History is memory writ large, and Dragons have long memories.
Most people—even many an ardent dracophile— believe Dragon history began when our ancestors first saw them landing at the neighborhood water hole, scattering herds of elephants and quagga, crocodile floats, and leaps of leopards. And to an extent, they are right: history needs witnesses and a record of its passing. Its writing and telling imbues it with weight and truth. That said, if a Dragon soars through the forest and nobody sees it, is it really there? The answer is a resounding YES. So, let's take a step back. Way back.
Long before Homo sapiens memorialized it on painted cave walls and petroglyphed cliffsides, the planet was full of life, including Dragons. In sea beds and tar pits, silt and amber, remnants of animals and plants long gone and utterly alien were everywhere. Insects with three-foot wingspans, sixteen-foot turtles, spade snouts, fishy tetrapods, and a treasure trove of dinosaurs—all left their mark. Since the sixth century BCE, scientists and mystics from Greece to China have deciphered fossil tales in both true and fanciful ways. Xenophanes of Colophon looked at a fossilized shell and saw a great sea flooding the earth, while over in Dragon-friendly China, dinosaur fossils—dragon bones—unearthed by pick and plow from the Sichuan Basin to Inner Mongolia were pulverized for medicines and carved into amulets. And in the 1800s, the sciences took a quantum leap forward to include the field of paleontology. Despite the vast millennia with which we're dealing, it's now possible for us to date even the most ancient fossil with remarkable accuracy. We now have a timeline for life on Earth dating all the way back to microbes in the primordial ooze, and subsequently, a sense of our proper place in the grand, evolutionary scheme of things. Only the most rigid anti-science person will deny that pterosaurs caught thermals over the Tethys Sea a hundred million years ago or insist that stuffed archaeopteryx was a regular staple of Neanderthal cuisine. Great things, fossils…except when it comes to Dragons.
Simply put, there are no Dragon fossils. Not a single one. The occasional sloughed scale, tooth, or claw has been found through the centuries, but not any legitimate fossils. Why? To the best of our understanding, we are dealing with a marvel of biochemistry. Basically, a Dragon produces sulfuric and perchloric acid as a byproduct of fire and flight. When killed in a sudden or violent way—acts of God or lost battles—these caustic fluids mix with richly elemental Dragon blood, resulting in volatile decomposition so rapid that fossilization is impossible. There is also the likelihood of considerable "spillage"—a lethal parting shot that has left many a Dragon slayer's victory Pyrrhic at best. But what of the Dragons who did not die in shock and gore? That remains a mystery, though the poetic consensus is that the Great Dragon welcomes them back to the stars.
Though no skeletal, winged quadruped will ever grace the great hall of the Smithsonian and thrill the hearts of millions, cryptopaleontologists are convinced that their ancestors—small, stubby, often wingless protodragons— date back to between 200 and 150 million years ago. They were smart and resilient; their mighty strands of draconic DNA survived feast, famine, and extinction-level events. They grew stronger, bigger—more Dragonish—with each passing eon. They evolved.
A hundred thousand years ago, Dragons squished their toes in the same Paleolithic mud our ancestors used to daub the wattle of their dwellings. They were essentially the Dragons we know today, if a bit larger; they had more room to grow. And as today, they were the apex predators, ruling land and sky with stream of flame and flash of fang.
Nietzsche said, "All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity" (Nietzsche, 2001). So it was with Dragons.
To ancient humans, Dragons were harrowing mirrors of the untamed wilderness—of earthquakes, tempests, fire and flood, night and day, life and death. Their roar was thunder, their wings blotted out the sun. With teeth gnashing loud as a billion flints on stone, they would pluck mammoths from the steppes and aurochs from the veldt, scattering their bones like pick-up sticks to bleach in the sun.
Dragons were terror beasts who invaded dreams and shook the earth with awful majesty…who clawed their way deep into our hearts.
But for those who looked on the world with less dread and more curiosity, with imagination and massive doses of wonder, Dragons were much, much more. They were masters of fire and the elements; bringers of rain, controllers of the tides, moon, even the stars. And, by human standards, they were immortal. Mysterious and elemental, they not only inspired fear and trembling but also profound reverence. The Universe was theirs and they were Universal. Dragons were divine.
And why not? Back when scientific understanding was as rare as feathers on a wombat, the gods we created were our way to explain not only how we got here but what "here"—in all its inexplicable mystery—was. Paleolithic Earth was a scary, untamed place full of rapacious predators and mind-boggling natural phenomena. We needed chthonic deities more ineffable than the darkness they ruled, tutelaries more badass than the feral forces they battled. We needed Dragons.
Larger-than-life and wild as centuries are long, divinity poured off them like rain off their armored backs. They were naturals at being supernatural. And, without even asking if they wanted the gig, those who could get past the instinct to panic in their sublime presence turned Dragons into gods, Creators of the Cosmos who had been here since before time. They watched over land and sea, raising mountains, carving rivers, providing balance—black and white, good and evil—to a wild, eccentric planet. Chieftains sought their power; shamans sought their counsel. And when the people sat around the fire, they would tell stories of the hunt, the gather, and the Dragons they saw on the way. In their magnificence, all truth was found, all prayers were answered. This was the beginning of Dragon lore, of our memories mingling with theirs.
Generation after generation, the stories were repeated, embellished, and refined until once-casual tales became holy writ, and a pantheon of sacred Dragons emerged. Lung, Aido Hwedo, Sovereign Plumed Serpent. They hatched from cosmic eggs and shaped the World and all her creatures with a word (or two). These Dragons were, after all, literal movers and shakers, dynamic powers more than equal to the task. We honored them in their wildness with offerings and praise, and though size and nature made them hard to keep physically close, we kept them close in our hearts. In turn, they kept the natural world at bay, and if not at peace, at least in harmony, light with dark. Ophion, Ryu-jin, Alkha. Dragons were the gods who fit the times—gods who were not us.
This was a boon for the neighborhood enchantments, too. If the Dragons over the hill are dead ringers for the Creator of the Universe, you treat them with respect and forgive the occasional missing cow or goat. At the very least, you give them a wide berth.
Unfortunately, even the most illustrious gods can wear out their welcome. As the centuries passed and we humans aspired to be civilized, chaos gave way to order, wattle to stone, and a sense of being attuned with the natural world to one of human entitlement and dominion. Some ten thousand years ago, we began to lose our use for scaly deities who could block out the sun and play catch with the moon. We needed more domestic gods for a more domestic world, gods with familiar faces who would not be out of place sharing hearth, board, or even bed.
New deities cropped up all around us: they had extended families—cosmically dysfunctional, as a rule—and were as fond of a feast as the next man. They advised heroes, scolded reprobates, and strengthened the blood of kings with their own. At best, these gods were our idealized selves, strong and wise, beautiful and loving, goodness personified and wrapped in celestial clouds we could only navigate in our dreams. At worst, they were carnival grotesques, petty and egocentric, scrappy and earth-shatteringly jealous. Some might even say diabolical. In short, human.
While we were making nice with these divine reflections or at least trying not to tick them off, what happened to the great Dragons who'd kept us safe for so long? It depended on where they lived.
In the East, Dragons essentially retained their positions of honor and reverence, especially among the rural peoples who counted on them for blessings and protection. They were also protected by the philosophical/spiritual nature of eastern faiths, far less dogmatic than those gestating in Mesopotamia, and soon to move west. Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, not to mention numerous nameless shamans, may not all have embraced Dragons with the same degree of enthusiasm, but they were all open to the draconic experience. And so it was that while the Great Lung faded into the mists of legend, emperors continued to turn to Dragons for advice and even set up the first schools for Dragon Keeping. As for the more remote eastern enchantments, they lived on as Dragons should.
West of the Urals, things were very different. A few Dragons, like Ladon of ancient Greece, became cohorts and companions of the new gods. Ares had a particular fondness for Dragons, admiring their fierceness, embracing it as complement to his own martial inclinations; they, in return, guarded his shrines and sacred wells. More intriguing in its way is the theory among some scholars and Gnostics that Yahweh (as distinct from Elohim) was/is himself a Dragon, an incarnation of the Canaanite Dragon god Yaw. This makes for an interesting twist on Moses's burning bush and thunderous admonitions from on high, on whirlwinds and even the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Fire and brimstone sound a lot like Dragon fire to me.
Exceptions proving the rule, by and large we took their wondrous draconic feats (and our affections) and handed them to the new gods. Used hard and well, Cosmic Dragons of the west suddenly found themselves to be basilisks in a gecko world, too rough around the edges for civilized company. They were embarrassing reminders of our fearful, lizard-brain selves; their once majestic wildness deemed dangerous and even ugly next to deities who shared our personal aesthetic.
Replaced and unwanted, they were stripped of their divinity and burdened with our darkest fears and impulses; we stole their grace and blackened their souls. We turned them into monsters. If making gods is a noble exercise, making monsters is a much darker, more sinister endeavor. It is an act of ungrateful cruelty and willful neglect. Judgment, castigation, persecution, aloneness. These are the elements of monster-making, burnished through the centuries in rivers of blood.
Hero-kings were on the rise. Marduk, Enki, Cadmus, Thraetona. They needed quests and feats of glory to solidify their places as leaders of men. What better than to slay the old Dragon-gods, to clear the way for the new.
One particular hero comes to mind: Keresaspa of ancient Mesopotamia. According to Sumerian lore, Keresaspa killed not one Dragon, but two. First, he took on Gandareva, a Dragon so large he stretched from the ocean depths to the stars above. Their battles lasted for days. Keresaspa was battered and blinded, his horses killed, his family abducted. But, in the end, human heroics triumphed and Gandareva was slain. Unfortunately, even the sweetest victories have consequences. Unbeknownst to Keresaspa, Gandareva watched over a far blacker, more dangerous Dragon, Azhi Dahaka. As the Zoroastrians tell it, after much rampaging and wanton feasting on cattle, camels, and humans, he was captured and imprisoned beneath Mount Demayand. There he stayed for centuries until, come the end times, he broke free. In a feat of Dragon-slayer/messianic bravado, Keresaspa returned to dispatch him and save the world.
Thus the new template for handling Dragons was set, and the course of Dragon history was changed. And for centuries, everything we thought we knew about them changed as well…it had to.
Once upon a time, our ancestors knew Dragons were social beings with enchantments and weyrs that resembled human clans and villages. But it's hard to demonize someone you know has little ones waiting on supper back home. Where gods stand apart, monsters must be set apart. So, we abandoned Dragons out in the dark—not firing the way to the stars as they once did, but hungry and cold as the night itself. Facts be damned, we turned them into solitary creatures without kith, kin, or the joy of companionship, distanced from offering and hymn, from their place in the light. This was the story now told, the justification of the Dragon slayer: that they were ugly and cruel, rapacious and predatory. That they were Evil.
And as we know, it's a hero's duty—even his right—to destroy evil. Right?
Some Dragons chose to stand their ground and defend the weyrs they'd called home since before humans walked erect. Still more, especially those with young ones in tow, chose survival as the better part of valor. In what was to be the first recorded draconic diaspora, they left behind the world of men and withdrew deep into the wilderness.
Of course, humans became the sole narrators of history in their absence, and for millennia the lies about Dragons not only persisted—they grew.
Medieval Dragons: Christianity, the Dark Times, and the Great Migration
We now look west, to Europe with its dark and gory ways. But it wasn't always like this. When Cadmus was sowing Dragon teeth in the hills of Boeotia, northern Europe was in a relatively Dragon-friendly phase. From Nordic fjords to the Iberian coast, Iron Age peoples had a live-and-let-live attitude toward the local enchantments. Dragons were their fierce but nonbelligerent neighbors—as long as they weren't provoked, that is.
Druids and sages took the Dragon/human relationship even further. Much like their counterparts in the East, they respected Dragons as manifestations of Earth's elemental strength. Together they paced the ley-lines, connecting weyrs, sacred groves, wells, and standing stones with vibrant energy. They shared lore and tales of wood and spirit. Against skeptics and foes alike, the Druids welcomed Dragons fleeing persecution and defended them as learned mentors and kindred souls. Dragons and tribes had each other's backs when the need arose, which fortunately wasn't often…until the age of Gaius Julius Caesar and the octopus that was ancient Rome.
Beginning around 50 BCE, Roman expansionism pushed north into Celtic lands and dealt tribes and weyrs many a heavy blow. Caesar and his ilk looked on Dragons with pragmatic, militaristic eyes, unencumbered by religious baggage. To the Roman mind, Dragons were not wicked per se but were definitely monstrous, uncontrollable beasts. And what Caesar couldn't control, he would destroy. The positive PR spin on his anti-Dragon campaign was the fact these creatures were standing in the way of land and lucre. It didn't matter that neither land nor riches belonged to Rome in the first place, nor that by going after a weyr's precious metals and stones, they were actually threatening generations of hatchlings, the true Dragon treasure. But why let such petty considerations put a damper on empire building? Though the Celts and Druids did what they could to help, they were under siege themselves and had limited resources. In the end, the enchantments were on their own. By the time Hadrian erected his eponymous wall (122 CE), Dragons from the Apennine Mountains to Britannia's lake district, from the Tagus River to the Wadden Sea, had all but been driven to the fringes of human society. This suited Rome just fine. Their battles with the enchantments, especially those of Northern Gaul and Britannia, had been costly.
Bloody as these years were, they lacked the intense anti-Dragon zeal that was to wash over Europe like a tsunami as Christianity flowed out of the Middle East and conquered Rome. Forget philosophical Greek Dragons, spiritual Dragons from India, Assyria, and Ur. Definitely forget the wise Dragons west of the Rhine and north of the Channel. Outside of a few small Gnostic circles, dualistic Christian thinking had no place for such forces, benevolent or otherwise. Dragons were Nature, and Nature was no longer Horace's "harmony in discord" with which they could coexist. It was chaos, wild, heathen, and misbegotten, there to be dominated and ruled, not accommodated and certainly not worshipped. Already on their way to full-on monster status, it took just a nudge to tip Dragons into Big Bad territory. With fangs bared, leathery wings unfurled, and licks of flame bronzing the clouds like sunset, it was not much of a leap to put them in Satan's shoes, to see them as daemonic stand-ins for the Prince of Darkness to be defeated in the name of the new faith.
This was the heart and tainted soul of the Dragons-as-Devil movement—the driving force of the Dark Times.
As John wrote in Revelation 20:1–2:
And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years…
It's interesting to note that this tale was not exactly new; the names have been changed, but it is essentially the same as the apocalyptic account of Azhi Dahaka and Keresaspa. Gentle as a lamb or sage as Solomon, it didn't matter.
The Beast in Revelation was a hard image for any Dragon to counter. Under the imperial patronage of Constantine the Great (272–337 CE), Christianity went from persecuted cult to dominant religion of Rome in a matter of decades. Unfortunately, this opened the way to proselytizing from one end of the Empire to the other. Celts and Picts, Goths and Vandals—even Vikings were converted. It had worked with the Romans, after all. And even among the most learned, very few evangelical monks were fluent in Dragon. Fewer still were willing to talk to what they considered Devil-monsters about saving their souls only to be laughed at or even singed for their efforts. And as the Church gained power, it became very brazen about appropriating Pagan lands for their kirks, monasteries, and abbeys. These ley-rich lands not only encompassed sacred groves and wells, but neighboring weyrs as well.
Of course, expecting enchantments to surrender their ancestral homes to a faith that loathed them was a real non-starter. Even the most open-minded monks knew that no matter how politely they asked, Dragons were not going to simply pack up and move. Better to just do away with them entirely.
While standing before gods makes us small, taking on monsters makes us noble and heroic. And killing a Dragon for God makes you positively saintly. Thus, following the example of George in fourth-century Cappadocia and gathering steam with Patrick chasing the snakes—i.e., Druids and Dragons—from Hibernia, by the fifth century the second wave of draconic persecution descended upon the European enchantments with a vengeance. The list of Dragon slayers is daunting: Michael, Margaret, Clement, Samson, Romain of Rouen, Philip the Apostle, Keyne of Cornwall, and those known in Dragon studies circles as the French Quintet: Martha, Florent, Cado, Maudet, and Pol. The results of their deeds were devastating to Dragons both True and pseudo-. In fact, if the stories and art of the time are any indication, most of the Dragon kills claimed by saints were aspises or young wyverns caught in dracophobic crossfire.
As the first millennium neared its end, anti-Dragon sentiments in Europe became epidemic. Religious dogma had supplanted the magic of Druidic lore. Augmented by the approaching thousand-year deadline of John's Revelation, superstition spread among clerics and farmers, knights and merchants. It was a black and white world; with the Apocalypse just around the corner, Dragons were as black as a starless night. The Dark Ages were bleak, and humans needed someone—something—to blame for plagues and blighted crops, lost calves and deadly frosts.
In this harsh time, the Dragons' jaw-dropping awesomeness became a thing of the past. They were instead manifestations of our inner daemons, receptacles of our fears. Not eager to confront the former, the latter won out.
We do terrible things when we are afraid. And then we make up stories to rationalize our horrors. With Dragons the tales followed a familiar plot. They were servants of the Devil and, like their master, treacherous monsters, wantonly threatening herd and home. They demanded tribute—fair maidens, preferably of royal blood—and would devour them with relish. But since a feast was as good as a farthing, they would also dine on anyone else who crossed their paths. All this was utter rubbish, of course. Anyone who bothers to ask knows that Dragons don't much like the taste of humans. They think we're far too stringy and not a bit like chicken.
Still, justifications must be made, fears exploited, and anti-Dragon sentiments stoked. Only then could their persecution continue.
In the Dragon wars of the ninth and tenth centuries, the young and the very old were particularly vulnerable. With deaths too numerous to count, enchantments were worn down and burnt out. Loss has a way of doing that.
Though some were tempted to go all out anti-human, wiser heads prevailed. Survival was more important than revenge. Offered refuge among the fae, many retreated into the mists of the Otherworld to wait out the madness. Many more decided they'd had enough: they were done with Europe.
Taking wing, they flew north and west, bouncing off Iceland and making their way to the New World. There they cavorted and mingled with the indigenous Dragons and started anew. This is known as the Trans-Atlantic Transmigration.
Despite all the prophecies of doom and gloom, the calendar hit 1001 and the world did not end. Unfortunately, the new millennium opened on a Europe that was essentially Dragon-free for all save the most ardent dracophiles. Only believers in the rare and mysterious could hope to spot them through the mists. For the rest, Dragons became fictions, villains in heroic epics and monsters in faërie tales. Pseudodragons filled the ensuing void as best they could, becoming the subjects of alchemical experiments (though they proved poor substitutes for the Real Thing) and pawns in local disputes such as the gargoyle wars of Champagne and the Loire Valley. This was the status quo for centuries to come, the legacy of the Dark Times.
But was this period of violence and misunderstanding the only story? Hardly. There were those who held to a different memory of Dragons who refused to forget their power and wisdom. They kept the valor and strength of Dragons alive in heraldic devices, especially in Celtic lands. Cities from London to Poole have rampant Dragons silver, gold, and even blue on their coats of arms; the Kings of Aragon and Braganza sported wyverns on their helmets. And of course, there was Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales. A creature out of legend, he knew Merlin in his time and raced across King Arthur's royal standard. His likeness was carried into battle for centuries, a symbol of sovereign authority from Richard I in the Third Crusade to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where Welsh longbowmen saved the day. When Richard III fell on Bosworth Field in 1485, the Welsh Henry VII became the first Tudor king of England. To honor his heritage and the power of the Dragon, he placed Y Ddraig Goch opposite the English lion on the royal coat of arms. There he remained until 1603, when James Stuart—never a fan of the Tudors—ascended the throne and replaced the Dragon with the Scottish unicorn. As for the Welsh, they never gave up on Y Ddraig Goch; he is emblazoned on their flag to this day. This, too, is a legacy of the Dark Times.
Enlightenment and Return: Dragons in our Modern Age
Despite the glories of the Renaissance, scarcely a year went by without a battle, revolt, or all-out war somewhere on the continent. Indeed, it can be said that the Renaissance is bracketed by the Hundred Years' War at the start (1337–1454) and the Thirty Years' War at the end (1618–1648). In between there was the rise of Protestantism, followed by over a hundred years of religious purges and persecutions. With such madness swirling all about, was it any wonder Dragons stayed out of the fray?
Western Dragons weren't the only ones at odds with Europeans. Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the New World brought the Inca, Aztec, and numerous less wellknown peoples to ruin. The conquistadors' quest for gold also put them on a collision course with the indigenous Dragons. The shy Feathered Dragons south of the thirty-fourth parallel were hit hardest, and, under extreme distress, they vanished into the rainforested beyond where they remain to this day. It didn't matter on which side of the Atlantic they lived, nor if they were feathered or scaled. Dragons were still expendable.
Despite occasional sightings here and there, now and then, European Dragons didn't catch a real break until the postEnlightenment dawn of what we might call "modern times."
Sapere aude!—dare to know. Dare to be wise. Dare to think for yourself. This was Immanuel Kant's challenge to eighteenth-century Europe, one Dragons surely echoed from the shadows. It was answered by people setting reason before superstition and science before unquestioning faith. Church was separated from state, and progress and tolerance became guiding principles of the creative and intellectually curious. Nothing could have pleased Dragons more.
By the mid-nineteenth century, scaly snouts were poking through the mists. Mouths open, they flehmed, tasting the temper of the societies around them. Things had changed a lot since they were last out and about. Villages were now cities crowded with people and industry; groves were gone, waters were poisoned, and the air was thick with soot and dingy smoke. But the biggest surprise was the people.
Gone were the Dragon slayers of yore. In their place were Newton and Darwin, revolutionizing the way people looked at the sciences, including the age of the Earth and the beings on it. Fossil hunters and their finds opened minds to the possibility of all sorts of previously unimagined creatures. Best of all were the mystics, spiritualists, and artists who longed to bring back the magic and wonder of ancient times. This led to a Druidic renaissance. And no one loved or understood Western Dragons like the Druids.
For the Dragons, this was just the entrée they had waited centuries for. Setting ancient wounds and past grudges aside, they took it.
Personally, from all my talk with enchantments over the years, I've come to believe Dragons returned to the world because, looking around, they knew we needed them…badly. We needed their special brand of wonder and magic, and over the past 150 years, that need has only grown. Even at the nightmarish height of the Dark Times, I doubt Dragons could have imagined what we've become or how horrifically we've treated each other and the planet: world wars, genocides, atomic weapons, continents of refuse polluting the oceans, and climate change the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Cenozoic Era.
This may well be their last-ditch effort to set us straight. To burnish our memories until they shine like golden scales in the sun. to remind us that buried deep in discord, harmony still exists.
Excerpted from Llewellyn's Little Book of Dragons.
Shawn MacKenzie (North Bennington, VT) had her first dragon encounter at four years old, when she happened upon an a copy of The Dragon Green by J. Bissell-Thomas. A sci-fi/fantasy writer, she is an avid student of myth, ...