Dragons of the Mind

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” movie is on its way, and with it will come the resurrection of the vile dragon Smaug. With fiery breath, razor-sharp claws, scales as hard as shields and a vast underground lair, Smaug is portrayed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s text as a merciless killer. But where did the idea for such a bizarre beast—with such an odd mixture of traits—come from in the first place?

Historically, most monsters were spawned not from pure imagination but from aspects of the natural world that our ancestors did not understand. Whales seen breaking the surface of the ancient oceans were sea monsters, the fossilized bones of prehistoric humans were the victims of Medusa, the roars of earthquakes were thought to emanate from underground beasts. The list goes on. But tracing Smaug’s draconic heritage is more complicated.

At first glance, dinosaurs seem the obvious source for the dragon myth. Our ancestors simply ran into Tyrannosaur skulls, became terrified and came up with the idea that such monsters must still be around. It all sounds so logical, but it’s unlikely to be true.

Dragon myths were alive and well in the ancient Mediterranean world, despite the fact that the region is entirely bereft of dinosaur fossils. The Assyrians had Tiamat, a giant snake with horns (leading some to dispute whether it even qualifies as a dragon). The Greeks, for their part, had a fierce reptilian beast that guarded the golden fleece. In depicting it, they oscillated between a tiny viper and a huge snake capable of swallowing people whole. But even in this latter case, there was no fire-breathing or underground hoard, just a big reptile.

For decades, zoologists have argued that the only snakes humans ever had to seriously worry about were of the venomous variety. Last year, however, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that members of Indonesian tribes are regularly eaten by enormous constrictors and that this was likely a common problem throughout human evolution. Moreover, reports by Pliny the Elder and others describe snakes of such size existing in the ancient Mediterranean world and sometimes attacking people. It seems likely that the early dragon myths were based on these real reptilian threats.

But Tolkien’s Smaug lives below the Lonely Mountain and breathes fire. Some reptiles live below ground, but none breathes anything that looks remotely like flame. Yet as strange as this trait may seem, it too may have natural origins.

Among the earliest mythical dragons that lived underground are those found in the 12th-century tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth recounts the story of Vortigern, an ancient British king who was forced to flee to the hills of Wales as Saxons invaded. Desperate to make a final stand, Vortigern orders a fortress to be built, but its walls keep falling over. Baffled, Vortigern seeks the advice of his wise men, who tell him that the ground must be consecrated with the blood of a child who is not born from the union between a man and a woman. Vortigern agrees and sends the wise men off to find such a child.

Not far away, in the town of Carmarthen, they come across two boys fighting. One insults the other as a bastard who has no father, and the wise men drag him back to Vortigern.

When the boy learns that he is to be killed, he tells Vortigern that his advisers have got things wrong. He declares that there are dragons below the ground and that their wrestling with one another is what keeps the walls from standing. Vortigern tests the boy’s theory out, and sure enough, as his men dig deeper, they discover the dragons’ “panting” flames.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Zmey Gorynych, the Russian three-headed dragon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]