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In my German/English dictionary, the primary translation for “Schlange” is:

snake, serpent

In English, the word “serpent” usually refers to a “snake”, but it can also refer to a “dragon” (or another similar mythological reptile).

Is the German word “Schlange” just as ambiguous as “serpent” is in English; can it refer to a “dragon”?


I’ve come to this question after looking at a few different productions of the opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by Schikaneder and Mozart. In the opening scene, Prince Tamino is battling “der listigen Schlange” (“the cunning serpent”). Some depictions have this creature as a snake, whereas others have a dragon (it is doesn’t really make any difference to the story). Does this choice of word leave the beast’s identity the up to interpretation, or are the versions that use a dragon embellishing?

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    To me I'd not have that association, but historically it might (e.g. see de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drache_(Mythologie) ) Jan 16 at 15:12
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    If you want to be strict about it, "Drache" is the mythological creature and "Schlange" is the animal in the suborder Serpentes. But keep in mind that the opera has a mythological setting where such distinctions aren't very important and production designers can (and do) make their own interpretation. You can similarly call a dragon a "wyrm" in English, even though a dragon is not much like a worm. FWIW the Classics Explained video calls it a snake, but I've also seen productions where it's more of a dragon.
    – RDBury
    Jan 16 at 16:38

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Yes, in old texts, Schlange was used to refer to "dragon", similar as Drache and Lindwurm. In Middle High German, slange meant "snake", "dragon", or "devil". I yet have to find some reference from New High German, but I remember having read Schlange being used to refer to a dragon in New High German texts.

As dragons are fictional, there does not seem to always have been a canonical idea of how they are supposed to look. I guess, there was a time when people imagined them to look like snakes a little, as the term Lindwurm (a dragon-like being or even a subspecies of dragon) suggests. The first part of the word stems from Old Norse linnr meaning "snake". Wikipedia says about the dragons from Greek mythology:

Bei den griechischen Drachen überwiegt der Schlangenaspekt,

(Within the greek dragons, the aspect of the serpents is predominant.)

Also, in the Christian tradition, both dragons and snakes were used as a metaphor or an incarnation of the evil and the devil.

Nonetheless, in current German, Schlange does not have the meaning "dragon" any more.

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  • There's the theory that dragons are kind of a hybrid of the subconscious fears of the big predators our ancestors had to fear way back when: Big cats, birds of prey and large snakes. Think of one of those taking a poor little Homo habilis for lunch. So it makes sense that in most (all?) variations, dragons have aspects of snakes, just more or less pronounced. Jan 17 at 9:10
  • The opera premiered in 1791, does this count as an “older text”; would Schlange have been ambiguous at the time? Jan 19 at 12:06
  • @ElementsInSpace I would say so, yes.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Jan 19 at 13:19
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Is the German word “Schlange” just as ambiguous as “serpent” is in English; can it refer to a “dragon”?

Answered out of a native speaker's view of the german language that people speak today, both no.

I don't know if perhaps in older books or plays or sayings the word "Schlange" had different meanings. But in today's language one wouldn't think of a dragon when "Schlange" is mentioned.

There is the word "Lindwurm", a fantasy / myth creature that seems to have a wider range of interpretation. I have no definition of that but if you look for images of a Lindwurm, you will find looks that all tend to be some kind of worm with dragon-like wings.

Last but not least, "Schlange" is the german word for "queue" too. That in fact is an ambiguity, but far from the one you mentioned.

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