I became intensely interested in Dragon Worship and the Dragon Myth during my recent
journey in China and Mongolia in support of the Central Asiatic Expeditions of Roy
Chapman Andrews. Especially, in the royal city of Peking appears the apotheosis of the
Dragon in every conceivable form of symbolism and architecture.
The Dragons leading up to the steps of the temples and palaces of the Manchu
emperors, and the superb dragon-screen guarding the approach to one of the royal
palaces, are but two of the innumerable examples of the universal former belief in these
mythical animals, and of the still prevailing beliefs among the common people of China.
For example, one night in a far distant telegraph station in the heart of the desert of
Gobi, I overheard two men pointing out Leader Andrews and myself as 'men of the
Dragon bones.' On inquiry, I learned that our great Central Asiatic Expedition was
universally regarded by the natives as engaged in the quest of remains of extinct
Dragons, and that this superstition is connected with the still universal belief among the
natives that fossil bones, and especially fossil teeth have a high medicinal value.
Not long after my return from Central Asia, I suggested to my friend, Ernest Ingersoll,
that he write the present volume, preparing a fresh study of the history of the Dragon
Myth which, now largely confined to China, once spread all over Asia and Europe, as
dominant not only in mythology but entering even into the early teachings of Christianity,
as so many other pagan myths have done. I knew that the author was well-qualified for a
work of this character, because of his remarkable success in previous volumes for old
and young, and in his original observations on various forms of animal life, from the
American oyster to many birds and mammals.
He is especially versed, perhaps, in regard to one very interesting question which is
often asked, namely, how far the animals of myth and of legend, like the Dragon, the
Hydra, the Phoenix, the Unicorn and the Mermaid, are products of pure imagination, and
how far due to some fancied resemblance of a living form or to the tales of travelers.
For example, it occurred to me, while examining the giant fossil eggs of the extinct
ostrich of China (now known under the scientific name Struthiolithus, assigned by the
late Doctor Eastman), that it may have given rise to the myth of the Phoenix or of the
Roc. On this point, the author sends me the following very interesting notes:
I have not studied the Unicorn…
The Mermaid is usually attributed to somebody's story of seeing a dugong nursing its
baby, but I guess the idea goes back to the time when old Poseidon was half man, half
fish, and had plenty of water maidens, half woman, half fish, disporting around him. The
first time anyone saw Mistress Venus she was in that 'semi' shape if I remember
I do not find the Roc indigenous in the Far East, and I greatly doubt whether anywhere it
had a 'physical' progenitor, or was suggested by any big, extinct, ratite egg. I have
discussed this in my “Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore,” and conclude it to be a
figment of an ancient boasting storyteller's fancy… only other imaginary form of
importance in China is the Feng–a pheasant-like 'bird' analogous to the Phoenix–and
probably hatched in the same sun-nest…
As to your query about 'mythical' and 'legendary' animals: My whole thesis in regard to
the Dragon is that it is entirely imaginary; and I regard the Hydra (absent from the
Chinese mind) as merely an extravagance that arose in the West, perhaps by confusion
of snake and octopus.
I feel confident that the present work will arouse a widespread interest among students
of animal form and history on the one hand, and of folk-lore, primitive religion and
mythology on the other.
HENRY FAIRFIELD OSBORN.
American Museum of Natural History,
December 20, 1927.