By Drew Parton
Perhaps above all the monsters and creatures I could talk about, there exists one that has continuously occupied the imagination of people all over the world. A fearsome beast that evolved simultaneously in both the eastern and western world. This week, I’ll be talking about the origins and evolution of Dragon myth and dragons–specifically, from Dratini, to Dragonaire, to Dragonite.
The European dragon (the victim of violent hate-crimes perpetrated by Knights) is often depicted as an evil beast that breathes fire and adores gold. Whilst the Chinese (Eastern) dragon is often depicted as simply a force of nature–almost godlike, and actually considered a good omen.
Tell that to Christian Bale.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll be focusing mainly on the European dragon–also because most of the anthropological and mythological research has been done on them.
Let’s get the scientific plausibility out of the way. Bird and Bats can fly because their bones are super hollow, their wings are very big, and they’re light enough such that they can propel themselves. No lizard is light enough to be able to really fly. And any Dragon light enough to fly would be so hilariously weak that there’s no way we’d ever fear them or create myths about them. They’d all be like Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable.
Now, if we’re going to split hairs here, our boy Smaug isn’t really a dragon by classical means. Believe it or not, there are professional scholars of folklore and mythology, and some distinguish a Dragon as having four legs and two wings, while Benedict Cabbagepatch up there would really be a Wyvern–a serpent beast with two legs and two wings.
Oddly enough, the Eastern and Western dragon myths evolved remarkably separate, though they may have influenced each other very early on. The dragon has its roots as far back as Babylonian mythology, and for the most part between then and now, they’ve remained the same. Even through Babylonian times, Ancient Greek mythology, all the way to Harry Potter and Bilbo, Dragons haven’t changed. They’re scaly lizards with wings that have a tendency of spitting fire. Over vast amounts of time and differences in cultures, that hasn’t really changed. The gist of the beast has remained constant, I mean, there really hasn’t ever been something outlandish, like a furry dragon (WARNING DO NOT GOOGLE FURRY DRAGON I MADE A SERIOUS MISTAKE). So where do Dragons come from, and what do they mean to us?
Well, most scholars attribute the origins of dragons to the Babylonian god Tiamat. See, Tiamat and his god-bro Apsu were waging a war against their bratty kids when Apsu got killed. Seeing his partner go down sent Tiamat into a horrific rage and he turned into a giant serpent that went absolutely ape-shit on the world. Now, Babylonians certainly had a reason to fear venomous snakes, living in Mesopotamia.
Pictured: Fear. Adorable, fear itself.
Venemous snakes were prolific and deadly in the area back then, and medicine wasn’t able to combat the venom. But if Tiamat’s dragon form was just a big snake, when did Dragons become a winged lizard with legs that spit fire? Well, it was gradual. In the Greek legend of the Golden Fleece, the hero Jason goes to get a magical fleece that is guarded by a fearsome serpent called Dracos. This is the root of the word Drake and Dragon. But it’s also a word for “snake.” But even with the enormous size of some boas, there’s little way that a snake could inspire such a creature as a dragon. But it’s clearly where the fear comes from.
Carl Sagan discussed a biological predisposition to Ophidiophobia in his book The Dragons of Eden. In the environment of ancient mammals and our ancestors, venomous snakes were a real danger and cause of deaths. The theory, originally proposed by Martin Seligman is called Biologically Prepared Learning. It’s an evolutionary psychology theory that proposes that not only fears, but the learned acquisition of fears played a vital role in our species’ survival and propagation. Fear is what kept us alive–and what still keeps us alive. The pain induced by stomach sickness taught our ancestors not to eat food that looked like that. The longer (and better) they remembered this fear, the more likely they would avoid possibly dangerous situations. Thus, a predisposition for fearing certain things was selected by evolution. Snakes, spiders, and blood being three–and indeed the three most common phobias in the world.
So, ancient dragons were very very big snakes or serpents, how did that evolve into the winged beasts that breathe hellfire?
To be blunt, snakes weren’t very bloody scary anymore. As human civilization spread out into areas where dangerous snakes were less common, snakes didn’t represent a threat anymore. It’s like being scared of poodles, yes our ancestors probably used to fear their ancestors, but they’re not very scary now. That myth and that creature evolved. So, what could be scarier than a snake? How ’bout one that fucking flies and has razor sharp teeth and spits fire? Hell yeah, that’s metal.
But if the winged reptillian was a suped-up snake, where did the fire-breathing come from? Well, there might be a scientific explanation for this part of dragon myth. Smaug, the dragons from Arthurian legends, the dragon from Beowulf–even the dragon that lives in Gringotts Bank (what’s up, Potterheads) share two very similar traits: 1. They live underground and 2. They love gold and treasure. Dragon myths from the middle-age onwards tend to depict dragons as subterranean, and this is where the key to the dragon’s breath might lie. Linguist and archeologist Elizabeth Barber proposes that dragonfire is a product of natural gas. Picture this, some ancient miners were digging, looking for some precious minerals Minecraft style, using torches to see their work. They dig and pick away when all of a sudden they strike into a pocket of natural gas, a stream of pressurized gas springs out and ignites on the torch!
It’s not hard to imagine that the miners might have thought it was some horrific beast lying underground. In the classic myth of Beowulf (not the CGI one with golden Angelina Jolie), someone takes a goblet from a burial crypt, a jet of fire sprays out, Beowulf’s buddy Wiglaf stabs that fire, and it stops. Then, when they go to investigate the dragon’s body they find that “no vestige now was seen of the serpent: the sword had ta’en him” (Seamus Heaney trans.). That’s some hardcore shit, Wiglaf stabbed that dragon so hard it annihilated him, that’ll teach him to mess with the B-Wolf.
Every so often, I like to remind people that this exists….
It is interesting to note that fire-breathing serpents are pretty unique to North-West Europe, which lends credence to the natural gas explanation, as there are multiple coal veins and natural gas deposits through England, France, Germany, and Scandanavia (where these Dragon myths come from). Neither Tiamet, nor Dracos was described as being able to breath fire.
Now, there is a similar explanation for the Chinese dragon’s fire-breath. But it is a little odder. There is a type of Bacteria that eats organic matter and shits methane like it ain’t no thing. These Bacteria often live in your intestines and are the reason that your can light your farts on fire. However, they don’t tend to live long in oxygen-rich environments. But in a tomb that’s been sealed off with mounds of sediment locking air out? Oh, yeah, those Bacteria would be having a party down there.
This was actually a result when I Googled “Bacteria party.” I am not disappointed.
The Chinese describe a phenomena called “Fire pit graves,” where grave-robbers foolish enough to disturb the resting place of ancestors where burnt alive. Anthropologists and biologists have found huge amounts of Methane-producing bacteria in such graves. A sufficient amount of bacteria to produce enough methane to create a large burst of fire.
These days, Dragons have been depicted more as good–or at the very least sympathetic, because they too are no longer frightening to us. But nobody has yet to make a myth about cancer or heart disease.
Anyway, join me next week for Part 3, where I move further forward in time to talk about Zombies and Vampires.
And be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
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If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.