Did dragons exist?
By Sarah Holt
There's been no shortage of dragons in literature and film.
Think Smaug in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and, more recently, Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal in Game of Thrones.
But now a dragon shaped skeleton has been found in China, is the mythical beast about to move from the realms of fiction to fact?
A concise history of dragons
According to Draconika, which claims to be one of the premier websites about dragons on the Internet, dragons have played a role in lore and legend for seven centuries.
The home page of the website says: "Although the time that dragons first appeared in myths isn't known for sure, they can be traced back as far as approximately 4,000 B.C.
"Dragons have also appeared in stories that go back to the time of the gods in mythology. The story of Perseus and the Dragon of Posdeidon tells of a vain queen who almost sacrificed her daughter to the dragon, had it not been for Perseus."
In its article on the history of dragons The Smithsonian writes: "Scholars say that belief in dragons probably evolved independently in both Europe and China, and perhaps in the Americas and Australia as well."
The museum and research complex outlines a few reasons for the possible emergence of myths about dragons: "Ancient people may have discovered dinosaur fossils and understandably misinterpreted them as the remains of dragons.
"Others argue that the discovery of megafauna such as whales prompted stories of dragons."
Belief in dragons is so widespread among ancient cultures, anthropologist David E. Jones argues that it is due to evolution embedding an innate fear of predators in the human mind. He compares this human fear to a similar fear from monkeys towards snakes and large cats in his book, An Instinct for Dragons. He hypothesises that the trait of fearing large predators—such as pythons, birds of prey and elephants—has been selected for in hominids. These universal fears, he adds, have been frequently combined in folklore and created the myth of the dragon.
Dragons feature prominently in Chinese culture. The New World Encyclopedia explains: "The Chinese dragon (spelled Long, Loong, or Lung in transliteration), is a Chinese mythical creature that also appears in other east Asian cultures, and thus is also sometimes called the Oriental (or eastern) dragon.
"The Chinese dragon is easily recognizable for its long serpentine body that is generally wingless, and its anthropomorphic face, complete with beard. In some eastern cultures, the dragon plays an integral part in creation mythology.
"Generally, the oriental dragon is benevolent and powerful, bringer of good fortune. Its image was often adopted by emperors as a sacred symbol of power. Thus, the oriental dragon is generally considered a supernatural or spiritual symbol of heavenly power."
In contrast the dragons of western myth are believed to represent evil. The American Museum of Natural History explains: "The dragons that lurk in European stories are powerful, wicked and dangerous. In Christian tradition, they can symbolize Satan or sin. Some nest in caves and guard marvelous treasure.
"When hungry, they may snatch and devour sheep or cattle that wander too near. They may also eat humans--particularly young girls. Epic poems from the Middle Ages tell of warriors and knights who battle cruel and voracious dragons."