Of dragons, wyverns, griffins and phoenixes

Clive’s wife Ruth is about to clap Welsh four-fingered, red Y Ddraig Goch.

Our former senator, Zdenko ‘Zed’ Seselja, was said to be one of Canberra’s mythical creatures – except at election time. Dragons, wyverns, gryphons and phoenixes are also mythical. Few of us can explain the differences between them, so columnist “Whimsy” CLIVE WILLIAMS do some research…

Clive Williams.

FIRST, the“dragon” – a legendary creature that appears in the folklore of many cultures around the world. In appearance, dragons often have a combination of feline, avian, and reptilian traits.

Crocodiles bear the closest resemblance to dragons in the real world and may be the basis for Asian dragon imagery.

Beliefs about dragons vary widely. Western cultures since the Middle Ages have depicted dragons as winged, horned, quadrupedal, aggressive, and capable of breathing fire. In fact, the name “dragon” is derived from the Latin word “draconem”, which means “huge serpent”.

In contrast, dragons in Asian cultures are usually depicted as friendly, wingless, four-legged, serpentine creatures with above-average intelligence. In China, only the imperial dragon has five toes on each foot. Everyone else has four. Japanese and Korean dragons resemble Chinese dragons, but only have three fingers.

The four-toed red dragon Y Ddraig Goch is featured on the national flag of Wales. The Welsh dragon is believed to have originated from Arthurian legend. The Celts believed that dragons were shape-shifters who could take any form they wished; including the human form. Merlin the Wizard relates that the red dragon (representing the British) defeated the white dragon (representing the Saxon invaders).

The tails of dragons also vary widely, with the Welsh dragon’s tail traditionally ending in an arrow shape.

A “wyvern” in contrast is a legendary dragon that has two legs. The wyvern in its various forms is important in heraldry. It is also a popular creature in European literature, mythology and folklore. Today, wyverns are often seen in fantasy literature and video games with dragon-like features. The wyvern in heraldry and folklore rarely breathes fire, unlike four-legged dragons.

“Griffins” are different from dragons. It is a legendary creature with the body, tail and hind legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and sometimes eagle talons as front legs. Since classical antiquity, griffins were known to guard priceless treasures and possessions. (Confusingly, there are two buildings named The Griffin in Canberra.)

In Greek and Roman mythology, griffins and the Arimaspians (a tribe of one-eyed people living in the Ural Mountains) were associated with the protection of gold. Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote, “Griffins were said to lay eggs in burrows on the ground and these nests contained nuggets of gold.” In medieval heraldry, the griffin became a Christian symbol of divine power and the guardian of the divine.

The “phoenix” is an immortal bird associated with Greek mythology that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise reborn (like some dodgy Canberra property developers). Associated with the sun, a phoenix gains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor.

It reminds me that if you’re on horseback, surrounded by dragons, unicorns and other mythical creatures, and you’re worried about your situation, it’s probably safer to wait for the music to stop before getting off the carousel.

Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist

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