You’ve heard of dragons. Everyone’s heard of dragons; giant, scaled, reptilian creatures, common in fantasy and mythology. The kings of the sky.
So then, if we know what a dragon is, what is a drake? What is a wyvern, for that matter? Or a wyrm? Are they the same creature, or does each name describe a different being?
A dragon has four legs and a separate pair of wings. A drake has the four legs of a dragon, but no wings. A wyvern has the two back legs and the wings of a dragon, but no front legs. A wyrm has no legs, and no wings, like a massive snake.
But there’s a lot more nuance to it than that. What if we consider intelligence, or what kinds of powers and abilities they each have?
We need to dive deeper, to sort this out once and for all.
All of these different terms are quite old, and came from different places. They originally referred to the same thing—large, mythical reptiles as a group.
‘Drake’ is just the Teutonic word for dragon. ‘Wyrm’ was an english word that would just refer to any large mythical reptile, including the classic dragon. The ‘wyvern’ is a two-legged dragon first used in medieval heraldry, but most of Europe just refers to it as a dragon, along with its four-legged brethren.
Probably because of the influence of modern games like Dungeons & Dragons, recently people are interested in categorising the different subtypes of mythical reptile into their own distinct species.
These terms—drake, wyrm and wyvern—were never intended to be used that way, but such is the way of language. It’s always evolving.
So, with that said, lets categorise the heck out of some big scalies!
The poster boy of the giant mythical reptile, dragons are legendary, and the largest of the four types we are looking at today.
They are serpent-like, reptilian creatures, with four legs, a separate pair of wings, and normally a long neck and tail. They are usually depicted covered in scales, with horns or head crests, and long talons.
The eastern or chinese dragon differs a little from the western dragon; it is normally longer, and does not have wings.
In most fantasy settings and mythology dragons are proud and intelligent; sometimes more intelligent than humans—sometimes even the most intelligent beings in the setting. Often they can communicate in human languages, and have power over magic, including shapeshifting into human form.
The typical dragon can breathe fire. In some settings, dragons breathe different substances depending on their colour, and therefore their ancestry. In Dungeons & Dragons, dragons come in ten colours, breathing five different substances:
Black and Copper dragons breathe acid; Blue and Bronze dragons breathe lightning; Green and Brass breathe poison, Red and Gold breathe fire, and finally the White and Silver dragons have ice breath.
Not so different to the dragon, with one very distinct difference.
Now, originally ‘drake’ was just the Teutonic word for dragon, and they meant the four-legged, winged sort we already talked about above.
But J.R.R. Tolkien took the term further, to describe creatures in Middle Earth that were like dragons, but smaller, lesser creatures.
Most modern fantasy writers have agreed to that definition, as usually drakes in various settings are like dragons but without wings, and smaller and less intelligent—more like animals than a dragon is, running on instinct.
Sometimes drakes are still able to breathe fire, and they are usually just as tough as a typical dragon.
Some settings might still use the word ‘drake’ to describe a typical winged dragon, or perhaps use it as a term for a male dragon, or as a term for a young dragon. But the general consensus among modern authors is that a drake has four legs but no wings.
At first glance, the wyvern is indistinguishable from a dragon. But like a drake, it has a key visual difference, and this time it’s not the wings.
The wyvern lacks the front forelimbs of a dragon. The wyvern only has two back legs and full wings.
The concept of the wyvern originated in the 17th century, and was derived from the "draco" standard of the Roman Dacian legion.
Again, wyverns are usually thought of as smaller and lesser compared to dragons, and are also smaller than the drake and the wyrm below.
Like drakes, they are closer to animals than dragons are. Wyverns are incapable of speech, and operate on instinct. They might be able to understand speech as far as a dog could, such as recognising certain sounds. (We are still not sure if they can be trained to roll over.)
Often the wyvern can breathe substances like a dragon, usually fire, poison or acid.
The Wyrm seems more like a giant snake than a dragon.
They are legless and wingless creatures, larger than wyverns but smaller than drakes.
Their name comes from the Old German for "Worm."
They are more intelligent than drakes and wyverns, sometimes even with the intelligence of a dragon. They can often breathe fire too, but are also known to hypnotise prey when hunting, and hypnotise predators in self-defence.
The Lindwurm is close to the wyrm, but has a pair of forelimbs. It still has no wings or back legs. It’s also not normally as large, or as intelligent, as the wyrm.
The Amphiptere is a small snake-like creature with no legs, but has wings. More of a bird-like being than any of the others.