Dragons: Exploring the Ancient Origins of the Mythical Beasts
One of the most popular and persistent characters of the human mythos is that of the dragon. Whether it is a gold hoarding serpent or fire-breathing giant, dragons continue to fascinate and entertain people around the world. Yet where did the idea of these mythical beasts come from? Nobody knows for certain when or where dragons first entered into the popular culture, although tales of dragons existed in ancient Greece and ancient Samaria. Over the years, experts have put forward a number of interesting theories.
The saltwater crocodile and Nile crocodile are the first and second largest reptiles currently living on earth, respectively. Today, saltwater crocodiles have a broad habitat range, living throughout the eastern Indian Ocean regions – from the eastern coast of India, throughout Indonesia, and south along Australia’s northern coastline. The Nile crocodile is prevalent in the rivers, lakes, and marshes of Sub-Saharan Africa. Thousands of years ago, however, both species would have had a far more extensive habitat range. Evidence suggests that in ancient times, some Nile crocodiles lived on the northern side of the Mediterranean, meaning they could threaten inhabitants of southern Italy, Greece, and Spain. Interestingly, Nile crocodiles, which can grow up to 20 feet (6.1m) in length, are capable of elevating their trunks off of the ground – a movement called the high walk. This may be a clue as to why the dragons in European myths are often depicted as reptiles rearing up to slay warriors. In a similar but distinct move, saltwater crocodiles, which can grow up to 23 feet (7.0m) can propel themselves upward so that they jump out of the water to catch prey. However, dragons in Asiatic myths tend to be more serpents like.
Did legends of dragons originate from the Nile crocodile? (Arvalis / DeviantArt)
Many archeologists believe that the myths of dragons originated from ancient peoples’ discovery of unfathomably large, long-necked dinosaur fossils. For instance, the Qijianglong was a dinosaur that lived 160 million years ago and measured approximately 49 feet (15 m) long. Its fossil was discovered by construction workers in China. One by one, they uncovered the massive vertebrae stretched out in a row in the earth. Today, we know that these enormous bones belong to prehistoric beings but in ancient times, people would have most likely invented stories to explain what the beasts were. One of the paleontologists who has studied the Qijianglong fossil, Tetsuto Miyashita of the University of Alberta, has pondered what it would have been like for ancient people to discover such remains. “I wonder if the ancient Chinese stumbled upon a skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur like Qijianglong and pictured that mythical creature” (Gray, 2015). There is evidence to suggest that the Chinese have been finding and studying dinosaur fossils at least as far back as the 4 th century B.C.
The Qijianglong may have inspired legends of dragons (Alexanderlovegrove / DeviantArt)
A similar theory for the origin of dragons is that the myth is based on the skeletons of whales that washed ashore to the astonishment and puzzlement of early coastal dwellers. Because whales spend most of their time underwater out in the high seas, ancient humans, who did not then have advanced nautical technology, would only ever catch glimpses of the behemoths. In the Book of Job, the Leviathan (believed to be the sea-monster Cetus, the same mythological whale sent by Poseidon to attack Ethiopia) is described like a dragon in fantastic detail:
12 “I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs,
its strength and its graceful form.
13 Who can strip off its outer coat?
Who can penetrate its double coat of armor [b]?
14 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
ringed about with fearsome teeth?...
18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth…
25 When it rises up, the mighty are terrified;
they retreat before its thrashing.
26 The sword that reaches it has no effect,
nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
27 Iron it treats like straw
and bronze like rotten wood…
33 Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”
Did the discovery of whale carcasses lead to legends of dragons? (wallpaperswa.com)
In ancient Egypt, there was a deity known as Apep, the Serpent of the Nile. This giant snake was the Lord of Chaos and persistent opponent of light and truth. He was believed to lie just below the horizon, forever waiting for his chance to swallow the sun. At other times, he was believed to descend into the underworld to eat the souls of the dead. Apep is a far cry from the Druks and wyverns that populate much of Eastern and Western folklore, respectively. However, it does point to a perennial fear held by humans throughout history. In an interesting theory put forward by anthologist David E. Jones in his book An Instinct for Dragons, the author argues that like monkeys and dogs, humanoids are instinctively afraid of snakes, as well as other large predators. James posits that the collective human consciousness invented the dragon over centuries as a result of that embedded fear. This could explain how dragon myths have independently arisen in disparate corners of the globe.
Japanese dragon: Legends may have been inspired by snake sightings (public domain)
Legendary tales of fire-breathing dragons have been around for millennia, yet they continue to stir popular imagination to this day.
Top image: Artwork of a dragon for the Durian-Project of the Blender Foundation (public domain)
Gray, Richard. "A Real Chinese Dragon! Long-necked Dinosaur Found on Construction Site May Have Inspired Ancient Legends." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 06 Aug. 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2931344/A-real-Chinese-dragon-Long-necked-dinosaur-construction-site-inspired-ancient-legends.html
Job. New Oxford Annotated Bible. 4th Vers. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Radford, Benjamin. "Are Dragons Real? Facts About Dragons." LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2016. http://www.livescience.com/25559-dragons.html
Stromberg, Joseph. "Where Did Dragons Come From?" Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 06 Aug. 2016. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/where-did-dragons-come-from-23969126/?no-ist