A creature stronger than any animal we know today, on top of the food-chain with abilities we can only imagine today. These are the dragons mankind wants to reveal if once ruled the world, and the ones we want to describe as actual animals. How are they portrayed and described to be a possible part of our world?
Dragons are animals found in almost every ancient mythology, from the Mayan to the Africans and even Chinese and European. Since the animal is so widely known it has fascinated mankind, and researchers (in zoology and in folklore) are struggling to find proof that these majestic animals once ruled the world beside and after dinosaurs.
BBC and Discovery Networks created “Dragon´s World: A Fantasy Made Real” in 2004, a documentary about finding frozen, intact dragons in the mountains of Romania. Even though the documentary is fiction it has tickled viewers since it was first broadcasted (today you can find it on YouTube under the name The Last Dragon a Fantasy Made Real) and given more fuel to the discussion about dragons existence.
Dragons appear in paintings, texts and carvings from ancient societies, such as Babylonian and Mayan, in various forms. Researchers argue if these are pictures of real animals during that era or if they are creatures of imagination. Nevertheless dragons have been passed to today’s fantasy and/or science fiction department, as an imaginary creature, since no proof has been discovered to place them on the earth as living creatures. Even though, there is still much research to do on how they could have looked and about the characters of the different types of dragons.
The various shapes and colours of dragons suggest there were several subdivisions in the family of dragons, just as there are several dog-breeds there would have been several dragon-breeds. Each breed had their own name, characteristics and preferred habitat. How many these subdivisions are depends on what source you refer to or what movie you watch. But most of the sources talks about three divisions (based on areas in the world): African, Asian and European. Other researchers talk about serpent dragons, semi-dragons, classical dragons, sky dragons and neo-dragons when trying to put the different dragons into their families, but inside these division there are subdivisions (such as Tibetian- or Chinese dragons under Asian dragons).
Today’s literature of fantasy often involves dragons in some form. The dragons can be the enemy (as in J.R.R. Tolkien “Bilbo” or Astrid Lindgren “Bröderna Lejonhjärta”) or they can be friends (as in Christopher Paolini “Eragon”). Some sources (in this case fantasy-literature) suggest that they can be both (like in Harry Potter), depending on your own heart and character or if you can trick the dragon (with riddles) into helping you in your quest.
It is far from descriptions of dragons by ancient societies, where mankind are portrayed in fierce battle against the dragons or the dragons eating farmer’s animals, the most common description from medieval era and/or in fairytales.
Some societies portrayed dragons as Gods (such as Mayan God Quetzalcóatl, also known as Kukulcán) and they are still symbols of power, used by many rulers in their weapons or even names (for example the Chinese ruler is said to have been selected by the God of heaven, by some believed to have been a sky-dragon).
Descending from reptiles, dragons were said to have scales as skin but hard as diamonds and colours could vary from green, brown, black to silver, yellow, white and blue (combinations and other colors are also possible according to some sources). Depending on their habitat (water, mountain, woods or countryside) their shapes and limbs had different qualities.
In water and the woods a slim shape with no wings (or under-developed wings) was to prefer for fast movement. In water they could also be portrayed as without any limbs at all (sending thoughts to descriptions about sea serpents such as Loch Ness), gliding through the water with the movement of a snake. Dragons of the woods had low limbs, letting the dragon glide close to the ground, silently, but with strong grip and claws to climb the trees. Neither one of them had any use of their wings cause of their environment. The Asian dragons are both water- and forrest dragons. Their nests are not described at all, nor are their fire breathing capabilities, although some sources state that water dragons fire a massive amount of water on their enemies and prey instead of fire.
Mountain dragons are described as steady, four legged animals with wings, living in caves that are very hard to reach for humans (for example on mountaintops). These are often portrayed as fire breathing dragons, using this as their most deadly weapon against intruders. These are most common in European mythology and for instance Wales have on their shield a dragon described as a mountain dragon (subdivision wyvern).
On the countryside speed and good eyesight were preferred to lurk high in the sky, looking for prey and then swiftly diving down to capture it (a lot like birds of prey). So they had slim bodies, big wings and strong claws (to hold the prey when ascending). Where they had their nest is less portrayed but some sources suggest it was caves on the hillsides. If they were fire breathing dragons, or if their speed was enough to protect and hunt, is also left unsaid. The prairies in America were perfect habitat for these dragons.
The fire breathing mechanism is vividly discussed by researchers as impossible without damaging themselves critically. Although different suggestions on how it could be possible is still given by, for example, BBC´s Dragon´s World and in the 2002 movie Reign of Fire. BBC suggests a gas in an extra pair of lungs that with platina as a catalyst would create fire. To shield themselves from the flames and the heat they have a flap inside their throat to prevent the flames from going backwards and the skin in the mouth is rock-solid.
Reign of Fire on the other hand suggests two bladders in their mouths, filled with two different chemical fluids that when combined ignites. So the dragons described in Reign of Fire spits fire instead of breathing, and the fire is therefore created outside the mouth and do therefor not harm the dragon. The description in Reign of Fire is vividly discussed on Internet´s platforms and many readers argue this sounds truer than BBC´s description. Although both sources agree it must have been some kind of chemical reaction by dragon’s natural bacteria or fluids. The idea of which ones and how they were combined differs widely.
Writers often give dragons a characteristic more known to belong to a magpie: a love for shimmery things (treasures). Therefor dragons are often portrayed as guardians of a huge treasure (consisting of gold, silver and jewels) and by slaying the dragon you can keep the treasure for yourself. Fairytales do also describe dragons hungry for female virgins, especially if they are royal (princesses). In these fairytales a knight (or a common farmer’s son) wins the kingdom, the treasure and the princess by slaying the dragon.
Also, if they are friends with humans, they have or they can give magical features to the humans. This is best described in Paolinis “Eragon” where the riders can share their mind with the dragon (mindreading and seeing through the dragons eyes). Also can they perform magical rituals and spells together to enforce the magic (the dragons power enforce the spell more than the human could alone). The same goes for potions with ingredients from dragons (dragons scales, claws or ashes burnt by their fire for example); they are stronger than potions made from “common” ingredients (such as roots and small animals). As enemies the humans often need some kind of magical weapon or help from other magical creatures (such as swords by rare metals, angels helping or giving strong armor) to be able to slay it. Only exception is when the knight tricks the dragon to reveal how it is slayed (often a soft spot somewhere on their body).
Even Christianity have their stories about saints that would have slayed a dragon, although some researchers mean that in Christianity a dragon is a symbol of the devil and by this metaphor slaying the dragon would have meant slaying the devil (such as Sankt Mikael and Sankt Göran). Further discussion and research is to be made to reveal if it was a devil inside them or another mythological creature (such as demons) that are relevant in these stories.
Today many researchers, and common men, think that dragons could have existed in prehistoric times, but not as the fantasy literature describes them. It is more likely that dragons (in every form) are some undiscovered dinosaur without the fire-breathing capabilities. But if they were dinosaurs, mankind in ancient cultures should not have been able to describe them in their carvings and drawings, nor should they have been so detailed in 15th century stories (as in story about John Lambton, in 1420, slaying a dragon close to his castle).
So maybe it is an undiscovered animal, related to both dinosaurs and birds (such as the phoenix)? And what about animals that we today call dragons (such as salamander and Komodo dragon)? Are these remains of an older, larger and stronger animal breed?
Maybe, maybe not, but dragons are still tickling mankind’s imagination and interest, getting new believers (in their existence) and drawing readers and/or watchers to books and movies portraying dragons. Only time will tell if any real fossils will be found to shed more light on dragons existence in the prehistoric (and medieval) eras.
BBC & Discovery Network (2004). Dragon´s World: Fantasy Made Real https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FIDeOOL52Q
Dr. Karl Shuker (2006). Dragons: A Natural History.
Red. Dugald A. Steer, B.A. (BRIST), H.U.D.S. Drakologi. Damms stora bok om drakar.
Gustafsson, Kristoffer (2014). Monster och vidunder: lexikon över världens väsen.
Red. Cotterell, Arthur (2005). Mytologi: Gudar, hjältar, myter. p. 108
Colbert, David (2002). Harry Potter’s magiska värld. P. 49-54.
Red. Willis, Roy (1993). Prismas stora bok om mytologi.
Svahn, Clas (2008, 2007, 2009). Berättelser om det okända. p. 112-130. Det okända. p. 209-217. Möten med det okända. p. 233-246.
Red. Persson, Åke (1999). Gåtfullt: Mysterier, Monster, Legender. p. 8-26, 33-38.
Ehnmark, Erland (1958). Världens stora religioner. p. 66-67.
PS. Jag fick vitsord 2. Så inget bra vitsord men godkänt!