I like dragons. In fact they are my favorite animals. I had a short period at the age of five, when I liked rabbits, but once my uncle introduced me to dinosaurs, I abandoned the cute, fluffy, carrot munching creatures for immensely large, leather skinned and yellow eyed reptiles.

My uncle is only ten years older than I am, and discovered his passion for fossils at the age of fifteen. Since then he has become a real specialist on fossils in lower Franconia -- where also some of the best Franconian wines come from. Paleontologists from all over Germany seek his advice and guidance, searching for prehistoric shells or worms. My uncle, however, makes his living as a pastry cook. He owns a cafe, and has created a series of tarts and sweets in the shape of various ammonites and trilobites.

We used to go for long walks at my grandparent's place, and always came home with a number of stones which contained petrified shapes of many kinds. In my mind, I had set up a very active world of a primeval civilization, enhanced by the information that plants and flowers were man-high those hundreds of millions of years ago, and that certain animals, which still exist nowadays, were already present then, but much much bigger.

I imagined jumbo size bumble bees and mushrooms under which one could have parties. When I read "Alice in Wonderland" the first time, I was certain she moved in that kind of a time and space. My uncle was very gifted at drawing. Apart from some life size portraits of the members of "Deep Purple," his favorite pop-group, which he had painted on the walls of his room, much to the annoyance of my grandmother, he spent hours drawing dinosaurs on the floor -- the paper was too large for any table. I was absolutely fascinated by their shapes and colors; each of them had a specific instrument for its specific task and way to get food.

One had horns, another a strong tail, or special scales. I eagerly learned everything about them. My father explained all the complicated scientific terms to me, and soon enough I moved easily through the Mesozoic age and knew my favorite pets by their first name. My parents were slightly worried about this passion of mine, but were told by their pedagogically competent friends that all kids at that age were curious about archaic times and animals. This was a perfectly normal phase. Surely enough, all my friends sooner or later lost interest. I didn't. No doll or board game could draw me away from my beloved dinosaurs.

My father then decided to nurture my scientific enthusiasm. He took me, my best friend Yvonne, and her older brother Daniel to the Fossil Museum at Holzmaden, in the Swabian Alps. They had mainly primeval fish, Ichthyosaurus -- not my favorites, but I kindly appreciated the try. My friend Yvonne, then age seven and always a good eater, just stared around at the fossilized bones and wondered who on earth ate all that meat.

On the next excursion we went to Frankfurt am Main, to the famous Senckenberg- Museum. In the hall they had set up the skeletons of dinosaurs -- in life-size. They were absolutely amazing. With open eyes and tightly closed lips, I went through the exhibition. This was quite different from what I had expected and hoped for. Dinosaurs seemed to be just like other animals. They ate, they slept, they had babies or eggs. They were just a little more dead.

There was no way one could deduct any kind of individual features from what was visible in the museum, and I suddenly realized nobody expected the dinosaurs to have a personality except me. However, this did not cure me from my reptilistic craze. I just felt that science had ignored major aspects of research. Of course there was the problem that nobody could talk to a dinosaur, and there was little evidence of their intelligence. I, however, was absolutely convinced they had a mind of their own. In fact, I considered them to be so bright that they used means of communication that we could not even imagine. I thought letters and phones rather primitive -- besides, how would one use them with four legs, with three claws on each foot?

When I heard about the Loch Ness monster the first time, I must have been about twelve. Daniel was about fourteen. He owned and read Time-Life books, and had introduced me to it. I was immediately intrigued. My faint crush on Daniel prospered correspondingly.

It was so wonderful, finally, to have someone who didn't smile leniently when I mentioned one or the other dinosaur. We had a super time. We soon agreed Nessie must be a member of the Plesiosaurus-family. We then studied Scottish geography, geology and the waterways, we discussed the vegetation and the temperature of the Loch, and I declared that Nessie surely must be very shy and lonely -- having survived with her family for such a long time, and hardly ever being seen. But she knew why: the minute she approached human civilization more directly, she would have ended, like her primeval relatives, in the museum.

She probably wanted to avoid that, and I understood that very well. But certainly she would make an exception for me -- if I ever came to Loch Ness. Bright as a dinosaur, as she surely was, she must sense that I was different from all the other stupid tourists and zoologists.

Two years later, our family holidays were to be spent in Scotland, one day scheduled at Loch Ness. I was perfectly prepared, having read everything available, and discussed every possible aspect with Daniel, who of course envied me for the trip. We finally arrived in Inverness, the town located by the Loch. My family went sightseeing without me.

I went to the lake, and I didn't even take a camera; I didn't want to frighten Nessie or any of her Plesiosaurus family members. I only took a notebook. There were so many questions I had to ask. I found myself a rock underneath some trees. The rain drizzled lightly, but constantly, on my raincoat and umbrella. I made notes on the shore, the trees, the rocks, the water, the soil -- and my expectations, all the things I would have to tell Daniel.

Unfortunately there was absolutely no sign whatsoever of any life in the lake. The only sudden appearance was my father coming to look for me after three and a half hours. It was time for dinner. Kindly enough, nobody in the family asked how my investigations were coming along. I was very grateful for that. I would have hated to admit that Nessie had let me down. I would have hated it even more to admit that she maybe didn't exist after all, but what I would have hated admitting the most was that I actually forgot the time making notes by the Loch. Not only did I forget the Loch, but Nessie herself.

In fact, I didn't care any longer whether she existed or not. I realized that the idea of her existence was much more exciting than the discovery of a giant lizard swimming lazily in the gloomy and cold Loch, who wasn't any more sympathetic than a crocodile by the Nile. I didn't like crocodiles. They are mean creatures. They eat anything that moves, including their own kids. Disgusting. My parents tried to comfort me with a small tartan-snake with Disney eyes. It is slightly kitschy, but it is all that remained from my encounter with Nessie.

From then on, I started hunting for the image of dragons. Eagerly I read legends and fairy tales. I came to dislike the Christian image of dragons, which sees in dragons nothing but an impersonation of the exclusively evil devil: the satanic serpent, that seduced Eve in paradise and brought the trouble upon the world of miserable Christians. They may get slight comfort from the archangel Michael and St. George, who did rather nasty things to the dragons they encountered. I, however, felt that they were murderers; dragons can't be all bad, not even when they're the devil.... Going to a convent school, I kept those thoughts to myself.

If one was competent on the underlying psychological meaning of these deeds of St. George and Michael, if one took in account the ancient, archaic symbol of the dragon, which stands for the immortal self in all things of nature, one could probably say it meant the victory of Christianity over heathen beliefs.

Since then we've lost our respect for the souls of trees and hills, of waters and winds. In many cultures the dragon is the first creature ever -- standing for creation itself. Unifying both genders, it produces and swallows its offspring at the same time. But foremost the dragon is a serpent, and thus stands for rejuvenation, as most serpents shed their skin every month, according to the cycle of the moon in some beliefs.

In fact, many mythologies all over the world use the dragon/serpent image for rivers of all kinds, including the milky way, stressing the aspects of fertility and transformation. The dragon has the ability to take on any shape it desires. The serpent is only one of them. It can be man or woman, animal or plant -- water or fire. In short, the dragon is everything; its own end and its own beginning, and the bearer of all knowledge and wisdom. Naturally, the dragon/serpent also has a sexual connotation that is reflected in the idea of the kundalini-snake, which is coiled at the bottom of the vertebrae. The kundalini-snake symbolizes sexual energy, which can be freed through yoga exercises and sex -- according to tantric belief. That concept offers the lovely idea of the "energy-dragons" in all of us, and even ways of access to them.

As a writer, and considering myself a creative person, I always found the Chinese dragon particularly appealing. They call it "Fung" which means "creation coming out of chaos." For the Chinese, the dragon is a symbol of luck, long life and fertility. I have a China mug with a blue dragon I tend to use when I'm working at my desk.

Some of the other dragons I own -- and by now there are several due to friends and family -- have taken on a special meaning for me. Some stand for certain moments in my life, some for the relationships with certain people, and some for specific functions. E.g., my father and my sister once gave me a dragon- hand puppet of plush, bottle green with silky wings and a curling tail. It reminds me of the times I had to be talked into going to bed because of the fierce monster hiding underneath my bed, naturally only visible to me. Having that problem with a recent guest, aged six, I finally managed to lure him with my winged dragon into bed. I left it with him, promising that "Lohengrin" keeps all monsters away from my guests.

In my study, "Hortense" is sailing above my shelf. A Malaysian dragon, colorfully painted, she is attached to the ceiling in order to flap her wooden wings -- which she only does when nobody is in the room, of course. Quite in contrast to her exotic appearance, Hortense comes from Paris. She is a present from a good friend, who also chose her name. Hortense's "godmother" and I spent a weekend in Paris, before she left for Israel to join her love -- who happens to be no one else than my childhood sweetheart, with whom I shared the passion for Nessie. I am sure, though, that the passion Daniel shares with my friend is of a less monstrous nature.

Then there is the terra cotta dragon, "Loderich" (loderndes Feuer in German means flaring flames) sitting on my window-sill. He can be filled with paraffin and lit with a match -- not at the mouth, but at the tail. For people with a sense of imagination, it seems to be slightly obscene -- but it never fails to evoke laughter, even from the most prudish. It is a present from my sister, and a great image for our relationship, which almost always causes fits of laughter at the worst possible moment.

Loderich also stands for the paradox that is immanent in the dragonic features. For instance there is "Grisu," a character from a children's book. Grisu is a little dragon, who desperately wants to become a fireman, and is tragically handicapped by the fact that he produces flames as soon as he opens his mouth. Or the "Reluctant dragon," who is such a kindhearted creature, he hates to frighten people with his sight and forces and consequently suffers from loneliness, since there is nothing he desires more than being with others. Instead, he sits in his cave and writes poetry. Then there are the American creations "Puff," and "Eliott" of course, and the German "Falkor" (Fuchur in German, with a strong, but kindly blazing "ch" in the middle), the friendly dragon from the "Neverending Story."

But there are still enough stories and films where the monstrous and atrocious aspects of dragons are stressed. Every now and then fictive dinosaurs appear, which seem to be the peak of an evil character, violence and bad breath -- the fire being replaced by acid saliva. I'm still angry at Mr. Crichton and Mr. Spielberg about the monsters of Jurassic Park -- at least one of them should have been sympathetic. It would have actually offered a wonderful psychological subplot: the monstrous beast with a kind heart.

Just imagine the T-Rex picking up the little boy, crying his heart out, but mercilessly the T-Rex draws him towards his dripping tongue, ever closer to his gigantic teeth and finally -- gives him a hearty kiss! But I suppose, there have to be bad, stupid and mean dragons, just as there are people with corresponding features. Besides, certain people like the thrill of somebody being trapped by the dragon, preferably a young and beautiful virgin maiden who then is liberated by a handsome, well-armed hero who wants to do nothing else but to bathe in dragon blood, like his forefather Siegfried (and we know what happened to him!) Overcoming the usual obstacles, like high fences and deep waters, and the cunning questions of the dragon, the hero usually succeeds and takes his female haul home. I can't help wondering, whether he wouldn't be happier with the dragon -- I mean, there is hardly ever any proof that it is the dragon who makes life difficult, or that the girl actually wants to leave the dragon. Well, I suppose this version wouldn't sell too well. But it is worth a thought! Maybe somebody will come up with an even more drastic variation -- possibly making the dragon the hero. There must be at least as many dragons as there are people, and fortunately, dragons won't cease to exist, as long as people are creative!

The German term "Fabelwesen," which means fabulous beast, and includes Harpies, Pegasus etc. comes closest to what dragons mean to me. "Fabel" means fable -- yarn, story, legend and "Wesen" creature. Being a writer of fiction I always thought this a most appropriate image. Thus the dragon remained my favorite animal.

Elisabeth Karsten

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