Is there anybody from the age of four onwards on the face of the Earth who isn’t aware of the mythological creature popularly known as the dragon? The exceptions would be so relatively rare that I would have to conclude that of nearly all things make-believe, dragons are probably in the top ten recognition list.
So, is that the be-all-and-end-all of things? Behind most myths, folklore or fairy tales often there is a tiny kernel of fact behind the apparent fiction. What about that kernel at the core of dragon-lore?
I note for starters that dragons are apparent from the get-go. Images of dragons are frequently found on cylinder seals from the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia and surrounding regions – the cradle of civilization.
Now mythology-themed texts are excellent at relating various dragon tales and their associated dragon-slaying humans like Saint George, Sigurd (Siegfried), and Beowulf*; what purposes dragons served like guarding treasure and the abodes or palaces of the gods, as well as go-betweens the gods and humanity (sort of like carrier pigeons) and their having some control over the weather and the waters; and what they symbolize like evil, sin, power, military might, and pagan ways in the West and the Emperor and Empress, wisdom, immortality and other positive things like good fortune in the East.
Dragons were even known do be among those beasties that pulled the aerial ‘chariots’ of the ‘gods’.
However, mythology texts hardly ever explain why dragons are universally past and beloved in the present in nearly all societies in the first place. It’s one thing to just say dragons are mythological beings; it’s quite something else to explain how that is in light of such detail that surrounds dragon-lore and their universality.
Let’s look at what a typical dragon looks like. The classic dragon of Western tradition was a four-legged winged serpent with scaly skin and sharp claws (or varying number). Chinese dragons were generally horned and bearded, with a pair of long whiskers protruding from the upper lip.
Dragons were very large, averaging about 80 feet (25 metres) in length. They had the ability to fly through the air as well as move on the ground. Many dragons breathed fire although others killed with their venomous breath.
Actually, the fire-breathing bit was probably an embellishment – maybe more a reflection on bad breath or water vapour visible upon exhaling. Just like most of mythology is 5% truth and 95% fisherman’s embellishment – the story gets better with each reincarnation!
However, in general there’s nothing vague about what dragons looked like and what they did which is odd seeing as how they never existed. Or did they – never exist that is?
As to that explanation:
The traditional mainstream explanation for the reason for mythological dragons does not usually rely on human nature to invent out of whole cloth life forms that don’t exist, but rather on an assumption that fossil remains of dinosaurs, etc. gave rise to speculations that, in this case, the life form we call the dragon, well those fossils kick-started those dragon mythologies all over the world. As expressed in a recent book on mythological creatures:
“The ubiquity of dragon legends around the world remains striking; few legendary creatures have a wider distribution. Some scholars have linked the stories with discoveries of dinosaur bones and it may be that in early times tales of dragons served to explain the existence of long-dead creatures of huge size. Yet no single reason can ever hope to cover all the many strands of draconian lore. More likely, gigantic winged serpents fill some archetypal need in the human imagination, crossing cultures in their power to excite awe and fear.” (Tony Allen; The Mythic Bestiary: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Most Fantastical Creatures; Duncan Baird Publishers, London; 2008: Page 169)
Oh what a load of crap! Actually, loads of crap. Firstly, no large dinosaur bones come equipped with wings, etc. Have you ever seen a fossil or replica T-Rex that had wings and could fly?
Maybe they mean pterosaurs and/or pterodactyls, although they aren’t dinosaurs but a class of flying reptiles. However, fossils of flying reptiles aren’t very common and are in fact quite fragile.
Secondly, fossils aren’t going to tell you anything about colouration, scaly vs. smooth skin, beards and whiskers, fire-breathing abilities and venomous or otherwise bad breath, etc. Those sorts of details aren’t preserved in the fossil record, though very, very, very rarely dinosaur skin impressions are found but there are just about enough examples on hand that you can count them off on the fingers of one hand. .
Thirdly, the non-avian dinosaurs and flying reptiles died out 65 millions of years before humans and dragon mythology so there can be no contemporary firsthand knowledge of those previous long-dead dinosaur life forms to draw on. And the avian dinosaurs, which did survive – we now call them birds – hardly approach the sorts of sizes and other characteristics that could remotely be related to dragons.
Lastly, 99.9% of large fossils don’t just lie on the ground fully exposed in all their glory for the entire world to see. Most bits are usually buried and mainly in a somewhat jumbled state due to the various geological, hydrological and meteorological forces acting on the bones at the time of the animal’s death and the millions of years thereafter. It takes experts to piece things back together again as two of more animal fossils might be intermixed.
Further, why would the uneducated great unwashed living back before those golden years when mythological dragons ruled the skies go to all the trouble of the backbreaking sort of work it takes to fully expose a large fossil in the first place, and thus invent the mythological dragon? I mean it wouldn’t put any food on the table!
So when all else fails, put our invention of mythological and universal dragons down to some variation of nebulous Freudian psychology mumbo-jumbo. Give me a break! No, the answer is that dragons were really real and humans actually observed them. There is a single reason after all.
Now just consider, how many extinct animals did we mythologically invent prior to the discovery of their fossils? Dinosaurs weren’t all the rage before their fossil bones were uncovered and realised for what they were.
Why didn’t we mentally create them before the fact? Why didn’t we have mythological trilobites in our legends 7000 years ago? We just didn’t have dinosaurs, trilobites, mythological or otherwise, before their fossils were discovered.
Why didn’t we have in our various mythologies any one of thousands of strange, now extinct, organisms? Maybe the answer is because we are NOT prone to invent fictional beasties. If strange beasts are part and parcel of our mythology, maybe it’s because those strange beasts really existed at some point in time that coincided with human existence.
On the other hand, you might wonder why there are no profound mythologies about now extinct mammoths or sabre-toothed cats, even though they coexisted for a short time with ‘modern’ man. Why not?
They were pretty big and fearsome; maybe not quite in the big leagues of dragons, but big enough. Perhaps that might be because these beasties had no connection with the ‘gods’ – they weren’t alien beasties.
Now the bigger mystery here is why the cultural difference between East and West in the popular perception of dragons, although that’s not as clear cut as some texts make it out to be. For example, China too had bad dragons – evil black dragons that were credited with inciting storms and floods – and a dragon slayer (Lu Dongbin).
Japan had an evil dragon too called Yamata-no-Orochi, slain* by the often troublesome Japanese trickster god Susanowo. There’s a somewhat parallel tale in ancient Babylon and Assyria between the god Marduk and the ‘dragon’ Tiamat.
That a god might slay a dragon, well, I guess if you can have wild dos and feral cats, you can have rogue dragons! Maybe only ‘gods’ are allowed, or have the ability, to slay dragons.
Exceptions to the rule aside, I suggest that the relative differences in the portrayals of dragons reflect back on the nature of their masters – the gods.
The Eastern gods appear to me to be a lot less dysfunctional and all around nicer deities than the Western gods. The Greeks and Norse people may have worshiped Zeus et al. and Odin et al. but you really wouldn’t want them to serve as role models for your kids.
There is however another, and perhaps even more logical explanation for the differences between Western and Eastern dragons. Dragons are bad in the (Christian) west because the Christian churches decrees it so.
Dragons represent the old ways, the old gods, maybe even the devil incarnate. In the non-Christian (Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) east, dragons have no such baggage or stigma attached.
The extraterrestrials ‘gods’ and their dragon pets share something in common. The dragons, much like their masters, the ‘gods’ are as close to immortal as makes no odds.
I think it’s safe to say ‘immortal’ in this context isn’t really forever and ever, amen, but rather a damn long time, which, as far as primitive humans were concerned translated as, for all practical purposes, ‘immortal’.
The bottom line in all this is that the gods are really extraterrestrials; their pets, the dragons are also aliens; part of the god’s bestiary. When the gods left the building (Planet Earth), they took their dragons with them as well as the rest of their so-called ‘mythological’ menagerie.
*As an aside, the actual slaying of dragons is problematically against such events. If as described (see above) you’d no more go up against a dragon armed only with a sword as you would a T-Rex. You’d want at least an army tank under or at your command or an army of swordsmen at the least (and expect lots of casualties too).
Then too, the gods might not permit the slaying of their pets. Of course the Christian church would encourage tall tales of dragon slaying since the dragon was pagan and may even be symbolic of Satan.
Telling tales of slaying dragons is akin, IMHO, to a fisherman’s tall tales – the six inch fish that got away, after a few drinks at the pub, turns out to be a six foot monster fish! But if dragons were really slain, where are all the mounted and stuffed dragon head trophies that should be on display in all manner of ways and places? Lack of such stuffed trophies doesn’t prove dragons didn’t exist (there are no taxidermic head trophies of sabre-toothed cats either on display), rather that mortals didn’t dare go up against them!
Science librarian; retired.