Gryphons were real…or so the ancient Greeks believed. Could they have been right? After all, they did have proof.
The Gryphon was unique in the Greek pantheon of hybrid creatures. For example, the winged horse Pegasus; the half man, half horse Centaurs; the Minotaur with its human body and bull’s head; the Sphinx—all were created by the gods in the misty realms of the past and entwined with time-honored myths of deities and heroes.
Not so with the Gryphon. As far as the Greeks were concerned, this creature was a newcomer; a living, breathing presence in the world. It was a creature of folklore that could be encountered, if you knew where to look.
Beginning in the seventh century BC, stories of gryphons flourished throughout the Mediterranean.
While earlier depictions of a similar hybrid animal can be seen in ornamental arts of ancient Persia and Egypt, it was the Greeks who captured them in literature as well as art, confirmed their existence with an inexpert form of paleontology, and believed they inhabited the modern world.
Then who and what gave life to the Gryphon?
It all began with the Scythians nearly 3,000 years ago. These were the nomadic horsemen who roamed the desolate steppe lands northeast of the Black Sea. Their territory stretched across the wild lands to where a majestic mountain range, the Altai, rises up.
The wandering tribes were well known for their exquisite works in gold, and they prospected for the precious metal in the shadow of the Altai. When the Greeks at last made contact and began to trade with the Scythians, they picked up tales about that far-flung region and its fantastic inhabitants. Strangest among these were the gryphons who mined gold and built their nests of it, and the one-eyed men, the Arimaspoi, who warred with the creatures and stole that gold.
The Scythians were not a literate people, and their stories—passed down in oral tradition—might have been lost over time. Happily, however, they caught the interest of the Greeks, who wrote them down, weaving them into the enduring tapestry of Greek myth. Thanks for this goes largely to a traveling Greek poet: Aristeas of Proconnesus.
In the early seventh century BC (c. 675), the poet brought to the known world a fantastic tale that chronicled his journey of discovery into the uncharted North beyond Scythia while possessed by the Greek god Apollo. He described the adventure in an epic poem, the Arimaspea. Only fragments of the manuscript have survived, but for centuries, Aristeas’ remarkable account was the respected source for information about the mysterious realms from Scythia to mythic Hyperborea.
Aristeas enshrined Gryphon lore in his Arimaspea. In turn, the epic tale appears to have sparked an intense interest in the creatures. A cultural fascination for them erupted at this time among the Greeks, continued with the Romans, and lasted nearly a thousand years. Gryphon motifs were featured on pottery, in mosaics, on weaponry, and as fashion accessories and jewelry. References to the living creature as well as to Aristeas and the Arimaspea made their way in contemporary histories and plays. In stories, the physical and behavioral nature of the Gryphon gained details as if the creature itself had been observed, not just imagined.
So, what brought the Gryphon’s existence as a real and living animal out from the shadow of folklore to be seen and treated as an objective fact? What confirmed their existence as well as their physical features?
Answer: Hard evidence. In a word, bones.
For the rest of that story, read on in my next blog: GRYPHONS WERE REAL—PART II: THE HARD EVIDENCE
*For the information presented here, I am indebted to: Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters. Princeton University Press, 2000.