Wednesday, December 14, 2016

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - ~800 AD: Of Beowulf and Dragons

For our next entry, we move on from the Prehistoric Times into the Medieval Times:

Medieval Times: ~800 AD
Of Beowulf and Dragons

"He heeded not the fire, though grievously it scorched his hand, but smote the worm [dragon] underneath, where the skin failed somewhat in hardness."
Beowulf
 One of the hallmarks of the Medieval time period was, of course, dragons, and the knights that rode in to slay them. Beowulf was one of the first pieces of literature to present the dragon, along with the now synonymous fire breathing aspect of it.  

Even though there are no illustrations from the period of Beowulf to show what contemporary people thought the dragon would have looked like, here is a 1908 illustration by J. R. Skelton, which is as far removed from modern interpretations as I could find in reference to Beowulf specifically.
Similar to the gryphon, cyclops, Amazonians before, bones of dinosaurs are thought to be the basis for the dragon mythology. Ancient people would find the bones and build legends around them, much like they did in Ancient Rome and Greece. However, in this instance the beasts that were created became dragons, with an ever expanding array of features like fire breathing, armored skin, and wings. Unlike dragons of modern day though, the dragons on the middle ages appeared more "worm-like" as mentioned in the Beowulf text. As we continue on through the middle ages, this will become more pronounced.

One fossil find that is even named after dragons because of it's uncanny resemblance to what we know of today as dragons is the pachycephalosaur Dracorex

Dracorex at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, photo by David Orr
Although not discovered until 2003, it is unlikely that this specific species of dinosaur was the source of the dragon mythology. But it is not out of the realm of possibility that other similar fossils sparked the medieval imagination.


The next few posts will follow the "evolution" of dragons through the Middle Ages to see how they have "evolved" in medieval culture.


For a full listing of all of the entries you can click here: DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture


References

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