Like music and dancing, virtually every human culture has created images of dragons, even the Inuits who live where there aren't even any reptiles. Why is this so? The NY Times has an interesting look into this phenomenon:
- A huge scaly serpent, usually with the wings of a bat or bird. Four or two or no legs. Breathes fire or poisonous fumes. May talk, but won't take guff from mere mortals. Sometimes has a vulnerable underbelly (good luck, Siegfried!) and sometimes is solid armor plate. May guard a treasure. May diet on virgins, or anything that crosses its path, halitosis-barbecued.
Sound familiar? Of course. For everyone from Perseus of Jaffa to Harry of Hogwarts, it's a dragon.
Of all the hoary old monsters, dragons are the most persistent, appearing everywhere from mall crystal shops to Disney movies. Cryptozoologists search for its cousins, the Loch Ness monster and the mokele-mbembe of the Congo swamps.
Dragon images have been found on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, on scrolls from China, in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ethiopian sketches, on the prows of Viking ships, in bas relief on Aztec temples, on cliffs above the Mississippi River and even on bones carved by Inuits in climates where no reptile could live.
Now scholars drawing on primitive art, fossilized bones and ancient legends are struggling to explain how cultures that had no contact with one another constructed mythical creatures so remarkably similar.
....In "An Instinct for Dragons" (Routledge, 2000), Dr. David E. Jones, a professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, posits a biological explanation that jibes with the Jungian notion of unconscious collective fears. He argues that the dragon image, fermented in the primal soup of man's first nightmares, is a composite of the carnivores who fed on human ancestors when they were tree-dwelling monkeys: the pythons, the big cats and the raptors.
Professor Jones was struck by the idea, he said, while reading about the three-alarm calls of the vervet monkey. The first, for leopards, makes them leap for the treetops. The second, for eagles, makes them duck to low branches, and the third, for snakes, makes them jump.
Obviously, there is quite an evolutionary gap between vervet monkeys and the Sumerians of 5000 B.C., the first people known to have drawn dragons. But Dr. Jones argues that the same elemental fears persist in humans as snake and bird phobias, and he cites as evidence the fact that infant chimpanzees who have never seen snakes are terrified of them.