THE DRAGONS OF BABYLON (posted 21 June 2011)

In discussing the Ishtar Gate (please refer to the companion essay on The Wonders of Babylon) we mentioned three animals that are depicted there for the purpose of inspiring awe:  The Lion, the Aurochs Bull, and the Marduk Dragon.  The Lion is a beast nearly as well-known to modern readers as it was to the Ancient Babylonians.  Feared for its ferocity, power, and deadliness, it was sacred to Ishtar, the goddess of love and war.  (Yes, the Babylonians made some strange, or not so strange, connections).  

AUROCHS BULL                                                                                                                                                          

The Aurochs bull is an animal that while well-known to the Babylonians, no longer exists.  It evolved in India some two million years ago, then migrated to the Middle East and throughout the rest of Asia reaching Europe about 250,000 years ago.  It is the Aurochs that is the species of cattle featured on many of the prehistoric cave paintings in Spain and France.  Julius Caesar wrote about the Aurochs in his GALLIC WARS saying they: “are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull.  Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast.”

Called RIMI in Babylonian and RE’EM in Hebrew, it became THAWR in old Canaanite Phoenician and thus TAURUS in Greek and Latin and TORO in Spanish.  Though these animals were the ancestors of modern dairy and ranch cattle (a branch of them having been domesticated in the Middle East around 6,000 B.C. giving rise to our Taurine cattle), they were much larger, standing six foot six inches at the shoulder compared to the five-feet or so of most modern cattle.  

They were also much more aggressive than even the most angry of modern bulls and their horns were lyre-shaped, curving towards the front making it easier for them to gore any who should cross their path—as Julius Caesar indicated.  Such a powerful and dangerous animal, that made the ground rumble when he charged, was a worthy totem for the storm god Adad.  They were also a worthy target for hunters who wanted to prove their own bravery and prowess—which is why they have become extinct.  The last surviving Aurochs, a female, died in a game preserve in Poland in 1627 A.D.   (   But the image of the curve of their horns lives on in Islamic cultures today.


The unique curve of their horns which resembled the crescent moon caused them to become identified with the moon in many ancient cultures.  They were also identified with the concept of fertility because of the milk they produce, the young they produce, and because the phases of the moon had a direct relationship to the fertility of women.

Because of this, though the Aurochs Bull was identified with the storm god Adad, it was also most likely identified with the Mesopotamian Moon God Nanna-Suen thanks to the crescent shape of its horns.  It is in this context, as the crescent shape of the Babylonian Moon God, that it lives on today on the flags of many Islamic nations.


Now for the third animal depicted on the Ishtar Gate, and the main subject of this essay, the Dragon of Marduk.  This creature, alternately called SIRRUSH and MUSHHUSHU (could it be because it made a hissing sound?) is depicted on the Ishtar gate and in other examples of Babylonian art as having a long, slender body, covered with reptilian-like scales, and a long serpentine neck and the head of a serpent with a curled frill, or horn on top.  Its forelegs are those of a lion, and its hind legs end in bird’s feet—very large bird’s feet.  These bird’s feet are three-toed with each toe sporting wicked-looking talons.  It also has a tail as long as its neck.  


While the Lion and the Aurochs Bull were animals well-known to the Babylonians, what about this creature?  Did such a creature ever actually exist?  Obviously not.  This Chimera-like mixture of body parts is biologically impossible.  So what is going on here?  Well, to begin with, since both Ishtar and Adad (or Nanna-Suen, depending upon interpretation) are represented by powerful, ferocious beasts, Marduk, as Babylon’s chief deity deserved no less.  

In fact, since he was the supreme God according to Babylon’s orthodox and predominant religion, he deserved a creature even more ferocious and frightening than either the Lion or the Bull.  And, what could be more ferocious than a beast having components of a giant bird of prey, a lion, and a large serpent?  Like Nebuchadnezzar himself said:  “I placed depictions of wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.”

It must be remembered also that in Babylonian mythology, particularly in the great creation myth ENUMA ‘ALISH, Marduk was tasked with defeating Tihamat, the goddess of chaos, before mankind could be created.  Tihamat/chaos was often depicted in dragon form and by defeating the dragon of chaos, Marduk also became the master of it.  Thus many of the statues and paintings of Marduk depicted the dragon at his feet like a pet puppy dog.  So, if Nebuchadnezzar’s artists were depicting the dragon of chaos on the Ishtar Gate, what could be more chaotic than an animal composed of body parts from several different animals?


Thus the mystery of the “Dragons of Babylon” is solved.  Or is it?  The website presents an interesting case for the existence of a dinosaur-like animal that may have survived in certain parts of the world into the age of mankind.  Exhibit “A” in this website’s essay entitled "Dinosaurs in Art:  The dragon of Ishtar Gate," is the depiction of a similar “dragon” in Ancient Chinese art.  

One example given is from the Han dynasty of 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., another is from the Tang dynasty of 608-906 A.D., and yet another from the Sung dynasty of 1127 to 1279 A.D.  Each of these figures are so similar to the Marduk Dragon depicted on the Ishtar gate that it is difficult to imagine artists from such a far-flung culture as China fantasizing about the same non-existent creature as did the Babylonian artists.  Of course it is always possible that some adventurous merchant from China made a trip to Babylon, saw the depictions of these dragons and then returned to China to tell what he had found and thus inspired future generations of Chinese artists to draw dragon figures.  Possible, but not likely.  


The fly in the ointment here on that interpretation is the existence of certain sketches made by some unknown artist during the Han dynasty in China.  These sketches show bolo-armed men hunting a long-necked, reptile-like creature strikingly similar to the Chinese (and Babylonian) depictions of “dragons” (   This would indicate that such a creature actually existed in isolated parts of the world up until at least the time of the Han dynasty—unless this unknown Han artist was making sketches based on even earlier drawings.  But at the very least it indicated that some sort of dragon-like creature survived into the era of human existence.  So, what was this creature?


The website suggests that it was a Massospondylus.  The Massospondylus is believed to have been a prosauropod, although many scientists disagree on exactly where in the dinosaur evolutionary tree it lies.  It had air sacks similar to those of birds and had a flexible clavicle more similar to birds than reptiles.  For locomotion it walked on its hind legs which were much larger than its front legs.  It would have been quadrupedal only when drinking from a river, or feasting on ground-level vegetation (or carrion—it was believed to have been omnivorous).  

It lived between 200 and 183 million years ago and its remains have been found mostly in southern Africa, although related species have been found in as far-flung areas as Arizona, Argentina, and India (  The Massospondylus was 13 to 20 feet in length from head to tip of tail, had a long slender neck and tail, a small head and slender body.  On each of its forefeet it had a sharp thumb claw used for defense and/or to aid in tearing vegetation for feeding.


While some of the physical and morphological aspects of this Massospondylus might seem to resemble the depictions of “dragons” in Babylonian and Chinese art, there are other aspects that are problematic.  First, the pros:   Certainly the small, snake-like head on a long neck attached to a modestly sized body ending in a long slender tail of similar length to the neck remind one of the Babylonian and Chinese depictions.  A picture of this creature is on one of Canada’s stamps in quadrupedal posture, and it does vaguely resemble the depictions in Babylonian and Chinese art (

Taking this line of thought one step further, perhaps the menacing-looking thumb claw on the forefeet might remind one of how a lion uses its front paws to tear and rend.  And, this being a bird-like dinosaur, that might have given rise to the depiction of a large-three-toed foot on the hind legs of the Babylonian dragon.  But herein lies the problem.  

Now for the con:  The Massospondylus had five digits on each foot.  Also the depictions of the Babylonian dragon was that of a clearly quadrupedal animal with the forelegs nearly the same size as the hind legs.  

Another problem with this interpretation is that the Massospondylus predated the great age of the dinosaurs, so to imagine that it survived not only all the heavy competition during the dinosaur age, but the great extinctions of 65 million years ago, and then continued to survive until near modern times is a bit far-fetched even for those of us who like the far-fetched.


Okay, so if not the Massospondylus, then perhaps an evolutionary off-shoot or a descendant of it?  Most fans of Cryptozoology are familiar with the tales of the “Mokele-mbembe” of West Equatorial Africa.  While no live specimens of this mythical creature have ever been found, the tales abound among the tribesmen of the area.  It is described as being somewhere between the size of a hippo and an elephant in body size, and its over-all length is said to be 16 to 32 feet.  

It is also described as having a long neck and a long tail, with both the neck and the tail described as being between 5 and 10 feet long.  Some reports say it has a frill on the back of the head, like the comb on a male chicken.  Other reports say it has a horn on its head.  These descriptions would mesh very well with the Babylonian dragon which, if examined closely, shows a curled horn on the head, and a fold, or flap of skin just behind the head.  The tracks it leaves are supposedly three-toed with long claws—again conforming to the hind feet of the Babylonian dragon.  

This creature reportedly lives in pools, and swamps adjacent to rivers in the Congo.  Some accounts claim it spends most of its time with its body submerged with only its head out of the water for breathing, although it will come up on land to feed now and then—or to kill hippos.  The natives claim that this creature hates hippos and will kill them on sight, though it never eats them as it seems to be a herbivore.  They also claim that it overturns boats and kills people by hitting them with its tail, but does not eat them (    A number of expeditions by western researchers have gone to west Africa to try to locate one of these creatures to photograph it, if not capture it.  But all have come home empty-handed.  The consensus view then, is that this is nothing more than another Big Foot or Lock Ness Monster type of tale.  Or is it?


Consider the following passages taken from the Book of Job, chapter 40:  “Behold now behemoth,  . . . he eateth grass as an ox.  . . .  He moveth his tail like a cedar.  . . . His bones are as strong pieces of brass, his bones are like bars of iron.  .  . .  He lies under the shady trees in the covert of the reed, and fens.  The shady trees cover him with their shadow, the willows of the brook compass him about.  Behold, he drinketh up a river . . . His nose pierceth through snares.”

Most commentators have pointed out that such a description could apply to a rhinoceros, or even an elephant, with their size and their “horns” that “pierceth through snares.”  But neither elephants, rhinos, hippos, or any other large herbivore of today, have tails “like a cedar,” instead they all have wimpy, almost non-existent tails.  And the phrase about “drinking up a river” is rather interesting when one realizes that the word “Mokele-mbembe” in the Lingala language of the natives in the region where this creature has been reported means “one who stops the flow of rivers.”

Okay, but even if such a fanciful, sauropod-type of beast were to have survived down into historical eras in remote areas of West Africa, how could the Babylonians have known about such a creature?  How about Job who lived in the deserts of western Arabia far from the pools and swamps of Africa?


We can suppose it is possible that the Ancient Egyptians may have heard tales of such a creature from their African neighbors, then passed the tales on to the Babylonians.  It would then be the 2nd or 3rd or 4th hand tales of this creature that in turn inspired the Babylonian artists and their rendition of the Dragons of Babylon.   As for the book of Job, though “Job” lived in western Arabia in the valley of ‘Ais, in the mid-sixth century B.C., he did not write the book of Job.  This book was written by others a century or two after Job’s time—and these others were very much influenced by Babylonian myths and art work.

Assuming now, for the sake of argument, that such a creature did in fact exist one would have to assume that it would have been much more numerous and widespread during ancient times than it is today due to far less human encroachment into its ecosphere.  What if it were prevalent enough that someone might actually have been able to capture one?


King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon had a large game preserve along the stretches of an uninhabited portion of the Euphrates.  The primary purpose of this game preserve was for the kings of Babylon to hunt lions—a religious requirement.  However, Nebuchadnezzar was also known to have stocked this preserve with a large number of exotic animals imported from India and Africa, including monkeys and elephants.  Had Nebuchadnezzar believed that such a creature as the Mokele-mbembe existed, he would have paid any number of talents of gold to acquire one.


Babylonian and Sumerian literature make reference to yet another dinosaur-like creature, and this was the BASILISK.  Whether or not this was the same creature as the above-mentioned SIRRUSH or MUSHHUSHU remains to be seen, but the Babylonians and Sumerians did classify it in their "word lists" (or dictionaries) in the same category as they did "serpents."  It was also thought of as being large and dangerous.  For example, in a work of Sumerian Mythohistory entitled "The Cursing of Akkade" composed in the late 3rd millennium B.C. which admonished the city of Akkad for offending the god ENLIL and losing its kingship in the process, the once mighty city is compared to several powerful beasts gone rogue:  "Like a huge elephant it put the neck down, like a huge bull it lifted the horns, like a raging BASILISK it slithered the head from side to side, and heavy-weight that is was, it went pillaging instead of in combat." (From Thorkild Jacobsen's THE HARPS THAT ONCE . . . : SUMERIAN POETRY IN TRANSLATION page 364).  

With this in mind, let's turn to Hebrew literature once again.


Consider the following from the book Bel and the Dragon from the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is a collection of Biblical-type of material that has been left out of our western protestant Bibles due to the dubious authorship of many of the stories.  The account of Bel and the Dragon is claimed to be the tail end of the Book of Daniel which was “cut off” from our versions of the Bible.  

To be sure, there are some problems with its validity since it confuses Cyrus, king of Persia, with Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  This confusion, though, is consistent with the Book of Daniel itself which has the prophet “Daniel” contemporaneous not only with the rule of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.), and the regency of his grandson Belshazzar (556-539 B.C.) (whom “Daniel” calls “king” of Babylon, though he was only the Crown Prince and Regent during his father Nabu Na’id’s absence), but also contemporaneous with the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes who lived about a hundred years after Nebuchadnezzar.

To further add to the confusion, this account (Bel and the Dragon), opens up implying that the king whom Daniel is in conversation with is Cyrus II the Great.  And, yet, from verse three on, where the story really begins, the king that “Daniel” is in conversation with is never mentioned by name.  However, based on the context of the story the king could be none other than Nebuchadnezzar II.  This is because the god this king supposedly worships is called “bel.”  “Bel” is a corruption of, and contraction of, the Semitic word BA’L, often written BAAL.  This term meant “Lord,” or “god” in general, however the Babylonian god Marduk was often called by that term.  Now, since neither Nabu Na’id, the last king of Babylon (556-539B.C.), or any of the Persians kings worshiped Marduk, the king in reference in this story had to have been Nebuchadnezzar.


Be that as it may, there is an interesting passage in this account (Bel and the Dragon) which bear upon our topic.  The first part of this story has to do with “Daniel” and the king arguing over whether or not the idol of “bel” is a real god or not.  When “Daniel” proves that it is nothing but lifeless metal, the king (Nebuchadnezzar) has all the priest of “bel” killed for promoting a lie.  And then the story picks up in verses 23-27:

“And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshiped.  And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass?  Lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him.  “Then Daniel said unto the king . . . give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff.  The king said, I give thee leave.  Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof:  this he put in the dragon’s mouth, and the dragon burst in sunder.”


Unfortunately, there was no physical description of what this “dragon” looked like so we can’t make any solid comparisons with the Massospondylus, or any another possible dinosauroid left over from 65 million years ago.  While this entire account can easily be passed off as fantasy, the method of killing the dragon has a ring of truth to it, though it at first glance appears to be the most fantastic of all the passages.  It is the mention of pitch and the busting asunder of the dragon that is the key.  It was in like manner that the prophet Elijah caused the sacrifice in I kings 18:30-38 to “spontaneously” burst into flame when it came into contact with water.  

The ingredients of pitch, sulfur, quick-lime, and Naphtha (all plentiful and well-known in the Near East) are known to be highly flammable especially in combination, and when that combination of materials comes into contact with water they burst into flame spontaneously burning up even the water (Mayor, Adrienne, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, p.227).  

These were the elements that were to make up the so-called Greek Fire used by the Byzantine Navy in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D.  So, just as Elijah’s sacrifice burst into flames upon coming into contact with the water that Elijah had arranged, so to would Daniel’s “lumps” when coming into contact with the “dragon’s” saliva and stomach juices causing it to burst into flames from the inside out.

So, assuming for the sake of argument that this story of Bel and the Dragon may have been based on some small grain of truth, what sort of dragon was it that Nebuchadnezzar might have had in captivity?  A left-over sauropod?  The “behemoth” of the book of Job? A large python?  Or something else?


We have one more candidate to serve as the model for both the Babylonian and Chinese dragons, and this is the Komodo Dragon of Indonesia.  The Komodo Dragon is not really a dragon, it is a true lizard—but a very big lizard it is.  It is its size, power, and ferocity that have caused it to be called a “dragon.”  They average around seven to nine feet in length and 150 lbs or so in weight.  However, specimens in the wild have been noted at over 10 feet in length and up to 370 lbs.   It has a tail nearly as long as its body and its mouth sports no less than 60 saw-like teeth of about an inch in length.  These teeth are constantly replaced throughout the life of the lizard.  

As if the teeth aren’t deadly enough the decayed meat that cling to these teeth putrefy and cultivate bacteria strains that can infect and kill any prey that it bites—even if that prey manages to escape after having been bitten.  Recently scientists have discovered that this creature also has two venom glands in the lower jaw and these secrete several different toxic proteins.  The known functions of these proteins include the prevention of blood clotting, the lowering of blood pressure, muscle paralysis, and the induction of hypothermia, leading to shock and loss of consciousness by the prey.  So, the combination of venom and deadly bacteria make their bites doubly deadly (www.wikipedia/komodo .

While their hearing is weak, they can see as far away as 980 feet—not bad for an animal that is built low to the ground.  It uses its super long, forked tongue to detect, taste, and smell stimuli.  The taste and smell buds on their tongue can detect meat from as far away as 3-6 miles, depending upon atmospheric conditions.  Some of its scales are reinforced with bone for protection.  

They can sprint at speeds of over 12 miles per hour for short distances, and to catch prey that is normally out of reach they can stand on their hind legs using their tails as support.  Their jaws are loosely articulated like a pythons and they can swallow whole prey as large as a goat.  They have been observed using their powerful tails to knock down prey as large as wild boar and deer.  They are also known to take down prey as large as horses, water buffalo—and humans.  They have even gone so far as to dig up graves to consume the remains of the bodies within—like something out of an old Boris Karloff movie.   (Imagine French kissing one of these critters after a meal?)


In spite of the copious amounts of red saliva they produce to help lubricate their food, swallowing is still a long and slow process.  It takes 15-20 minutes to swallow a goat.  The giant lizards often try to speed up the process by ramming the carcass against a tree to force it down their throats, sometimes ramming so forcefully that the tree is knocked down.  They can consume up to 80% of their body weight in one meal, but then, because of their slow metabolism they can get by with as little as one meal a month.  Once their prey has been digested, they regurgitate the remains of horns, hair, teeth, and hooves known as a “gastric pellet” (www.wikipedia/komodo  And, this resonates with Daniel’s lumps of “hair” etc. in connection with the Babylonian dragon mentioned above.


In attacking live prey, the Komodo Dragon will wait in ambush under brush and trees, and then rush it going for the underside of the throat.  If the animal is too large for the giant lizard to go for the throat, such as the water buffalo or the deer, they will go for the tendons on the back of the leg.  This will immobilize the prey allowing the lizard to bring it down.  It will then use its powerful clawed forelegs to hold the prey down while tearing at its flesh with their saw-like teeth.  While usually solitary creatures, they will occasionally hunt the larger prey in groups of two, three, or more.  They are thought to have been responsible for the extinction of the small elephant that once lived on the Indonesian islands.

What a consummate predator!  Well worthy of being called a “dragon,” though it is “only” a lizard.  Looking at the head of the Komodo dragon from the side, it is virtually identical to the head of the dragons shown on Babylon’s Ishtar gate.  The heavily scaled body of the giant lizard could account for the scaly body of the Marduk Dragon.  The long tail also fits, and the powerfully clawed forelimbs could easily be the source of the “lion’s” paws on the front legs of Babylon’s dragons.  And, it is much more likely that the Babylonians may have actually seen one of these lizards, or even held one in captivity, than it would be for them to have seen a “Mokele-mbembe.”    


The dragon motif was also quite popular in the myths of the Middle Ages in Europe and may have derived in part from the story of “Bel and the Dragon” mentioned above where the hero (in this case “Daniel”) slays the dragon.  In later renditions it became St. George, or any other medieval hero whose name you want to plug in there (only in those stories the "dragon" is killed by the sword).  Of interest here is that in these medieval European myths, the dragons often have the ability to spit fire out of their mouths.  The tongue of the Komodo dragon is so long, and so prominently forked, that it does resemble “flames” being spit out of its mouth.  And, its venomous and bacterial-infected bite causes its victims to burn like fire.


In view of all the above, the Komodo Dragon looks like a good bet as being the source for both the Babylonian and Chinese dragons and even more so for the medieval legends of dragons.  However, with regard to the Babylonian dragons, there are a couple of minor hitches.  One is that the Babylonian dragons are pictured with long legs pointing forward, and striding like any normal quadruped, whereas the Komodo Dragon is squat and low to the ground with legs that point out to the sides.  But that could just be a stylistic thing with the artists, or a lack of complete understanding of the exact morphology of the Komodo Dragon.  A larger problem is the three-toed large bird, or dinosaur, feet on the Babylonian dragon, whereas the Komodo dragon has five digits on each foot.  But, hey, you can’t have everything.

Another problem is the frill, or horn, that is depicted on the Babylonian dragon just behind its head, a feature that the Komodo dragon lacks.  Furthermore, the Komodo dragon is a pure meat eater, whereas the “Behemoth” described in the book of Job was a herbivore.  And this possibly reopens the issue of the “Mokele-mbembe,” or something like it.

So, were the Dragons of Babylon based on the Babylonians’ possible knowledge of Komodo Dragons, or on legends they may have heard of the “Mokele-mbembe,” or on a left over Massospondylus, or on some creature out of Africa yet to be discovered?  I’ll leave that answer up to the reader.

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