Dec 09, 2022 I Nick Redfern

Dragons: Did They Really Live? Myth or Reality?

For three years Richard Freeman worked as Head of Reptiles at Twycross Zoo, England and, today, is the Zoological Director of one of the world’s premier cryptozoological investigation groups: namely, the Center for Fortean Zoology. And while Freeman has a passion for all aspects of cryptozoolgy, it is the dragon that fascinates him most of all.  “I started my career as a zoologist – so I had a grounded training,” says Freeman. “But cryptozoology was my passion. Now, I have had a particular passion – an obsession, I suppose – for years with dragons. But there was something that always puzzled me: no-one had ever thought, for more than a hundred years, to publish a definitive, non-fiction book on the subject. And as I am a qualified zoologist, I thought: why not me?”  Why not, indeed? In fact, that is precisely what Richard did in his book, Dragons: More Than A Myth? I asked Freeman about his theories and discoveries with regard to dragons. He replied: “Well, that’s a bit difficult to answer because there are several things going on. It’s important to note that I’ve traveled the world pursuing these creatures – the Gambia, Mongolia, Thailand, and right here in England with some of the old legends from past centuries. And of one thing I can be certain: there isn’t just one answer to the question of what dragons are or what they may be.”

Richard continued: “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.” On this latter point, Freeman elaborates: “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 the Australian ‘monster lizard’ Megalania.” Freeman makes a noteworthy, and thought-provoking, point: “Any mention of dragons always conjures up images of fire-breathing monsters, and there are definitely reports that fall into that group. But, when you look into many of the earliest, ancient legends, you find that the dragon is more often associated with water. So, I have a theory that some of the better lake monster accounts from centuries ago may well have influenced dragon tales.”

On this point, he adds: “Personally, I also believe that some classic tales of dragons in England in Medieval times, and tales of beasts such as the Lambton Worm, probably have their origins in lake monster accounts, giant eels, etc., that have then mutated into tales of dragons on the loose. But the important point is that this shouldn’t detract from the fact that people did see something.” I asked him: “You mean that the ancients were seeing lake monsters and, having been exposed to dragon legends, believed them to be – or interpreted them as – dragons, too?” “Exactly,” Freeman replied. Of course, the biggest question of all was: are there creatures still living today that Freeman believes have helped perpetuate the image of the dragon? He is certain there are: “I would pretty much stake my life on the fact that Megalania still exists – or did until very recently – in the large forests of Australia, and that also roamed New Guinea. This was a huge, killer-beast; a massive monitor lizard that exceeded thirty feet in length. In literal terms, this was a classic dragon-type animal.”

(Richard Freeman) Many thanks to my good friend, Richard Freeman, for the use of the cover of his book, Dragons: More Than a Myth?

I questioned Richard about his research into an animal known as the Naga of Thailand that he believes is responsible for some dragon tales. He told me: “There is no excuse for not getting out into the field and doing firsthand investigations; none at all. In fact, it’s vital. I have no time for the armchair theorist. And one of the experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life was traveling to Thailand with the Discovery Channel in 2000, where we chased giant snakes – the Naga – in the caves and tunnels that exist deep below Thailand. “It’s very easy to see why the inhabitants in times past considered them to be dragons. The Naga is apparently a large snake, a very large one – maybe in the order of literally tens of feet in length, oil-drum-sized bodies, and definitely big enough to take a whole man.” And similar accounts abound elsewhere, too: “There have come reports from the Congo of an animal known as Mokele-mbembe. Again, it has cross-over qualities with dragon legends, but I’m sure that it will be shown in time to be some sort of giant monitor lizard, too.”  But what of the definitive, fire-breathing dragons of legend: does, or did, such a creature exist? Freeman makes a very intriguing observation:

“Back in 1979 Peter Dickinson wrote a book that was titled The Flight of Dragons. Dickinson had come up with this idea – an excellent theory, in fact – that real-life dragons did exist and that they were the descendants of dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Dickinson suggested that these animals developed large, expanded stomachs that would fill with hydrogen gas, which would come from a combination of hydrochloric acid found in the juices of the digestive system that would then mix with calcium found in the bones of their prey. Then, from there, the hydrogen – a lighter-than-air gas – allowed these creatures to take to the skies and then control their flight by burning off the excess gas in the form of flame. Anyone seeing this would be seeing the closest thing to the image of the dragon that we all know and love. Dickinson’s theory is an excellent one, and may well be a perfect explanation for sightings of real dragons – in times past, and perhaps today, I believe.” Freeman says: “The dragon has its teeth and claws deep into the collective psyche of mankind, and it’s not about to let go. Our most ancient fear still stalks the earth today. Beware: this is no fairytale. When your parents told you that there were no such things as dragons, they lied!”

Now, onto another case of dragons. A fascinating and harrowing encounter with a monster of the oceans occurred on May 30, 1908, and involved highly credible individuals. They were Captain W.H. Bartlett, Second Officer Joseph Ostens Grey, and the rest of the crew of the cargo steamer, Tresco. Captain Bartlett and his crew had sailed from Philadelphia just forty-eight hours earlier. All was well and completely normal – for a while, at least. When they reached a point around ninety miles off of Cape Hatteras, however, the crew noticed that the water appeared decidedly disturbed and inexplicably oily. High-strangeness was afoot. Suddenly, and rather incredibly, a group of around three to four dozen sharks were seen racing through the waters, almost as if something terrifying and deadly was in hot pursuit. It turns out that was exactly what was going on. And, it must be said, there are very few things that frighten sharks! Shortly afterwards, and at a distance, the crew saw what they first took to be a boat, possibly one that had capsized and with the bottom of the hull protruding out of the water. A boat, it was not. That much was in evidence when a huge head and neck surfaced from the water, revealing that what the crew had encountered was a huge animal of a distinctly unknown and massive kind. An understanding of the sheer size of the leviathan can be gained from the description of the neck. It was, said Captain Bartlett, “as thick as a cathedral pillar.”

(Nick Redfern) Richard Freeman, an expert on the legends of dragons

As the crew tentatively closed in, they were astonished to see that the monster most closely resembled a classic dragon of ancient Chinese lore and mythology! What was perceived to be nothing stranger than a legend, just might have been something else, entirely. It was described as being in excess of 100 feet in length, had a width of around eight feet, and had a pair of wing-like protuberances, one on each side of its long body. The entire body was scaly and green in color – further amplifying the dragon-like associations. The most detailed and amazing description came from Second Officer Grey, who had the good presence of mine to quickly write the details down, as soon as the encounter was over. He committed the following to paper: “There was something unspeakably loathsome about the head, which was five feet long from nose to upper extremity. Such a head I never saw on any denizen of the sea. Underneath the jaw seemed to be a sort of pouch, or drooping skin. The nose, like a snout upturned, was somewhat recurved. I can remember seeing no nostrils or blow-holes. The lower jaw was prognathous, and the lower lip was half projecting, half pendulous. Presently I noticed something dripping from the ugly lower jaw. Watching I saw it was saliva, of a dirty drab color. While it displayed no teeth, it did possess very long and formidable molars, like a walrus’s tusks. Its eyes were of a reddish color. They were elongated vertically. They carried in their dull depths a somber baleful glow, as if within them was concentrated all the fierce menacing spirit that raged in the huge bulk behind.”

Clearly aware it was being watched, the dragon made a menacing warning in the direction of the crew: it violently thrashed its tail in the water for a few moments, and shook the boat in a precarious fashion. Fortunately, and evidently, when the monster was done and satisfied that it had made its point, it sank beneath the waves, never to be seen again by the crew of the Tresco.

And, now, a fascinating story of nothing less than a real-life dragon can be found in the pages of Charles Igglesden’s 1906 book, A Saunter Through Kent With Pen & Pencil. Kent being a county in southern England. Of a dragon reportedly seen in Cranbrook, Kent, centuries earlier, Igglesden wrote: “The magnificently wooded park of a hundred and fifty acres is richly watered by a huge lake made in 1812 and a smaller one within the grounds, while further west is an old mill pond that rejoices in a curious legend. It is an old one and the subject of it is very ancient indeed and as rare as it is horrible.” He continued that nothing less than a flying dragon was said to haunt the pond but that “on certain – or uncertain – nights of the year it wings its flight over the park and pays a visit to the big lake yonder. But he always returns to the Mill Pond and it is said to pay special attention of a vicious kind to young men and women who have jilted their lovers. A legend with a moral is this. But a winged dragon! A dragon of the ordinary kind is bad enough. But a flying dragon! Augh!”

Igglesden had more to add to the story: “It is a Mr. Tomlin’s opinion that there is stronger evidence of the existence of this dragon than of most of his kind and of his fires gone out in the closing years of the last century. Nothing short of this monster’s malign influence could account for the curious fact that, till the coming of Mr. Tomlin’s eldest daughter, no child had been born at Angley Park for upwards of a hundred years.” Over the years, numerous monster-seekers have flocked to the specific area in question – in hopes of encountering the dragon. Its presence is far less today, however, than it was in centuries past. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that in December 1997, a local policeman, on duty during the early hours of a chilly, windy, Saturday morning, caught a brief sight of a “bloody great bird, about twenty feet across,” in the skies of Cranbrook. The ancient dragon crossing the night sky? Maybe!

(Nick Redfern) Creatures yet to be identified

In 1916, explorer Irwin J. O’Malley told a fascinating story of his discovery of the fossilized remains of a massive animal. That the creature was never formally identified has led to rumors that what O’Malley came upon were the remains of nothing less than an example of a legendary Chinese dragon! His story goes like this: “During the latter part of a holiday trip to the Yangtze Gorges undertaken by my wife and self in November, 1915, we met Mr. M. Hewlett, British Consul at Ichang, and his wife, and in their company spent a day in the Ichang Gorge, landing at various points to climb the cliffs and explore some of the numerous caves. While exploring a large cave on the right of the bank of the river, and about one mile above the Customs Station at Ping Shon Pa, we discovered the fossils about to be described. The cave is reputed by the Chinese to extend some twenty miles to a point near Ichang. It is reported that a party from H.M.S. Snipe spent three days in the cave some years ago and that they failed to reach the end. Evidence that the party penetrated beyond the point where the discovery was made exists in the name of their ship painted on the cave walls at a point considerably further in."

And there is more: “The Chinese name of the cave is Shen K’an Tzu, which means ‘The Holy Shrine,’ and one of the characters forming the word K’an is the Chinese character for dragon.’ A large rock is seen at the entrance, and some eight to ten yards behind this there is a peculiar piece of curved rock bearing some slight resemblance to a portion of a dragon’s body; the resemblance is possibly suggestive enough to impress the Chinese mind, but altogether fails to impress the foreigner. After proceeding some hundreds of yards inside the cave we found ourselves walking on a peculiar ridge in order to avoid the surrounding pool of water. The ridge curved backward and forward across the width of the cave like the curves of a large serpent, the suggestion being so strong we lowered our lamps in order to examine the ridge more closely. To our astonishment and delight, we found that we were in very truth walking along a perfect fossil of some huge reptile. Further inspection revealed the presence of six or eight of these enormous monsters. Having taken a few small specimens of loose portions of scale for examination in a better light, we left, to return the following morning for the purpose of measurement.

“On our return the following morning we selected one of the largest fossils lying for a great part of its length isolated from the others, the coils of the remainder being rather entangled. The isolated portion measured seventy feet, so that is absolutely certain that the length is at least seventy feet, and as far as we could ascertain, this same specimen extended for another sixty or seventy feet. However, I admit that error is possible here, owing to the interlacing coils of the reptiles. The depth of the body seen in the foreground is two feet. The head is partially buried in the cave wall and appears to be a large, flat head similar to that of Morosaurus comperi. About twelve or fourteen feet from the head two legs are seen partially uncovered, and again to more about fifty feet from the head. The fact that several persons have penetrated this cave in former years beyond the point where the discovery was made seems to indicate the fossils have been but recently uncovered; by a heavy discharge of water through the cave. It seems probable that these reptiles were trapped by some volcanic disturbance and starved to death; the size of the bodies compared to their length would indicate this."

 “A point of peculiar interest is the resemblance to the Chinese dragon of these fossils. I believe that it has therefore been supposed that the Chinese borrowed their idea of the dragons from Western mythology. The discovery has created a great stir among the local Chinese and foreigners, who are daily flocking to view the fossils. I am attempting to interest the Chinese authorities in Pekin and also the Chinse Monuments Society in order that the specimens may be preserved from damage.” Richard Freeman has suggested that what O’Malley examined were the fossilized remains of a huge Chinese sauropod named Mamenchisaurus. On the other hand, O’Malley’s reference to the remains having a “resemblance to the Chinese dragon,” has given rise to the possibility that, just possibly, in the distant past, fire-breathing dragons really did exist.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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