Wednesday 15 May 2013

Are dragons really real?


Are dragons real? - I was asked.

I had to think a bit.

The answer was not as straightforward as just No; because for many hundreds of years dragons were as real as anything else that one had not actually seen for oneself.


If we use high quality historical resources, such as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, we find:

A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter. Siga died on the eighth day before the calends of March.

Nowadays we believe (I think) everything written here was real, except for the dragons.

Because we know (we think we know) that dragons cannot exist, therefore the reference to dragons must be mistaken, or metaphorical - or something...


History is no guide to what is real, not least because history changes - open-endedly.

History is partial, misinterpreted, distorted, subject to addition, subtraction and radical re-emphasis.

Nor is the evidence of our eyes a reliable guide to reality; because we know for sure that sometimes we dream (maybe we are dreaming now?) and have visions (is this a vision or is this real?) and may be suffering hallucinations, and our beliefs may be deluded.

What is real is perhaps that which is even now actually in some place where (in principle) it could be checked and known.


For dragons to be real, they must exist now; and I must actually have experienced them - but not with my fallible senses, nor recorded in my fallible memory - rather with revelation (divine communication) to my eternal soul or spirit - that 'me' which is independent of circumstances and cannot be deceived and can know that it is not being deceived.

All of which is setting the bar pretty high for reality; yet we still could not convince a skeptical other...


So dragons are not real, and neither is a lot of other stuff from history which we think we know is real; OR dragons were as real as the Vikings but we happen to have no archaeological evidence of them; or MAYBE they were and are real, and remain accessible, but I just don't know about it...



Daybreaker said...

Do you believe in Moses and the sojourn in Egypt and frog (singular) coming out of the Nile and all that?

Because historically and archaeologically, which as far as I am concerned means factually, that is a bunch of lies.

I have no doubt it is all a big lie. That means everything founded on it is too.

Christians love to talk about Jesus, because he is where their case is strongest. He existed for a fact, and he was impressive.

But if you look at the rest of the liars' story, it's not as good.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Of course I believe in the Old Testament - and certainly I don't regard it as lies. But that does not mean that you could chop-up the text into a hundred thousand fragments and expect me to believe that each was an exact description of some historical event which occurred in precisely that order etc - this kind of 'analytic' (actually destructive) procedure is extremely recent in human history, doesn't work in science or anywhere else, and is in fact a species of nihilism.

Anonymous said...

I have always thought the leviathan description from Job 41 to be a dragon. Especially verses 19 and 20. Many rabbis believe Job to be the oldest book from the Old Testament, so it is likely the first mention of a dragon in all of known literature.

Bruce Charlton said...

@anon - and there is 'Bel and the Dragon', a story about Daniel, in the Septuagint Bible.

Wm Jas said...

Daybreaker, why on earth do you think there was only one frog in the Exodus story? The original Hebrew has the plural (צְפַרְדְּעִים֒), as does every translation I've ever read. Exodus 8:13 makes the plurality of the frogs particularly obvious, since it's not possible for a single frog to die in several different places.

I'm also baffled as to why you would think Bruce -- who is willing to entertain the idea that dragons may be real -- would somehow see the frog story as obviously false.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I got to thinking - is it really impossible that there were dragons? If there were just a few (as in Middle Earth) then it could plausibly be that they had died without leaving any trace (maybe they consumed themselves with fire). etc.

It's one of those things where there never was a discovery that there weren't dragons (e.g. that, like the Loch Ness monster - someone was discovered/ admitted to faking it) - but people just stopped believing in them.

The same happened to fairies in the 16-17th century in England (according to John Aubrey).

So, we are in the strange position that there is some pretty good evidence that dragons (and fairies) were real, and none that they were not - and yet nobody really believes in them...

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Perhpas this was influenced by my friend and fellow IQ researcher Michael A Woodley (who wrote the new paper on IQ decline since Victorian times) is a cryptozoologist, and seems to be the world expert on sea serpents...

Papers listed at:

ajb said...

It also depends on what we mean by 'dragon'. Could dinosaurs (such as Tyrannosaurus Rex) qualify as dragons? If so, then yes, they certainly did exist.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - "fiery dragons flying across the firmament" - well, *those* ones weren't T. rexs!

The Crow said...

Reality works like this:
I know for a fact, I have never seen a dragon.
I do not know, as fact, that none exist.
I know for a fact, many people have claimed dragons existed.
I do not know, as fact, that they were wrong.
I know for a fact, that I can trust my senses.
I know for a fact, that many can not trust theirs.
I know for a fact, that if my senses lie to me, it does not matter.

Do dragons exist? Who knows? I have never seen one.

Marcus said...

For material dragons see the ishtar gate.
For immaterial dragons see the reptilies of ayahusca
A dragon mythos like a flood mythos is etched into the historical record for many civilisations.
For northhumbiran dragons however I think a metorite storm is the most likely explanation.

jgress said...

Perhaps they saw a meteor shower? Unless elsewhere they clearly speak of meteors in different terms...

Daybreaker said...

Wm Jas: "Daybreaker, why on earth do you think there was only one frog in the Exodus story?"
I goofed. I remembered the Hebrew as saying "frog" singular. Sorry.

Wm Jas: "I'm also baffled as to why you would think Bruce -- who is willing to entertain the idea that dragons may be real -- would somehow see the frog story as obviously false.

I'm willing to entertain the idea that dragons might be real. I'm as much convinced of theism and supernaturalism as Bruce is.

Like Bruce I dissent from the idea that history tells us no marvels ever happen, because it's a law of historical interpretation that when the witnesses refer to a non-miraculous event we may credit it, but when they refer to a miraculous event we must dismiss it, and after that editing "history tells us" that there are no miracles.

In eventually dismissing some claims, the ones that should linger longest are those that are not contradicted by any evidence. Those that should go under the hammer are the ones that contradict what we know. One can suspend judgement on fiery dragons flying across the firmament but doing nothing in particular. Dragons that had come a bit later and roasted Alfred the Great in his crib, so that the Vikings won, would be something else. Then we would need not one history (with or without the embellishment of a dragon in the margins) but two, one conforming to the fantastic course of events, and the other lining up with everything else we know.

The resurrection of Jesus is a dragon of the first type. Jesus appearing to his followers after his death doesn't contradict anything we know about events in the Roman Empire. It makes sense that people suspend their disbelief on this point, particularly considering how impressive Jesus was in his non-miraculous sayings.

Moses' voice from the burning bush is a dragon of the first type, as is Moses himself. There is no evidence now that there never was a burning bush. If people like that story, let them enjoy it.

The main Moses story, the story of great events, is a dragon of the second type. We have the history of Ancient Egypt. We can improve the details, but the main lines are clear. We have stacks of physical evidence. If the Nile had ever stopped in its course, and if the other things recorded in the Bible had happened, we would be looking at the evidence to show it. It does not exist.

This isn't like the story of Creation, which also contradicts a stack of evidence but can be explained away as pious fantasy teaching us "higher truths" of some sort. The Moses story is history, with grievances. (The Jews were wronged, as usual.) Just false history.

The people who made it up must have assumed their story could never be checked up on. They were wrong. Their story is definitely, positively, historically incorrect.

The bones of Pharaoh's army will not be found at the bottom of the Red Sea, because they were never there, because that didn't happen.

We don't have one history, with or without a dragon embellishing the edge of a page. We have two, one spun by those wonderful people who bring us Hollywood epics, and saying about themselves the sorts of things they usually say about themselves, such as "we were oppressed", "we are special", "the non-Jews tried to kill us", and "our God saved us"; and the other conforming in sober fact to everything we know.

One of these histories is not the truth. And not in the sense that the Creation story is "not the truth" if you happen to prefer a different world-view, but in the sense that "you owe me ten dollars which I lent you Thursday" is not the truth if I never borrowed that money.

That is the problem.

For me, suspending some disbelief on type one Dragons does not mean crediting type two dragons at all. I was asking if Bruce made the same distinction.

I should have said that much more clearly and less provocatively. Thank you for calling me out on that.

Wm Jas said...

Daybreaker, thanks for clarifying.

I disagree with you on the Exodus. We're talking about very remote events here, and the historical record is not and cannot be expected to be very complete. We have the names of the kings and that sort of thing, but we certainly don't have records of every major sign, portent, plague, disaster, and slave rebellion in ancient Egypt. Given how humiliating the episode must have been for the ruling dynasty, it would hardly be surprising if it had been deliberately omitted from Egyptian records.

And of course, whether or not the exodus ever really happened, we're not likely to find anyone's bones in the bottom of the Red Sea because that was 3,000-some years ago, and bones are biodegradable.


Bruce, I'm open-minded about dragons, too. I was once a pretty serious cryptozoology buff.

For what it's worth, there are dragons in the Book of Mormon, too. See 1 Nephi 17:41, Mosiah 20:11, and Alma 43:44.