If it is possible that the Loch Ness Monster may have been one of the last remaining members of an extinct species then the same could be true for the dragon. How else could one explain the remarkable similarity between ancient depictions of dragons and some long-extinct dinosaurs? Well actually, the widely recognized medieval image of the dragon may have evolved from the original serpentine dragon after dinosaur remains were accidentally uncovered in classical Mesopotamia. In ancient Greece, Rome and the Celtic world dragon iconography was much more like that of China. Europe did not convert to the modern, metric dragon until much later on.
But does this alteration of dragon iconography help us determine the origin of the myth? Not really. The dragon, albeit in a more serpentine form, features in the folklore of almost every culture around the world and is synonymous with power, strength, wisdom and often brutality. The ancient civilizations of Central America even worshiped flying serpent gods, going so far as to make blood sacrifices in their honour. The serpent cults of Eastern Europe and Central Asia may once have done the same for their own dragon icons too. Clearly this reptilian obsession is as old as mankind itself.
But does this mean that dragons are nothing more than a distant memory from our primordial past? The people of medieval Europe and Asia clearly thought otherwise. To them dragons were everywhere, hiding in the cave down the road, burning down churches and eating their children. It was believed that the far off lands of the East were abound with the fire breathing brutes.
Are we to take these stories literally? Many scholars believe that dragons are nothing but a metaphor for evil and pagan ritual, but while this may be true of some Christian folklore there is much evidence to suggest that the monsters these people were so afraid of were not merely ideological in nature.
In the Far East, of course, dragons have entirely different connotations. There they are considered to be creatures of great wisdom and spirituality. They are associated with the elements of water and air, rather than fire. The gods are said to have descended from the sky inside the belly of a dragon. Legend has it that Emperor Huang Ti also ascended to the stars aboard a dragon drawn chariot. This, says UFOlogist Hartwig Hausdorf, is evidence that dragons were not living creatures at all, rather some kind of alien spacecraft.
To the people of medieval Europe the unexplored lands to the East were not only filled with dragons, there were also monopods (people born with a single large foot) mermen and dog-heads (a species of men born with the heads of dogs), to mention but a few.
The dog-head myth would seem to begin in classical Greece or Egypt and continued into the time of the early Christian church when various saints, including saint Christopher, were reported to have had the heads of dogs. The story was usually the same for each person: They were born with a terrible curse and forced to live the life of a wild animal, hunting wild prey and terrorizing the innocent. However, after repenting their sins and converting to Christianity, these freaks of nature were miraculously cured and given a fully human appearance.
By the early medieval period, however, the myth seems to have evolved somewhat, along with the dog-heads themselves. They were no longer a series of cursed individuals but a species, even a civilization all of their own. They lived in villages and farmed the land, just like humans. The legendary King Arthur had supposedly fought a battle against them in the hills of Edinburgh. They had even sent an envoy to the Vatican in the hope of establishing peaceful relations. Exactly where they lived was not known, although legend told that Alexander the Great had encountered them during his travels in the East, and so early explorers and missionaries fully expected to encounter them.
The ninth century theologian Ratramnus wrote a letter about the Dog-heads, posing the controversial question of whether or not missionaries should preach the gospel to them. If they were animals, he argued, then they do not have souls and cannot be converted. Nor should they be. But clearly they were more human than had previously been thought. They used tools, spoke in their own barking language and so were clearly intelligent. They also wore clothes and so had a sense of decency. They even lived in peace under the rule of law. Perhaps they were worthy of salvation after all.
Of course, as explorers and missionaries began to travel the East they never encountered a single dog-head but many, including Marco Polo, met people claiming that a friend of a friend had. Where? Further East of course.
When explorers finally reached the Far East they found that the Chinese told stories about the dog-heads too, and of their great dog kingdom. When asked where this kingdom was the Chinese would answer that it was even farther East in Japan, or by saying ‘we thought they lived in the West with you.’
So was there any truth to these stories? Surely not. The dog-heads were the invention of rumour, Chinese whispers and over active imaginations. But I like to think that they contributed something to the world without even having ever existed. They gave us cause to question what it means to be human and to have a soul. They may have even prepared us a little for the day we eventually do encounter a truly alien people. And perhaps our ongoing search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is simply a continuation of that great medieval wild goose chase.
- - The Sasquatch: http://usa.altermedia.info/images/patterson_bigfoot.jpg
- - The Vampire: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_IXSpjcXQk4M/SwVAlhO_2fI/AAAAAAAAAQI/NaIIUNQWuSA/s640/Vampire_PhilipBurneJones%5B1%5D.jpg
- - The Loch Ness Monster: http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Everyone%20Else/images-3/loch-ness-monster.jpg
- - Dragons: http://www.freewebs.com/lordshadowdragon/ShadowDragon.JPG
- - Dog-heads: http://www.metawake.info/images/art/doghead_nuremberg.jpg