Why don’t they exist, or why haven't they "ever existed" in the ancient past? How do we know this for sure, and how was this ‘fact’ established?
And so, let’s calmly question what we’ve been told, and what we’ve assumed, to prod the foundations of our knowledge, kick the tires of history, let out some of the puffed up contemporary fantastical air, and see if the vehicle of our Dragon lore is roadworthy, testing to see how far we can take it. A good practice is to be willing to entertain an idea to test its integrity.
So lets entertain away.
How we phrase the question is important though: Was there a time when Dragon’s existed? Or more precisely, could a Dragon-like creature have existed? I think to the latter question, the answer is a resounding YES. One need only look to the creatures on earth right now to surmise that history could well have seen something akin to what we’ve conceptualized the archetype dragon to be, and that it was perhaps these kind of creatures that inspired the early tales. And that’s the issue here. The main doubt about this animal is in people’s idea of it as this great fire spewing, scaled and winged monster rising from the depths of hell, perhaps the product of some wild imaginative liberty. From an objective view, it certainly seems to be the collective imaginative galvanization of our greatest fears.
Let’s just say off the bat, or firmly assume, that Dragons are a thing of myth and legend - what we understand those two words to mean, and…
They DEFINITELY NEVER EXISTED, at least not in the way fantasy and media portray it. – Let this be our starting point.
And so, the arguments against its existence follows:
- The lack of definitive evidence from the fossil record
- The clinical logical scientific issue, of flight
- Fire breathing ‘purpose’ - can a creature really breath fire?!
- What would cause such a dominant species to die out
- A Dragon-like creature has never 'walked' among men because dinosaurs died out millions of years ago. i.e. ancient civilizations were inspired by dinosaur fossils.
The Greek origin – ‘the one that watches’
Where does our knowledge of Dragons come from and what influenced or inspired the vivid modern day image? What other so-called mythological creatures are there that were also a result of ancient cultures – but that are shared as vividly throughout the ancient world as widely as the dragon?
Pegasus, mermaids, centaurs, … unicorns* – (*likely inspired by the rare Indian rhino... uni-single horn).
Are these creatures exclusive to one ancient culture, or do they feature in a few? Mostly, one finds they are isolated to specific cultures or myths.
But of all these creatures though, the dragon seems the likeliest to have potentially existed, based on what we know.
Refuting the claims against the existence of Dragons.
No Dragon fossils – Well, let’s remind ourselves that fossils are very rare and assume that if Dragons did exist, there weren’t that many of them around. Due to the media, we’ve taken fossils for granted. They are hard to come by, and the few we have are largely fragmented – that is to say we only have some remains of certain animals, in most cases only a small fraction of the animal’s remains, like a femur bone, some ribs, or the pelvic bones – whichever bones are the largest and usually take the most time to decay. I think it’s fair to say that there are more animals extinct than those we have currently living on earth. Put a different way: there is a large amount of animal species that DID exist, that we know nothing about, I mean, if it weren’t for the fossils, we wouldn’t have known that such creatures ever walked the earth (apart from potential ancient literature and historical accounts attesting to such unfamiliar creatures).
Now, consider the fossils we DO have and the ones that resemble the Dragon in appearance; the T-Rex, the Dracorex, Velosiraptor etc… And ask yourself, ‘how accurate are our replicas or fleshed out renderings of these animals?’ With only a skeleton to work with, there is a decent margin of error, call it an 'error factor'. Now, I’m not saying the artists and paleontologists are incorrect, but after the re-imagining of sinew and muscle tissue around the skeleton, the cartilage and skin/fur - it does leave the window ajar as to the amount of estimation that must go into these museum displays. (One display in a museum in America, is based on only 10% of the animal’s remains! In these instances, as well as the Chimera fossils, the error factor is compounded). Added to that is the varying interpretations of data found.
Let’s also clarify something here; not all Dragon representations have wings. The Biblical description (Job) did NOT include wings, however, later in Revelation when Satan is referenced as a Dragon, that’s a different story, because we know Lucifer was an Archangel, like Michael and Gabriel, and in other descriptions of Lucifer (before he was cast out of heaven), he did have wings… so the concept of the Dragon emerged from the amalgamation of the two images. However, the symbolic imagery from the John's controversial vision in the Book of Revelation (often confusing and difficult to interpret literal from figurative) also states that the woman the Dragon pursues, was given wings of an eagle to evade him, implying that the dragon (Lucifer) could NOT fly.
But that aside, for many considering this debate, removing the wings from the equation makes the Dragon's potential existence not so much a debate, as a probability – big dinosaur-type lizard creatures did exist, that much we know is true… it’s the fire and wings that people have always found to be a bridge too far.
But let's realistically consider the permutations of wings:
- With Wings, but NO flight - There have been claims that animals of that size cannot fly. The biggest bird, the Ostrich, is a typical example and there are a number of others in the "have wings, but cannot fly" category – the Penguin, Chicken, Dodo etc. But this actually supports the Dragon theory/lore, because Flight is not roundly essential? Perhaps Dragons had wings but could not fly and instead leaped and glided for a few meters. Again, tuning in to the Biblical description, parallels are made with the “Leviathan”, which was a sea creature. So picture this (with Penguins freshly in mind); a giant serpent creature leaping out of the sea and onto land, flapping its (wings/fins/flaps)… that makes for quite a frightful and awesome sight.
- With wings, and flight – Is it possible? Well an insect like the Bumble Bee, with a wingspan-to-body-weight ratio, clinically speaking, according to the laws of physics, should NOT be able to fly, but it does… However, we’re talking about a 10m high creature here, not an insect. And so we turn to the Quetzalcoatlus in the Pterosaur family of dinosaurs. It is believed that this massive Pterodactyl thing (as tall as a giraffe), if it did fly, had to run and hop before lift off. Another step, which I admit is a bit of a stretch, but not too far, is the Draco Lizard, a small ‘flying’ lizard. The Draco actually does NOT fly, it leaps and glides from tree to tree. On average these lizards are 20cm long (head to tail) but some 60 meter glides have been recorded with only a 10m descent in altitude… that’s an effective ‘glide coefficient of an impressive 300x its body length’!
Interesting facts (loosely related) - We must also remind ourselves, as mentioned, serpents’ bodies do expand when they eat (including unhinging their jaws to devour their prey and an expandable spine). Also fully grown Nile Crocodiles can reach a top speed of around 35km/h, which is roughly 2min per kilometer, about on par with Olympic athletes (800m – 1min45sec) and this for an animal weighing in at about 500kg. This is only to lend some context to a would-be Dragon’s agility and maneuverability,
Still on the possibility of flight – continuing on from flexible and ‘expanding’ skeletons, we turn to bone density, although now we are stretching our hypothesis a tad… so let’s return to the land of the living and remind ourselves that there are snakes that glide too, much like the Draco Lizard some breeds can leap from tree-to-tree, flattening their bodies, and then there’s the water snake, which (as its name indicates) can glide on the surface of water.
So the ergonomics for a dragon to realistically attain flight (or at least gliding), is very much achievable.
Why would such an animal have this ‘feature’? Presumably it would be a defense mechanism, but against what exactly?
Are there any living animals that display this feature, or features similar to, or shall we say as 'extravagant' as this?
In the film ‘Reign of Fire (2002)’ it featured dragons that had two glandular chambers in opposing sides of its mouth, each chamber containing a chemical that when ejected they'd combined to form a combustible mixture. This ‘mechanism’ was inspired by the Bombardier beetle.
Furthermore, in the animal kingdom we have electric Eels (another kind of serpent), and then there's Fireflies – the ‘glowing’ feature is for attracting mates or prey.
I’ll leave the fire-breathing summation up to you, but the above is a just a logical idea of how the ‘fire-breathing’ element/mechanism can be explained.
There are historical sources which claim the dragon's main 'killing' weapon was its tail - as a whip, or coiling around its victim, and that it was without poison. So it must also be added that the fire element was more of a 'deterrent' and intimidating factor...
If historical accounts surrounding dragons are to be believed (and we have no evidence on why they should not), then human intervention played a huge role. Men striving to tame the fearsome animal and what happens when an animal is hunted; you find that the size of the animal diminishes over time as they’re prevented from growing to maturity - killed before they reach full strength.
Look at the early fossils of so-called prehistoric crocodile’s, or the large extinct Dire wolf losing out to the more nimble Grey wolf (although external factors played a role too).
Historical accounts are consistent with this ‘shrinking’. The ancient accounts paint a picture of a large fearsome creature, whilst later accounts such as those of Herodotus (the Greek historian, ca. 460 B.C.) and Josephus (the Roman historian writing in the 1st century AD - 2:10:2:245-246), speak of ‘flying serpents’ - the latter's case 'the Ibis bird was used to repel the flying serpents. Another theory claims that the latter two historians were likely referring to surviving Pterosaurs.
Either way the biggest influencing factor, as is the trend with rare species of animals, was mankind.
Are Dragon's Dinosaurs... but then are we saying man encountered dinosaurs?
The first point, about fossils resembling dragon's - meaning great Lizard - seems to backup up the final point, that ancient civilizations were inspired by such finds... But can we make this blanket assertion for all ancient cultures? That they all independently conceptualized this similar terror? In this writer's opinion, we cannot. Especially not in light of bona fide historical accounts... the reason why this fossil theory is so relied upon, is because the prevailing scientific hypothesis states that dinosaurs died out some 70 million years ago, but early human history seems to contradict this. Never mind that they've discovered soft tissue in Dinosaur bones (that scientists have failed to explain adequately - as to how could soft tissue can withstand millions of years of decay), and there are cases of rock art (Peru) that suggest man walked with dinosaurs (in addition to Hebrew literature, which is what the Bible is. Whilst archeologists investigating in Denmark have found that Beowulf, Europe's earliest literature, is based on fact, real clans, places and people... the difficult part to digest is Dragons and giants... or if the tale is real, did Beowulf then perhaps fight one of the last remaining dinosaurs of that region?)
This issue is simply about reconciling whether or not dinosaurs lived in the same time as man, and there are big enough cracks in the geologic/prehistoric timetable theory to peer into, throwing ample reasonable doubt into the equation.
This though is another exciting rabbit hole.
But back on track; dragons are simply a form of ancient lizard/serpent , and there are plenty of those species still in existence. As mentioned, the alligator/crocodile, the monitor lizard, Komodo Dragon etc. are recognized for being ancient creatures.
And then we arrive at the one which bears the most striking resemblance to contemporary dragon renderings:
The Smaug Giganteus, aka ‘Sungazer’ – endemic to South Africa.
“Sungazers are heavily armoured lizards hence one of their common names, the Girdled Lizard. This is derived from the bony scales along their body. Another name for them ‘Ouvolk’ is from Afrikaans and roughly translates into “Old Folk”, supposedly referring to its tendency of sitting at the entrance of the burrow facing the sun for many hours on end. Universally, the most commonly used name, Sungazer is also derived from this posturing.
“These colonial, ovoviviparous lizards reproduce every two to three years, and only produce one or two offspring per breeding cycle.” (Bill Branch. 1998. Field Guide to Snakes and other reptiles of Southern Africa, p. 189)
I highlighted the line above because it’s consistent with the earliest meanings of the word dragon and also how they're portrayed;
Word: Dragon - Middle English < Old French < Latin dracōn- (stem of dracō) < Greek drákōn kind of serpent, probably orig. epithet, the (sharp-) sighted one, akin to dérkesthai to look … and more remotely “to watch” and “to flash.”
Name: Drakon (Δράκων)) - Greek name meaning "dragon." In Greek mythology - Drakon Ismenios was a gigantic serpent which guarded the sacred spring of Ismenos near Thebes; the Drakon Kholkikos was the guardian of the golden fleece…
“St. Roma’nus delivered the city of Rouen from a dragon, named Gargouille (waterspout), which lived in the river Seine.” (bartleby.com) – gargouille… inspiration for “gargoyle”.
“In reality snakes do not shut their eyes because they do not have eyelids, giving the impression they are awake all the time, and watching with a menacing unblinking stare.” – (constellationofwords.com - © Anne Wright 2008.)
On a larger worldwide scale though, in practically all ancient cultures that have some form of recorded history, there are references to dragons, or a dragon-like creatures. As noted sources of dragon's are cited in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Europe (Greek and Hebrew text). Farther east in India (via Alexander the Great and Marco Polo), as well as historian accounts of Geisner, Gould, Aldrovandus, Strabo and Megasthenes... there's Mexico (Acambaro art) then there's the ubiquitous and expansive Chinese Dragon lore, with many more accounts littering the Old world. Yes, in some of the later accounts the Dragons may differ in description, but the explanation that all these cultures and historians simply saw dinosaur fossils and interpreted them as "dragon", doesn't sync. I'm sure there are instances of this occurring, but even Marco Polo wrote of actual terrifying nocturnal serpents with wings and two legs.
So, based on the evidence at hand, and knowing for a certainty that I DO NOT know everything... I will say that outside my Biblical background, the case or likelihood for the Dragon's existence, even close to the modern fantasy renditions, is actually quite good. There is of course doubt, but we cannot simply stick dogmatically to the "dragons are simply mythical creatures, of legend and nothing more". The evidence before us strongly suggests that it may be a simple case of personal preference,
to look at the data with a positive or negative mindset, for or against.
“There is a place in Arabia, situated very near the city of Buto, to which I went, on hearing of some winged serpents; and when I arrived there, I saw bones and spines of serpents, in such quantities as it would be impossible to describe. The form of the serpent is like that of the water-snake; but he has wings without feathers, and as like as possible to the wings of a bat” (Herodotus, 1850, pp. 75-56)
It's interesting that the flying serpents were said to originate from Arabia – Buto is an ancient city in the Nile Delta that now lays in ruin… why is this interesting? Well if you travel a bit south on the opposite side of the Red Sea you’ll find Yemen, still advancing south, just off the horn of Africa there’s the Yemeni Island of Socotra, an alien-looking place known for its ‘Dragon Trees’ – which bleed red.
"That the Egyptians were building large, sea-going ships as early as 2000 B.C. is well known. In them they traded with Crete and Phoenicia … and with western Mediterranean ports. They sailed up and down the Red Sea, exploring Sinai and Yemen; visited Socotra, where grew the dragon-blood tree; went far south along the African shore; searched the Arabian coast, gathering frankincense (said to be guarded in its growth by small winged serpents); and made voyages back and forth between the Red Sea and the ports of Babylonia and Elam on the Persian Gulf”
Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll, 
‘I am not telling you, after all, that there are no dragons; dragons exist but they are serpents [reptiles] borne of other serpents. When just born and young, they are small; but when they grow up and mature, they become big and fat so that they exceed the other serpents in length and size. It is said they grow up more than thirty cubits [14 metres, 45 feet]; as for their thickness, they become as thick as a huge log.’
‘Dio the Roman [aka Cassius Dio, AD 155–236], who wrote the history of the Roman empire and republic, reports the following: One day, when Regulus, a Roman consul [3rd C. BC], was fighting against Carthage, a dragon suddenly crept up and settled behind the wall of the Roman army. The Romans killed it by order of Regulus, skinned it and sent the hide to the Roman senate. When the dragon’s hide, as Dio says, was measured by order of the senate, it happened to be, amazingly, one hundred and twenty feet long, and the thickness was fitting to the length.’
- writings of St. John of Damascus (St John Damascene, Johannes Damascenus) ‘On Dragons and Ghosts’ (c. 675–749) - translated by Maxim Kozlov
Some more thought provoking images:
A fossilized skull of a dinosaur that’s officially called “Dracorex Hogwartsia”. Again, the official word is that the fossil probably does NOT belong to the serpentine genus/family. Here’s what the paleontologists say:
“probably a new genus or subfamily of Pachycephalosaurus. Most pachycephalosaurs are known for their dome-shaped skulls; however, our dinosaur had a flat skull covered in small bony warts. It is the first of its kind found in North America.”
Since there’s only a skull, its hard to make conclusive summations on the species, already designated by the experts as probably a new genus... and one of a kind.
And as Dr. Paul Saulsbury (one of the paleontologists credited with the find) noted at the Dracorex skull’s museum unveiling -
‘One boy who was just beaming came up to Brian, Steve, and me.
"I just knew there were dragons!" he said.’
[Image and extract sources: http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/discovering-new-dinosaur-species-dracorex-hogwartsia, jpm-thnktnk.blogspot.com, flickr.com, http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/ddl/ddl04.htm, earth66.com.
Additional sources: http://www.genesispark.com/exhibits/evidence/historical/dragons/, http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/b/beowulf/character-analysis/beowulf, http://livingdinos.com/2011/07/dragons-animals-%E2%80%A6-not-apparitions/]