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The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts

From the Introduction
"This book, like the medieval bestiaries, is a book of beasts. Bestiaries, though, were moralized natural histories presenting what were considered at the time to be members of the animal kingdom. They included a number of animals we now regard as mythical. The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts, on the other hand, contains only animals whose shapes or qualities never existed outside our own imagination.

"Dragons, Unicorns, Griffins, the Phoenix, Mermaids, and other ancient, unnatural beasts continue to fascinate us with their mysterious powers. Called 'mythical,' 'fabulous,' 'fantastic,' and 'imaginary,' they are like images from dreams--or nightmares.

"But given nature’s bounty of millions of unimaginable animal shapes, colors and habits, why are we so enthralled by creatures of our own making? They cannot even begin to match the abundance and variety of the animal kingdom. Well, for one thing, they are ours. We created them--even though we fashioned them from parts of nature’s creatures. They are expressions of human fears and of our wonder at the awesome forces of nature. Bestowed with magical qualities, they embody our longings for health, wisdom, riches, and immortality. They also delight us with their charm and eccentricities. They are, for us, necessary animals."

* * *

"I modeled this book on the bestiaries of the Middle Ages, but because this is a book of mythical beasts, I altered the standard bestiary division of Beasts, Birds, Serpents, and Fishes. I added Dragons to the Serpents section and placed it first because of the dominance of that age-old universal beast. Medieval bestiarists loosely ordered the animals in each section according to size or importance. I, too, use that general arrangement. But while many bestiary entries end with religious lessons, I often conclude with miscellaneous information about the animals. The following entries--as in major bestiaries--are accompanied by illustrations....

"Like the bestiarists, I combine multiple traditional sources but only seldom cite authors and books by name. These can be found in the primary-source section in the Further Reading bibliography. I present mythical beasts as authors and scribes did centuries ago--as though they are actual creatures, members of the animal kingdom. To this end, I adopted the narrative voice of a modern bestiarist who believes everything he has read about these animals and assumes they are still out there somewhere."

* * *

The Rainbow Serpent
Dragon of Rain and Rivers

"Striped with all the colors of earth and sky, the enormous Rainbow Serpent is the most beautiful of all the Dragons. One of its kind lives in the ocean, and when it moves, waves begin to roll. Others live in the earth or in ponds and rivers. During rainy seasons, they rise up to drink the moisture in the air, and then bend back down to the ground to drink the water of the earth. These shining creatures can be seen all around the world.

"In the Australian Dreamtime, when the world was new and the Ancestors created and named all living things, the Rainbow Serpent crawled through the land, carving out rivers and forming mountains. It rested by curling up in a lake, and while it slept, drought spread across the earth. One of the Ancestors disturbed the monster while fishing at the lake. The beast rose up in a rage, sending water spilling out of the lake and flooding the plain. Rain poured from the sky, raising the waters even more. And so did the Rainbow Serpent cause the Great Flood. Now, when a shaman sits beside a pool where the serpent lives and is filled with its spirit, he or she gains powers to cure sickness and foretell the future.

"The Rainbow Serpent of West Africa was the first creature made by the creator god Mawu. The serpent carried the god on its back as it crawled across the land, its waving tracks forming the bends of riverbeds. When its journey was done, the Dragon curled up in the bottom of the sea, its tail in its mouth, supporting the world. Relatives of this creature include the ancient Ouroboros and the extinct Midgard Serpent of Scandinavia, which once encircled the earth.

"One South American Rainbow Serpent was a water snake that a girl kept as a pet until the creature grew large and began to devour people. A flock of birds killed the monster and bathed in its blood, which colored their feathers all the tints of the rainbow.

"Associated with rain and fertility, the Rainbow Serpent is related to the rain Dragons of China. In times of drought, the ancient Chinese made Dragons of wood and paper and carried them in processions. If no rain followed, they destroyed the Dragons."

* * *

Giant Ants
Guardians of Desert Gold

"On a plateau in the remote northern mountains of India, Giant Ants larger than foxes and some the size of mastiffs, dig gold out of the earth and jealously guard it with their lives. The gold is in the heaps of sand they make as they burrow into the ground. Men who try to steal the gold do so at their peril, for the Giant Ants smell their approach and stream out of their burrows like angry bees. Fierce and swift, they pursue intruders, and those whom they catch they devour.

"The only way to procure the Ants’ gold and escape with one’s life is to outwit them. The Indians do this by entering their domain in the heat of the day, when the creatures are deep in their burrows. Each of the men rides a female camel with a male reined on either side. The treasure-seekers approach the burrows stealthily and fill their bags with the gold-dust. As they ride away, the enraged Ants emerge from their dens and wildly pursue them across the sands. The male camels tire first, but the females gather speed as they rush home to their foals. So reports Herodotus the historian.

"Another ploy that people use to obtain the Ants’ treasure is to cut up flesh of wild beasts and scatter the pieces on the desert. When the voracious Ants smell the meat and leave their homes to seek it out, the human intruders hurry to the heaps of sand outside the burrows. They pack the golden prize onto their beasts of burden and escape before the Ants return.

"Although the Ants themselves are rarely captured, the King of Persia has several of them, brought to him by hunters. Some say the Ants’ skins are similar to those of leopards. Others refuse to believe that the gold-guarding creatures are actual ants. They maintain that the beasts are marmots and point out that the Persian word for 'marmot' means 'mountain ant.' The tale, some say, arises from confusion of similar words for 'ant' and a certain Mongolian tribe. Yet others think the Giant Ants are really Tibetan miners. Legends of enormous ants guarding treasure abound in countries from Greece to China, and an ancient Chinese poet wrote of red ants the size of elephants."

Copyright © 2022 Joseph Nigg