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Saturday, November 14, 2020

One-eyed warriors and gold-guarding griffins

 The relief on this elegantly worked roundel depicts a nude youth being attacked by a griffin. It relates to legends, first mentioned by the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, of the people called Arimasps who lived east of the Black Sea.Their land was rich in gold, but the gold was guarded by fierce griffins. The subject became popular during the Hellenistic period, especially for terracottas produced in Tarentum. It is likely that these South Italian models inspired the Central Italian adaptation on this bronze. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Arimaspi were a legendary tribe of one-eyed people of northern Scythia who lived in the foothills of the Riphean Mountains, variously identified with the Ural or Carpathian mountains.  The tales of their struggles with gold-guarding griffins in the Hyperborean lands beyond Thrace, reported by Herodotus, were originally told in a lost archaeic poem, Arimaspea, by Aristeas,  a native of Proconnesus in Asia Minor, active during the 7th century BCE.   Strabo and Pliny's Natural History perpetuated the fables about the northern people who had a single eye in the center of their foreheads and engaged in stealing gold from the griffins.

Scholars point out that the struggle between the Arimaspi and the griffins has remarkable similarities to Homer's account of the Pygmaioi warring with cranes:

"...when the cranes escape the winter time and the rains unceasing and clamorously wing their way to the streaming Ocean, bringing to the Pygmaian men bloodshed and destruction..." - Homer, The Iliad

In his History of Animals, Aristotle claims the story is true, "these birds [the cranes] migrate from the steppes of Scythia to the marshlands south of Egypt where the Nile has its source. And it is here, by the way, that they are said to fight with the pygmies. The story is not fabulous, as there is in reality a race of dwarfish men, and the horses are little in proportion, and the men live in caves underground."

The Roman poet Ovid also describes such an age-old battle in one of his stories when a Pygmy Queen named Gerana who offended the goddess Hera with her boasts of superior beauty, was transformed into a crane.

Modern historians speculate Herodotus or his source may have understood the Scythian word as a combination of the roots arima ("one") and spou ("eye") and to have created a mythic image to account for it. This similarity of name and location, however, could point to the ancestors of the local Uralic people, the Mari.


Bronze lid and upper part of an oil flask depicting a youth being attacked by a griffin, 4th century BCE, Praenestine, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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