Across the world, every culture has its own repertoire of beasts of myth and legend. Sometimes revered, sometimes feared, these creatures have inspired stories, legends, and myths, and many still play a role in the modern world. From the ferocious dragon to the noble unicorn, mythical beasts have shaped our culture and stories for centuries.
The image of the flying, powerful serpent or lizard is a surprisingly international one, with many cultures having their own unique take on the image.
The dragon of East Asia is wingless and serpent-like, with a noble demeanor and great intelligence. They can fly through the use of a lump in their forehead or through the use of a staff or wand. They are also thought to bring the rain. China, Japan, and Korea all have slightly different legends about these dragons, and, interestingly, all of them believe the originals originated in their country.
The Aztecs had the god Quetzalcoatl, whose name translates to "feathered serpent". Like many classical dragons, Quetzalcoatl was depicted as a long, flying, serpentine creature. Quetzalcoatl was thought to be instrumental to the creation of mankind and to have endowed them with things like writing. In addition, just as Asian dragons were connected to rain, Quetzalcoatl had an aspect as a wind god (Ehecatl) and was thought to be the maker of the boundaries between earth and heaven.
Of course, the best known dragons in the West are the European dragons. These are large, scaled, winged, flame-breathing monsters of various kinds. Scholars speculate that legends of dragons evolved from a combination of spitting cobras and misidentified fossils, leading to the concept of giant lizards that could shoot flame. Dragons were thought to hoard treasure, kidnap maidens, and otherwise disrupt life, and many great heroes and saints are said to have fought a dragon at one point or another. However, as shown by their prominence in heraldry and other iconography, they were also symbols of strength and power. In modern media, dragons are more and more often depicted as intelligent and sympathetic characters - works like Anne McAffrey's Pern series and the movie How To Train Your Dragon shed a more positive light on dragons overall.
It is clear that the image of the powerful, cunning dragon is a strong one in myth, echoed across cultural boundaries.
Like dragons, unicorns have resonances across cultures - for example, Japanese mythology has the kirin, which greatly resembles the unicorn and which represents prosperity and harmony, and other cultures have similar images. However, the best known is the Western unicorn, a horse-like creature with a single shining horn. Unicorns were originally symbols of the wild and untamable, often used in symbols to represent freedom or independence from some oppressor. However, after a parable linked the image of a virgin taming the wild unicorn to the concept of the conception of Jesus, they also became linked with purity, innocent love, and similar concepts. The horn of the unicorn was also thought to have the ability to ward off poisons and purify the impure.
The Pegasus is commonly linked to unicorns, being another mythical horse-like creature with an unusual feature - in this case, wings. Originally a part of Greek mythology, the Pegasus was sired by Poseidon and used by the hero Bellerophon in his journeys. The Pegasus was used variously as a symbol of wisdom, inspiration, spiritual energy, and much more. Nowadays the term "Pegasus" is used for any winged horse.
Of course, many more beasts exist than can be listed in an article of this scope. Chimera, sphinxes, griffins, fauns, and far more populate world cultures. However, dragons and unicorns are interesting for their worldwide prominence and their strong resonances even in modern culture. Their connections to real creatures and their fascinating symbolism make them an interesting source of study even now. If you find yourself intrigued by these creatures of legend, there are many wonderful resources - including this website, of course - to find out far more about the ones listed here and many others.