You are hereIn Search of British Dragons
In Search of British Dragons
The dragon is the great, great grandfather of all monsters. Before the daemon, before the vampire, before the werewolf, before the giant. Before them all was the original uber-monster the dragon. The dragon's image has crawled across cave paintings 25,000 years old, dwarfing mammoths. It has slithered across Chinese rock art in Shanxi province 8000 years before Christ. It haunted the Sumerians and the Babylonians, was worshipped by the Aztecs and feared by the Celts. In the east a glittering rain god, in the west a flame spewing, maiden devouring monster. It is found in every culture on earth. The immortal dragon has its fangs and claws deep in the psyche of mankind. And it is still seen today.
DragonThe dragon comes in a dazzling array of forms. The best known in the West is the true dragon or firedrake. This is the classic dragon: a gigantic quadrupedal reptile, with vast bat like wings. Armed with razor teeth and claws, and a mighty tail, its most formidable weapon was the white-hot jets of flame it gouted at its victims. These monsters were considered to be the most magickal of beasts with powers such as shape-shifting, self-regeneration, and mind reading attributed to them. They were covered in impenetrable scales and had only one vulnerable spot.
The wyvern was much like the firedrake except it bore only one pair of legs. It was smaller than the true dragon and seldom breathed fire. It did however carry a deadly sting in the tail and could spread disease and pestilence.
The lindorm or worm was a huge limbless reptile. Instead of breathing fire it spat venom or spewed poison gas. It could also crush prey in its steely coils. It could rejoin severed portions of its body and was hence very hard to kill.
The basilisk or cockatrice was the smallest but most death-dealing member of the dragon clan. It was said to have hatched from a cock's egg incubated by a toad or a rooster. It resembled a tiny snake with a rooster's comb. It's gaze brought instant death to all it looked upon, including itself. The basilisk's reflection was fatal to itself. The great deserts of the Middle East were attributed to the baleful glare of hordes of basilisks.
Amazing as it may sound the dragon seems to have a basis in fact and it still haunts the wild, and sometimes not so wild corners of our strange little planet. Modern sightings include a huge, winged reptile that terrorized the San Antonio valley, Texas for several months in 1976. A house sized, long necked, scaly, green dragon with formidable teeth that has eaten fishermen and livestock in Lake Wembu, Tibet, and a horned, black-scaled dragon seen by five hundred witnesses in July 2002 in Lake Tianchie, northeast China. In fact there are so many modern dragon sightings from around the world that I have written a book on the subject, "Dragons; More than a Myth?" that is due out in Spring 2004.
Some dragon sightings are much closer to home. In the early 19th century folklorist Mary Trevelyan interviewed many elderly people living in the Glamorgan area of Wales. They recounted memories from their youth (early 19th century) of a race of winged serpents said to inhabit the forest around Penllyne Castle. They had crested heads and feathery wings. The serpents were brightly coloured and sparkled as if covered with jewels. They rested coiled on the ground but if threatened would attack by swooping down at their aggressors.
The snakes killed poultry and were described as "the terrors of farmyards and coverts" many were shot for their depreditations of livestock. One woman recalled that her grandfather shot one after it attacked him. Its skin had hung for years on the wall at his farm. Tragically it was discarded after his death. This would make any modern day cryptozoologist wince.
A dragon skin was once said to hang in the church in Sexhow, Cleveland. The forest dwelling worm was slain by a knight and the skin kept as a relic hung on pegs in the church. The skin has long since vanished. Cromwell's men probably destroyed it after the Civil War.
A portion of the hide of the Lambton worm was supposedly kept on display at Lampton castle. It was said to resemble cow's hide. The specimen was lost when the castle was demolished in the 18th century.
One of the most disturbing dragon stories occurred relatively recently. When the north east of England was under the Dane lore, the Norse men feared a sea dragon known as the Shoney.
It is said that they sacrificed crewmembers to the beast. After drawing lots the luckless victim was trussed hand and foot, his throat slashed, and tossed overboard. The Shoney was meant to eat the sacrifice and let the Viking ships alone. Bodies, sometimes half eaten were washed up around Lindisfarne and around the area now known as Marsden Bay near South Shiels, Newcastle.
DragonSo the story goes this sacrifice became a kind of maritime worship and persisted long after the time of the Vikings. It was supposedly practiced by Scandinavian sailors. Several hundred years ago a pub was carved into the cliffs of Marsden Bay. Known as Marsden Grotto it has had many landlords down the years. Many of them awoke to discover the sacrificial victims of the Shoney washed ashore on the beach outside the Grotto. The pub's cellar was used as a makeshift morgue on many occasions. According to local researcher, historian, and Fortean Mike Hallowell the last bodies were washed up in 1928!
The idea that a dragon worship cult was making human sacrifices in England well into the 20th century seems amazing. Mike and myself a currently trying to gain access to police records for the period to verify this tale that runs like the script of a horror film.
In the early 1980s something began to kill sheep in a very odd way in north Wales. The animals were found with two puncture marks in the flesh. They were always found close to water. Veterinary analysis showed that they had been killed by venom. Sometimes a large snakelike trail was seen in the grass or mud close to the victims. Strangely the killer never ate the sheep. The weird killings stopped as suddenly as they started leaving only an unsettling mystery.
There have been many theories proffered to explain the dragon phenomena. They fall mainly into two camps. One is that dragons are based on some kind of flesh and blood creature. A gigantic reptile of some kind. The second is that they are a paranormal manifestation.
Let us examine the former idea first. It has been widely suggested that fossil remains of dinosaurs and other large animals were the basis for dragon legends. Whilst they may have been an influence in some cases, most fossil bones are too fragmentary to give rise to such awe-inspiring legends. We must also remember that many ancient texts specifically speak of dragons as living entities interacting with humans.
There are some living reptiles that make impressive dragons. Crocodiles can be huge and deadly predators. The largest, the Indo-Pacific crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) can reach 10 meters (33 feet) in length and tip the scales at 3 tons. It can kill water buffalo, tigers, and even sharks. The ancient Chinese called the creature the "flood dragon"
In the 1950s James Montgomery investigated tales of a huge monster along the Sagama River. The local Seluka people said it was the father of the devil and threw silver coins into the water whenever it appeared (bringing to mind the treasure hordes of medieval dragons in Europe).
He found the brute sunning itself upon a sandbank; it was a gigantic Indo-Pacific crocodile. Montgomery knew his rifle would be about as much use against such a creature as a peashooter and beat a hasty retreat. He later returned and measured the sandbank. It was nine meters (30 feet) long. As the crocodile had the end of its tail in the water it's total length would have been around 10 meters (33 feet).
Another giant lurks in the waters of the Lumpar River. A known serial man-eater it is venerated by the Ibad tribe as Bujang-senang, the king of crocodiles. It is reckoned to be seven and a half meters (25 feet) long.
The African Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) can exceed 7 meters (23 feet) and can kill a lion with one bite. It was worshipped by the Egyptians as Sebek, the god of the life giving Nile. A seven-meter specimen is currently at large in Malawi and has eaten 14 people in the last 12 months!
These armour-plated giants can bite down with a force of 10,000 Newton's. That's twice the strength of a great white shark!
Big constricting snakes make good analogues of the limbless "worm" type of dragon. The reticulated python (Python reticuatlus) of S E Asia can grow to ten meters (33 feet) and swallow animals as large as deer whole.
The green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) may exceed eight meters (26 feet) and is far more bulky than any python. Tales of monstrously large specimens filter out of the South American jungles from time to time.
DragonThe infamous komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is found only on three small Indonesian islands. It remained undiscovered until 1912. At over three meters (10 feet) it is the largest known lizard in the world. It kills large prey such as deer by the virulent bacteria in its saliva. Chinese pottery found on Komodo Island suggests this animal was known to seafarers from the orient.
Impressive though it is the Komodo dragon looked like a pipsqueak compared to its pre-historic relative Megalania prisca. This giant monitor lizard lived in Australia in the Pleistocene epoch and reached nine meters (30 feet). It evolved to feed on the giant ice age marsupials such as Diprotodon a rhino sized wombat, and Procoptodon a ten-foot tall kangaroo.
It was presumed that Megalania died out at least 10,000 years ago but the Aborigines have legends of Mungoongalli a giant lizard. Both natives and white settlers have recorded encounters with titanic lizards in the Australian outback. Even a herpetologist (reptile expert) has claimed to have seen such a monster.
In 1979 herpetologist Frank Gorden was hunting for small lizards called water skinks in the Wataigan Mountains of New South Wales. After a fruitless day's search he returned to his land rover. He noticed a fallen tree on a verge next to his vehicle. Upon starting the engine Gorden saw this " log" rear up on four powerful legs and lumber away into the bush. It was a giant lizard some 9 meters (30 feet) long. Gorden is but one of many witnesses who have reported such reptiles in the Australian bush. Some even speculate that mysterious disappearances in the outback can be blamed on the feeding activities of the lizards.
Recently part of a Megalania hipbone was uncovered that was sub-fossil. It appears to be only one to two hundred years old! Is this nightmarish beast still stalking the bush?
Monster reptiles make good dragons but they cannot cope with cool climates. Some reptiles such as cobras, pythons, and crocodiles may have been brought back to Britain by crusaders. If these beasts broke free the populace, who had no knowledge of such creatures, would consider them to be dragons. They would terrorize the community until the winter cold put paid to them.
The dragon of Wormingford (worm's ford) in Essex is a good example. It is said to have been a "cockadrill" brought back from the crusades by Richard the Lion Heart for his zoo in the Tower of London. Breaking free it made its way through the county to the river Stour. Here it killed and ate Shepherds and sheep. No arrow or spear could penetrate its scales. Finally it disappeared into a marsh and was never seen again. There can be little doubt that this dragon was a Nile crocodile.
In August 1614 some strange reptile was at large in Saint Leonard's forest Sussex. At nine feet long it was not large as dragons go, but it was very dangerous. It was a limbless, serpentine, creature with a bulge in the middle the size of a football. Whenever animals or humans approached him, records a contemporary pamphlet, he raised up his head and looks around in an arrogant manner. He was said to have killed men and dogs by casting forth poison, but he did not eat the bodies. Instead he fed on the local rabbit population. This dragon sounds like a cobra, rearing up its head in a threat posture when disturbed, killing with poison, and eating rabbits. It seems that this creature escaped from an early private menagerie.
There are several dragon legends that may be explained this way but the majority cannot. The dragons that inhabited Europe must have been something different.
Author Peter Dickinson postulated that dragons may have evolved from huge carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex.. Dickinson believes that the dragons flew and breathed fire via the manipulation of hydrogen gas. The wings evolved from a modified ribcage and the chambered stomach was a huge gas bag. The dragon created hydrogen gas from hydrochloric acid in the gut mixed with calcium from the bones of its victims and ingestion of limestone. The dragon, according to Dickinson was essentially a living hot air balloon. It flew by inflating the expandable gut and using the wings to steer. To descend the gas was exhaled as fire. This also doubled up as a weapon.
Some think that hydrogen was too unstable a gas to be used in this way and that methane was more likely. After death the chemical factory in the dragon's gut would dissolve the body. Ergo no fossils have ever been found. It is a neat if ultimately unproveable theory.
But looking at dragons as mortal flesh and blood creatures may be wrong. Perhaps they were something much stranger. Maybe the dragon exists as an entity in a reality different to our own. This would explain how they could appear, terrorize a community, and then vanish. We know that atoms vibrate at certain speeds. Could it be possible that there are entities composed of atoms that vibrate at a differing rate, slower or faster than the norm. Usually they would be invisible to us but under certain circumstances they, or us, could "speed up" or "slow down" becoming visible to each other for a short time?
Areas of intense Fortean phenomena are called window areas. Many of them were places of former religious importance that have now waned or fallen from use. Could the worship or occult use of an area over hundreds of years create a sort of artificial life form? Something that fed on the worship. When the worship is taken away the "thing" still needs to feed. It now feeds by creating fear with paranormal manifestations.
Another idea is that they are a massive, collective, sub-conscious, thought form. The thought form or tulpa is said to be a 3-D semi solid image created by the power of the mind. Buddhist llamas in Tibet are said to be able to summon up tulpas during intense meditation. Western explorer Dame Alexandra David Kneel was said to have created a tulpa of a monk whilst studying in Tibet. Polish medium Franek Klusk was said to have summoned up huge cats, birds, and even ape-men during séances. Perhaps, considering the types of beast he called up, he was creating tulpas.
If individuals can create tulpas imagine what the collective, gestalt mind of humanity as a species could do. Perhaps dragons are a giant worldwide thought form emanating from our innermost fears.
Several million years ago, our Australopithecine ancestors on the plains of East Africa had a struggle to survive. Our ancestors were being preyed upon by and were in competition with various formidable creatures. Crocodiles and pythons ate them as dig big cats, hunting dogs, and large birds of prey such as eagles. They competed against other primates such as giant baboons and other races of hominids some larger than them and some smaller.
All of these creatures can be slotted nicely into the universal monster template. There seems to be groups of monsters reported all round the world in every culture. These archetypes include dragons, giants, little people, monster birds, mystery big cats, and monstrous dogs. All of them have a direct link back to our ancestral horrors. Coincidence, I think not.
I believe that many of the world's monsters are tulpas created unwittingly by our collective unconscious. Perhaps in certain "window areas" something affects the minds of those who enter. The mind is an electro-chemical computer, perhaps when "scrambled" it must "reboot" like any other computer. When in this primeval state perhaps the mind raises the prehistoric terrors of our past, raises dragons. This is not to deny that there are flesh and blood counterparts for each of the monster categories, there almost certainly are. But when these things manifest in places that could not support a "real" creature maybe we should look to thought forms for answers.
No one explanation is likely to hold the key to the riddle of the dragon. Dragon lore is a rich tapestry with many finely woven strands. But the dragon has always been with us: all throughout recorded history and back into the dim pre-historic past. I believe the dragon will always be with us no mater how "civilized" we think we have become. When your parents told you there were no such things as dragons they lied.
Bord, Janet and Colin, Alien Animals, Granada, 1980
Dickenson, Peter, Flight of Dragons, Pierrot, 1979
Eberhart, George M, Mysterious Creatures; A Guide to Cryptozoology, ABC-CLIO, 2002
Greer, John Michael, Monsters, Llewellyn, 2001
Gould, Charles, Mythical Monsters, W H Allen, 1886
Newman, Paul, Hill of the Dragon, Kingsmead 1979
Simpson, Jaqueline, British Dragons, B T Blasford 1980
Whitlock, Ralph, Here be Dragons, George Allen & Unwin 1983
The author is from the Centre for Fortean Zoology