It is unclear precisely which mythological dragon Draco represents. There are, however, three main contenders.
One version--the least likely--of the Draco story is that the dragon fought Minerva during the wars between the giants and the gods. Minerva threw Draco's twisted body into the heavens before it had time to unwind itself.
Another possibility is that Draco represents the dragon who guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides. One of the labors of Hercules was to steal these apples (some sources state it was his eleventh labor, others it was his twelfth). This was, according to Bulfinch,
the most difficult labor of all..., for Hercules did not know where to find them. These were the apples which Juno had received at her wedding from the goddess of the Earth, and which she had entrusted to the keeping of the daughters of Hesperus, assisted by a watchful dragon. After various adventures, Hercules arrived at Mount Atlas in Africa. Atlas was one of the Titans who had warred against the gods, and after they were subdued, Atlas was condemned to bear on his shoulders the weight of the heavens. He was the father of the Hesperides, and Hercules thought might, if any one could, find the apples and bring them to him (Bulfinch's Mythology, 136).
Hercules suggested this plan to Atlas, who pointed out two problems: first, he could not simply drop his burden; second, there was the awful guardian dragon. Hercules responded by throwing his spear into the garden of the Hesperides and killing the hundred-headed beast, and then taking the burden on his own shoulders. Atlas retrieved the apples and, reluctantly taking the burden onto his shoulders once again, gave them to Hercules. Juno placed the dragon in the heavens as a reward for his faithful service.
By far the most commonly accepted version of Draco's arrival in the heavens, however, is that Draco was the dragon killed by Cadmus. Cadmus was the brother of Europa, who was carried off to Crete by Jupiter in the form of a bull (Taurus). Cadmus was ordered by his father to go in search of his sister, and told he could not return unless he brought Europa back with him. "Cadmus wandered over the whole world: for who can lay hands on what Jove has stolen away? Driven to avoid his native country and his father's wrath, he made a pilgrimage to Apollo's oracle, and begged him to say what land he should dwell in" (Metamorphoses III 9-11).
Cadmus followed Apollo's advice and found a suitable site for his new city. He sent his attendants to find fresh water to offer as a libation to Jupiter, and they wandered into a cave with springs. As they were getting water, however, they were all killed by "the serpent of Mars, a creature with a wonderful golden crest; fire flashed from its eyes, its body was all puffed up from poison, and from its mouth, set with a triple row of teeth, flickered a three-forked tongue" (Metamorphoses III 31-34). After his companions did not return, Cadmus himself went into the cave and discovered the dragon. He killed it with his spear, and then (upon the order of Minerva) sowed the dragon's teeth in the ground. From the teeth sprung warriors, who battled each other until only five were left. These five, along with Cadmus himself, were the first people of the city of Thebes.
It is interesting, however, to note that Ovid himself does not equate the dragon of Mars with Draco. In fact, in book III of Metamorphoses, he describes the dragon killed by Cadmus in terms of the constellation: "It was as huge as the Serpent that twines between the two Bears in the sky, if its full length were seen uncoiled" (45-47).
The Serpent described by Ovid is certainly the same one as we see today, twisting past Cepheus and between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the north, with its head beneath the foot of Hercules. Its location therefore seems to fit best with the myth that Draco was the dragon in the garden of the Hesperides.
Back to the main myth page.
These pages are the work of Cathy Bell
cmbell (at) comfychair (dot) org
originally for the Princeton University course CLA 212.