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Re: "plumed" serpents (LONG)



 Berislav Krzic <veselinka.stanisavac@siol.net> writes:
> By the way, this discussion reminded me of an unusual medieval painting
of a
> dragon (Vs. St. George in armor )...SNIP... this dragon looks
> more like a theropod, though with wings instead of his arms...SNIP... but
I can't remember the name of
> the painter.

Paolo Uccello painted _Saint George and the Dragon_ in 1460.  The depicted
theropod posture and the anatomy of the pelvis and legs are astonishing in
their verisimilitude with the modern image of carnivorous dinosaurs,
although the bat wings and curling tail don't fit the picture (of a
dinosaur).

Jeff Rovin's _The Fantasy Almanac_ traces the first dragon legends to Asia
and parts of Europe circa 3500 BC.  These began as snaking marine forms but
are said to have "evolved"  into terrestrial forms which retained the fish
scales, but also had horns, the heads of lions, and the talons and wings of
eagles.  The asian dragons are said to combine elements of the camel, clam,
tiger, snake, carp, eagle, and bull, and have whiskers on their faces. 
African dragons are eagle-wolf hybrids.

Rovin goes on to say: "Indeed, with the Christian knights came the notion
of dragons as the personification of Satan, someone who seduced people with
dreams of treasure and carnality (the captive maiden) and then roasted them
in the fires of hell.  Hence, the popular vision of dragons as fire
breathers."  Jeff Rovin describes Saint George as being a Christian cleric
from Palestine, stationed in Great Britain at the end of the 3rd century
A.D., who was executed by the emperor Diocletian (an opponent
Christianity).  The slaying of the dragon by Saint George is interpreted as
"symbolic of the victory of Christianity over the emperor's antichristian
sentiments."  

In _The Power of Myth_, Joseph Campbell remarks on the ubiquity of the
dragon myth in different cultures:
"... a constant image is that of the conflict of the eagle and the serpent.
 The serpent bound to the earth, the eagle in spiritual flight -- isn't
that conflict something we all experience?  And then, when the two
amalgamate, we get a wonderful dragon, a serpent with wings.  All over the
earth people recognize these images.  Whether I'm reading Polynesian or
Iriquois or Egyptian myths, the images are the same, and they are talking
about the same problems."

But what fossils might have influenced the legends of giant dragons?  I
would agree that the Asian dragons may well have originated with the
discovery of dinosaur bones.  The earliest reports of the Komodo Dragon may
have also played a part in some regions of the world.  Whence came the
European conception of these dragons?

In the book, _Eyewitness Science: Evolution_, Linda Gamlin writes:
"During the last ice age 40,000 years ago, there were giant bears in
Europe.  Some died in caves while hibernating.  Many were fossilized,
because a landslide in a cave can quickly bury the body before the bones
decompose.  When the skulls of these bears, with their huge canine teeth,
were found in the Middle Ages, they were thought to belong to
fire-breathing *dragons*."

The best source on the origin of dragons in my library is Dr. Peter
Wellnhofer's _The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs_.  Although
Wellnhofer states that "none of these concepts of dragons has anything to
do with pterosaur fossil finds," he does address our subject nicely on
pages 20-21.  He writes: "Ancient notions of dragons suggest they had a
snake-like body, two legs and bat wings.  A second pair of legs was not
added until the 16th century."  He cites <Smith, G.E., 1919, _The Evolution
of the Dragon_, London>.

Wellnhofer cites <Abel, O., 1939, _Vorzeeitliche Tierreste im Deutschen
Mythus, Brauchtum und Volksglauben_, Jena> for the claim that the head of
the dragon depicted in the 16th century Lindwurm Monument in Klagenfurt,
Austria was "based on the skull of an ice age woolly rhinoceros which had
been found in 1335 near the town, and (was) taken to be the skull of a
dragon that lived nearby."

The Viennese paleontologist Othenio Abel suggested that father Athanasius
Kircher's 1678 illustration of Winkelried slaying the dragon of Wyler,
Switzerland in the book, _Mundus Subterraneus_ (the world below the Earth)
may have been influenced by "fossil reptile finds, possibly long-necked
plesiosaurs from the Jurassic strata of Wurtemberg," (quoted from
Wellnhofer).

Wellnhofer also points out that, even in our century, Chinese chemists have
sold the fossilized teeth of ancient mammals as "dragon teeth."

But back to our original question, I still think it doubtful that a
"feathered" dinosaur specimen gave rise to "feathered" dragon legends.  If
people could take a cave bear skull, a woolly rhinoceros skull, or a
plesiosaur skeleton and, with equal facility, reconstruct a dragon on any
one of these, I'm sure that our imaginative ancestors could apply any
adornments and integuments they felt comfortable with at the time.

It is our good fortune that we live in a time when we can state with some
confidence that small, fuzzy, flightless, bipedal "dragons" once roamed the
Earth.  Still, I can see no compelling reason to believe that
_Sinosauropteryx_ remains were discovered thousands of years ago by the
ancients, or that the flattened remains of these diminutive animals would
have caused such a stir in a time when their significance could have
scarcely been imagined, and thus I do not believe that such fossils
provided the inspiration for "feathered" dragons of myth.

Ralph Miller III <gbabcock@best.com> 

Nufsed!