St George’s Day, about dragons and dinosaurs. How mythology became paleontology.

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April 23rd is St George’s Day in England. The feast day (and in this case also the day of death) of Saint Saint George. The English are more English this day than you can imagine. Everywhere the English flag with the St George’s Cross can be seen. This is the white flag with the red cross, not the ‘Union Jack’.flag

Saint George was Greek and came from Cappadocia in present-day Turkey. He was an elite soldier in the Roman army and belonged to the personal guard of the Roman emperors. And he was a Christian at a time when Christianity was not yet the Roman state religion but was seen by the emperors as a forbidden sect or cult. When they found out that George did not profess the Roman pagan faith but the new Christian religion, he was sentenced to death. He died according to tradition on April 23rd, 303.
After his death he became a martyr and a saint who grew more and more important all over the world. His stories have been known and honoured since the early Middle Ages.
He is the patron saint of England and that is quite special when you consider that there is not a single link between St George and England. Over time there have been people who have challenged his role as patron saint and would rather have seen another saint in that place. Why is he the patron saint? He hasn’t always been parton saint. The first reference to St George in England was given by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede. He is also mentioned by King Alfred or Wessex in his will and his feast day is mentioned in the ‘Durham Collectar’, a liturgical work from the 9th century. Somewhere during the 13th or 14th century, St George became the patron saint of England. He was a soldier in his time so his image was often taken into battles. He also became a symbol of the Crusades and Crusaders saw him as their patron saint. His cross, the red cross on the white background, became the crusader symbol.

St George and the Dragon 2.jpg
St George and the Dragon (stockphoto)

If you travel through England you will see statues of St George in villages and towns and you see his name and picture on pub signs of pubs named after him. On those pictures you will usually see him as a hero who slayes a dragon. This is the legend of St George and the dragon. Legends about dragons are centuries old and so are the stories of men who defeat dragons. St George got this role of dragon slayer soon after his death. Storiy goes he defeated a dragon that demanded human sacrifices and by slaying the dragon he saved a princess from a horrible death. But where does this belief in dragons come from? St George beats a dragon, Merlin the Wizard sees dragons fighting under a castle. Thor fought against the serpentine creature Jörmungandr accoring tot he Edda and in the Germanic stories Fafnir became a dragon guarding his gold until he was defeated by Siegfried. Dragons are found in the Bible, they are found in all kinds of mythologies, are found in many cultures all over the world and have been depicted on objects since ancient times. There are various explanations for this belief in dragons. But you know me, I’m going to look at evidence in the stones …
The belief in dragons didn’t come out of the blue. You probably noticed that dragons have a good number of similarities with some dinosaurs. Could the belief in dragons and these dinosaurs have something to do with each other? The word dragon comes from the Greek, drakon. And later it became draco in Latin. Originally all kinds of snake-like reptiles were called draco or dragon. The Welsh ddraig and the Irish dragan have the same origin.

Griffins
We fcome across stories about dragons in all corners of the world. From China to America, from ancient Greek to Medieval Europe, stories about dragons are known worldwide. The ancient Greeks already had pictures of dragon-like creatures on the earthenware objects they used.

If we look closely at these creatures, we see that they are usually depicted as exceptionally large and terrifying, with claws, sharp teeth and big heads. A well-known example of this is the griffin. The griffin is a mythical creature that was first described by the ancient Greeks. It is a hybrid animal, that is composed of several known animals, in this case the head and wings of a bird and the body of a lion. The word griffin comes from the Greek word gryps. The Old English word for griffin is gripe. The word is also related to the Ancient Persian giigraph, which means to grab. The oldest known image of a griffin dates from around 640 BC. The animal is also sometimes depicted on the helmet of the goddess Athene.

The source of the stories about this mythical being lies not in Greece, but further east, with the Scythians. 3000 years ago the Scythians were a nomadic tribe that lived in the Gobi Desert up to the Altai Mountains where they searched for gold to trade. Scytic gold was imported far into Europe and was known for its purity. The first contact between the Scythians and the Greeks was somewhere during the seventh century BC. Besides gold and art objects, stories were also exchanged. The Scythians had stories about magical creatures in the desert who guarded the precious gold. These creatures had the head of a bird and the body of a mammal. The stories spread quickly and became very popular around the Mediterranean. The Greeks and Romans copied these stories and Pliny the Elder described griffins as creatures that nested in the desert and that gold nuggets grew in their eggs.

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Griffin (stockphoto)

Coincidentally, or actually it is no coincidence, the Gobi Desert is a dinosaur fossils Walhalla. Many of the dinosaurs known to us have been found as complete skeletons in the Gobi Desert. One of these dinosaurs that is found here has a lot in common with the griffin. This Protoceratops has a beak that looks a lot like a bird’s beak and the body resembles that of a large mammal, for example a lion. The Psittacosaurus also looked like a monster with a bird’s beak. In ancient times it was not necessary to search hard or dig deep to find these animals in the desert. The skeletons were exposed by the wind that had eroded all the sand and sediment away. People who went looking for gold in the desert saw these monster skeletons lying everywhere. It is not surprising that stories were made up about these beasts and that they were thought to be guardians of the gold.

Protoceratops Carnegie Museum
Protoceratops skeleton in the Carnegie museum (stockphoto)

The native Americans also told stories about monstrous creatures. The Sioux, for example, have stories about battles between Thunder Birds and Water Monsters. These Thunder Birds are giant birds with large beaks with sharp teeth. The Water Monsters are large reptile-like animals, again with terrifying teeth. According to the stories of the Sioux, the first creatures on earth were insects and reptiles and these animals belonged to the realm of the Unktehi, the Water Monsters. In their stories, the Sioux tell about the time before people came to earth, when the earth was inhabited by reptiles of all shapes and sizes. These reptiles became evil and destroyed life on earth, therefore these reptiles had to be destroyed so that life on earth could be saved. The Thunder Birds had large lightning bolts as a weapon and thus fossilized the Water Monsters. The bones of both the Water Monsters and the Thunder Birds were buried in the earth.

The lands of the Sioux are well known to paleontologists because of the fossils of the flying saurian Pteranodon that were found here. Many skeletons of marine reptiles such as Mosasaurus were also found in this area. These skeletons could have been the source of the Sioux stories about the battle between the flying monster birds and marine reptiles.

More dragons
In the fourteenth century, the fossilized skull of a woolly rhino was dug up near the Austrian town of Klagenfurt. Soon the story was that a dragon had been found. In the sixteenth century a statue of a dragon was erected the town centre. Klagenfurt also has a dragon in the town’s coat of arms. However, this coat of arms was already there before the ‘Dragon of Klagenfurt’ was found. It is not unlikely that remains of prehistoric animals have been found before and that these have strengthened the belief in dragons and made the dragon part of the town’s coat of arms.

Klagenfurt drachen-fabelwesen.de
De draak van Klagenfurt (foto drachen-fabelwesen.de)

In ancient Egypt, bones found around the Nile were not ascribed to dragons, but to Set, the Egyptian god of desert, storm, and war. The enemy of Osiris. Hundreds of kilos of black bones worn down by the river have been found and kept in various places on altars dedicated to Set. These bones were the fossilized remains of various animals such as hippopotamus, crocodile, boar, horse but also prehistoric humans.

British dragons
Many of these dragon stories are also known in Great Britain. Dinosaur remains are quite rare in Europe, but one of the places where they can be found is southern England. Perhaps it is not so coincidental, that stories about dragons are very popular here
Dragons were important to the Celts. According to the druids, dragons were a connection with the earth and the earthly energy. The paths along which dragons had walked have a strong energetic connection with the earth, we call these paths ley lines nowadays. Dragons also play a major role in the Mabinogion and Arthurian stories. The red dragon from the Arthurian stories can now be found on the flag of Wales. Even Beowulf defeated a dragon (no, not Grendel) in the epic poem, but the dragon wounded him so badly that he died. Snake-like dragons were also called wyverns, and these can still be found in Great Britain in pictures on buildings or in heraldry. Stories have been written by historians and folklorists about dragons that terrorized villages and were sometimes defeated by locals. Dragonskins were hung in houses or churches, unfortunately all have disappeared (it would have been interesting to see what it had actually been). These stories were passed on at least until the late 19th century. In the north of England and Scotland people were scared to death of the sea dragon Seonaidh, also known as Shoney. He ate crew members of ships and if he didn’t get his human sacrifice, he destoyed the entire ships.

There is a small hill in Wormingford in Essex. Under this hill, it is said, lies the body of the dragon that was slayed by St George. The name of the village would also indicate that. A ford is a place where you can cross a river and worming would have been derived from worm, the old name for snake-like creatures and dragons. Another explanation for the name is perhaps more credible. King Richard the Lionheart is said to have brought a crocodile when he returned from the Crusade. This crocodile (or ‘cockadrill’) escaped from his home in the Tower’s Menagerie, attaced cattle in Essex and scared the people there until he was killed at Wormingford. There are more stories like this and it is not unthinkable that some of the dragon stories also come from seeing an exotic animal that people did not recognize. Especially at the end of the Middle Ages and after it was elite fashion to build menageries with exotic animals and it is not unimaginable that a snake or reptile that escaped from this could have frightened the local people.

The first paleontologists
It is not surprising that people came up with explanations for unusual finds that they made. In my blogs about ammonites and sea urchins you can read how people used to think of explanations for these oddly shaped stones. And big fossil bones also inspired people’s imagination. A mammoth or dinosaur thigh bone can be as tall as a child. And a skull with hideous teeth was also not an everyday sight. This was seen as proof for the existence of monstrous creatures such as dragons. The stories of these dragons became very popular and were passed on from area to area and from generation to generation. These stories became part of cultures, traditions, stories, fairy tales and literature.

Pliosaurus kevani – the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur

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Pliosaurus kevani, found near Weymouth at the beginning of this century. These fossils could have been the reasom people believed in monsters. This one can be seen in the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester

The first scientific illustration of a dinosaur bone was made in the 17th century by Robert Plot, professor at Oxford and curator of the Ashmolean Museum in the same town. He just didn’t recognize it as being the bone of an extinct animal. According to him, it was a very large human bone. It was the end part of a bone with two spherical heads. It was described by a colleague of Plot, Richard Brookes, in 1673 as being a petrified ‘Scrotum humanum’, petrified human testicles.

The true origin of the large bones and teeth was discovered in the 19th century. In 1822, Gideon Mantell, a doctor from Lewes, England, found a tooth of an unknown animal. He realized that it was a tooth from an extinct animal and described it as the tooth of an animal that he named ‘Iguanodon’, which meant lizard tooth. In 1824 the ‘Scrotum humanum’ was also recognized as a dinosaur bone and was described as a Megalosaurus. They required a statement from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to be able to rename the bone and the animal it belonged to because the first scientific name given is actually the valid name. But the name Megalosaurus was considered more civilized and therefore allowed. In 1842 the group ‘Dinosauria’, horrible reptiles, was first described by Richard Owen. From that moment more and more dinosaur species were found and described. The first reconstructions were ackward and incorrect, but step by step the animals became better known and they were able to reconstruct what they had looked like.

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‘Blue plaque’ on the house that Dr Gideon Mantell lived in, Lewes

If you regret never being able to stand face to face with a living dinosaur, don’t worry. Walk to your window and look outside. With a bit of luck there are a few in your garden. Birds are the only living members of the Saurischia group, one of two dinosaur orders (clades according to some paleontologists). This group also included the most terrible dinosaurs that ever lived, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex. So birds are related to these terrible lizards. However, they are not, as some people sometimes think, direct descendants of the T-Rex, the group from which the birds originated was split off long before the real T-Rex climbed out of his egg. Many prehistoric animals that are now called dinosaurs or saurians are technically not dinosaurs. For example marine reptiles such as Ichtyosaurus and Pliosaurus, they are called -saurus, but they are not real dinosaurs. And the Pterosaurus is no dinosaur either. Dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. Often the impact of a large meteorite near what is now Mexico is considered the main cause, but the ultimate reason for the end of the dinosaurs and many more animals, including the ammonites at the end of the Cretaceous, is probably slightly more complicated and is probably a combination of causes and circumstances of which the meteorite impact was the ‘trigger’. Proof of this impact can still be seen all over the world, including in the Netherlands, where I live. In southern Limburg, in the cretaceous deposits, there is a thin layer of iridium-containing rock that can be found in more places around the world. This is the remnant of the impact of this meteorite almost 66 million years ago. The KT extinction or K-Pg extinction, as it is called, caused two-thirds of animal and plant life on the earth to die out.

Happy Saint George’s Day and beware of the dragons!

Want to read more?
Adrienne Mayor – The first fossil hunters
Adrienne Mayor – Fossil legends of the First Americans

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