Thursday, September 26, 2013

Creature of the Month: Dragons at the Gate by Micah Hanks

Dinosaurs, Myths and Mystery Beasts
It seemed like something right out of the movies, once Earl Rigney had focused his telescope on the distant sea-bound object. It had looked at first to be a large whale, but something just wasn’t right—the movement and behavior had seemed odd, and despite the passing of several minutes, the object in his view had not revealed anything akin to the expected waterspout a whale might produce.

Donning his telescope, Rigney, of Canterbury, England, peered through the lens to see, rather than a whale, something that more closely resembled a large crocodile swimming along the water’s surface. As amazing as Rigney’s apparent encounter with an unidentified marine monster had been, the very same year of 1993, though a little later in September, a similar animal resembling a gigantic crocodile would surface near a small vessel north of New Zealand along the Cook Islands, when a fisherman and his son became witnesses to this strange monster’s arrival. The men reportedly gave up their fishing endeavor once the monster, which they described as exceeding the size of a whale, made its presence known; but what was this gigantic, seemingly reptilian mystery beast?

Such tales have fueled myths that a particular variety of once-existent prehistoric animal, known today by paleontologists as the mosasaur, could still inhabit Earth’s oceans today. Mosasaurs, interestingly enough, were among the first prehistoric dinosaur-like beasts to be recovered from fossils, with the earliest fossilized mosasaur skull being uncovered at a limestone quarry near the Dutch city of Maastricht in the 1760s. Early interpretations of the creatures held that they were likely the remains of crocodiles or whales of some variety, before scientific evaluation would indeed determine that, while reptilian creatures by birth, these were nonetheless of a variety which no longer existed on our planet in modern times. While this remains the conventional scientific view toward such creatures, there have been the repeated stories of odd “monsters” inhabiting our seas that lead some to speculate as to whether such beasts might still swim amidst the known sea life in our oceans.

Such tales of “living dinosaurs” have indeed remained popular over the years, and they are hardly relegated only to the supposed existence in modern times of strange whale-tailed crocodilian beasts the likes of the mosasaur. Strangely, while they might be viewed with only spurious interest, at best, by the scientific community, there remain the unquestionably odd tales of dinosaur-like beasts seen not just in the more remote corners of the world today, but also those whose existence, if proven, would beg much more complex questions as to how such prehistoric beasts might have continued to thrive. Indeed, since the first discovery of reptilian fossils the likes of the mosasaurs, modern myths of the West have sought to include dragons and dinosaurs in the curious lineage of unexplained beasts which may still haunt the deep oceans—as well as the deep jungles—of our planet.

Ancient Peoples, Living Dragons
One earliest famous examples, drawing mostly from speculative mythology, that sought to question the line between mere myth, and living legend, has to do with a beast known in the Babylonian mušuššu (sometimes also called sirrush). This beast was a long-necked creature that was featured on the archway of the Ishtar gate, whose artist chose to depict it sometime during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, around the year 600 B.C. According to the deuterocanonical Biblical apocrypha, Bel and the Dragon, a large dragon-like beast “which they of Babylon worshipped” was said to exist in the temple of Bel. The legend holds that King Nebuchadnezzar, who greatly favored Bel above other deities, had the priests in Bel’s temple challenge the Hebrew prophet Daniel with this beast, taunting that if Daniel’s invisible God were indeed so mighty, to have him strike down this beast. In the end, the legend holds that Daniel overcame the monster with poison instead.

Returning again to the mušuššu’s reappearance in 1902 upon the Ishtar Gate, it’s discoverer at that time, a German archaeologist named Robert Koldewey, held to the interpretation of this beast as a real, living animal of some sort, which had perhaps existed at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s historical reign. Consistent in its depiction in Babylonian art throughout the centuries, mušuššu, Koldewey argued, had appeared alongside other creatures known to have existed. “[The] uniformity of its physiological conceptions,” Koldewey insisted, pointed to an actual creature of some kind, rather than one stemming solely from Babylonian myths.

Much like the controversy over whether a modern creature resembling a mosasoar were indeed a reptilian holdover from the past, or merely the misinterpretation of some exiting creature (a sperm whale, for example), there have been dissenting opinions on the identity of the mušuššu, just as well. German-American science writer and rocket enthusiast Willy Ley would put forth the theory that the mušuššu might actually have been a sivatherium, an extinct beast that resembled the modern day giraffe, which may have existed at least as recently as within the last 8,000 years, based on artistic renderings recovered from the dwellings of ancient peoples who populated the Sahara desert. However, in most Babylonian representations of the mušuššu, the beast is traditionally depicted with birdlike, feline, or reptilian feet, and a tongue flickering from the mouth much like that of a large snake. In etymological terms, the Sumerian “muš” certainly denotes a snake-like beast; thus, the full mušuššu term, if taken literally, would mean “reddish snake,” or perhaps something akin to “fierce” or “splendorous serpent” if interpreted more symbolically. Either way, it seems clear that the ancient Sumerians would have believed this animal to be a reptile of some variety.

Bulletproof Monsters in the Amazon?
A more explicit account, though not one that is particularly any more reliable that our study of the mušuššu, would allegedly transpire halfway across the world in the Peruvian jungles during a trip to Bogota, Columbia, as recorded by a man identified as Franz Hermann Schmidt. The story appeared in the January 11, 1911 edition of the New York Herald, claiming that Schmidt had been accompanying a Captain Rudolph Pfleng around the date of October 8, 1907, when the two had an encounter with a prehistoric beast while searching for gold along the Ariari River. Over the course of their journey, the travelers came to a lake that the guides had treated almost superstitiously; it was at this time that they beheld a strange creature, obstructed from full view by foliage, which Schmdt described thusly:

The head appeared over bushes ten feet tall. It was about the size of a beer keg and was shaped like that of a tapir, as if the snout was used for pulling things or taking hold of them. The eyes were small and dull and set in like those of an alligator. Despite the half dried mud we could see that the neck, which was very snakelike, only thicker in proportion, as rough knotted like an alligator's sides rather than his back.

Evidently the animal saw nothing odd in us, if he noticed us, and advanced till he was not more than one hundred and fifty feet away. We could see part of the body, which I should judge to have been eight or nine feet thick at the shoulders, if that word may be used, since there were no fore legs, only some great, heavy clawed flippers. The surface was like that of the neck. For a wonder the Indians did not bolt, but they seemed fascinated.

At this point, Schmidt’s compatriot Captain Pfleng began to fire on the creature from their boat, and as the guides joined in the melee, the armored beast appeared more or less unharmed, as it moved forward into the lake. Schmidt recalled seeing only glimpses of the creature’s body and tail, which he estimated to be close to 35 feet long, ending in a “heavy blunt tail with rough horny lumps.” The party was pursued briefly by the creature, from which they managed to escape by rounding an island.

Cryptozoologists have often looked at this story and noted, correctly, that little is known of this Franz Hermann Schmidt—if anything—beyond this incredible story he related in 1911. Much the same, the search for archival information about this “Captain Rudolph Pfleng” draws similar dead ends, with the exception of the countless retellings of the men’s harrowing Peruvian encounter together that continue to surface. So did either of these individuals actually ever exist, or is the entire story merely a tall tale?

It is related in the article that Schmidt was employed by the Hamburg-America Company, presumably an offshoot of the packet-delivery company founded in 1847 known widely as the Hamburg American Line (it also specifically states that Schmidt’s department was managed out of Manaos, Brazil). However, it should be noted that searches for genealogical records pertaining to a “Franz Hermann Schmidt” using online resources show only one decent potential match, with the full name of the individual listed as “Ewald William Franz Hermann Schmidt,” born December 4, 1847 in the Partille Municipality of Western Sweden. This Mr. Schmidt passed away in April 1928, also in Partille, suggesting that he may have lived in the region his entire life. Little else in terms of definitive information is given, and certainly no specific clues as to whether this could have been the same gold prospector who, along with an equally mysterious “Captain Pfleng”, had fought bulletproof monsters in the Amazon in ther early 1900s.

It is indeed curious that both Schmidt and Captain Pfleng, the latter described as a well known captain in his day, would remain so elusive in history outside the story of their shared adventure. Thus, while many cryptozoologists have noted that the story “bears a ring of truth,” in our estimation it is more likely a fanciful tale, and nothing more.

Reports of Modern Monsters
Still more curious reports of modern dinosaurs have continued to turn up, but not solely in the remote corners of the Earth. Noted crypto-historian Jerome Clark recounted the strange tale of a Mrs. Myrtle Snow of Colorado, who claimed several times throughout her life to have seen what she had taken to be living dinosaurs:

In a letter published in the August 22, 1982 issue of Empire Magazine, a Sunday supplement, Myrtle Snow of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, wrote that in May 1935, when she was three years old, she saw “five baby dinosaurs” near her hometown. A few months later a local farmer shot one after it took some of his sheep. “My grandfather took us to see it the next morning,” she said. “It was about seven feet tall, was gray, had a head like a snake, short front legs with claws that resembled chicken feet, large stout back legs and a long tail.”
But these were not her only sightings. There were two more: (1) “I saw another one in a cave in 1937, but it was dark green”; and (2) “On October 23, 1978, as I was returning from Chama, New Mexico, about 7:30 p.m., in a driving rain, I saw another one going through the field towards the place where I had seen the one in 1937.”

“How can one person have seen so many dinosaurs throughout the years?” asks researcher Paul Dale Roberts, who wrote about Snow’s dinosaur sightings in 2008. “I think there was something in the water at Pagosa Springs. This story is hard to chew,” he concludes, suggesting that such sightings are either hoaxes altogether, the “residual haunting effect of dinosaurs of the past,” or evidence of some creature that can traverse the boundaries between our dimension and theirs. “This would explain why no dinosaur has been shot and killed or captured,” he notes. “Many theorists think that Bigfoot is an interdimensional creature and that is why we cannot capture or kill a Bigfoot.”

Granted, we can no more prove that there is an interdimensional component to any of this than we can prove, to date, that actual living fossils still exist, the likes of which we’ve discussed here with repeated alleged sightings of “dinosaurs” in the modern world. To end on a somewhat personal note, like the hopeful attitude of primatologist Jane Goodall, who said of Bigfoot that she is “a romantic, so I always wanted them to exist,” perhaps there is an element deep within all of us that remains equally fascinated with the possibility that dinosaurs could still exist also. With this hope, perhaps there is the comparatively less-likely possibility that in the world’s least explored regions, there just might actually be dinosaurs, or something like them, which remains on Earth even today. Rather than actual dinosaurs, my money would be simply on undiscovered species which might match the qualifications of their scaly ancestry, to some degree; however, either possibility, if ever proven, would be of equal importance, and would nonetheless bolster some of the claims that have surfaced over the years with regard to claims of human interactions with dragons, dinosaurs, and other beasts of epochs past.

Micah Hanks is a writer, researcher, lecturer, and radio personality whose work addresses a variety of scientific concepts and unexplained phenomena. Over the last decade, his research has examined a variety of approaches to studying the unexplained, cultural phenomena, human history, and the prospects of our technological future as a species as influenced by science.

He is author of several books, including Magic, Mysticism and the Molecule, Reynolds Mansion: An Invitation to the Past, and his 2012 New Page Books release, The UFO Singularity. Hanks is an editor for Intrepid Magazine, and consulting editor/contributor for FATE Magazine and The Journal of Anomalous Sciences. He writes for a variety of other publications, and produces a weekly podcast, The GralienReport, which follows his research.

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