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Dragons: Fossils and the Collective Subconscious

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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.

    ….In 58 B.C., Pliny reported, the “spine of the sea serpent killed by Perseus at Joppa” (modern-day Jaffa) was displayed in Rome. Karl Shuker, author of “Dragons, A Natural History” (Simon & Schuster, 1995), surmises that the monster Cetus, swimming up to eat Andromeda, might have grown out of rare sightings of oarfish, a snakelike fish up to 30 feet long with a coral red head crest. Other scholars theorize that the skeleton might have been one of the sperm whales that once commonly beached near Jaffa. A half-rotted whale, with its jawbones and vestigial leg bones exposed, would look rather dragonlike, they say.

    ….But there is another obvious source for the dragon myth: the bones of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. Bones exposed by storms, earthquakes or digging were well known to the ancients, said Dr. Adrienne Mayor, a professor of folklore at Princeton and the author of “The First Fossil Hunters” (Princeton, 2000). She argues that the myth of gold-guarding griffins arose in the red clay of the Gobi Desert, a landscape literally scattered with white Protoceratops skulls, with parrot beaks and bony neck frills.

    Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, speculated as early as 1914 that the central nasal holes in skulls of prehistoric dwarf elephants were the source for Homer’s Cyclops. Abel added that the skulls of cave bears – ursus spelaeus, half again as big as grizzlies – could have given rise to tales of dragons.

    ….The head of a dragon sculptured in 1590 by Ulrich Vogelsang for the city of Klagenfurt, Austria, was modeled on a “dragon skull” found by quarrymen in 1335. It is now known to be that of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros.

    Paleontologists can even account for the legend that dragons have jewels in their foreheads. Big calcite crystals form on long-buried skulls.

Uniting these theories would give us a primordial fear in our monkey brains of snakes, big cats and raptors snatching us from our trees, which in turn would predispose us to interpret fossils and bones of unknown creatures as dragons, which is reinforced by classical literature and even the Bible. I would add, going even farther back into the atavistic recesses of our beings, maybe our reptile brains recognize themselves in dragons and thus feel an affinity. Or maybe not (“come along, take my hand, let’s all go to dragon laaaand”)

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About Eric Olsen