Griffin

Sem IMYTHICAL BEASTof Central Asia.

Etymology: From the Latin gryphus, a misspelling of grypus, derived from the Greek gryps ("hooked") and possibly related to the Persian giriften (to "grip" or "seize").

Variant names: Brentford Griffin, Griffon, Gryphon, Gryps.

Physical description: Size of a wolf. Has scales or feathers. Crest (in Asia) or mane (in Greece). Fiery red eyes. Knob or short horn on head might represent long, upright ears. Strong beak like an eagle's. Neck is variegated, with blue feathers. Black feathers on back, red feathers on breast. Wing feathers are white. Four legs. Large claws. Further symbolic embellishments were added to this profile in the Middle Ages.

Behavior: Flightless despite its wings. Lays eggs in burrows in auriferous deposits. Said to guard gold and be protective of its young. Attacks horses, mountain lions, elk, geese, deer, and humans. Can be captured with a baited trap.

Distribution: The Altai and Tien Shan Mountains and the Gobi Desert of China, Mongolia, and adjacent regions.

Significant sightings: The Griffin appears on Scythian gold, bronze, wood, and leather artifacts from 3000 to 100 B.C. It became a popular theme in Greek art around 600 B.C and in Roman art until A.D. 300.

The Griffin was first described in literature by Aristeas in his lost epic the Arimaspea, written about 675 B.C, as an animal known to Scythian nomads who traded with the Greeks and traveled as far west as the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and China. Intriguingly, the Scythian word arimaspu, which refers to the CYCLOPS (Arimaspeans) who try to steal gold from the Griffins, is linguistically related to the Mongolian ALM AS. Aristeas's story was repeated by the Greek playwright Aeschylus in his tragedy Prometheus Bound (lines 790-805) and by other classical authors.

Possible explanations:

(1) The Tibetan mastiff, a large guard dog bred for centuries in the Himalayas to protect monasteries, villages, nomadic camps, and livestock herds, was suggested by Valentine Ball.

The GRIFFIN has appeared in artistic representations since 3000 B.C. (© 2002 ArtToday.com, Inc., an IMSI Company)

(2) A local Jerboa (Family Allactaginae) or Squirrel (Family Sciuridae) because of its burrowing activities.

(3) The Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), a large, carrion-eating bird of Central Asia, has been suggested by Peter Costello; also an eagle or another bird of prey. However, as early as Aeschylus, the flightless gryps was distinguished from the winged eagle aetos.

(4) A literary invention symbolizing vigilance, the difficulty of mining gold on the Asian steppes, swiftness, the sun, the sky, death, or loyalty.

(5) A speculative re-creation based on the fossil remains of the Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), discovered in antiquity near auriferous sands in Siberia, proposed by Adolph Erman.

(6) As suggested by Adrienne Mayor, the Griffin may be based on the fossil remains of ceratopsian dinosaurs, especially

Protoceratops, a Late Cretaceous herbivore that averaged 7-8 feet in length and whose bones are commonly found in the Gobi, Turpan, and Junggar Deserts along the caravan route between the Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan and China and the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. These mountains and their alluvial basins were the source of the gold mined by the Scythians and other ancient peoples, and the proximity of the desert fossils accounts for the ancient association of gold and Gryps. Protoceratops had a powerful beak and a dorsal shield like a rearward-projecting horn. Its bones are common even in modern times, and the area is a rich source of fossil eggs and clutches of young dinosaurs.

Sources: Herodotus, The Histories, ed. John Marincola (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 221 (iv 13); Ctesias, Indika, in J. W. McCrindle, ed., Ancient India (Calcutta, India: Thacker, Spink, 1882), pp. 17, 44-46; Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica [1672] (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), pp. 199-201, 822-823; Adolph Erman, Travels in Siberia, Including Excursions Northwards (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1848), vol. 2, pp. 87-89, 377-382; Valentine Ball, "The Identification of the Pygmies, the Martikhora, the Griffin, and the Dikarion of Ktesias," The Academy 23 (1883): 277; Edward Peacock, "The Griffin," The Antiquary 10 (September 1884): 89-92; George Jennison, Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1937), p. 115; Sergei I. Rudenko, Sibirskaia kollektsiia Petra Pervogo (St. Petersburg, Russia: Akademiia Nauk SSSR, 1962); Anna Maria Bisi, I/ grfone: Storia di un motivo iconografico nell'antico Oriente mediterraneo (Rome: Centro di Studi Semitici, Istituto di Studi del Vicino Oriente, Universita di Roma, 1965); Engeborg Flagge, Untersuchungen zur Bedeutung des Greifen (Sankt Augustin, Germany: Hans Richarz, 1975); Peter Costello, The Magic Zoo (New York: St. Martin's, 1979), pp. 71-82; Joe Nigg, The Book ofGryphons (Cambridge, Mass.: Apple-wood Books, 1982); Laskarina Bouras, The Griffin through the Ages (Athens: Midland Bank, 1983);

Adrienne Mayor, "Griffin Bones: Ancient Folklore and Paleontology," Cryptozoology 10 (1991): 16-41; Adrienne Mayor and Michael Heaney, "Griffins and Arimaspeans," Folklore 104 (1993): 40-66; Adrienne Mayor, "Guardians of the Gold," Archaeology 47 (November-December 1994): 53-58; Kenneth Carpenter, Eggs, Nests, and Baby Dinosaurs (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 15-53.

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