Th’old Dragon under ground
In straiter limits bound,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And wrath to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail.
And wrath to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail.
—John Milton, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
The Dragon is the primordial and archetypal monster of Western mythology. Dragons rule each of the four Elements: there are wingless cave Dragons, flying Dragons, sea Dragons and fire-breathing Dragons. Males are called “drakes,” and females, “queens.” All have been depicted in occidental legend as ancient, ferocious, and terrifying reptiles, symbolic of the raw, untamable, even hostile power of Nature. Dragons are intelligent, crafty, cruel, and greedy. They have a passion for collecting vast hoards of treasure: gold, jewels, arms, and fabulous relics. These they pile together and sleep upon, guarding them jealously, as with Smaug in The Hobbit.
Fix. 1. Smaug by the Brothers Hildebrandt
Dragons know the speech of all living creatures (including humans), and a drop of Dragon’s blood tasted by the Teutonic hero Siegfried enabled him to understand the language of birds and animals. Possessing strong individual personalities, Dragons have distinctive and magickal names that give power to those who learn them. Such names as Fafnir, Vermithrax, Draco, Kalessin, and Smaug have been given to Dragons in stories. But Velociraptor, Tyrannosaurus rex, Carnotaurus, Deinonychus, and Spinosaurus are other Dragon names in Greek.
Winged Dragons are of two basic types: the four-legged variety, with additional wings like those of bats, or fins supported on extended ribs; and the two-legged Wyvern, whose bat-like wings are formed from its forelimbs. These bear such a striking resemblance to prehistoric pterodactyls that they invite speculation as to the survival of such creatures into historic times. There have been some excellent flying Dragons in movies. Dragonslayer (1981) depicted a Wyvern, and Dragonheart (1996) featured the four-legged variety. Smaug the terrible in The Hobbit has been depicted both ways in illustrations and movies.
Fig. 2. Vermithrax Pejorative from the movie Dragonslayer
Although Dragons are considered to be the quintessential creatures of myth and fantasy, they should not be thought of as purely imaginary. In fact, the legends of Dragons have many firm bases in actual animals, both living and extinct (or at least, commonly presumed so).
Certainly the first true Dragons were the prehistoric monsters that English paleontologist Richard Owen decided in 1842 to call Dinosaurs (meaning “terrible reptiles”). He could just as well have chosen the term Dragons, as this is what they had been called for millennia—and what they are called today by Chinese paleontologists. Ranging in size from no bigger than a chicken to more than 100 feet long and upward of 100 tons (Argentosaurus), they held undisputed reign over the entire Earth for 150 million years, until nearly their entire Order (Archosauria—“ruling reptiles”) was exterminated 65 million years ago in a great cataclysm. Their immense fossilized bones have provided indisputable confirmation, throughout the brief span of human existence, that real Dragons once walked the Earth.
Fig. 3. Allosaurus skeleton in rock
Perhaps the most intriguing example of this is a 6th century BCE Corinthian vase in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which portrays a monster with what is very obviously a dinosaur skull as a head.1 Similarly, other monsters of legend, such as Gryphons and Cyclopes, have been identified as being based upon fossilized remains of actual prehistoric beasts—such as Protoceratops and mammoths.
Fig. 4. Dino/dragon on 6th century BCE Corinthian vase
But such powerful spirits and intelligences that had existed for so long are not simply exterminated overnight. Just as the long-gone Elves and Little People live on as spirit-beings of Faerie, so the souls of Dragons continue their ancient lineage in the Dragonlands of the Dreaming, holding sway, in our collective memories, over the entire span of mammalian existence.2
Fig 5. Mokêle-M’Bêmbe
And perhaps some dinodragons still survive even today. From the time of the earliest European explorations of “darkest Africa,” rumors and reports of living dinosaurs have continually trickled out from the vast equatorial swamps of the Congo River basin. Referred to in fearful tones by various local names, monsters such as Mokêle-M’Bêmbe, Chipekwe, Emela-Ntouka, and Muhuru are variously described as having thick crocodilian tails, long necks, horns, back plates, and/or fierce teeth and claws. All of these are familiar descriptions of dinosaurs, and natives shown pictures of those ancient beasts readily identify them as their own local monsters.
Fig. 6. Sta or Mafadet from Egypt
Additional evidence comes from some of the earliest depictions of Dragons in ancient civilizations—such as the Sta or Mafadet of Egypt, and the famed Sirrush, or “Dragon of Ishtar,” depicted on the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon and dating from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar the Great (605–562 bce). Also called Mushrush or Mušhuššu, this may very well have been the same “living dragon” featured in the Book of Daniel, who purportedly killed it (Daniel, 14:23–27). Was this, perhaps, a Mokêle-M’Bêmbe, brought to Babylon as a tribute from an African ruler?
Fig. 7. Sirrush from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon
Although dinosaurs and their fossilized remains certainly provide a solid basis for the existence of true Dragons in the ancient past (and possibly even in some lost world in the swamps of Africa), fossilized dino bones cannot account for the many historical reports of Dragons in European history—such as the Dragon of Wantley, the Lambton Wurm, or the Dragon slain by St. George. I believe that many of these represent true encounters with monstrous invertebrate beasts (essentially, giant aquatic slugs) that today we generically call Lake-Monsters. At least this explanation would fit those accounts in which the Dragon is called a Worm or Orm. For a more detailed discussion of such creatures—and my theory on their zoological identification—see my previous “Creature of the Month” article on “Lake Monsters.”
Fig. 8. Typical lake Monster by OZ
Living Dragon Lizards
Although modern representations of Dragons invariably embellish them with great, bat-like wings, this is not how they were depicted throughout most of human history. From ancient times through the Middle Ages, Dragons were most commonly described as either gigantic lizards or enormous serpents—often with little distinction between the two. Indeed, as many of the preceding entries amply attest, virtually any large reptilian creature—aquatic, terrestrial, or amphibious—was automatically considered to be a Dragon by definition.
Certainly the first and most striking example of a living Dragon encountered by European explorers was Egypt’s gigantic Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), which often attains lengths of more than 20 feet. Even bigger is the estuarine or saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the largest of all living reptiles. Normally confined to Indonesia, they are known to reach an astounding 30 feet in length, and prehistoric crocs were even bigger! Some of the classic representations of Dragons are clearly crocodiles.
Fig. 9. Australian saltwater crocodile
Then there is the famous Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), a giant monitor lizard, also of Indonesia. It attains a length of 6–10 feet and weighs up to 365 pounds, and has a long, yellow, forked tongue that it flickers in and out like a flame. A much larger prehistoric version of this huge reptile was Megalania (Varanus prisca), which measured 15–20 feet long and weighed 1,000–1,300 pounds. This is certainly a true living Dragon by anyone’s criteria!
Fig. 10. Megalania (Varanus priscus) by i pierwsi mieszkancy
Although Megalania is believed to have been extinct for 40,000 years (since the arrival of humans in Sunderland/Indonesia), sightings of living specimens are occasionally reported from Australia and New Guinea. In 1979, one was spotted by scientist Frank Gordon, who mistook it for a log before it moved off. Aborigines have legends of a giant lizard called Mungoongalli, which is certainly the same animal. Recently, part of a Megalania hipbone only 100–200 years old was discovered in a subfossil state.
Real Flying Dragons
But as impressive as they are, gigantic lizards and crocodiles don’t have wings. So how did our conceptions of Dragons acquire the wings that now seem so integral to their anatomy?
Fig. 11. Pterosaurs
Certainly, there have been mighty leather-winged Dragons in the paleontological record. The first vertebrates to evolve true flight, Pterosaurs (“winged reptiles”) ruled the Mesozoic skies from 228–65 million years ago. They ranged from the size of a sparrow (Anurognathus) to giants with wingspans of up to 40 feet (Quetzalcoatlus northropi and Hatzegopteryx thambema). In the terminology of medieval Dragonlore, these would be called Wyverns, a term for quadrupedal Dragons whose front limbs, like those of bats, supported their wing membranes.
Fig. 12. Wyvern
But what then of the hexapod Dragon of popular fantasy—with four legs and two bat-like wings? There have been no hexapod vertebrates in all of Earth’s evolutionary history, so surely such a creature must be impossible, right? Well, don’t bet on it.
The Genus Draco (“dragon”) contains two dozen species of pretty little flying agamid lizards, such as Draco volens. Only 7–9 inches long, they are found in the rainforests and rubber plantations of Madagascar, India, Southeast Asia, and throughout Indonesia. They have been recorded gliding up to 164 feet from tree to tree on membranous wings supported by extended movable ribs.
Fig. 13. Draco volens
In the 12th century, the first Europeans began traveling over the ancient Silk Road through Afghanistan to India. They returned with spices, travelers’ tales, and small wonders. Among these were the mummified bodies of what traders claimed to be baby Dragons. And surely they could not be doubted as such—for they had fin-like wings growing from their sides. It didn’t take much imagination for artists and compilers of bestiaries to envision what the vastly enlarged adults of these “infant” Dragons must have looked like. And thus was born the image and conception of the winged Dragon so beloved by us to this very day. Take a closer look at many of the early depictions of winged Dragons, however, and you will see their true origins in these actual lizards which bear their name.
Fig. 14. Medieval fin-winged dragon by Edward Topsell (1607)
Triassic Flying Dragons
In 1960, three teenage boys in New Jersey discovered the fossil of a 7-inch-long flying lizard with ribbed wings with a 10-inch wingspan, in 200-million-year-old deposits of the late Triassic. It was appropriately named Icarosaurus, after Icarus of Greek myth, who flew too close to the sun on feathered wings held together with wax.
Fig. 15. Icarosaurus siefkeri
A similar Triassic rib-winged lizard, Kuehneosaurus, was about 2 feet long, with a 2-foot wingspan. And a Chinese version, Xianglong zhaoi, dates from the lower Cretaceous, 125 million years ago. Yet another was Koeruroraurabusu. Like Draco, these ancient antecedents could spread their wings for gliding flight, or fold them alongside their bodies. 3
Fig. 16. Kuehneosaurus
Fig. 17. Xianglong zhaoi
Fig. 18. Koeruroraurabusu
But the most fascinating discovery in the annals of dragonlore was a 250-million-year-old Upper Permian fossil found in a German copper mine in 1910. Its morphology was reinterpreted in 1997 when a complete skeleton was purchased by the Karlsruhe Museum from amateur fossil hunters.4 The 12-inch-long lizard with a flaring head crest, Coelurosauravus, is the oldest known flying vertebrate, with wings unlike those of any other animal. Rather than being supported by internal skeletal elements such as limbs or ribs, its fanlike wing membranes were supported by independent bony rods extending outward and back from each side of the creature’s chest and behind its forelegs—much like the wings of a flying fish. Think of it—millions of years before fishes, birds, pterosaurs, or bats took to the air, the first vertebrate flyers were four-legged reptiles with finlike wings!
Fig. 19. Coelurosauravus jaekeli
And in June of 2007, an even more remarkable Triassic flying reptile was discovered in a quarry on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Named Mechistotrachelos aperos (“soaring and long-necked”), the 10-inch-long lizard had fanlike functional wings like those of Coelurosauravus, and also a long neck just as Dragons are usually shown to possess.5 That just has to be the coolest lizard ever!
Fig. 20. Mechistotrachelos aperos
We can only imagine an alternative paleontology where the great Triassic extinction event never happened, and creatures such as Icarosaurus, Kuehneosaurus, Xianglong, Koeruroraurabusu, Coelurosauravus and Mechistotrachelos continued to evolve over another 250 million years, giving rise to larger and larger forms. Surely their descendants would be the very image of our cherished conception of flying Dragons. Indeed, this was precisely the premise behind Discovery Channel’s delightful 2005 “mockumentary:” Dragon’s World: A Fantasy Made Real.
Fig. 21. Dragonheart movie DVD cover
Monster Movies: Dragons
As the most popular of all fabulous creatures, Dragons have been featured in far more movies than any other mythical monsters. Here is a listing of some of them, in chronological order:
The Sword and the Dragon (Russian, 1956)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Ray Harryhausen, 1958)
Sleeping Beauty (Disney animated, 1959)
Goliath and the Dragon (1960)
The Magic Sword (1962)
Jason and the Argonauts (Ray Harryhausen, 1963)
The Hobbit (animated, 1977)
Pete’s Dragon (Disney animated, 1977)
Dragonslayer (1981): Wyvern
Clash of the Titans (1981): Hydra
The Flight of Dragons (animated, 1982)
Q—The Winged Serpent (1981): Amphitere
Lair of the White Worm (1988): Orm
Willow (1988): Orm
Jack the Giant Killer (1994)
The Pagemaster (animated 1995)
Hercules (Disney animated, 1997): Hydra
Mulan (Disney animated, 1998)
Quest for Camelot (animated, 1998)
Dragon World II: The Legend Continues (1999)
Jason and the Argonauts (TV, 2000)
Dragonheart II: A New Beginning (2000)
Dungeons & Dragons (2000)
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Shrek (Disney animated, 2001)
Reign of Fire (2002)
Shrek II (Disney animated, 2004)
George and the Dragon (TV, 2004)
Earthsea (TV, 2004)
Dragon Storm (TV, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Hercules (TV, 2005): Hydra
Dungeons & Dragons II: Wrath of the Dragongod (2005)
Dragon’s World: A Fantasy Made Real (TV, 2005)
The Cave (2005): Subterranean Wyverns
King of the Lost World (2005)
Final Fantasy: Advent Children (2005)
Dragon Wars (South Korean, 2007)
Fire & Ice: The Dragon Chronicles (2008)
How to Train Your Dragon (animated, 2010)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (2011)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
How to Train Your Dragon II (animated, 2014)
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)
Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer's Curse (2015)
Godzilla (dozens of films from 1954 on)
The Neverending Story (1984)
Mulan (Disney animated 1998)
Dragonheart II: A New Beginning (2000)
Saiyuki (50-episode anime series, 2000–2001)
Spirited Away (Miyazaki anime, 2001)
Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa (anime, 2005)
1. Mayor, Adrienne, The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Princeton University Press, 2011
2. Sagan, Carl, The Dragons of Eden, Random House, 1977
3. White, T. H., The Book of Beasts, J.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1954; Dover Publications, 1984
4. Wilford, John Noble, “Before Birds, a Weird way to Fly,” New York Times, March 11, 19975. Perkins, S., “Winged Dragon,” Science News, June 23, 2007