The Slithery Word Origins Of Your Favorite Dragons

Know Your Dragon Lore

For thousands of years, dragon and dragon-like creatures have reared their scaly heads in mythologies the world over, ravaging villages and eating livestock and testing heroes. And if the last few years of TV and movie appearances are any indication, they’re not going away anytime soon. Here are eight of our favorites (and a few bonus dragons along the way), from the skies over Wales to the heavens over China, the deserts of Egypt to the mountains of Peru, along with the slithery origins of their names. Spoiler alert: most of them just mean “dragon.”

Drakes & Wyverns, Europe

With all of the legends surrounding dragons in Europe, you’d think you couldn’t swing a stick on the continent without hitting one. Drake is just another word for “dragon”, and both four-legged beasts trace their names back to the Greek drákōn by way of the Latin dracō—but some quibblers now say a drake is smaller than a dragon. A wyvern is two-legged dragon with wings, and the word stems from the Latin vīpera (viper). On the other hand, wyrms are legless, wingless sea serpents, and get their name from the Proto-Indo-European wr̥mis. But you might not care what they’re called when they’re feasting on your innards.

Tianlong, China

Chinese mythology has whole herds of dragons guarding over different domains. Reigning above all of them, though, are the tianlong, or celestial dragons, who protect the heavens. Beneath them are the shenlong (spiritual dragons), dilong (earth dragons), fucanglong (treasure dragons) and a whole passel of other -long. As you probably guessed, long means “dragon” in Mandarin.

Y Ddraig Goch, Wales

Flying in the sky over Wales, both in myth and on the national flag, is Y Ddraig Goch. Legend tells of this great red dragon taking on an invading white dragon in ancient times, even before King Arthur, though the first recorded mention of the dragon as a Welsh symbol was around 820. As for the name—Y Ddraig Goch is Welsh for “the red dragon.” Sorry.

Amaru, South America

In Incan culture centered in what’s now Peru, the amaru was a double-headed dragonlike serpent that lived underground. The beast is associated with wisdom and witchcraft, and big upheavals. In the Native American Quechua language of the Andes, amaru means “viper” or “serpent”—so, basically, “dragon.” Sometimes word origins just keep things simple.

Vritra, India

Vritra was the leader of the Danavas, the demon anti-gods of Hindu mythology. As mighty as he was, however, the “Enveloper” could not defeat Indra, the lord of the winds, who slays the powerful dragon by crashing…um…sea foam down on him. Maybe Vritra wasn’t so tough after all. In the Vedas texts, Vritra was also known as Ahi, which in Sanskrit means—yep—“snake.”

Bunyip, Australia

Dwelling in swamps and dank caverns of the Australian Outback is the fearsome bunyip. Some legends say the beast is a fur-covered mammal, but others have the bunyip as a scaly dragon-like man-eater. Bunyip comes from the Australian Aboriginal Boonwurrung word banib, meaning “a fabulous, large, black amphibious monster,” which you could argue is basically a longer way of saying “dragon.”

Ahmhuluk, United States

Just hope you don’t catch a glimpse of this horned dragon in the Forked Mountain, for if you do, he’ll drown you. The author who first recorded the tale of Ahmhuluk from the Native American Kalapuya tribe of western Oregon didn’t record the meaning of the dragon’s name…is it fair to guess it might mean “dragon?”

Akhekhu, Egypt

Woohoo! A dragon whose name doesn’t mean “dragon!” In fact, this drake from Egypt has perhaps the coolest translation we could hope for: Akhekhu means “darkness.” The four-legged serpent of the wastelands and deserts didn’t have wings, but it did stalk the night (and hence “darkness”). Now that we’ve found a dragon with a prodigious name, we can quit while we’re ahead.

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