How to spot a dragon: a guide for mythical reptiles

Published: 08 February 2024
Posted by: English Heritage
Category: History In-depth

Happy Chinese New Year to everyone who's celebrating! Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year, falls between late January and mid-February. In 2024, the Lunar New Year will be welcoming in the year of the dragon, on 10 February.

If you're interested in searching for dragons at our English Heritage sites, here's a helpful guide. 

In medieval bestiaries, there were many terms for dragons – dragon, wyrm, worm, orm, serpent, and even wyvern. However, over time these gradually differentiated into several different creatures. We've put together this useful identification guide to help you recognise the mythical reptile you are confronted with, and give you some tips on where to spot them today.

Legless reptile? Spot a serpent, wyrm, orm and oroborous

The most basic form of mythological reptile is the serpent. They are typically depicted as being wingless and legless. Wyrms and orms are used interchangeably to represent legless, winged reptiles.

You might also see an oroborous, the snake eating its own tail. This is a legless reptile shown with or without wings. The oldest illustrations of oroborous, which are Egyptian and date to the first century AD, do not have wings.

Winged beast? Could be a wyvern

Wyverns have two legs and two wings, which – from an evolutionary standpoint – is not so far-fetched. Most animals have four limbs, and in the case of birds and bats, the front two gradually evolved into wings.

Wyverns are typically shown as being smaller and having longer tails than dragons, and they are sometimes associated with water. Like European dragons, they do breathe fire.


The wyvern statue in the Walled Garden at Wrest Park


Wyverns are particularly associated with Wrest Park.

Two wyverns appear on the coat of arms of the de Grey family, who owned Wrest Park from the early 14th century. In the 18th century there were two pairs of heraldic wyverns on the gate piers leading from the garden to the canal, and on very similar gates at the end of the canal. These were probably the ones referred to in 1694 when a Mr Grumbold was paid £69 for a 'paire of Stone Peers with Wiverns [wyverns] on them'.

In the Walled Garden today you can see the one surviving wyvern from the pair of wyverns that were originally located on the Silsoe entrance gates. They were created in the relatively new medium of cast-iron between 1825 and 1830.

Is it a dragon? Here's how to tell

Dragons are always depicted as having four legs. The most common dragon archetypes are the European dragon and the various Asian dragons.

Unlike in most other cultures, Europeans viewed dragons as malevolent creatures, hunting humans as well as livestock and terrorizing populations (as well as kidnapping princesses). Consequently, those who hunted and killed dragons, such as St. George, were revered. Dragons were also viewed as symbols of power and cunning.

Chinese dragons have many animalistic forms, the most common being a serpentine form. Its distinguishing features are: four legs, no wings, and a quadrilateral snout. Despite their lack of wings, they can still fly. They're perceived as powerful beings with control over storms, floods, and rain. They are also a symbol of power, strength, wisdom, and good luck. No wonder dragons are one of the symbols of the emperor.


The statue of St George at Eltham Palace with the legendary dragon (just about visible) at his feet


At Eltham Palace overlooking the Sunken Rose Garden, is a bronze and gilded sculpture by Alfred Hardiman (1891- 1949) of St George with birds on the shield apparently representing countries of the British Commonwealth. It was commissioned from Hardiman in 1926 and originally stood in the niche of the Stephen and Virginia Courtauld's squash court at their London home, Carlos Place, before being moved to Eltham Palace in 1936.

At its base, it is presumed, sits the head of the vanquished dragon of legend.


The Chinese Temple at Wrest Park forms part of a 'set piece' of garden design, probably created between 1758 and 1761. The design included a wooden Chinese bridge, temple, conch shell water feature, willow tree and tulip tree – reminiscent of the scenes found on Chinese tableware and wallpapers. The temple itself was rebuilt in the 1940s and restored in the 1960s and again in 2016.

The temple is topped by a dragon which can be seen in 18th century sketches – and can still be spotted today. It is interesting that although Chinese mythology does not include dragons with wings, the Wrest Park temple dragon has them. This is a fantastic example of the 18th century fascination with Chinese design, which was heavily westernized. The temple's upturned eaves, bells and dragon finials has very little to do with real Chinese custom!

The author would like to thank Landscapes Advisor Emily Parker for her assistance with this post.

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