George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”may be one of the most succesful TV series out there. Admittedly I haven’t managed to read all the books yet, but they are waiting on my bookshelf for a rainy Sunday afternoon (or 20) so they can be devoured. I’ve always had a true liking for dragons. Fascinating giant flying reptiles that can breathe fire – seriously, who doesn’t have a liking for dragons?

Legends around dragons, have fascinated mankind for ages. Scientists believe that the mythology surrounding dragons developed separately on each continent, with Chinese legends arising at the same time as European, Asian, African, American and Australian ones. This is remarkable, so there is cause to believe that early humans must have been inspired to spin tales and stories about dragons by something.

Cuban Crocodile “high walking”

Perhaps ancient people were inspired by certain animals, or their remains. Dinosaur fossils could feasibly have been the source of some legends around dragons. Another animal that might have brought to mind thoughts of flying, fire-breathing reptiles could have been the Nile Crocodile. While its main habitat is the African continent, it was supposedly more widespread in former times, swimming across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and Greece. Measuring 18 feet in length and capable of the so-called “high walk” (which essentially means that the body of the crocodile is lifted off the ground while walking) these reptiles could have been another starting point for the European legends around water-bound dragons.

Australia on the other hand, has its own giant reptile. The Goanna are predatory animals with razor-sharp teeth and claws, with an important place in Aboriginal folklore and legends. And from Scandinavia to Asia to the North Americas, whales might be the answer to where do these legends stem from? Whales spend 90 percent of their life under water, so in ancient times knowledge about whales was probably scarce. The giant bones of these mammals, washed onto the shores of the sea might have been mistaken for those of flying reptiles as well.

Now all of these possible origins do not cover the question, why dragons – in almost all folklore – are able to breathe fire. Anthropologists voiced the thesis that the fear of predators is deeply embedded in the human subconscious and that this, mingled with the fear of uncontrollable fires and predators, typical of the time, created the myth of the dragon.

Yes. I am a natural scientist, so I do hope you’ll excuse this little excerpt. Enough science now however, back to Game of Thrones. Dragons play an important role in the history of Westeros and Essos. In the beginning of Season 1, Dragons have been extinct for over 150 years. They are magical creatures and are only existent as skeletons.

It is believed that dragons have come to Westeros from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai and the Islands of Jade Sea. The Valyrians themselves believed that the dragons originated from the Fourteen Flames, an immense chain of volcanos located at the neck of the Valyrian peninsula. Dragons were discovered about 5000 years before then. The Valyrians mastered the art of training dragons and used them as weapons of war. After the Doom of Valyria – a catastrophic event, most probably an outbreak of several volcanoes that lead to the decay of their Empire – only five dragons were left at Dragonstone. The Targaryens had taken them away into exile.

Daenerys Targaryen
Acrylic on gold leaf. Jay Johnstone

Four of those dragons died, leaving only Balerion alive. The others however had left eggs behind, from two of which eventually hatched Vhagar and Meraxes. Those three dragons were used to conquer and forge the Seven Kingdoms. The Targaryens used their dragons as symbols of their power and might. Their dragons were essentially however weapons that decided wars for the Targaryens, like the First Dornish War. At the evening of the civil war between Rhaenyra and Aegon II there were 20 living dragons.

In the Dance of the Dragons, a war that lasted for around 2 years, most of these 20 dragons died. The extinction of all dragons is supposed to have been the making of the Maesters, following their secret goal to suppress magic altogether. Since dragons are magical creatures, the extinction of magic logically had to lead to the extinction of the dragons. The only things left behind were some rare books about the art of taming them, their skulls, and their eggs. For decades nobody managed to hatch an egg, until Daenerys Targaryen, around 150 years later. And as they say – the rest is history.