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The Evolution of Dragons: From Living Serpents to Mythical Beasts


Lopezalles, Sierra MacKenzie (2020) The Evolution of Dragons: From Living Serpents to Mythical Beasts. Senior thesis (Major), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/st7y-3y61.


We, at least in the modern West, tend to think of dragons as mythical beasts; they inhabit medieval epics and romances, as well as the modern fantasy stories and movies inspired by them. As such, they have been around for centuries. However, at the beginning of their life dragons were not mythical; they were in fact quite real. But the original dragons were not dragons at all – they were serpents. The modern image of dragons with legs, wings, and fire-breathing capabilities emerged in the course of the European Middle Ages. It has no place in the Classical world and would have been unrecognizable to the ancient Romans or Greeks. The evolution of dragons from simple snakes did not happen all at once. It occurred slowly over the course of three thousand years (~900BC-1700AD). Further, it did not even happen in the same order everywhere. Dragons were associated with fire and venom in ancient Greek myths and stories but lacked wings until Roman late antiquity. They failed to have their fire-breathing powers confirmed in natural history until the seventeenth century. And across the board, the number of legs attributed to dragons varied greatly between time periods, and even between different depictions in the same time period. Natural histories did not describe dragons as quadrupeds until Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth century.

That dragons existed, however, remained uncontested until the Early Modern period, and believers persisted well into the eighteenth century. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was the person to finally cast them from the real world and firmly trap them in the realm of folklore and legends. It was their strong connection with the world of the gods, a connection that they had enjoyed from the beginning, that led dragons to develop from the real to the unreal, and finally allowed Linnaeus to slay them. Nevertheless, though the dragons that Linnaeus actually met – and he did meet some – were undoubtebly the stuff of myth, the dragons of Ancient Greece were as real as Linnaeus’ dragons were fake.

Item Type:Thesis (Senior thesis (Major))
Subject Keywords:dragon, serpent, drakon, dragon-slayer, kircher, linnaeus
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:History
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Brown, Warren C.
Thesis Committee:
  • None, None
Defense Date:4 June 2020
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06042020-035611013
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:13776
Deposited By: Sierra Lopezalles
Deposited On:04 Jun 2020 20:13
Last Modified:29 May 2024 18:10

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