On the Existence of Monsters and Dragons
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
I recall a picture book that I particularly enjoyed as a child. Hit and Myth was one of those books with large illustrations of different animals on each page, and with the pages cut width-ways across the centre, so that if you kept the top of the page open on one animal, and flicked through the lower halves, each turn would display another weird combination of two different animals. It was amusing to me then because it was obvious that the world was a much simpler place, and that animals were as they should be; "a horse is a horse", to quote the theme song of a popular 1960s television program.
But a horse isn't always a horse. The north American Jackalope, a sort of antlered hare (hence its name which combines jackrabbit and antelope), was a taxidermy hoax of the 1930s that gained much popularity and survives even today as a modern myth. The jackalope was described as an aggressive creature and one that had the ability to imitate the human voice. Another rather delightful hoax originated in a café in New York where, in order to drum up business, the owner took a goldfish bowl filled with water and placed on it a sign stating that it contained invisible fish from South America. The prank was amazingly effective, to the extent that the police had to be called in to control the crowds. People can be remarkably susceptible to accepting the existence of strange things, particularly when they can't actually see them.
When they can, they are sometimes more sceptical. When a pelt and sketch of a platypus was first observed in London in 1798, the scientists, not surprisingly, regarded it as a hoax. One wonders what those gentlemen might have thought about the countless hideous, hairy, horned creatures, with tentacles, huge jaws, vast teeth and hundreds of eyes that today can be seen through the lens of an electron microscope.
A year before those practical scientific minds of Great Britain dismissed an actual creature as a hoax, Friedrich Schiller wrote a poem, Der Kampf mit dem Drachen, in which he described another monster, which, like the Australian platypus, may indeed not have been a hoax or myth. This was the infamous dragon of Malpasso:
Why run so fast the hurtling crowd
Down the long streets, roaring loud?
Is Rhodes on fire? — more fast the strong,
Wedg’d close and closer, storms along.
High o’er the train, he seems to lead,
Behold a knight on warlike Steed!
Behind is dragged a wondrous load;
Beneath what monster groans the road?
With wide jaws like the Crocodile,
In shape a Dragon to the sight,
All eyes in wonder gaze the while —
Now on the Monster, now on the Knight.
The poem tells the story of a Dieudonné de Gozon, a knight of Languedoc who, according to the popular myth had succeeded where others failed, in killing the famous dragon which had become a serious threat to the locals and their cattle in the valley below Mount St. Stephen south of the city of Rhodes. Gozon became a local hero and his popularity eventually led to his appointment as the 26th Grand Master of the Hospitaller order in 1346.
Gozon was a historical figure. He did in fact exist and he indeed became the Hospitaller Grand Master. The dragon too appears to have existed. At least, its head was on display on one of the city gates until 1837 when it was removed during repair work. The hint to the possible reality behind this dragon lies perhaps in Schiller's reference in his poem to a crocodile. The dragon of Malpasso may have been a huge crocodile that had originated in the Nile. This might sound far-fetched, but Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) like other saltwater crocodiles are known to be capable of swimming in the sea for considerable distances. The presence of these creatures in the Crocodile River near Caesarea some 380 kilometres from the Nile (into the early 20th century) shows that they could indeed cover considerable distances.