Myth & Magic: Dragons
- Lee Murphy
Dragons, in the mythological sense, are a varied species. When used broadly, the word "dragon" consists of several sub-species such as drakes, sea serpents, wurms, and wyverns. In terms of their usage within the fantasy genre, they're often painted as linear one-dimensional characters, perhaps even within the game of Magic. Let's take a quick look at some dragon-related Magic cards, and then look at their mythological cousins, both great and small.
Shivan Dragon, I Choose You!
Magic has long had a love affair with classic dragons. Shivan Dragon, one of Magic's original win-conditions is still in Standard, making an appearance in the 2017 Welcome Deck. We even get to see contemporary versions of the Elder Dragons, which have already been discussed here on Insight.
But just how close are Nicol Bolas and his ilk to the mythical creatures that inform their creation.
Let's Count Some Dragons
Listing every branch of the dragon family, while doable, would prove a rather dull affair, but we can certainly name most of the more important ones.
The Amphiptere was said to be serpent-like in form with wings. As a creature of lore, it was documented by Edward Topsell in his bestiary in the early 17th century. The body of the Amphiptere was said to closely resemble that of the lindworm, a serpent commonly found in Norse, Germanic, and Saxon folklore. Those who follow the adventures of Ragnar Loðbrók in the television series Vikings will be interested to know that the legendary king gained a wife, Þóra Borgarhjörtr (Thora) after rescuing her from a "pet" lindworm which had taken her hostage.
Drakes are dragons and dragons are drakes. That much is evident from the words themselves. Dragons are draconic, Draco was very much a dragon, but around the 12th century the two words deviated, as did the legends surrounding them. Drakes have four legs, the front two with wings attached and used much like any bird would use them… to soar through the air, delivering (traditionally within the game) aerial beats two points at a time, just like Richard Garfield intended.
In terms of presence in mythology, the vast majority of the fantasy involved effectively conflates both drake and dragon, including, but not limited to, the works of Tolkien, Beowulf, and more recently in the Harry Potter series and A Song of Ice and Fire.
While we can forgive the flavour violations of several of the game's drakes, it's worth pointing out that the Komodo Dragon is the closest living representation of a wingless drake, a believable 2/2 easily, a 2/3 even… but not much beyond that.
For purposes of illustration we'll use a personal favourite, if only for the background art… The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride, better known as the Cliffs of Moher.
2024 is the next Year of the Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac and in many ways dragons from the Orient are likely the most recognisable of all within the Magic universe. Yosei, the Morning Star, Keiga, the Tide Star, Jugan, the Rising Star, Kokusho, the Evening Star, and Ryusei, the Falling Star were the five dragons that saw print in the Kamigawa cycle. Think Fin Fang Foom from the animated Iron Man universe, the River Dragon from Spirited Away, think Nicol Bolas as we see him more recently… Tall, lithe, fluid in motion. They're more about symbolism rather than their physical nature, being protectors or representative of some elemental aspect of nature. Within the Magic: The Gathering storyline, it's clear that the five dragons are effectively immortal. They're killable, but able to be re-summoned as needed by those who the dragons look over.
Western, or Occidental Dragons are perhaps what we're most familiar with in terms of literature. Grand, conniving, intelligent beasts, sometimes capable of speech and magic (this also echoes Nicol Bolas, so he really does tick all the boxes). Fire-breathing as a dragon quality is predominant here. Shivan Dragon, Dragon Puppy, Rorix, Bladewing… all the classics. In the fashion of the mythology of the region, Western Dragons are large, stocky, strong in nature, displaying little in the way of physical weakness. If I were to say that such dragons might have a beefy arm, then I think most readers will suddenly have a clearer image in their mind as to the sort of flying lizard we're talking about. Smaug, the dragons from Reign of Fire, practically every single Welsh children's story, and so on. Such dragons are invariably evil and are portrayed as the villains the majority of the time.
Some Famous Dragons for Your Consideration
There are five colors in Magic, so we'll pick five dragons of legend, one for each major continent.
Africa: Denwen was a Great Serpent which lived in Ancient Egypt some 4500+ years ago. A fire dragon, he possessed the power to destroy all other gods, should he so choose… and choose he did, although he was thwarted by the spirit of a deceased Egyptian ruler.
Asia: Kiyo's story reads like a pulp novel, a classic tale of love and scorn. She was a waitress in a Japanese teahouse, and she fell in love with a priest from a nearby temple. The love affair led to the priest neglecting his religious duties, and once he realised this he ended the relationship. Upset, Kiyo took up the study of magic, turned herself into a dragon, and killed the priest.
The Americas: Quetzalcoatl, known as the Lord of the Dawn, an amphiptere, has already played a part in Magic's history (Lorescale Coatl and Winged Coatl). An Aztec and Mayan god, he was a feathered flying serpent. He shunned sacrifices, and was known to create rainbows in the skies after a rainstorm. Legend has it that he left his people in order to become the planet Venus although one lesser tale suggested that the invading conquistadors used Quetzalcoatl's story to aid in their subjugation of the natives. The resonance with Ixalan is clear.
Oceania: Yurlungur will seem very familiar to a great many readers of fantasy. His history ties into aspects of Christianity and Judaism, and his nature is almost European in nature, although he is very much Australian. It was said that he dwelled in a cave, eating young women who were foolish enough to venture in the depths. When he spoke or roared he would create thunder, and he was responsible for the great flood. His eating of women is believed to be the source of the stereotype of dragons requiring young maidens as tribute, perhaps finding its way to the Far East and then back to Europe via the Spice Routes of Marco Polo and earlier nomads.
Europe: Folklore survives best when isolated, but accessible, as was the case with Irish tales. There, the stories of the ancient past merged almost seamlessly into the modern age, with the coming of Christianity to Europe, with saints often being the heroes of the hour. One such tale tells of Colm Cille, the abbot of Iona, slaying the Suileach, a sea serpent who terrorised Lough Swilly, a fjord on the northern coast of Ireland. This was common practice for missionaries of the day, to acknowledge some local threat, and then to dispose of said threat by going into the wilds to 'kill' it. If you're wondering what the Suileach looks like, well there wasn't a convenient picture to show you, but imagine a mythical sea serpent and you're probably on the mark.
Pre-M19 Standard Cards Related to Dragons (Mythologically Speaking)
For those who're interested, these are the cards currently in Standard whose mythological roots are that of Dragons.
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