February 22, 2024

Dragons: an (un)natural history | IFLScience

Dragons are probably among the most recognizable and ubiquitous fantasy creatures in history. All over the world, from Europe to China, as well as America and Australia, ancient and completely independent cultures depicted and described similar creatures in their stories, art, folklore and mythologies.

Given the widespread appearance of these iconic creatures across vast geographical and cultural differences, it would be easy to assume that they were inspired by the same thing. But the history of dragons, where they came from and how they became so important, is a complex and illustrative story about how human observations of the natural world and our propensity for storytelling come together. And, like the dragon, what it produces can be astonishing and monstrous.

Sliding and swimming into view

One of the earlier depictions of what we in the West would identify as a “dragon” appears in the depiction of the Babylonian entity called Tiamat, a primordial goddess who created further gods. In the Mesopotamian creation epic, the Enūma Eliš, Tiamat is described as a huge serpent-like creature associated with the sea. The story goes that Tiamat met her end at the hands of the storm god Marduk, who split her body and used the remains to create the heavens and the earth.

Then there is the Mušḫuššu (meaning ‘reddish serpent’ or ‘fierce serpent’), a classic example of a composite creature depicted with the hind legs of an eagle, the fore legs of a lion, a long serpentine neck and tail, horns on its head and a snake-like tongue. This creature was the symbol of Marduk and also served as his servant. The Mušḫuššu is famously depicted on the Ishtar Gate in the city of Babylon, modern Iraq.

In ancient Egypt, dragon-like creatures appear in several cases. First, Apep (or Apophis), a gigantic serpent-like creature born from the umbilical cord of Ra, was described as living in the realm of the dead. Apep was engaged in a never-ending conflict with Ra, who was aided in this battle by Nehebkau, another serpent giant.

In Zoroastrian traditions, dragons like Aži Dahāka (“Avestanian Great Serpent”) were a symbol of sin and greed, in a way that may anticipate later Christian depictions of this trope, as well as their versions of dragons during the Middle Ages.

To the ancient Greeks, drakons – where we get the word “dragon” – were common opponents of mythological heroes who had to kill them to accomplish their legendary deeds (another trope that became important in medieval stories). Notable examples include the Lernaean Hydra, the Colchian dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, the giant serpent Typhon, and the dragon of Ares.

The dragons of Asia, especially the Chinese ‘long’, were far less destructive and threatening than their Western counterparts. These creatures were associated with good luck and favorable circumstances. Dragons have a vibrant and unparalleled history within Chinese culture, where they have been and continue to be revered.

The traditional image of Chinese dragons first appeared in the Shang (1766-1122 BCE) and Zhou (1046-256 BCE) dynasties. Eventually these images turned into the Yinglong, a winged dragon that was also a rain god. Over the centuries, however, this image evolved, and the dragon lost its wings and became the iconic snake-like entity recognized in Chinese art today.

These dragons were probably so influential that they later shaped many other Asian images, including those in Korea (often depicted with bears and gripping an orb) and Japan. Many other dragon traditions appear in the Philippines and India.

In the Americas, the Aztecs worshiped Quetzalcoatl, the “precious serpent,” which was their version of the feathered serpent god that appeared in Mesoamerican mythologies. As with the Asian version of dragon gods, Quetzalcoatl was not a destructive figure, but rather the god of the wind, patron of priests, and possibly the inventor of books and calendars.

Similarly, the Andean civilizations of South America had the Amaroca or Amaru, a giant two-headed snake that lives deep underground. In Inca mythology, Amaroca lived at the bottom of lakes and rivers.

To be fair, these are just a few of the many forms of dragons found in cultures around the world. There are plenty of others that could have been added to this discussion, so these are just a few examples. But where did the idea of ​​dragons come from, given the variety of images?

Suggesting dragons

Despite their separation by great distances, many of the dragon stories discussed above share similar characteristics or tropes. In many cases, they are snake-like entities with other features borrowed from different animals (such as bird-like wings or lion-like limbs). Scientists have long debated where such ideas came from, leading to the hypothesis that the dragon could be a creative expression of our innate fear of snakes. But this would not apply as much to friendlier examples from non-European contexts.

However, it could capture some of the mystique associated with large snakes and other reptiles. Sightings of natural snakes and exaggerations arising from folklore and stories may have transformed some species into creatures of mythical proportions. According to Adrienne Mayor, this process may also have been aided by the discovery of dinosaur fossils by ancient peoples who lived in the areas where dragon stories originated.

An example of this form of ‘mistaken identity’ is present in the story of Chang Qu, a 4th century Chinese historiane century BC, who probably mistook a fossil for a long-dead dragon.

Similarly, people in Australia may have been influenced by large reptiles such as the Goanna, monitor lizards with deadly bites that can cause fatal infections. And in places like Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, sightings of saltwater crocodiles may have inspired some of the stories that later traveled to Europe about vicious monstrous dragons (usually ones that were then killed by a ‘heroic’ saint – looking at you ,George).

Aside from reptiles, seafaring peoples may have merged stories of sea serpents, inspired by whales and other large aquatic mammals and fish, with ideas about dragons. Whale bones washed ashore could also provide the seeds for more monstrous interpretations.

Regardless of the inspirations for the various creatures we consider “dragons” today, it seems that they all represent a meeting point where human imagination and natural observations converge. But how we understand that ‘creature’ and what it means for our stories is largely determined by our cultural heritage.

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