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Ossified Dragon Theories
2006 04 30

By Rens van der Sluijs |

Sinohydrosaurus lingyuanensis, first formally described and named in 1999, is said to have lived in the Cretaceous Period 125 million years ago.
Photo credit: Rens van der Sluijs

If there is a prevailing theory about dragons, perhaps it is the oft-repeated claim that reptilian species –alive or extinct–lurk behind the mythical image. But closer scrutiny casts doubt on such theories, while pointing to the similarities between the dragon and the life-like forms of plasma discharge.

The idea of a reptilian 'prototype' of the fabulous dragon comes in various forms, all of which have their proponents. Many students of dragon lore have suggested that the instinctive fear of snakes led to irrational, exaggerated accounts of a harmful serpent of mythical proportions; or perhaps the confrontation of prehistoric people with snakes triggered archaic, deeply-rooted and genetically-encoded memories of a time when distant Mammalian ancestors were on top of the Dinosaurian menu.

Alternatively, some propose that the ancient myth-makers inferred the existence of these monsters from the fossilized bones of dinosaurs they happened upon (see pictured above); or 'living fossils', the rare survivors of a once more widespread kind, could have provided the impetus; or so-called 'cryptids', reported but officially undiscovered animals, may have formed the inspiration behind the fantastic stories.

In reality, all such interpretations do little justice to the elaborate profile of the mythical dragon as consistently provided in scores of age-old traditions around the world.

The only rational way to answer the question of the dragon's origins is to start with a comparative analysis of the recurrent themes in dragon mythology. This approach, no matter how rudimentary, immediately reveals a number of archetypal traits that grow in clarity and intensity as you go further back in time, drawing closer to an extraordinary pan-human experience that may have provoked dragon mythology:

  • Within each culture, the dragon, whether celebrated or feared, tends to be one of a kind. Although it may have relatives or offspring, or be accompanied by a like-minded brood, the myth centers on a particular monster with a unique name, such as the Greek Typhon or Python, the Indian Vritra, or the Babylonian Tiamat. If serpents and dinosaurs informed the image, it is hard to see how the collective features of a thousand specimens could have fused into a single, personified character. Indeed, the detailed agreements between the descriptions of the dragon in multifarious cultures strongly suggest that a single prototype—or certainly no more than a handful—spawned the many traditions. Theories suggesting parallel, incidental mythologizations of snakes and palaeontological finds fail to account for the unity of the dragon archetype.

  • In mythology, the dragon's natural habitat is not the surface of the earth, but the sky. It is a monster of cosmic dimensions. That some species of snakes have the ability to 'leap' seems hardly relevant. On the other hand, if long-extinct species, such as Pterodactyls, had provoked the image, one ought to be consistent and derive all other aspects of the flying dragon from this particular class of dinosaur.

  • The dragons populating the world of myth have a universal and as yet unexplained relationship with fire. Apart from the dragon’s notorious propensity to spew forth flames, numerous reports stress the fiery composition of the entire creature. Once again, the natural behavior of reptiles does not even begin to illuminate this aspect of the myths.

  • Paradoxically, the mythical dragon is also at home in water, and although many types of snake populate seas and rivers, the astute scholar recognizes that the aquatic abode of the mythical serpent is the primordial abyss out of which the world was said to have been created. In fact, specialists have often noted that the dragon in some archaic traditions—including those concerning the Babylonian monster Tiamat, the Ugaritic Yamm, and Gaulcovang of the Kogi people of Colombia—embodies these primordial waters.

  • Converging traditions from far-flung cultures identify the dragon or serpent as the first entity to appear in the primeval chaos and the creative genius that shaped the cosmos. Needless to say, ordinary reptiles do nothing to justify this extraordinary claim.

  • Myths, notably accounts of the 'creation' of the world, emphasize specific forms taken by the dragon, such as a concentric spiral, a helix or a double helix, or the ouroboros. Snakes, of course, are capable to produce all those forms, and certain fossils – like Sinohydrosaurus lingyuanensis, shown above – remind us of the circular serpent, but explain neither the significance of the mythical forms, especially in connection with the acts of creation, nor the ancient insistence on seven or nine coils.

  • Over and over again, traditional societies have recognized the mythical dragon in the lightning, comets, meteors, the auroras, and even the Milky Way. This common thread suggests glowing formations or streaks of light across the sky, a nuance that can only underscore the contrast between the dragon and the most obvious features of earthbound reptiles.

  • The list above is not complete, but suffices to demonstrate that the mythical dragon cannot have originated in response to 'primitive' people's observation of a local animal species. The reverse, however, is difficult to deny: the appearance and behavior of certain reptiles often reminded ancient storytellers of the great dragon so central to their cultural heritage, and this association may indeed have colored their descriptions of that creature. But the archetype of the dragon—one of the most profound influences on early cultures the world over—clearly preceded the secondary links with particular reptilian species.

    Visible plasma is the common denominator in lightning, comet tails, and auroras. In its filamentary, toroidal, spiraling, and helical formations, high energy plasma discharge does in fact replicate the morphology of the dragon. So it is not surprising to discover that comparative study also finds similarities between the sequential order of the dragon myth and well-documented sequences of plasma discharge.

    Researchers interested in the connection between plasma discharge and ancient mythology are now suggesting that the earth’s plasma environment has been considerably more active in the past, characterized by something akin to today’s auroral activity, but far more intense, and perhaps associated with such atmospheric and climatological extremes—even earthshaking events—as would seem to have concluded a geological 'era'. The idea, though radical, would go a long way towards explaining the dragon’s archetypal link with the destruction of an old world or the creation of a new one.

    Like the reptilian paradigm, the plasma interpretation draws on a symbolical representation of the elements of nature and therefore belongs in the 'naturalist' school of myth, though the plasma explanation looks to forces of a much more impressive magnitude than an ancient encounter with a snake or a fossil.

    Contributed by Rens van der Sluijs

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