Giant Snakes

Could the dragons of myth have been gigantic snakes? Guest writer Hodari Nundu explores our ancient connection with the biggest snakes. This is the first of a three-part series. 

I love dinosaurs. Everyone knows I love dinosaurs. I draw them all the time. My old school notebooks have more dinosaur drawings and doodles than actual homework notes. Some of my teachers hated me because of this. Others would regularly want to borrow my notebook just to take a look at the drawings. One of them, an old lady with the visual acuity of a mole, would sometimes adorn my drawings with a check mark, although I could never find out if she was mistaking them for school work or if she was actually a fan of my work expressing her approval in her own, teachery way. 

Because of this obsession of mine with dinosaurs, I’ve come to learn quite a bit about them, meaning that I often find myself answering the questions of curious people about these mysterious creatures. 

One of the most common questions I get is if I think dragons really existed one day. I suppose everyone wants me to say that dinosaurs and dragons are somehow the same thing, and so they are quite surprised when I answer starting with another question. 

“Do you know what the word “dragon” means?” I ask. They usually say no, and then I explain that dragon comes from ancient Greek “drakon”, meaning “serpent” or “snake”. Indeed, dragons (at least in the Western world) were originally conceived as giant snakes, not as dinosaur-like, fire-breathing winged beasts. 

In Greek myth we find plenty of stories involving these snake-like dragons. One of the most famous examples is Python. This particular dragon (some say there were actually two) lived in Mount Parnassus, where it was seemingly worshipped as a deity. There are several versions of this myth, but they all end the same way; the Olympian god Apollo takes over Mount Parnassus and slays Python with his arrows. He then has the serpent’s shrine replaced by his own. Due to the dragon’s divine nature, however, there were a series of rituals Apollo had to perform in order to keep Python’s spirit appeased. 

Representations of Python always show him as a giant snake. Some historians, however, believe that the myth of Python must not be taken literally. Instead, they think the story is a metaphor for an ancient religious revolution; some even go as far as to saying that both Apollo and Python were originally humans--leaders of different religions or cults--and that the metaphor of the god slaying the dragon represents the triumph of one of said leaders over the other. 

Personally, I believe that the story works just as fine when taken literally. It is possible that there was a dragon in Mount Parnassus, worshipped as a god in a shrine, tended by loyal priestesses. Snakes have been worshipped as gods in many cultures, and there’s plenty of evidence of a snake cult in Greece before the Olympian gods, so to speak, “came into power.”  But of course, not just any snake can be a dragon. 

My answer to those who ask me about dragons is always the same. “Yes, dragons did exist, and they still do exist. You have seen them in the zoo, and perhaps you even keep one as a pet”. Today, we call them “python snakes,” after the one that was worshipped in Mount Parnassus. 

Photo by Parker Grice. Reticulated python provided by Twin Cities Reptiles.

That the mythical dragon slain by Apollo gave its name to some of the largest and most spectacular snakes today-- including the longest snake in the world, the reticulated python of South East Asia-- is no surprise. But people still are taken aback when I tell them my theory about pythons themselves being the inspiration for the myths of the Western dragons. Everyone wants dragons and dinosaurs to be the same!

The evidence for my hypothesis is plentiful, though. Greek and Roman historians, travelers and naturalists said once repeatedly that dragons were real, and that they were snakes of great size and might. Some of them were incredibly accurate in their descriptions. Most mentioned India and Ethiopia as the homelands of dragons; tropical Asia and Africa  are indeed the home of the largest pythons. Even later in History, many authors describe python snakes calling them “dragons.”

Isidore of Seville said that dragons were the largest kind of serpent. St. John of Damascus said that “dragons do exist, but they are snakes born from other snakes… they are small when they are young, but then… they exceed all other serpents in length and are as thick as a huge log.” Perhaps most telling is the fact that instead of killing with venom (or fire), these original dragons killed by constriction- squeezing the life out of their prey with their powerful coils. Pliny the Elder said that dragons would battle with elephants, eventually constricting the poor pachyderms to death; but these titanic duels were also deadly for the dragon, Pliny said, for the elephant would collapse and crush its reptilian adversary under its weight. 

Now, an elephant is way too big for a python to tackle, but the fact remains that the largest pythons do attack, constrict and devour pretty formidable prey; the remains of deer, sheep, wild boar, leopards and sun bears have all been recovered from the stomachs of reticulated pythons, for example. And once in a while, they’ve been known to kill humans too. It seems pretty evident to me that python snakes, ironically named after a dragon, were originally the inspiration for the dragon itself. 

Native to warm countries, and often highly dependent on water, pythons would’ve been very difficult to transport and keep alive in Europe; but we do know that in Roman times, some of them were successfully kept and exhibited as curiosities in the Colosseum. 

Is it possible, then, that some python snakes were captured earlier, either from Africa (there was a time in which African rock pythons were found in Egypt) or Asia and taken to Greece? In a country in which snakes were already considered sacred, it is not difficult to imagine a large python being kept as a living god in a shrine like that of Mount Parnassus. Interestingly, the shrine of Python was located over the Kerna spring waters, which flowed under the temple both keeping it warm and filling it, it is said, with strange fumes. Is it possible that these unique conditions created a sort of terrarium-like environment in the temple, allowing for the dragon to survive for many years and therefore attaining very large size?

Maybe someone did slay a dragon in Mount Parnassus. Maybe the bones of a large python snake will one day be found by archaeologists studying the site. Who knows? 


Update: Interesting conversation about this post from Facebook:

  • James Smith 
    I would certainly agree that some of the giant snakes were either the "original dragons" or at least, provided the inspiration for some--especially for the dragons called worms or guivres, depending on the culture, basically resembling monstrous snakes. I would also nominate as contenders those members of the monitor family whose range would have been part of various Classical empires, and perhaps most importantly of all, the crocodilians. As legends were retold and stories blurred, by people who had never actually seen the living animals, confusion and exaggeration arose.
    22 hours ago · 

  • James Smith 
    But I would not totally discount dinosaurs as partially responsible--not as living animals, although I do maintain an interest in the better-justified cryptozoological claims of some scientists and educated laypeople, but as fossils. I find it quite plausible that somebody happened across the skull of a carnivorous dinosaur or other prehistoric reptile weathering out of a rock and said, roughly: "Geez! If this is the head, what must the whole thing have looked like?"
    21 hours ago · 

  • Gordon Grice Interesting thoughts, James. Another candidate for inspiring dragons might be the oarfish:
    16 hours ago · 

  • Gordon Grice I'll forward these posts to Hodari Nundu and see if he has any comment.
    16 hours ago · 

  • Gordon Grice 
    Hodari Nundu responds: I think it is true that fossils have a role building the legend as time went on; curiously, though, the best known example of a fossil mistaken for a dragon was not a dinosaur, but a mammal. In 1335 in Klagenfurt, Austria, the skull of a Coelodonta (woolly rhino) was found- as woolly rhinos were completely unknown back then, the unidentified skull was called a Lindwurm, a kind of dragon, and sat as a relic in the city hall for a long time. The most fascinating thing about the Klagenfurt "dragon" is that there was already a legend about the Lindwurm living in the area and wreaking havoc before being slain by one or several knigths- this story was already old by the time the skull was found. So in this case, this particular fossil did not inspire the legend, but it did reinforce it in the minds of the local people, who immediatly related the strange skull with the local legend. The skull itself was only correctly identified as a rhino's in 1840.
    Of course, there's always the possibility that the original Lindwurm legend was inspired by other Pleistocene remains found in the area in much more ancient times...
    8 minutes ago · 
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