Around 675 BC, a wandering Greek poet made the wondrous claim that gryphons were real—not a mythic creature lost in the mist of time, but a living presence in the world. This in turn sparked a cultural fascination for the creature that lasted a thousand years.
The poet Aristeas from the Greek island of Proconnesus claimed to have been possessed by the god Apollo and take on a journey into the mysterious lands north of the Black Sea. In an epic poem, the Arimaspea, he chronicled all that he had seen and learned.
Gryphons Were Real—Part I describes the Scythian origin for the tales Aristeas brought home to Greece. But why did the Scythians believe them? What hard evidence could there have been?
The answer can be found in the desert wastelands east of Scythia’s borderlands. A modern day map shows this region to be the Gobi Desert, which lies east and south of the Altai mountain range. Here among the foothills and flatlands that butt up against the mountain range were the gold fields mined by the Scythians as well as their nomadic brethren, the Issedones.
And here is where they found proof of the Gryphon’s existence.
Present-day exploration of the Gobi Desert has turned up a treasure trove of prehistoric fossil remains so near the desert surface that a sandstorm can unearth them. Prominent among the skeletal remains have been those of a dinosaur called Protoceratops. Also discovered have been clutches of fossilized dinosaur eggs.
Imagine you are an ancient with no knowledge that millions of years ago fabulous animals existed that are now extinct. While prospecting for gold, you stumble upon bones (the fossil record) of a creature larger and more strange than any you know. Amazed, you ponder the remains and try to imagine what the creature was and what it looked like. Then thinking that bones mean the animal is recently dead, you assume it must have relatives still alive, but where?
For the seeds of this legend to grow and flourish, two things were needed: the fertile soil of imagination and real-world knowledge of birds and animals acquired through keen observation. Both of these the nomads could supply. So, it’s plausible that Scythians and Issedones encountered such fossils which, in turn, inspired the gryphon folklore they passed on to the Greeks.
The bones were both inspiration for and proof of the creature’s existence. And their fossilized skeletons provided a framework upon which to build a picture of what the animal looked like and how it might behave.
For example, its beak-like mouth suggested it was some kind of bird. However, its four feet and tail suggested another kind of animal; a lion, perhaps. Further discovery of petrified dinosaur eggs, some imbedded with flecks of gold, might lead to stories about the avian nature of gryphons, how they bred, and their fondness for gold.
But the Greeks were a literate, more sophisticated people. Why were they so ready to embrace the legend? And what kept it alive for almost one thousand years?
The notion of gods, monsters, and hybrid creatures was rooted in Greeks culture and that of the later Romans. Such beings and animals populated their richly-storied pantheons. The discovery of a living phenomenon such as the Gryphon would have been imaginable and welcomed. And don’t forget, the wandering poet Aristeas had been in contact with a people with first-hand knowledge of this wonder. Of course, the unearthed bones were the best proof of all.
As Greek trading expeditions journeyed ever deeper into the North, more information about Scythia, gold mining, and gryphons was collected by travelers, geographers, historians, playwrights, and storytellers. The body of gryphon lore continued to grow. This supported Aristeas’ original reports. It also kept the Gryphon alive in the consciousness and culture of the Greeks and Romans.
Today in art and literature, the Gryphon is still a favorite motif. It has become a symbol of ferocity and strength as well as majesty and nobility. While in antiquity it was an earthbound creature, our modern imaginations have gifted it with flight. There is mystery in its hybrid nature and elusiveness. It is a fantastical dream dusted with gold.
What other mythic creatures in the Greek pantheon might have begun with an unearthed fossil? That’s a story for another day.
In the meantime, check out my Pinterest board Gryphons: Ancient Journeys I for beautiful visions of the Gryphon as imagined by artists today.
*For the information presented here, I am indebted to: Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters. Princeton University Press, 2000.