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The religious roots of our obsession with dragons

Before HBO’s ‘House of the Dragon’ and ‘Game of Thrones,’ there were faith-based dragon stories

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A giant dragon lantern is displayed to celebrate the New Year near the border village of Panmunjom (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas at Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea in 2012.

A giant dragon lantern is displayed to celebrate the New Year near the border village of Panmunjom, DMZ, that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, at Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea, in 2012.

Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press

Long before dragons played a starring role in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series and its new prequel, “House of the Dragon,” they were the focus of faith-based stories and cultural traditions, according to a new analysis from The Conversation.

The piece, from Arizona State University instructor Emily Zarka, argues that, for centuries, humans have used “dragon lore” to grapple with their relationship to nature.

“The beauty, terror and power of the dragon evokes mystery and suggests that not all phenomena are easily explained or understood,” she writes.

In religious texts, dragons are often a symbol for chaos. They can show the the limits of human strength and wisdom or, in some cases, the power of the gods or god-like figures being described, Zarka wrote.

“Across the vast majority of religions, there is mythic trope some scholars call Chaoskampf, a German word that translates as struggle against chaos. This term ... refers to a pervasive motif involving a heroic character who slays a primordial chaos ‘monster,’ often with serpentine or dragonlike characteristics and a massive size that dwarfs humans,” she said.

In the Bible, dragon-like creatures “are part of God’s entourage,” as one biblical expert told the Deseret News in 2018.

By studying stories about these beasts and others, it’s possible to develop a better sense of how Christians should respond to uncomfortable or overwhelming situations, said Timothy Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University, at the time.

“We can go more honestly into chaotic and disorienting experiences if we’re open to those kinds of insights from the Bible,” he said.

But faith groups don’t always present dragons as something to be feared or conquered. They’re sometimes honored, Zarka said.

“Today, dragons are celebrated and revered in Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianism traditions as symbols of strength and enlightenment,” she wrote for The Conversation.

And even in traditions where dragons are feared, they’re often a source of fascination, Zarka said.

“Two-legged or four, fire-breathing or shape-shifting, scaled or feathered, dragons fascinate people across the world with their legendary power,” she wrote, implying that HBO’s new series, “House of the Dragon,” is far from the last film or show we’ll see featuring dragons in all their fiery glory.