Everything by Ronald Hutton is a treat. His talk on dragons, held on 14 Feb 2024, is so much of a treat that I wanted to share this video lecture courtesy of Gresham College.

I am moderately interested in dragons, much less so than now than my younger self who read the DragonRiders of Pern, made ceramic depictions, and collected pewter statuettes. The topic does cross over into cryptozoology, as some claim dragons are real creatures similar to that described in fantasy fiction and legend. But, I do not subscribe to that idea – see below for more on that concept. I do enjoy the various aspects of dragon discussions, particularly at the high level afforded by Professor Hutton.

Dr. Hutton describes his ideas about how dragons came to be ubiquitous across cultures, and why nasty European dragons rose to prominence when East Asian dragons were considered benevolent (an unusual characteristic).

Specifically, Hutton asserts that humans have an innate need to fear the lone, large, alpha predator that wants to eat us. The idea of a monstrous being with teeth, difficult to kill, and may breathe fire, originated with our ancient tales, including Leviathan in the Bible. While other continents had alpha-predators, Europe did not have bears, lions, tigers, or giant snakes to contend with, so the dragon became that symbolic and popular depiction.

Dr. Hutton exhibits multiple times in this entertaining lecture how one fortuitous story can gain serious mileage for centuries and influence societies to modern times.

The topic also crossed over into my other specialty area of “spooky geology” by connecting to leys, earth energies, and interpretation of fossils by imaginative pre-scientific discoverers. I loved all of this so much. Have a watch – it’s well worth the full hour.


Here are a few of my loose ends to “tidy up”.

Hutton notes the idea of the griffin was influenced by dinosaur fossils. This has been challenged by Witton, et al. who published a paper just a few days ago called “Did the horned dinosaur Protoceratops inspire the Griffin?” The answer appears to be no, “there is little evidence for the popular idea that the creature was inspired by dinosaur fossils in central Asia” and “the whole idea is conjecture and speculation”. I haven’t read the paper yet but will be sure to do so. I often get queasy when authors propose direct lines to an explanation. Culture is so incredibly messy. From my geomythology research, I’m inclined to allow for more capricious (and unaccountable) contributions to the formation of complex legends. And so it is with dragons. However, it is obvious, (also considering the examples that Hutton alludes to and the work of Mayor he references) that fossils and animal remains provide inspiration for monsters. We know this happened in the past and still does today.

I’ve read several books attempting to explain the origin of dragons and have been disappointed in every one. Unfortunately, Hutton has not published a book on dragons. I do not accept that it’s a simple answer, particularly one that any self-styled cryptozoologist is going to contribute to. Hutton illustrates that things are complicated and people use imagination to build cultural content. An overly simplistic view of dragons (as deliberate amalgamations of all our most feared animals or, worse, as a real cryptid that people still see) doesn’t make sense. Thanks to social media and tech, multiple hoaxed “real” dragons have circulated, and I would dare to say that there is a not zero percent of people who do believe dragons exist today (or in the recent past).

Finally, the widespread idea of a dragon that exists across cultures as an apex, magical beast, reminds me of the “hairy wild man” theme as well. Some other real creatures, often greatly exaggerated, inspired these legends, but the being in its fantastical form does not zoologically exist today, even though people say they see it. Of course, it’s not as far a stretch to believe in Bigfoot than in a dragon.


Blowholes and a dragon’s nose – My take on a modern TikTok promoting a “real” dragon

Is This a Real Dragon Shot Dead in Malaysia? – A hoax from 2015 – Snopes

Author’s dragon hoax pays off with book deal – Dragon in a jar news story from 2004

Professor Ronald E Hutton – list of publications

6 thoughts on “Zoological melodrama – Hutton on dragons

  1. @sharona The predator amalgamation is kinda supported by the idea of having brains pre-wired to fear certain animals, which comes way back before homo-sapiens. Pretty much all mammals have the same fear response to for example, a snake, because it's not something restricted to us. As animals we still have those things pre-wired. It's sorta an evolutionary survival thing.

    That at least makes sense to me.

    1. That does not explain why you must add the head of a lion to the body of a snake and the jaws of a crocodile. Instead, that is human imagination at work.

      1. @sharona Agree, but it's a modern interpreetation. The pre-wired response is more about certain characteristics of a common predator type, which ends being sorta a 'placeholder' rather than a specific exact thing.

        The pre-wired resposne to snakes, is not about specific snakes, but rather anythhing that slythers.

        Rinse and repeat for millions of years, and new generations automatically fear similar things.

        Which animals occupy those placeholders? No idea really.

  2. I agree that a number of different myths and Chinese whispers over very long periods will mishmash assorted crap into a category like crypto or UFOs or religious magic or whatever . When people already believe , even any light in the sky or notable storm or earth-tremor or whatever will be retold as a dragon or alien visitor or belching god.

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