Dragons were originally depicted worldwide as serpents, but during the middle ages dragons began being depicted with legs similar to a lizards. Western dragons are traditionally described as living in rivers or caves, having a thick armour-like hide, and never flying despite often being depicted with wings. Western dragons are usually evil creatures who are greedy and hoard gold and other treasures in their caves. This is due to them being demonized due to the rise of Christianity in Europe. Many dragons before this were seen as benevolent creatures such as Y Ddraig Goch or the Red Dragon of Wales. The two headed dragon is often seen as a symbol of the division between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.
Russian dragons are similar to hydras in the fact that they have three heads and if each one isn’t cut off at the same time they will grow back. Other Russian dragons most likely symbolize the Mongols and other peoples of the steppes.
In Asian dragons especially those found in Indian mythology often have their roots in religion. In the early Vedic religion, Vritra or “the enveloper” was the personification of drought. Chinese dragons are amalgamations of all the other Chinese Zodiac animals. For instance a Chinese dragon has the body of a snake and the front legs of a rooster. In Japan most dragons are water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water. In Vietnam dragons bring rain.
Dragons in modern media are either described as being benevolent and wise, greedy and cruel, or creatures of mass destruction. Another description has been gaining prevalence as of late. Dragons are now being described as being lonely and misunderstood more and more.
This post barely goes into depth with any of the dragons I have described, and I even ended up skipping a couple. There are many dragons described in myths around the world and each one is different in its symbolism than the last. Keep this in mind when writing dragons as symbols in your stories.
Crows often symbolize greed and foolishness in Europe. An ancient Greek and Roman adage told by Erasmus says “the swans will sing when the jackdaws (crows) are silent” which means that educated and wise people should wait until after foolish people become quiet. It was believed in Ancient Greece that a jackdaw could be caught with a dish of oil which it would fall into as it stared at its reflection. The Roman poet Ovid claimed that the crow was a harbinger of rain.
In other parts of the world crows are seen as ancestral beings and beneficial spirits. In Australian Aboriginal mythology, Crow is a trickster, an ancestral being, and a culture hero. In Chinese mythology a crow carries the sun. In hinduism crows are thought of carriers of information which they are omens of. In Irish mythology crows are associated with Morrigan, a goddess of war and death. In Japanese and Korean mythology there is a three-legged crow known as Yatagarasu or Samjokgo.
In Medieval Europe crows were thought to live long lives and to remain monogamous throughout their lives. They were thought to be able to see the future, predict rain, and would reveal ambushes. Also crows were thought to lead flocks of storks as they crossed the sea to Asia.
In folklore all over the world foxes are described as cunning and mischievous. In the Cotswolds of England witches were thought to take the shape of foxes to steal butter from their neighbours. Later on in Europe, Reynard the Fox was a common folkloric figure who symbolizes trickery and deceit, and was the enemy of the wolf. This may be where the term “sly as a fox” comes from in English speaking countries, though there were earlier Greek myths which showed a fox being a trickster.
In China and Korea there are tales of fox-spirits with up to nine tails known as huli jing or kumiho in Korea. In Japan fox-spirits are known as kitsune who have the ability to transform into a human form, increase in power as they age, and are believed to be tricksters by some. However there are other people who see kitsune as guardians, friends, and lovers.
In the Arab world Kitsune are seen as cowardly, weak, and cunning as they are said to fake their deaths by puffing up their chests with air to appear bloated. In the bible the word “fox” is used to describe false-prophets. In Indigenous American folklore the fox is a trickster who is often portrayed as the companion to Coyote, however Fox is an awful companion and steals Coyote’s food. Through most Indigenous American myths Fox is represented as betraying those who get close to him/her and being a bad friend.
Cranes are birds that hold a large variety of different meanings. For instance in Ancient Greece the crane was a bird of omen. Not of bad omen, just omen. The story goes that a thief attacked a poet, the poet asked a flock of cranes to help him out after the thief had left him for dead, and they followed the thief and flew overhead until the thief confessed to his crime out of guilt.
There are several other myths about cranes worldwide. What is more interesting is the amount of traditions pertaining to cranes. This is because cranes have spectacular mating dances. Crane dances have been performed in Japan, Korea, and other places in Asia. Here the crane is a symbol of happiness and eternal youth. In Japan anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes is said to be granted a wish by the crane. Also in China the crane inspired several styles of kung fu which you may or may not have known from Kung Fu Panda.
The phoenix is a mythical bird who rises from its own ashes every time it dies giving it immortality. It is usually associated with the sun and fire. In most myths it dies in a blaze of fire, though there are some myths where it doesn’t. In Medieval Europe the phoenix was a symbol of royalty and even called “the royal bird” due to the purple hue it had back then. Now in the west the phoenix is usually depicted with feathers that are red, yellow, and/or orange which give it a more fire-like appearance. Throughout history the phoenix has symbolized the sun, time, the longevity of the Roman Empire, metempsychosis (transmigration and resurrection of the soul, resurrection, life in a heavenly paradise, and multiple aspects of Christianity.
The first myths of this bird come from Greece, though there are some earlier myths with a similar bird called the Bennu in Ancient Egypt. There are similar myths all over the world. In China, the Fenghuang is the ruler of all birds, is not associated with fire, and is typically seen as female. In Japan the Fenghuang is called Ho-o. If you are going to be writing something using a phoenix as a symbol keep in mind that the myth changes slightly depending on your setting and where your characters come from.