Image you are living in 200 BC in the Middle East region and you come by the skull to the right as you plow your field or when you explore the local cave complex. What if you are wandering the desert in Egypt and happen upon the bones in the second figure. Or what about the skull in the third figure? What if you came upon the jaw of a dinosaur (figure 4) in the sandstone rocks? What would you think? What would you think they came from? Surely you would think they came from something that had been alive because you are familiar with the dried bones and skulls of cows, water buffalo, and possibly even lions. But these are so much larger than anything you have ever seen and have many odd features. Despite this, depending on the shape of the bones you undoubtably would imagine what the organism must have looked like when it was alive. What about the first skulls? What could that hole in the center be there for? Other holes in skulls you are familiar with were for eyes so maybe this is some sort of huge eye in the center of the forehead of this creature. The skull is so large it
must have come from a very large organism. A huge human like thing with a single eye possibly. Sounds like the mythical Cyclops. But if the Cyclops was imagined from these bones is the Cyclops really a myth? Not to those believed the bones to represent a real organism. And what of those massive skeletons found lying out in the Egyptian desert? And what about that skull of a huge animal in figure 3. In each case the bones are absolutely real and they must be the remains of a formerly living things.
When did the organism that gave rise to these skulls and bones live? Let us say you live some 2000 years ago. If you stumbled upon these bones would you believe they lived thousands of years before or even hundreds of years before? Or would you expect that they could have died very recently. And if they died in the past couple of years could there not be others like them still alive in your day? Your friends have caught glimpses of large creatures or they have heard stories from others of creatures from lands far away. Your infer these must be the remains of those animals from those stories you are staring at.
So then are the griffin, the cyclops or the dragon simply mythological creatures or are they as real as the lion, the elephant , or rhino? Yes, they are as real in your mind as any creature that you may have seen with your own eyes. The dragon exists nearby because you have seen his remains. The Cyclops exists because you have seen his head. The griffin has the trunk and legs of a lion, the head of an eagle and wings and stands guard over deposits of gold because the bones of a griffin are observed in rocks very near to where gold is dug up in southern Asia. All of these creatures were very real to the ancient mind that had no concept of fossilization, vast periods of time or the extinction of organisms.
What I have just presented to you is the thesis of Adrienna Mayor, a research scholar affiliated with the Stanford University Department of Classics. Author of numerous research articles she has also authored several popular books that examine the origins of myths and folklore. Her most influential book is The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. New edition released in 2011.
Ken Ham, Dragons and the Creation Museum
I was reminded of Mayor’s description of the literal origins of dragon myths when I read Georgia Purdom’s (Answers in Genesis) response to a critical review (see: A Seminary Student Visits the Creation Museum: 27 Million Dollars of Bad Exegesis) of the new dragons display at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Ken Ham approvingly pointed to her response in his more visible blog post this past week. The seminary student had employed Mayor’s work as a reasonable alternative explanation for reports of dragons in history and provided a number of other reasons why Ham’s vision of dragons as dinosaurs was neither scientific nor consistent with the scriptural evidence. Purdom’s response is not really much of a defense of the Ken Ham’s vision of dinosaurs and dragons. She is utterly dismissive of Mayor’s thesis. Her response, below, is to simply borrow Ken Ham’s favorite expression “were you there” and insinuate that Mayor’s views of the age of the earth make her conclusions suspect.
“But Mayor’s views are based on her ideas about the past (she wasn’t there) and she does not presuppose the Bible as truth. She interprets the evidence of fossil beds and dragon legends in light of her presupposition that man’s ideas about the past—including evolution and millions of years—are true and God’s Word is not.”
I can only conclude that Purdom has not read Mayor’s book. The detail in that book is astounding but more importantly the conclusions she draws have little to do with a presumption of evolution and millions of years. For Mayor it would not matter if the fossils and bones are being interpreted as having been laid down 4000 years or 4 billion years ago. For if people looked at bones and interpreted them as representing creatures living in their time, then time and evolution is of no importance. Young earth creationists should be able to readily accept the conclusions of Mayor. The only reason, it appears, that Purdom has any trouble with Mayor is that Answers in Genesis seems to have already decided the truth about dragons existence and are bent on promoting a dichotomous choice: dragons were either absolutely real and lived beside man or dragons never existed and completely mythological. Mayor proposes what could easily be a third, and much more likely option: dragons were conceived of as real creatures and believed to be real. They were not a made-up legends nor did anyone who originally believed in dragons believe they lived millions of years ago. When the Bible and other cultures talk about dragon-like creatures it speaks about them as if they are real because, by all indications, they absolutely were real to the original audience. Ken Ham’s Creation Museum has little use for this form of literalism. For them a description of behemoth in the Bible must be a dinosaur and it can’t just be a dinosaur from bones but one that people had to have seen with their own eyes. Ken Ham would have us believe that any mention of dragons or any image scrawled on a wall that looks like a dragon absolutely must represent an eyewitness account of living dragons or dinosaurs.
Did Dragons Exist?
Did dragons exist in the past? Yes and No. I don’t believe there were fire-breathing flying dragons at any point in time though there have been creatures that have had some of the features of dragons. However, people almost certainly encountered massive bones from extinct organisms that they understandably interpreted as representing the remains of organisms living in their day. Yes, they really believed dragons, griffons etc.. were as real as any other animal that they knew. As further evidence Mayor documents a widespread phenomena in the Mediterranean region from around the time of Christ. At that time many villages in the Mediterranean had collections of “hero” bones which were mostly large mastodon and mammoth bones and tusks that had been found in areas around the towns and they were preserved as the remains of animals and even giant humans that lived in the recent past in that area and were thought to be the areas protectors (its heroes!). Over time the attributes of these heroes and stories of how they died and where they lived were almost certainly embellished thus becoming far more mythic in nature but nonetheless these myths were grounded in a belief in the literal reality of their existence. I should note here that Adrienne Mayor has also written a second book about Native American legends (Fossil Legends of the First Americans) in which she argues, I think quite persuasively, that they also encountered many bones of extinct organisms and they also interpreted these bones as literally representing many of the organisms that become what we think of as legends but were born out of real encounters with real organisms albeit the remains of those organisms.
A search of the Answers in Genesis website reveals only one other mention of Adrienne Mayor and that is with respect to a story out of China about dinosaur tracks and some confusion that led some to think that there were dinosaur and human tracks together there. Adrienne Mayor was part of that study and interestingly the AIG report tells the story of how those dinosaur tracks have been known by Chinese for thousands of years and that ancient Chinese thought that these tracks looked like lotus leaves and had developed a number of stories to go along with these “tracks.” What of the many dinosaur tracks that are in China? If you were a Chinese peasant in the year 400 and came upon what looked like huge tracks of a reptile in the rocks and you knew nothing of geology would you not imagine that they were formed by some great beast that walked that way in the not too distant past. What about pterodactyl fossils found in china that have obvious evidence of huge wings? Or, more likely, what if you found a velociraptor claw (see image below). Would you not image what animal this claw belonged to might look like and would you assume that it was extinct? That Chinese should have legends about dragons is not surprising and has nothing to do with an old earth or evolutionary worldview. Those legends come from explaining something that was very real and yet the reality of those bones and footprints doesn’t mean that dragons as they are portrayed in Chinese literature are an accurate reflection of what those bones represent or that dragons may still be alive in the inner forests of China today.
Other related readings:
Greek Myths: Not Necessarily Mythical
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD, New York Times: July 04, 2000
Ancient references to the fossils from the land of Pythagoras
N Solounias, A Mayor – Earth sciences history, 2004 – Volume 23, Number 2 / 2004
The waiting tragedy for the “were you there” argument is when children who have been steeped in this start running into “So, you believe in the Resurrection? Were you there?” Ham, by teaching this as a way to dismiss evidence, is teaching a form of Materialism. If you can’t see it with your own eyes you can’t prove it. It would be funny if it wasn’t so frustratingly short sighted and immature.
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Thanks for the comment. The “were you there” argument is such an overused clause that it is surprising that they still find it so effective. It is usually pulled out when they don’t have an answer and want to avoid further discussion which, I suppose, is why it is so effective. In the end, you are right that it is counterproductive in many instances. JD
I’m a YEC, but I enjoyed reading your article. But the bulk seemed to be referring to people encountering bones of dead animals, no? What do you make of historical sources which seem to indicate some level of actual sightings of dinosaur / dragon-type animals, but not in some outlandish context of a hero story (to which bones might be credited as inspiring) or something with a legendary “tinge” to it? (I can think of 2 such sources off the top of my head; “The Travels of Marco Polo” — his mention of a two-legged crocodiles with one claw on each foot, which the translator thought was odd [ref. The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 2, Chapter 49] — and “The Analects of Confucius” — he mentiones the dragon last in a list of otherwise real animals when trying to describe the mysterious / mythical founder of Daoism, Laozi.)
Just wanted to get a quick little take on that from an obviously bright individual who would be in a better position to assess those kind of things than I myself am.
Only respond if you’ve got time. No big deal if you don’t.
I apologize for not getting back to your question sooner. I don’t really doubt that many of those reports were written as truthful reports rather than made up. However, that does not necessitate that the reports are true. The human eye and brain are both sieves of a sort of reality for us. If we have heard stories that we believe are true and then see something similar ourselves our mind will fill in the gaps. A crocodile is a fearsome creature that no one one get close enough to really study so most everything known would be hearsay bits of evidence that gets compiled overtime into a general concept of what these creatures are. Someone like Polo likely saw one himself but if he had heard any stories (very likely) about such creatures then his mind would fill in the gaps of a short encounter with the rest of the pictures. Writing down his encounter he does not have to embellish the account at all for him to report the facts as he remembers those facts are facts to him but may not really match with reality. It really isnt’ hard for we as humans to believe “facts” about things we don’t understand well. Swamps have swamp gas and those are known to flare at times naturally. All it would take is for one flare to happen at the same time that a crocodile is emerging from a swamp in an attack for a person to truly believe that the crocodile breathed fire. Once one credible person has seen it and told 20 friends, every time they see a swamp flare they will associate it with a crocodile and 20 more friends and so on. No one made this story up and every person believed it was true but that doesn’t make it factual.
As a quick comparison, look at today’s UFO phenomena. I don’t believe we have been visited by UFOs but there are hundreds if not thousands of stories of people that have been eye-witnesses of various visitors and their craft. I expect there are vastly more personal detailed accounts of UFO sightings than there are of dragon sightings. Yet, I don’t believe. Does this mean I think that that all those stories are totally made up? Are they just making the story up to make money or draw attention for themselves. In some cases I am sure they are made up but I also believe that many people that tell of UFO encounters are absolutely sincere and believe everything they have said is factual. What you will find with most UFO stories is the person that saw something has usually been exposed to other stories about what a UFO is like and they have taken something they have seen that they didn’t understand and their brains have interpreted what they have seen to fit those stories. When they remember the scene later, their brain fills in facts for them without them even being conscious of it and so they report things as facts that are no really facts. This is a common problem for police as they collect eye-witness accounts of accidents or crimes and a well known phenomena.
Anyway, the points is that the stories of dragons are far from slam dunk evidence of their existence. Some sort of physical evidence in addition to eye-witness reports is really necessary in the same way that physical evidence of an extraterrestrial craft is needed to corroborate eyewitness reports of flying saucers.
Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment. Joel
Thank you for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful reply, Joel. You made very solid points and a good comparison there between stories of supposed dinosaur sightings and UFO sightings. I’m currently reading a book by Bill Cooper called “After the Flood” (ISBN 978-1874367406) which contains some such stories. I haven’t gotten to them yet, but when I do, I’ll certainly keep your reply in mind!
Joel, on the business of people actually seeing strange beasts. There was a series on PBS some years ago on the area of the Congo river in Africa. It was reshown a little while ago and I happened to catch several episodes. (It is one of the most fascinating nature series I have ever seen on TV.) In one episode they talked about the fact that the pygmy tribes in the Congo jungle all have a legend of a great beast (I can’t remember their name for it) that supposedly lives in a remote area of the jungle and is rarely seen. When researchers put all the descriptions together, and allow for the growing of the tales in the telling, it appears that what is being described is a rhinoceros. It turns out that there are remains indicating that at some time a few thousand years ago when the climate was somewhat different, the jungle was patchier and there was a species of rhinoceros in the region. Of course, there could be younger remains that just haven’t been discovered. So it appears we shouldn’t discount the possibility that hunter-gathers could retain a legend of a real beast that actually hasn’t been seen for quite a while.
Sorry, but the dinosaur enthusiast in me can’t be restrained from making a correction. That claw is most definitely not from a Velociraptor. That thing is nearly as big as a V-raptor’s head. V-raptors only got to be about 3 feet tall. The creatures you know from Jurassic Park were actually Deinonychus, a much larger relative of the Velociraptor. Judging by the size of that claw, I’d guess that it came from a Utahraptor, the even bigger brother of the Deinonychus and the Velociraptor. Awesome find, none the less.
I think you should know that Marco Polo was a rather notorious weaver of tall tales and, to be frank, downright BS.
Ah, thanks. As soon as I saw your comment I realized I should have gone with my gut feeling on that one. I found that picture on a site claiming it was a velociraptor and it just didn’t feel right but in my haste to find an accessible image I used it. I’ll make the corrections. Much appreciated!