World myths present a broad selection of surreal events and characters, but one of the most powerful and misunderstood of all mythological concepts, are dragon’s teeth. In Western mythology, when planted, dragons’ teeth became weapons of mass destruction and from them grew armies infused with the spirits of dead warriors. In the East, however, dragons’ teeth were and still are thought to be quite real, and this article describes how Chinese alchemists are causing the willful destruction of significant paleontological landscapes to support the dragon teeth commerce.

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An alchemical dragon illustrated in a 1460 edition of the Medieval

An alchemical dragon illustrated in a 1460 edition of the Medieval Liber Floridus. Public Domain.

The Mythological Origins of Dragon’s Teeth

In Greek mythology, dragon’s teeth were ‘planted’ in the stories of Cadmus and Jason and the Argonauts. The former protagonist was the bringer of literacy and culture, who collected the teeth after killing a “sacred dragon”. Having been advised by the goddess Athena to sow the teeth, a bunch of ferocious warriors known as the spartoi grew from them. Jason’s legendary quest for the   Golden Fleece was additionally hindered when implanted dragons’ teeth grew into fully armed skeletal-zombie-warriors.

The classical legends of Cadmus and Jason inspired the phrase “to sow dragons teeth”, which mythologists say is archetypal for doing something that has the effect of “fomenting disputes” and making an already desperate situation, much worse. The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable described how the myth of the Spartoi entered everyday English.

To sow dragon’s teeth. To foment contentions; to stir up strife or war. The reference is to the classical story of Jason or that of Cadmus, both of whom sowed the teeth of a dragon which he had slain, and from these teeth sprang up armies of fighting men, who attacked each other in fierce fight. Of course, the figure means that quarrels often arise out of a contention supposed to have been allayed (or slain). The Philistines sowed dragons’ teeth when they took Samson, bound him, and put out his eyes. The ancient Britons sowed dragons’ teeth when they massacred the Danes on St. Bryce’s Day.

 

Portrayal of Cadmus fighting the dragon. Painting from a krater in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Portrayal of Cadmus fighting the dragon.

Eastern Alchemy

In Chinese alchemy and early medicinal practice, mushrooms and buddha fruits were consumed with powdered scorpions, rhinoceros horn, and fossilized dinosaur teeth and bones known as longgu or longchi (dragon’s bones), as medicine. Dragons’ teeth were, are still are, highly admired for their curative properties that are detailed in the earliest text of Chinese medication, composed by the mythical emperor Sheng Nung (Shennong). Speaking of those perceived powers of dragon’s teeth, they “cure spasms, epilepsy and madness and the twelve kinds of convulsions in children.”

According to mythologist Bruce MacFadden “the Chinese value teeth more highly, and teeth are therefore more expensive than bones” and in J. Gunnar Andersson’s 1934 publication  Children of the Yellow Earth: Studies in Prehistoric China, we learn “fossilized clam shells” were powdered and dissolved in water to deal with “rheumatism, skin diseases, and eye disorders“.

The Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine lists “Dragon’s Bone and Dragon’s Teeth” under the category of Sedatives and Tranquilizers, describing them as follows:

“Dragon’s Bone; Os Draconis.” This drug consists of the fossilized bones of ancient large mammals, for example Stegodon orientalis and Rhinocerus sinensis and is traditionally employed as a “sedative and tranquilizer for the treatment of palpitation, insomnia, dreamfulness due to neurasthenia and hypertension. (Xie and Huang, 1984, 202–03).

Today, it is known that fossils do not contain any curative vitamins or minerals and any improvement in health after consumption is no more that the placebo effect. But where do all these “dragons’ teeth” come from?

Dragon Teeth are much sought after in China

Dragon Teeth are much sought after in China (public domain image)

The Actual Origins of Dragon Teeth

The fossil-rich Guizhou and Yunnan Provinces in China span hundreds of millions of years ago to the Precambrian and for many millennia, exceptionally precious Maotianshan fossils have been dug up in Chengjiang county to be used in traditional Chinese medicine. Today in China, fossils still provide a fantastic prosperity for local peasants who guard their key locations from Chinese paleontologists and market them to collectors and institutions. This schism between scientists, medical alchemists and retailers, is being widened by the huge wealth of the Chinese authorities, which intend to make China a world leader in unearthing the fossil record.

Huaxi — far view of Banbianshan, near Guiyang, Guizhou province. Olemissius Zhang.

Huaxi — far view of Banbianshan, near Guiyang, Guizhou province. Olemissius Zhang. Public Domain

The willful destruction of fossils in contemporary times, when we really should know better, stands testimony to the depth of Chinese cultural beliefs in the powers of “dragon bones and teeth.” Even as late as the twentieth century in China, it had been believed “a sick person who buys from the chemist in his native town, let us say, a rhinoceros tooth, is assuredly convinced that he is enjoying the help of his revered patron, the dragon,” based on Andersson (1934, p82). The origin of the mythical Chinese dragon has become the focus of intense debate, but its own symbolism and what it symbolized is quite clear.

The dragon is the most powerful of mythological beasts and it embodies the “supreme benevolent force” which controls the rivers and rain, fertilizes soil and brings life to earth. In the Han Dynasty, Shuowen the dragon is described as follows: “The foremost among scaly and reptilian creatures, the dragon could hide in darkness or appear in daylight. It could diminish or enlarge, shrink or elongate. It ascends the sky in spring and dives to the depths of the pool in autumn.” Andersson (1934, p112).

While those mythical properties were important in pre-history, in 2017 it is quite sad to think that a sizable part of more than a billion people have been deluded by their own authorities, that their superstitions are adding to the rape and destruction of one of the most resource-rich fossil beds in the world. .

References

A. Room (2000) Brewer‘s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable.

Grimal, Pierre (1992). “Cadmus”.  The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology. A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop (trans.) (Reprint ed.) . Penguin Books.  ISBN 9780140512359.

The Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine Springer; 2003 variant (July 29, 2003)

 

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