of Chorlton, or cause problems for him, but he and his Wheelie friends invariably manage to foil them.

One of the most popular series from the golden age of children's TV in the USA was 'H.R. Pufnstuf', a live-action show featuring life-sized puppets whose 17 25-minute episodes were first screened from September 1969 to September 1971. H.R. Pufnstuf is not only a dragon but also a mayor – of a magical isle called Living Island. Here everything is alive, even the houses, and is where an 11-year-old boy called Jimmy (played by Jack Wilde, the artful dodger in the 1968 film musical Oliver!) and his talking flute Freddy are taken to in a mysterious boat. The series' basic scenario is similar to that of 'Chorlton and the Wheelies', in that the bane of Living Island is a troublesome witch, called Witchiepoo here, but her evil plans are always thwarted by the dragon, Jimmy, and their many friends there.

Originally aired in Canada and the USA from 1993 to 1997, and running to five seasons, collectively containing 65 30-minute episodes, 'The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon' was a live-action show in which a full-costumed actor played Dudley. Befriended by two children after waking up from centuries of hibernation, Dudley finds out what the modern-day world is like, with particular emphasis upon environmental issues.

Other popular children's TV shows featuring dragons included 'Wacky Races', 'My Little Pony', 'The Smurfs', 'Pocket Dragon Adventures', 'Eureeka's Castle', 'Digimon', and, for older children and teenagers, 'Power Rangers', 'Dungeons and Dragons', and several Manga series. Moreover, countless TV cartoons have featured dragons as one-off foes or comic relief characters.

Not all dragons are huge and frightening, some are very small and very sweet, especially in children's media (© Thomas Finley)


Even among the unparalleled diversity of dragon forms, the following two examples are certainly very distinctive on account of their uncommonly hirsute forms, yet both are surprisingly little-known outside dracontological circles.

Appearing in medieval French folklore. the peluda was also known as the shaggy beast, because whereas most dragons were surfaced in scales, the huge body of this singular creature was profusely covered in long green fur instead. Concealed amid that hirsute mass, however, were countless venom-tipped spines that it could shoot forth like poisoned javelins at anyone bold, or reckless, enough to venture near it. The peluda's long neck and tail were liberally scaled, and its head was that of a huge fire-breathing serpent. Completing its horrifying appearance were two pairs of webbed, turtle-like feet tipped with sharp claws.

According to legend, the peluda had been spawned during early biblical times, but after being refused entry onto Noah's Ark its amphibious nature had enabled it to survive the Great Flood, and eventually it made its way into the River Huisne, at La Ferté-Bernard in southern France. Here, it lurked on the river banks by day, but at night it not only raided the local farms in search of livestock to devour, but was not amiss to adding women and children to its menu too if the opportunity to do so arose. Happily, this murderous monster was eventually dispatched when a brave hero chopped off its tail – the only portion of its body vulnerable to mortal injury.

Artistic reconstruction of the peluda (© Tim Morris)

Less famous yet no less fascinating than the peluda was another hairy dragon – the mihn, featuring in the traditional legends of North America's prairie-dwelling Cheyenne nation. They describe it as an extremely large, lizard-like water monster, but instead of scales it was covered with hair, and bore either one or two horns. Horned, hairy water dragons occur in Sioux traditions too.


The smallest of all dragons and entirely at home in the midst of a blazing fire was a tiny beast termed the pyrallis. Also called the pyragones or pyrausta, this remarkable animal was no bigger than a large fly, and resembled a four-legged insect, with burnished bronze body and golden filigree wings - but its head was that of a dragon.

A pyrallis, as depicted by Una Woodroffe in her spectacular illustrated book Inventorum Natura (© Una Woodroffe/Paper Tiger)

It was associated exclusively with the copper smelting forges and foundries of Cyprus, in which swarms would dance and cavort like incandescent will-o'-the-wisps. Yet if one of these animate sparks should fly out of the flames, even for the briefest of instants, it would die at once - because the pyrallis drew not merely its sustenance but its very life-force from the furnaces' burning heat and raging vitality. Truly a beast of the fire and the flame!


Considered by many readers and literary critics alike as the most significant and influential modern-day works of fantasy fiction ever published, The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954, 1954, 1955), The Silmarillion (1977), and J.R.R. Tolkien's other novels contain a number of important dragons.

It has often been supposed that his works are Christian allegories or are at least derived from Christian themes, and therefore comparable in terms of inspiration to the Narnia novels of C.S. Lewis. In reality, however, Tolkien's principal muse was the Elder Edda – a collection of Old Norse myths and legends preserved principally within the Codex Regius, which is a medieval Icelandic manuscript, written in the 13th Century. Yet the myths and legends themselves are far older, and include all of the famous Norse ones known today.

Many familiar character names in Tolkien's books, for example, including Gandalf and various of the dwarves featuring in The Hobbit, were borrowed directly by him from the Elder Edda. So too were other entities and themes, one of which that attracted his particular attention being the slaying by the hero Siegfried of the evil dwarf Fafnir, who had transformed himself into a typical Nordic dragon in order to protect his ill-gotten treasure hoard. This dragon became the basic template for the various examples featuring in Tolkien's novels.

Siegfried slaying a dragon-transformed Fafnir in this stunning artwork by Arthur Rackham (public domain)

Yet although Tolkien's dragons were of traditional Nordic form and treasure-hoarding behaviour, they were much more intelligent than their antecedents in the Old Norse myths and legends, and they could speak too.

Created by the dark lord Morgoth, there were three types – the great worms, the winged quadrupedal dragons, and the wingless quadrupedal dragons. Some could also breathe fire, enabling them to destroy the lands and cities of Middle-Earth's men, elves, and dwarves.

The first Middle-Earth dragon was Glaurung, a huge wingless fire-breather, which ultimately spawned numerous lesser dragons, and led them into battle on the side of Morgoth against the elves, but was finally slain by the hero-warrior Túrin.

The greatest Middle-Earth dragon of all, however, was Ancalagon the Black, the first winged fire-breather. His appearance alongside his spawn astonished the entire world, and initially gave victory to Morgoth's horde – until the great eagles and other warrior birds rallied against them, eventually achieving victory over their reptilian foes and breaking Morgoth's power forever. Ancalagon was slain by warrior Eärendil, and so enormous was this mighty dragon's body that when it plummeted down from the sky to earth, it decimated the three-peaked mountain Thangorodrim.

The last famous Middle-Earth dragon was Smaug, a huge golden-red winged monster almost entirely ensheathed in impermeable iron scales. Smaug destroyed with fire the human city of Dale and vanquished the dwarves from the Kingdom under the Mountain (of Erebor) in order to seize for himself their vast treasure of gold, jewels, and precious elvish metals stored there. This he jealously guarded for almost two centuries until disturbed by a party of dwarves seeking retribution, led by Thorin Oakenshield and also including among their number the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. It was Bilbo who discovered the one vulnerable region on Smaug's underside, which enabled a Northman archer named Bard the Bowman to slay Smaug after he had attacked the city of Esgaroth upon the Long Lake.

More light-hearted and whimsical was another Tolkien dragon – Chrysophylax Dives. Pompously comical but still wily and villainous, he was finally captured and controlled by Farmer Giles of Ham in the book of the same title, using a mighty sword called Caudimordax (aka Tailbiter) that once belonged to a famous dragon-slayer.

A classic collection of Tolkien characters (© Richard Svensson)


One of the most unusual Oriental dragons was the longma or Chinese dragon horse. Traditionally deemed to be the vital spirit of Heaven and Earth, as indicated by its English name it was a curious yet surprisingly effective composite of two very different animals - sporting the body, legs, and hooves of a horse, but the head and scales of a dragon. Some, though not all, dragon horses also possessed a pair of wings, and could walk upon the surface of water without sinking.

Legend has it that eight winged dragon horses pulled the carriage of Emperor Mu of Jin (belonging to the Eastern Jin Dynasty) as he travelled around the world during the post-regency period of his reign (he reigned from 343 AD to 361 AD).

It was a yellow dragon horse that emerged long ago from the River Lo to reveal the eight trigrams of the famous divination system known as I Ching. Similarly, a dragon horse rose up out of the Yellow River and gave to the Emperor a circular diagram depicting the yin-yang.

Wooden carving of a dragon horse (© Dr Karl Shuker)

According to the Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era (aka Taiping Yulan) – a massive 1000-volume, multi-contributor Chinese encyclopaedia dating from the 10th Century – a dragon horse spotted blue and red, covered in scales, sporting a thick mane, and giving voice to a mellifluous flute-like neigh once appeared in the year 741 AD, which was taken to be a good omen for the reigning emperor, Xuanzong of Tang. So fleet-footed that it could cover more than 280 miles without a pause, this wonderful beast had been born to a normal mare that had become pregnant after drinking water from a river in which a dragon had bathed.

During the 7th Century, the Turkestan city of Kucha (now part of China) was visited by the travelling Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar Hsuan-Tsang, who noticed that a lake in front of one of this city's temples contained a number of water dragons. He was informed that they could change their form so as to mate with mares, and that the progeny of this curious crossbreeding were dragon horses, of a fierce, wild nature, and very difficult to tame.


One of the quirkiest yet most original dragon-based films ever released, and one of my own particular favourites, is director Larry Cohen's 'Q – The Winged Serpent' (1982). In it, a cult in New York City successfully resurrect Quetzalcoatl, the ancient flying serpent deity of Aztec mythology, who proceeds to swoop down from Manhattan's skies and skyscrapers to seize, dismember, and devour unwary city dwellers.

In appearance, however, this odd-looking entity is not serpentine at all, instead resembling a rather gangly, long-necked quadrupedal dragon with wings. Yet its smooth skin seems devoid of typical reptilian scales or spines, and it does not sport any feathers either – despite the original Quetzalcoatl being a plumed sky serpent.

Fantasy artist Anthony Wallis's superb personal interpretation of Q – the Winged Serpent (© Anthony Wallis)

Perhaps the epitome of the modern-day dragon film, however, is 'Reign of Fire' (2002), directed by Rob Bowman, and starring Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey.

Set in the year 2020, this post-apocalyptic film reveals the devastation that has resulted after a sleeping dragon was inadvertently chanced upon and woken in an underground cave during some construction work on the London Underground shortly after the beginning of the new millennium. The dragon forced its way to the surface, swiftly multiplied, and within a dozen years humanity was virtually wiped out by a worldwide plague of flying fire-breathing dragons.

Finally, however, a brave survivor, Quinn Abercromby (played by Bale), and his isolated community hiding out in a Northumberland castle reluctantly join forces with a band of American fighters led by Denton Van Zan (McConaughey) to bring to a decisive end the dragons' literal reign of fire. Although the story's premise seemed decidedly far-fetched, the special effects were truly astonishing.

A memorable 'Reign of Fire' dragon as personally interpreted by fantasy artist Anthony Wallis (© Anthony Wallis)


There are a number of so-called 'preserved dragons' in existence around the world, but when examined some of these physical specimens have been readily exposed as being of crocodilian identity. Perhaps the most notable example is the 'Brno lindworm' (wingless four-legged classical dragon), of Moravia in the Czech Republic, which since at least 1608 AD has been hanging suspended from the ceiling of the arched passage leading to the city's town hall, and can still be seen here today. To protect it from the weather, it has been liberally covered in black pitch, but its identity as a crocodile – albeit a very sizeable one, as it measures approximately 15.5 ft long - remains instantly apparent.

The preserved Brno 'lindworm' dragon (© Miroslav Fišmeister)

According to traditional Moravian folklore, this is the dragon that long ago was said to have slaughtered livestock and even young children in a prolonged assault on Brno (then called Brünn), until it was duped into feeding upon a freshly-killed calf's skin that had been cunningly filled with unslaked lime. After eating it, the dragon was consumed with such a fiery thirst that it drank without pause from a nearby stream until finally the lime reacting with the vast quantity of imbibed water caused the doomed dragon to explode.

The same fate befell Smok, the dragon of Wawel Hill in Krakow, Poland, which had terrorised the city until Skuba, a canny cobbler's apprentice, stuffed a baited lamb with sulphur. Incidentally, in 2011 a very large species of Polish carnivorous reptile from the late Triassic Period 205-200 million years that may constitute a species of theropod dinosaur was officially christened Smok wawelski, in honour of this Polish dragon.

Souvenir ornament portraying Smok (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Another crocodilian dragon once hung from the roof of the cathedral of Abbeville in Picardy, France. And until at least as recently as the early 1850s, what was either a stuffed 6-ft-long crocodile or lizard (monitor?) could be seen suspended in the church of St Maria delle Grazie, near Mantua, in Italy. Local lore claims that it had been killed in some adjacent swamps in c.1406. More likely is that all of these specimens had been brought back to Europe as unusual souvenirs by returning travellers or crusaders, or even as exotic living specimens for private collections or sideshows.


Body art has experienced an enormous resurgence in recent years, especially tattoos and tattooing, and one of the most fashionable, in-demand subjects for a tattoo is the dragon. Indeed, there is even a much-sought-after book devoted entirely to dragon tattoos – Donald Ed Hardy's lavishly-illustrated tome Dragon Tattoo Design (1988), containing countless designs for every taste in dragons.

Whether in the West or the East, most tattooed dragons are of the Oriental category (though the red Welsh dragon is popular as a symbol of Celtic patriotism). Its slender, serpentine form and rich spectrum of vivid colours allows itself to be readily applied to a person's back, arms, chest, or legs, and to achieve individuality for them. Several notable celebrities sport dragon tattoos, including singers Lenny Kravitz, Pink, and Mels B and C of the Spice Girls, as well as actor Bruce Willis, and actress Angelina Jolie.

There is a plethora of symbolism associated with dragon tattoos, depending in particular upon their type, colour, activity, the presence of other animals alongside them, and the sex of the person selecting them.

Oriental dragons in general are associated with freedom, protection, and nobility, but in keeping with their status and role in traditional mythology, the tattoo of a Chinese dragon more specifically symbolises good fortune and wisdom, whereas the more elongate, fewer-clawed Japanese dragon personifies balance in life. As already noted, the Celtic dragon symbolises pride in one's Celtic ancestry but also power and strength, and is sometimes depicted alongside a crown or even a throne. Other Western dragons, which are particularly popular when portrayed as stylised tribal tattoos, also represent bravery, ferocity, and even war-like attributes - hearkening back to their traditionally darker, less benign image than that of their Oriental counterparts.

A Western dragon in a tribal tattoo design (public domain)

A tattoo of a yellow Oriental dragon symbolises knowledge, helpfulness, and a good companion, as does one of a gold Oriental dragon (which is also utilised to indicate a kind personality), whereas a green one embodies life and the planet, a red one symbolises keen eyesight, and a black one shows that its bearer has old but wise parents. A blue dragon tattoo is associated with compassion and forgiveness. But beware: in Chinese tradition, blue dragons also symbolise sloth and idleness - so make sure that you don’t give out the wrong impression if you choose this symbol as a tattoo!

A tattoo depicting an Oriental dragon protecting treasure signifies wealth (either material or spiritual). A coiled dragon personifies the oceans but also suggests that, just like those vast bodies of water, the person bearing this tattoo has hidden, mysterious depths to their personality, and a horned dragon represents strength and authority in both deed and intent, because only the more advanced Oriental dragons possess horns. If the fuku-riu type of Japanese dragon is chosen for a tattoo, its bearer is hoping to attract good fortune, as this type is traditionally the luck dragon in Japan.

Oriental dragons are still revered as rain and water deities, so if such a dragon is tattooed reposing near to water, i.e. its normal resting state, this symbolises tranquillity and peace of mind. However, if the dragon's teeth show, or, if winged, its wings are extended, this can denote hostility or aggression. Taking great care and giving thought beforehand when selecting a dragon tattoo is very important, therefore, to avoid its sending out an inappropriate or unwanted message, especially as tattoos cannot be easily removed or amended once applied.

My own tattoo of a serpent dragon entwined around a dagger, symbolising strength, which was tattooed on me by Birmingham-based tattoo artist and good friend Gary Stanley, aka Stigmata (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Dragon tattoos on men typify the general dragon-allied symbolism of power, wisdom, courage, and protection, and are often applied to readily-visible regions of the body like arms or legs (often as full-sleeve tattoos), across the shoulders or chest, or encompassing the back. When present on women, conversely, they tend to appear on less overt regions, such as feet, ankles, nape, near the navel, or down the sides, and are more closely linked with creation, emphasising that it is women who give birth. Consequently, mothers (especially new ones) often select a dragon when choosing a tattoo.

Sometimes an Oriental dragon and Chinese phoenix are tattooed together, forming a circle or otherwise intimately linked with one another, which symbolises a successful marriage. Tigers in ancient Oriental tradition often represent aggression and evil intent, so a dragon tattooed above a tiger indicates that its bearer has overcome darkness in their life, or intends always to do so. Avoid tattoos of dragons battling with tigers if tattoo symbolism is important to you, however, because these images can indicate aggression or internal conflict.

An attractive way of enhancing both the physical appearance and the symbolic significance of a dragon tattoo is to add a message alongside it, written in either Chinese Hanji or Japanese Kanji script.

Above all, a dragon tattoo signifies that the bearer is special. If there could be just a single tattoo to personify the phrase "Why be ordinary when you can be extraordinary?", it would be a dragon.

The continuing popularity of dragons in every conceivable facet of our culture confirms that even though we may no longer believe in them, we certainly cannot forget them! Indeed, it is evident that the dragon will continue to evolve, diversify, and populate our planet for a very long time to come. The dragon is dead - long live the dragon!

And here's one I slew earlier! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This ShukerNature article is excerpted from my books Dragons: A Natural History and Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture – check them both out for vast amounts of addition dracontological data!


  1. A fascinating article but I couldn't help but notice that you said that "James the Cat" aired on BBC. I seem to remember that it was on CITV when I was a youngster.

  2. No discussion of dragons in children's TV programming is complete without mention of Oliver J. Dragon ("Ollie") on Kukla, Fran and Ollie. The puppet show initially ran in the US from 1947-57. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kukla,_Fran_and_Ollie