A recent New York Times article, From Many Imaginations, One Fearsome Creature, discusses one of my favorite subjects, dragons, and presents a few explanations for why people around the world believed in them:
In “An Instinct for Dragons” (Routledge, 2000), Dr. David E. Jones, a professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, posits a biological explanation that jibes with the Jungian notion of unconscious collective fears. He argues that the dragon image, fermented in the primal soup of man’s first nightmares, is a composite of the carnivores who fed on human ancestors when they were tree-dwelling monkeys: the pythons, the big cats and the raptors.
Professor Jones was struck by the idea, he said, while reading about the three-alarm calls of the vervet monkey. The first, for leopards, makes them leap for the treetops. The second, for eagles, makes them duck to low branches, and the third, for snakes, makes them jump.
Obviously, there is quite an evolutionary gap between vervet monkeys and the Sumerians of 5000 B.C., the first people known to have drawn dragons. But Dr. Jones argues that the same elemental fears persist in humans as snake and bird phobias, and he cites as evidence the fact that infant chimpanzees who have never seen snakes are terrified of them.
This explanation makes some sense:
Pliny, ignoring Greek and Roman mythology, held that “dracos” did exist, but just in faraway India, where he reported that they were large enough to prey on elephants by dropping out of trees and strangling them. Modern naturalists assume that he heard reports of pythons, which not only grew bigger in retelling, but also turned into fish stories. Some dragons, Pliny wrote, had such large crests on their heads they could sail to Arabia to hunt.
This could also explain some sightings:
In 58 B.C., Pliny reported, the “spine of the sea serpent killed by Perseus at Joppa” (modern-day Jaffa) was displayed in Rome. Karl Shuker, author of “Dragons, A Natural History” (Simon & Schuster, 1995), surmises that the monster Cetus, swimming up to eat Andromeda, might have grown out of rare sightings of oarfish, a snakelike fish up to 30 feet long with a coral red head crest. Other scholars theorize that the skeleton might have been one of the sperm whales that once commonly beached near Jaffa. A half-rotted whale, with its jawbones and vestigial leg bones exposed, would look rather dragonlike, they say.
Of course, there’s one particularly good reason for believing in dragons — dragon bones:
But there is another obvious source for the dragon myth: the bones of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. Bones exposed by storms, earthquakes or digging were well known to the ancients, said Dr. Adrienne Mayor, a professor of folklore at Princeton and the author of “The First Fossil Hunters” (Princeton, 2000). She argues that the myth of gold-guarding griffins arose in the red clay of the Gobi Desert, a landscape literally scattered with white Protoceratops skulls, with parrot beaks and bony neck frills.
Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, speculated as early as 1914 that the central nasal holes in skulls of prehistoric dwarf elephants were the source for Homer’s Cyclops. Abel added that the skulls of cave bears — ursus spelaeus, half again as big as grizzlies — could have given rise to tales of dragons.
Medieval Europe is “full of stories of knights fighting dragons in caves,” Dr. Mayor said.
Some extinct mammals have startlingly dragonlike skulls, and Asian dragon myths may be based on Pleistocene and Cretaceous fossils, which were at one time universally known as “dragon bones,” Dr. Mayor added.
Sivatherium giganteum, a huge proto-giraffe, has a pointed three-foot-long skull, and another, Giraffokeryx, has four swept-back horns.
Mount Pilatus in Switzerland abounds in pterodactyl fossils, and with stories of fights between men and dragonets — small, scrawny winged dragons.
The head of a dragon sculptured in 1590 by Ulrich Vogelsang for the city of Klagenfurt, Austria, was modeled on a “dragon skull” found by quarrymen in 1335. It is now known to be that of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros.
Paleontologists can even account for the legend that dragons have jewels in their foreheads. Big calcite crystals form on long-buried skulls.
Of course, dragon-like crocodiles and komodo “dragons” exist in the real world, but, interestingly enough, dragon myths are more common where there aren’t any quasi-dragons:
[A]lthough draconian crocodiles appear in the mythology of Australian aborigines, dragons are just as common in the myths of Vikings, who might have been eaten by bears, but never by crocs. And dragon lore is rare in Africa, where crocs are common, but predator myths revolve more around lions and hyenas.