The Cryptid Zoo: Classic Dragons (Western Cultures)

A classic fantasy dragon has six limbs, flies, and breathes fire. This is copyrighted by those who own the copyright to the book cover art for 'Field Guide to Fantastic Creatures' by Giles Sparrow.
We all know what a dragon is. We see countless pictures of this beast on the covers of fantasy novels. The typical artwork shows an animal with a body that roughly resembles something between an exotic lizard and a dinosaur, with scales, claws, four legs and often leathery wings. The winged varieties thus generally have six limbs, with the four legs and two wings. The body is usually thicker than the tail, not thin and serpentine like Asian dragons. The head is vaguely horse-shaped, with large eyes and a long snout. Often, this creature breathes fire.

What you might not know is that there are actually reports of dragon sightings in Europe and America. Often the stories are told as first-hand, and they date from all eras of history, even some from quite recently. For example, there is the 92-foot "flying dragon" that was reportedly killed by Arizona ranchers in 1890.

The dragons described in legends and sightings from North America and Europe are similar enough to fantasy-novel dragons that we can still recognize them as dragons, but there are some substantial differences. For one thing, there are dozens of different varieties. Folklore dragons rarely have four legs and wings like the standard fantasy dragon. Some folklore dragons have wings in place of front legs, so that they have only four limbs altogether.

A few of these beasts are landbound and wingless. Some of these landbound dragons have four legs, while others have only two, generally located towards the head end. The English "worms" are not only landbound, but are rather snake-like and resemble the classic dragons of Asia. There are many reports of European dragons which seem like sea serpents that have crawled up onto the land, sometimes complete with paddle-legs.

Classic European dragons from folklore frequently resemble huge alligators or huge snakes in some way, and it is also quite common for them to have one or more characteristics resembling some non-reptilian animal, such as a sheep's head. Classic European dragons often have supernatural powers and are sometimes thought to be demons or minions of the devil. They often breathe fire and/or exude poison (especially having poisonous blood, but sometimes also giving off poisonous fumes from the mouth or from the body in general). Folklore dragons are often thought to be responsible for extreme weather events, causing hail, lightning and intense storms.

North America and South America also have their dragons, which often resemble the classic European varieties more than the classic Asian varieties. For example, there is the gowrow of Ozark lore from Missouri, a twenty-foot-long reptile with big tusks, and the piasa, a scaled flying beast with horns.

The name in cryptozoology that is currently most associated with the search for dragons is probably Richard Freeman, author of a dragon book published by the Centre for Fortean Zoology. Very few scientists stand with him. Modern cryptozoologists are not very interested in dragons. For one thing, even though modern reports exist, these reports seem to be much less common than they were in the old days. In addition, there is a big problem with organization and terminology. It is clear that dragon legends, even if you limit yourself to western cultures, describe at least a dozen different creatures. Therefore, the proper scientific method demands that we separate the different kinds and study each variety by itself.

This means that cryptozoologists end up studying dragons under different names. Some reports are classified as possible surviving dinosaurs, some as giant alligators or big snakes, some as sea serpents who are briefly traveling over land, and some as pterosaurs or possible giant bats.

You can find out more about Classic Dragons in Western Cultures from the following sources:

Allen, Judy. Book of the Dragon.

Allen, Judy. Fantasy Encyclopedia: A Guide to Fabulous Beasts and Magical Beings from Elves and Dragons to Vampires and Wizards. Boston: Kingfisher, 2005. Pages 50-51, 54-55, 64

Are Dragons Alive Today?

Blake, Polenth. The Dragon Stone - Dragons of Mythology and Fantasy

Boulay, R. A. Flying Serpents and Dragons : The Story of Mankind's Reptilian Past.

Brookesmith, Peter, ed. Creatures from Elsewhere. London, Chartwell Books, 1989. Page 26

Clark, Jerome. Unexplained!. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1999. Pages 473-474

Coleman, Loren. Mysterious America: The Revised Edition. New York: Paraview Press, 2001. Page 239

Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real

Freeman, Richard. Dragons: More than a Myth.

Freeman, Richard. In Search of British Dragons

Gibbons, Gail. Behold...the Dragons!.

Godfrey, Linda S., Hendricks, Richard D., Moran, Mark, ed. & Sceurman, Mark, ed. Weird Wisconsin: Your Travel Guide to Wisconsin's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Sterling, 2005. Page 31

Green, Roger Lancelyn. A Cavalcade of Dragons.

Ingersoll, Ernest. Dragons and Dragon Lore.

Johnsgard, Karin & Johnsgard, Paul. Dragons and Unicorns : A Natural History

Jones, David E. Instinct for Dragons.
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Keel, John A. The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Pages 45-46, 229-231, 233

Macfarlane, Robert. Mountains of the Mind. New York: Vintage, 2004. Page 205

Nesbit, E. The Book of Dragons.

Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Page 68, 95, 129, 136-138, 147, 178-179, 202, 234-235, 242, 245, 258, 265, 267, 271, 285, 289, 357, 361, 368, 374-376, 384, 395, 398, 402, 419-420, 427, 434, 435, 452, 457-458, 462, 464, 472, 475, 496

Nigg, Joe. The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts.

Nigg, Joe. Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon.

Pravda. Mysterious Bogs Pose Lethal Danger to Russian Mushroom-Pickers

Randolph, Vance. We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales From the Ozarks. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1974. Pages 39-46

Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend and Myth. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2000. Pages 150-151

Seraphim Studios. Dragons!

The Serene Dragon

Shuker, Karl. Dragons: A Natural History.

Time-Life Books, The editors of. Dragons: The Enchanted World.

Wikipedia, The. Dragon

Wikipedia, The. European Dragons

Wikipedia, The. Leviathan

Wikipedia, The. List of Dragons

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