Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Draco

the Dragon


Urania's Mirror 1825. The Dragon surrounding the Little Bear, Ursa Minor

Draco is Latin for 'dragon' from Greek dracon. 'Dragon' seems to be a term for any mysterious snakelike creature in mythology. Dragons are often depicted as having a snake body on four feet. There is no fossil evidence for dragons ever having existed.

"'The tree of the Summit' was a type of the Celestial Pole, Seat of Judgment, and was guarded by the celestial serpent, the constellation Draco" [1]. "The constellation Ursa Minor which contains the Polestar, Polaris, as is now drawn enclosed on three sides by the coils of Draco; formerly it was almost entirely so" [Allen, Star Names, under Ursa Minor]. This pole, or the constellation Ursa Minor, was also imagined as a tree, and Draco, or the Dragon Ladon, is seen as guarding either the constellation Ursa Minor, or the tree in the garden of the Hesperides. Ladon, representing Draco, was the serpent-like dragon that twined round the tree in the Garden and guarded the golden apples, while tormenting the Titan Atlas (maybe Camelopardalis) as he held the heavens on his shoulders.

There are three known myths of dragons that relate to this constellation

1.  One is the dragon, Ladon, who guards the apples in the land of the Hesperides [2]. Ladon was a River-God of northern Arkadia (Arcadia), in the Peloponnesos [3]. This is in the general direction of Ursa Minor, who represents Arcas, from which the name Arcadia derives.

2.  "Some also say this Draco was thrown at Minerva (Athene) by the Gigantes (Giants), when she fought them. Minerva snatched its twisted form and threw it to the stars, and fixed it at the very pole of heaven. And so to this day it appears with twisted body, as if recently transported to the stars." [Hyginus, Astronomica 2.3 4] "Today we see him forever asleep as the much-knotted, battered, and twisted Draco" [5]. [Minerva threw the dragon to the stars — or slung it. A German word for snake is Schlange "which is probably related to 'sling'", Old English *slang ‘a snake, sinuous, snakelike, long and narrow and winding’ and slingan ‘twist oneself, creep’ [6, p.195], cognates are sling and slink, from Indo-European *slengwh- 'To slide, make slide, sling, throw', and maybe slang (casual speech).]

3.  The dragon slain by Cadmus at Thebes: Boeotian Thebes, the City of the Dragon. (Allen, p.209).

See Barry Long's feature excerpted from the book; The Origins of Man and the Universe. Subtitle: The Myth That Came to Life, The Draconic Syndrome... The character of myth and the Draconic Transverse (Draco).

Draco from the Latin dracon, Greek drakon, from drak, 'monster with the evil eye', cognate with Greek derkomai 'I see', derkesthai, 'to look at', Sanskrit darc (see), Avestic darstis (sight), Old Irish derc (eye), Old English torht, and Old High German zoraht, from the Indo-European root *derk- 'To see'. Derivatives: dragon, dragoon, drake2 (a mayfly or drake fly used as fishing bait), draconian (harsh, strict, drastic), tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus, from Greek drakontion ‘dragonwort’, New Latin tarchon), rankle (to cause persistent feelings of bitterness, resentment, or anger, from draoncle, 'abscess, festering sore'. The notion is of an ulcer caused by a snake's bite). [Pokorny derk- 213. Watkins] Other related words: Dracula, Dracaena, mandrake, Mandragora, snapdragon.

The longan tree, 'dragon eyes' from Chinese long, dragon, is so named because of the fruit's resemblance to an eyeball when it is shelled. The black seed shows through the translucent flesh like a pupil/iris. See picture.

The root *derk- should relate to the 'drakon-breeding Dirke', a fountain of Thebes [5]. Derketis (or Dercetis) identified with Dirke which is interpreted as coming from this root; 'to look upon, see, shine (derkô)' [6]. Dirke was the second wife of Lycus (after he abandoned his first wife Antiope), she was jealous of Antiope and had her imprisoned and ill-treated. Antiope escaped and found her sons Amphion and Zethus. In revenge for their mother's mistreatment Amphion and Zethus had Dirke tied to the horns of a wild bull and dragged (drag, from Old English dragan, is not a recognized cognate of 'dragon') to death over rocks. Dionysus made the famous spring, Dirke, near Thebes in Boeotia, spring up from her body.

Dercetis is also referred to as the Philistine Derceto [7], or Derketo, was said to have thrown herself into a lake near Ascalon, on which she was changed into a fish or mermaid. The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the name Derketo, known in Syria as Tirgata, also known as Dea Syria, 'Goddess of Syria'.

"And there appeared another wonder. In heaven; and behold a great red dragon... and his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth...." (Rev. 12:3-4).

The words drag and draw comes from the Indo-European root *dhragh- 'To draw, drag on the ground'. Rhyming variant of *tragh-. Derivatives: draw, drawer, (these words from Old English dragan, to draw, pull), drag (from Old Norse draga, to draw, pull, or Old English dragan), dray (from Old English draege, dragnet), draft (from Middle English draught, a pull, from a Scandinavian source akin to Old Norse *drahtr, drattr, act of drawing), dredge. [Pokorny dheragh- 257. Watkins]

“The dragon (draco) is the largest of all the snakes, or of all the animals on earth. The Greeks call it drakon, whence the term is borrowed into Latin so that we say draco. It is often drawn out of caves and soars aloft, and disturbs the air. It is crested, and has a small mouth and narrow pipes through which it draws breath and sticks out its tongue. It has its strength not in its teeth but in its tail, and it causes injury more by its lashing tail than with its jaws. Also, it does not harm with poison; poison is not needed for this animal to kill, because it kills whatever it wraps itself around. Even the elephant with his huge body is not safe from the dragon, for it lurks around the paths along which the elephants are accustomed to walk, and wraps around their legs in coils and kills them by suffocating them. It is born in Ethiopia and India in the fiery intensity of perpetual heat.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.255.]

"Today we see him forever asleep as the much-knotted, battered, and twisted Draco" [8]. To wake a sleeping dragon is to awake a dormant power. In reality snakes do not shut their eyes because they do not have eyelids, giving the impression they are awake all the time, and watching with a menacing unblinking stare.

"Dr. John Tanke has theorized that the words dragon and draugr might be related. He notes that both the serpent and the spirit serve as jealous guardians of the graves of kings or ancient civilizations. Dragons that act as draugar appear in Beowulf as well as in the stories of Siegfried" [9]. Draugrs seem to be dream characters or characters from a vision as described here. The word dream is related to Old Norse draugr, German traum, 'dream', Old Saxon bi-driogan, 'to deceive', Old High German triogan, 'to lie', from the Indo-European root *dhreugh- 'To deceive'. [Pokorny 2. dhreugh- 276. Watkins] With Australian aboriginals, creation is the Dreaming.

According to Carl Jung, "the structure of a dream is similar to a drama", dreams are drawn from our life experiences and those past experiences that rankle us influence our dreaming (rankle from the same root as dragon; *derk- 'To see'.)

In Sanskrit *derk- became darsanam, 'seeing, meeting'. In Hinduism Darshan refers to a sight or glimpse of a holy personage, such as a guru [12]. darshana, refers to any of the six schools of Hindu philosophy (literally, 'views').

Greek dorkas, a gazelle (so called in reference to its large bright eyes), from derkesthai, perfect dedorka, see, look at. Drake and dragon are of the same ult. origin. 'dedorka' , 'have seen' 'I see' [13, p.116]. [There is no English cognate word in the IE *derk root referring to 'sight' or 'see', but there is the word 'gaze' (a word of unknown origin) in 'gazelle' which is a translation of the Greek dorkas?]

The word draconian came into being to describe to the nature of Draco, an Athenian legislator. Draco (620 B.C.) produced a comprehensive set of laws for the city-state, perhaps the first such written code of laws in European history, a code mostly concerned with criminal law [12]. His laws were considered harsh (or drastic); anything from stealing a head of cabbage to murder merited the death penalty under the Draconian code. These days, Draco is identified with anything harsh, out-dated, or oppressive [13]. 

In modern Albania Djall is the name of the Devil. He is also called Dreqi from the Latin draco [14]. The 'Old Serpent' (believed to be Draco), in the Garden of Eden, is often interpreted as the 'Devil', (or sometimes Satan). ''Dracula' in the Wallachian language means 'devil'. Stoker copied this into his notes for Dracula, which suggests that this was probably why he chose the name. The later meaning of 'devil' probably derives from the medieval association of the devil with the image of the dragon, as in St George slaying the dragon" [15].

The Bible in Revelation 12:7-9 says:

"And the great dragon was cast out, That Old Serpent, called The Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" [16].

The word Dragoman (not a recognized cognate of dragon) is a guide or an interpreter in countries where Arabic, Turkish, or Persian is spoken, ultimately from Akkadian targumanu, 'interpreter' (from ragamu, 'to call'). Ladon (the dragon slain by Herakles and identified with Draco), was said to have had a hundred heads and that the heads spoke with a multitude of voices in many languages. The Targum (related to the word dragoman) is the Aramaic translations or paraphrasings of the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible, from Hebrew tirgem, 'he interpreted, translated'. Dreams are interpreted, or dreams are the subconscious mind's symbolic interpretations of experiences.

The forked tongue (multiple tongues, language from lingua, tongue) of serpents seems to mean; interpretation, and the potential for misinterpretation. The serpent in the Garden of Eden in dialogue with Eve tells her that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil had a different interpretation to what she understood it to be. She says that even if she touches the tree she will die. The serpent responds that she will not die, rather she would become like a god, knowing good and evil [17].

The symbolic connection between serpents and deceit may depend in part on the observation that snakes have forked tongues. A forked tongue is a tongue which has not one end, but two, pointing in different directions. In humans, the tongue is an essential tool in speech, and the presence of only one tip signifies the unity of truthful speech, and corresponds to the unity of the truth itself. There is only one truth, but there are many lies. The forked tongue represents the disunity of deceitful speech [18].

And when the serpent is slain or the devils cast out:

"And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mark 16:17-18)

“The isles of the Hesperides are so called after the city of Hesperis, which was located within the borders of Mauretania. They are situated beyond the Gorgades, at the Atlantic shore, in the most remote bays of the sea. Stories tell of an ever-watchful dragon guarding golden apples in their gardens. There, it is said, is a channel from the sea that is so twisted, with winding banks, that when seen from afar it looks like the coils of a serpent.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.294.]

"The Bears (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) are not set face to face: each with its muzzle points at the other's tail and follows one that follows it. Sprawling between them and embracing each the Dragon (Draco) separates and surrounds them with its glowing stars lest they ever meet or leave their stations." [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD, p.27].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Draco
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
Nodus 11 Altaisy delta 15ARI51 17ARI10 288 08 14 +67 34 25 +82 53 06 3.24 G8
Tyl epsilon 01TAU21 02TAU42 297 05 17 +70 08 26 +79 29 15 3.99 G3
upsilon 18TAU57 20TAU20 283 45 15 +71 13 51 +83 12 60 4.91 K0
Phi 09GEM43 11GEM06 275 22 08 +71 18 42 +84 52 14 4.24 A0
chi 14GEM38 16GEM01 275 29 22 +72 42 42 +83 33 34 3.69 F5
Dziban psi 12CAN21 13CAN48 265 42 26 +72 10 26 +84 11 02 4.90 F5
Giansar lambda 08LEO55 10LEO20 172 06 53 +69 36 26 +57 14 13 4.01 M0
omega 10LEO52 12LEO15 264 18 36 +68 46 52 +86 53 55 4.87 F4
kappa 14LEO52 16LEO15 187 50 24 +70 03 49 +61 45 31 3.88 B5
Thuban alpha 06VIR02 07VIR27 210 45 30 +64 36 51 +66 21 38 3.64 A0
Nodus 1 zeta 01LIB51 03LIB23 257 09 33 +65 46 34 +84 45 45 3.22 A3
Edasich iota [body] 03LIB31 04LIB57 230 57 12 +59 08 26 +71 05 40 3.47 K2
eta 13LIB05 14LIB28 245 49 37 +61 37 37 +78 26 34 2.89 G6
Theta [Neck] 15LIB17 16LIB40 240 14 14 +58 41 53 +74 26 21 4.11 F8
Arrakis mu [Head] 23SCO21 24SCO45 256 04 21 +54 32 08 +76 14 18 5.06 F6
Kuma nu [Head] 08SAG56 10SAG19 262 47 50 +55 13 04 +78 09 10 4.98 A8
Alwaid beta [Head] 10SAG34 11SAG58 262 19 32 +52 20 15 +75 17 02 2.99 G2
Grumium xi [Head] 23SAG21 24SAG45 268 09 55 +56 52 47 +80 17 15 3.90 K3
Etamin gamma [Head] 26SAG35 27SAG58 268 51 39 +51 29 38 +74 55 44 2.42 K5
draco2
Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

With vast convolutions Draco holds

The ecliptic axis in his scaly folds.

O'er half the skies his neck enormous rears,

And with immense meanders parts the Bears.

     — Erasmus Darwin's Economy of Vegetation.

Draco, the Dragon, circles around the North Pole. The German Drache, the Italian Dragone, and the French Dragon, was Dracon with the Greeks — indeed this has been the universal title in the transcribed forms of the word. Classic writers, astronomers, and the people have known it thus, although Eratosthenes and Hipparchos called it Ophis (Greek for snake), {Part 203} and in the Latin Tables, as with some of the poets, it occasionally appeared, with the other starry snakes, as Anguis, Coluber, Python, and Serpens (another constellation Serpens). From the latter came Aesculapius (identified with Ophiuchus), and perhaps Audax.

It was described in the Shield of Hercules, with the two Dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor), the Hare (Lepus), Orion, and Perseus, as "The scaly horror of a dragon, coiled Full in the central field"; and mythologists said that it was the Snake snatched by Minerva from the giants and whirled to the sky, where it became Sidus Minervae et Bacchi, or the monster killed by Cadmus at the fount of Mars, whose teeth he sowed for a crop of armed men.

Julius Schiller, without thought of its previous character, said that its stars represented the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem; others, more consistently, that it was the Old Serpent, the tempter of Eve in the Garden.

Delitzsch asserted that a Hebrew conception for its stars was a Quiver; but this must have been exceptional, for the normal figure with that people was the familiar Dragon, or a sea monster of some kind. Renan thought that the allusion of Job to "the crooked serpent" in our Authorized Version is to this, or possibly to that of Ophiuchus; but the Dragon would seem to be the most probable as the ancient possessor of the pole-star (now Polaris), then, as ours now is, the most important in the heavens; while this translation of the original is specially appropriate for such a winding figure. The Reverend Doctor Albert Barnes renders it "fleeing," and Delitzsch, "fugitive "; but the Revised Version has "swift," a very unsuitable epithet for Draco's slow motion, yet applicable enough to the more southern Hydra (Hydrus).

Referring to Draco's change of position in respect to the pole from the effect of precession, Proctor wrote in his Myths and Marvels of Astronomy:

"One might almost, if fancifully disposed, recognize the gradual displacement of the Dragon from his old place of honour, in certain traditions of the downfall of the great Dragon whose 'tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven,' alluded to in The Revelation xii, 4; and the conclusion of that verse, 'did cast them to the earth,' would show a possible reference to meteors."

{Page 204} In Persia Draco was Azhdeha, the Man-eating Serpent, occasionally transcribed Hashteher; and, in very early Hindu worship, Shi-shu-mara, the Alligator, or Porpoise, which also has been identified with our Delphinus.

Babylonian records allude to some constellation near the pole as a Snail drawn along on the tail of a Dragon that may have been our constellation; while among the inscriptions we find Sir, a Snake, but to which of the sky serpents this applied is uncertain. And some see here the dragon Tiamat,overcome by the kneeling sun-god Izhdubar or Gizdhubar, our Hercules, whose foot is upon it [note at bottom of page: This notable creation of Euphratean mythology (Tiamat) was the personification of primeval chaos, hostile to the gods and opposed to law and order; but Izhdubar conquered the monster in a struggle by driving a wind into its opened jaws and so splitting it in twain. Cetus, Hydra, and the Serpent of Ophiuchus (Serpens) also have been thought its symbols. Its representation is found on cylinder seals recently unearthed.] Rawlinson, however, said that Draco represented Hea or Hoa, the third god in the Assyrian triad, also known as Kim-mut.

As a Chaldaean figure it probably bore the horns and claws of the early typical dragon, and the wings that Thales utilized to form the Lesser Bear (Ursa Minor); hence these are never shown on our maps. But with that people it was a much longer constellation than with us, winding downwards and in front of Ursa Major, and, even into later times, clasped both of the Bears in its folds; this is shown in manuscripts and books as late as the 17th century, with the combined title Arctoe et Draco. It still almost encloses Ursa Minor. The usual figuring is a combination of bird and reptile, magnus et tortus, a Monstrum mirabile and Monstrum audax, or plain Monstrum with Germanicus. Vergil had Maximus Anguis, which, "after the manner of a river, glides away with tortuous windings, around and through between the Bears;" —  a simile that may have given rise to another figure and title, found in the Argonauticae, Ladon, from the prominent river of Arcadia, or, more probably, the estuary bounding the Garden of the Hesperides, which, in the ordinary version of the story, Draco guarded, "the emblem of eternal vigilance in that it never set." Here he was Coluber arborem conscendens, and Custos Hesperidum, the Watcher over the golden fruit; this fruit and the tree bearing it being themselves stellar emblems, for Sir William Drummond wrote: "a fruit tree was certainly a symbol of the starry heavens, and the fruit typified the constellations"; and George Eliot, in her Spanish Gypsy: {Page 205}

"The stars are golden fruit upon a tree

All out of reach."

Draco's stars were circumpolar about 5000 B.C., and, like all those similarly situated, — of course few in number owing to the low latitude of the Nile country, — were much observed in early Egypt, although differently figured than as with us. Some of them were a part of the Hippopotamus, or of its variant the Crocodile, and thus shown on the planisphere of Denderah and the walls of the Ramesseum at Thebes. As such Delitzsch says that it was Hes-mut, perhaps meaning the Raging Mother. An object resembling a ploughshare held in the creature's paws has fancifully been said to have given name to the adjacent Plough.

The hieroglyph for this Hippopotamus was used for the heavens in general; while the constellation is supposed to have been a symbol of Isis Hathor, Athor, or Athyr, the Egyptian Venus; and Lockyer asserts that the myth of Horus which deals with the Hor-she-shu, an almost prehistoric people even in Egyptian records, makes undoubted reference to stars here; although subsequently this myth was transferred to the Thigh, our Ursa Major. It is said that at one time the Egyptians called Draco Tanem, not unlike the Hebrew Tannim, or Aramaic Tannin, and perhaps of the same signification and derived from them.

The Egyptian Necht was close to, or among, the stars of Draco; but its exact location and boundaries, how it was figured, and what it represented, are not known.

Among Arabian astronomers Al Tinnin and Al Thu'ban were translations of Ptolemy's Drakon; and on the Borgian globe, inscribed over beta and gamma, are the words Alghavil Altannin in Assemani's transcription, the Poisonous Dragon in his translation, assumed by him as referring to the whole constellation. That there was some foundation for this may be inferred from the traditional belief of early astrologers that when a comet was here poison was scattered over the world. Bayer cited from Turkish maps Etanin, and from others Aben, Taben, and Etabin; Riccioli, Abeen vet Taeben; Postellus, Daban; Chilmead, Alanin; and Schickard, Attanmo. Al Shuja', the Snake, also was applied to Draco by the Arabians, as it was to Hydra; and Al Hayyah, the Snake, appeared for it, though more common for our Serpens, with which word it was synonymous.

Bayer had Palmes emeritus, the Exhausted Vine Branch, that I do not find elsewhere; but the original is probably from the Arabs for some minor group of the constellation.

Williams mentions a great comet, seen from China in 1337, which passed through Yuen Wei, apparently some unidentified stars in Draco. The {Page 206} creature itself was the national emblem of that country, but the Dragon of the Chinese zodiac was among the stars now our Libra: Edkins writes that Draco was Tsi Kung, the Palace of the Heavenly Emperor, adding, although not very clearly, that this palace is bounded by the stars of Draco, fifteen in number, which stretch themselves in an oval shape round the pole-star. They include the star Tai yi, xi, omicron, sigma, s, of Draco, which is distant about ten degrees from the tail of the Bear and twenty-two from the present pole. It was itself the pole in the Epoch of the commencement of Chinese astronomy.

Draco extends over twelve hours of right ascension, and contains 130 naked-eye components according to Argelander; 220, according to Heis: but both of these authorities extend the tail of the figure, far beyond its star lambda, to a 4th-magnitude under the jaws of Camelopardalis, — much farther than is frequently seen on the maps.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]