Here Be Dragons! Why?

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.

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. 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.”

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.

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