Dragons: Evidence They Existed

MrRING

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https://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2019/04/a-first-hand-description-of-a-dragon.html
There's a lot of good stuff in The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin, which I just finished reading, but I want to pull out one especially notable passage: Elvin's translation of a first-hand description of a dragon.

and

Xie Zhaozhe was, for his time, a skeptic: he didn't necessarily trust recorded events or interpretations, he wanted precise observations from people he could trust. He tested a number of sayings or principles by personal observation, and wasn't afraid to say that something "everybody knows" might not be true. He wasn't a scientist, but he wasn't less "scientific" than most Europeans writing natural history at that time.

And he writes that he saw dragons, on an occasion when other people saw them, too.

The event took place when he was approximately twelve years old, in the East China Sea, probably en route to Okinawa:

I journeyed in 1579 with my paternal grandfather, ...when he was in charge of the official travel arrangements [for the commissioner to the Liuqui Islands]. We were halfway there when a typhoon arose. Thunder, lightning, rain, and hailstones all fell upon us at the same time. There were three dragons suspended upside down to the fore and aft of the ship. Their whiskers were interwound with the waters of the sea and penetrated the clouds. All the horns on their heads were visible, but below their waists nothing could be seen. Those in the ship were in a state of agitation and without any plan of action, but an old man said, "This is no more than the dragons coming to pay court to the commissioner's document bearing the imperial seal." He made those attending on the envoy have the latter write a document in his own hand bringing the court audience to an end. The dragons complied with the time so indicated and withdrew. [1]​

In another account of the same experience, Xie Zhaozhe says that the dragons were

suspended upside down from the edges of the clouds, and still more than a thousand feet above the water, which rose boiling like steam or smoke to conjoin with the clouds, the people seeing the dragons with minute particularity. [2]​
 

Nick Smith

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I’m with the camp that proposes that the “Dragon” myths come about from folk finding the remains of mega fauna (giraffes, mammoths, sabre toothed cats) left over from the younger dryas extinction 12,000 bc and the occasional finds of prehistoric crocodiles and dinosaurs that fall out of cliffs.

Miners looking for copper and other ore would have come across them fairly regularly i imagine.
 

Yossarian

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I’m with the camp that proposes that the “Dragon” myths come about from folk finding the remains of mega fauna (giraffes, mammoths, sabre toothed cats) left over from the younger dryas extinction 12,000 bc and the occasional finds of prehistoric crocodiles and dinosaurs that fall out of cliffs.

Miners looking for copper and other ore would have come across them fairly regularly i imagine.

I think this plays a part in it, though could be overstated, and relies on an "evidence first" model that kind of never quite sits right with me.

Similarly, the suggestion that Ancient Greeks based the myth of Cyclops on finding Mammoth or elephant skulls that they interpreted as a one-eyed giant. It all feels a bit neat, and suggests that the Ancient Greeks weren't capable of inventing the concept of a one-eyed giant independently of evidence.

What I mean is, we tend to downplay the imaginative and creative potential of ancient peoples when we look for mundane, physical evidence-based "reasons" for the invention of mythical beasts.

Bearing in mind that "dragon" is a very broad term, encompassing big winged scaly beasties, serpents, compound beasts (i.e., "body of a lion, wings of an eagle, head of a snake!" - which are ideas that exist across numerous cultures, and requite no physical evidence of an actual species, we can rightly assume that people were able to invent these creatures from whole cloth) and the Chinese dragon that bears very little resemblance to its European counterpart. It's highly likely that it's become a blanket term to cover what, in the past, would have been any number of monsters, and gradual intermingling of cultures, and increased ability to create longer lasting pieces of representative art, meant that the popular perception we now have of a "dragon" as a single archetype was ironed out over time.
 

Mikefule

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I’m with the camp that proposes that the “Dragon” myths come about from folk finding the remains of mega fauna (giraffes, mammoths, sabre toothed cats) left over from the younger dryas extinction 12,000 bc and the occasional finds of prehistoric crocodiles and dinosaurs that fall out of cliffs.

Miners looking for copper and other ore would have come across them fairly regularly i imagine.

I find that not only quite a reductive argument (the idea of the dragon developed from the discovery of large bones and skulls) but also quite a selective argument (as it misses out many of the distinctive features attributed to dragons).

Large bones, or even encounters living crocodiles and pythons, would not necessitate an explanation of flying creatures that could breathe fire and hoard gold, for example.

There is no single universal idea of a dragon. At one end of the mythological spectrum there are "giant worms" that are essentially big hungry snakes, and at the extreme far end there are Chinese dragons with their mystical significance. In between, there are all varieties, and our modern perception is no doubt coloured by many comparatively recent fictional portrayals, ranging from Smaug to Puff to the seemingly endless series of Anne McCaffrey books, and the examples given in D&D handbooks.

Human imagination works by combining and exaggerating ideas:

Tim: I saw a crocodile on 'oliday. It were 20 foot long if it were an inch.
Marty: Twenty foot? That's nothing. My mate had a pet one. It were 40 foot long. And that were just its tail.
John: Never mind that; I knew a bloke who 'ad one that could fly.
Graham: Fly? That's nothing. When I were a lad, dragons could breathe fire. You don't get dragons like that these days.
Marty: Breathing fire? Luxury. You don't know thee were born. We had to cope with dragons that had ineffable ancient wisdom.
Tim: Wisdom be damned. Ours had 'oards of gold. 'Oards of it, ah tell thee.
Anne: Well, the ones I heard about could form a deep spiritual bond with their riders, and they hung like bats in huge caves until they were needed to destroy the threads...
All: Oh, ferchrissakes...

I am sure that the inspiration for dragons was a combination of things including to a greater or lesser degree:
Fossil bones
Travellers' tales of crocodiles, cobras and pythons etc.
Whirlwinds, waterspouts, lightning strikes.
Caves in volcanic areas. Volcanic vents, etc.
Tales to scare the children.
Metaphorical references to armies, individual warriors, banners, ships, etc.
Attempts to explain everything from the weather to the failure of the crops.
The love of a good story.
 
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Cochise

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I could really use some dragon eggs right now.
 

JamesWhitehead

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The Guardian has a review of an interesting book.

The author, described in the review as an antiquarian, probes into the story that a dragon's lair was discovered in the roots of a yew tree as late as the nineteenth century. He traces the Victorian process of elaboration, as the story comes to resemble a Burne-Jones panel. :reading:
 

blessmycottonsocks

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"At one end of the mythological spectrum there are "giant worms" that are essentially big hungry snakes..."

According to Wikipedia, in ancient Greek and Roman accounts, "dragon" was pretty well synonymous with big snake.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon#Ancient_Greece_and_Rome

The mummified remains of the 17th century "dragon" in the Palma, Majorca cathedral museum though are clearly those of a Nile crocodile or closely related creature.
 

lordmongrove

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Monster documentary on the new Godzilla Blue Ray. Includes dragons.
 

Bad Bungle

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It's very much a standard mediaeval european trope updated isn't it? :)
 

lordmongrove

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It's very much a standard mediaeval european trope updated isn't it? :)
In Scandinavia it was believed that if if a bull calf was fed on milk all its life (after weaning) it would grow it be as big as an elephant. These were trained to fight lindorms or worms, huge poison breathing serpents. The fights usually ended in the death of both creatures.
 
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