Field of Science

Dragons and Geology

Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) was a Swiss scholar, during his studies of medicine, and especially after, he travelled and visited Central Europe and the Swiss, and became interested in natural sciences. His experiences of the voyages were published first in the year 1708 appropriately under the title "Itinera alpine" (Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711), a highly successful book with various reprints about observations of culture and nature in the Swiss Alps.

In the introduction by the editor we can read:

"The name of Scheuchzer is famous in the entire world of cultu
re. The author was in the best conditions to make valid discoveries during his explorations. He worked with incredible determination without drooping, no danger, no costs, no difficulty were to large for this great man."

Fig.1. The title page of "Itinera alpina" by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, ca. 1702-1711.

Between the years 1702 and 1711 Scheuchzer travelled for eleven times trough his Swiss homeland, and collected his observations and opinions in the first scientific publications on the Alps, intended (in part) to refute popular superstition.
Scheuchzer, like many other naturalists of his time, did not see a contradiction in publishing own and exact observation and rumours in the same book. In the German translation of the "Itinera alpina" by Johann Georg Sulzer, published in 1746 under the title "Natur-Geschichte des Schweizerlandes ( natural history of the country of Swiss)" we read about dragons:

"In the summer of the year 1717 Joseph Gackerer from Neftls... a half hour from Glarus...[]… encountered an animal with the head of a cat, with eyes sticking out, it was long a foot, with a thick body, four limbs, and something like breasts pending from the belly, the tail was a foot long, the entire body was covered by scales and coloured. The man breached it with a stick; it was soft and full of poisoned blood, so that from some drops spilled his leg became swollen.
I requested to mister Tschudi, pastor at Schwanken, that he would find
a honest person which would search for the bones of this person, so in April 1718 he send some to me, which I hold in collection as rare specimens."

Fig.2-5. Until the 18th century the inhabitants of remote valleys in the Alps were convinced that hidden in the forests and caves strange creatures lived, lizards with multiple tails and serpents with a human face.
In his "Itinera alpine" (1708) Scheuchzer dedicates a chapter to describe and depicts various reports of encounters with these creatures. One eyewitness reports to have observed a flying dragon (draconum alatum, fig.5) with a breath of fire in a not specified locality of the Swiss Alps, other stories tell about snakes with limbs or faces almost human (fig1. and 4.) or two tails and two tongues, with a body covered by scales (fig.3.)

Scheuchzer, like many other naturalists interested in dragons of his time, did not see a contradiction in publishing own and exact observation and rumours in the same book...

"From the evil dragon must also be told…[]…Years ago, an honest man named Mcyer …[recounts] … above the village of Ommen under the shade of a large fir tree was seen to lie [a dragon]. He had legs and wings, which were characterized by red spots, [the wings] glistening like silver.
When he take breath it sounded like he sighed, and from time to time he shook the wings.
The man turned back as soon as he had seen him. Two days afterwards there was a storm with hail, which confirms the common believe of locals that severe storms occur, after a dragon is spotted. This would not be without reason. Because we know that after the dilution of the air and before it rains creatures like snakes, lizards and similar animals tend to come out from their holes."

Scheuchzer however is sometimes sceptic about the local legends, and correctly notes in one case that bones attributed to dragons are more probably from modern and known animals:

"[] observation of the year 1718, there in a cave on a very high mountain, called Ober-Urner-Schwendi, there were found some bones, declared as the remains of a dragon, but after my judgement these are nothing more than the remains of a bear, which maybe had his winter accommodation in the cave, and because of the collapse of the entrance had must died by starvation."

In the end he remains optimistic that at least some stories have a real background, that they depict encounters with rare, but existing creatures yet not recognized by naturalists:

"At last I must mention that furious rivers from the mountains are called by the locals of the Alps also dragons. If a river flows down from the mountains, and carries large stone, trees and other things with it, so they say: The dragon became unchained...[]... that many wrong stories about the dragons have their source in this fact.
However I assume, that by comparison with the dragons from the Swiss and foreign
[countries], that such animals exist, they could be a rare species of animals, or, as many say, deformed snakes, because not all are of same kind, some have wings, other are without limbs, who will be attributed to snakes, other have limbs, so that we should compare them to lizards. They differ also in colour, scales and form of the [body-] parts."

Apart from biology, mythology and dracology, Scheuchzer argued also about geology:
the formation of the mountains, the form and the distribution of petrifactions, the significance of the strata in the rocks and of caves, why resources are distributed sporadic in the landscape and how and where springs occur.

From his voyages and connection to other naturalists Scheuchze
r collected many petrifactions of plants, and exposed them in Zürich. In 1709 he finally published the summary of his studies on these fossils, in a work entitled "Herbarium Diluvianum", very successful and so reedited in 1723. On 14 plates he displays many fossils plants coming from the English Carboniferous, the Permian of Germany and the Swiss Cainozoic, including plant cast found in travertine.

Scheuchzer recognized the inorganic nature of dendrites, he attri
buted them to the Pseudophyta (Lapides, qui plantarum figuras mentiuntur), mineral deposits in rocks that only resembles plants and noted "productas esse has figuras et mortu fluidi alicuius inter duo solida inclusi, compressi et sese inter illa diffundentis" - that this forms are made by percolation of a fluid, entrapped and pressed into two strata where it spread.
This observation is even more admirable, considering that still in the year 1879 some dendrites found in marls of Siberia were described by the palaeobotanist ANGERS as "Eopteris", a hypothetical primordial fern .

Fig.2. Dendrites enclosed in quartz crystals. Scheuchzer hypothesised that crystals were build by much smaller "units" resembling always the crystal form, and it thus was possible to grow crystals.

In the second edition of 1723 Scheuchzer adopts a new, more "modern" classification system, and adds a chapter of fossils that can't be classified in the system "Plantae
ad nullam certam classem redigendae".

In his first publications, Scheuchzer (as in "Lithographia Helvetica") following the common theory of these times, considered petrifactions more as spontaneous generated
features in the rocks as remains of once living animals, drown by the biblical flood. However after translating in 1704 the book by J. WOODWARD "Essay toward a Natural History of the earth" (1692) he changed opinion ( the title "Herbarium Diluvianum" enforces this change of mind) and tried even to determinate the month when the flood occurred by studying the plant remains.

In his "Naturgeschichte des Schweizerlandes" (1716), the natural history of Swiss, Scheuchzer merged his exact natural observations with the biblical story about the formation of earth and the fl
ood myth, in part based on works of other naturalists, but also contributing new and revolutionary ideas.
Scheuchzer tries to explain the phenomena described in the bible by a natural process, the birth of earth and the flood, even if created or send by god, were no unexplainable miracles, but caused and controlled by natural laws:

From a primordial "mud" -earth by rupturing were build up the first mountains. Concentration of precious minerals occurred by percolating gas and evaporation, from these deposits subterranean rivers still today spread, forming hydrothermal springs.
In accordance with this theory, caves and fissures are features caused by the selective erosion of weaker rocks by subterranean rivers and water.

Fig.3. Scheuchzer also got interested in hydrology and the formation of springs. He proposed that in the underground there exist "subterranean rivers", feed by lakes, flowing through the rock until emerging again to the surface as spring. This theory could also explain the chemical properties of the springs, especially hydrothermal springs. The water solves minerals from veins deep within the mountain, and carries it to the surface.

Fig.4. Visiting in the year 1705 the Rhône Glacier, Scheuchzer published his observations of the "true nature of the springs of the river Rhône".
This engraving shows the "false springs at the mountain Furca" (M, N, O - left and right of the picture) and the "true springs" (J, K, L) coming from the snout of the "great glacier" (A-F), surrounded by the "small glacier" (G, H).

Initially the mountains were covered by the sea, but later emerged. The stratification and diversity of rocks is however a proof that various inundation occurred at different times, the last the flood of the bible.It's interesting to note that Scheuchzer tried also the explained the tilting of strata, who couldn't possibly be deposited by a flood in the observed positions, by rupture and tectonic movements.

Despite many correct guesses regarding geology and palaeon
tology, even more admirable considering the knowledge of earth at these times, Scheuchzer is unjustly remembered only for one major error - in 1726 he published his most famous work, the description of the presumed remains of an eyewitness of the flood: the "Homo diluvii testis", a fossil that was later identified by Cuvier as skeleton of a giant salamander.


MÄGDEFRAU, K. (1973): Geschichte der Botanik. Stuttgart, Gustav Fischer.
SCHEUCHZER, J.J. (1723): Herbarium Diluvianum collectum. Petri Vander Aa, Bibliopolae, Civitatis atque Academia Typographi
SCHEUCHZER, J.J. (1726): Homo diluvii testis. typis Joh. Henrici Byrgklini.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS