Monitors are often said to have provided the inspiration for mythological dragons, but many
other animals have equally strong claims. Marco Polo's description of the Great Serpents of
Karazan could easily refer to a Komodo dragon:
"Here are great serpents ten paces in length and ten spans the girth of the body. At the
forepart near the head they have two shon legs, each having three claws like those of a tiger,
with eyes larger than a four-penny loaf and very glaring. The jaws are wide enough to
swallow a man, the teeth are large and sharp and their whole appearance is so formidable that
neither man nor any other animal can approach them without terror."
The earliest known depictions of monitor lizards come from cave paintings near Bhopal made
about 10,000 years ago (Das 1989). They frequently appear in ancient and modern Australian
art, but they are conspicuously absent from the an of the ancient Egyptian civilisations.
According to Rose (1962) monitor lizards were often depicted and embalmed by the ancient
Egyptians. However the Egyptians did not begin to mummify reptiles until the later dynasties
(about 4,000 years ago) when they were associated with the sun god Atum, and a search of
the mummified reptiles in the British and Cairo Museums has not revealed a single specimen
of monitor lizard (Bennett & Akonnor ms). The most likely reason that the varanids were
excluded from the afterlife is that they prey on the eggs and young of crocodiles, which,
although despised, were considered highly sacred by the ancient Egyptians. Folklore is rich in
superstitions and anecdotes concerning monitor lizards. In some places they are despised or
even feared, but many cultures appreciate the lizards and some hold them in great reverence.
Stories that monitor lizards are venomous or even poisonous abound in the early literature.
The siliva is considered poisonous in Bengal and in pans of Borneo they are always cooked
with ginger as a precaution, because if a poisonous individual has been selected for the pot
the mixture will tum black (Saha 1983; Auffenberg 1982). Mason & Theobald (in Gaddow
1901) claimed that Burmese Karens ate monitor lizards, but discarded the heads because they
considered them poisonous. The secretive rough-necked monitor was believed have so
venom so strong it could kill an elephant (Lekagul 1969). In Sri Lanka water monitors are
often considered unpalatable whilst Bengal monitors are eaten with relish (Deraniyagala1953). However treading on the faeces of the lizards may cause your feet to erupt with sores
(de Silva, pers.comm.).
The lizards' ability to prey on venomous snakes is recognised in many
cultures and in Australia, Egypt and Algeria their immunity is often attributed to their habit of
seeking out medicinal plants after receiving a bite (Reed 1987 , Anderson 1898, Mamir. pers
Monitors can bestow bad luck on people in a number of ways. In Borneo they are sometimes
depicted on the shields of warriors in order to strike dread into the hearts of opponents. If
one crosses the path of an advancing army mutiny may result unless the battle is postponed.
If one is seen at a wedding the union is presumed doomed from the beginning (Auffenberg
1982). In parts of Pakistan it was considered essential to keep your mouth tightly closed in
the presence of a monitor lizard; one glimpse of the teeth and the reptiles' spirit could infect
your soul (Minton 1966). If a monitor ran between your legs in Khazakstan your chance of
having children in the future was rated as zero (Nickolskii 1915). In parts of Thailand some
people dare not even pronounce the name of the monitor lizards, whilst others use it as a
term of abuse (Nutphand undated). Further south, when the moon is full, some unfortunate
people break out in scales and develop a long forked tongue. These "weremonitors" prowl
about searching not for beetles and caterpillars, but for warm human flesh (Auffenberg
Many cultures distinguish clearly between good monitor lizards and bad ones. Around the
Garo Hills in India water monitors with clouded markings were considered evil creatures that
dragged men underwater and drained them of blood. Those with bright patterns (known as
Aringgas) were supposed to be friendly and are depicted on the doors of Bachelors' houses
belonging to the Atong and Ganching tribes. Another Garo clan, the Dawa, have the
following story about their founder.
Once upon a time when Dawa was a young man, he came across a baby Aringga which was
feeding on melon leaves in one of the village fields. He caught it and put it in a cage, feeding
it with fruit. Every day the baby monitors' parents would come and visit their imprisoned
child, and when Dawa saw the two enormous Aringgas he became terrified in case they
decided to take revenge on him or his people while they were crossing the river. So he
dressed the youngster in a yellow coat, put earrings in its ears, released it and promised the
parents that he would never catch monitors again, and asked them in return not to eat any of
his clan if they identified themselves before they entered the water. The young Aringga
became Dawa's friend, and when it grew up used to carry him across the river on its back. To
this day Garos never kill Aringgas, and always callout "I am a son of Dawa" before entering
the river. If one is accidentally caught it is given some earrings by way of an apology and
released (Parry 1932).
According to legend, bark canoes were first invented by Mertens' goannas, who had to learn
how to climb in order to get the raw materials for their crafts (McConnel 1957). The
industrious and ingenious goannas became lazy when they arrived in southern Australia. They
abandoned farming and took to catching small defenceless animals, eventually resorting to
stealing food from porcupines after stupefying them with honey (Reed 1987).
In Malaya it was believed that water monitors hatched from crocodile eggs, but stayed on the
land whilst some of their brothers and sisters made straight for the water and thus became
true crocodiles (Ridley 1899). Strangely a similar belief persisted in Egypt, where the Nile
monitor was believed to be the first stage in the life cycle of the crocodile, and Herodotus
(circa. 450 BC in Anderson 1898) described the desert monitors he saw in Libya as land