Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Ancient origins of the griffin

 A legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, and, sometimes, an eagle's talons as its front feet first appears in ancient Iranian and Egyptian art dating back to before 3000 BCE.  In Egypt, a griffin-like animal can be seen on a cosmetic palette from Hierakonpolis, known as the "Two Dog Palette", dated to 3300–3100 BCE. The divine storm-bird, Anzu, half man and half bird, associated with the chief sky god Enlil was revered by the ancient Sumerians and Akkadians.  The Lamassu, a similar hybrid deity depicted with the body of a bull or lion, eagle's wings, and a human head, was a common guardian figure in Assyrian palaces.  

In Iranian mythology, the griffin is called Shirdal, which means "Lion-Eagle."  Shirdals appeared on cylinder seals from Susa as early as 3000 BCE. Shirdals also are common motifs in the art of Luristan, the North and North West region of Iran in the Iron Age, and Achaemenid art.   The 15th century BCE frescoes in the Throne Room of the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos are among the earliest depictions of the mythical creatures in ancient Greek art.  In Central Asia, the griffin image was later included in Scythian "animal style" artifacts of the 6th–4th centuries BCE. 

In his Histories, Herodotus relates travelers' reports of a land in the northeast where griffins guard gold and where the North Wind issues from a mountain cave.  Scholars have speculated that this location may be referring to the  Dzungarian Gate, a mountain pass between China and Central Asia. Some modern scholars including Adrienne Mayor have theorized that the legend of the griffin was derived from numerous fossilized remains of Protoceratops found in conjunction with gold mining in the mountains of Scythia, present day eastern Kazakhstan. Recent linguistic and archaeological studies confirm that Greek and Roman trade with Saka-Scythian nomads flourished in that region from the 7th century BCE, when the semi-legendary Greek poet Aristeas wrote of his travels in the far north, to about 300 CE when Aelian reported details about the griffin - exactly the period during which griffins were most prominently featured in Greco-Roman art and literature. Mayor argues that over-repeated retelling and drawing or recopying its bony neck frill (which is rather fragile and may have been frequently broken or entirely weathered away) may have been thought to be large mammal-type external ears, and its beak treated as evidence of a part-bird nature that lead to bird-type wings being added. Others argue fragments of the neck frill may have been mistook for remnants of wings.

 Lucius Flavius Philostratus (170 – 247/250 CE), a Greek sophist who lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Philip the Arab, in his "Life of Apollonius of Tyana" also writes about griffins that quarried gold because of the strength of their beak.  He describes them as having the strength to overcome lions, elephants, and even dragons, although he notes they had no great power of flying long distances because their wings were not attached the same way as birds. He also described their feet webbed with red membranes. Philostratus says the creatures were found in India and venerated there as sacred to the sun. He observed that griffins were often drawn by Indian artists as yoked four abreast to represent the sun.

Table Support in the Shape of Griffins Attacking a Doe Greek made in South Italy 325-300 BCE that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California. This piece has since been repatriated to Greece.

Sheet-gold overlay for a sword scabbard Greek depicting a griffin 340-320 BCE found near Chaian on the northern shore of the Black Sea that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bronze head of a griffin Greek third quarter of the 7th century BCE from Olympia that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Lamp handle with a Griffin's Head Copper alloy Byzantine 500-700 CE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Terracotta applique of a griffin attacking a horse with remnants of gilding Etrusco-Campanian mold-made 500-475 BCE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Byzantine Architectural Detail with Griffin that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Ceremonial Helmet with griffin protome Made in South Italy 350-300 BCE Bronze that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Stucco Relief Panels from a 1st century CE Roman Villa depicting a woman with a griffin that I photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.

Roman fresco of a griffin recovered from Vesuvian Ash in Stabiae 1st century BCE-1st century CE that I photographed at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.

Griffin-shaped Table Support of Aegean White Marble from the House of Meleager in Pompeii 27 BCE - 14 CE that I photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" in the Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington.

Bronze Plate Iran or Central Asia 7th century CE that I photographed at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art in Washington D.C.

Roman sarcophagus with panther-griffins 140-170 CE. The central vase-like object was used in the cult of Dionysus Sabazius and is a symbol of deification and ascension to heaven. Eros figures ride fantastical sea-creatures along the lid. Photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Closeup of Roman sarcophagus with panther-griffins 140-170 CE that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Rhyton (drinking vessel) in the form of a griffin with Nike and Eros on the neck Greek Taras (southern Italy) Classical Period 350-330 BCE Ceramic that I photographed at the Seattle Art Museum.

Gold armlet with griffin heads, from the Oxus Treasure, 499-300 BCE, now in the British Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fresco depicting a griffin in the Bronze Age throne room of the Minoan palace at Knossos (as restored by Sir Arthur Evans) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Paginazero.

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