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 watermaidens, half woman, half fish, disporting around him. The first time anyone saw Mistress Venus she was in that ‘semi’ shape if I remember rightly. . . . 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. . . . The 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.