Knights fighting selflessly against gruesome dragons, beautiful princesses locked high in castle towers, and unicorns roaming dangerous forests in ancient times: these bedtime stories sound so wonderous and fantastic that they could only come from mankind’s collective imagination. However, in many myths and tales there always seems to be a sliver of truth. So what about dragons and other reptilian monsters? Did they – at some point in history – really exist? Let’s find out in Monsters and Myths. But shhh – don’t wake the dragon…
The dragon is undoubtedly one of mankind’s oldest and most powerful myths. These beasts star in fairytales all over the world, spanning cultures and millenia. Even the bible mentions these creatures. They are not always portrayed as dangerous – in many stories, they are majestic allies who help humans fight against evil. However, dragons’ infamies are well told – there are enough stories in which dragons are mankind’s most fearsome enemy. In the most famous tale “The Nibelungen Saga”, Siegfried, also known as a “dragon slayer”, faces the dangerous monster all by himself. In this case, roles are clear: the hero has to conquer evil, and kill the dragon. The success of this story of course gives rise to the question: Did they really exist? And if not, where do all these sagas come from?
One possible explanation leads us to Iceland. Iceland’s extreme volcanic landscape and its famous cave systems fit the perfect description of a dragon’s lair. From a psychological perspective, caves represent mankind’s fear of the unknown; it is not only dark and damp, there are myriad strange noises and many are completely abandoned. That would make it easy for Nordic storytellers to imagine a terrifying monster lurking just around the corner. Fair enough – but what about dragons spitting fire? Where does this common dragon trope come from? The answer is not so far fetched: Volcanoes. Dragons supposedly lived inside them and every eruption helped shape the image of a fire-breathing monster!
Another plausible explanation for the origin of dragon stories and the belief that these monsters were real is the discovery of dinosaur fossils. Farmers in ancient times found huge bones, some with jaws and teeth. Understandably, these fossils far exceeded scientific knowledge at the time, thus the labelling as giant monster remains.
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