Are dragons real creatures?

a) Are dragons real creatures – based on dinosaurs?

Golden yellow dragon with wings spread - Are dragons real?

There are a lot of references to dragons in story books and historical records, but are dragons real?
The World Book Encyclopedia states:

The dragons of legend are strangely like actual creatures that have lived in the past.
They are much like the great reptiles which inhabited the earth long before man is supposed to have appeared on earth.
Dragons were generally evil and destructive.
Every country had them in its mythology.”

The World Book Encyclopedia [i]

These creatures could be based on:

  • real, living dinosaurs that are described correctly, or
  • they have been described with the combined features of several dinosaurs, or
  • they may be based on a real dinosaur with additional exaggerations.

b) Are dragons real based on evidence in Historiae Animalium by Aristotle:

Aristotle 384–322 BC has two rather tentative references which on their own would not constitute solid evidence that dragons were real and living at the time this was written.
These references are below:

The sheat-fish is destroyed in great quantities in shallow waters by the serpent called the dragon.” p. 380

The dragon, when it eats fruit, swallows endive-juice;  it has been seen in the act.” p. 412

Aristotle [ii]

There is a third reference which appears to be talking about a fish known as the dragon, so this is no evidence for the existence of dragons.
Incidentally the fish wouldn’t have been the dragon fish of today which is found in warm Indo-Pacific waters. [iii]

The following fishes are found near into shore—the synodon, the black bream, the merou,  the gilthead, the mullet, the red mullet, the wrasse, the weaver (The name weaver is said to be wyvern , i.e. dragon*), the calli- onymus, the goby, and rock-fishes of all kinds.”

Aristotle p. 366 (* Books own foot note).

c) Are dragons real based on evidence in Historia Animalium by Conrad Gessner

Pencil drawings of three dragons in Historia Animalium.
Pencil drawings of three dragons in Historia Animalium.

This European scientific book by Conrad Gessner 1516–1565 listed a lot of his own detailed, accurate, personal studies on animals.
He does include dragon stories that he had heard, including ones that sound plausible, but many other stories are of fantastical beasts along with Greek mythology.
I will start with the more plausible references:

When a Dragon was setting upon Orpheus, as he was occupied in hawking by his Dogs his life was saved, and the Dragon devoured.”

Conrad Gessner p.125 [iv]

And concerning Marcus Atilius Regulus living about 307 BC to 250 BC a Roman statesman and general he wrote:

Dragons are certain great beasts, and there are none greater upon the earth.
Neither is it to be thought incredible, that the soldiers of Attilius Regulus did kill a Dragon which was a hundred and twenty foot long…”

Conrad Gessner p.704

In talking about Panthers he does mention a dragon:

They use not to invade or force upon flocks of Sheep or Goats, yet wheresoever they see a Dog, they instantly kill and devour him.
The great Panther is a terror to the Dragon, and so soon as the Dragon seeth it, he flyeth to his cave.
The lesser Panthers or Leopards do overcome Wolves…”

Conrad Gessner p. 452
Elephant drawing in Historia Animalium.
Elephant drawing in Historia Animalium.

Talking about elephants (unknown to most readers then), he wrote that their ears and eyes were very small and out of proportion, he compares it to more well known creatures like a bat and dragon! (I’m not sure about him saying that an elephants ears are small! He does include a woodcut picture of an elephant – which has got normal sized ears.)

Their head is very great, and the head of a man may easily enter into their mouth, as a finger into the mouth of a Dog, but yet their ears and eyes are not equivalent to the residue of their proportion: for they are small like the wings of a Bat or a Dragon.”

Conrad Gessner p. 150

Again talking about elephants, this time mothers with their calves:

Sometimes they go into the water to the belly, and there calve for fear of the Dragon – the male never forsaketh her, but keepeth with her for the like fear of the Dragon, and feed and defend their young ones with singular love and constancy unto death.”

Conrad Gessner p. 155

And further on:

There is a Bird called Captilus, which is a great devourer of Kids and Lambs, and the same also is hunted by a Dragon, for when she hath filled her self with these Beasts, being wearied and idle, the Dragon doth easily set upon her and overtake her.”

Conrad Gessner p. 197

On various occasions the dragon is spoken of as a living creature that hunts quite large prey.

Parts of his book moves further away from his own scientific findings to hearsay and what others have written and includes Greek mythology and fantastical creatures.

A Serpent, a Snake doth easily kill a Lion, where of Ambrosius writeth very elegantly;
The splendant beauty of a Lion in his long curled mane is quickly abated and allayed when the Serpent doth but lift up his head to his breast;
for such is the ordinance of God, that the Snake which runneth from a fearful heart, should without all fear kill a courageous Lion…”

Conrad Gessner p. 362

For this dubious magical potion a real dragon was on the ingredients:

the Magicians prescribed this composition, to make a man invincible;
the tail and head of a Dragon, the hairs of a Lions fore-head, and the marrow of his bones…”

Conrad Gessner p. 376

Here Conrad Gessner cites a lengthy tale:

The Chroniclers of the affairs of Chius do write, that in a certain Valley near to the foot of the Mountain Pelleneus, was a Valley full of straight tall trees, wherein was bred a Dragon of wonderful magnitude or greatness, whose only voice or hisling, did terrify all the Inhabitants of Chius, and therefore there was no man that durst come nigh unto him…
For it happened on a time that such a violent wind did arise, as did beat together all the Trees in the Wood, by which violent condition the branches fell to be on fire,
and so all the Wood was burned suddenly, compassing the Dragon, whereby he had no means to escape alive, & so the trees fell down upon him and burned him.
Afterward, when the fire had made the place bare of wood, the Inhabitants might see the quantity of the Dragon, for they found many of his bones and his head, which were of such unusual greatness, as did sufficiently confirm them in their former opinion…”

Conrad Gessner p. 703
Dragon statue
Dragon statue [v]

Here is a long description he copied from another source:

Of the Indian Dragons there are also said to be two kinds, one of them fenny (of the fens), and living in the marshes, which are slow of pace and without combs on their heads like females:
the other in the Mountains, which are more sharp and great, and have combs upon their head, their backs being somewhat brown, and all their bodies less scaly then the other.
When they come down from the Mountains into the plain to hunt, they are neither afraid of marshes nor violent waters, but thrust themselves greedily into all hazards and dangers:
and because they are of longer and stronger bodies than the Dragons of the fens, they beguile them of their meat, and take away from them their prepared booties.
Some of them are of a yellowish fiery colour, having also sharp backs like saws; these also have beards, and when they set up their scales they shine like silver.
The apples of their eyes are precious stones, and as bright as fire, in which there is affirmed to be much virtue against many diseases, and therefore they bring unto the Hunters and killers of Dragons no small gain, besides the profit of their skin, and their teeth: and they are taken when they descend from the Mountains into the Valleys to hunt the Elephants, so as both of them are killed together by the Hunters.
Their members are very great, like unto the members of the greatest Swine, but their bodies are leaner, flexibly turning to every side, according to the necessity of motion;
Their snouts are very strong, resembling the greatest ravening Fishes; they have beards of a yellow golden colour, being full of bristles: and the Mountain-dragons commonly have more deep eye-lids then the Dragon of the Fens.
Their aspect is very fierce and grim, and whensoever they move upon the earth, their eyes give a sound from their eye lids, much like unto the tinkling of Brass, and sometimes they boldly venture into the Sea and take Fishes”

Conrad Gessner p. 705

Here Conrad Gessner has a section about Winged dragons:

Drawing of winged dragon in Historia Animalium.
Drawing of winged dragon in Historia Animalium.

There be some Dragons which have wings and no feet, some again have both feet and wings, and some neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished from these common sort of Serpents by the comb growing upon their heads, and the beard under their cheeks.
Saint Augustine saith, that Dragons abide in deep Caves and hollow places of the earth, and that sometimes when they perceive moistness in the air, they come out of their holes, & beating the air with their wings, as it were with the strokes of Oars,
they forsake the earth and fly aloft; which wings of theirs are of a skinny substance, and very voluble, and spreading themselves wide, according to the quantity and largeness of the Dragons body…”

Conrad Gessner p. 705

And more winged dragons:

The Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Georgia, once called Media, do say that in their Valleys there are many Dragons which have both wings and feet, and that their feet are like unto the feet of Geese.
Besides, there are Dragons of sundry colours, for some of them are black, some red, some of anash (?) colour, some yellow, and their shape and outward appearance very beautiful, according to the verses of Nicander.”

Conrad Gessner p. 705

Conrad Gessner’s writings are a mixture of very detailed accurate studies of his own, mixed with passed down myths.

So after reading this book I am left feeling that huge chunks are pure myth with fantastical creatures, whilst other sections leave me feeling convinced that there were dragons.

d) Are dragons real based on other evidence:

The Vikings carved dragons as their figure heads on the front of their ships.
Why did they do that and why was it recognisable as a dragon all over the world?
Surely it must have been based on something that was real, or something that had lived at some point?

The supreme Viking ship was the longship or ‘drakkar’ often called a ‘dragon ship’ because of it’s prow which was decorated with a carving of a dragon’s head.”

Exploring the Vikings [vi]

The story of Beowulf includes a fight with a fire-breathing dragon:

Had come close enough to touch its scaly Head and yet lived, as it lifted its cavernous Jaws…
It could fly burning across the land, killing
And destroying with its breath…
Vomiting fire and smoke, the dragon
Burned down their homes…
Beowulf… he raised his sword
And struck at the dragon’s scaly hide.
The ancient blade broke, bit into
The monster’s skin, drew blood, but cracked
And failed him before it went deep enough, helped him
Less than needed. The dragon leaped
With pain, thrashed and beat at him, spouting
Murderous flames…
Wiglaf jumped
Behind Beowulf’s shield; his own was burned
To ashes. Then lifted…
his ancient sword, and swung it
With all his strength, smashed the gray
Blade into the beast’s head…
Then the monster charged again, vomiting
Fire, wild with pain, rushed out
Fierce and dreadful, its fear forgotten.
Watching for its chance it drove its tusks
Into Beowulf’s neck; he staggered…
Wiglaf showed courage…
By striking lower down. The sword
Sank in; his hand was burned, but shining
Blade had done its work, the dragon’s
Belching flames began to flicker…

The story of Beowulf [vii]

Wikipedia describes the poem as:

This depiction indicates the growing importance and stabilisation of the modern concept of the dragon within European mythology.
Beowulf is the first piece of English literature to present a dragon-slayer.
Although many motifs common to the Beowulf dragon existed in the Scandinavian and Germanic literature, the Beowulf poet was the first to combine features and present a distinctive fire-breathing dragon.”

Wikipedia [viii]

Ulysses Aldrovandus heard that a peasant had killed a small dragon in northern Italy.
So he got the carcass of the dragon, and put it in a museum.
He wrote:

The dragon was first seen on May 13, 1572, hissing like a snake.
He had been hiding on the small estate of Master Petronius near Dosius in a place called Malonolta.
At 5 PM, he was caught on a public highway by a herdsman named Baptista of Camaldulus, near the hedge of a private farm, a mile from the remote city outskirts of Bologna.
Baptista was following his ox cart home when he noticed the oxen suddenly come to a stop.
He kicked them and shouted at them, but they refused to move and went down on their knees rather than move forward.
At this point, the herdsman noticed a hissing sound and was startled to see this strange little dragon ahead of him.
Trembling, he struck it on the head with his rod and killed it.”

Ulysses Aldrovandus

Aldrovandus was surprised that the reptile did not run when he saw the man, but instead bravely raised its head and stood its ground. [ix]

Titus Flavius Josephus (37 to 100AD) in ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ he wrote about flying serpents (dragons):

Drawing of Josephus.
Drawing of Josephus.

for when the ground was difficult to be passed over, because of the multitude of serpents,
(which it produces in vast numbers, and, indeed, is singular in some of those productions,
which other countries do not breed, and yet such as are worse than others in power and mischief,
and an unusual fierceness of sight, some of which ascend out of the ground unseen,
and also fly in the air, and so come upon men at unawares, and do them a mischief,)
Moses invented a wonderful stratagem to preserve the army safe, and without hurt;
for he made baskets, like unto arks, of sedge, and filled them with ibes, and carried them along with them; which animal is the greatest enemy to serpents imaginable,
for they fly from them when they come near them;
and as they fly they are caught and devoured by them, as if it were done by the harts;
but the ibes are tame creatures, and only enemies to the serpentine kind:
but about these ibes I say no more at present, since the Greeks themselves are not unacquainted with this sort of bird.
As soon, therefore, as Moses was come to the land which was the breeder of these
serpents,
he let loose the ibes, and by their means repelled the serpentine kind,
and used them for his assistants before the army came upon that ground.”

Titus Flavius Josephus Book 2, Chapter 10, Section 2

e) Are dragons real based on evidence in China:

Oriental grey dragon
Oriental grey dragon
A serpent dragon
A serpent dragon

In China there is on record that there were dragons that laid eggs.
(Dinosaurs lay eggs, but it is not known whether all dinosaurs laid eggs.)

The first dinosaur fossils were probably found in China as early as the fourth century.

These fossils were referred to as dragon bones.

The Bible does compare the Devil unto a Dragon.
The dragon is obviously a symbolic image, but it is based on a ‘dragon’ – something that is known.

Original Word: δράκων drakōn which means “a mythical monster, a dragon;” also a large serpent, so called because of its keen power of sight (from a root derk, signifying “to see”) [x].

Then another sign appeared in heaven:
an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.

Revelation 12:3

Obviously there is a lot of myth and legend with the subject of dragons, but it is worldwide and it must be based on somethings that were real and living, what do you think?

Another article for you: In the beginning – anything, but not God!

References:

[i] Knox, Wilson, Dragon, The World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 5, 1973, p. 265
[ii] Historiae Animalium (opens in a new window) by Aristotle; Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth, 1860-1948
[iii] Britannica (opens in a new window)
[iv] Historiae Animalium (opens in a new window) by Conrad Gessner.
[v] Photo Credit opens in a new window: peregrinari Flickr via Compfight cc
[vi] ‘Exploring the Vikings’ Google Books
[vii] Beowulf (opens in a new window) by Raffel, Burton; Creed, Robert Payson, 1925-2015;
[viii] Wikipedia (opens in a new window)
[ix] Aldrovandus, Ulysses, The Natural History of Serpents and Dragons, 1640, p.402. Also see ‘Frontiers of Zoology’
[x] Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old Testament and New Testament Words.

By Peter Reason

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