I’m going to start today with an apology to the many people who have sent me email over the last few days. I haven’t meant to ignore you, but my mind has been on other things. My cat is sick. He was diagnosed a few weeks ago with asthma but needs to see the vet again because of nausea and appetite loss. I hope you will understand that I’ve been a bit distracted. Fortunately, he ate some food today, and I hope that’s a good sign.
It was also depressing to read yesterday that the star of NBC’s new series Blindspot, Jaimie Alexander, is a fan of Ancient Aliens, and also considers it “nerdy.”
Also nerdy, but more interesting was an incident I stumbled across while researching Helena Blavatsky’s attitudes toward dinosaurs. She assumed that dinosaurs were currently quite dead, having died out around the time of Atlantis, but were preserved now in myth as dragons. But more importantly, in The Secret Doctrine she provided a very interesting eyewitness account of a prodigy in the sky that she claimed had been witnessed in 1619 by Christopher Scherer, the prefect of Lucerne in Switzerland, though giving no specific source beyond “Catholic writers.” She quotes him as follows:
I saw a fiery, shining dragon rise from one of the caves of Mount Pilatus and direct itself rapidly towards Fluelen to the other end of the lake. Enormous in size, his tail was still longer and his neck very extended. His head and jaws were those of a serpent. In flying he emitted on his way numerous sparks (? !) . . . . I thought at first I was seeing a meteor, but soon looking more attentively, I was convinced by his flight and the conformation of his body that I saw a veritable dragon. I am happy to be thus able to enlighten your Reverence on the very real existence of those animals.
Naturally, I wondered where this came from, and I had bad luck finding out because Blavatsky didn’t actually know the source from the original. As I learned, she actually knew it from the occult Pneumatologie of Jules Eudes, marquis de Mirville. In that book, written in French, the author gives the correct citation, to Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus subterraneus (1665), in in the section “De genesi draconum” (“On the Origin of Dragons”), though I will be damned if I can find the text in copies of the book online; I think it must be in the volumes not scanned on Archive.org. There is a dispute over the name of the speaker, with other sources giving it as Christopher Schorer; I am not sure which is correct. Blavatsky, citing the sources badly with a misplaced ibid., left the impression that the text was from Kircher’s Egyptological work Orpheus Aegyptiacus, to which it is frequently misattributed on that basis.
The text comes from a letter written by Christopher Scherer or Schorer to Kircher. It was translated correctly more than once, including (surprisingly) in Wonders in the Sky (2009). The full text of Kircher’s chapter on dragons is here, and the relevant lines are as follows, as translated by Darius Matthias Klein in 2008; I have added in brackets a portion of the Latin that Klein somehow omitted.
During the year 1619, as I was contemplating the serenity of the nighttime sky, to my great astonishment I saw a brightly glowing dragon fly from a large mountain cliff (which is commonly called Mount Pilate), to another cave on the opposite cliffside (commonly called the Flue Cave) with a swift flapping of its wings. Its body was quite large; it had a long tail and an extended neck, while its head displayed the toothsome mouth of a snake. As the creature was in the midst of flight, it spewed out sparks from its body, not unlike the embers which fly when smiths beat glowing iron. [At first I thought it was a meteor that I saw, but] it was after I had observed all of the details that I knew it rightly to be a dragon from its bodily motions, by which I could discern the arrangement of its limbs. I write this to Your Reverence, lest you doubt that dragons truly exist in Nature.
What’s interesting isn’t the sighting itself—it must certainly have been a meteor, as Schorer first adduced—but that the credibility of the sighting as a dragon was demonstrated through an appeal to fossils. Kircher reported that in 1602, the skeleton of a dragon had been found on Staffelwand, near to Mount Pilatus, while another author writers that yet another such skeleton was found in the 1670s. Reports of living dragons had also been made. In 1853, Robert Ferguson attributed the claims to the discovery of dinosaur fossils, specifically pterodactyl fossils (not technically dinosaurs, but it was 1853, so give him a break). Mount Pilatus is filled with pterosaur fossils. His discussion is worthy of note for anticipating Adrienne Mayor by 150 years. Note that Ferguson gives the year as 1649—other writers do, too, and there seems to be a typographical dispute between Kircher and Johann-Jakob Wagner (1641-1695), a Swiss physician (not to be confused with various later Germans of the same name) and author of the Historia Naturalis Helevtiae Curiosa (1680), and I know not which is correct, though presumably Kircher would be more likely to get it right since he had the primary source document.
Wagner gives an account of one which was seen in the year 1649, by a witness no less credible than the chief magistrate of Lucerne. This person, whose name was Christopher Schorer, “while by night he contemplated the serenity of the heavens,” saw a sight which must, one would think, have effectually disturbed his own serenity. It was no less than a fiery dragon, which issued out of a cave of Mount Pilate. It had a long tail—an extended neck—and a head like a serpent. Every stroke of its wings upon the air produced a shower of sparks, and altogether it was a dragon of the most approved pattern. He thought at first that it was a meteor; but when he had “diligently observed it,” he became convinced that it was no meteor, but a veritable dragon. Some thirty years afterwards, a huge skeleton was discovered in a cave upon the mountain, which exactly corresponded with the dragon which M. Schorer had seen. Now, my intelligent readers will have no great difficulty in perceiving, that what the worthy prefect did see was a meteor, as he at first supposed it to be before he had “diligently observed it,”—and in the skeleton of the dragon, they will recognise the fossil remains of one of the Saurii—probably the Pterodactylus, which does in fact bear a strong resemblance to the old figures of dragons. Another similar skeleton of a dragon is recorded to have been found in a cave upon the mountain called Staffelwand; but in this case the poor dragon had come to an untimely end, having been crushed flat by the fall of part of the mountain from an earthquake. This also was no doubt another fossil animal of the same species, imbedded in the strata of the rock. After relating the above stories of dragons, Wagner goes on to say that there are other accounts, which, from the circumstances recorded, he thinks must be somewhat apocryphal. After what he relates as authentic, I should rather like to know what he considers apocryphal.
Mount Pilatus was long rumored to be home to a dragon, having been possessed of one since medieval times. Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, concluded Schorer was drunk, but I would say he was most likely interpreting a meteor through his own cultural belief in the local legend of the dragon. But if it’s true that the legend was inspired by pterosaur fossils, this would be one of the only recorded times when a dragon legend could be traced to actual dinosaur/pterosaur fossils!
Naturally, creationists, taking the stories at face value, adduce that the whole story is proof that dinosaurs never died and Darwin was wrong, as James Perloff does in Tornado in a Junkyard (1999).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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