Griffin and Arimaspeans

by Adrienne Mayor and Michael Heaney

(Original print at FOLKLORE, 1993 - i and ii)

Each of the authors is a member of both the Folklore Society and the International Society of Cryptozoology, and each presented a paper at the joint meeting of the two societies held at the University of Surrey, Guildford, England, 12-33 July 1990. A shorter version of the first half of this paper was presented by Andrienne Mayor then (and at the Biology-Classics Seminar, Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 10 April 1991). Michael Heaney's paper dealt with aspects of wildman research in the Soviet Union. In discussion at the conference the authors realized that they shared common in their research and could each contribute to the elucidation of the topic covered in the present article. The conference, which was extremely successful, therefore fulfilled one of the unique function of such meetings by bringing together in fruitful co-operation researchers who would not otherwise be aware of the common ground they share; our thanks are due to the conference organisers for bringing this about. We are grateful to all the folklorists, cryptozoologists, classicists, and scientists who have made valuable suggestions, especially geologist Sheldon Judson, palaeontologist Dale Russell, and ancient historian Josiah Ober.

Adrienne Mayor

The ancient Greeks began to make contact with the nomadic cultures of Central Asia in the seventh century BC. Along with the exotic goods exported from Central Asia came folktales about remote eastern lands and their inhabitants. The first written description of two strange Asian creatures, griffins and Arimaspeans, appeared in Greece during this period. The gryps, or griffin, was already known in Near Eastern art; the body was like that of a four-legged predator, but it had a strong beak. In the Scythian lore recounted in Greek and Roman texts, griffins and Arimaspeans were associated with gold; in later accounts, griffins were said to lay eggs in burrows on the ground and these nests contained gold nuggets.

Since the mid-seventeenth century, scholars have assumed that the griffin was an imaginary composite like the Sphinx or the Minotaur. In 1646 Sir Thomas Browne declared that the gryps was simply a mystical symbol combining attributes of the eagle and the lion. Another scientific book of the same period announced, "Sober-minded observers.... no longer look upon this creature as of mountain mines...of barbaric gold." But in 1652, Andrew Ross attempted to refute Browne, arguing that the gryps may have been an attempt to describe an unusual animal of Scythia or Cathay. Ross maintained that Browne 'misrepresented' the ancient writers. They had never claimed that the gryps was a conjunction of two animals, 'a Lion behind and Eagle in the fore-part'; instead they said only that the four-legged creature had a beak. Ross mentioned some notable examples of actual 'mixt and dubious' beasts, such as bats, flying fish, giraffes, and dog-headed apes. He also pointed out that the presence of gold in nests was not a fabulous notion, since real creatures, such as magpies, do collect shiny objects. And the lack of griffin sightings did not necessarily mean they never existed or had all perished. Anticipating modern knowledge about rare species, Ross suggested that the animals might have moved to even more remote and inaccessible habitats to avoid human encroachment. Ross voice was drowned out in the 'scientific' effort to discredit old travellers' tales about fantastic creatures. For over three centuries, then, most classicists, art historians, and scientists have accepted Browne's idea that the griffin was purely imaginary and symbolic.

Yet there was a notable exception to this consensus, In 1827, Georg Adolph Erman travelled across Siberia. he learned that Ice Age woolly mammoth bones, which were found in great abundance along polar river banks, were identified by the Siberians as the remains of colossal birds killed by their ancestors. Erman was the first writer to sugeest that such fossil bones might have inspired the ancient legend of griffins. He pointed out that gold-sand lay just under the peat that contained mammoth fossils, which could account for the association of griffins and gold.

In 1962, classicist J.D.P. Bolton traced the travels pf Arosteas. the early seventh-century Greek who first described the griffins and Arimaspeans of Central Asia. Bolton called Erman's mammoth-bone theory

'attractive' and 'impressive', but discarded it as the basis for the griffin story because the mammoth remains of Siberia were so far from the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, where the griffin tale originated. Once again, the idea that the legend might have contained a kernel of zoological truth was set aside

We should like to reconsider Ross's and Erman's notions, in the light of neglected and new eivdence from several disciplines. The identity of the griffin remains unresolved because each scholar who studies the legend tends to be unaware of important findings in other fields. An interdisciplinary approach drawing from classical art and literature, folklore, archaeology, geology, and palaeontology supports a zoological origin. Analysis of the first Greek reports and early artistic images suggests that the griffin lore arose from speculations about some unique faunal evidence observed in Central Asia. As the story spread, folklore motifs accumulated and artistic imagination became involved, yet the core elements of the original account remained remarkably consistent for about a thousand years.

Griffin-type animals combining the features of birds and mammals appeared in ancient Near Eastern art as early as 3000 BC, and they also show up in Mycenaean art. But we have no way of knowing what kind of folklore, if any, was attached to these creatures. The first written description of a griffin that we know of appeared in Greece during the seventh century BC. Little new information seems to have been added after the third century AD. After that, the tradition crystallised into the fabulous medieval griffin with its Chrstian symbolism. The griffin was a popular motif in Greek and Roman art between about 700 BC and AD 300, and some of these representations appear to be related to the folk themes preserved in the literature of the same period. This thousand- year timeframe of linked, consistent and thriving written sources and related art can be seen as the "natural lifespan" of the Greco-Roman version of the tale

Our word 'griffin' comes from the Greek word gryps, meaning 'hooked', as of a claw or beak. The first known use of the word gryps occured in a work written by Aristeas, a Greek from the Black Sea area. Aristeas journeyed deep into Central Asia in about 675 BC--around the time of the earliest Greek contacts with the Scythian nomads living east of the Caucasus. Aristeas's work (called the Arimaspea) is now lost, but it was famous in antiquity. According to fragments preserved in the works of several extant ancient authors, Aristeas said that he travelled among the Scythians, going as far as east as the land of the Issedonians. According to classical scholars, 'Scythians' referred to all the nomadic tribes between the Black Sea and Mongolia. Aristeas visited the easternmost Scythians, the Issedonians, whose territory appears to have been southwest of the Altai Mountains and north of the Tien Shan range. Ptolemy, a geographer of the second century AD, located the Issedonians along the ancient trade routes from China to the West, in Dzungaria (Sinkiang, northwest China). Ancient Chinese sources support this locale for the Issedonians. Modern archaeology confirms that Scythian nomads, as described by ancient Greek sources, lived along the northern and western slopes of the Altai and Tien Shan during the time of Aristeas.

THe first surviving ancient work to use Aristeas was written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, in about 460 BC. Classical scholars have shown that Aeschylus drew on the Arimaspea for natural details in the tragedy Prometheus Bound, set in distant Asia. Lines 790-805 described a rmote, dangerous land reached by caravan routes far east of the Caucasus, a land inhabited by nomads who prspect for gold. The route crossed desolate plains, the home of feasome gorgons who turn living things to stone, hideous creatures who share a single eye and tooth, gold-mining one-eyed horemen called Arimaspeans, and finally, the gryps or griffin. Aeschylus calls griffins 'silent hounds with sharp beaks' (lines 803-4). Aeschylus was careful to distinguish the gryps, which had a beak but no wings, from the winged eagle, aetos (line 1022). In lines 1015-25, the god Hermes tells Prometheus that cosmic thunder and lightning and torrential rain with pound the mountain cliff where Prometheus is chained. An avalanche will bury him at the bottom of the ravine, where he will be 'held fast by arms of stone' for eons. 'You will travel through wast tracks of time, and at last come back into sunlight', a carcass for eagles to ravage. Using Aristeas's work, Aeschylus evoked a primeval wilderness of bizarre creatures and bodies trapped in stone for eons, a place where nomads now seek gold.

The historian Herodotus was Aeschylus's contemporary. In about 450 BC, Herodotus travelled through Egypt, Asia Minor, and Scythia 'expressly to seek information'. He asked people for explanations of local folklore, and tired to find supporting evidence. He spoke with Scythian tribes just beyond the Black Sea, and quoted Aristeas about the lands farther east: 'Aristeas says in his work that he went as far as the [land of the] Issedonians. North of them lived the Arimaspeans born with one eye. Beyond were the gold-guarding griffins.' Of the rich gold deposits of Asia, Herodotus says, 'I cannot say for sure how the gold is obtained: some say that one-eyed men called Arimaspeans steal it from griffins.

The next item of griffin lore comes from a fragment of Ctesias, a Greek physician who lived in Persepolis around 400 BC. Ctesias said that Asian gold was hard to get becasue it was 'in high mountains inhabited by griffins, a race of four-footed birds as large as wolves and with legs and claws like lions.'

Pliny the Elder's Natural History of AD 77 marks the next important point in the tradition. Besides noting the griffin's 'terrible hooked beak', he was the first to mention its wings and long ears, two featurs prominent in griffin art. Pliny wrote: 'Arimaspeans ... are always fighting for gold with the griffins, winged animals whose appearance is well known. The griffins toss up gold when they make their burrows. This is the first mention of griffin nests.

Around the time of Pliny, the sage Apollonious of Tyana was said to have travelled in Far Asia, and he added important new details. According to his biography, written about AD 200, Apollonious reported that the rocks in the region of the griffins were 'flecked with drops of gold like sparks'. He mentioned griffins' strong beaks and said they were the size of lions. As for wings, he claimed that they were not true bird-wings but only webbed membranes that helped griffins make short hops when they fought.

In about AD 170, Pausanias travelled throughout the Greek world. He also quoted Aristeas as saying that 'griffins fight for gold with the Arimaspeans beyond the Issedonians ... Griffins are like lions but with the beak and wings of an eagle.' ThenPausanias remarked that the gold emerges near or on the surface of the earth, which recalls Pliny's claim that griffins scrabble up gold when digging their burrows.

Within a generation after Pausanias, the bare bones of the simple report began to be fleshed out with more vivid details. Here is the version of Aelian, a Roman compiler of natural history in AD 200: 'I hear that the griffin has four legs like a lion, with talons as strong as can be. Its claws are very like a lion's. It is winged and the plumage on the back is reputed to be black, with red chest and white wings.' Aelian then quotes Ctesais, who said that 'the neck has dark-blue feathers, it has the beak of an eagle, and a head just like artists and sculptors portray'. Aelian goes on to say, 'Its eyes are fiery. It maes its nest in the mountains, and although it is impossible to take a full-grown griffin, people sometimes capture the chicks. The Bactrians say that griffins guard the gold of those parts, which they dig up and weave into their nests... However, the Indians sensibly deny that the creatures intentionally guard the gold. The truth is that when the prospectors approach, the griffins take fright for their young, and so give battle to the intruders.' Aelian tells how the miners journey, in 'armed groups of one or two thousand' to the wilderness of the gold deposits. 'Out of respect for the bravery of these animals, they avoid hunting for gold in the day. THey approach in the night when they have the most chance of avoiding discovery. Now, the place where the griffins live and the gold is found is a howling desert. The treasure-seekers, waiting for some moonless night, come with shovels and sacks and dig. If the girffins do not notice them, the men reap a double reward, for their lives are preserved and they bring home their cargo of gold ... rich profit for dangers they face... I am informed that the miners return home after two or three years.' A thousand years after Aristeas, Aelian's account retains the basic predator with four legs, claws, and a beak, associated with gold mining. Aelian's version incorporates the later details and adds embllishments. He gives the griffins a more natural motive for aggressive behaviour: they defind nestlings, not the gold. And Aelian quotes a traveller who affirmed that the animal's appearance was as artists show it.

Scythian art of the 700s BC and earlier is notable for depictions of unknown animals, including griffin-types. Scythian tombs of the mid- 400s BC--the time of Aeschylus and Herodotus--were excavated in this century by Soviet archaeologists at Pazyryk, Issyk, and other sites. Hundreds of gold artefacts portraying beaked quadrupeds were found in the tombs. Another remarkable discovery was the mummified body of a Scythian chief, whose skin was tatooed with griffins and other animals (Figure 2).

At Kelermes, a Scythian stie just east of the Black Sea, a mirror-back, made in about 570 BC, was discovered. It shows two naked, shaggy men (often identified as Arimaspeans) battling a griffin.

In the 600s BC--around the time of Aristeas and the first Greek contacts with Scythians--the griffin became a popular theme in Greek art. Bronze griffins from Olympia and the island of Samos offer typical examples (Figures 3 and 4). The earliest bronzes show naturalistic, almost reptillian creatures with open beaks, large eyes, forehead knobs, upright 'ears' and scaly or crested necks. Wings where small and stiff and the gryps was clearly earthbound. Later, the ears and knobs became decorative, the neck was elongated, and the wings were realistically feathered but still flightless.

A portrait of a baby griffin can be seen at Olympia, in Greece, in a bronze relief made in about 630 BC (Figure 5). This early item brings to mind Aelian's later claim that griffins protected their young.

Two Greek vase paintings of the 300s BC show nomads battling griffins (Figure 6). Bolton points out that 'gold nuggets' are included in the scenes, which appear to be set in a 'rough', 'blasted' terrain.

About 100 years after Aelian wrote about Asian gold-miners encountering griffins, the owner of a villa in Sicily commisioned a mosaic. It shows a panorama of lions, tigers, elephants, camels, ostriches, and other exotic but real animals from the far fringes of the Roman Empire, all being captured by various methods. At the very end of the panel is a griffin, lured to a trap baited with a man.

These are only a few examples of the thousands of griffins in art between 700 BC and AD 300. Combining literature and the art of this period, we can draw a compostie of the griffin's appearance, habitat, and behaviour. The gryps was a four-limbed animal the size of a lion, with a tail and strong claws, but it had a powerful beak like a bird of prey. Despite their wings, griffins did not fly. They had large eyes, upright 'ears' or horns, and a forehead knob. The reptilian or bird-like neck had a ruff or crest. The griffin laid eggs in nests on the ground and iercely protected its young. Griffin territory was the desolate wildness near the gold deposits of the Altai and Tien Shan mountains and valleys. Griffins were associated with nomadic horsemen, one-eyed Arimaspeans, and creatures somehow turned to stone.

Since Ross and Erman's attempts to account for the legend's zoologcial features in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, many other explanations of the griffin have been proposed. As noted earlier, art historians and classicists usually consider the griffin an imaginary compostie of real animals. Their cheif concern is to trace the dissemination of the artistic image from Asia to theMediterranean. Since Browne's treatese in 1646, classicists have interpreted the griffin as symbolizing vigilance, swiftness, the sun, the sky, guardianship, generosity, Apollo, Zeus, royalty, loyalty, death, and the difficulty of mining gold. In 1979, art historian Charrire suggested that the bizarre animals forms in Scythian art may have arisen 'from hallucinations induced by hashish'. Bartscht calls the belief in Griffins an antidote to 'the intellectual desiccation' of an overly rational society, a 'mirror of our own dual nature'. Others have identified the griffin as garbled description of a real but unfamiliar living animal. For example, Minns maintained that the gryps was really the little steppe jerboa or squirrel, which burrows in gold-sand and is vigilant. And Valentine Ball concluded that the gryps was a 'tolerably accurate description' of a large dog, the ferocious Tibetan mastiff.

Some have suggested that the griffin represents vague collective memories of flying reptiles or other long-extinct prehistoric species. But this notion requires that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, as Peter Costello points out. He believes that the griffin must have been based on a common feature of the nomads' lives. His candidate is the lammergeier, a bearded vulture with a ten-foot wingspan. Others claim the griffin was really an eagle. But as we have seen, Aeschylus, the first extant author to describe the gryps, distinguished it from a bird of prey. Besides, Scythians, Greeks, and Romans were familiar with raptors: their artists portray realistic eagles and vultures, and Greek and Latin texts describe these birds and their habits accurately. It is unlikely that such familiar birds of prey would generate an image of a flightless quadruped. As Ross noted in 1652, it is the combination of the eagle-like beak with four legs that is so remarkable.

Constello's insight--that the griffin lore must have been based on a real aspect of nomads' lives--is significant, especially when we compare the griffin to imaginary animals of Greek myth. The griffin is not an obvious hybrid like the half-human, half-animal Centaurs, the Minotaur, and the Sphinx, or Pegasus, the horse with wings. In fact, the griffin does not play a role in any surviving texts of Greek myths. Unlike other ancient monsters, the griffin does not interact with mythical heroes; instead it is encountered by real people of a distant land. Notably, no writer ever claimed to have seen a live griffins. Contrary to what might be expected, the fragments of Aristeas's original work selected by other ancient authors do not offer sensational details about gryps. The dissimilarity between the griffin and other mythical creatures, the consistency of the image over centuries, and the rather mundane details about nests and gold added by later writers, sugest that the griffin may have been based on something observed and verified over time by many people in specific landscape.

Those who stuy the griffin legend tend to conflate anachronistic, fabulous medieval embellishments with the original seventh-century account of Aristeas, which remained relatively spare even up to Aelian's time. The idea that the griffin was based on obervations of fossils has been rejected, as we saw in Bolton's reaction to Erman's mammoth theory. Yet no griffin scholar has considered palaeontological evidence in the region where Aristeas heard about griffins and Arimaspeans from the Issedonians. Furthermore, classical scholars have underestimated the importance and frequency of fossil discovered in antiquity. Moreover, historical examples of folklore based on fossils and artistic reconstructions of prehistoric remains can serve as models for tracing the origin of the griffin legend. Let us briefly review evidence of the ancient interest in fossils and note some examples of folklore associated with prehistoric remains, before turning to modern geological and palaeontological discoveries in Iddedonian territory.

Numberous Greek and Roman texts refer to fossils, which were exposed in antiquity by earthquake and erosion or deliberately excavated on the mainland, island, and in the Near East. Large or exceptional remains were regarded as either the bones of mythical heroes, monsters, and giants, or as skeletons of extinct animals or men of the remote past. Fossil shells embedded in rock led to theories of evolution and extinction as early as the sixth century BC.

When Herodotus investigated Arabian folklore about winged serpents, he says, he was shown 'countless bones and backbones of serpents, many heaps of vertebrae great and small' in the walls of a narrow mountain pass. He also recounts that a man digging a well at Tegea (in the Peloponnese) came upon a huge skeleton, which was then identified as that of an ancient man. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the Emperor Augustus built a museum to exhibit 'monstrous bones of extinct sea and land creatures', which some people called 'giants' bones'. Plutarch tells how big bones found on the island of Skyros in about 475 BC were shipped to Athens for display, and he discusses the colossal bones commonly seen on the island of Samos. Pliny the Elder gives the exact dimensions of huge skeletons found throughout the Roman Empire; and Pausanias describes the discovery, overseas transport, and public display of many immense bones, said to belong to heroes, giants, sea monsters, elephants, or ancient men. Interestingly, Chinese chronicles of Pausanias's time record the export of fossils and mammoth tusks to Rome, Philostratus listed a dozen cases of great bones exposed by erosion, earthquake, and ploughing in Asia Minor. And Aelian reported that a monster's skull and bones were discovered after a fire on the island of Chios. 'From these', he said, 'people were able to guess how large and how awful the brute was when still alive'.

Many of the areas where large or unusual bones came to light in antiquity have yielded rich fossil finds in modern times. When the ancient encountered strange remains, they, like palaeontologists today, collected and measured the bones and attempted to visualize the creatures in life. Recent archaeology confirms that fossils and exotic remains were stored with other valuables in temples and shrines. Skulls, bones, shells, horns, skins, eggs, and teeth of exotic or axtinct animals were actively collected and traded in antiquity.

It has long been recognized that folklore about giants and monsters occurs in fossil rich regions. The association between prehistoric bones and dragons in China is well documented; ancient chronicles refer to excavation of 'dragon bones' in fossiliferous areas of China. A well-known ancient example of fossil-inspired folklore is the Cyclops of Greek myth. Empedocles was the first to relate fossil elephant skulls to the Homeric one-eyed, cave-dwelling ogre. In 1914, Abel pointed out that the large nasal cavity of an elephant skull would lead one unfamiliar with pachyderms to visualize a one-eyed giant. Prehistoric elephant remains are common fossils in Mediterranean coastal caves. Another oft-cited instance of folklore and artistic reconstruction based on a fossil occured in Klagenfurt, Austria. In 1590, sculptor U. Vogelsang used a huge skull unearthed in a nearby quarry as the model for a 'dragon' in the town square. In the next century a typical folklore giant with a club was erected next to the dragon, which was now said to have ravaged the town. The original skull found by the quarrymen was identified in modern times as that of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros. The Klagenfurt dragon has been called the 'oldest palaeontological reconstruction'.

The Cyclops myth and the many examples of other fossil-inspired folklore worldwide suggest that palaeontological speculations may have been more common in antiquity than has been recognized. According to Herodotus, 'It is among the Issedonians themselves that the strange tales' of Arimaspeans and gold-guarding gryps originated. To identify the gryps animal, we must first locate the rich gold deposits exploited by the Scythians, Issedonians, and reportedly by the Arimaspeans, and then determine whether gold-seekers would have been likely to encounter fossil exposures that might have inspired the image of the gryps.

The extreme climate, remote and difficult terrain, long history of border wars, ongoing unrest, and twentieth-century Cold War tensions, not to mention myriad name changes and spelling revisions, have all contributed to the paucity and obscurity of palaeontological and geological information about the Issedonians' old territory, which now lies on the border of the former Soviet Union with China. The Altai and Tien Shan ranges contain abundant gold-sand; placer gold erodes from deposits in the massifs into the foothills and basins below. And some of the world's richest fossil beds are located in the badlands and sedimentary cliffs along the old caravan routes across the Gobi, Turfan, and Dzungarian deserts between the high peaks of the Altai and Tien Shan. Ancient gold-seekers may have been the first to encounter the fossil remains, for the auriferious sand of this region has been mined since the Bronze Age.

Roy Chapman Andrews was the first modern palaeontologist to investigate the fossils about Gobi badlands east of the Altai in the 1920s, after he heard local Chinese folklore about dragons' teeth and bones. His team travelled along ancient caravan routes to a blasted landscape where they discovered--on the surface or only partially embedded--bones of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs 'strewn over the surface almost as thickly as stones. Many of the skulls had prominent beaks, knobs, and head frills, which were preserved in articulation with four-limbed skeletons. The windswept region had been a vast nesting ground of the Protoceratops (Figures 7 and 8). Many shallow depressions still held clutches of fossilized eggs, and young dinosaur skeletons were scattered about. This eerie panorama of throngs of strange animals was awe-inspiring to the team. Andews wrote that the region was 'paved with bones'-- in two weeks he gathered over a ton of specimens, and in two summers over one hundred Protoceratops were excavated.

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