Probably like a lot of you, I grew up fairly obsessed with dinosaurs. There’s something improbable about these things that appeal to the imagination of children. The idea that not terribly long ago the Earth was dominated by animals that mirror in so many ways the dragons and other monsters of myth and fairy tale is somewhat magical: It’s as if the grown-ups who taught us about dinosaurs- teachers, scientists and others – have said, “Dragons and ogres and trolls are all make-believe, but we’ve not taken away all the monsters. Take heart: Here’s a nice book full of ferocious-looking beasts that’s okay for you to believe in. Study, even.”
One of my first experiences with dinosaurs in pop culture was watching Sid and Marty Krofft’s live action Saturday morning children’s show The Land of the Lost, a series chronicling the adventures of patriarch Rick Marshall, and his children, Will and Holly, as they attempt to escape the titular Land of the Lost, a parallel dimension that they’ve been trapped in via some kind of mysterious portal encountered on a canoeing trip. This alternative dimension resembles Earth’s own prehistoric past, but one as envisioned by pulp fantasy writer Robert E. Howard and his ilk: There are dinosaurs, but also primitive man-like hominids, lost cities and even an ancient race of serpent men fallen into barbarism that dwelt in a Lost City that was apparently powered by crystal energy.
The serpent men were known as sleestaks. Possessed of only a primitive intelligence, these tall, hissing, single-horned creatures would occasionally emerge at night to stalk and harass the Marshall family. While I was only a few years old when I watched The Land of the Lost (and it was probably in syndication at that), the sleestak made an indelible impression on me. Long after the program had ceased to air, I wondered about the sleestaks. Their presence made a kind of intuitive sense to me: If human beings had evolved from what I knew then as “cavemen” then it wasn’t too far of a leap for my child’s mind to accept dinosauric proto-humans. I kept that in the back of my mind as a “maybe” for some time – at least until I was old enough to start checking out books on dinosaurs and prehistoric history from our local library, at which time I abandoned the concept as fantasy… much like those dragons and ogres I spoke of.
The next big brush with fantasy monsters as a “maybe” also came courtesy of the library, with equal credit given to television programs like Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of… and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. Thanks to a late seventies and early eighties boom in pseudoscientific popular entertainment, my television set (now bigger, better and in color) was the ticket to endless speculation on ancient aliens, Bigfoot and ghosts (kind of sounds like today, actually), and my library shelves were stocked with books about “real” vampires, Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster. Once again, the adults were telling me something, except it was a new message – a far more appealing one for a boy who loved monsters and dinosaurs: “Hey, maybe we were wrong about there not being any real magic and monsters out there. Have you ever seen the Patterson-Gimlin film? You know they have Sasquatch footprints, right? We know we told you otherwise, but now you’re old enough for the truth: The monsters are real. PS: Dinosaurs might still be around. Let me show you some compelling photographs of a plesiosaur we’re calling ‘Nessie.’”)
My youthful curiosity was ignited, and soon I was reading anything I could find about “the unknown”. At some point in my childhood, my aunt passed on a huge stack of old Fate magazines to me (What was she thinking?) and I began to add other monsters and mythical beings to my “maybe” file: Psychic vampires, night hags, Grey aliens… and lizard men. My Sleestak were back! I pored over accounts of encounters with reptilian humanoids: The Loveland Frog! The Thetis Lake Monster! These were only a few of the reptilian creatures being reported by good old regular folks all around the world. The lizard men were real. It was a special time for me. A frightening time to try to sleep at night, but special. I was having one last burst of childhood wonderment: a last crack in the wall between the real and the imaginary. I think deep down in my heart I knew that any of these monsters couldn’t actually exist, but isn’t that part of make-believe? I wanted them to be real. After all, grown-ups had told me! But hey, grown-ups lie sometimes.
When I got older and better educated I came to the conclusion that Bigfoot, Nessie, the Loveland Frog and the rest of the gang probably weren’t real in any meaningful sense of the word, but I remained fascinated by all of them. I still am today, but now I find them interesting as examples of urban myth and modern folklore. I think that what these sightings mean – and why they keep being reported – is far more important than any kind of argument as to whether they’re real and walking (or hopping in the case of the Loveland Frog) among us. As much as we might think of ourselves as detached from the world of fable and myth, it simply isn’t true: We all keep playing the same parts in the same old stories over and over again, and “monsters” like lizard men are part of that.
The Land of the Lost’s sleestak were the first exposure I ever had to lizard people, but I have since learned that stories of reptilian humanoids – both good and evil – have been a part of humanity’s history for as long as it has been recorded. A little research can turn up gods, goddesses, spirits, and monsters that possess qualities of both serpents and men in religions from every part of the world. Reptile beings are rife with symbolism. Particularly snake-like ones. Snakes are thought to represent immortality, sexual potency, duplicity, wisdom and more.
The Biblical Satan took the form of a speaking serpent when he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. While you might think that we’re talking about just a “snake,” if I recall correctly, after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, God cursed the serpent to crawl upon its belly for the rest of its days. Was it walking – and perhaps more – prior to this time?
The Mahabharata mentions the naga, divine, snake-like creatures that mix various attributes of human beings and serpents. The naga can be good or bad; friends or foe. The creatures figure prominently in Hindu mythology, and are thought to be benevolent human beings who can take on the appearance of snakes. The naga are thought to be dangerous only to those who mistreat them, so special care is given to avoid harming snakes (probably a good idea, generally.)
The predynastic Egyptians paid homage to Wadjet, a patron goddess of the land depicted as a snake-headed woman. Later, Wadjet was relegated to being the protector of Ra – who also came to be symbolized by cobra at times. Numerous other African peoples and nations also revered or feared snake gods and spirits.
In ancient Europe, the founding of Athens was attributed to Cecrops I, a half-man half-snake figure drawn with the upper torso of a man and the lower body of a snake. Then there’s Glycon, a Roman snake god whose worship has begun anew in the person of comic book writer Alan Moore.
In the Americas, the Aztec people revered the winged serpent god-man Quetzalcoatl as a bringer of culture, and the ancient Natchez people worshipped a rattlesnake deity. Obviously, the idea of snake worship – or snakes as a part of worship – hasn’t faded in North America: Small groups of fundamentalist Christians still gather to handle venomous serpents as an act of faith.
As we’ve moved toward a secular society, the reptile men have been cast out of the house of worship and relegated to the shadows of belief. (That’s where my old copies of Fate magazine are, probably.) There continues to be reports of encounters with reptilian humanoids around the world.
In 1934, California mining engineer Warren Shufelt told the Los Angeles Times that an underground city populated by a 5,000 year-old race of lizard men lay below the city streets, and that he had found several entrances to it courtesy of a map he created by using a dowsing rod-like instrument. Inexplicably, the city leaders authorized Shufelt to do some excavation, but he disappeared soon after. I’d like to think that the lizard people got him, but it’s more likely that he knew the gig was up and fled town.
In 1952, several residents of Flatwood, West Virginia, reported encountering a reptilian humanoid after seeing a bright flash of light in the sky. The creature was described as green and scaly with bulging eyes and stubby arms. Supposedly, several of the people who had a run-in with the creature became ill afterwards.
In 1988, a seventeen year-old resident of Lee County, South Carolina, reported to local officials that a seven foot-tall lizard man had attempted to attack him while he was changing a flat tire near Scape Ore Swamp. The roof of his car was covered in scratch marks and a side-mirror was damaged. Other residents soon reported their own encounters with the lizard man. The sightings have continued to this day.
Since 1999, former professional speaker turned author and speaker David Icke has championed his theory that humanity is being preyed upon by reptilian aliens. These aliens have been recorded in mythology as various gods and mythic figures, and have interbred with powerful human families for thousands of years. Icke has thousands of fans and followers who buy his books and attend his lectures.
Most scientists don’t believe that reptile people like my beloved sleestak ever existed, but at least one academic, paleontologist Dale Russell, has entertained the idea of a humanoid descended from dinosaurs as a thought experiment. His “dinosauroid” is depicted as a reptilian humanoid of slim build, with large eyes and three fingers. While fascinating as a “what-if,” many of his colleagues met his hypothetical dinosaur man with skepticism.
Our fear of, and fascination with, serpents probably began before in our infancy as a species. In 2013, the National Academy of Science reported findings that a specific area of the brain – the pulvinar – may have evolved to quickly recognize snakes in the environment. Experiments with non-human primates have showed that they react more quickly to images of snakes than they do anything else. It is reported that one third of people surveyed report that they suffer from ophidophobia: the fear of snakes. I can attest to the power of the phobia: I was terrified of snakes until I was in my mid-twenties. Just the sit of one would make me break out into a cold sweat. I got over it through gradual exposure over the course of several months. After I got over it enough, I bought one of my own: a kingsnake I named “Phobia.” While I can’t say that unexpectedly encountering a snake won’t give me a start, I consider myself fully cured of my phobia.
We may have evolved to be afraid of snakes and maybe other predatory reptiles, and as we grew in intelligence began to worship them as a way of placating them or mitigating their power. Over time, we evolved complex mythologies about them and attributed to them divine powers: Eternal life, wisdom, life itself. Even as we feared them, we may have wished to capture their magic or make the serpents our allies. Much like the mythic werewolf may have its origins in the shamanic practices of ancient Europe in which primitive men tried to invoke the wolf’s power, maybe the terrifying image of the divine and monstrous reptile man evolved from similar practices aimed at capturing the power of snakes by becoming one with them. It wouldn’t be at all that different from own gradual exposure and eventual purchase of a snake, if you think about it.
It seems that we hold on to our mythical gods, but when we’re done worshiping them we turn them into play things. Outside of the worlds of ancient religion, scientific what-ifs, conspiracy theories, and cryptozoology, the reptile man continues to maintain a presence in popular culture, from H.P. Lovecraft’s Valusian serpent people, to the sinister alien visitors of television miniseries V and beyond. Snakes are increasingly popular as pets, and if you look in the right (or wrong) places, you’ll find snakes as props in stage shows of all sorts. Even as we de-mythologize and domesticate the snake and turn the reptile man into a late-night horror show bogey monster, they hold on to their power as primal symbols of mystery, love, fear and more.
Perhaps the reptile man will always be with us: A shadow being of our oldest primate fears that occasionally emerges, sleestak-like, from the Land of the Lost of our own brains. We may be done with the reptile man, but it’s unlikely that the reptile man will ever be done with us.