In one of the squares in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt , located in the province of Carinthia on the shores of the alpine lake Wörthersee and a short distance from the border with Slovenia, we can see an unusual monument: next to a statue of the Greek hero Hercules we find a quadrupedal monster with wings and whose tail, shaped like a snake, is coiled . You don’t have to be very smart to figure out that it ‘s a dragon . Such sculpture is not surprising in a city like Klagenfurt, whose coat of arms is a crenellated tower and a dragon.
The story goes that in the 13th century a dragon was wreaking havoc along the Glen River, causing floods and making travel difficult for travellers. A duke offered a reward to whoever could capture it, and a brave young man tied a bull to a chain and caught the dragon like a fish. In 1335, the skull of the terrible dragon was found in a nearby quarry, which was known as the Dragon’s Quarry or Lindwurmgrube. The skull was proudly displayed in the city hall and in 1590 the sculptor Ulrich Vogelsang used it as a model for the sculpture that ended up in one of Klagenfurt’s squares. It was years later that Michael Hönel added the sculpture of Hercules, who faces the dragon with a spiked mallet. The famous dragon’s head can be seen in the Landesmuseum für Kärnten (Carinthian Provincial Museum) in the city.
Of course we are not looking at the head of a dragon . It was the Austrian paleontologist and creator of paleobiology Othenio Abel who showed that it was not a dragon, but a Quaternary woolly rhinoceros, which makes Vogelsang’s work the oldest paleontological reconstruction in history.
Attributing a vertebrate fossil to a dragon was not an isolated event , especially considering the role that dragons have played in European legends. The European dragon symbolizes evil, and particularly the dark forces that dwell in the heart of the human being and that must be defeated . Athanasius Kircher, one of the most famous scholars of the 17th century, devoted several pages to them in his Mundus subterraneus . Interestingly, in a large number of caves or quarries in Europe, bones of cave bears have been found that have been attributed to dragons . That was the case of Drachenhöhle , the dragon’s cave , near the Austrian city of Mixnitz. In a letter from the 17th century, this grotto is mentioned as a ‘dragon graveyard’ from which the bones were taken to make medicinal potions.
In the 17th century, all these legends had a certain prestige in the scientific literature of the time . Thus, in the publications of the Kaiserliche Leopoldnische Akademie , the oldest scientific society in Europe, there appear in the years 1672 and 1673 articles on dragon bones found in caves in the Carpathians and Transylvania.
In general, fossil-based dragon stories have their origin in the remains of large Quaternary mammals. For this reason Othenio Abel suggested that many fossil remains found during the Middle Ages could have served as the basis for some legends. Thus, in 1914 he proposed that the fossils of dwarf elephants inspired the myth of the giant Cyclopes , by thinking that the central nasal opening was a cyclopic eye socket. The same could happen with the Mesozoic reptile fossils found in the surroundings of Holzmaden, in Württemberg, where the soil in and around the city contains rich layers of fossils so well preserved that even part of the soft tissue is preserved, all a rarity in fossils.
A similar explanation has been made for the origin of the dragon from the French city of Metz, the Graoully . According to legend, it lived in the arena of the Roman amphitheater in Metz and it was Saint Clement who managed to defeat the beast. However, in the absence of solid evidence such as the Klagenfurt fossil, we are faced with hypotheses based on unreliable facts.
Fossil bones have also been attributed to another creature of legend: the unicorn. It is believed that the origin of this mythical animal is in the rhinoceros of India , which was joined by certain exotic animals, such as the narwhal of polar waters or certain antelopes of Arabia. The reason for the popular success of the unicorn has to do with the fact that medicinal properties were attributed to its horn (as is the case in China with the rhinoceros horn, which is said to be an aphrodisiac).
Be that as it may, from the Middle Ages until well into the 18th century in Europe the unicorn was widely used as a medicine for different diseases, among which was the plague . But above all, as an antidote against poisons and poisons . Of course, the price of the horn was commensurate with its ‘powers’. In 1580 Ambroise Paré, a French surgeon who was the father of teratology -the part of zoology that studies abnormalities of physiological development in all organisms throughout life- tells us that it was more expensive than gold and cites the case of a merchant who sold a unicorn horn to Pope Julius III for the tremendous sum of twelve thousand scudi. For his part, the King of France, Henry III, had a horn at Saint Denis who was said to have rejected an offer of one hundred thousand scudi.
Of course, given the avalanche of orders, the unicorn horn business was fertile ground for fraudsters and profiteers. The proliferation of unicorn horns was such that they distinguished between unicornium verum, the good ones, and unicornium falsum , the poor quality ones, such as the teeth of the narwhal or sea unicorn. Among the unicornium verum were mammoth molars and bones found on April 4, 1770 by a soldier of the Duke of Württemberg.
In short, never has a non-existent animal left so many remains of its existence on earth.