Thanks Matthew! Here is most of my research:
To most, the word “dragon” conjures up an image of a large scaly reptilian creature that walks on two or four feet and flies with imposing bat-like wings. However, sources from Antiquity and even the early Middle Ages convey a different understanding of these fascinating animals. St. Isidore of Seville in his Etymologies gives us this impressive definition:
The dragon (draco) is the largest of all the snakes, or of all the animals on earth. The Greeks call it drakon, whence the term is borrowed into Latin that we say draco. It is often drawn out of caves and soars aloft, and disturbs the air. It is crested, and has a small mouth and narrow pipes through which it draws breath and sticks out its tongue. It has its strength not in its teeth but on its tail, and it causes injury more more by its lashing tail than with its jaws. Also, it does not harm with poison; poison is not needed for this animal to kill, because it kills whatever it wraps itself around. Even the elephant with its huge body is not safe from the dragon, for it lurks around the paths along which the elephants are accustomed to walk, and wraps their legs in coils and kills by suffocating them. It is born in Ethiopia and India in the fiery intensity of perpetual heat.
(Etymologies, Book 12, Chapter 4:4-5)
The image given here is essentially of a kind of gigantic serpent beyond any known living serpent, capable of killing using strangulation, a method used by living non-venomous snakes such as pythons. Considering that St. Isidore is careful to distinguish some level of difference between snakes and reptiles, as he defines the snake as being named after how it appear to creep (serpere) as it moves “…by secret approaches; it crawls not with open steps but tiny thrusts of its scales”, whereas he categorizes reptiles as being “…those animals that support themselves on four feet, like the lizard and the newt, are not snakes, but are called reptiles (reptile)”*, the lack of him mentioning any limbs on this animal is very telling, along with him describing it as “the largest of all the snakes”.
Furthermore, other ancient Western sources corroborate this description of the dragon, in particular the authors Pliny the Elder and Aelian, both of whom wrote extensively on the subject of natural science. Though much of their research is considered outdated by modern standards, they are still respected as pioneers in this field. Pliny writes of the battles between elephants and dragons in great detail in Book VIII of his Natural History, when discussing the intelligence of the latter:
The dragon has much difficulty in climbing up to so great a height, and therefore, watching the road, which bears marks of their footsteps when going to feed, it darts down upon them from a lofty tree. The elephant knows that it is quite unable to struggle against the folds of the serpent, and so seeks for trees or rocks against which to rub itself. The dragon is on its guard against this, and tries to prevent it, by first of all confining the legs of this animal with the folds of its tail; while the elephant, on the other hand, endeavours to disengage itself with its trunk. The dragon, however, thrusts its head into its nostrils, and thus, at the same moment, stops the breath and wounds the most tender parts. When it is met unexpectedly, the dragon raises itself up, faces its opponent, and flies more especially at the eyes; this is the reason why elephants are so often found blind, and worn to a skeleton with hunger and misery. What other cause can one assign for mighty strifes such as these, except that Nature is desirous, as it were, to make an exhibition for herself, pitting such opponents against each other?
(Natural History, Book VIII pg 260)
Quite a intriguing passage, considering that no snake alive in India in our time would have the strength or courage to engage an elephant in this kind of titanic struggle. However, as has been often said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Aelian also recounts tales of these battles in the sixth volume of his work On the Characteristics of Animals:
In India, I am told, the Elephant and the Drakon (Dragon-Serpent) are the bitterest enemies. Now Elephants draw down the branches of trees and feed upon them. And the Drakones, knowing this, crawl up the trees and envelop the lower half of their bodies in the foliage, but the upper portion extending to the head they allow to hang loose like a rope. And the Elephant approaches to pluck the twigs, whereat the Drakon springs at its eyes and gouges them out. Next the Drakon winds round the Elephant's neck, and as it clings to the tree with the lower part of its body, it tightens its hold with the upper part and strangles the Elephant with an unusual and singular noose.
(On the Characteristics of Animals, 6.21)
In order to address those who may just dismiss these stories as mere traveler’s tales, it is important to note that there are similar stories of dragons as living within the native lands of the aforementioned authors, and within the lands of nearby Greece. Similar to these stories of Indian dragons, accounts from these parts of Europe term “dragons” as being large serpents, though not to the scale of the Indian dragons. A great repository of accounts from Ancient Rome can be found here (Thanks Laramie!): https://forge-and-anvil.com/2018/10/01/ancient-rome-had-a-dragon/
One such dragon was even brought to pagan Rome and worshipped as a god. Here is one account out of many from the link that addresses this event:
When the [Roman] state was suffering with a pestilence, ambassadors [who were] deployed in order to transfer the image of Aesculapius to Rome from Epidaurus, brought a snake, which had brought itself into their ship, by which it was agreed that the god himself was present; and on the [serpent‟s] going [ashore] on the island of the Tiber, on the same place a temple was established to Aesculapius. (Valerius Maximus)
As mentioned in St. Isidore’s description, there are also accounts of dragons as having lived in the lands known by the ancients as Ethiopia, which was not the same location in their mind as the modern African nation of the same name. Aelian has the most informative account of any author on this specific breed since he provides measurements for their size, which none before or after him did. Of these gargantuan creatures and their homeland, he writes:
The land of Aithiopia (Ethiopia)--the place where the gods bathe, celebrated by Homer under the name of Okeanos (Oceanus), is an excellent and desirable neighbour--this land, I say, is the mother of the very largest Drakones (Dragon-Serpents). For, you must know, they attain to a length of one hundred and eighty feet, and they are not called by the name of any species, but people say that they kill elephants, and these Drakones rival the longest-lived animals. Thus far the accounts from Aithiopia.
(On the Characteristics of Animals, 2.21)
These descriptions from the “Dragon-Serpents” correspond most with the Titanoboa
, a species of giant serpent that lived in South America some millions of years ago, according to the erroneous teachings of the paleontologists. These creatures could grow up to 50 feet long, and are regarded as the largest snakes that ever lived. I find it more than likely that the “Dragon-Serpents” were Old World relatives of this creature.
Not all documentation of dragons in history describe them as being massive serpents, and I will illustrate this in future posts.