Ancient Aliens had the week off for the Independence Day holiday, but last week the show managed to crawl back a bit from the previous week’s abysmal ratings. Last Friday, the show just barely crossed the one million viewer mark, hitting 1.09 million viewers. The series’ executive producer, Kevin Burns, also announced that he is taking on a new job: He’s signed on as a writer for the 10-episode Netflix and Legendary Entertainment reboot of Lost in Space. I guess it’s appropriate. On Ancient Aliens he’s already proved himself adept at recycling old science fiction.
The other day I mentioned that Henry Howorth had collected an enormous number of accounts of fossils mistaken for the bones of mythological creatures. I also noted that many of them were quite confusing since they contained a number of errors that made them hard to track back to their source. I thought today I’d share one of the entries that really stuck out for me in that it is both a little ridiculous but also more than a little suggestive. It is the story of dragons in Transylvania.
Howorth mentions in passing the claim of “H. Vollgrad (sic), who went so far as to declare that both true flying and living dragons, as well as dead ones, still existed in Transylvania.” His source was Georges Cuivier, in his massive Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles (Research into Fossil Bones) (5 vols., 1822-23). Cuvier, in turn, borrowed the account from the Éphémérides des Curieux de la nature (Ephemerides of Curious Matters of Nature), published in 1673. According to a Palaeontographical Society monograph, versions of the same story appeared dozens of times among various authors before and after Cuvier.
Here is how Cuvier gives the story after establishing that so-called “dragon bones” are really those of quaternary mammals:
In the same collection there is another notice of these bones by H. Vollgnad, who also terms them the bones of dragons, and even goes so far as to pretend that true dragons were then to be found living and flying in Transylvania. There is, however, accompanying this notice, a good figure of an entire head of our large species of bear, with the convex front. Vollgnad also gives two figures of unguical phalanges, but they belong not to ursus, but felis. (trans. Edward Pidgeon)
A word of explanation is needed here: J. Patterson Hayn published the journal and was succeeded by Henri Vollgnad; neither apparently had visited Transylvania. Just to add to the confusion, the translation provided above—which is a perfect English translation of Cuvier—is found in Edward Pidgeon’s memoir on fossil mammals, which appears to have been plagiarized directly from Cuvier with only the briefest notice twenty pages earlier that he was “indebted” to Cuvier prior to the copying.
I wasn’t able to obtain the correct volume of the Ephemerides to see Vollgnad’s original, but I doubt there is much to gain from it that Cuvier doesn’t provide. The point is quite clear: In the 1600s, the great scholars of the day could seriously suggest that fossil bones belonged to dragons and, not understanding extinction, concluded thereby that the dragons must still exist. Cuvier recognized the bones represented as those of dragons were those of the extinct cave bear.
Now here is where it gets a little interesting. The same journal says that the discovery of one set of such “dragon bones” took place in the “Crapach mountains, not far from a convent of the Chartreux, near the river Dunajek.” The Dunajec, now in southern Poland, is a river near to Krakow, where “dragon bones” were famously housed. The “Crapach mountains” are the Carpathians, which stretch from what is now the Czech Republic through Hungary and Poland into Romania. As you might guess, cave bear skeletons were common in caves, and a good number were found in caves located within the Carpathian mountain chain. This is particularly noteworthy because of the folklore common in Transylvania at the time, and which Vollgnad must have been obliquely referencing when he claimed dragons were flying about in Hungarian Transylvania.
Here is how Emily Gerard described that lore in her article on “Transylvanian Superstition” in 1885:
As I am on the subject of thunderstorms, I may as well here mention the Scholomance, or school supposed to exist somewhere in the heart of the mountains, and where all the secrets of nature, the language of animals, and all imaginable magic spells and charms are taught by the devil in person. Only ten scholars are admitted at a time, and when the course of learning has expired and nine of them are released to return to their homes, the tenth scholar is detained by the devil as payment, and mounted upon an Ismeju (dragon) he becomes henceforward the devil's aide-de-camp, and assists him in ‘making the weather,’ that is to say, preparing the thunderbolts.
The dragons, she said, supposedly lived in and around the mountain lake at Hermanstadt, the German name for the modern Romanian city of Sibiu, then part of Hungarian Transylvania. This account is confirmed by folklorist R. C. Maclagan, who in 1897 found the same story still prevalent.
This dragon is a form of the pre-Christian folkloric balaur, an evil serpent controlled by the Solomanri or Zgriminties, the pre-Christian shaman-priests of Dacia. According to Strabo, these priests gathered at the cult center of the god Zalmoxis on the mountain of Cogaeonum (Geography 7.3.5). We don’t know exactly where it was, but many believe it was in the same general vicinity. The notes to every edition of Strabo I could find through the 1960s suggest Cogaeonum was “Mt. Gogany, near Mika,” but I cannot identify what peak that is today; scholars seem not to have updated their references in two hundred years. They are all copying, largely without acknowledgement or direct knowledge, from page 324 of the first volume of the Orbis antiquus ex tabula itineraria of Matija Petar Katančić, a Croatian antiquarian who died in 1825. He gave no reason for his identification other than the similarity of sound, but repetition canonized it into fact. Romanians prefer to place the site among the old Dacian fortresses of the Orastie Mountains, at the southern end of the winding Carpathian chain.
Did the bones of the cave bear either inspire or confirm the legend of the dragons of the Scholomance? It’s an intriguing possibility, made more interesting by the fact that the passage cited above found its way into a famous novel about the “son of the Dragon.” Bram Stoker used it to give Count Dracula a suitably occult and mystical background.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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