On the Origin of Dragons
During the middle ages no one ever pondered over the question where dragons might originate from. They were thought to have existed from the beginning of the earth. This changed at the turn of modern times. During the 17th century scientists began to doubt the real existence of dragons, but conceded that phantastic creatures were at least possible. As a consequence "faked" dragons compiled of mumified rays, bats and other ingredients found their ways into the early museums (or rather cabinets of curiosities) as examples of possible but yet undiscovered creatures (STECKNER, 1997). Simultaneously a new question arose. How came dragons into existence? The old Christian explanations on the creation of the earth crumbled. Additionally there was severe doubt, whether such fierce animals were really Godīs creatures. But the Bible never explicitely mentioned creative powers of the Devil. Could there be another way for the origin of dragons?
In 1683 to 1691 Eberhard Werner HAPPEL published his Relationes Curiosae, a collection of curiosities. There he commented on events of the day and reported stories from exotic countries, he presented scientific discoveries of various disciplines as well as descriptions of landscapes, their inhabitants and folk lore. The book gained such popularity that during the ensuing decades faked editions and sequels were issued.
Of course HAPPEL could not ignore the dragon. He first presents the story of Deodatus de Gozon, a young knight of St. John who killed a dragon on the isle of Rhodes in 1345. HAPPEL afterwards lists some well-known facts: Dragons are manyfold - some possess wings and others donīt, some have four and others two legs. Their feet could be compared to those of goose, lions or eagles, but all dragons are said to be venomous. But then he suddenly states that they are monsters or miraculous creatures which could not spring from an ordenary copulation of two common animals of different species. (of course he mentioned the mule as an example of such a bastard). And he gives the explanation: It is well accepted that dragons inhabit the remotest dwellings such as caves, cliffs or deserts. Only eagles, vultures and other birds of prey are their companions. In fact they dwelled there even before the dragon. To these places they brought their prey - snakes, birds, rabbits, lambs, dogs, and even little children! - to lacerate and devour them. And there the remains decayed. But still remnants of the semen of these unlucky victims survived. Of course it was impossible that this seed could develop ordenary animals. But through time the semen of various creatures would intermingle and at last a kind of "fermentational putrefaction" would give birth to a dragon. Logically, this dragon will show features of all animals involved: head and tail of the snake, wings of a bird or bat, ears of a rabbit and legs of whatever kind of being.
HAPPEL certainly had not invented this strange and peculiar theory. But where was it derived from? Here we have to leave our friends, the dragons, for a while and face another phenomenon that puzzled scientists of the 16th and 17th century: formed stones. The term "fossil" then was still used in its original, very broad sense for everything unearthed from the ground - petrified animals as well as roman coins, minerals or pottery. The origin of formed stones (or fossils in its modern meaning) was a matter of scientific debate. It was not before 1708 that Johann Jakob SCHEUCHZER (amongst others) recognized their real nature. The main theories have been summarized by Johann Bartholomaeus Adam BERINGER (1667-1740) in his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1726).
The story of his "lying stones" forms one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of palaeontology (KIRCHNER, 1935; JAHN & WOOLF, 1963). BERINGER was a virtuoso - a "learned dilettant". Figured stones fascinated him. On May 31, 1725 the worthy physician was presented three stones, one bearing the figure of the sun, the other two a kind of worm. His interest was roused. During the ensuing months BERINGER found plenty more on a hill near his home town Würzburg (Germany). He not only studied his findings but also reviewed all theories that could explain their origin. The results were published in 1726. Soon afterwards he found a stone having his own name engraved upon it - and suddenly realized that he had been fooled. His treasures were man-made! He tried to buy back all copies of his book and was soon financially ruined.
There were many riddles about the authors of this hoax. One explanation often heard was that the stones had been used by a lover of BERINGERīs wife to get his rival out of the house keeping him occupied for a significant time. Others spoke of a foul joke by some of his students. However, the hoax had an academic background. The artefacts had been produced and laid out by J. Ignaz RODERIQUE, professor of geography, algebra and analysis at the University of Würzburg, and Johann Georg von ECKHARD, libriarian to the university, who systematically ruined their colleague (KIRCHNER, 1935) because "he was so arrogant and despised them all" (JAHN & WOOLF, 1963).
BERINGER had pondered much over the origin of formed stones. The english translation of his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (JAHN & WOOLF, 1963) is supplemented with notes by the editors which give a good synopsis of the most important theories. A common explanation well in accordance with the doctrines of Christianity interpreted fossils as tokens of the omnipotence of the allmighty God. Some people believed that formed stones were extraordinary manifestations of platonic archetypes. And for others they were just a lusus naturae, a caprice or fancy of nature. BERINGER was inclined to that view.
Robert PLOT (1640-1696), the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, secretary of the Royal Society, and editor of the Philosophical Transactions rejected both these popular theories as well as the idea of an universal Noachian Deluge (see below) as the origin of formed stones. His basic observation was that salts allways crystallized into specific geometrical figures such as, e.g., cubes or octahedrons. He attributed this phenomenon to a special plastic power (vis plastica). And if that power could form salt into complicated geometrical shapes, why could it not create stones with the appearance of animals? To him formed stones were lapides sui generis generated by a "plastick power [or virtue] or whatever else it is that effects these shapes".
Johann Jakob SCHEUCHZER (1672-1733) rejected these ideas. He was a dedicated follower of the diluvial theory. You may remember his famous paper Homo Diluvii Testis (1726) in which he misinterpreted the skeleton of a Miocene giant salamander (which today bears his name: Andrias scheuchzeri TSCHUDI) for the remains of an unlucky human drowned in the Noachian Flood. His most remarkable book, however, is Piscium Querelae et Vindiciae - "The Grievances and Claims of the Fishes". Fossil fish from all over Europe appeare before an imaginary - or should I say "virtual"? - court. They accuse and attack the adherents of odd theories, such as the vis plastica, lusus naturae or aura seminalis, who deny their true nature. According to SCHEUCHZER they are real fish that once had lived and had been drowned during the Biblical inundation because of manīs wickedness, and indeed perished with him. Donīt raise the objection that fishes are creatures of the water and therefore will never drown! SCHEUCHZER of course had thought of that. With a few exceptions (e.g., the eel or the salmon) fish prefer and are restricted to water of a specific salinity. During the Deluge marine fish were exposed to fresh water. On the contrary lacustrine and fluviatile fish were washed into the sea. Both could not endure the enormous amounts of mud created during the flood. They were suffocated and perished (remember that not a single creature besides those on the ark survived; Gen. 7, 23).
Karl Nikolaus LANG, a colleague of SCHEUCHZERīs, advocated a different point of view. He assumed that formed stones originate within the earth where animal seeds were activated by sbterranean heat, proper fluid matter, latent plastic power and the seminal breeze. He stated that this process is more rapid than that of natural generation, but in most cases terminates in the creation of a partial body. Snow water should exert a major positive influence on this process.
However, this was not an original theory. LANG had just modified an older hypothesis by Edward LHWYD (1660-1709). LHWYD succeeded PLOT as the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in 1691, but he never subscribed to his predecessorīs and teacherīs ideas on the origin of fossils. He became one of the greatest proponents of the "Spermatick Principle" or aura seminalis. For centuries it had been assumed, that the active power of reproduction belonged exclusively to the male. It was believed that the head of a sperm allready containes a tiny creature resembling the later adult. Of course this sperm needs an appropriate environment and nutrient to develop which are provided by the female. But why could not also the earth contain some sort of nutrient to stimulate development, a kind of "saline moisture of an occult sort"? Then nothing would prevent development once the spawn or semen of an animal had insinuated itself through cracks and fissures into the earth. The result, however, should not be a perfect creature. Only the female uterus could provide the environment for the proper growth and development of the offspring. Semen embedded into the womb of Mother Earth will accommodate to this new milieu and bring forth stony adults. And sometimes it has not enough power to create complete specimens so that major parts of the petrified animal could be missing.
It was LHWYDīs theory of the "Spermatick Principle" which had been modified to explain the creation of dragons. We should add, that some followers of this theory saw the whole world saturated with semen: Water contains the spawn not only of fish. When it evaporats the spawn not simply desiccates and dies, but is transferred into a new medium, the air. Later it will be washed to the ground again during rainfalls. We should thus not be astonished by the idea that semen of various animals abounds in the vicinity of an eagleīs or vultureīs eyrie. And it shurely gets intermingled before it finds its appropriate "saline moisture". Similar to spawn in rock fissures the semen of a single animal is not able to develop a complete, proper creature. But mixed with other sperms it will bring forth a monster or dragon.
The "Spermatick Principle" was only a short-lived episode in the history of palaeontology. However, it gained much popularity amongst common people, so that, e.g., in 1734 ZEDLER still could attribute the creation of dragons to this hypothesis.
This article was first published in: The Dragon Chronicle, vol. 14: p. 9-11, London.
© MIIM by J. Georg Friebe