The True History of Dragons In Europe
Are the legends of fire-breathing beasts truly based in reality or are they purely a creation spawned from our human minds? Did they ever soar through the skies, destroying cities in a sea of fiery breath or were they merely ripped from the pages of books? And how have these legendary mythological creatures evolved over time? These are just a few of the questions we hope to answer by delving into the history of dragons.
Folklorists believe that the image of the dragon we know today evolved from two separate traditions, namely the European dragon (from early Balkans and Western Asian mythologies) and the Chinese dragon. It’s interesting to note that while these two images evolved separately over time (when there was little to no communication between the two populations) they have influenced each other to a certain degree. Today we will be focusing on the European dragon, most often depicted in art as a fearsome reptilian creature with four legs and a set of wings.
When Did Stories Of Dragons First Appear?
It’s difficult to say for certain when the first story about a dragon was told because it probably occurred before man started to write. What we do know is that a fearsome fire-breathing dragon-fanged beast was described in the Epic of Gilgamesh – one of the earliest surviving great works of literature from Mesopotamia. This epic poem was inscribed on stone tablets and has been dated from the Third Dynasty of Ur; around 2100 BC. In it, the hero Gilgamesh played the part of the dragon-slayer.
Tales and stories of huge, flying beasts were also recorded by the ancient Greeks as well as the Sumerians.
Dragons After The Introduction of Christianity
Throughout the ages dragons were thought of like other exotic animals; sometimes harmful and dangerous and at other times protective and even useful. But as new found Christianity began to spread across the globe the image of dragons slowly began to change. The church used dragons as a representation of the ultimate form of evil; Satan, and by medieval times most people knew about dragons from the
Bible. It’s likely that people who lived during these times believed that dragons were real as a monster described in the Book of Job closely resembled a dragon with fiery breath.
The age-old the story of man vs dragon was told again, but this time the conquerors were godly saints who vanquished Satan in the form of dragons. They created legends about these battles, the most celebrated of which was the tale of St. George the Dragon Slayer who protected himself with the sign of the cross and killed a terrible dragon which had threatened a town. The townsfolk were so impressed by his faith and bravery that they all converted to Christianity.
Here Be Dragons
In medieval times, early cartographers used the illustrations of dragons on maps to denote areas that were still unexplored or very dangerous. This did not evidence that dragons had actually been reported in these areas, rather it was a warning to travelers about dangers or the unknown. They also used depictions of sea monsters and other mythological creatures.
Why Did People Believe That Dragons Were Real?
In the modern age with smart phone camera’s and satellite imagery, few people believe in the literal existence of dragons but this was not always the case. It’s likely that most people in the middle ages believed that these beasts were very real because they read about them in the Bible. Today, however, it is simply implausible that any giant winged creature could be flying around without being noticed and recorded. But for hundreds of years ancient people unearthed giant bones from the ground and without any knowledge of dinosaurs, the only way that they could be explained was by the existence of dragons.
Which Animals Might Have Inspired Dragons?
Dragons are one of the world’s most popular mythological creatures, but they might have been inspired by real life animals. Skeletons of whales and dinosaurs could have been mistaken for dragons in the old world and be even labeled as such by our ancestors. Adrienne Mayor, an acclaimed folklorist/historian, and author wrote about the subject of fossils as inspirations for myths in her a book called The First Fossil Hunters stating, “Fossil remains generated a variety of geomyths speculating on the creatures' identity and cause of their destruction. Many ancient cultures, from China and India to Greece, America, and Australia, told tales of dragons, monsters, and giant heroes..."
It’s also speculated that spitting cobras may have been the inspiration for the earliest origins of the dragon myth. Nile crocodiles, who in ancient times swam across the Mediterranean sea into Southern Europe may have also added to the persona of the dragon we know today.
The Komodo dragon, a large species of lizard found in the Indonesian islands, was first recorded by Western scientists in 1910, but before that tales of this massive lizard suggested that it might have been a descendant of the mythological dragon. Today this giant carnivore is the largest living species of lizard and can grow to be over 10ft in length and weigh in at close to 150lbs.
The Wonderful World Of Dragons
Even though we know that dragons don’t exist in the real world they are certainly alive and well in our collective mind. Tales of dragons are present in many cultures, spanning the globe; from America to Europe to China. Through writing, art, and film we have captured the stories of hundreds of dragons and this looks set to continue well into the future. Books like the Hobbit, Harry Potter, and A Song of Fire and Ice have kept these smoky beasts fresh in our imagination and today dragons are no longer demonized as evil creatures. Today’s depictions of dragons are still fierce, but we have granted some of them human emotion, reasoning skills in order to make them more relatable and sometimes even friendly.
Dragons have been around for millennia and unlike other mythological creatures whose popularity has diminished with time, the demand for dragons is probably now stronger than ever before. But how their image will evolve over time remains to be seen – what will our idea of a dragon look like in a thousand years from now?
References: Wikipedia.com Livescience.com
Guest Author, Jessica B.