Dragon Tales (Tails)... The Pterosaur as Dragon
"So God created the Great Dragons" ...Genesis 1:21 The Latin Vulgate; 5th Century
"What are Wyverns"? you may ask. They are two-legged dragons, having wings and a barbed and knotted tail, according to the American Heritage Dictionary...NordicNeedle
Many have made note of the obvious similarities between the large and obviously reptilian dragon and the creatures modern science calls dinosaurs. Science states that it cannot be dinosaurs that have led to the universal historical belief in dragons, because science accepts the notion that man and dinosaurs were separated from each other by miilions of years.
Here we want to focus on a specifc kind of allegedly mythological creature--the flying dragon.
The dragons shown on the left are all "contemporay" drawings of dragons. Dragons of course, can be drawn in any style, but what these particlar ones have in common are wings, head crests and "barbed" tails. These are common characteristics of modern drawings of dragons. Where did the idea for these unique characteristics come from?
We're going to suggest that these characteristics came from the one flying reptile that conceivably could have formed the basis for "dragon legends" if it had been seen by humans--the pterosaur/pteradactyl. As you can see in these two pterosaur arrays, they came in many different shapes and sizes.
Pterosaurs apparently had a wide species variation as do dogs for example. There is a very wide range of variation between the various types of dogs --but they are all still dogs, including wolves and foxes.
All pterosaurs however did have in common, two legs and two "arms" which were attached to their wings. Many of them had head crests. Many of them had a curious long, club tail as you can see in the arrays.
It is this elongated tail and the "club" at the end which clearly is the source of the "barbed" or darted tail which is a common characteristic of many flying dragons drawn today and as we'll discover, in the past as well.
That diamond shaped tail feature on a living creature is so unusual a morphological charateristic that it would be very difficult to make a case that it is simply a coincidence that dragons are often drawn with that feature, though we suppose that there are those who won't see a connection.
Still, perhaps a case could be made that modern artists have seen drawings of pterosaurs and have either consciously or unconsciously added features like head crests and stylized barbed tails to their drawings. Let's take a look at some dragon representations from the medieval period and earlier to discover when or if pterosaur characteristics were included.
Did Dragon Representations in History Present Pterosaur Morphological Characteristics?
As we've shown, there were many types of pterosaurs, perhaps hundreds of types just as there are hundreds of breeds of dogs, all of whom can still interbreed. Pterosaurs had two legs and two hands attached to two wings. Some had long barbed tails, some as shown in the drawings above had long non-barbed tails and some had short tails or were tailess. Many had some type of headcrest.
Question: Did artists, prior to the nineteenth century draw reptilian flying dragons with two legs, two wings, head crests and a tail...long and/or short and perhaps barbed or darted? In short, did they attempt to draw pterosaurs, the flying dragon of the dinosaur animal group. (though technically pterosaurs aren't considered dinosaurs).
As we consider this question, please consider that people of bygone era's weren't all idiots. Sure they were sometimes superstitious, but science has seen fit to see their evidence that they lived with these animals as largely worthless. Just remember that the Scientific Revolution began in 1543 with Copernicus and included Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton.
The following pieces come most often from "scientific" books of the period, known as beastiaries or menageries that attempted to portray the variety of animal and plant life in the world. Quite ofte, items were drawn from descriptions only.
Top: Jacob van Maerlant, Der Naturen Bloeme (Flanders, c. 1350).The Der Naturen Bloeme (the "flower" of nature or the book of nature), a ntural history encyclopedia, is a modified translation into Middle Dutch of a large version of the Liber de Natura Rerum, written in the middle of the thirteenth century by Thomas de Cantimpré. Bottom: Artist/Soldier Eskin Kuhn's eyewitness drawing of Pterosaurs over Cuba. Also refer to arrays of pterosaurs above. Click Photo for larger image
A dragon was said to live in the wetlands near Rome in December, 1691. The animal lived in a cave and terrorized the local population. A sketch of the skeleton has survived in the possession of Ingegniero Cornelio Meyer (left). The most remarkable thing about the animal is the clear head crest and the dual piece of skin from the crest.
Five digits were clearly visible for each foot, of the proper length and with the first shorter and offset from the rest as is proper for the S.. The upper arm bone can be seen at the front of the wing as well as the hint of the prototagium (in front of the lighter colored upper arm of the near wing).
There is a hint of a wing claw on the far wing where it curves forward. The tail vane is not visible, however that is not a skeletal feature and the dermal layer does not appear to have been preserved there. The aktinofibrils could be sketched in the wing that is clearly membraned. The wings are in front of the legs, on the vertebrae, matching the fossils.
The femur is properly shown as a single bone. The tibia and fibula, the twin lower leg bones, are visible too. Some have suggested that it could be a fossil or faked composite. It is much too accurate to be considered a fabrication. The survival of the skin suggests that it is not a fossil since it includes accurate wing features, a head crest, and the ears.Click Photo for larger image
An engraving of an Asian dragon and a Turkish hyena. From a book by A M Myller recounting his travels from 1725 to 1727. Myller journeyed from Rome to Jerusalem then on to Troy, Gallipoli and Constantinople. From Constantinople he travelled to Egypt and then to Syria. Finally from Syria he travelled to Malta and back to Rome. Click Photo for larger image
St. George on horseback fighting the dragon Fol. 21v: full-page min. Click Photo for larger image
Un Amour qui veut blesser un Dragon (A Love which wants to wound a Dragon) [717, p. 51, no. 14] Click Photo for larger image
A man, accom panied by a lamb, walks toward a dragon and a leopard; a wolf fleeing; weapons at the foot of a tree Otho Vaenius, Emblemata Horatiana. Amsterdam: Hendrick Wetstein, 1684.Click Photo for larger image
Left: Harpies attack sailors and soldiers, both cavalry and infantry. As you can see these harpies have "human" faces. However, it is clear that this artist had seen pterosaurs in flight. Dragons were associated with evil and with the devil.
Right: The Psalterium Aureum, showing a draco in the Francish army, c. 883. Many armies carried a standard which was a winsock shaped like a dragon in flight. This is from 883 A.D. ans shows the characteristic barbed tail and headcrest of the dragon and the pterosaur. Click Photo for larger image
This spectacular dragon has pterosaur characteristics; two feet; two arms attached to wings, reptilian character and long "pterosaur tail". Original image black and white. Color by s8int.com. Click Photo for larger image