Almost every culture on earth has its own ancient dragon myth. But where did the myth of the dragon come from in the first place? How could so many dragon stories have hatched independently, from every corner of the world?
Today we know that hair-raising tales of winged fire-breathers were actually inspired by real animals, albeit with some creative embellishments along the way. Many of these myths began in a time when magic and reality lived in harmony, and there was no reason for people to doubt the existence of these mythical beasts. Scholars have speculated for years about which real-life animals inspired the first dragon legends throughout the world. Here’s a run-down of the most likely culprits:
Africa: Nile Crocodiles
Imagine you are an ancient Egyptian paddling down the Nile river, going about your ancient Egyptian business, when suddenly an enormous Crocodile emerges from the water alongside your boat. Would you say, “Oh, here is Crocodylus Niloticus, the largest freshwater predator in Africa.”…?
You would likely relate your experience to what is already familiar to you: legends and stories of fantastical creatures. You would recount the tale of your harrowing experience around the fire that night – maybe you’d add a little color for effect, like how you bravely escaped the beast’s glistening teeth as it “flew” out of the water. After all, it’s these little embellishments that make for better stories, don’t they?
The tale would then be copied and spread repeatedly around fires near and far, sometimes for centuries – the ancient equivalent of going viral – until it became ingrained in the public mind as truth. Historians believe that the Nile Crocodile and its reptilian cousins inspired dragon myths in a similar fashion throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Oceans: Whales and other sea creatures
“HIC SUNT DRACONES.”
“Here are dragons.” This ominous Latin warning, etched in the waters off the eastern coast of Asia on a 1504 ostrich egg globe, still echoes through the centuries. Images of mythological beasts were actually a fairly common sight on early maps, especially in lightly-explored ocean regions where sailors would need to be warned of the dangers of trespassing these unkown waters.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that oceanic animals were completely unknown to humans. Imagine that the first time you learned of sharks’ existence on earth was when you saw one alongside your ship. Or the first time you laid eyes on a creature as large as a whale was when you happened upon its enormous body washed up on the beach.
As you told the story of what you witnessed, both at home and in the faraway lands to which you sailed, the shark would evolve into a blood-thirsty monster. The dead whale would become an amphibious dragon lying in wait for hapless sailors. And the more these stories circulated, the more likely people would assume that the unknown creature they just encountered in the water must have been a dragon, too.
Asia and the Americas: Dinosaur fossils
You’re an ancient farmer. As you’re tilling your field one warm spring afternoon, your shovel hits something hard. Curious, you start digging.
A collection of bones begin to emerge from the scooped-away dirt. Soon, a skeleton forms – one that spans the length of your field – with teeth as long as your forearm and a skull as long as a man is tall. How could it NOT be the bones of a dragon, maybe – no – definitely slain long ago in an epic battle? And the stories begin…
Of course, we know today that these massive bones belong to a prehistoric animal. But in ancient times, people truly believed that fossils were the remains of dragons from an earlier age, which perpetuated dragon stories even more. In fact, Chinese historian Chang Qu mislabeled a dinosaur fossil as a dragon in what is now the Sichuan Province, as early as the 4th century B.C!
For millennia, humans in every civilization on earth have shared a collective, instinctual fear of snakes. Scholars believe that this is why dragons throughout the world are often depicted as reptilian, fire-breathing (venomous) creatures with long serpentine bodies, elongated necks, and terrifying fangs.
Coincidence? Or, more likely, did this gruesome image help our ancestors quickly identify a snake if one ever came close, so they could make their escape just a little bit quicker and ensure survival for one more day?
As historians have pointed out, the dragons of Europe are more upright than their Asian cousins, with four legs and a body like a mammalian predator. Maybe it’s no coincidence that in the middle ages, wolves prowled many regions of Europe – triggering ancient predatory fears and earning the notoriety of mythological dragons.
In fact, in 1632 it was believed that a lone wolf killed up to 30 people in the forests of Caen, France. Survivors described it as huge in size, with red fur and fearsome fangs. Eventually, locals organized a large-scale hunt involving over 5000 men, and after a 3-day pursuit, the shepherd’s foe was finally slain. Sound similar to legendary stories of dragon slaying?
Given these accounts and others, it isn’t so surprising that the idea of the dragon – with deadly scales, wings, and fangs – has had the power to capture our imaginations for thousands of years – through survival if nothing else. Which leads us to…
…Our November giveaway!
Provident Metals is proud to bring dragon myths to life in our new, EXCLUSIVE World of Dragons series of 1 oz silver and copper rounds! The first design in this exciting 6-design series celebrates one of the earliest recorded dragon myths in history. The Aztec Dragon.
Our question for you this month is: What dragon myths would you like to see in future releases?
Commenting below will serve as your entry for our November giveaway. Submit your comment (one only please) by November 30, and one winner will be randomly selected on November 30th to receive the following: a 1 oz Silver Aztec Dragon round, a 1 oz Copper Dragon round, a 1 oz Silver Aztec Calendar Round, and a 1 oz Copper Aztec Calendar round! Good luck!
*(Inappropriate or duplicate comments will be deleted and disqualified)