Unearthing Unexpected Fossil Usage in Ancient Medicine (Part 2): Dragon Pills to Gods' Horns
Of all fantastic creatures of legend, dragons are undisputedly the most iconic of the lot. One powerful reason for their fame may be found in the fact that dragonkind permeates across cultures worldwide, with much of humanity mutually admiring these cosmopolitan creatures throughout generations. So how did dragons become insanely famous and revered by people of completely different cultures? A probable explanation might've come from the fossilized remains of dinosaurs and related animals.
Three ceratopsian skulls in a museum could be taken for mythical creatures like dragons (Legendz Collective)
Dinosaurs and their close relatives (which includes flying pterosaurs and marine reptiles like plesiosaurs ) have been unearthed in all continents. It's very likely that these prehistoric lifeforms inspired the foundations of dragon mythos. Whenever saurian fossils are spotted in diverse locations, they'd be classified under the extinct animal category. In antiquity, however, their bones would've been assigned under the label of mythical beasts instead – where fantasy reigns supreme. It's been confirmed that the ancients have confused actual animal fossils for remains of fabled creatures on numerous occasions; such as the accounts of glossopetrae or “dragon tongues” as previously described in Part 1.
Additionally, ancient folk once mused that fossils themselves contained miraculous healing properties; having used them as key ingredients in medicinal preparations historically. Today, prominent cultures with roots dating back thousands of years are still handling fossils for therapeutic purposes (even selling them at modern apothecaries). Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a prime living example.
- Dragons: Exploring the Ancient Origins of the Mythical Beasts
- Newly Discovered 250-Million-Year-Old Fierce Lizard Fossil is Named After Mythical Monster
- Unearthing Unexpected Fossil Usage in Ancient Medicine (Part 1): Ogre Balms to Dragon Tongues
Artistic representation of plesiosaurs (Legendz Collective)
Ancient Chinese Beliefs
Chinese lore originally considered fossils to be dragon bones. Dragons in turn are venerated as ancestral deities symbolizing prosperity, wisdom or divine might. As such, whenever individuals would encounter fossils or skeletons during olden times, emotions of sheer draconic excitement would arise from inside their hearts. One twist, though: these alleged dragons were none other than misidentified animal bones – this time belonging to dinosaurs or even extinct mammals.
Chinese soil is rich in fossils with a majority of the world's recent dinosaur discoveries being excavated from their provinces. These discoveries included major scientific breakthroughs which tremendously shook modern popular culture's image of dinosaurs; where instead of appearing as scaly lizards, it's very likely that several meat-eating varieties (including the famous Tyrannosaurus ) were feathered – proving that dinosaurs and birds are of the same family. The general public's perception of dinosaurs is prone to constant flux as new findings keep popping up that revolutionize old ideas. Going backwards to classical antiquity, however, the ancients did not view dinosaurs for what many modern people know them for today. Nay... dinosaurs were magic dragons to their antique eyes.
Dinosaurs shown with feathery plumage (Legendz Collective)
Oddly enough, numerous Classical Asian art depict dragons possessing scaly, feathery or furry features. Did ancient people knew something that modern minds might have missed? One could wonder. Nonetheless, their dragons appear serpentine and elongated in appearance – quite different to most modern carnivorous dinosaur imagery. Because of the dragon's divine heritage, their bones are thus said to be mystical in nature.
TCM refer to “dragon bones” as Long Gu (Mandarin) or Os Draconis (Latin). Interestingly, dinosaur bones aren't the only fossils being used in preparing Long Gu compounds. Fragments of mastodons, horses, rhinos and other megafauna have been considered “dragons bones” as well. In fact, most Os Draconis specimens in Chinese medical shops today originated from extinct mammals rather than dinosaurs, as megafauna species were once abundant in primordial China like the dinosaurs that thrived before them.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (Legendz Collective)
Fast forward to present day, many Long Gu preparations (mammal or dinosaur) come in the form of pills or capsules. In antiquity, Long Gu were commonly roasted under intense heat to ash (known as calcining), or taken as fine powders. Ancient texts like the Shennong Bencaojing – a medical compendium written around 200 to 250 AD which are based on much older traditions from the legendary sage-king Shennong – claim that dragon bones are useful in treating “demoniac ailments”. Today, these ailments would be referred to as psychiatric disorders. Long Gu are said to normalize internal organ functions whilst dispelling emotional disruptions caused by invading “spirits”. Nowadays, TCM practitioners would use Long Gu for treating cases of manic depression, epilepsy, anxiety disorders and insomnia.
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Bust of Zeus Ammon ( CC BY 2.0 )
European Fossil Use
China isn't the only known culture to systematically use fossils for complex diseases, although it's one of the few that persist in modern times. Other classical but now defunct traditions from ages past, such as Ancient Greek and Egyptian, had their own versions for curing insomnia or even infertility. When the ancients did first discover ammonite fossils, they imagined the shells to be horns of the primal Egyptian god Amun – who became Zeus Ammon to Greeks when the two cultures' chief gods merged in syncretism. By the way, this was how the word “ ammonite” originated thanks to its spiral shape resembling ram horns sacred to Amun (who sometimes takes form of a regal ram himself). On the other hand, other believers in Continental Europe saw ammonites as curled-up snakes that were turned to stone called Ophites. Whether ammonites be petrified serpents or gods' horns, people back then used them in drink infusions or even charms for treating insomnia and infertility.
An ammonite (Legendz Collective)
Cousins of ammonites called belemnites – extinct kin to modern squids and cuttlefish – were confused for petrified thunderbolts sent by the god Perkunas in the Baltic countries. Similar to Greek deity Zeus, Perkunas was a skyfather closely connected to thunder and lightning. Once known as thunderstones in olden days, the dart-like bullet shapes of belemnites were considered heavenly omens. Although in the British Isles, belemnite fossils were instead seen as fingers of the Devil or curiously enough, St. Peter's himself to other townsfolk. Due to the sharp-pointed bullet appearances of belemnites, people back then assumed these fossils had the power to cure acute pains in the body – as well as rheumatism.
Europe once had an obsession for bones of saints, devils and magical serpents in which various actual fossils were mistakenly assigned to them. Outlandish examples included pygmy hippo fragments confused for martyr saint bones; Jurassic oyster gryphaea shells misidentified as devil toenails; sea urchin fossils thought to be eggs created from bubbles made by copulating snakes... et al ! These fossils were then converted to medicines for treating a variety of muscular, mental and internal disorders afflicting both sick humans and domesticated livestock. However, little did they know that some of their treatments were harmful.
European fossils used for medicine, taken for lightning strikes(belemnites,) devil toe nails(gryphaea shells), eggs(sea urchins) (Legendz Collective)
Belemnites for instance were rumored to fix sore eyes – crushed down to dust then blown directly to the eyeball expecting relief.... only to be met with severe discomfort that vitiated sight! As interesting as the treatments may sound, these fossils were so highly misunderstood that wrong application of them could've aggravated symptoms. That's not the only dark news though...
Fossils are valuable in learning about the Earth's history, but are now vulnerable to decline of supply. Furthermore, the beliefs upon which fossil medicines are based are in a way contributing to the massacre of living endangered wildlife in current years (i.e. ivory and rhino horns ). Even though fossils played crucial roles in medicine for ages, abuse of them paves way to devastating consequences.
So... do fossil medicines truly work? What happens when they're misused further that it even affects the modern world? Part 3 will have the answers.
Top image: Fossil, dinosaur and dragon montage (Legendz Collective)
Unless otherwise stated, all images were taken or created by the Legendz Collective crew
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