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Yet more on Dragons (long)

>Long ago when I was a medieval history/literature minor,  I read all the
>accounts of dragon-slaying and troll-slaying I could get my hands on,  and
>noticed that the wings and fire-breathing generally were later
>embellishments:  that the earliest accounts from each culture seemed to
>describe actual encounters with actual animals,  of unknown species (much as
>St. Brendan's account of his voyages makes walruses,  whales,  etc.,  into
>seemingly fictitious and highly fanciful creatures.)  I theorized then that
>the origins of the stories may have involved modern humans systematically
>exterminating a few surviving Neanderthals and perhaps some remnant dinosaur
>or pleisiosaur species.  20-25 years and a long career in ecological
>journalism later,  which has produced a much better appreciation of the
>magnitude of evolutionary change,  I'm more inclined to think these stories
>were invented to explain the discovery of dinosaur and perhaps Neanderthal
>fossils from time to time.  Does anyone have any relevant thoughts?

Of course, the concept of "dragon" is very different in different cultures
and different time periods.  East Asian lung (Chinese) or ryu (Japanese)
are very different from Greco-Roman dracones, which are in turn  very
different from northern European wurms.  Classical dragons like Pytho are
basically glorified snakes, protecting certain hallowed localities, for
example, while Asian dragons are water/cloud spirits with personalities.
The northern dragons are the greedy hoard-protectors.  The dragons of
medieval legends were (not surprisingly) amalgams of Classical and northern
dragons.   And you could add creatures like the Biblical Leviathan and
Behemoth or the Mesopotamian Tiamat or other primordial, semi-reptilian
personifications of Chaos you'd like.

None of these really have any real dinosaurian characters that aren't found
in living reptiles, except for their size.  In fact, I suspect East Asian
dragons may be mythologized alligators (the genus Alligator lives, in
reduced numbers, in China today).  I always found it strange that the
dragon is the only animal in the East Asian zodiac which is purely

However, your point about fossils being the inspiration for dragons has
some definite truth - there is a town in Poland (can't recall the name
there) where a "dragon's" skull has been on display since the Middle Ages
(it is, in fact, a rhino skull).  Also, some people have suggested that
elephant skulls (with their big central nostril opening) were the
inspiration for the Cyclopes, since elephantid skulls are known from some
of the islands of the Mediterranean.  And, of course, the thunder horse and
thunder bird legends of Native Americans, which have sometimes been
interpreted as explanations for dinosaur/giant mammal and pterosaur bones.

A final comment:  In a footnote to "On Fairy-Stories", J.R.R. Tolkien says
that, as a child, he was upset any time a natural history book called
dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures "dragons".  I agree with him here
- dragons and dinosaurs are two very different things, and interesting for
very different reasons.

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.                                   
Vertebrate Paleontologist in Exile                  Phone:      703-648-5280
U.S. Geological Survey                                FAX:      703-648-5420
Branch of Paleontology & Stratigraphy
MS 970 National Center
Reston, VA  22092