The Western Dragon

Of all the world’s monsters, the dragon appears to be the most universal, and its history the most complex. Yet the origin of the idea of the dragon in the West is quite simple and straightforward. The word dragon itself can be traced to a Greek word meaning “sharp-sighted one,” an appropriate epithet for a snake. In Latin, the Greek word was converted to draco, and it came to mean “giant snake.” To the Romans the dragon was a giant snake, probably a python from India or Africa.

Very few Romans had ever seen a real python; for their information they had to rely on travelers’ tales which tended to be both exaggerated and inaccurate. These exaggerations and inaccuracies found their way into standard works on natural history and were reported and believed for nearly two thousand years. The greatest of the Roman naturalists, Pliny, said of the dragon of India that it was “so enormous a size as easily to envelop the elephant with its folds and encircle with its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both; the elephant, vanquished, falls to the earth and by its weight crushes the dragon which is entwined about it.”

Pliny added a few more details about dragons. There were dragons in Ethiopia, he said, but these were a mere thirty feet long, and therefore much smaller than the great elephant-killing Indian dragons. The longest Old World snake is the reticulated python of India, which reaches a length of thirty feet. Pliny had greatly exaggerated the length of the python. But as with the traditional fish story, length tends to increase the more often a story is retold. Encircling their prey and squeezing it to death is what pythons and a number of other large snakes do. However, no python would be foolish enough to attack an elephant, even a small one, and despite what is often shown in films and described in books, pythons do not attack full-grown human beings either. There have been a couple of reports of pythons attacking small children, but such attacks, if they occur at all, are extremely rare.

Pliny added a few exotic tales about African dragons which he said had crests on their heads, and would use them to go sailing. “Four or five of them twisted and interlaced together… setting sail with their heads erect, they are borne along upon the waves to find better sources of nourishment in Arabia.” Pliny didn’t seem to take this dragon tale too seriously.

Pliny’s work remained the standard compilation of natural history for centuries. At the time of his death, Konrad Gesner, the first compiler of a work on natural history since the days of the Romans, was working on a volume on snakes. While he never finished the book, his manuscript was later edited and published by others. It is clear that Gesner believed dragons were giant snakes of the python variety. He got most of his information from Pliny and even repeats some of Pliny’s dragon stories.

In an English version of Gesner’s work, Historie of Serepents, published in 1608, translated and edited by Edward Topsell, we once again meet the elephant-killing dragon:
“They [the dragons] hide themselves in trees, covering their head and letting the other part hang downe like a rope. In those trees they watch until the Elephant comes to eate and croppe of the branches; the suddenly, before he be aware, they leape into his face and digge out his eyes. They doe the claspe themselves about his necke, and with their tayles or hinder parts, beate and vexe the Elephant untill they have made him breathlesse, for they strangle him with theyr fore parts as they beate him with the hinder… And this is the disposition of the Dragon that he never setteth upon the Elephant but with the advantage of the place, and namely from some high tree or rock.”

Pliny had the struggle end as a draw, but over the centuries the dragon seems to have come out the winner.
Other evidence that the dragon was a large snake comes from the early pictorial representations of dragons. They were almost always shown as large snakes. Gesner had noted that the old German word for dragon, Lindwurm, really meant “snake-worm” or just “snake, snake.” The old Anglo-Saxon word Wyrm has been translated as meaning equally “dragon,” “serpent,” or “worm.” In Beowolf the dragon is called the Worm, and in old English ballads dragons are called the “laidly (loathly) Worm.” Throughout Ireland dragonlike monsters were called “direful Wurms.”

A popular English folktale which may date back to the early fifteenth century recounts the fight between Sir John Lambton and “the Worm.” It is a traditional knight-versus-dragon story. From the sixteenth century onward, artists showed “the Worm” with legs. But the original legend says nothing about legs.
So the direct dragon-snake identification is unarguable. Yet the dragon has become much more than a large snake, for a variety of reasons. The principal reason is that the dragon is mentioned prominently in the Bible. Sometimes the words dragon and serpent are used interchangeably, but this itself became a source of confusion, for the snake was the animal that the Hebrews hated and feared the most; the snake, and thus the dragon, became identified with evil and the Devil. And so, by the time we reach the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, we find:
“And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Rev. 12:9).
Just how the dragon picked up all its other attributes — the legs, the wings, the ability to breathe fire and the rest — is not clear. They seem to have been added bit by bit over the centuries by people who thought that a simple snake, no matter how large, was not a sufficient symbol of pure evil. Gesner’s incomplete volume on snakes and dragons displays the confusion. He discusses how the dragon was really a large constricting snake, and then immediately the text jumps to dragons with feet and wings. Something has been left out, and had Gesner lived to complete his work, we might know a lot more about dragon history than we do now.

The fire-breathing attribute may have come from the many poisonous snakes, though the python is not poisonous. The spitting cobra from India, a snake which actually spits its venom, may have influenced the fire-breathing concept, but we really cannot be sure.

The belief that a dragon was a creature with feet and wings was reinforced, even if it was not begun, by medieval monster makers, those clever forgers who pieced together parts of different animals and sold the exotic results to collectors of wonders and curios. A dragon, being such a well-known monster, would have been in demand. Of course, manufactured dragons were necessarily small, and had to be passed off as “baby dragons.”

Several of these showed up in Paris in 1557. An Italian mathematician who saw the “baby dragons” described them thus:
“Two footed creatures with wings so small that, in my opinion they could hardly fly with them. Their heads were small and shaped like the heads of snakes, they were of a pleasant color without feathers or hair and the largest of them was as large as a wren.”

At about the same time, a Frenchman named Pierre Belon printed a picture of a winged dragon which was to become the standard source for many later dragon pictures. In 1640 a book called The History of Serpents and Dragons by Ulisse Aldrovandi was published, and it contained a drawing of a two-footed dragon that was clearly a more elegant rendering of Belon’s sketch. The Aldrovandi dragon has been reprinted countless times.

So it is possible that the fakers who sewed bat wings on lizard bodies to produce “baby dragons” may have influenced all later visions of the dragon. Many kinds of weird creatures were passed off as dragons. The Bible speaks of the seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse, and apparently a group of fourteenth-century monks, trying to attract pilgrims to their monastery, sewed seven weasels’ heads onto a snake’s body and displayed the result as the seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse. Later this monstrosity was sold as an example of another monster, the hydra.

For centuries, people had been finding gigantic bones of unexplained origin. These were attributed to humanoid giants, unicorns, behemoth and leviathan of the Bible, and of course to dragons. The bones belonged to extinct giant mammals that had once roamed much of the world but had died out at the end of the Ice Age. Dinosaur bones contributed little if anything to belief in dragons.

Several learned treatises were written on the “dragon bones” and “dragon skulls” found throughout Europe. Examined in the light of today’s knowledge, it is obvious that the “dragons” were really extinct mammals. The learned seventeenth-century Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher developed an elaborate theory about how dragons lived underground — because their bones were usually found underground. He said that they lived in caves and, being subterranean creatures, were rarely seen on the surface. It was only when their return to the underground was blocked by an earthquake or avalanche that they were forced to remain on the surface. That is why so few dragons were seen.

Even after the real origin of the many strange bones was established, there were still those who refused to believe that the dragon was just a myth-encrusted snake. They looked for some sort of large lizardlike animal that might have inspired the dragon stories. One man, Charles Gould, was able to describe this theoretical monster in some detail:
“We may infer that it was a long terrestrial lizard, hibernating and carnivorous, and the power of constricting, with its snakelike body and tail; possibly furnished with winglike expansions of its integument… and capable of occasional progress on its hind legs alone, when excited in an attack…”
Most modern lizards are small, generally sluggish creatures that are unlikely candidates for inspiring the dragon myths. Then in 1912 a great monitor lizard that lives only on the island of Komodo in the East Indies was discovered by Europeans. It looked so much like what people though a dragon should look like that the lizard was named the Komodo dragon. But the range of the Komodo dragon is very restricted, and as far as we know always has been. Nor is there any other modern lizard that seems to have served in any way as the model for the dragon myth.

If not a modern or recent lizard, how about a very ancient one — the dinosaur? Dinosaurs aren’t really giant lizards — they may not even have been giant reptiles — but when first discovered, people thought they were gigantic lizards, and the name dinosaur itself means “terrible lizard.”

When dinosaurs were first being discovered during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the dinosaur-dragon identification was made frequently. Even today people who gaze on the awesome skeletons or reconstructions of dinosaurs are often struck with the feeling that here is the origin of the worldwide dragon story.

But that identification runs into serious problems. The first is time: the dinosaurs, as far as we know, died out completely 65 or 70 million years ago. That is long before human beings, or anything vaguely resembling human beings, existed on this earth. In the days of the dinosaurs, our own ancestors were little furry ratlike things running between the legs of the great dinosaurs.

Could the date for the extinction of dinosaurs be wrong? Could dinosaurs have survived until a time when they would have met human beings face to face? Unlikely, but even it if is possible, the dinosaurian survivors would have been extremely rare and unlikely to have inspired a widespread myth.

The fact is that dinosaurs don’t really look like the traditional dragon — which in its early days looked like snake, and later like a winged lizard. Indeed, the influence has probably run the other way. Many of the early reconstructions of dinosaurs were influenced by the popular view of dragons. But we now believe that most dinosaurs, instead of crawling about in lizardlike fashion, stood nearly erect and moved on two long and powerful legs. Dinosaurs looked more like a kangaroo or an ostrich than the traditional dragon. The four-footed dinosaurs — the sauropods — such as the brontosaurus did not look dragonlike either. There is not authentic connection between dinosaurs and dragons.

The Oriental Dragon
When Westerners first came into contact with the civilization of China, they discovered that Chinese mythology and art was rich with tales and pictures of a large, powerful reptilian creature that looked remarkably like the large, powerful reptilian dragon with which they were already familiar. The Chinese called the creature the lung. Westerners called it the dragon. This has led to a belief that the dragon is a universal symbol in both East and West, based on memories of the dinosaur or some other great “lizard” of the past. In reality, there is no evidence to support this view. The Western and Oriental dragons have quite different origins.

The two forms of dragons really have few things in common aside from being generally long and rather fearsome in appearance. In mythology both Western and Oriental dragons are reputed to be powerful and the guardians of great fortunes. There the similarities end. Western dragons were evil misers, while one rarely encountered and Oriental dragon without coming away with a generous gift.

Oriental dragons could occasionally be capricious and even malevolent, but they were usually benevolent. Unlike the Western dragon, which was a symbol of evil, the Oriental dragon was often a symbol of royalty and good luck. Western dragons were notoriously solitary, while Oriental dragons lived in crowded Chinese-style societies. There was, for example, a hierarchy of dragon bureaucrats.

As with the Western dragon, many once believed (and a few still do) that the stories of the Oriental dragon began with a real, but unknown, giant reptile. Dr. N.B. Dennys, a nineteenth-century expert on Chinese mythology, held that there was “little doubt” that there once had been real dragons in China.
Thrilling as Dr. Dennys’ suggestion was, there is “little doubt” that there never was a real dragon in China. The form of the mythical Oriental dragon was probably taken from a much more ordinary creature, but not the snake, which is at the core of the Western dragon myth. The snake also figures heavily in Chinese mythology and, like most other peoples in the world, the Chinese hated snakes and regarded them as symbols of evil, quite unlike the usually benevolent dragon.

One clue to the possible origin of the Oriental dragon is that it is intimately associated with water. Dragons lived in lakes and rivers and seas, even in raindrops. Dragons controlled the tides and waves, created or stopped floods, and were the guardians of rainfall. For the ancestor of the Oriental dragon, we should look to a water animal.

The best candidate is the Chinese alligator, Alligator sinensis. Today the creature is rare and its range highly restricted. But in earlier times it was widespread throughout eastern China. Although not quite as large as the American alligator, it is sufficiently large and power to inspire legends. Of course, as with the snake in the West, the Chinese alligator was only the starting point.

Like the Europeans, the Chinese also mistook the bones of ancient and extinct mammals for those of departed dragons. While the bones of the evil Western dragons were regarded as mere curiosities, the bones of the benevolent Oriental dragon were supposed to have great healing powers. The Chinese pharmacopoeia, accumulated over the long centuries of Chinese civilization, is a marvelously long and detailed collection of remedies. Virtually every know substance, if properly prepared, was though to be a cure for some disease. But of all the cures, dragon bones were supposed to be the most effective.

Dragon bones and teeth, that is, the bones and teeth of extinct animals, were once prominently displayed in the drugstores of Peking, Hong Kong, and other metropolitan centers in China. There they were ground up and sold as medicine, often at very high prices. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western paleontologists could also be found browsing among the bins of dragon bones. They were looking for valuable fossils, and they found some, including some teeth that ultimately led to the discovery of Peking man.