On February 10, billions of people worldwide will mark the Lunar New Year, particularly in China and some other East Asian countries. Celebrants will bid farewell to 2023’s Water Rabbit and welcome the Dragon—specifically, the Wood Dragon, as the traditional calendar cycles through a dozen animals and the five elements of water, wood, fire, metal, and earth.
Long after the festivities are over, however—even after the Year of the Dragon comes to a close in January 2025 and the Year of the Snake begins—the scaled, toothy, fantastic creature that is the dragon will endure in both pop culture and cultural traditions around the world. Here are our favorite stories from the Atlas Obscura archives that celebrate this wondrous creature in all its forms.
by Meg Neal
No map from antiquity yet found actually declared “Here be dragons,” but the phrase has long been used as an ominous warning, and medieval cartographers tended to fill in the edges of the charted world with massive, snarling monsters. But the fearsome creatures, symbolizing the unknown and likely-not-very-pleasant, had to get their start somewhere. The roots of these legendary beasts may lie with massive bones and other remains of megafauna that went extinct at the end of the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago. Take a tour through cities still proudly displaying their “dragon” remains, some of which bear uncanny resemblance to woolly mammoth tusks.
by Gemma Tarlach, Senior Editor/Writer
Medieval expert and former gravedigger Scott Bruce has ventured into some dark spaces of the human psyche, from ideas about damnation to our undying interest in zombies. When researching 2021’s The Penguin Book of Dragons, Bruce made some surprising discoveries about these brawny beasts of myth and magic, including the secret of their universal appeal.
by Claire Naylor
Stroll along the shore of Calais in France at the height of summer and you may well see more than seagulls. The port city partnered with the artist collective behind the spectacular puppet-automatons known as the Machines of the Isle of Nantes to get a fantastic beast of its own. The Calais Dragon is a fire-breathing but friendly, sometimes sneezy creature that patrols the city’s edge, offering rides on its broad back. Standing nearly 40 feet high and weighing about 80 tons, the dragon has an entourage of more than a dozen humans, including three “veterinarians” who keep it healthy. The Calais Dragon’s biggest enemy? Surprise, it’s bird poop.
by the Atlas Obscura Podcast Team
In addition to Ice Age megafauna, there’s another likely wellspring of dragon legends that’s much, much older: Dinosaurs and ancient, oversized crocodilians. While fossils of these long-extinct animals are typically hidden in thick layers of rock, millions of years of erosion can expose them to the curious—and the acquisitive. Listen in as our podcast team revisits one of the most bitter scientific rivalries of the 19th century, when fossil prospectors raced across the American West in a bid to outdo each other at turning up remains of the real dragons that roamed Earth more than 65 million years ago.
by Gemma Tarlach
Sometimes, even modern paleontologists can’t resist a good dragon comparison. So it was when a team working on the sweltering steppes of Neuquén Province in Argentina unearthed a massive, never-before-seen apex predator. Named Meraxes gigas in a nod to a dragon from the world of Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, this big-headed beast may bear a resemblance to T. rex, but is not at all related to the famous tyrant. Instead, M. gigas occupies its own special place in the dinosaur family tree, revealing a surprising evolutionary tale.
by the Atlas Obscura Video Team
Almost 30 miles outside Bangkok, this unfinished Buddhist temple gives a whole new meaning to Enter the Dragon. An eye-catching dragon spirals up the building’s 17-story exterior with a hidden tunnel running the length of its body. While some parts of the architectural feat are closed to the public, it’s possible to walk other sections, or simply marvel at its beauty.
by Marina Wang
Dragons are everywhere, but if you see a colorful, acrobatic, and animal-themed dance during your local Lunar New Year festivities, it may actually be more lion than dragon. While many troupes perform both lion dance and dragon dance traditions, the quick way to tell them apart is the number of dancers. Lion dancers work in pairs, which allows them to pull off mind-boggling moves that seem to defy gravity while still maintaining the appearance of a four-legged cat. A dragon dance, however, involves more performers, each of whom operates one section of the animal’s long, sinuous body. Many troupes use nine performers to animate a dragon, but back in 2012 the world-record-holding dragon needed more than 3,000 people to make its way through Markham, Ontario. That XXL dragon stretched for more than three miles—more evidence that dragons, wherever you may find them, are always larger than life.