Doug Bonderud

Jan 9th 2023

Did Dragons Exist? Exploring the Mythical Monster Mystery


It doesn’t take long to find a dragon. Dig into the mythos of almost any culture across the globe and you’ll find details about dragons. For some, these lizards were signs of good luck; for others, they were the harbingers of evil.

No matter where humans went around the world, it seems dragons followed. But did dragons exist? And where did the idea of dragons come from? Is there any scientific evidence to support the existence of these mythical monsters? Let’s fire it up.

Here — and Everywhere — Be Dragons

In English, the term “dragon” is typically traced back to the Ancient Greek “drakon” and the Latin “draco,” which both (unsurprisingly) mean serpent. As Tor notes, a deeper look at the root word in Greek suggests its origin is “derk-,” which means “to see.” But despite millennia of dragon descriptions, eyewitnesses were conspicuously absent.

What do these “maybe saw it, maybe didn’t” sightings tell us about dragons? First, the sheer variety of reports suggests they aren’t confined to one continent or culture. This makes sense — if these giant beasts really did exist, globetrotting would hardly be a challenge. But descriptions of dragons aren’t consistent. While many countries have a storied history of dragon sightings, accounts of what these lizards look like and how they behave vary considerably.

In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr, also called the Midgard Serpent or the World Serpent, featured the fairly standard wings and fire-breathing we still associate with dragons today. In Greek, Typhon was known as the father of all monsters and had 100 dragon heads sprouting from his shoulders. In Babylon, the death of the sea-dragon Tiamat enabled the creation of Earth.

Dragons also made their way to China and Africa. In China, dragons were considered a benevolent source of good fortune that swam in lakes and oceans and soared through the skies. Unlike their Western counterparts, these dragons were more snake-like with long, lithe bodies and large eyes, but they had no wings. In Africa, meanwhile, dragons such as Ayida and Damballah were depicted as intertwined serpents.

Let’s Get Lit(erature)

Thanks to continual sightings and legends repeated over and over, dragons made their way into popular consciousness — and popular literature.

Consider the dragon Smaug from Tolkien’s “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” Smaug is the classically malicious, fire-breathing treasure-hoarder that lived in a cave and had no problem roasting people alive. Or, look at more recent dragon depictions, such as those in the TV series, “Game of Thrones.” Hatched from eggs bathed in fire at the beginning of the series, these dragons formed a bond with a woman immune to their flames and went on to raze cities and armies on her command.

These mythical beasts have made countless appearances in video games, as well, from the rot-infested fire-breathers in FromSoftware’s “Elden Ring” to the loudmouthed flying lizards in Bethesda’s “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” Dragons have also made their way into tabletop games, such as the eponymous “Dungeons & Dragons,” which defines three families of these creatures: metallic, chromatic and gem.

Now, dragons are everywhere, from sci-fi and fantasy novels to kids’ movies and literature. Some of these dragons are capable of speech, and some simply roar. Some can breathe multiple types of fire, while others rely on fangs and claws. Some can be tamed and ridden into the wild blue yonder; others serve only as destructive, uncontrollable forces.

Dragons and the Human Condition

Where did the idea of dragons come from? While there’s no single answer, multiple origin points have been suggested. First up are dinosaur bones. As Smithsonian Magazine notes, it’s not a stretch to think that massive, unidentified bones — such as those belonging to a Tyrannosaurus rex — could be mistaken for the remnants of a dragon.

Whale bones are another option: The sheer size of these skeletons may have suggested that they were naturally predatory and could have formed the basis of dragon descriptions. Reptiles are another contender. Take, for example, the Nile Crocodile, which can reach 18 feet in length and has the ability to “high walk,” where it raises its stomach off the ground to give a more dragon-like gait.

It’s also possible that human evolution is responsible for our dragon fixation. Just like other animal species, we have an innate fear of large predators, and some of the most persistent predator traits, such as massive size, sharp claws and the ability to swoop down unexpectedly, gave rise to the general idea of a dragon.

There is some adjacent scientific support for this notion thanks to the idea of “convergent evolution,” which sees independent organisms evolving similar traits. Crabs offer a prime example: According to ScienceAlert, the evolution of crab-like bodies across multiple species has happened at least five times in the last 250 million years, and this crabbiness has been lost seven times or more. For whatever reason, crabs continue to evolve again and again.

The same may be true of our dragon descriptions. Humans across the globe may have been evolutionarily predisposed to collectively dream up a nightmarish creature with similar features that could seriously ruin our days.

So, we come back to our original question: Did dragons exist? In our collective imaginations, absolutely. In real life, probably not. While it makes sense that massive, unidentified bones combined with smaller creatures that look like they could be dragon relatives inspired the legends, we’ll have to be satisfied with fictional dragon depictions to fuel the fire of our mythical mentality.

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