A Scientific Theory of the Origin of Dragons

I’ve just stumbled upon a scholarly article on the origin of dragon-lore in early human cultures: Robert Blust, “The Origin of Dragons,” Anthropos 95 (2000): 519–36.

This is far more highbrow than many of my readers will appreciate, but it’s the sort of thing that stokes my imagination as I think through how I want magic, dragons, and other mythological creatures to “work” in my writing. Here’s an intriguing paragraph from near the beginning:

[T]he idea of the dragon arose through processes of reasoning which do not differ essentially from those underlying modern scientific explanations. Far from being the product of a capricious imagination, the dragon was mentally constructed in many parts of the world as a by-product of 1. meticulously accurate observations of weather phenomena, and 2. an earnest but unsuccessful attempt to grasp the causality of natural events, particularly those relating to rainfall. The dragon thus stands as one of the supremely instructive examples of convergent evolution in the symbolic life of the mind.

By the way, dragons will make their first appearance in the Into the Wonder series with its fourth book, The River of Night, which is currently in the hands of my beta readers. 🙂

The Science of Dragons (and Other Assorted Beasties)

Is “hard fantasy” a thing? Because I love it when there is at least the attempt to ground fantastic beasts, magic, and so forth in known science.

Maddie Stone has enlisted the help of some biology experts to uncover the science behind some of the creatures found in Game of Thrones. She looks at dragons, direwolves, manticores, lizard lions, krakens, and white walkers.

A while back I noted some prehistoric beasts that would make excellent stand-ins for some of the more notable monsters of mythology. One of those, the naked bear (aka the stiff-legged bear) even made its way onto the cover of The Devil’s Due.

Twelve Uses of Dragon’s Blood (plus Some Other Useful Dragon Parts)

There really are many uses of dragon’s blood in folklore and legend, many of which far predate the work of Albus Dumbledore. Here are some of the uses that strike me as the most interesting/cool/noteworthy.

“Dragon’s blood” can mean at least three different things in an early text or story. First, it can refer to the actual blood of a fantastic beast from mythology. Second, it can refer to a resin noted for its bright red color, obtained from a number of trees, most commonly Dracaena cinnabari, the so-called “dragon’s blood tree” from the island of Socotra. Finally, it can refer to the poisonous mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulfide, which was sometimes confused with dragon’s blood resin in ancient times—with disastrous results! The word “cinnabar” actually comes from Persian words meaning “dragon’s blood.”

Let’s begin with world mythology and the uses attached to the blood of an actual dragon:

(1) Acid. The dragon that eventually killed Beowulf had blood so acidic it could eat through iron. Medieval alchemists held that dragon’s blood was the only solvent capable of dissolving gold. There is, therefore, a nugget of truth in J. K. Rowling’s assertion that the twelfth use of dragon’s blood discovered by Dumbledore is “oven cleaner”: something as caustic as dragon’s blood would definitely remove baked-on food from practically any surface!

(2) Poison. In Armenian legend, dragon’s blood could be applied as a poison to weapons. In Slavic legend, the blood of a dragon was so vile and poisonous that the earth itself would not absorb it. It should be noted here that cinnabar is also highly poisonous. The effects of cinnabar poisoning include tremors, extreme mood changes, and loss of hearing progressing to severe mental derangement and death.

Given these first two uses, the positive nature of most of those that follow are more than a bit surprising. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, however, if dragons are interpreted as wild, unpredictable creatures capable of bringing health and blessing as well as death:

(3) Source of Invulnerability. In Germanic legend, the hero Sigurd bathed in dragon’s blood and was granted invulnerability. Similarly, when the hero Ornit dipped his armor in the substance, it too became impervious to mundane weapons.

(4) Source of Secret Knowledge. When Sigurd accidentally tasted the blood of the dragon Fafnir, it granted him the ability to understand the language of birds. Some have interpreted this as the blood imparting a knowledge that is available to dragons but not to humans.

Finally, three more effects of a more general nature are sometimes claimed for dragons in western mythology. All of them probably derive from the primitive idea that one can gain the powers or abilities of something by consuming a part of it. Since dragons are noted for their keen eyesight, bravery, and long life, these should not be terribly surprising:

(5) Cure for Blindness. As noted below, dragon’s blood resin is touted as a cure for many physical ailments. Since dragons are associated with keen eyesight, this particular cure deserves special mention.

(6) Bravery Enhancer. Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic patent medicines for anxiety or depression sometimes include trace amounts of cinnabar.

(7) Lifespan Extender. Probably goes very closely with the invulnerability.

The next five are actual uses of dragon’s blood resin, which can be bought online and at various herbalist and other specialty shops.

(8) General Cure-All. On the island of Socotra, dragon’s blood is used as a cure-all for practically everything: fevers, kidney stones, wounds, tumors, respiratory and gastrointestinal complaints, etc. In ancient times, Greco-Roman naturalists such as Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides discussed the curative properties of this substance.

(9) Magic Enhancer. Those involved with Wicca, neopaganism, hoodoo, and other practices claim that burning powdered dragon’s blood as  an incense can increase the potency of spells or rituals related to protection, banishing, prosperity, luck, love, and fertility.

(10) Coloring Agent. Dragon’s blood is also used as a dye, ink, or painting pigment. Socotrans use it to dye wool. Neopagan, Wiccan, Hoodoo, and other practitioners say dragon’s-blood ink can be used for writing spells, runes, magical seals, etc.

(11) Varnish. Dragon’s blood resin has been used to coat and stain wooden objects for centuries. In the eighteenth century, it was especially sought as a varnish for violins. Similarly, cinnabar was used in ancient Japan and elsewhere to lacquer both wooden and clay vessels.

(12) Mouthwash. This is another use to which Socotrans put dragon’s blood. Dissolved in water and gargled, it can serve as an astringent, a stimulant, and even a kind of toothpaste.

Finally, here are a few tidbits about the other parts of the dragon and the uses to which they can be put:

Dracontia: This was a stone said to exist within a dragon’s skull. If retrieved from a still-living dragon, it could be used as an antidote for a wide array of poisons. Simply boil it in water, then drink the water.

Bones: Powdered dragon bone (called longgu) has long been prized in Chinese medicine as a cure for madness, dysentery, diarrhea, and kidney ailments among other complaints. In some cultures, the first vertebra of a dragon can be worn as a charm to give the wearer sway with people of power. The same is also claimed for dragon’s teeth and heart-fat.

Teeth: Dragon’s teeth are also thought to have great medicinal value in the east, where they are used to treat madness, spasms, epilepsy, etc. In Greek mythology, dragon’s teeth can be sown in a field, and warriors will spring up.

Heart: Another detail from Germanic mythology is that eating a dragon’s heart is said to confer wisdom. At least, that is what the birds who watched Sigurd cook one said would happen. Pliny the elder claimed that consuming dragon’s heart confers strength and intelligence.

Fat: According to Pliny, the fat of dragons dried in the sun cures ulcers and repels undesirable beasts. Mixed with other ingredients, it can cure visual impairments, ulcers, and poisonous wounds.

Dragons of Ancient India

Adrienne Meyer of Wonders and Marvels is blogging today about the dragons of ancient India:

“Dragons of enormous size and variety infest northern India,” concluded Apollonius of Tyana who traveled through the southern foothills of the Himalayas in the first century AD. “The countryside is full of them and no mountain ridge was without one.” Locals regaled visitors with fantastic tales of dragon hunting, using magic to lure them out of the earth in order to pry out the gems embedded in the dragons’ skulls.

Trophies of these quests were displayed in Paraka at the foot of a great mountain, “where a great many skulls of dragons were enshrined.” Ancient Paraka has never been identified, but linguistic clues suggest it was the ancient name for Peshawar. In later times a famous Buddhist holy place near Peshawar was known as “the shrine of the thousand heads.”

Not surprisingly (to me), the bones of prehistoric creatures are likely the explanation for these legends:

Apollonius traveled through the pass at Peshawar and southeast on a route that skirted the Siwalik Hills below the Himalayas. The barren foothills of the Siwalik range boast vast and rich fossil beds with rich remains of long-extinct bizarre creatures. On these eroding slopes and marshes from Kashmir to the banks of the Ganges, people in antiquity would have observed hosts of strange skeletons emerging from the earth: enormous crocodiles (20 feet long); tortoises the size of a Mini Cooper; shovel‑tusked gomphotheres, stegodons, and Elephas hysudricus with its bulging brow; chalicotheres and anthracotheres; the large giraffe Giraffokeryx; and the truly colossal Sivatherium (named after the Hindu god Siva), a moose‑like giraffe as big as an elephant and carrying massive antlers. It seems safe to guess that the “dragon” heads exhibited at Paraka included the skulls of some of these strange creatures from the Siwalik Hills.

The whole thing is a fascinating read.

Large Flying Beasties

Speaking of dragons, I’ve been trying to nail down the physiology of some large mythological flyers for possible inclusion in my third Into the Wonder novel. I’ve come across the following rules of thumb that may prove helpful to others trying to imagine dragons, griffins, and other creatures in something like a realistic way:

  • Birds have a wingspan of roughly 2 times their head-body length (falcons average around 2.5)
  • Bats have a wingspan of roughly 5 times their head-body length
  • Pterosaurs had a wingspan of roughly 6 times their body length (first dorsal to last sacral vertebra)

Within these parameters—and assuming the creature is not too heavy to fly at all!—a smaller ratio (like a finch) provides greater maneuverability while a larger ratio (like an albatross) provides greater endurance.

Furthermore, you can make a guess about the weight of a flying creature, or at least avoid something impossible, by taking wing loading into account. This has to do with how much weight and pressure a wing can manage. For birds, five pounds of body weight per square foot of wing surface is about the limit.

Some cool sources I found along the way:

The Anatomy of a Dragon

The British Library has compiled a treasury of medieval images of dragons in honor of Saint George’s Day.

Dragons are near-ubiquitious in medieval manuscripts.  They take pride of place in bestiaries and herbals, books of history and legend, and Apocalypse texts, to name a few.  They serve as symbols, heraldic devices, and even as ‘just’ decoration, and their physical characteristics can vary widely. Cinematic and literary depictions of dragons today are fairly consistent; they are almost always shown as reptilian, winged, fire-breathing creatures (in a word, Smaug).  But this was by no means a constant portrayal in the medieval period.

Let’s have a look at a very common medieval trope – of the dragon as the nemesis of a saint or angel.  Below we can see dragons facing off against St George (again), St Margaret, and the Archangel Michael.  All these examples are drawn from late 15th century manuscripts, but their dragons are very different, and range from a lizard-y animal with duck-like feet to a winged leonine creature and a demon.