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(14,898 words)

“dragon,” various kinds of snake-like, mostly gigantic, monsters living in the air, on earth, or in the sea (also designated by other terms) sometimes connected with natural phenomena, especially rain and eclipses.

“dragon,” various kinds of snake-like, mostly gigantic, monsters living in the air, on earth, or in the sea (also designated by other terms) sometimes connected with natural phenomena, especially rain and eclipses.

A version of this article is available in print

Volume III, Fascicle 2, pp. 191-205

i. In Old and Middle Iranian

At the time of the Indo-Iranian unity, the Indo-Iranians must have imagined dragons restraining the heavenly waters and causing drought, and not releasing them until slain by a god or hero, as in the Rigvedic myth of Indra and Vṛtra. In the Iranian Zoroastrian literature, however, other than Gandarəβa who lives in the Vourukaṧa Sea, dragons are rarely mentioned in connection with water, though they are sometimes said to dwell by rivers. The demon which causes drought seems not to be a dragon (Av. Apaoša, Mid. Pers. Apōš); instead, the Zoroastrian dragons, materially huge monsters with ravenous appetites for men and horses, have been given their place in the Mazdayasnian view of the world, in which all monsters are the creations of evil and thus antagonists of the true, Mazdayasnian religion. Still but sketched, or briefly alluded to, in the extant Avesta, this aspect of the Iranian dragons is elaborated throughout the later religious writings. In Manichean myths, however, we notice a change in the concept of the monsters, which are now located in the oceans, presumably as the result of Mesopotamian influence.

The most common Indo-Iranian word for dragon, Indian ahi, Avestan aži, originally meant only “snake,” a meaning which Avestan aži still has beside “dragon.” These two words are etymologically related to words in other Indo-European languages such as Latin anguis (hence anguilla, related to Germanic “eel;” see further Mayrhofer, Etymological Dictionary I, p. 68, and III, p. 638). In later Iranian the word aži has mostly been replaced, partly for reasons of linguistic taboo, partly probably for phonetic reasons. Thus only Yidgha and Munji still have (y)īž < aži; Middle and New Persian have mār, which may derive from *marΘra “killer” (though there are phonetic difficulties in such a derivation) and kirm/kerm “worm”, Av. kərəma, Sogd. kyrm- (translating Mid. Pers. azdahāg, Parth. aždahāg, see Henning, Sogdica, pp. 21f.); Shughni has sāɣ, which may be from *sušnā “the hisser;” etc. (see Morgenstierne, “An Ancient Indo-Iranian Word for "Dragon"” on this and other words for “snake” and “dragon” in Iranian; on “snake” in Indo-Aryan, see G. Buddruss, “Zur Benennung der Schlange”).

Other dragons or dragon-like monsters in Old and Middle Iranian are the Avestan Gandarəβa (Pahlavi Gandarb/Gandarw), the Pahlavi Kirm (battled and vanquished by Ardašīr I, see below, AŽDAHĀ II), the Zoroastrian Middle Persian Gōčihr and Mūšparīg, and some of the Manichean Middle Persian mazans.

Indo-European and Indo-Iranian connections. Myths of dragons and the slaying of dragons were common among both other Indo-European peoples and the Near-Eastern peoples with whom the Iranians came into contact from the first half of the first millennium B.C. We need only recall the Teutonic myths of the Nibelungen and Beowulf on the one hand, and the Babylonian dragon-slaying myths on the other. The myth which relates how Dahāg was chained to Mount Demāvand by Ferēdūn but is unchained at the end of time (see below) may reflect Indo-European myths of monsters which are vanquished by a god or hero and imprisoned or chained, but sometimes are liberated at the end of time and come forth to wreak havoc among gods and men. In Greek mythology Zeus battles the Titans and imprisons them in Tartarus; according to some authors, he later set them free (see, e.g., Harvey, The Oxford Companion, p. 126a). In the Scandinavian mythology, the monstrous Fenris wolf is chained by the god Týr, but at Ragnarokk (Götterdämmerung) it is unchained and is fought by Óδinn, whom it swallows, but is itself slain by Óδinn’s son (see. e.g., Davidson, Gods and Myths, pp. 38, 59). It is of course difficult to establish detailed connections between these various Indo-European myths, and some scholars prefer to see individual developments rather than elements inherited from a distant past (see, e.g., Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, p. 283).

In Indian mythology the only dragon of importance is the snake/dragon (ahi) vanquished by Indra and usually referred to as Vṛtra. The origin of the name has been much discussed and is important for Indian as well as Iranian mythology since in Iranian the standing epithet of Indra, vrṭra-han/Vṛtra-han “smiter of obstacles or defenses/slayer of Vṛtra,” corresponding to Av. vərəΘraγan, was thematicized and came to designate one of the most important gods in the Iranian pantheon: Av. VərəΘraγna, Mid. Pers. Wahrām, NPers. Bahrām. The ahi Vṛtra is described in the Rigveda as keeping the (heavenly) waters imprisoned in caves in the mountains. With the vajra (in the Avesta vazra is the chief weapon of MiΘra), Indra smites him on the neck, splits his head thus freeing the waters, which immediately rush out like cows and run to the sea. In India the epithet is given also to Agni (the fire-god) and Soma; in the Avesta also to Haoma. In the Avesta and the Zoroastrian Pahlavi texts, however, the epithet is never given to any of the dragon-slaying heroes and no gods (including VərəΘraγna) slay dragons. Nevertheless, this concept may have had a place in the mythology of at least some of the Iranian peoples since in Manichean cosmology the dragon-slaying god Adamas is called Wšγnyy in Sogdian (< OIr. WrΘragna; see further below) and also elsewhere in the later tradition some local counterparts of VərəΘraγna preserve traces of his dragon-killing function: Thus, e.g., Armenian Vahagn kills a dragon (see also Duchesne-Guillemin, La religion, pp. 175-78; and BAHRĀM).

Whereas in the Indian myths the dragon-slayer is the warrior god, in the Zoroastrian myths the dragon-slayers are superhuman heroes: Θraētaona, who slays Aži Dahāka, and Kərəsāspa, who slays Aži Sruuara, the horned dragon. Kərəsāspa seems to have no parallel in Indian myths; however, Θraētaona, son of ĀΘβiia, appears to be related to another Avestan hero, Θrita, whose name corresponds formally to the Indian Trita Āptya; the patronym Āptya, however, corresponds to that of the Avestan Θraētaona. In the Hōm yašt (Y. 9) the first mortals to press the haoma are enumerated: the first was Vīuuaŋᵛhan, father of Yima, the second ĀΘβiia, father of Θraētaona, and the third was Θrita (literally “the third”), father of Uruuāxšaiia and Kərəsāspa. In the Rigveda, Trita Āptya is portrayed as the first sacrificer to prepare the soma. Clearly these various mythical persons are related (see Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, pp. 99f.). The Rigvedic Trita Āptya is no dragon-slayer but he does appear in a myth which bears great similarity to that of Indra’s slaying of Vṛtra: In addition to this feat, Indra also liberates some cows which are held imprisoned in a cave by a certain Vala (whose name may or may not be etymologically related to Vṛtra: IE. root *ṷel-; cf. Eng. “wall”) but sometimes this feat is ascribed to Trita Āptya.

It therefore seems clear that although dragon-slaying gods and heroes were part of Indo-Iranian mythology, India and Iran developed distinct myths early, changing, deleting, and adding details. In India dragon-slaying was made a characteristic feature of the god Indra. The notion of a god of victory *Vrtraǵhan “smiter of obstacles/defenses” was probably also common heritage, but whereas the epithet in Iran became the name of the god himself, in India it was given to the warrior god Indra, prompted by his connection with the dragon-slaying (cf., e.g., Rigveda 1.32.2 ahann ahim “he struck/slew the dragon,” with the same verb han-/ghn-, Av. jan-/γn- “to strike, kill,” as in vṛtra-han-/ghn-, vərəΘra-jan/γn(a)-). For succinct overviews of the arguments and various theories, see Duchesne-Guillemin, La religion, pp. 175-78; Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, pp. 63f., especially p. 64 nn. 279-80; see also BAHRĀM).

The only other dragon/snake mentioned in the Rigveda is the “dragon of the deep” (ahi budhnya), who is mentioned in lists of lesser divinities and said to dwell at the bottom of heavenly rivers (budhne nadīnāṃ rajaḥsu sīdan; Grassmann, Wörterbuch, cols. 909f.).

In India the dragon-fight was symbolically connected with New-year and the end of drought but in ancient Iran there is no trace of a connection between the killing of the dragon and Now Rūz. Scholars attempting to see such a connection (e.g. Dumézil, Le problème des centaures, pp. 72f., and Widengren, Religionen, pp. 41-49) have failed to prove it (Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, p. 102 n. 110).

In Mithraism a reference to a simulated dragon-slaying is found in a passage from Lampridius (Commodus 9), quoted from Loisy by Widengren, Religionen, pp. 44f. n. 16, but otherwise this myth seems to be quite absent from Mithraism, where the snake apparently was “a symbol of a beneficial, life-giving force” (Hinnells, “Reflections,” p. 295).

Dragons and dragon-like monsters in the Zoroastrian scriptures. 1. Ažis. 2. Gandarəβa. (On Gōčihr and Mūšparīg see Dragons in astrology, below.)

1. Ažis. Physical descriptions are found of several ažis in the Avesta:

Aži Dahāka had three mouths (Θrizafanəm), three heads (Θrikamarəδəm), and six eyes (xšuuaš.ašīm). (See further on Aži Dahāka below.)

Aži Sruuara, the horned dragon, also called Aži Zairita, was the yellow dragon that Kərəsāspa slew (Y. 9. 1; Yt. 19.40; see on the Legend of Kərəsāspa below) “who swallowed horses (aspō.gar-), who swallowed men (nərə.gar-), the poisonous yellow one, over whom poison flowed the height of a spear;” also described as (Y. 9.30) “the terrifying (sima-), poison-spitting (vīšō.vaēpa-) dragon.” The Dādestān ī dēnīg (71) appears to have preserved two more old epithets of Aži Sruuara no longer found in the Avesta; here we read that Aži Srūwar was one of the seven worst sinners (two of the others being Dahāg and his mother Wadag, see below), being close to Ahriman himself, and that in addition to swallowing men and horses in a terrifying way (sahmgenīhā … asp ud mard-ōbārīh kard), it was also a highway robber (rāhdārī ud rāhbīmēnīdārīh … kard; cf. the dragon in Aogəmadaēcā below and note Pahlavi Rivayat, p. 69 par. 16, where Kirsāsp tells Ohrmazd that he has killed seven gigantic rāhdārs). In the Dēnkard it is said to be skilled in witchcraft (Dresden, p. 91 [109.6]; Madan, p. 747.20; tr. West, 8.5.23, p. 111; it is spelled slwbl yz and slwblyz). There seem to be no similar creatures in the old Indian mythology; however, in Sumero-Semitic culture, art and literature, horned and multi-headed dragons and other monsters are common-place. The number of heads is often seven (see, e.g., the illustrations in Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis; see also Christensen, Démonologie, pp. 20-23).

A dragon guarding a road is described in Aogəmadaēcā 78, where it is compared with Vayu: “the road which a dragon guards, horse-*crushing (aspaŋhāδō), man-*crushing (vīraŋhāδō), man-slaying (vīraja), without compassion.” (The element -hāδa- may belong to the root had-, OInd. sad- “to treat roughly” according to H. W. Bailey, “Arya”, p. 526, who quotes Yt. 14.56 where we find the parallels jana … nōiṱ janən haδa … nōiṱ haδən ). The descriptions of ažis in the Vidēvdād are of snakes rather than of dragons: “of the snakes that crawl on their bellies (ažinąm udarō.Θrąsanąm)” (Vd. 145; on Θrąsa- see Hoffmann, Aufsätze I, p. 197 n. 2); “swift snakes (ažaiiō xšuuaēβåŋhō)” (Vd. 18.65).

The Aži Raoiδita, the red dragon (in contradistinction to the Aži Zairita “yellow dragon” = Aži Sruuara), ought to have been one of the most important Avestan dragons (excepting Aži Dahāka, see below) since it was, together with the “daēuua-created winter” (ziiąmca daēuuo.dātəm), Aŋra Mainiiu’s counter-creation (paitiiārəm frākərəṇtaṱ) to Ahura Mazdā’s creation of Airiiana Vaējah (Vd. 1.2; see Christensen, Le premier chapitre du Vendidad, pp. 23, 26-27), and thus should by rights have been the most loathed creature in the original home of the Iranians. However, it is mentioned only here. The Aži Raoiδita was probably not identical with Aži Dahāka. As dragons, the only point they had in common was that they were created by Aŋra Mainiiu as the worst thing in the world, but Aži Dahāka is nowhere said to be red, and is nowhere connected with winter. The Pahlavi translation and commentary has az-iz i rōdīg; was bawēd “and the river snake; there is a large number” without further comments. The corresponding text in the Bundahišn (chap. 31) describes the dragon of the counter-creation as mār ī pad parrag ud ān-iz ī nē pad parrag “the snake with wings and the one with no wings” (TD1, p. 176.1-2; TD2, p. 205.7-8; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 264f.; cf. Christensen, op. cit., p. 27).

An Aži Višāpa is mentioned in Nirangistan 48, where it is said that the act of offering libations to the waters between sunset and sunrise is no better than throwing them into the *mouth of the Aži Višāpa. The two manuscripts of the Nirangistan (neither of them old and trustworthy) have vṧāpahe (TD) and viṧāpahe (HJ), the Pahlavi rendering has MYA Y ŠPYL “good water,” which may or may not be a scribal corruption of ʾp Y wš, i.e., az ī wiš “poison snake,” as suggested by Waag (p. 109; see Sanjana’s text p. 197, variants listed on p. 43). The epithet višāpa is commonly interpreted as containing the word vī/ĭša- “poison” (Bartholomae, AirWb., col. 1473 “whose juices are poison,” Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, p. 91 n. 42 “dragon with poisonous slaver,” etc.) and although such an interpretation lies close at hand in view of the other dragons’ association with poison, the Armenian form of the word, višap (Georgian vešapi, also a fabulous serpent; Syriac wšpʾ) must be derived from *vēšā/ăp (Hübschmann, Armen. Etymologie, p. 247; Benveniste, “L’origine”), i.e., Old Iranian *ṷaiš- (Benveniste, p. 7, reconstructs *vā/ăišapa- but still assumes some derivative of “poison”). The etymology of the term is still unclear; besides the older proposals (cf. AirWb.) note that Rigvedic has two verbs viṣ “to pour out” (intr.) and “seize,” both used in the context of “water” and the second in a context involving Indra, the vajra, and the dragon ahi, but neither verb gives a totally satisfactory meaning for the term. Perhaps we should compare Avestan vaēšah “foulness,” so that this dragon was originally the dragon “of foul waters” or the dragon “which fouls the waters.” The importance of the epithet lies in the fact that Armenian višap has become the designation of a whole class of dragons (see Benveniste, “L’origine”) and the hero Vahagn is there called višapakʿal “dragon-slaying.”

In the Middle Iranian period, an aždahā was often depicted on banners to frighten the enemy by its ferocious aspect. Such banners are referred to several times in the Šāh-nāma as aždahā-peykar (e.g., ed. Borūḵīm, II, p. 480 v. 775, IV, p. 924 v. 949). An early reference to them is found in Lucian (De historia conscribenda 29, pp. 42f.), where we are told that the Parthians used banners with different emblems to differentiate divisions of their army, a dragon-banner (drákōn) preceding—Lucian believes—a thousand-man division. (See also AŽDAHĀ II)

2. Gandarəβa/Gandarw (or Gandarb, spelled gndlp). Among the other various noxious creatures depicted in the Zoroastrian Pahlavi literature we find the sea monster Gandarəβa, which may have been a dragon of the sea, though descriptions as to its exact nature are lacking. It was a monster with yellow heals (Zairipāšna-) and living in the sea (upāpa-), which, on emerging to destroy the entire creation of Ašša, was fought and vanquished by Kərəsāspa (Yt. 5, 38, 15.28 19.41; cf. Christensen, Démonologie, pp. 18f., and see below). Like the other dragons it had a ravenous appetite, even more so since it was able to swallow twelve provinces at once (pad ēw-bār 12 deh bē jūd; Pahlavi Rivayat, p. 67 par. 9). Etymologically the name equals OInd. gandharva, a beneficent mythical being, said to be surrounded by the heavenly waters—which flow down at his look—sometimes (in later literature, usually) portrayed as a heavenly musician. It is through the “Iranian polarization” of the inherited Aryan mythological concepts, it seems, that gandarəβa has been turned into a sea monster. Of all the Old Iranian monsters Gandarəβa is the most reminiscent of Near-Eastern, Semitic, sea monsters. (On the OInd. gandharva see, e.g., Oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda, pp. 248ff.; Grassmann, Wörterbuch, col. 378; Dumézil, Le problème, devotes several chapters to this monster.) It also recalls the Manichean water dragons, the mazans (see below). The gandarəβa survives in Sogdian as γntrw (for genuine Iranian *γntṛβ through Indian influence) and the entire Avestan phrase (upāpō gandarəβō) as wpʾpγntrw (P 3.131, see Henning, “Sogdian Tales,” pp. 481f.); it has survived in modern Shughni dialects as the designation of a monster or dragon, but also a werewolf (see Morgenstierne, Etymological Vocabulary, p. 110).

Aži Dahāka. Aži Dahāka (Pahl. Az[i]dahāg, spelled ʾcydhʾk, or Dahāg) belongs to the realm of mythologized history or historicized mythology. He is depicted in the Avesta as a dragon-like (aži) monster with three mouths (Θrizafanəm), three heads (Θrikamarəδəm), six eyes (xšuuaš.ašīm), with a thousand viles (hazaŋrā.yaoxštīm), very strong (aš.aojaŋhəm), a demoniac devil (daēuuīm drujim). For the rest he behaves like the other heroes and non-heroes of the Avestan mythological prehistory, and it is not clear whether he was originally considered as a human in dragon-shape or a dragon in man-shape. The former alternative is suggested by his epithet dahāka- if it means “man(-like)” (Schwartz, Orientalia 49, pp. 123f., who for the word formation compares maṧiia- and maṧiiāka-, and for the meaning compares Khotanese daha- “male,” Wakhi δāi “man,” and translates Aži Dahāka as “he hominoid serpent, the Snake-man”). However, the traditional connection of Av. dahāka with the OInd. dāsas and dasyus, who are also among the opponents of Indra and who are usually assumed to be the indigenous pre-Aryan inhabitants of northwestern India can not be wholly discarded. (Note that Pashto lōy “big” is likely to be from dahāka, which may point to an original meaning “big, huge.”) (See also Christensen, Démonologie, pp. 20ff.)

A number of elements of the myth of Aži Dahāka have been preserved in the Zoroastrian texts: In their struggle to regain the xᵛarənah after it left Yima, Ahura Mazdā and Aŋrō Mainiiu each employed their best helpers. Ātar and Aži Dahāka with his brother Spitiiura here faced one another and threatened one another, but the threats of Ātar were the most efficient ones, and Evil’s attempt was foiled. According to the Avestan myth Spitiiura sawed Yima in half (Yt. 19.46 yimo.kərəṇtəm “the Yima-cutter”), but the Bundahišn states that he did it together with Aži Dahāka (TD1, p. 196. 13-14; TD2, p. 228.12; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 292f.; tr. West, p. 131; see also Darmesteter, Zend-Avesta III, p. 629 n. 76). According to the Pahlavi Rivayat (46.35, p. 136), it was as a recompense (pāddāšn) for his success against Dahāg that Ādur Farnbag was established victoriously in Ḵᵛārazm, and the Bundahišn says that when Jam was cut in half, the xwarrah of Jam saved Ādur Farnbag from the hand of Dahāg (TD1, p. 102. 15-17; TD2, pp. 124.14-125.1; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 158f.; tr. West, p. 63).

In the Avesta (Yt. 5.29-35 and 15.19-21) we are told that Aži Dahāka worshipped Arduuī Sūrā in the land of Baβri and Vaiiu in the inaccessible (dužita) Kuuiriṇta. The tradition has interpreted Baβri as Babylon, Old Persian Bab(a)iruš (Mid. Pers. Bābēl) and Kuuiriṇta as Aži Dahāka’s castle in Babylon. The Bundahišn, in a list of dwellings (mānīhā) made by the kays, reports that Dahāg made a dwelling in Babel called Kuling dušdīd (TD1, p. 179.11-12; TD2, p. 209.8; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 268f.; see further Darmesteter, Zend Avesta II, pp. 584f. n. 16). In the Dēnkard (7.4.72) it is told that Dahāg by sorcery had made many wonderful things (widimās) in Bābēl, which induced people to idolatry, in order to destroy the world but that Zardošt recited the words of the Religion and thus rendered nought Dahāg’s efforts (Dresden p. 119 [54]; Madan, p. 639.5-10; Molé, La légende, pp. 56f.). These interpretations are of doubtful historical and geographical value, not least because of the Avestan form of the name, Baβri, which differs from the others; nevertheless it is understandable that the Iranians, after they came into contact with Near-Eastern, especially Semitic culture, located Aži Dahāka, the big dragon, in Babylon, which must have been notorious for its dragons, in literature and artistic representations. Another mansion was constructed by Dahāg in *Šambarān (wr. yʾmblʾn; cf. Šāh-nāma Šambarān) and one in India (TD1 , p. 179.15; TD2, p. 209. 11-12; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 270f.). Only once, it seems, is Dahāg associated with a river, namely in the chapter on rivers in the Bundahišn where he is said to have asked a favor from Ahriman and the demons by the river Sped in Azerbaijan (TD1, p.82.15-17; TD2, p. 88.3; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 108f.; tr. West, p. 80).

Aži Dahāka’s prayer to Arduuī Sūrā and Vaiiu was for them to give him the power to render unpopulated (amaṧiia-) the seven climes, i.e., the entire world; Arduuī Sūrā and Vaiiu of course did not grant this prayer; on the contrary, when Θraētaona subsequently worshipped them, asking them to grant him the power to overcome Aži Dahāka, it was him they granted his wish. The same two passages contain another fragment of the myth: At the same time, Θraētaona asked and was granted the power to lead away Sauuaṛŋhauuāci and Arənauuāci, the two most beautiful women in the world, whom the later tradition represented as Yima’s sisters or daughters and as having been captured and detained by Aži Dahāka (further on the capture of beautiful women by dragons, see AŽDAHĀ II). More information originally contained in the Avesta is to be found in the later Pahlavi texts, especially in the resumés of the nasks given in the Dēnkard (books 8 and 9, tr. West, SBE 37, and elsewhere); in particular, the twentieth fragard of the Sūdgar nask, called VohuxšaΘrəm, was devoted in its entirety to the rule of Dahāg.

In the Pahlavi texts Dahāg is portrayed as the embodiment and originator of the bad religion, i.e., the opposite of the Good Mazdayasnian Religion. In Dēnkard 3.229 we are told that the bad religion and the non-law was codified by Dahāg in the writings of Judaism (the ʾwlytʾ, Syriac UrāyΘā, i.e., the Pentateuch), and that from Dahāg it went to Abraham, the dastūr of the Jews (tr. Menasce, p. 243; cf. Zaehner, Zurvan, p. 30). In the Sūdgar nask Dahāg was said to have possessed five defects (greediness, want of energy, indolence, defilement, and illicit intercourse), the opposites of the best qualities wisdom, instructed eloquence, diligence, and energetic effort (according to the resumé in Dēnkard 9.5.1-2, DH, p.172.8-9; Madan, p. 789. 1518; tr. West, p. 177). In Dēnkard 3.308 Dahāg, destroyer of the world is said to have been of Arabic (tāj) race. Dēnkard 3.287-88 lists ten good counsels to mankind given by Jam followed by ten bad, counter-counsels by Dahāg, which are referred to also elsewhere in the Dēnkard (tr. Menasce, pp. 243, 283-85; the ʿOlamāʾ-e eslām contains a note that the name Dahāk actually means “ten sins,” see Persian Rivayat, p. 454, and Zaehner, Zurvan, p. 413). In the Dādestān ī dēnīg (71) Dahāg is said to have been one of the seven worst sinners ever, i.e., those who are close to Ahriman himself (two more being the Az ī Srūwar and Dahāg’s mother Wadag); here Dahāg is said to be the first who lauded (stāyīd) sorcery (jādūgīh) (cf. also Dēnkard 8.35.13 and 9.10.2-3; tr. West, pp. 111, 185). He is often referred to as Bēwarasp in the Pahlavi texts (e.g., Dēnkard 9.21.7; tr. West, p. 214; Mēnōg ī xrad 7.29, 26.34, 35, 38; tr. West, pp. 35, 60f.; Bundahišn TD1, p. 66.7-8; TD2, p. 80.6-7; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 98f.; tr. West, p. 40).

A curious note is found in Mēnōg ī xrad, chap. 27, in which the sage asks about the benefit of all the ancient rulers. About Azdahāg the Mēnōg ī xrad says that the advantage (sūd) of Azdahāg Bēwarasp and Frāsyāg the Turanian was that if they had not received the rule it would have gone to Xešm (wrath) and then it could not have been taken from him till the end of the world because Xešm has no bodily existence.

The Pahlavi texts moreover provide Dahāg with a mother, who is the embodiment of evil and sinfulness and is one of the seven worst sinners ever (see Dādestān ī dēnīg 71, 77). Her name is variously given as Ōdag, Wadag, etc. She was the first to have practiced whoredom (rōspīgīh) and incestuous adultery, having intercourse with her son while her husband Arwadasp/Urwadasp (or Xrūdasp as West, tr., Bundahišn, p. 131?) was still alive, and without his sanction (adastūrīhā) and unlawfully (adādestānīha) (TD1, p. 196.17-197.3; TD2, pp. 228.15-229.4; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 292f.; tr. West, pp. 131f.). (In the same vein one might expect Dahāg to have instituted the heinous sin of sodomy, but that had of course already been done by Ahriman, when he performed it on himself to create “demons and lies and other abortions,” see Mēnōg ī xrad 7.10, tr. West, pp. 32f.; Zaehner, Zurvan, pp. 368f.) She is described in some detail in Dēnkard 9.21.4-5, which seems to allude to some relationship between her and Jamšēd (DH, p. 188.18-21; Dresden, p. 58 [175]; Madan, p. 810.19ff.; tr. West, pp. 212-13 n. 5). Being the most sinful of females, by one commentator of Vd. 18.30 Ōda is identified with the druj that tells Srōš who are the four males who make her pregnant. However, this is probably a late interpretation since the summary of Vd. 18 in the Dēnkard has only druz (see Darmesteter, Zend-Avesta II, pp. 248f. and n. 43) in Vd. 19.6, Aŋra Mainiiu promises ZaraΘuštra a boon such as the one the ruler (daiiŋˊhupaiti) Vaδaγana got, if he forswears the Mazdayasnian religion. The passage is found also in Mēnōg ī xrad where Wadagān dahibed is glossed by Dahāg (56.24-25, pp. 154f.; tr. West, p. 103 with n. 3). This means that the tradition took Av. vaδaγana to be a matronymic referring to Aži Dahāka, and it is possible, of course, that the whole character of Wadag/Ōda is built upon this interpretation.

The rule of Aži Dahāka. From the Pahlavi texts onwards, Dahāg is inserted into the list of mythical Pīšdādīān (Pēšdādīān) rulers of Iran, i.e., the rulers descended from Hōšang ī Pēš-dād (Haošiiaŋha Paraδāta), succeeding Jam ī Xšēd (Yima Xšaēta) and preceding Frēdōn (Θraētaona). The Avesta does not say explicitly whether Dahāg was a king or not, but from the way he was mentioned among the early rulers of the Iranians, it was quite natural that he should be considered as such. An attempt was made by S. Wikander to trace the triple succession of Yima-Aži Dahāka-Θraētaona back to Indo-European patterns, comparing the Greek myth of the Ouranides, according to which Zeus conquered Kronos and the Titans and established a reign of order; however, Duchesne-Guillemin (La religion, pp. 336f. with references) has convincingly argued against such a connection, pointing out the differences between the Greek and Iranian myths and, most importantly, pointing out the fact that there is no trace of this kind of triple succession in India, which precludes an Indo-Iranian date for it. It seems better to assume that it is a post-Avestan creation, due to a certain interpretation of the Avestan texts.

In the Pahlavi texts the reign of terror of Dahāg is described in some detail (see, e.g., Dēnkard 9.21.12-16). His genealogy is given in the Bundahišn chap. 31.6, which traces it back to the Evil Spirit himself (TD1, pp. 196.17-197.3; TD2, pp. 228.15-229.4; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 292f.; tr. West, p. 131f.). About his rule we read in the Bundahišn that a hundred years after the xwarrah left Jam the millennium reign (hazārag xwadāyīh) came to Scorpio (Gazdumb) and then Dahāg ruled for a thousand years, until the millennium rule came to Sagittarius (Nēmasp) and the five hundred-year rule of Frēdōn (TD1, p. 206.1-2; TD2, p. 239.4-5; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 306f.; tr. West, p. 150; briefly mentioned in Dēnkard 3.329, Menasce, p. 308; Mēnōg ī xrad 57.25). In the ʿOlamāʾ-e eslām we are told that after Jamšēd became deranged, he was seized and slewn by the Arab Dahāk who made himself king and reigned a thousand years, mixing men and demons, and working much sorcery, until Ferēdūn, son of Ātfī, came and bound him (Persian Rivayat, p. 454; Zaehner, Zurvan, p. 413).

Aži Dahāka and Θraētaona. The Avesta contains several references to Θraētaona’s victory over Aži Dahāka (Y. 9.8, Yt. 5.29-35, 14.40, 15.23-25, 19.37, 92, Vd. 1.17), but there is little detail, except in the case of his liberating Arənauuāci and Sauuaŋhauuāci. The Pahlavi texts contain some further details: In the Dēnkard (7. 1.25-26) we are told that by the power of the xwarrah, which came to him while he was still in the womb of his mother, Frēdōn was able at the age of nine to go forth and vanquish Dahāg and to deliver Xwanirah from the ravages of the lands (dehān) of Māzandarān (Dresden, p. 359; Madan, p. 596.2-12; tr. Molé, p. 9; see also Dēnkard 9.21.17-24, DH, pp. 190.8-191.21; Dresden, pp. 55-57 [178-82]; Madan, pp. 812.19-815.1; tr. West, pp. 217ff.). The Dēnkard (9.21.8-10) relates how Frēdōn first struck Dahāg with his club upon the shoulder (frēg), the heart, and the skull, without killing him, and that he then hewed him with a sword three times, which caused the body of Dahāg to turn into (gaštan) various noxious creatures. Seeing this Ohrmazd told Frēdōn not to cut Dahāg so that the world should not become flooded with reptiles and other noxious creatures (DH, p. 189.8-14; Dresden, p. 58 [176-77]; Madan, p. 811.13-21; tr. West, p. 214). This curious episode is hard to explain, but one is reminded of cosmogonical myths in which a giant is partitioned to give rise to the various elements of the world, as the Indian primeval Man, Puruṣa. Maybe the episode reflects some early element of the story of the creation by the Evil Spirit.

But most importantly the Pahlavi texts attribute to Aži Dahāka and Frēdōn/Kərəsāspa an eschatological role: Aži Dahāka is not killed by Frēdōn, but captured and chained “with awful fetters, in the most grievous punishment of confinement” at Mount Demāvand (Dēnkard 9.21.10, tr. West, p. 214; see also, e.g., Bundahišn TD1, p. 66.7-9; TD2, p. 80.6-7; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 98f.; tr. West, p. 40; Mēnōg ī xrad 26.38; tr. West, p. 61). At the beginning of the millennium of Ušēdarmāh, the druz of the seed of dragons (az-tōhmag) will be destroyed. Aži Dahāka breaks loose from the fetters and rushes out to terrorize the world, devouring one third of men, oxen, sheep, and other creatures of Ohrmazd, and smiting the water, the fire, and the plants. The last three then request from Ohrmazd that Frēdōn should be resuscitated to combat him. In the event, however, it is not Frēdōn but Kirsāsp (in the texts variously called Sām or son of Sām) who is reawakened and kills the dragon. The reason for this is not clear though it may be connected with the statement (see above) found in the Pahlavi texts that Ohrmazd refused Frēdōn permission to slay Dahāg because as a result the earth would have been flooded with noxious creatures (xrafstar). (See Bundahišn TD1, pp. 188.12-189.1; TD2, pp. 219.14-220.5; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 180-83; tr. West, p. 119; and see also, e.g., Bahman yašt, p. 128; Dēnkard 6.B4 [ed. Shaked, pp. 134f.], 9.15.2; Šāyest nē šāyest 20.18, ed. Kotwal, pp. 87f.; A. Christensen, Démonologie, pp. 20-25, 52). That this role was early assigned to Kirsāsp/Sām is clear from Yt. 13.61 and Mēnōg ī xrad 61.20-24 (tr. West, p. 110), where it is told that the body of Sām is protected by 99,999 fravašis of the righteous so that demons and fiends may not harm it.

The legend of Kərəsāspa/Kirsāsp. Kərəsāspa’s slayings of the Aži Sruuara and the Gandarəβa are only alluded to in the Avesta itself, but elaborated in the later Pahlavi writings. His slaying of Dahāg is recounted only in the Pahlavi and later texts. The Pahlavi texts contain two versions of the legend of Kirsāsp (spelled krssp; also Krišāsp, Grišāsp spelled klyšsp, glyš(ʾ)sp), one in the 14th, fragard of the Sūdgar nask as retold in the Dēnkard (DH, pp. 182.7-83.2 [klsʾsp. glsʾsp]; Dresden, pp. 65-66 [klyšʾsp]; Madan, pp. 802.14-803.12; tr. West, 9.15, pp. 196-99), another in the Pahlavi Rivayat (ed. Dhabhar, pp. 65-74). Both accounts were edited and translated by Nyberg, “La légende.”

From the Avesta we only learn that Kərəsāspa for some reason or other had settled upon the back of the dragon—presumably thinking it to be a hill—to cook his midday meal (Y. 9.1, Yt. 19.40) and that the heat from his fire made the dragon hot and sweaty and finally woke him up, whereupon he jumped up from underneath the cooking pot, scattering the boiling water, and frightening Kərəsāspa, who fled, but eventually slew the dragon. The account in the Sūdgar only states that Kirsāsp killed the horned dragon, but the one in the Pahlavi Rivayat adds a few details (this version is also found in Dârâb Hormazyâr’s Rivâyat, p. 62, not translated in Unvala, Persian Rivayat): Kirsāsp tells Ohrmazd that there was a horned dragon (Pers. aždahā-ī), swallowing men and horses, which has teeth as large as his arm, ears as large as fourteen nmt’s, eyes as large as a chariot, and a horn as large as a šʾk (Pers. haštād araš “eighty ells”). He ran after it (pad pušt hamē tazīd; Pers. bar pošt-e vey “on its back”) for half a day until he caught up with its head, struck his mace at its neck and killed it. The Persian Rivayat adds that when he looked into its mouth he saw men hanging from its teeth, a feature which the Pahlavi Rivayat reserves for Gandarəβa/Gandarw. Kirsāsp tells Ohrmazd that Gandarw, large enough to devour twelve provinces at once (and so tall that the sea reached him to the knee and his head reached the sun according to the Persian Rivayat), seized him by the beard and pulled him into the sea where they fought for nine days and nights, when Kirsāsp managed to seize him by the foot and promptly pulled off his skin from his feet to his head and used it to bind the monster, which he left to his friend Axrūrag to guard. Then, after eating fifteen horses, Kirsāsp fell asleep under a tree and Gandarw pulled Axrūrag and Kirsāsp’s wife and parents into the sea. All the people came and roused him and he ran down to the sea taking a thousand strides in one. Arriving at the sea he delivered those abducted, seized Gandarw, and killed him. The eschatological role played by Kirsāsp is not mentioned in the Pahlavi Rivayat but the Sūdgar tells how, when Dahāg runs free of the fetters to destroy the world, he (i.e., Kirsāsp) is awakened (hangēzīhēd) to vanquish the powerful demon (Dēnkard, DH p. 182.16-18; Dresden, p. 65 [161]; Madan, p. 803.3-6; tr. West. pp. 198f.; see also Christensen, Démonologie, pp. 17f., 51).

Dragons in astrology. Zoroastrian and Manichean astrology know of several dragons or snake-like monsters. Gōčihr and Mūšparīg. In the Bundahišn the snake-like (mār homānāg) Gōčihr and Mūšparīg with the tail (dumbōmand) and wings (parrwar) are said to be the evil opponents of the sun, moon and stars. These two harmful beings were bound to the sun so as not to run free and cause harm (Bundahišn TD1, p. 43. 11-17; TD2, pp. 52.12-53, 13; cf. Bundahišn TD1, p. 159.12ff.; TD2, p. 188.4ff.; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 242f.; tr. West, pp. 113f; MacKenzie, “Zoroastrian Astrology,” pp. 513, 516; Zaehner, Zurvan, pp. 159, 164). Both are probably derived from Avestan concepts: In the Avesta gaociΘra is an epithet of the moon and Mūš Pairikā “the witch Mūš” is found in Y. 16.8, where she is mentioned in connection with Āzi, the demon of greed (see ĀZ) and the heretic (aṧəmaoγa).

In the Pahlavi cosmogony Gōčihr is described as “similar to a snake with the head in Gemini (dō-pahikar) and the tail in Centaurus (Nēmasp), so that at all times there are six constellations between its head and tail.” It runs retrograde, so that every ten years the head and tail have changed place. It is said to be standing in the middle of the sky, an expression which may refer to the polar region of the sky and so perhaps contain a reminiscence of the constellation Draco, which circles the pole (see MacKenzie, “Zoroastrian Astrology,” pp. 515f. with notes). In the ʿOlamāʾ-e eslām it is stated that the heaven of Gōčihr is below the heaven of the moon (Zaehner, Zurvan, p. 417; cf. Persian Rivayat, p. 429 bottom; see also Škand-gumānīg wizār, ed. Menasce, pp. 47, 55, 60).

At the end of time Gōčihr will fall down on the earth, which it will terrify like a wolf does a sheep; its fire and halo will then melt the metal of Šahrewar in the hills and mountains, thus providing the river of molten metal necessary for the purification of men. (Gōčihr appears to be the only fiery dragon in ancient Iran.) At the end, after Ohrmazd himself has come down to earth to send Āz and Ahriman back to the Darkness whence they had come, Gōčihr the serpent burns in the molten metal and the pollution of Hell burns and Hell becomes pure (Bundahišn TD1, pp. 193.11-16, 195.17-196.2; TD2, pp. 225.3-8, 227.12-15; tr. Anklesaria. pp. 288-91; tr. West, pp. 125f., 129).

Mūšparīg may originally have been considered the demon who causes the eclipses of the moon, as is indicated by its name Mūš meaning “mouse” but originally also probably “thief,” cf. OInd. muṣ “to steal” (see Darmesteter I, Zend-Avesta, pp. 144 n. 15).

In the Manichean cosmogony these two dragons are simply called “two dragons” (dō azdahāg); they were hung up (āgust) and fettered (gišt) in the lowest heaven and two angels (frēstag), male and female, were put in charge to make them revolve ceaselessly, i.e., presumably to make the firmament turn so as to keep the Manichean salvation machine going (Jackson, Researches, 30f., 31f.; Boyce, Reader, p. 60 text y 1 with note).

In later literature, the seven planets are sometimes called aždahā (see Eilers, Sinn und Herkunft, p. 11).

Dragons and dragon-like monsters in Manichean writings. The Manichean texts mention dragons in general terms (Mid. Pers. azdahāg, Parth. aždahāg) but they play no prominent role. Thus in Mir. Man. I (p. 22[194] = Boyce, Reader, p. 72 y 39) we read that the female and male mazans (q.v.) and āsrēštār s copulate to produce dragon brats (ʾwzdhʾg zhg) and in Mir. Man. III (p. 30[875]) the Living Soul complains that it was seized and mangled by innumerable demons, including “dark, ugly, stinking, black dragons” (tʾryg ʾjdhʾg dwrcyhr gndʾgʾwd syʾw).

More important in Manichean cosmology is the class of demoniacal beings called mazans. In the Zoroastrian writings these are clearly only “giants,” whom the ocean reaches to the knees. In the Manichean myths, however, they are definitely connected with the ocean and though most of them are indeterminate “giants” (e.g., the mazans which usually accompany the āsrēštārs, some are sea dragons or dragon-like sea monsters (see below).

For the history of Iranian mythology, however, the most important fact is that the dragon-killing episode has been fitted into the Manichean cosmological scheme: Here we find the third son of the Living Spirit (Mihryazd), Adamas of Light (Syr. Adamos Nuhrā), being sent by his father (Mir. Man. I, p. 10[1 82], Boyce, Reader, p. 65 text y 14), to throw down the mazan, stretching it out from east to west, and putting his foot upon it so that it could do no harm, and, in another text (M 472v, Boyce, Reader, p. 80 text z 16), we are told that he suppressed (nyrʾft) the giant dragon (azdahāg ī mazan), which corresponds to “giant of the sea” (mzṇʿy zrhyg) in a Manichean Middle Persian text; this is the gígas tēs thalássēs in the Kephalaia (I, pp. 113ff.), which is responsible for ebb and flow (see Henning, “Book of the Giants,” p. 54 and n. 3, and cf. Boyce, Reader, pp. 6, 62 text y 5 with note; and Sundermann, Parabelbuch, pp. 21f. with n. 30). Adamas’s Iranian heritage is evident in his Sogdian name, Wšγnyy Bγyy (M 583 I r8 in Waldschmidt and Lentz, Manichäische Dogmatik, p. 68 [545], with comm. 88 [565], from *wṛΘragna-); whether this name implies that the Sogdians had preserved traditions of a demon-slaying VərəΘraγna or whether it is due to Indian influence, has not yet been investigated. The Greco-Syriac name Adamas/Adamos probably means “indomitable, adamant” (Cumont, “Adamas”). Augustine calls him “the belligerous indomitable hero (or “the hero Adamas”) who holds a spear in his right and a shield in his left” (adamantem heroam belligerum; Contra Faustum quoted by Cumont, p. 79). In the Chinese text edited by Waldschmidt (Waldschmidt and Lentz, pp. 9, 33 [486, 510]) he is called “the brave, strong, equipped with the ten powers, demon-subduing emissary.” This god is also called, for reasons as yet not understood, Wisbed Yazd (three other sons of the Living Spirit being the Dahibed, Zandbed, and Mānbed Yazds), and the god with four forms (yazd ī taskirb; see Sundermann, “The Five sons,” passim, and “Namen von Göttern,” pp. 101f., 127 n. 166, 131 n. 226). The mazan which he suppresses is that formed by that part of the ejected seed of the Archons which fell on the moist, and became a horrible monster (Mir. Man. I, p. 10 [182]; Syriac hywtʾ snytʾ “a terrible beast” in the likeness of the King of Darkness (see Theodore Bar Konay in Jackson, Researches, p. 247); note that Ebn al-Nadīm reports that the King of Darkness had “the head of a lion” and a “body like the body of a dragon (tannīn)” (Fehrešt, tr. Dodge, II, p. 778; Taqīzāda, Mānī wa dīn-e ū, p. 151 infra). In the Manichean Psalm-book (p. 138.41-42) it is stated explicitly that Adamas subdues the Hyle (i.e., Matter, in Iranian texts called Āz), and in the Kephalaia Adamas conquers a “sea giant” which had been formed out of those elements of the Darkness which were thrown into the sea by the Living Spirit and caused its saltiness and bitterness (Kephalaia, pp. 114-15). In another Middle Persian text concerning Adamas and his fight with this sea-monster, the monster is not named (Sundermann, Kosmogoniche Texte, pp. 47ff.).

The battle between a god and a sea monster is of course well known from the Babylonian creation myths (see e.g., the translation by Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, pp. 40ff.). In these the young god Marduk conquers Tiʾâmat, the primeval salt-water ocean personified (cf. the Manichean myth just quoted), by shooting an arrow into her mouth which she was unable to close because Marduk had let the evil wind loose into her face (cf. the Persian versions of the dragon-slaying described below in AŽDAHĀ II). It is also found in the Bible, where the Lord is described as having slain Leviathan, the serpent and the tannīnīm (crocodiles) in the sea (see, e.g., Heidel, op. cit., pp. 102ff.). With Hebrew tannīnīm compare Ebn al-Nadīm’s use of Ar. tannīn in his description of the Evil Spirit quoted above and note Middle Persian *TNYNA: possibly attested in Dēnkard, Madan, p. 816.13, and Pahlavi Rivayat, p. 22.10 (see Henning, “Two Manichean Magical Texts,” p. 42 and Bailey, Zoroastrian Problems, pp. 29f., 2nd ed., p. xxxiii.)

Clearly a large number of elements from different sources, literary and oral, combined to form the various concepts of dragons. These elements and their various connections and interactions, especially those stemming from the Iranian and the Semitic traditions still have to be investigated in detail.


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  • W. Sundermann, Mittelpersische und parthische kosmogonische und parabeltexte der Manichäer, Berliner Turfantexte 4, Berlin, 1973.
  • Idem, Ein manichäisch-sogdisches Parabelbuch, Berliner Turfantexte 15, Berlin, 1985.
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  • A. Waag, Nirangistan. Der Awestatraktat über die rituellen Vorschriften, Leipzig, 1941.
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  • Secondary literature: H. W. Bailey, “Arya,” BSOAS 21, 1958, pp. 522-45.
  • Idem, Zoroastrian Problems in the Ninth-Century Books, Oxford, 1943, 2nd ed., 1971.
  • E. Benveniste, “L’origine du višap armenien,” Revue des études arméniennes 7, 1927, pp. 7-91.
  • M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, see index pp. 336-37 s.vv. Aži Dahāka and dragons. G. Buddruss, “Zur Benennung der Schlange in einigen nordwestindischen Sprachen,” MSS 33, 1975, pp. 7-14.
  • A. Christensen, Essai sur la démonologie iranienne, Copenhagen, 1941.
  • Idem, Le premier chapitre du Vendidad et l’histoire primitive des tribus iraniennes, Copenhagen, 1943.
  • F. Cumont, “Adamas, génie manichéen,” in Philologie et linguistique, mélanges offerts à Louis Havet, Paris, 1909, pp. 79-82.
  • H. R. E. Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books, 1964.
  • J. Duchesne-Guillemin, La religion de l’Iran ancien, Paris, 1962.
  • G. Dumézil, Le problème des centaures, Paris, 1929.
  • W. Eilers, Sinn und Herkunft der Planetennamen, Sb. Bayer. Ak. Wiss., Phil.-hist. Kl., 1975, 5, Munich, 1976.
  • H. Grassmann, Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda, 5th ed., Wiesbaden, 1976.
  • L. H. Gray, Foundations, pp. 187-91.
  • P. Harvey, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford [many editions].
  • A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, 2nd ed., Chicago and London, 1951.
  • W. B. Henning, “Two Manichaean Magical texts … ,” BSOAS 12, 1947, pp. 39-66 (repr. in W. B. Henning—Selected Papers II, Tehran and Liège, 1977, Acta Iranica 15, pp. 273-300).
  • J. R. Hinnells, “Reflections on the Bull-slaying Scene,” in J. R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies I, Manchester, 1975, pp. 290-312.
  • K. Hoffmann, Aufsätze zur Indoiranistik I, ed. J. Narten, Wiesbaden, 1975.
  • A. V. W. Jackson, Researches in Manichaeism, New York, 1932, repr. 1966.
  • D. N. MacKenzie, “Zoroastrian Astrology in the Bundahišn,” BSOAS 27, 1964, pp. 511-29.
  • M. Mayrhofer, A Concise Etymological Sanskrit Dictionary, 3 vols., Heidelberg, 1956-76.
  • G. Morgenstierne, “An Ancient Indo-Iranian Word for "Dragon",” in Dr. J. M. Unvala Memorial Volume, Bombay, 1964, pp. 95-98 (repr. with additions in Irano-Dardica, Wiesbaden, 1973, pp. 24-30).
  • Idem, Etymological Vocabulary of the Shughni Group, Wiesbaden, 1974.
  • R. V. Oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda, Stuttgart and Berlin, pp. 248ff.
  • H.-C. Puech, Le manichéisme, son fondateur, sa doctrine, Paris, 1949.
  • M. Schwartz, review of M. Mayrhofer, Iranisches Personennamenbuch I: Die altiranischen Namen I: Die awestischen Namen, Vienna, 1977, in Orientalia 49, 1, 1980, pp. 123-26.
  • W. Sundermann, “The Five Sons of the Manichaean God Mithra,” in Mysteria Mithrae, ed. U. Bianchi, Rome, 1979, pp. 777-87.
  • Idem, “Namen von Göttern, Dämonen und Menschen in iranischen Versionen des manichäischen Mythos,” Altorientalische Forschungen 6, 1979, pp. 95-133.
  • S. Ḥ. Taqīzāda, Mānī wa dīn-e ū, Tehran, 1335 Š./1956-57.
  • E. Waldschmidt and W. Lentz, Manichäische Dogmatik aus chinesischen und iranischen Texten, SPAW, Phil.-hist. Kl., 1933, 13, Berlin, 1933, pp. 478-607.
  • G. Widengren, Die Religionen Irans, Stuttgart, 1965.
  • R. C. Zaehner, Zurvan, a Zoroastrian Dilemma, Oxford, 1955, repr. New York, 1972.

ii. In Persian Literature

In Persian literature the aždahā (also aždar, aždarhā, aždahāk, in modern East-Iranian dialects also aždār, etc.) is pictured as a giant snake or lizard with wings.

Descriptions of dragons. The principal texts containing descriptions of aždahās are Sad dar-e naṯr and sad dar-e Bondaheš (ed. B. N. Dhabhar, Bombay, 1909, p. 86: the legend of Garšāsp); Šāh-nāma ([Moscow], I, pp. 202-4, vv. 1016-22, 1029-31, 1034, 1051; II, p. 96 vv. 274-81; VI, pp. 40 v. 530, 174-75 vv. 133-34, 155, 158; VII, pp. 72-73 vv. 1195, 1214; IX, p. 145 v. 2287-88; XI, p. 149 v. 2360), Asadī Ṭūsī, Garšāsp-nāma (ed. Ḥ. Yaḡmāʾī, Tehran, 1354 Š./1975, p. 53 vv. 50, 60-62, 64-65, 67; p. 54 vv. 66, 68-72; p. 57 vv. 4-15, 20-22; p. 58 vv. 28-31, 33-35, 38; p. 59 v. 43; p. 165 vv. 4, 6). In these texts the dragons are variously described: In the Persian epics it is sometimes described as a wolf, a tiger, šīr-e kappī, i.e., a sort of sphinx (combined lion and ape), or simply as a patyāra (maleficent creature), or a black cloud. In the epics it has one head and mouth, exhaling fire and smoke from its hellish mouth, and inhaling with enough force to suck in a horse and rider, or a crocodile from the water, or an eagle from the sky. In other texts, as in the Old and Middle Iranian texts, it has several heads. (In a verse by Labībī quoted in M. Dabīrsīāqī, Ganj-e bāz yāfta, Tehran, 2535 = 1355 Š./1976, its seven heads represent the heavenly spheres and the universe.) The enormous size of the beast is described in the Šāh-nāma and the Garšāsp-nāma, with elements also found in the Avesta and the Pahlavi literature: It is big as a mountain. Its head resembles a thicket of hair and its bristles stretch down to the ground like nooses. It has two horns the size of the branch of a tree, ten gaz or eighty cubits long. Its eyes are the size of wagon wheels or like two tanks of blood. They shine from afar as brightly as stars at night, as two glittering diamonds, as two blazing torches, or as two mirrors held beneath the sun. It has two tusks, each the length of the hero’s arm or of a stag’s horns. Humans and animals hang from its teeth. When it sticks its long, black tongue out of its mouth it hangs down onto the road like a black tree. Its skin has scales like a fish, each as big as a shield. It has eight feet, though most often it drags itself over the ground, and when it moves it makes the valleys and plains tremble, and a river of yellow poison as deep as a spear flows from its tail and nose. Its color is variously described, e.g., as dark yellow or gray, black, blue. It can not be touched with water, fire, or any weapon. According to one legend it can even speak human language (Šāh-nāma 11, p. 96 vv. 274-81). Its lair, guarded day and night, is on a mountain (usually said to be near the sea, whence the aždahā itself originated) or rock the same color as its body and is shunned by all living things, animals and plants. The sources variously locate it on the Kašaf-rūd near Ṭūs, on Mount Šekāvand in Kabul, India, “Māzandarān,” on Mount Saqīlā in the land of the Romans, Mount Zahāb in the Yaman, or in Ṭabarestān.

Àdahā in Persian legends. Several Iranian heroes battle and slay the dragons. This old literary theme, common to many civilizations and known from both Old Indian and Old Iranian, was elaborated in later times in the national legends on the basis of popular, in some instances perhaps pre-Avestan, legends of Ferēdūn and Garšāsp, and underwent changes due to new social and ideological conditions.

The legends know of a number of other dragon-slaying heroes other than Ferēdūn and Garšāsp, e.g., Sām (= Garšāsp), Rostam, Farāmarz, Borzū, Āḏar Barzīn, Šahrīār, Goštāsp, Esfandīār, Bahman, Alexander, Ardašīr, Bahrām Gōr, and Bahrām Čōbīn.

Ferēdūn. This is the great dragon-slayer in the Avesta, where he is said to have slain Aži Dahāka. In the national legends, however, Ferēdūn has lost the role of a dragon-slayer, no doubt because his opponent Żaḥḥāk was transformed more strongly into a pseudo-historical person, though he is still described as having two snakes growing from his shoulders, a reminiscence of his once reptilian body. In another legend Ferēdūn transforms himself into a dragon to test his sons (Šāh-nāma I, p. 256 l. 1; see further below).

Garšāsp and Sām. Unlike Ferēdūn, Garšāsp has retained his dragon-slaying role in the national legends, and the Avestan story of Kərəsāspa has left a trace in later traditions about Garšāsp in Bayhaqī (p. 666). In addition to the older legends, the Garšāsp-nāma relates that Garšāsp, at the age of fourteen, was requested by Żaḥḥāk to slay a dragon which had come out of the sea after a storm and made its abode on Mount Šekāvand. Garšāsp ate some teryāk (antidote) and set out to fight the dragon. In the fight he shot an arrow from a specially made bow at the dragon’s throat, then thrust a spear into its mouth, and finally clubbed it to death. (The club is said to be carved in the shape of a dragon’s head, ibid., p. 269 v. 10.) Thereafter Garšāsp lost his skin and consciousness for a while (cf. the similar episode of Sām in Šāh-nāma I, pp. 202-4, and see below, Borzū). When he regained his consciousness, he gave thanks to an angel. The dragon’s carcass was carried to the city on twenty hitched wagons, and celebrations were held to mark the event. Garšāsp, now honored as jahān-pahlavān (chief hero), commemorated his feat by making a flag adorned with a figure of the dragon in black and a pole tipped with a golden lion and a moon above it (Garšāsp-nāma, pp. 49-63). This flag afterwards passed to Garšāsp’s descendants and was his family’s coat of arms (cf. the flag of Rostam, also adorned with a dragon figure, in the Šāh-nāma II, p. 214 v. 566). The story is retold once (Garšāsp-nāma, p. 165). (A flag with a dragon emblem appears in a picture from the seventh or eighth century A.D. found in eastern Iran, see G. Widengren, Der Feudalismus im alten Iran, pl. 13).

In the Šāh-nāma (I, p. 202 vv. 1015-51) Sām slays a dragon which has come out of the Kašaf-rūd. (The same feat is attributed to Rostam in the Jahāngīr-nāma, ms. Bibl. Nat., Supp. Pers. 498, fols. 62f.) Ebn Esfandīār (I, p. 89) has recorded a legend from Māzandarān in which Sām had slain a dragon there at a place called Kāva Kalāda near the sea. The dragon was fifty ells (gaz) long and was killed with a single blow of a specially made mace. The episode was put into Ṭabarī verse, a line of which has been preserved by Ebn Esfandīār (ibid.). (A picture of a dragon trying to coil its tail around the hero has been preserved, see Widengren, op. cit., pls. 11 and 12.)

Rostam. There are several legends about dragon-slaying by Rostam, the most famous ones being Rostam and the babr-e bayān and the third of Rostam’s haft-ḵᵛān. The legend of Rostam and the babr-e bayān is found in two versions in a manuscript of the Šāh-nāma in the British Museum (Or. 2926, fols. 112b-115a and 118b-122b) and is also current in Iranian oral folklore (A. Enjavī, Mardom o Šāh-nāma, Tehran, 1355 Š./1976, pp. 217f.) as well as among the Mandeans of Iraq (H. Petermann, Reisen im Orient, 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1965, II, pp. 107-8). The scene of the slaying of the babr-e bayān (patyāra in the variant story in the B.M. ms.) is in the far east—India in the Šāh-nāma, China in the Mandean legend—and Rostam is but a youngster (fourteen and twelve respectively). In both variants Rostam kills the dragon by making it swallow something (a ruse suggested to him by his mentor Gōdarz according to the Šāh-nāma, but by a demon captured by him in the Mandean legend): In the first Šāh-nāma story Rostam fills ox hides with quicklime and stones and carries them to the place where the dragon comes out of the sea once a week. The dragon swallows them and its stomach bursts. Rostam then has the dragon flayed and makes a coat from its hide called the babr-e bayān. In the variant story Rostam does not get into the box but has fastened poisoned blades on it which kill the dragon. Rostam then remains unconscious for two days and nights, but is guarded by his steed Raḵš. On reviving he washes himself in a spring (cf. below, Borzū and Āḏar Barzīn). In the Mandean legend Rostam himself hides in a box, is swallowed by the dragon, and kills it from inside its belly. As a reward the king of China gives Rostam his daughter in marriage. (Cf. below, Farāmarz.)

The story in Rostam’s haft-ḵᵛān (Šāh-nāma II, p. 94 vv. 345ff.) differs. This dragon lives underground on the road to Māzandarān (= India) and Rostam unwittingly enters the dragon’s territory. The (talking) dragon attacks him while asleep but Raḵš wakes him and helps him overcome the beast.

Farāmarz. One of the most widely disseminated dragon-slaying stories in Persian tells how Rostam’s son Farāmarz with the help of Bīžan slew a dragon called the mār-e jowšā (the hissing serpent), which dwelt on a granite mountain in India, by hiding in two boxes and letting themselves be swallowed by the dragon. Beforehand they took doses of teryāk against its poison and stuck ambergris and musk up their noses against the stench (Farāmarz-nāma, ms. B.M., Or. 2946, fols. 24f.; see also Dj. Khaleghi-Motlagh, “Farāmarz-nāma,” Iran Nameh 1/1, Washington, D.C., 1361 Š./1982, pp. 22-45).

Borzū, son of Sohrāb. Seeking the hand of the daughter of the king of Yaman, Borzū was required to slay the dragon on Mount Zahāb. He drank teryāk and milk against the poison (cf. above, Garšāsp and Farāmarz), went to the dragon’s lair, hurled into its mouth an iron ball which choked it, shot arrows into its eyes and blinded it, and clubbed it on the head and killed it. Borzū’s armor then cracked and fell off and he lost consciousness (cf. above, Garšāsp). Reviving he washed himself at a spring (cf. above, Rostam, and below, Āḏar Barzīn). The people celebrated this day in the same way as the new year (Borzū-nāma, ms. Bib. Nat., Supp. Pers. 1023, fols. 242f.).

Āḏar Barzīn, son of Farāmarz. Looking for a black cloud which came out of a mountain every year in spring and forced the daughter of the local ruler, Bēvarasp, to have intercourse, Āḏar Barzīn found that the cloud was a dragon and slew it with arrows. He then washed at a spring (Bahman-nāma, B.M. Or. 2780, fols. 180f.; cf. above, Rostam, Borzū).

Šahrīār, grandson of Rostam. This is another dragon-slayer (Šahrīar-nāma, ed. Ḡ.-Ḥ. Bīgdelī, Tehran. 1358 Š./1979, pp. 96f.).

Goštāsp. According to the Šāh-nāma (VI, pp. 26 v. 292, 36 vv. 461ff.), while living incognito in the land of the Romans, Goštāsp slew a wolf with the features of a dragon and later a dragon at the requests of the heroes Mīrān and Ahran who both wished to marry the Caesar’s daughter.

Esfandīār. In the third of his seven exploits on his journey to rescue his sisters from Arjāsp’s prison Esfandīār slew a dragon by means of the box ruse, then became unconscious and on reviving washed himself (Šāh-nāma VI, p. 173 vv. 126f.; cf. above, Rostam, Borzū, and Āḏar Barzīn).

Bahman son of Esfandīār. According to the Bahman-nāma (B.M. ms. Or. 2780, fols. 186f.), a dragon named Abr-e Sīāh (Black cloud) swallowed Bahman while he was out hunting. The defeat of the hero may symbolize the loss of the crown of an Iranian king to a foreign invader, perhaps Alexander.

Alexander. In the Šāh-nāma (VII, p. 71 vv. 1190f.) it is told that Alexander killed a dragon on a mountain by feeding the dragon five ox-hides stuffed with poison and naphtha, but with quicklime, bitumen, lead, and sulphur according to the Syriac Alexander romance. Th. Nöldeke, in his study of the Alexander romance noted the similarity of the Syriac version to the story of Daniel’s slaying a dragon with balls of bitumen, dough, and hair, and to the killing of the snake-king Sapor (Šāpūr II, r. 309-79?) through use of camel hides stuffed with straw and charcoal (Jerusalem Talmud, Ned. 3.2; “Beiträge zur Geschichte des Alexanderromans,” in Denkschriften d. Königlichen Akad. d. Wiss., Phil.-hist. Kl., 38, Vienna, 1890, pp. 22, 25).

Of the Sasanian kings Ardašīr and Bahrām Ḡor slew dragons: Ardašīr (r. 226-41) slew a worm (kerm) who protected the owner Haftvād of the castle Kojāran on the Persian Gulf coast, by pouring molten zinc and lead into its mouth (Kār-nāmag 7, Šāh-nāma VII, pp. 139ff.). Bahrām V Ḡor (r. 420-38) on his journey to India as the royal envoy slew a dragon on the seashore (Šāh-nāma VII, p. 464 vv. 2111f.) and was given permission to marry one of the Indian king’s three daughters. In addition, Bahrām Čōbīn, the Sasanian general and claimant to the throne slew a dragon in Turkistan, which had swallowed the daughter of the ḵāqān and which would become invulnerable if it went to a certain spring and wetted its hair (Šāh-nāma IX, p. 145 vv. 2285ff. ).

Symbolism of the dragon-slaying. The dragon in Iranian mythology is a destructive demoniacal force and a symbol of drought. Various theories about the dragon-slaying theme in both Indo-European and Indo-Iranian mythology have been advanced. One theory links the Indo-Iranian legends with solar and lunar eclipses and with lunar waxing and waning, which lay at the root of moon worship. The popular explanation for these phenomena was that a dragon comes up from hell every month on the eastern side of the sky and swallows a piece of the moon’s disc every night until the night comes when no part of the moon can be seen. Then the moon-god kills the dragon from inside its belly and triumphantly reemerges. In later times, however, the sun took over the moon’s role in the celestial combats, and it was the sun which slew the dragon and rescued the moon from the dragon’s belly twelve times every year. Later still the celestial combats were brought down to earth. The sun-god or god of light was replaced by a hero, and the belief in the dragon’s swallowing of the moon was transformed into the myth of the dragon’s swallowing of a maiden (for detailed discussion see Stiecke, Drachenkämpfe; Hüsing, Iranische Überlieferung and Krsaaspa).

In the Persian epics there is no hint of a belief in entry of the moon or sun into a dragon’s belly, but in legends and certain poems, particularly those of Neẓāmī, a few vestiges can be traced (see A. Moṣaffā, Farhang-e eṣṭelāḥāt-e nojūmī, Tabrīz, 1357 Š./1978, pp. 36, 693; also Faḵr-al-dīn Gorgānī, Vīs o Ramīn, pp. 180 v. 8, 265 v. 115). In Iran people imagined eclipses to be swallowings of the sun or the moon by a dragon, and they therefore went up onto the flat roofs of their houses at those times and thumped their washtubs in prayer for the sun’s or moon’s release (Moṣaffā, op. cit., p. 693).

Another interpretation of the dragon-slaying by Indo-Iranian gods is that the god in question was a god of thunder and lightning, that the dragon was a black cloud, and that by slaying the dragon, the god released water impounded in its stomach to fall as rain.

In the Iranian texts there is no direct reference to drought, but all the Persian tales describe the country for many parasangs around the dragon’s lair as an arid, burning desert devoid of humans, animals, and plants. At the same time, these legends are silent on the subject of rainfall after the slaying of the dragon and release of water [which the dragon had impounded], but in all the stories the dragon’s lair is close to either a spring or the sea, and in most of them, a woman plays a part. It would appear that the woman in the Iranian legends has replaced water and rain as the symbol of fertility and life. The theme of the feast held after the victory over the dragon—note especially the feast of Mehragān held after Ferēdūn’s victory over Żaḥḥāk (Šāh-nāma I, p. 79, 1.1)—can be traced to the legend of the slaying of a dragon by the god Mehr (Mithras), though no clear and direct link between the ritual and worship and the theme of dragon-slaying has been found.

Structural changes. The main novelty of the Iranian legends is the introduction of the theme of “the maiden and the dragon,” in which the dragon becomes a historical person, sometimes a foreign usurper such as Żaḥḥāk, sometimes simply a foreign enemy such as Arjāsp in the story in the seven labors of Esfandīār; (The story of Ṭāʾer and Māleka in the Šāh-nāma (VII, p. 220, vv. 26ff.) may be another example, see ʿA. Zaryāb Ḵūyī, “Afsāna-ye fatḥ al-ḥażar,” in Šāh-nāma-šenāsī, Tehran, 1356 Š./1977, pp. 187-201). The kidnapped maiden always disappears and the hero, after slaying the dragon, is rewarded with marriage to another maiden, with no connection with the dragon. It appears that, as the mythology of dragon-slaying evolved, the maiden was removed from the dragon’s belly in order to make the story more realistic and so it became necessary to invent a reason other than rescue of the maiden for the hero’s entry into the dragon’s belly, namely the invulnerability of the dragon’s hide. Because of this, the hero’s attacks are always aimed either at the inside of its stomach or at its mouth, eyes, or skull. He has to kill the dragon from within himself, or, in a later development, kill the dragon by feeding it skins stuffed with deadly substances. The pouring of molten lead into the dragon’s mouth concurs with Iranian notions about execution of demoniacal beings in the next world by means of molten metal (this may well have been a method of torturing and killing enemies in use among the Iranians themselves, see Wikander, Männerbund, pp. 106f.). Against this, Christensen (Iran Sass., p. 96) derives the story of Ardašīr’s dragon-slaying from the legend of the Babylonians’ god, Marduk, who called up a terrible wind which entered the mouth of Tiʾâmat and killed her. In the Avestan account of Garšāsp’s dragon-slaying, a long time has to elapse before the fire’s heat begins to affect the dragon’s hide. This suggests that belief in the invulnerability of dragon hide was a very old component of the myth.

After slaying the dragon, the hero makes a coat for himself out of its invulnerable hide. As already noted, in several stories the name of some other animal is applied to the dragon in order to give variety to the hero’s exploits. In the story of the babr-e bayān , the tiger (babr) is either a dragon whose name has been changed or a beast which was originally a tiger but has been endowed with dragon-like features. The fact that Rostam’s coat is also called a leopard skin (palangīna) in the Šāh-nāma (IV, p. 286 v. 1188) and in a Sogdian legend (E. Benveniste, Textes sogdiens, Paris, 1940, pp. 134-36) supports the interpretation of babr in babr-e bayān as “tiger.” It may be significant that in Greek mythology, the lion which Hercules strangled (because its skin was invulnerable), and whose skin he thereafter wore (like Rostam’s babr-e bayān) on his shoulders, is called the Nemean lion after the place (Nemea) which the lion had infested. In another surviving legend, the babr-e bayān is said to have been a coat sent from heaven (see AKVĀN-E DĪV).

When the dragon is presented as a historical person, the invulnerability of the dragon’s hide is transformed into the impregnability of the enemy’s castle, which the hero can only seize by stealth. Similarly in the Greek legend of Troy, Epeios, the designer of the wooden horse, plays the same part as the demon in the Mandean legend and as Gōdarz in the Iranian legend of the babr-e bayān. In some of the Iranian legends, however, the hero himself devises the ruse (story of the patyāra and elsewhere). Several different stratagems for the capture of the castle are mentioned, e.g., entry in the disguise of a merchant (cf. also the story of Esfandīār’s capture of the castle of Rūʾīn Dež, Šāh-nāma VI, p. 192 vv. 452f.), seizure of the enemy’s signet-ring (the story of Qāren’s capture of the castle of the Ālān people, Šāh-nāma, p. 126 vv. 799f.), making the castle’s guards drunk (cf. also Šāpūr and Ṭāʾer, Šāh-nāma V, 224 vv 81f.), etc. In legends where the dragon is presented as a historical person, the maiden is imprisoned by the enemy and set free by the hero, cf. Helen of Troy, Jamšīd’s sisters in Ferēdūn’s struggle against Żaḥḥāk, Esfandīār’s sisters in the story of Esfandīār and Arjāsp, Māleka in the story of Ṭāʾer and Māleka.

The dragon-slaying legends in the Avesta by comparison with the Rigveda, have lost their mythico-religious importance. In the national legends this development is carried much further, to the point where the theme of dragon-slaying has nothing whatever to do with service to religion and becomes an instrument of royal or heroic ideology. Thus in the Iranian legends dragon-slaying comes first among the marvels and bold feats required as proofs of the king’s or hero’s legitimacy (Khaleghi-Motlagh, Farāmarz-nāma, p. 43 n. 23). In general it can be said that the dragon-slaying exploit of Ferēdūn is the model for kings and that of Garšāsp the model for heroes. The requirement that every king or hero should demonstrate the legitimacy of his status by slaying a dragon or doing some other fabulous deed or receiving miraculous aid prompted not only the tendency to historicize mythology but also a contrary tendency to mythologize history.

In the matter of royal ideology, special emphasis was laid on the king’s legitimacy at times when his position was contested and insecure. This was the case in the reign of Ardašīr I (r. 241-66). After the overthrow of the long-established Parthian dynasty, the new regime’s legitimacy had to be asserted, and this was done in various ways: notably by invention of the genealogy which makes Ardašīr a descendant of the Achaemenids (as in the Šāh-nāma, Kār-nāmag, and other sources), and by propagation of the stories about the worm (kerm); similarly in the case of Bahrām Čōbīn, the general of Hormozd IV (r. 578-90) and rival of Ḵosrow II. According to the version in the Šāh-nāma (IX, p. 150 v. 2376), all the people with one voice acclaimed Bahrām as “Shah of Iran” after he had proved his legitimacy by slaying the šīr-e kappī in Turkistan. The same purpose is apparent in the stories about Bahrām V (r. 434-60), the renowned Bahrām Ḡor. From the accounts in the available sources, it is clear that the Iranians had greatly resented the conduct of his father, Yazdegerd I (399-420) and were unwilling, after the latter’s death, to acknowledge the succession of his son, Bahrām; they therefore made a certain Ḵosrow king for a while, until Bahrām recovered his crown and throne with the help of the ruler of Ḥīra. It was because of this situation that Bahrām’s legitimacy is so strongly and frequently stressed in stories of his exploits, including his slaying of dragons. In the case of Alexander, unlike the Zoroastrian priests who never acknowledged the Macedonian conqueror, the court historians attempted to justify Alexander’s rule in Iran with all sorts of arguments for his legitimacy. In the Alexander romance written by Pseudo-Callisthenes, many wondrous feats and bold deeds are ascribed to Alexander, such as going disguised as his own ambassador on a mission to Darius, making the ice break after crossing a river, seeing marvels, etc.; all stemmed from stories which the Iranians themselves had invented for the purpose of legitimizing Alexander. Later, when this romance was translated into Pahlavi, the translator saw fit to add two further themes, not present in the original but of great importance for Alexander’s legitimization in Iran: Alexander’s Iranian lineage and his slaying of a dragon.

One particularly interesting example of the importance of dragon mythology in assertion of royal legitimacy is the story in the Šāh-nāma (I, p. 256 vv. 1ff.) that Ferēdūn turned himself into a dragon and then barred the path of his sons in order to see how each would react. In this trial, the youngest son, Ēraj, comes out best because he chooses the middle road, halfway between hesitancy and impetuosity, the inhibitive element of earth and the stimulative element of fire being equally balanced in Ēraj’s constitution. Ferēdūn therefore judges him worthier than the other two, and in dividing the empire he allots its middle and best part, Iran, to Ēraj.

A recent psychoanalytic interpretation of the dragon-slaying theme, propounded by Otto Rank, a pupil of Sigmund Freud, deserves mention. Rank thinks that the entry of heroes into the belly of the dragon is a symbolic expression of the desire of sons to reenter the womb of the mother. Among other evidence for his theory he cites Iranian dragon-slaying legends.


  • See also E. Stiecke, Drachenkämpfe: Untersuchungen zur indogermanischen Sagenkunde, Leipzig, 1907.
  • G. Hüsing, Die iraniche Überlieferung und das arische System, Leipzig, 1909.
  • Idem, Krsaaspa im Schlangenleib, Leipzig, 1911.
  • O. Rank, Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage, 3rd ed., Darmstadt, 1974.
  • G. Dumézil, Le problème des centaures, Paris, 1929.
  • Idem, Horace et les Curiaces, Paris, 1942.
  • H. Lommel, Der arische Kriegsgott, Frankfurt, 1939.
  • S. Wikander, Der arische Männerbund, Lund, 1938.
  • Idem, Vayu, Lund, 1941.
  • G. Widengren, Die Religionen Irans, Stuttgart, 1965, (with further references).
  • Idem, Der Feudalismus im alten Iran, Cologne and Opladen, 1969, pp. 15ff. (with reproductions of pictures of dragon-slayings).
  • W. Knauth, Das altiranische Fürstenideal von Xenophon bis Ferdousi, Wiesbaden, 1975, pp. 95f.
  • N. M. Titley, Dragons in Persian, Mughal and Turkish Art, London, 1981.

iii. In Iranian Folktales

The dragon is a well-attested motif in the lore of the Indo-European peoples (see Hartland; Róheim, 1912; Smith; Fontenrose; and Lutz). In Persian folklore, the dragon (aždahā) appears mostly in tales of magic and in legends. It is curiously missing in myths which are narratives concerned with creation (see Bascom). (In the following all motif numbers refer to Thompson, 1955).

The aždahā of the Persian folktales is a fantastic animal of serpentine variety, usually of enormous size (Thompson, B11.2.12; and see, e.g., Anjavī, 1975, p. 80; 1979, pp. 147, 205, 221, etc.), and fire-breathing (B11.2.11; Anjavī, 1979, p. 216; 1975, p. 170; 1984, p. 85, etc.), which resides in or near water (e.g., at the bottom of the sea; motif B11.3.1; in a lake: B11.3.1.1, etc.) Sometimes the aždahā resides in an underground cavern (B11.3.5; Anjavī, 1984, p. 85) or in a mountain (Anjavī, 1984, pp. 7, 199-200). It is endowed with powers of magical invisibility (B11.5.2; Anjavī, 1975, p. 80), and speech (N11.4.5; Anjavī, 1974, p. 17; 1979, pp. 20-23; Šakūrzāda, 1967, pp. 304-7; Behrangī, 1965, pp. 35-36). It usually guards a treasure (B11.6.2; Anjavī, 1974, pp. 252-54), or a magical tree or object (D950.0.1; H133.6; Anjavī, 1979, p. 205). In many folktales, it controls the water-supply of a town or a country (B11.7.1; Anjavī, 1974, p. 87; 1975, p. 139; 1979, pp. 147, 177; Eškevarī, 1973, pp. 101-5; Ṣobḥī, 1946, pp. 104-5; Behrangī, 1978, pp. 281-92) forcing the inhabitants to sacrifice a maiden or a princess, by offering her as food to the aždahā in order to find access to water.

The tale types 300-303 (Aarne and Thompson; Marzolph), i.e., “The dragon slayer,” which demonstrate the dragon-fight motif (B11.11ff.; see Róheim, 1940) are quite common in Persian folk narratives. In these tales the protagonist slays the aždahā in order to rescue the princess or maiden about to be sacrificed to the beast (R111.1.3). Such episodes may betray the sexual nature of the dragon-fight because from the standpoint of nutritive value, plump matrons would make more sense than fair maidens (Lutz, p. 208). In the course of the fight with the aždahā, the hero is sometimes overcome by the poisonous fumes of the slain beast’s venomous blood (B11.2.13.1; Anjavī, 1979, p. 147). Àdahā is often used as a metaphor for evil in folk legends (B11.9; Anjavī, 1975, p. 160). In these legends, the saint/hero metaphorically overcomes evil by slaying a dragon (cf. Saint George in Christian tradition; see Aufhauser and Panzer).

In some folktales, the aždahā appears as a grateful animal (B350). In a version of the tale type 1165, “The evil woman thrown into the pit” (Anjavī, 1979, pp. 20-23) for instance, an aždahā helps its rescuer to marry a princess. In another story, it devours threatening wild animals on behalf of the protagonist (Anjavī, 1974, p. 268). In a version of the tale type 563, “The table, the ass, and the stick,” the stick is magically turned into an aždahā, by the help of which the hero recovers his stolen magical objects (Anjavī, 1974, p. 299). Sometimes the grateful aždahā is itself the bestower of magical gifts (Anjavī, 1975, p. 362).

The most common allomotifs (see Dundes) for the aždahā in Persian folklore are snakes (Anjavī, 1975, pp. 360-66; 1979, pp. 7-23, 363), lions (Anjavī, 1974, p. 99), and fish (Anjavī, 1974, p. 180). Some folk legends in Iran speak of an aquatic beast which bears a feline name but also has all of the typical draconic features (cf. Omidsalar).

For collections of Persian folktales in western languages see Christensen, 1958; Elwell-Sutton, 1950; and Boulvin, 1975.


  • A. Aarne and S. Thompson, The Types of the Folktale, Folklore Fellows Communications 184, Helsinki, 1973.
  • S. A. Anjavī, Qeṣṣahā-ye īrānī, Tehran, 1974.
  • Idem, Mardom wa Šāh-nāma, Tehran, 1975. Idem, Mardom wa Ferdowsī, Tehran, 1976.
  • Idem, Gol ba Ṣenowbar če kard? Qeṣṣahā-ye īrānī, Tehran, 1979, I/1.
  • Idem, Ferdowsī-nāma: mardom wa qahremānān-e Šāh-nāma III, Tehran, 1984.
  • J. B. Aufhauser, Das Drachenwunder der heiligen Georg in der griechischen und lateinischen Überlieferung, Leipzig, 1911.
  • W. Bascom, “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives,” Journal of American Folklore 78, 1965, pp. 3-20.
  • S. Behrangī, Afsānahā-ye Āḏarbāyjān I, Tehran, 1965.
  • S. Behrangī and B. Dehqānī, Afsānahā-ye Āḏarbāyjān II, Tehran, 1978.
  • A. Boulvin, Contes populaires persans du Khorassan, 2 vols., Paris, 1970 and 1975.
  • A. Christensen, Persische Märchen, Düsseldorf and Cologne, 1958.
  • A. Dundes, “The Symbolic Equivalence of Allomotifs in the Rabbit-Herd (AT 570),” Arv 36, 1982, pp. 91-98.
  • L. P. Elwell-Sutton, The Wonderful Sea-Horse and Other Persian Tales, London, 1950.
  • K. S. Eškevarī, Afsānahā-ye Eškevar-e Bālā, Tehran, 1973.
  • J. Fontenrose, Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins, Berkeley, 1980.
  • E. S. Hartland, The Legend of Perseus. A Study of Tradition in Story, Custom, and Belief III: Andromeda, Medusa, London, 1896.
  • R. Lutz, “Problems of Dragon Lore,” in Folklore on Two Continents. Essays in Honor of Linda Dégh, ed. Nikolai Burlakoff and Carl Lindahl, Bloomington, 1980, pp. 205-10.
  • U. Marzolph, Typologie des persischen Volksmärchens, Beirut, 1984.
  • M. Omidsalar, “Invulnerable Armour as a Compromise Formation in Persian Folklore,” International Review of Psycho-Analysis 11, 1984, pp. 441-52.
  • F. Panzer, Studien zur germanischen Sagengeschichte I: Bewulf, Munich, 1910.
  • G. Róheim, Drachen und Drachenkämpfer, Berlin, 1912.
  • Idem, “The Dragon and the Hero,” American Imago 1, 1940, 2, pp. 40-69; 3, pp. 61-94.
  • E. Šakūrzāda, ʿAqāyed wa rosūm-e ʿāmma-ye mardom-e Ḵorāsān, Tehran, 1967.
  • G. E. Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon, London, 1919.
  • F. Ṣobḥī, Afsānahā II, Tehran, 1946.
  • S. Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 vols., 2nd ed., Bloomington, 1955-58.

iv. Armenian Aždahak

Aždahak is the Armenian form, borrowed from Parthian (cf. Man. Parth. ʾjdhʾg), of the name of the Avestan demon Aži Dahāka, who in Iranian mythology is said to be chained in Mount Damāvand, from which he will burst forth at the end of days only to be slaughtered by the hero Θraētaona. In the Šāh-nāma, Żaḥḥāk (an arabicized form of the name) is depicted as a tyrannical foreign ruler of Iran of demonic aspect: serpents sprout from his shoulders. In Armenian mythology, King Artawazd is said to be imprisoned in Mt. Ararat, like Aži Dahāka in Damāvand (the comparison is drawn by the eleventh-century Armenian scholar Grigor Magistros, Ṭʿłṭʿerə, ed. Kostaneanceʿ, Alexandropol, 1910, letter 36). The Armenian historian Movsēs Xorenacʿi relates the same legend as the Šāh-nāma, apparently in a Northwest Iranian form (the name of Θraētaona, Mid. Pers. Frēdōn, is found as Hṙudēn), in an appendix to book 1 of his History of Armenia, but also identifies Aždahak (without the epithet Biwrasp, Pahl. Bēwarasp “with ten thousand horses” found in the Bundahišn) with Astyages, the king of the Medes against whom the Armenian Tigran rebelled.

In varying Armenian and Iranian applications, Aždahak is seen thus as the embodiment of foreign tyranny. He is also seen as a symbol of wickedness and heresy: Xorenacʿi condemns certain communistic practices of Biwrasp Aždahak; this is interpreted as a reference to the Mazdakite heresy (see N. Akinean, “Biwraspi Aždahak ew hamaynavarn Mazdak hay awandavēpi mēj əst Movsēs Xorenacʿway” [Biwrasp Aždahak and the communist Mazdak in the Armenian epic according to Movsēs Xorenacʿi], Handēs Amsoreay, Vienna, 50, 1936). In an anonymous southern Armenian chronicle dated to the 11th-12th centuries, Moḥammad is described as one possessed by demons and breaking free from confinement; the Arab prophet is shown as a heresiarch in terms reminiscent of Aždahak (see M. H. Darbinyan-Melikʿyan, ed., Patmuṭʿiwn Ananun Zrucʿagri karcecʿeal Šapuh Bagratuni, Erevan, 1971, pp. 40-43).

The depiction of Żaḥḥāk in manuscript illuminations of the Šāh-nāma conforms to the Avestan descriptions of the demon as Θrizafanəm Θrikamərəδəm xšvašašīm “three-mouthed, three-headed, six-eyed” (Yt. 9.8), but appears to derive from Mesopotamian iconography, as in the late representation of Nergal at Hatra. In Armenia, the fourth-century A.D. king Pap, who persecuted the Church and practiced sodomy, is described by the historian Pʿawstos Biwzand as having serpents springing from his breasts (Patmuṭʿiwn Hayocʿ, Erevan, 1968, 4.44, 5.22). A terra-cotta figurine in the Hermitage, probably made in Sogdia in the 7th-8th centuries A.D., shows a man, enthroned and wearing a jeweled tiara, with two snakes springing from his shoulders at the base of the neck (see N. V. D’yakonova, “Terrakotovaya figurka Zakhaka,” Trudy otdela vostoka gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha 3, 1940, pp. 195-205 fig. 1). In modern Armenia, the steles with snakes and other figures carved on them are called višap “dragon” by the Armenians, but aždahā by the Kurds.

In Zoroastrian thinking, temporal values of righteous kingship are closely bound to spiritual righteousness and the sovereignty of Ahura Mazdā; the development of the image of the demonic creature Aži Dahāka as the human Aždahak, a tyrant and heresiarch with visibly demonic attributes, is logical in a Zoroastrian framework.

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