I'm in a bit of a pickle. I'd like to include a dragon of the sea serpent variety in my historical novel set in ancient Babylon. But will readers accept a dragon in historical fiction or will that push it over the edge into fantasy?
In the Bible, the book of Job has an entire chapter devoted to a sea monster, a leviathan. This enormous creature was a lethal fire-breathing snake-like apex predator without equal and without fear. But did such a beast ever exist?
Every country has dragons in their mythology and stories of dragons have been passed down through millennia. They must have some basis in reality.
The Aberdeen Bestiary, written in the early 16th century, describes the dragon as 'bigger than all other snakes or all other living things on earth'.
The third century historian, Flavious Philostratus, said about dragons in India and Ethiopia that 'the marshes are full of them' and that they were 'thirty cubits long'. Pretty darned big. Depending on how you measure a cubit, (18" makes a royal cubit while usual measurement was the length of a forearm) the creature could be as much as 45 feet long!
Now before you say, not possible, keep in mind that the blue whale runs around 98 feet in length, an African bush elephant measures about 35 feet from trunk to tail and the largest confirmed crocodiles are 20 - 23 feet long. One of my favorite apex predators, the almost extinct Barbary lion, is pretty small in comparison at only 11 feet long but he has a guaranteed spot in my novel.
Dragons are incorporated into much of ancient Babylon's artwork. The Ishtar Gate is ornamented with some pretty cool dragons in glazed-brick relief but they're rather fanciful affairs not actually meant to depict living animals, well at least not as far as we know anyway. They seem to have scaly bodies and snake heads, scorpion tails, the feet of a lion and the talons of a bird of prey.
But one of the best 'proofs' I found for water dragons in ancient Babylon is this white limestone boundary-stone housed in the British Museum and recording certain privileges granted to a chariotry captain by Nebuchadrezzar I. This is the front of the stone. You can't see the dragon very well from this view.
But here's a side view and you can clearly see a thick giant serpent dragon running the length of the stone.
Cool, right? So, I'm thinking - maybe a dragon isn't such a far-fetched idea after all.