Griffins, considered absurd mythological beasts today, were actually our first attempt to explain fossils.
by Ryan Haupt
Today we explore the natural history and evolution of the griffin, the famous creature said to have the head of an eagle and the body of a lion, found guarding gold in the mountains along central Asian trade routes during the times of the Greek and Roman empires. Nowadays, we like to think of the griffin as a mere fantasy in the same league as centaurs and merpeople. However, the way ancient writers depicted the griffin was much more as a natural animal, just part of the landscape in a far off exotic land. So how did the nomads and traders come to believe that there were griffins all around them? Was it always a story to scare intruders away from their gold deposits, or is the griffin actually the first recorded attempt to interpret a fossil fact?
The original griffin stories came from the folklore of Central Asian nomads called the Scythians. The Scythians never had a written language, so our earliest evidence of griffins in their culture comes from their art, which relied heavily on zoological themes, which included griffins. In the 1940s, Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko explored several fifth-century BC tombs in the Scythian region and found nomads that had been mummified by permafrost for 2,500 years. One of the mummies was a male warrior covered in tattoos of animals, including griffins, establishing a concrete data point for griffins in Scythian culture even in the absence of writing.
Griffins were first described in writing by the Greek poet and traveler Aristeas around 675 BC. Aristeas was traveling trade routes in Central Asia, and encountered a tribe of Scythian nomads, the Issedonians, near the base of the Altai Mountains, named after the local language's word for gold. They described to him a lion-sized four-legged bird, that nested in the mountains and guarded gold. Aristeas incorporated this new knowledge into an epic poem that became incredibly popular in Greece after his return, ushering in an age of griffins that would last nearly a thousand years. Sadly, his original poem no longer exists outside a few quotations in the works of other ancient authors, but the timing does coincide with an explosion of griffin art in Greece.
What's interesting about griffin art in ancient Greece is that it doesn't follow standard mythological narratives. Griffins tend to be depicted in more naturalistic ways, as though they were a real animal from a far off land, and not something consciously made up for narrative reasons like the sphinx. This is an important distinction we'll come back to again and again: griffins were typically just seen as animals, not mystical beings with any sort of special power or importance. A great example of this can be seen in the Temple of Zeus, where a decorative plaque depicts a griffin mother defending her pup – or chick. The whole bird/mammal hybrid thing makes it tough to say which.
Even when inserted into a myth, their role reads more like set dressing than principal player. In 460 BC, Athenian playwright Aeschylus pens the masterpiece tragedy Prometheus Bound. I imagine most people are already familiar with this tale, but just in case, here are the highlights. Prometheus is a titan who steals fire from the gods and gives it to humanity. This infuriates Zeus, king of the gods, who punishes Prometheus by exiling him to Scythia, where he is chained to a rock and has an eagle come each day to eat his liver. Because he's immortal, the liver grows back, allowing the torture to last indefinitely. Aeschylus was fascinated by exotic lands, and he describes griffins guarding the rock where the titular Prometheus was bound, but that's about it.
Herotodus wrote about griffins in his famous, and according to some infamous, Histories from around 430 BC, when he described the dangers of mining gold in Issedonia. "I cannot say for sure how the gold is obtained there, but some say that one-eyed men called Arimaspeans steal it from griffins." Herodotus later points out that he doesn’t actually believe in a race of one-eyed men off in Asia, but he expressed no such skepticism when it came to the griffins in that same story.
Other writers from around that time show a similar pattern: fantastical and easily dismissed claims about life out east, but with much more down-to-earth descriptions of griffins, an appropriate idiom because even with their wings ancient authors agree that griffins were flightless. When Greek physician Ctesias wrote about why Asian gold was so hard to get he said it came from "high mountains in an area inhabited by griffins, a race of four-footed birds, almost as large as wolves and with legs and claws like lions."
Even Pliny the Elder in his book, Natural History, agreed with the "many other authorities" that griffins were a part of life for anyone near a Scythian gold mine. Pliny was also the first to write much on the "ears" and "wings" often seen in paintings and sculptures, as well as the first to mention griffins burrowing into gold deposits in order to to build their nests.
The last ancient author to add any new information about gold-guarding griffins, Aelian, around 150 AD, had this to say:
In the face of all this evidence, to continue thinking of griffins as magical hybrids would be akin to a straw man fallacy: misrepresenting, though not intentionally, the argument ancient peoples were making for the existence of griffins, then mocking our own misrepresentation as outlandish or ridiculous. So if we accept that people back then thought they were talking about a real animal and not some mythical beast, what aspect of the real world inspired them in the first place? Ironically, to find that out, we have to go even further back into the past using the new field of geomythology, or combining our knowledge of geologic reality with the mythical worlds of peoples past.
Roy Chapman Andrews was an American paleontologist for the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920s. He is most famous for two things. First, he is one of the real world inspirations for globe trotting action archaeologist Indiana Jones. And second, he led an expedition to the Gobi Desert beginning in 1922 that revolutionized our then understanding of dinosaurs. In addition to discovering the now famous Velociraptor, Andrews and his team also found the first examples of preserved dinosaur eggs and many other new species of dinosaur, including the ceratopsians Protoceratops and Psittacosaurs. At a site called Flaming Cliffs, only 48 kilometers from the Altai Mountains, Andrews and his team gathered over a ton of fossils, including more than a hundred Protoceratops and Psittacosaurs skeletons. Andrews even remarked that the ground seemed "paved with bones."
In many instances, the dinosaurs were found still intact and articulated, a very rare occurrence in paleontology. Future expeditions had similar levels of success finding abundant remains of ceratopsians throughout the region. While this area is incredibly harsh for modern life, it makes things incredibly easy for a paleontologist. There is very little vegetation, it's extremely dry, and the rock is crumbly and red while the bones preserve white. Frequent sandstorms in the late Cretaceous some 66 million years ago buried entire animals whole, sometimes in life position, preventing disarticulation from scavengers or future storms. Even amateurs in the area would be able to see bones peaking out from the rock all around them.
Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus are both quadrupedal hornless ceratopsians, the group that contains Triceratops, with pronounced beaks. Ceratopsians are members of the larger group Ornithischia, or bird-hipped dinosaurs. Even though this is not the group that evolves into birds, they were given the name before we understood all the evolutionary relationships in context. The nomadic Asian falconers traveling with Andrews expedition and familiar with large raptors would have been able to notice the similarity in hip structure in addition to the large beak. Could these dinosaurs be responsible for the inception of the griffin story? Let's look at the evidence.
A Protoceratops could reach up to two meters in length, a Psittacosaurs slightly less so. This would put them in the range of wolves or lions, to which griffins were often compared. They have four limbs, and a large beak, looking a bit like a mammalian body plan with the head of bird. Their fossils are incredibly abundant in the region where griffin myths come from, often found in life-like positions around nests near gold deposits. In context, it seems obvious that nomadic traders would have seen the bones of an unknown animal around where they were looking for gold, and done their best to describe it. Not being held to Linnean notions of zoological classification, i.e., a mammal is a mammal and a bird is a bird, why wouldn't the most logical depiction be a creature that combines aspects of both? Since the concept of extinction wasn't well-formulated at the time, and since the fossils were found in such good condition in areas incredibly remote and tough to get to, why not assume that the living, breathing version could be just over the next ridge? Thus a natural part of a fossilerous landscape, because a fantastical part of local lore and legend, spreading around the world into an instantly recognizable symbol.
Finally, in the early days of paleontology, dinosaurs were thought of as slow, plodding, dim-witted and inactive reptiles. As our understanding of these animals has progressed, including their kinship with birds as well as reptiles, we now often depict dinosaurs and more active and gracile creatures. In this way, the Scythians ancient ideas about griffins had an accuracy about them that our scientific notions didn't pick up on for centuries. It turns out that some of humanity's earliest paleontologists did a pretty good job, all things considered, and gave a really wonderful cultural image from people's first recorded attempt to describe an extinct animal known only from fossils. For that, I think, we should acknowledge their contribution. So thanks, Scythians.
Note: This has been updated with the correct spelling and nationality of Sergei Rudenko. —BD
By Ryan Haupt
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