My childhood best friend John decided we should be blood brothers. During the simple blood ritual, John said we were dragons. He backed up the claim because his grandmother said he was born during the Chinese year of the Dragon. Since John was born in the summer, a month ahead of me, that meant I am a Dragon too. I later verified John’s information by looking it up in our family’s encyclopedia.
In Chinese astrology, the dragon is the only animal that does not physically exist. This has been a puzzle for anthropologists and historians for ages and a nearly life-long curiosity for me. Part of the intrigue of dragons is their mythical status as make-believe creatures.
Since today is Appreciate a Dragon Day, I decided to reflect upon these fascinating, non-existent creatures.
First of all, why are dragons mentioned in various cultures around the world? People have talked and written about dragons in such places as China, Europe, Northern Africa, Australia, and the Americas. There are a few hypotheses worth considering.
Some anthropologists think that ancient humans encountered whale bones. These huge creatures were mysterious and frightening to people of those days because whales spend their lives in the sea, mostly hidden from human view. People tend to invent myths as ways to fill in gaps about the information they don’t know for sure. Whales inhabit all of the seas from Asia to the Americas, so they would have been very mysterious to a wide range of people who lived long ago.
In Oceania there are several species of dangerous, large reptiles such as monitor lizards. These aggressive animals have dangerous claws and sharp teeth that spell doom to anyone who encounters them. Monitor lizards are an obvious inspiration for dragon-lore.
In Northern Africa and southern Europe it is possible that Nile crocodiles may have inspired dragon legends. They are some of the largest crocs alive–mature adults can be as long as 18-feet. In ancient times, Nile crocodiles probably had a larger habitat range because they may have swam across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece and Italy. These fearsome animals would certainly fuel the imaginations of ancient peoples.
The most palpable hypothesis for Chinese dragons claims that 4th century BCE historian Chang Qu mislabeled a fossilized dinosaur. It was an extremely large reptilian creature that may have been a stegosaurus.
Anthropologist David E. Jones hypothesizes that dragon lore is so ubiquitous because human evolution favored intense fear of large predators in our minds. Monkeys and apes are innately scared of large cats and snakes. This feature has survived as human fears of large cats, snakes, wolves, and large birds of prey. When our ancestors combined such fears with our love of making up stories, the wide variety of dragon myths were created.
Another interesting aspect about dragons is that in the West, dragons are depicted as harmful, evil creatures. They show up in heroic tales of fire-breathing dragons taking lovely princesses hostages. The heroes must slay the nasty dragons and rescue the dragons’ victims.
Meantime, in much of the East, dragons are more or less seen as auspicious, deity-like animals. They are held in such high esteem in China that the dragon is the national symbol for the nation. Eastern dragons have a positive majesty that is the opposite of western dragons’ negativity. I find the polarization of dragon types fascinating.
In modern culture, Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most popular cult followings. Fans love the dark, secretive nature of the phenomenon. Devotees feel like they belong to an elite club because many other people don’t know what it is and don’t have the proper understanding of it. Another popular phenomenon is “Game of Thrones”. Fans love the storyline because, in part, it imagines a surreal world where dwarves, elves, vampires, and dragons are natural to the landscape.
Perhaps dragons are such long-lived characters is because humans love to make up and hear stories that surpass our daily concepts of reality. Storytellers through the ages have understood that when they were writing a book or epic drama, their first task has been to convince the reader or audience to suspend disbelief. The reader or listener must do this in order to buy into the environment and illogic of the authors’ fictional, legendary worlds.
Through the ages, myth builders have taken artifacts like fossils or large, dangerous animals, combined them with fearsome, fascinating scenarios plus our love of adventure. Some of those books and stories contain dragons.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes science communicator, Kyle Hill. “Dragons are basically our pipe-dreams of what birds would be if they still looked like ancient dinosaurs but followed evolution’s flight plan.”