Mythical creatures: dragons

Explore the stories behind the Fantastic Beasts™: The Wonder of Nature exhibition. Could dinosaur bones have been the original inspiration for the mythical dragon?

The Natural History Museum

LIFE Photo Collection

Inspired by nature

People have told stories about dragons for thousands of years, but what inspired the tales of these remarkable creatures?

Step into our gallery of mythical beasts, and discover their tangled connections with the natural world.

Hungarian Horntail by Jim Kay (born 1974)The Natural History Museum

'Probably the most famous of all magical beasts, dragons are among the most difficult to hide. The female is generally larger and more aggressive than the male, though neither should be approached by any but highly skilled and trained wizards. Dragon hide, blood, heart, liver and horn all have highly magical properties, but dragon eggs are defined as Class A Non-Tradeable Goods. There are ten breeds of dragon, though these have been known to interbreed on occasion, producing rare hybrids.'
– Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them™

Phoenix by Olivia Lomenech Gill (born 1974)The Natural History Museum

Olivia Lomenech Gill produced the artwork for an illustrated edition of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them™.

Where possible, Lomenech Gill based the beasts on real animals, using museum collections as inspiration. This included a visit to the Natural History Museum in London.

Galápagos marine iguana Galápagos marine iguanaThe Natural History Museum

While she used lizards as a reference for dragons, Lomenech Gill was also influenced by another iconic dragon: Smaug of J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Dragon skeletonThe Natural History Museum

In the Harry Potter™ film series, a dragon skeleton is seen hanging from the ceiling of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom at Hogwarts™.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dragon skull Dragon skullThe Natural History Museum

Its skull has spines, spikes and sharp teeth, which are typical features of many of the dragon breeds that appear in the wizarding world created by J K Rowling.

The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658)The Natural History Museum

Tales of dragons and other mythical reptiles may have started with sightings of enormous snakes and the discovery of dinosaur bones.

Dragons sit alongside real animals such as giraffes and rhinos in this 360-year-old book of natural history, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell, published in 1658.

Dragons are described as a type of serpent, and the book includes several varieties from across the globe. Some slither on their bellies like snakes, while others have legs and wings.


'There be some Dragons which have wings and no feete, some again have both feete and wings, and some neither feete nor wings.'
– Edward Topsell, 1658

Theatrum Universale Ominum Animalium (1718)The Natural History Museum

Dragons also sit alongside real animals such as lions and zebras in this encyclopaedia of the world's animals, Theatrum Universale Omnium Animalium, by Johannes Jonstonus.

Originally published in the 1650s, it shows several varieties of dragon from across the globe. Some slither on their bellies like snakes, while others have legs, wings and horns.

Woolly rhinoceros skullThe Natural History Museum

The legend of the lindwurm

In 1335 a skull like this one was found near the city of Klagenfurt, Austria. People had never seen anything like it before. They thought it came from a two-legged flying dragon, known as the Lindwurm, which was rumoured to have terrorised locals.

Scientists later found that the skull belonged to a long-extinct woolly rhinoceros. Woolly rhinoceroses lived in Europe and Asia from 500,000 to 14,000 years ago, during the Ice Age.

Indian pythonThe Natural History Museum

Giant snakes

Indian rock pythons can grow up to 6.7 metres (22 feet) long. Perhaps they might have inspired tales of the snake-like dragons of India described by Roman author Pliny the Elder 2,000 years ago.

Indian python Indian pythonThe Natural History Museum

Pliny writes of these dragons crushing elephants to death. While no snake has ever been documented taking down an animal that big, Indian rock pythons can constrict and kill prey as large as antelope.

Indian python skinThe Natural History Museum

'The dragon is of so enormous a size, as easily to envelop the elephants with its folds and encircle them in its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both.'
– Pliny the Elder, 77 CE

Chinese alligatorThe Natural History Museum

Chinese dragon

Could this little alligator have inspired stories of great Chinese dragons? Ancient texts describe Chinese dragons digging burrows, breathing out rain clouds and sleeping in pools during winter.

Chinese alligatorThe Natural History Museum

Similarly, Chinese alligators hibernate underground, and in spring steam rises from their nostrils as they bellow to attract a mate.

Dragon's blood resinThe Natural History Museum

Dragon’s blood

This resin – a sticky substance collected from the bark of Socotra dragon trees (Dracaena cinnabari) – was once believed to be the blood lost by a dragon during a fight with an elephant.

It is used in traditional medicine around the world, particularly for treating skin conditions and healing wounds.

Credits: Story

For more information and to book tickets to the exhibition, visit the Museum's website.

To find out more about the Wizarding World, visit WizardingWorld.com

WIZARDING WORLD and all related trademarks, characters, names, and indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Publishing Rights © JKR. (s21)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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