There are many terms that people have used for the word “dragon” in different civilizations (aži, drakon, long, ryu, zmey), and perhaps due to our tendency to categorize everything that surrounds us, some of these terms have been used to classify dragons in many books and fantasy settings in many different ways, which is something that, when done creatively, can significantly enrich any imaginary world. However, one should not mistakenly assume that all fantasy is subject to such classifications even when several fictional worlds do seem to share the same set of terms in the same way, and this is exactly what usually occurs with the words “dragon”, “wyvern”, “drake” and “wyrm” (though these are not the only ones). I have so often noticed how some people claim that these are four completely different beasts when, as far as the historical and etymological evidence concerns, these are just four different names for the same creature: a dragon. This error stems from the popularization of the argot of the fantasy media communities, yet it can easily be acknowledged once we understand the etymological origin of these terms as well as the contexts in which they were used, so the purpose of the following lines is to share my own perspective on the topic.
In a broad sense, a dragon is a fantastic creature with serpentine features that has been assigned different attributes resembling the natural phenomena common to the geographical region where a particular civilization was settled. The term “dragon” comes from the Latin word “dracon”, which in turn comes from the Greek word for serpent “δράκων” [ˈdɾako:n]. The dragons that appear in the beliefs and cultural manifestations of the earliest civilizations are simply depicted as monstrous snakes that embody the forces of nature. Therefore, it is not strange that in many ancient tongues the terms “snake” and “dragon” are used interchangeably (the Sanskrit word “ahi”1 means “snake” or “dragon”, and the ancient pictograph of the Chinese word “long”2, which means dragon, represented a snake that can kill). And even though each individual culture might represent dragons in very different ways, the essence of the dragon is virtually the same, as you can see in the following images:
Dragon stone statue in Zhangmutou town, China
Elephant and dragon miniature – Harley MS3244, folio f.39v, British Library.
Dragon statue of the Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “wyvern” is an alteration of the Middle English “wyvere” (meaning “viper”), from Anglo-French “guivre/wivre”, which ultimately comes from the Latin word “vipera”. In heraldry, the wyvern is usually depicted as a two-winged dragon with two legs only and a long tail, and it is this shape the one that is commonly given to a wyvern in modern fantasy settings, though it is a rather different beast from the original “vipera” from which the term “wyvern” stemmed.
One of the first descriptions of the “vipera” appears in the book Narutalis Historia (77 AD) by Pliny the Elder, where it is described as a snake-like animal with long ears and whose strange reproductive habits are represented in many medieval bestiaries (the female ate the male vipera’s head when they come together or before the young ones are born inside of her, and these, in turn, kill their mother when they gnaw passage through her womb to reach the outside world), just like the following image taken from the Aberdeen Bestiary published around the 12th century:
Vipera (male and female) – Aberdeen University Library MS 24 (Aberdeen Bestiary), ca. 1200, f. 66v
The “vipera” would eventually acquire dragon-like features due to the intercultural exchange that took place in medieval Europe, thus coining the terms “guivre” and “wyvern”, whose representations do not differ too much from those of a dragon. In fact, the dragon that appears in the Aberdeen Bestiary is very similar to the vipera shown in the MMW, 10 B 25 kept in the Museum Meermanno, something that does not only occur in other medieval bestiaries but also in the literature, art, and the imagery of the time:
Vipera (male and female) – Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, c. 1450 Folio 40r.
Dragon – Aberdeen University Library MS 24 (Aberdeen Bestiary), ca. 1200, f. 65v.
In heraldry, however, the dragon and the wyvern are two different figures, at least in modern heraldry, though the only visual difference is that the wyvern has two wings and a pair of legs, whereas the dragons is usually depicted with wings and four legs. On his book A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909), Arthur Fox-Davies comments that, in their use of the word “dragon”, different countries used different terms such as “wyvern” and even “cockatrice”, and that the wyvern was occasionally (though rarely) represented without wings (which reminds us of the vipera in the Aberdeen Bestiary) as the Ffarington family of Lancashire did. This means that in the early years of heraldry, or at least before it became standardized, the terms “dragon” and “wyvern” where indistinctly used in this area.
Dragon and wyvern illustrations by Graham Johnston in “A Complete Guide to Heraldry” (1909).
It is perhaps fantasy media what has turned the wyvern into a creature that is rather different (sometimes completely different) from a dragon, something that can be attributed to the popularization of role-play games and video games. One of the biggest influences of modern fantasy settings in general is Dungeons & Dragons, a classic role-play game in which wyverns were introduced in their first edition of 1974 as dragon-like creatures that were smaller in size and less intelligent than their larger relatives, which have a pair of wings, two back legs and a poisonous sting at the end of their tails.
Wyvern in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (1977).
To claim that the dragon and the wyvern are two completely different beasts, that the wyvern is a species of subspecies of dragon, or even that a wyvern is not a dragon at all is a very common mistake. On a specific context such as heraldry or a medieval fantasy book, it is perfectly plausible to classify or subdivide dragons in the way a scholar or an author deem convenient. Outside a particular context, trying to impose such classifications to other areas (including fiction) is pointless.
Again, in modern fantasy settings, a drake is usually the name given to a young dragon or to a dragon-related creature of small size with no wings and four legs.
Drake – Final Fantasy XIV
Felldrakes – D&D Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, by Jim Nelson
In English “drake” is also the name given to a male duck and to a flying insect known as mayfly (which is similar to a dragonfly in appearance), so this word has a double etymological origin. In the first case, this word has a Germanic origin since it comes from the Old High German “antrahho” that would eventually become the German word “enterich” (male duck), which in Middle English is “andraca” (literally “king of the ducks”, a male duck), abbreviated as “draca”; in the second case, it comes from the Old English “draca” (dragon), which comes from the latin “draco” (Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries). Unlike the polemic wyvern, the word “drake” is simply used to either talk about a male duck or a mayfly. Therefore, I do not think a further explanation is needed since there is no evidence whatsoever in the old stories or the medieval bestiaries of a creature called “drake” that has the characteristics of the modern “drake” of fantasy media (a reptile with four legs or a young dragon) that we could not just name “dragon”. And it is highly unlikely that these “drakes” are somewhat related to the Anatidae or the Ephemeroptera.
The Germanic and Scandinavian dragon was usually called “wurm”, which in Old High German meant “worm” and “serpent”, and which, according to the Merriam-Webster, came from the Latin “vermis” (meaning “worm”), and so the word “wurm” would originate the Old English “wyrm”. These dragons are usually described as terrible monsters with a long body whose movements were similar to those of a worm or a snake, they had either poisonous or fire breath, two or more pairs of legs and they were generally devoid of wings –though the Germanic “lindwurm” was similar to the wyvern in heraldry. The dragons Nidhogg and Fafnir of Norse mythology have the typical features of a wurm or wyrm, and they usually appear under such names in ancient European epics. Yet just as with the words wyvern and drake, wyrm is simply a synonym of dragon. Again, to say that a wyrm or a wurm is exclusively a wingless dragon with just a pair of legs (or none at all) is wrong. Whether we use the term wyrm or aždahâ, both the Scandinavian Nidhogg and the dragon that faced the Persian hero Rostam are dragons.
Niðhöggr gnawing the roots of Yggdrasill from the 17th-century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to, Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.
Rostam slays a dragon – Shahnameh, MS Ouseley Add. 176, fol. 68v, Oxford, Bodleian Library.
Classifying dragons in the way one deems pertinent is perfectly valid in every single fantasy world, but, as much as I dislike repeating myself, trying to generalize any such classification to the rest of the branches of knowledge is pointless; Tolkien understood this fact, since both Glaurung (also known as the Great Worm and whose physical appearance reminds us of the Scandinavian wurm) and Smaug (who looks like the wyvern of heraldry) were named “urulókis” (“fire serpents” in Quenya, a fictitious tongue) or dragons indistinctively throughout his legendarium.
Finally, I want to share with you the following Medieval and Renaissance depictions of “Saint George and the Dragon”, which prove that in the mind of the people of those times, dragons, wyverns, drakes, wyrms, etc., were the same creature. I firmly believe that neither the artists who made them nor the creators of this popular legend need to change the title of their respective work to “Saint George and the wyvern/drake/wyrm”, and we certainly do not have any reason to do it.
Icon of the Miracle of St. George and the Dragon (Rostov, late 14 century), from the Museum of the Russian icon in Moscow.
“Saint George” by Hans Acker (1440), colored window of the Lutheran cathedral “Ulm Münster” of Ulm, Germany.
“Life of Saint George” by Alexander Barclay (1515), woodcut of St George Slaying the Dragon, 1515.
“St. George Victorious over the Dragon” by Mattia Preti (1678), oil on canvas.
- अहि, “ahi”. Dragon in Sanskrit. (http://spokensanskrit.de/index.php?beginning=0+&tinput=ahi+&trans=Translate&direction=SE).
- 英文, “long”. Dragon in Chinese, from the primitive pictograph 龙龍, which represents a snake and a chisel 辛, a snake that can kill, meaning “dragon” (http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx?characterInput=%E9%BE%8D).
-Harley MS3244, folio f.39v, British Library. c. 1236-1250 http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3244
-Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1909), “A Complete Guide to Heraldry”, illustrated by Graham Johnston, T. C. & E. C. JACK, London, pp. 225-227.
-Gaius Plinius Secundus, “Naturalis Historia”, Book 10, 82.
-MMW, 10 B 25, Museum Meermanno c. 1450 http://manuscripts.kb.nl/show/images/10+B+25/page/1
-MS 24 Aberdeen Bestiary, Aberdeen University Library ca. 120 https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/ms24/f1r
-The Medieval Bestiary – Animals in the Middle Ages http://bestiary.ca/index.html