One very prevalent fixture of fairy tales and modern fantasy films and fiction is the all-powerful presence of the mighty dragon. Immense, unstoppable, and truly terrifying, these terrible lizards are like something out of a nightmare, and one may feel comforted that they exist only in the world of the imagination. Or do they? For centuries there have been numerous accounts that treat these fierce monsters as very real, and from back in the dark corners of time all the way up to the present there are those who claim that the dragons of lore are much more than just legend and myth.
Reports of creatures very much like the fire-breathing, winged dragons of film and fantasy have been reported since far back in time, from civilizations all over the world. One such very early account comes from England, and describes how the Briton king Morvidus was killed in 336 BC by a great dragon that rose from the Irish Sea and “gulped down the body of Morvidus as a big fish swallows a little one.” The ancient explorer Titus Flavius Josephus also brought back tales of strange flying reptiles in ancient Egypt and Arabia, and the third century historian Gaius Solinus spoke of these creatures as well, further adding that they had potent venom that could kill a man even faster than he could realize that he had even been bit.
Many of the more spectacular early accounts of dragons were provided in the 4th century by Alexander the Great and his men after invading India. One account was reported by Alexander the Great himself, who claimed that he had seen an enormous hissing serpent lurking within a dank cave, and that the local tribes had worshiped it as a god, and his lieutenant, Onesicritus, also reported that there lived in India enormous serpents measuring 100 to 200 feet long. This is very interesting, because there are accounts of such creatures in India going all the way back to the 1st century, when the Greek historian Strabo described fearsome winged reptiles in his book Geography: Book XV: On India, of which he says, “In India there are reptiles two cubits long with membranous wings like bats, and that they too fly by night, discharging drops of urine, or also of sweat, which putrefy the skin of anyone who is not on his guard.” Also from India is the account from the 3rd century historian Flavious Philostratus, who also claimed that India was home to dragons, and not only a habitat for them, but by his accounts absolutely crawling with them. He wrote in his The Life of Apollonius of Tyanna:
The whole of India is girt with dragons of enormous size; for not only the marshes are full of them, but the mountains as well, and there is not a single ridge without one. Now the marsh kind are sluggish in their habits and are thirty cubits long, and they have no crest standing up on their heads.
Some very intriguing early accounts of historical dragons can be found in the writings of the great 5th century Greek historian Herodotus, often referred to as “The Father of History” for his systematic method of recording events. According to the famous historian, these monsters lived in spice groves and frankincense trees, and he told that workers made a habit of driving them away with smoke before harvests, and Herodotus once wrote of these creatures:
There is a place in Arabia, situated very near the city of Buto, to which I went, on hearing of some winged serpents; and when I arrived there, I saw bones and spines of serpents, in such quantities as it would be impossible to describe. The form of the serpent is like that of the water-snake; but he has wings without feathers, and as like as possible to the wings of a bat.
In the 8th century we have the curious account given by a St. John of Damascus, who wrote that during a battle against Carthage a huge dragon measuring 120 feet long had appeared behind the Roman army to approach them. The army had then reportedly attacked and killed it, and had the skin sent to the Roman Senate, although what happened to it after that no one knows. This report is quite curious because it is a matter of fact account, without any obvious embellishment and sitting within other more mundane chronicles of the battle. He would even go as far as to state that these dragons were not magical creatures in any way, but rather just large, reptilian animals.
In later centuries we have the tales of the great explorer Marco Polo, who travelled around Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia in the late 13th century and brought back all manner of fantastical tales of these exotic lands, their people, and their animals. Some of these reports included what can only be described as dragons. Within Polo’s work The Travels of Marco Polo, there is a passage concerning a place in the Far East that he called “Karajan,” which was apparently infested by the fierce beasts, and which he describes:
Here are found snakes and huge serpents, ten paces in length and ten spans in girth (meaning 50 ft. long and 100 inch circumference). At the fore part, near the head, they have two short legs, each with three claws, as well as eyes larger than a loaf and very glaring. The jaws are wide enough to swallow a man, the teeth are large and sharp, and their whole appearance is so formidable that neither man, nor any kind of animal can approach them without terror. Others are of smaller size, being eight, six, or five paces long.
Again, this is all stated as fact, even going into depth about how the natives hunt and kill the creatures, and it is hard just what to make of it all. This apparently happens a lot with early dragon reports, and they even make appearances in respectable zoological compendiums. One good example of this can be seen within the pages of the work of Konrad Gesner, who was a great naturalist in the 16th century and wrote of dragons as if they were any other mundane animal, and gives one description of a beast seen in the 10th century of a dragon seen in Ireland with a horse-like head, a thick powerful tail, and stumpy, clawed legs.
Another famed 16th century naturalist by the name of Ulysses Aldrovandus also wrote seriously of dragons, and related several tales of the beasts, such as that of a herdsman who had been driving his herd of cattle in rural Bologna when he had encountered a small dragon that had blocked his path and hissed at him. The herdsman had then apparently killed the creature and saved the carcass. Aldrovandus claimed to have come into possession of the body and to have even had it mounted, and spends a lot of time contemplating this specimen, speculating that it had been a juvenile dragon. Where the body went is anyone’s guess, but Aldrovandus did have a watercolor portrait made of it. The 16th century is actually a treasure trove of real dragon encounters. In 1543 the historian Gesner wrote of a dragon-like creature in Germany, which he describes as having “feet like lizards, and wings after the fashion of a bat, with an incurable bite.” The historian and author Charles Gould would write of another historical case of the era concerning a man named Cardan, of which he says:
Cardan states that when he resided in Paris he saw five winged dragons in the William Museum; these were biped, and possessed of wings so slender that it was hardly possible that they could fly with them. Cardan doubted their having been fabricated, since they had been sent in vessels at different times, and yet all presented the same remarkable form. Bellonius states that he had seen whole carcases [sic] of winged dragons, carefully prepared, which he considered to be of the same kind as those which fly out of Arabia into Egypt; they were thick about the belly, had two feet, and two wings, whole like those of a bat, and a snake’s tail.
Another rather interesting description of dragons was given in the early 16th century tome called the Aberdeen Bestiary, which goes into great depth on the appearance and behavior of the creatures and treats them as if they were all completely real. One passage reads:
The dragon has a crest, a small mouth, and narrow blow-holes through which it breathes and puts forth its tongue. Its strength lies not in its teeth but in its tail, and it kills with a blow rather than a bite. It is free from poison. They say that it does not need poison to kill things, because it kills anything around which it wraps its tail. From the dragon not even the elephant, with its huge size, is safe. For lurking on paths along which elephants are accustomed to pass, the dragon knots its tail around their legs and kills them by suffocation.
Notice that it is explained rather matter-of-factly, with no attempt to really spruce it up with amazing imagery. Moving into the 17th century we have an account from 1619, in which a noble man named Christopher Schorerum saw a great flying dragon in Essex, England, of which he reported:
On a warm night in 1619, while contemplating the serenity of the heavens, I saw a shining dragon of great size in front of Mt. Pilatus, coming from the opposite side of the lake [or ‘hollow’], a cave that is named Flue [Hogarth-near Lucerne] moving rapidly in an agitated way, seen flying across; It was of a large size, with a long tail, a long neck, a reptile’s head, and ferocious gaping jaws. As it flew it was like iron struck in a forge when pressed together that scatters sparks. At first I thought it was a meteor from what I saw. But after I diligently observed it alone, I understood it was indeed a dragon from the motion of the limbs of the entire body.
In 1658 there was published a book called Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts, which like some of the zoological compendiums we looked at earlier gave various descriptions of real animals and their behaviors. Once again, sitting there amongst the various detailed descriptions of known animals is a startlingly in-depth section on dragons, which explains them as it would any other normal animal. One passage reads:
This serpent (or dragon as some call it) is reputed to be nine feete, or rather more, in length, and shaped almost in the form of an axletree of a cart: a quantitie of thickness in the middest, and somewhat smaller at both endes. The former part, which he shootes forth as a necke, is supposed to be an elle [3 ft 9 ins or 1 l4 cms] long; with a white ring, as it were, of scales about it. The scales along his back seem to be blackish, and so much as is discovered under his belie, appeareth to be red… it is likewise discovered to have large feete, but the eye may there be deceived, for some suppose that serpents have no feete … [The dragon] rids away (as we call it) as fast as a man can run. His food [rabbits] is thought to be; for the most part, in a conie-warren, which he much frequents …There are likewise upon either side of him discovered two great bunches so big as a large foote-ball, and (as some thinke) will in time grow to wings, but God, I hope, will (to defend the poor people in the neighbourhood) that he shall be destroyed before he grows to fledge.
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 the common sort of Serpents by the comb growing upon their heads, and the beard under their cheeks. Gyllius, Pierius, and Gervinus . . . do affirm that a Dragon is of a black colour, the belly somewhat green, and very beautiful to behold, having a treble row of teeth in their mouths upon every jaw, and with most bright and clear-seeing eyes, which caused the Poets to say in their writings that these dragons are the watchful keepers of Treasures.
They have also two dewlaps growing under their chin, and hanging down like a beard, which are of a red colour: their bodies are set all over with very sharp scales, and over their eyes stand certain flexible eyelids. When they gape wide with their mouth, and thrust forth their tongue, their teeth seem very much to resemble the teeth of wild Swine: And their necks have many times gross thick hair growing upon them, much like unto the bristles of a wild Boar.
Their mouth, (especially of the most tamable Dragons) is but little, not much bigger than a pipe, through which they draw in their breath, for they wound not with their mouth, but with their tails, only beating with them when they are angry. But the Indian, Ethiopian, and Phrygian dragons have very wide mouths, through which they often swallow in whole fowls and beasts. Their tongue is cloven as it were double, and the Investigators of nature do say that they have fifteen teeth of a side. The males have combs on their heads, but the females have none, and they are likewise distinguished by their beards.
It is all so painstakingly detailed and realistic one can clearly imagine exactly what they looked like. History is rife with accounts and reports such as these, and this has only scratched the surface of the countless such tales out there throughout the ages and from all over the world, stretching from Europe to the Middle East, Africa, and the Far East in places such as China, where dragons were a prominent feature of the landscape and revered. Yet this is not a phenomenon merely confined to ages way back in the mists of time, not merely the constructs of simpler eras when people believed in myth, magic, and fairy tales, and dragons have continued to be reported up into more modern times. Many of what is written of dragons in later years is not even all that spectacular or fantastical, such as the writings of Charles Gould, who documented many cases of dragons and spoke of them as being far from magical things of legend, but also very real. He would write in great detail on dragons in 1886, saying:
The dragon is nothing more than a serpent of enormous size; and they formerly distinguished three sorts of them in the Indies. Viz. such as were in the mountains, such as were bred in the caves or in the flat country, and such as were found in fens and marshes. The first is the largest of all, and are covered with scales as resplendent as polished gold. These have a kind of beard hanging from their lower jaw, their eyebrows large, and very exactly arched; their aspect the most frightful that can be imagined, and their cry loud and shrill… their crests of a bright yellow, and a protuberance on their heads of the colour of a burning coal. Those of the flat country differ from the former in nothing but in having their scales of a silver colour, and in their frequenting rivers, to which the former never come. Those that live in marshes and fens are of a dark colour, approaching to a black, move slowly, have no crest, or any rising upon their heads.
Dragons have remained persistent right up to present day, and there are occasionally surprisingly recent sightings. In the early 1990s there was a report from a woman out hiking in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, who says that she came across an actual dragon in the wilderness there, much to her disbelief. She says of her incredible experience:
The creature was in a beautiful shade of dark green and could easily blended with trees as he been standing by them but the witness report that he was perched on a rocky outcropping on the side of the mountain. He was fanning his wings slightly, looking quite calmly into the valley below. I had been hiking up this mountain, when the movement of his head caught my eye. I had been this way before, and there was a group of trees on the cliff where there had been none before. I did not believe what I had seen at first, but the shape was too obvious, and he was parallel to me, about seven bus lengths away. I was climbing up one rock outface, he was on another.
He was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. His head was long, with a large eye ridge and two smaller bumps with a triceratops-like horn on his nose. At the back of his head were two large horns, jutting out backwards, and two smaller horns below them. They were a greyish-white and caught the light like dull silver. His forelegs were slightly smaller than his hind legs and were gripping the edge of the cliff. He looked as though he were a quadruped. He had slightly darker dorsal ridges running from between the longest horns to about halfway down his tail.
As I stood there, gaping like a fish out of water, the dragon turned and looked at me. He cocked his head to the side, almost like a bird, then spread his enormous wings and vaulted off the cliff. He was absolutely elegant in the air, flapping his wings several times before banking into a glide and disappearing around the side of the mountain. My legs felt so weak that I had to sit down. I have been camping in those mountains for over ten years, and I had never seen anything to suggest that dragons might actually exist there. But after that encounter I began to think about it. What better place for a dragon to live than in the mountains? There are places in Banff and Jasper that nobody has ever been to, and there are many elk and deer and possibly even bears for it to feed on. Plenty of lakes, and the mountains themselves have many hidden caves and the like.
Even more recently, in 2001 an apparent dragon was purportedly seen by naturalists investigating a quarry in Wales. They described it was being “two and a half foot in length, serpentine dragon with four limbs and a head resembling that of a seahorse.” The creature apparently hovered through the air without the aid of any noticeable wings, and the startled men watched it flit about for a full 4 minutes before it descended into one of the many dark caves dotting the area.
While it seems preposterous that the dragons we know from fiction, fairy tales, and fantasy could possibly have ever been real in any sense, the fact remains that remarkably similar stories have been reported throughout history by a wide range of disparate civilizations and cultures, so why is it that the dragon myths and tales are so universal? Could there have possibly have ever been anything to this? Theories have ranged from that these were just misidentifications and romanticized accounts of known animals, some form of outsized reptiles such as crocodiles or snakes, an undiscovered species, relic populations of dinosaurs surviving into modern times, perhaps even having evolved to their environment to take on a different appearance and abilities, or even as Carl Sagan once mused the constructs of some prehistoric shared racial memory infusing us. Zoologist, cryptozoologist, and researcher for the Center for Fortean Zoology, Richard Freeman, who has spent years studying historical accounts of real dragons for his book Dragons: More Than A Myth? has said of his own ideas on the matter:
There are many creatures that have become linked to the lore and legend of what today we perceive and view as dragons, and some of these creatures are distinctly different to each other. But that should not take away from the fact that dragons are a real phenomenon. I am absolutely certain, having reviewed many ancient reports of dragon activity, that many sightings – perhaps two or three hundred years ago and probably further back – were genuine encounters, but where the witnesses were seeing what I believe to have been huge snakes, giant crocodiles, and something like the Australian ‘monster lizard’ Megalania.
In the end we have a phenomenon reported for over a millennium, of people of various cultures seeing these fierce reptilian beasts and it seems odd that they should all construct such similar legends and see such similar beasts in their respective histories. The dragon seems to be almost an archetype upon the landscape of the human psyche, somehow ingrained within us across cultures, and this makes it especially intriguing. Why should this be? Were dragons ever real in any sense, or are these just shared legends spewing forth from some universal subconsciousness? If they are real then what are they and do they exist now or have they gone extinct? With no real evidence and their tales doomed to mere speculation, it seems that we may never know the answers to these questions, and in the meantime the dragons must remain confined to legend, myth, and fiction.