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Who Will Mourn?

What animal is a long, large, scaly monster with wings and fiery breath, malignant in nature and deadly in deed? If you have been raised in the Western Hemisphere, you probably identify the above creature as a dragon. This stereotyping is just one of the injustices that are commonly perpetrated against dragons, simply because most people see it as being perfectly normal. Humans have been persecuting dragons for centuries.

In ancient times, dragons were considered to be valuable members of society. Oracles depended on dragons to help them make their predictions of the future, and huge temples were devoted to them. It was quite common then to have the young maidens of the village troupe out to the nearest dragon's grotto and offer it a sacrifice, usually a branch from a fruit tree. The dragon would only accept the offering of a virgin, so it was quite obvious who had been naughty. Dragons were also extensively employed in the protection of sacred sites and treasures, and dragon worship was widespread.

The coming of Judeo-Christianity, however, changed everything. It is a common rule of history that the gods of the old religion become the devils of the new. Through political propoganda, dragons were shown to be evil, satanic creatures whose only purpose was to corrupt mankind. The most vivid example of this is in Genesis, where Satan, in the form of a dragon, tempts Eve with forbidden knowledge and gets man expelled from Paradise. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church used this image of the dragon to strike fear into the hearts of the populace.

Dragons were associated with the Devil and the end of the world, and were blamed for just about everything. If there were storms or floods, dragons were blamed. If the crops were poor, it was because dragons had despoiled them. Missing laundry? Lost tools? Mud tracked through your kitchen? Dragons did it. Was your daughter deflowered? No man would have done such a thing, so it must have been a dragon. Skin problems? Again, dragons were the cause. But there was much worse to come for dragons than slurs against their integrity.

The official image of the dragon provided all sorts of good reasons why they should be killed, but these paled in comparison to all of the commercial reasons for slaying them. The demand for dragon products was astronimical. A dragon's head, buried under the house, brings good fortune. Moreover, it "keepeth one from looking asquint." Dragon fat, dried in the sun, was proof against creeping ulcers, in addition to repelling venemous beasts - possibly including neighbors and tax collectors. Mixed with honey and oil, it cured dimness of the eyes; while an amulet made from the fat of a dragon's heart, wrapped in gazelle skin and tied to the upper arm by a deer sinew, ensured victory in lawsuits. Dragon flesh was a favourite meal of the Ethiopians. The tongue, eyes, gall and intestines - boiled in wine and oil - became an ointment to insure peaceful sleep. Dragon skin was used for cooling the passions of lovers - possibly those aroused by the love potions and charms that could be compounded from other parts of dragons. Dragon blood was the staple of medieval medicine and alchemy. It could be used to cure kidneystones and blindness, and was the only substance known that would dissolve gold for the illumination of manuscripts.

So heavy was the demand for dragons among European alchemists and among Ethiopians, who liked to eat them, that a minor trade war erupted in the thirteenth century.

Inevitably, the growing demand for dragons and their derivatives led to commercial conflict. In the thirteenth century, Friar Roger Bacon complained that "it is certain" that Ethiopian sages were coming to Europe - to "those Christian lands where there are good flying dragons" - luring dragons from their caves, saddling them, and then riding them back to Ethiopa where they would be butchered and eaten. A century later, European merchants, having belatedly grasped the commercial possibilities of the dragon trade, had established their own agents locally to acquire dragons for export to Ethiopia. It can be assumed that they advertised European dragons as a superior breed, and charged accordingly. And thus the systematic slaughter of dragons began, and decimated their numbers in both Europe and Africa.

There are so few dragons left in the world today that the species is generally considered not to have existed at all. What few survivors there are have been forced to retreat to only the deepest lakes and most isolated wildernesses, and the world has become a darker, less magical place. But has man learned anything from this lesson? It does not seem so, for he continues to push animals to the brink of extinction for commercial reasons. And in so doing, man insures his own lonely extinction, for who would want to live in a world devoid of birds, or whales? Or dragons?

No animal has been persecuted or exploited more thoroughly than the noble dragon. Yet none of this abuse is acknowledged or recognised today, nor will be, perhaps, until man himself has passed into the world of myth and legend. Until then, however, who will mourn for the dragons?

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