Readers of The Long Guest have noticed that it features some “dragons.”
These are not the kind that breathe fire, collect treasure, talk in riddles, and sail through the sky on golden wings. Lord knows, I’ve got nothing against that kind. But The Long Guest is not that sort of story. It’s a speculative novel about what life might have been like in the very ancient world. Its “dragons” are basically animals, part of the milieu through which the characters move as they leave Babel.
They are, of course, dinosaurs. Below is some of the research that prompted me to include them.
Wait, ‘Dragons’ Are Dinosaurs?
The evidence from paleontology is complex, incomplete, hotly debated and far, far beyond the scope of this article. But there is plenty of historical evidence that human beings occasionally saw, and even might have interacted with, various kinds of dinosaur. Often they called them “dragons.”
Dragon ‘legends’ exist all over the world. For example, when my husband and I lived in Borneo, there were stories of a long, skinny water dragon (‘naga’) that lived in the rivers. This dragon was part of the local mythology, but it was also believed to be an actual animal. After all, the other prominent animal in the local mythology was the hornbill (a bird similar to a toucan), which still lives in the interior of Borneo in great numbers.
Dinosaurs in Premodern Art
Let’s start with depictions of dinosaurs in premodern art. All the examples I am going to give below appear in the context of art that features many other animals found in the natural world.
On Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia, there is an image that appears to be a stegosaurus alongside depictions of a monkey, deer, and parrots. On Kachina Bridge in Utah, the Anasazi petroglyphs include an animal that looks like an Apatosaurus. Among the petroglyphs at Havai Supai Canyon, near the Grand Canyon, is an image that appears to be a dinosaur with a long neck, standing upright and balancing on its tail.
Then there are the tens of thousands of small handmade clay sculptures that have been dug out of the ground near the foot of El Toro mountain in Acambaro, Mexico. Besides sculptures of people, musical instruments, idols, and so on, there are – you guessed it – hundreds of recognizable dinosaurs.
Finally, we have the Ica burial stones of Peru. These have images incised on them, including lots of dinosaur images. Interestingly, they show sauropod-like creatures with spikes on their backs. When I was a kid, sauropods were shown as large, grey, slow, and reptilian, with smooth backs. But apparently, in 1992 we moderns figured out that sauropods had “dermal spines.”
Visual images, especially petroglyphs, can be hard to interpret. As you might expect, the sculptures and images above are beloved of creation scientists and have been the subject of debunking by those who hold that dinosaurs did not survive to overlap with people. Sometimes the debunking takes the form of “That’s not really a dinosaur”; other times, as in the case of the Acambaro sculptures, the refrain is, “It must be a recent hoax.”
In the links above, I have tried to include a mix of both sympathetic and skeptical sources. I wanted you to be able to see the images; when possible, I took you to a skeptical source so that you can verify that the image in fact exists. Using the links above, the curious can find out more about the controversies (and with prehistory, the controversies never end).
But now we turn from visual images to less ambiguous accounts in the form of writing.
Historical Evidence for Dinosaurs
Once we start taking dragon ‘legends’ seriously as possible historical accounts of dinosaurs, we start seeing that there are a lot of accounts to consider. Here are just four:
The ancient Chinese, of course, had a whole cosmology built around different kinds of dragons. So much could be said, but I just want to note two things here. First, Chinese dragons are strongly associated with the Emperor because, among other reasons, of a legend of an early emperor, Xia Yu, who was helped by a wise dragon. (Note in the link above that Xia Yu’s story has other features common to the early chapters of Genesis. He lives hundreds of years; he is a founder and a culture bringer; he helps tame the dangerous floods. He is also an ancestor and founder who is later worshiped as a deity, as seems to have been the case with Nimrod.)
Secondly, Chinese dragons differ from Western dragons because they tend to be bearded. Some depictions even have a mane similar to a lion’s. This could be a case of combining characteristics of different animals, which is explicitly done in Chinese dragon mythology, but — just a thought — it could also be a depiction of hair-like feathers. “Hairy” dragons made no sense as dinosaurs until a few years ago, when we started discovering that many dinosaurs had quills or even feathers. See the following links: First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber; Top 10 Dinosaurs that Aren’t What They Were; Fossils found in Siberia suggest all Dinosaurs had feathers.
Speaking of feathered dinosaurs: myths about, and worship of, a feathered serpent go way back in a variety of Mesoamerican cultures. This feathered serpent is called Kukulkan in Mayan, but is better known by his Nahuatl name of Quetzalcoatl. He even has a pterosaur named after him, though in reconstructions it looks more like a big bird than like a winged snake. (But compare this myth to the Hebrew “seraph serpents.”)
Continuing with the ancient Hebrew, here is a passage from the book of Job: “Look at the behemoth, which I [God] made along with you [Job] and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar (!); the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. … Under the lotus plants he lies, hidden among the reeds in the marsh. … When the river rages, he is not alarmed …” (Job 40:15-23)
This description, particularly the tail swaying like a cedar, sounds like some kind of sauropod. For comparison, in the chapter before this God has given some poetic, but accurate, descriptions of the behavior of mountain goats; does; wild donkeys; wild oxen; ostriches; war horses, hawks, and eagles.
Job, by the way, apparently lived in the Ancient Near East not too long after Babel, if we go by his lifespan. According to the book of Job, he lived another 140 years after the events he is famous for. In Genesis 11, we see life spans of roughly 200 years becoming commonplace some time between Babel and Abraham. This is also the time period in which my book is set.
And now, we come to my favorite: dinosaurs in Beowulf. For this analysis, I owe Bill Cooper, author of After the Flood (1995). His book has an entire chapter devoted to zoological terms in Beowulf. Among many other rich ethnological and linguistic details, Cooper points out that in the original Anglo-Saxon, Grendel is nowhere referred to as a “troll.” In fact, ‘Grendel’ appears to be not a personal name but a name for a species: there are place-names in England such as “Grendeles Mere” (Grendel’s Lake), Grindles Bec, and Grendeles Pyt. There is even Grindelwald (“Grendelwood”) in Switzerland. (!)
Looking at the characteristics of Grendel as described in Beowulf:
- He is in “the shape of a man, though twisted” and “more huge than any human being.” In other words, large and bipedal.
- He is a “mearcstapa” (a marsh-stepper), who stalks the marshes.
- He is a nocturnal predator (a “sceadugenga” — shadow-goer).
- He is a “muthbona,” one who slays with his mouth. He is able quickly to devour human beings (once, 15 in one night). This would be difficult if he had a humanoid type of head and jaw.
- Hrothgar’s warriors have been unable to kill Grendel for 12 years, and he is said to be invulnerable to ordinary weapons.
- The way Beowulf kills him is to grip him by his “claws,” at which point Grendel, realizing he is in trouble, tries to get away. But Beowulf twists Grendel’s arm off at the shoulder and Grendel runs off to bleed to death.
- Later, when Beowulf beheads Grendel’s corpse, it takes four men to carry the head home on a spear (this is my own observation, not Cooper’s).
- And another of my own: Grendel and his mother are both referred to as having “locks,” but see the discussion above about feathers or spines.
After offering all this evidence, Cooper doesn’t even bother to name the dinosaur. “Is there a predatory animal from the fossil record known to us, who had two massive hindlegs and two comparatively puny forelimbs? There are several such species.” (page 159)
Thus, four different streams of historical record that I think may be more than myth.
I am not suggesting that every story of a dragon is to be taken seriously as a sober historical record of a dinosaur encounter. Fables have been invented about dragons, just as fables have been invented about other animals that have captured the human imagination (i.e., nearly all of them). But this does not invalidate every historical account. No one thinks that foxes do not exist because of Aesop’s story of the fox and the grapes. No one thinks that whales do not exist because of Moby Dick or Pinocchio.
But Do They Breathe Fire?
The “dragons” in my books do not breathe fire. However, I have nothing in principle against the idea of an animal that could. After all, this world of ours contains the electric eel, the bombardier beetle, bat radar, bio-luminescent beaches, and the platypus, which apparently is able with its bill to detect electric fields put off by living things and so home in on its prey. Since all these things are possible, surely an animal could have existed that could expel superheated liquid, gas, or even – who knows? – actual fire. The process that allowed it to do this would likely be chemically based and so perhaps not visible in a fossil.
Dragons in The Long Guest
Dragons in my first book appear as part of the milieu, not as characters. Since they do not play a major role, I can mention them without spoilers.
Early in the book, two of the men go on a hunting/scouting trip. They observe a duckbill-type dragon with a crest with pink coloring. On the way back, they have an encounter with another dragon of the raptor type, which is hunting a wild boar that they are also hunting.
Much later in the book, the tribe has crossed Mongolia and has almost reached what is now the Liao River (home of the “pig dragon” artifacts). There they have a friendly encounter with a group of strangers who are capturing a dragon to take home to their king. The “dragon” in this scene is a Triceratops-like creature that sports dermal spines, blue-and-gold feathers on its crest (because why not?), and smooth feathers over the rest of its body. (My day was made, once about ten years ago, when I read in a newspaper that a Triceratops had been found covered in feathers. I now can’t track down the source … but it’s too late. Feathered triceratops/Chinese pig dragon has already made it into the book.)
Loosely Related Update
A long time ago, Antarctica had a temperate or tropical climate, lots of animal life, and this cute little reptile.
Butt, Kyle and Eric Lyons. Dinosaurs Unleashed: The True Story About Dinosaurs and Humans. Apologetics Press, Inc., 230 Landmark Drive, Montgomery, Alabama, 1st ed. 2004, 2nd ed. 2008.
Cooper, Bill. After the Flood: The early post-flood history of Europe traced back to Noah. New Wine Press, PO Box 17, Chichester, West Sussex, England, 1995. The creatures in Beowulf are discussed in Chapter 11, p.146 ff.
Kleeman, Terry & Barrett, Tracey. The Ancient Chinese World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.