Dinosaurs, Dragons and Ken Ham: The Literal Reality of Mythological Creatures

Have you ever wondered about the origin of mythological creatures like dragons and griffins? Many ancient cultures believed in the reality of such creatures and depicted them in their art and stories. But where did these beliefs, these myths find their origin? Did they come straight from the imagination of social influencers of the day? Were they derived from source literature such as Biblical accounts of the behemoth and leviathan in the book of Job?  Or is there another explanation for the beliefs of so many dragons and griffins?

Today I want to discuss the idea that the origins of mythological creatures are ground in a literal reality of such creature’s existence.  This might seem to support Ken Ham and other creationists who insist that dragon legends are the direct result of eyewitness reports from people living alongside creatures such as dinosaurs and even winged dragons, but we are going to see that another “literal interpretation” of God’s creation leads to a very different understanding of the literal reality of mythological creatures.   

Imagine you are living in the ancient near Middle East and you stumble upon  one of these skulls as you plow your field or when you explore a local cave.  What if you were taking a break from helping to build a pyramid and spent the time wandering into the Egyptian desert and happened upon this large collection of bones laid out on the desert flood?  What would you think?  What would you think these bones came from?

A mastodon skull. Notice, the hole in the center of the skull. This is where the large trunk (nose) was inserted. A skull like this seems likely to be the source of legends of cyclops.

Surely you would think they came from something that had been alive because you are familiar with dried up bodies that left only dried femurs, vertebrae and skulls.  You might even be familiar with the skulls of cows, water buffalo, and possibly lions or camels. But what you are standing in front of now are so much larger than anything you have ever seen and have many odd features unlike anything you are familiar with.  Despite this, depending on the shape of the bones you undoubtedly would attempt to create in your mind an image of what the organism must have looked like when it was alive.  Because for all you know its relatives might be just around the bend!

A 40 million year old whale fossil from “whale valley” in Egypt not far from Cairo. Here hundreds of whales fossils lie exposed in this wind eroded valley. These whales where large headed toothed whales that are not alive today. This is just one example of hundreds of locations where whale fossils may be found and are often very complete (AFP/File/Cris Bouroncle)

What about that first skull again.  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?  Certainly not to those who witnessed the actual bones themselves and imaged them to represent a real organism. And what of those massive skeletons found lying about in the Egyptian desert? In each case the bones are absolutely real and they must be the remains of formerly living things.

But when did the organism that gave rise to these skulls and bones live? If you lived 2000 years ago and you stumbled upon these bones would you believe they lived hundreds of thousands of years before or even millions of years before?

Definitely not!   People of that time not only had no concept of deep time but they also had no concept of extinction.  It was common to believe that God or Gods depending on one’s understanding of the deity had created the world not long before and that the organisms in that world had been created for the present day. The idea that one of God’s creatures would no longer exist would be heretical.

Rather, if you lived at that time you would look at those preserved remains and assume they were left by an organism that had died not long ago and therefore that organism likely had relatives living in the area that were still alive.   Maybe a friend caught a glimpse of some large creatures off in the distance or maybe heard stories of creatures from lands far away.  It would not be hard to infer the bones you saw must be the remains of those animals from those stories.

Conservator Felicity Bolton with a Protoceratops skull at the Fossil Folklore exhibition at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, Tring.

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?  In most mind of the time it is not surprising that these creatures would be as real as any creature that you may have seen with your own eyes.  The dragon exists nearby because you have seen its remains.  The Cyclops exists because you have seen its 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.


Most of 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.  

Ken Ham, Dragons and the Creation Museum

I was reminded of Mayor’s description of the literal origins of dragon myths when I recently read an article by young-earth creationist and geneticist,  Georgia Purdom who works for Ken Ham at the creationist apologetics ministry:  Answers in Genesis.  Purdom’s article  was a response to a critical review (see:   A Seminary Student Visits the Creation Museum: 27 Million Dollars of Bad Exegesis) of the new dragon display at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.  Ken Ham approvingly pointed to her response on his more visible blog a few days later.  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 Ken Ham’s vision of dinosaurs and dragons.  She is utterly dismissive of Mayor’s thesis. Her response, see 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.

Advertising the fire-breathing dragon at the Creation Museum. It isn't just that dragons existed but Ham's literalism leads to their being literally having fire-breathing abilities.
Advertising the fire-breathing dragon at the Creation Museum. It isn’t just that dragons existed but Ham’s literalism leads to their being literally having fire-breathing abilities.  Image credit: http://fatlip.leoweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/11_drgn-copy1.jpg

“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 First Fossil Hunters.  The detail in that book is astounding but more importantly the conclusions she draws have nothing to do with a presumption of evolution or the necessity to believe in millions of years.   For Mayor it would not matter if the fossils and bones were interpreted as having been laid down 4000 years or 4 billion years ago.  If ancient peoples looked at bones and interpreted them as representing creatures living in their time, then time and evolution is of no significance.  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 are completely mythological.  Mayor proposes 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, and we could say they were real to history since they are based on real organisms living in the distant past.  But this isn’t good enough for Ham and friends, they want dragons and dinosaurs to be real in the sense that our believe in them is not derived from inference from fossils and other remains such as footprint but rather can only be “real” is humans actually say the living organisms themselves.   

Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and Christian apologetics ministry, Answers in Genesis, 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 the description of a dinosaur known only 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, breathing dragons or dinosaurs.   Only eyewitness testimony is valid for creationists.  Otherwise it’s just inference from evidence which in Ham’s mind is suspect. As he always says, we believe in observation or operational science and so-called historical science is not to be trusted.  


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, griffins 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, even more likely, what if you found a theropod dinosaur claw (see image below).  Would you not imagine what animal this claw belonged to might look like?  Would you assume that this animal was extinct?  Probably not and you would probably be constantly aware of its possible presence.

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.


The belief in mythological creatures like dragons and griffins may not be entirely based on imagination or ancient eye-witness written testimony. The discovery of large and unusual fossils in ancient times could have led to the creation of legends and myths surrounding these creatures. The ancient people who found these fossils likely believed that these creatures were still alive and that they had relatives living in the area. Furthermore, the idea of deep time and extinction did not exist in ancient times, so it is possible that the belief in dragons and griffins was rooted in a literal reality of their existence.  Creationist may feel that dragon legends are the direct result of eyewitness reports from people living alongside creatures such as dinosaurs and even winged dragons, they may want to believe that God told Job of a fire-breathing dragon because Job was an eye-witness to such a creature but it could well be that Job and his contemporaries all believed such a creature existed and God based on real encounters with fossils and God was accommodating their beliefs in the literal reality of dragons to make his point about his being the author all creation.  The form of “literal interpretation” of God’s creation presented here leads to a different understanding of the literal reality of mythological creatures than the one proposed by creationists who insist that dragon legends are the direct result of eyewitness reports from people living alongside dinosaurs and winged dragons.

A brief addendum:

I just realized that Ken Ham commented on dragons and fossils just a few days ago.  His comments are interesting because he seems to suggest that the thesis I discuss above is plausible but says his thesis is better.  He thinks the reports of dragons in cultures all around the world the result of people actually interacting with dinosaurs which the bible tells us were around just 4350 years ago (well he infers from the Scriptures that this is the case).  And from those interactions they misremember the actual features of dinosaurs morphing them into dragons.   Interestingly he generally downplays the existence of actual dragons which is a trend I’ve noticed at AiG despite their dragons’ display.    Less and less mentioning of fire-breathing dragons despite the mention of such a beast in the book of Job.  So, I’m not sure how they explain the literal Leviathan in the bible but it seems his thoughts are being shaped somewhat by these ideas of how myths are born.  

Here is the YouTube version of this post:

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

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

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