Dragons and the Apocalypse: From Ancient Iranian Myths to Game of Thrones

In some stories, dragons exist for the sole sake of a quest. In these cases, I find myself rooting for the dragons. There they are, sleeping peacefully, at the ends of civilization. As far as possible from the world of humans and their fuck-upery. And then a hobbit, magician, or knight comes along and disturbs that slumber. The questers never seem to remember the old adage “let sleeping dogs lie” as they inevitably set off chaos: they entangle with the newly awakened dragon until they emerge victorious, having gained a world-saving talisman either by making a life-altering exchange with the dragon or by stealing, tricking, or defeating it, verbally or physically.

In these versions, dragons are somehow scavengers of civilization’s most precious and useless objects. And like any episode of A&E’s Hoarders, the questers are the professionals come to relieve the dragon of its things and issues.

But why should dragons need, want, or care about our things? And how do they always manage to have, in their possession, the one thing that will save everything? Annoying plot mechanics to be sure. Although, blessedly, in the Magicians, it’s a case of “ironic” questing.

Until Game of Thrones and How to Train Your Dragons, that is.

Like How to Train Your Dragon, Game of Thrones has breathed new life into these glorious fire-breathers, and it may not be a coincidence that they do so at a time when our understanding of animal cognitive skills, language, and emotion has expanded. Dragons, like dogs, are now our ever loyal companions and we love them, sometimes as fiercely as we do our children. And like man’s best friend, we have the ability to shape their behavor in how we raise and train them. So when Daenerys trains her dragons to breathe fire on command, we hardly blame Drogon for the complete annihilation of King’s Landing.

In ancient Iranian lore, by stark contrast, dragons are the civilization-destroyers. They care as much about our lives as they do our trinkets. In other words, not at all. In fact, they are one among several noxious creatures; “un-created” by a dark, jealous force, Ahriman, for the sole purpose of wiping out civilization and all that is good. They are the anti-thesis of creation and light. So when the ancient warrior, Thraeteona, finds himself accidentally cooking his meal atop a sleeping dragon, his ensuing fight with the previously slumbering dragon, Azhi-Dahaka, is the fight against annihilation, rather than a quest that is a means to salvation as in Tolkein’s world.

Over time, Thraeteona’s tale slowly took on new details and added significance. By the medieval period, it came to symbolize a different aspect of civilization, just rulership. And dragons were no longer responsible for death and destruction. In medieval versions, Zahhak (formerly Azhi-Dahakka) is either a sorcerer-king who, delving in black magic, ends up with a snake-head sprouting up out of each of his shoulders or he is a trickster and usurper who gets people to believe he has snake-heads protruding from his shoulders. In the first case, the king can only find rest when the snake-heads are fed the fresh brains of Iran’s youth. In the second, Zahhak resembles his ancient counterpart, he is in it for the destruction. In both cases, cities are depopulated to feed the evil king’s incessant need. Civilization is on the brink of collapse when comes the warrior-king, Firaydun (formerly Thraeteona), who was hidden at birth and raised as a shepherd’s son because he was the true heir to the throne and his mother feared for his life. (The whole episode begins when Jamshid, Firaydun’s forefather and one of the original architects-of-civilization kings, decided he was god for all the good he established in the world and promptly fell from grace leaving a power vacuum.)

In these terms, it is easy to see the similarities, in their broad outlines, between George R.R. Martin’s epic GoT and the Iranian tales of kings, the most famous version of which is Firdawsi’s tenth-eleventh-century Shahnamah. Daenerys is the upside down mirror image of Azi-Dahakka/Zahhak — she, at least, believes she is on the side of good and justice, even if she is horribly mistaken. And Jon Snow and Firaydun are fellow legitimate-yet-hidden kings. Above all, both tales grapple with the same major themes — civilization and its antithesis death; sibling love and rivalry; and just rulership — interwoven into tales of dragons.

In the Iranian iteration of the theme of dragons-cum-snake kings and just rulership, Firaydun at first gets a happier ending than Jon Snow after their thematically similar battles: he defeats and locks up Zahhak in a cave in Damavand, the apex of Iran’s imposing Alborz mountains, and becomes one of the greatest kings of the world by setting aright civilization, kingship, and ultimately justice. But troubling times are far from over. Firaydun’s happiness is short-lived. His two older sons kill their younger brother, the heir to the throne, setting off generations of ill-tempered and unwise kings who make war on their fellow brethren (and demons living in isolation in their own lands). The enemy out to destroy creation is ultimately humanity. GoT’s narrative thrust also runs similarly: the monster second only to the Night King is us too. GoT is perhaps a bit more optimistic in the point at which it ends. Sibling rivalries that have the power to influence a kingdom’s direction have been laid to rest. Jon Snow becomes Commander of the Free Folk, having paved the way for all after setting the world aright by leading the epic battle between light and dark* against a dragon-riding civilization-destroying ruler, the Night King (death incarnate), and killing his human version, the Dragon Queen, Daenerys. Order does come from chaos. At least in GoT’s current ending.

And so Drogon flies off to the edges of the world, far from civilization. He has had enough of humans and their fuck-upery. I imagine him slumbering somewhere in a Marie Kondo approved lair, finding some measure of peace in the act of having burned down the Iron Throne — the one thing that Dany was questing for in hopes of saving everything.

And I hope that if Bran ever does find Drogon, George R.R. Martin sees fit to give Bran enough sense to let sleeping dragons lie.

* The one direct borrowing from another ancient religion, Manichaeism, born on the plains of Iran.

** Featured Image

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