Discovering Dragons

Discovering Dragons

Dragons are mythical beasts which do not exist, but they appear in folktales and children’s stories in many cultures around the world, from Northern Europe to China, but where do dragons come from? Early civilisations discovered large bone either on the surface of the ground or embedded in swamps or rocks. These people recognised a leg bone, a hip or a jaw bone, but, from the size of these bones, they did not appear to come from any living creature. These early archaeologists had discovered dinosaur bones!

These people did not know anything about dinosaurs but, in their imaginations, they created dragons as being the source of these bones. Now we know much more about dinosaurs. Unlike dragons, they do not breathe fire. That was the invention of story tellers.

More mythical creatures

The unicorn is another mythical beast, a horse with a single straight horn sticking out of its head. It was created in a different way. Travellers returning to Europe from Africa tried to describe a rhinoceros which they had seen. They said that it had four legs, like a horse, but it also had a single horn sticking out of its head. In their imaginations, the listeners created unicorns.

Many animals were created from travellers’ stories. For many years, many people believed in hybrid animals, a combination of two different creatures.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the mermaid, a creature with the top half of a beautiful girl and the bottom half of a fish. There are stories about mermaids in many different cultures. Some people believe that stories about mermaids were created by sailors. After many months of not seeing any women, the sailors saw sea lions and believed that they were mermaids. There is a famous children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen called “The Little Mermaid.”

The centaur is another mythical hybrid animal from Greek mythology. The centaur is half human and half horse. A centaur has the intelligence of a human combined with the speed and strength of a horse.

Another hybrid animal is the cameleopard. This was an animal with a head like a camel but with skin which was marked with dark and light patches, like a leopard. The cameleopard was believed to be an animal which was half-camel and half-leopard. The cameleopard was not a mythical creature. It was invented after travellers had seen a giraffe, and tried to describe it.

Another creature from Greek mythology was the minotaur. The minotaur had the head of a bull and the body of a man. As we can see in this picture, the minotaur also had feet like a bull. In Greek stories, the minotaur was always a terrifying creature. It was both noisy and very powerful. Like bulls in the real world, the minotaur was always ready to attack anyone or anything which came close to it.

Describing real animals

Some animals were created by artists who were trying to create pictures of animals which they had never seen. The picture on the left was painted on the ceiling of a monastery in northern Italy. It attempts to show an elephant being used in battle. The elephant has killed a soldier and is treading on his body.

Clearly, the artist has never seen an elephant, but he has heard or read descriptions of elephants and their use in battles. The artist knows about horses and has painted horses many times, but he has never heard of a horse which can carry a castle and many soldiers on its back. The artist has never heard of a horse with a long tube sticking out of its face.

Comprehension is a process of creating mental images from words which have been heard or read. This artist has used his imagination to create a picture from the limited information which he has. As with the work of our learners, it is not a perfect illustration of an elephant, but I think we can see what the artist means.

The German artist, Albrecht Dürer produced this remarkable woodcut picture of a rhinoceros in 1515, despite the fact that he had never seen the animal. In fact no rhinoceros had been seen in Europe since Roman times. The Indian rhinoceros, Clara, had been given, in 1514, to the Portuguese king, Manuel II for his private zoo. The animal was examined by scientists who wrote enthusiastic letters to their colleagues around Europe describing this amazing animal.

Albrecht Dürer read some of these descriptions and produced two sketches of the animal. Although these sketches have been lost, it is known that his famous woodcut was based on his second sketch. His picture of the rhinoceros is not an accurate representation of the animal but it is a very good attempt, allowing for his limited information. Dürer draws plates of armor like the metal plates which were worn by knights. In Dürer’s picture, the plates appear to be riveted together with steel rivets. This is not the same as the folds of heavy skin which can be seen on a rhinoceros.

Although Dürer’s picture was not totally accurate, it was the first representation of this animal which most Europeans had seen and became the iconic image of the rhinoceros.


Pair work. Have you got a pet animal or bird at home? Describe your pet to your class mate and ask your classmate to draw it. If you don’t have a pet, imagine a pet and describe it to your classmate.

Class work. Collect all the pictures and display them. Look at all the pictures. Try to guess which pet is kept by each student. Individually, make your own list of students and pets. Ask each student to describe their pet and mark your list with üor ×.

Writing. Imagine that you have seen a strange animal, fish or bird. Write a description of the imaginary animal, fish or bird. Show your description to two different students. Ask each of them, working individually to draw a picture of the animal, fish or bird. Which classmate has drawn the most accurate picture?

Pair work Game. Collect or print from the internet 12 pictures of different animals. Stick the pictures on cards. Cut the pictures so that they are about the same size. Organise the pictures in three lines of four pictures.

Sit facing your partner. Use a book as a screen so that you cannot see your partner’s desk.

Student A mixes the cards and makes a new pattern of three lines of four pictures.

Student B. Ask your partner to describe the picture in the A1 position. Match the picture to the description and put the card in the A1 position. Then ask about A2 then A3 then A4. Put the cards in a line. Then ask about B1, B2, B3, and B4. Put the cards in position. Ask about C1, C2, C3 and C4. Put the cards in position.

Now look at Student A’s pattern. Is your pattern the same?

Then play the game again.

Pair work Game. Student A chooses a picture from the 12 pictures above. Student B asks questions about the creature such as:

  • Can it fly?
  • Can it run fast?
  • What does it eat?
  • How many legs has it got?
  • Where does it live?

How many questions do you have to ask before you can guess the correct picture?

Nick Dawson 2014


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