One of the more seizing figures to have captured the imagination – both ancient and modern – is the Griffin (occasionally, and to my mind superiorly, spelled ‘Gryphon’).
Almost everybody knows it – a creature that is simultaneously leonine and aquiline. Part Lion, part Eagle. And usually pictured by us in its heraldic form, something common to both archaic crests of Continental European cities and modern blazons deployed by the United States Army (where the general association tends to be one of ‘Guardianship’ – something we shall return to later). There are even some significantly comparable iconic creatures to be found amidst the Indo-European folklore of India and Iran.
But what is this creature, and where does it come from? Why is it that it has become so severely ‘enduring’ in our popular imagination as to stand the true test of time – appearing everywhere from Ancient Greek fantastic accounts of furthest Scythia through to Central Asian archaeological finds and modern monuments the world over?
This article shall seek to explore that question – building up to what I believe to be a novel perspective, as well as a more ‘true’ answer than has previously been considered. Namely, the Theological Perspective – rather than a mere euhemeric or folkloric one common elsewhere.
But let’s begin with the oldest material we have upon the Gryphon – and then work our way through to establish a typology for which to hang my theory thereupon.
There are several ancient Greek accounts which place the Gryphon toward the furthest extremes of the ‘Here Be Monsters’ territories of the then-largely-unknown world. Up abutting Hyperboria, amidst the Riphean Mountain(s), or to be found amidst the mountains of India. In the former two (oft-overlapping) cases, the geographical location connoted is supposed to be out upon or beyond the Eurasian Steppe – Scythian territory. And this accords rather well with the general emphasis in the more archaic sources with the Gryphons being found proximate to a tribe called the Arimaspoi – a term which was mythunderstood by Herodotus or one of his sources as effectively being Ancient Greek ‘Arima Spou’, that is ‘One Eyed’ (thus informing their cyclopean depiction in Greek texts of the day) ; yet which contemporary linguists believe instead to be early Iranian (that is to say, Scythian) ‘Ariama Aspa’ – Lovers of Horses. I personally have reason to suspect that the ‘One Eyed’ sobriquet is inadvertently somewhat correct for another reason, which is not to suggest that there really were a tribe of human single-eyed gold-lovers out there somewhere on the Steppe, but more on that in due course.
The underlying point of agreement between most of these Classical sources in terms of the physical location of the Griffin is that they are to be found amidst the furthest, highest peaks of Eurasia; generally to be found either jealously ‘guarding’ Gold, or simply nesting in the area where the gold may so happen to be found.
And as it happens, there is some support for this concept in euhemeric terms. The area around the Dzungarian Gate – a famed mountain pass between modern-day China and Kazakhstan which was even more vital in ancient days as the major route from Central Asia to the lands of the East proper – has long been known to be rich in both gold deposits, and also fossils of the Protoceratops. It has been hypothesized by many that the prominently beaked Protoceratops [compare the potential Greek etymological underpinning for Griffin – ‘Grypos’, referring to a ‘curved’ or ‘hooked’ beak], potentially with its head crest/frill broken off and found adjacent to the torso as apparently commonly happens being mistaken for wing-bones, may have inspired the semi-mythological, semi-proto-‘scientific’ accounts of the Gryphon.
However, I believe that this overlooks the more overt mythic evidence of what the Gryphon should actually represent in favour of merely looking for the terrestrial inspiration for its form. Which, to quote C.S. Lewis upon the matter of a “Star” being referred to as merely a “huge ball of flaming gas” – “that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
Or, phrased another way, just as lightning and thunder might inspire our understanding of Mjolnir or the Vajra (but, then, I repeat myself) – we do not tend to attempt to merely explain away the Thunder-Hammer of the Striker/Thunderer in these terms if we are truly, sincerely religious. That would be confusing a certain form of expression for the actual mythological concept. And that will simply not do.
Especially when, as I have noted, the Greek (and, as we shall see, Indian) sources do not merely treat the Griffin as being some form of wild animal located out far to the fringes of the sem-known world.
Consider these words of Aeschylus, the famed tragedian, writing decades prior to Herodotus’ Histories and seeking to invoke customary associations which would have been heavily embedded and familiar to the then-contemporary Greek popular consciousness and conceptualizing of the world around them –
“Be on thy guard against the Gryphons, the keen-mouthed unbarking hounds of Zeus, and the one-eyed Arimaspian host, who dwell around the stream flowing-with-gold, the ferry of Plouton.”
What we have here is not a concrete geographical situation within the physical bounds of our mortally mundane world. What we have is an implicit statement that the Gryphon is to be found proximate to the River of the Underworld – the liminal space that divides the plane which we are upon from the higher realms. This concept is not some recent innovation concocted for dramateurgic purposes, be assured – it turns up most prominently in the Vedic cosmology, as we have previously explored in works such as my “Indo-European Guide-Book of the Dead”. There, the River Rasa performs a role much like that of the Oceanus in earlier Greek understanding – being the water that flows also amidst the skies, beyond which lies other realms, other planes. One of which being a sort of ‘Outer World’ [consider Nordic ‘Utgard’] – the Panis (another famed group of semi-demonic gold-hoarders) linger there with their fortified vault menaced most efficaciously by Sarama. Another of which being various Afterlife sites – hence why it is so often regarded as possible to sail thereto; and also why one finds mention in funerary rites for the role of a Boat to carry the departed upwards across the Sea of Sky to the blessed land which waits for them under Yama and Varuna’s dominion.
Or, phrased another way, even were we not to consider the rather prominent Odyssey and other associated Greek evidence – that line of Aeschylus tells us quite directly that there is a River belonging to the fringes of the realm of Pluto; and which has, as its guardians, the Arimaspoi (whether we are interpreting these as the ‘cyclopean’ form understood by Herodotus, or whether we are interpreting these as the #GangSteppe Horse-Archer which I made reference to in GHOST DIVISION as recalling the archaic Indo-European ancestral ways and spirits – the ‘Wild Hunt’, if you like … of men, of souls, perhaps, for that is what They also are), and “sharp-beaked hounds of Zeus that do not bark”. ‘Guard-Dogs’, in other words, that are really more Guard-Lions … with the keen sight of an Eagle – another iconographic escutcheon of the Sky Father. And as for why it is both Zeus and Plouton referenced here, this recalls even if subconsciously, the more archaic – and more proper – Indo-European understanding of the Sky Father also as the Lord of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead – a comprehension implicitly grasped in the Nordic/Eddic figure of Odin, and the Vedic/Hindu figure of Rudra-Shiva.
Speaking of Rudra-Shiva, it is intriguing to note that here too we find a cognate figure for the Gryphon as Shiva. The Sharabha form, a dread combination of a Lion and Eagle [although with later Hindu religious writing considerably expanding upon the various characterisms involved, as it is wont to do] so mighty that it is what is assumed by Lord Shiva when He is called upon to fight and subdue the Lion-Avatara the Narasimha of Lord Vishnu following the latter’s going berserk (evidently in multiple senses of the term). It is said in some sources that Shiva then proceeds to wear the skin of this Lion-Vishnu afterwards; although the Vaishnavas balk at this, and variously proclaim that either the incident in question did not happen, or that it was followed up by Lord Vishnu assuming another form in order to carry on the combat (interestingly, a popular suggestion is that of a two-headed eagle) and emerge victorious, or indeed that the Sharabha is actually a Form of Vishnu Himself.
Leaving aside the fact that the appearance of the Sharabha as a superlatively lethal ‘Godslayer’ form of Shiva is not something which only appears in Shaivite scripture (the Kalika Purana, for example, a Shakta source, has Shiva take on this fearsome appearance in order to destroy the Boar-featured unruly offspring of Vishnu, as well as the Varaha (Boar) Avatar of Vishnu responsible for their begetting also), there is potential equation for the Flayed-Cloak instance in the Aegis worn both by Athena (a deity Who has (un)surprising coterminity with Rudra in many ways, as I have previously discussed) and Zeus (one of the major Greek ‘cognates’ for Rudra, as Dyaus Pitar). The ‘Rebalancer’ role of the Sharabha Form here may also be reflected in the Greek association of the Gryphon with the Goddess Nemesis. But those are, as they say, stories for another time.
The more intriguing Gryphonic representation in relation to Shiva is to be found in the form of the Ashu Garuda – the Swift Raptor. This is a complex and considerably lesser-known figure of the Shaivite pantheon, and I am indebted to the work of the great Manasataramgini for elucidating the concept (he had also made the Sharabha linkage to the Gryphon aforementioned). He describes the Ashu Garuda as “having a reddish complexion, with a yellowish face, with a crest with black plumes on the head, reddish brown eyes, with two horns above the eyes and having sharp talons and fangs.” Which, other than the curious presence of ‘fangs’ in what is the beak of a bird, accords interestingly with the description of the Gryphon given by Cstesias in his Indika – “having legs and claws like those of the lion, and covered all over the body with black feathers except only on the breast where they are red.” A similar description is given by Aelian in his De Natura Animalium – who also locates the guardianship of the Griffins proximate to Bactria where it abuts India; a mid-point of sorts between the ‘Indian’ identification of Ctesias, and the more northern / north-eastern affixion of those who go with subsequent suppository refinements to Herodotus’ location for the Issedones. A mid-point that is, indeed, the mid-point of both the Eurasian continent as well as the world entire – for it is in those blessed Mountains where the World-Mountain (or, at least, its terrestrial ‘echo’ or ‘manifestation’) is to be found, amongst the Pamirs, Himalayas, Tien Shan, and Hindu Kush.
Given that Rudra is Pashupati – the ‘Lord of the Animals’ – it makes significant sense for Him to be associated with the creature that, in the Western understanding, is iconographically the King of the Creatures of the Land (the Lion) and also the King of the Creatures of the Sky (the Eagle). Given that Rudra is well-renowned for dwelling up amidst the inaccessible Mountains to the north of India [wherein one literally simply has to walk up and go far enough to find one’s self amidst the Divine Realm ‘Above the Sky’], the mytho-geographical linkage of the Gryphon to just such topography and terrain makes further sense of the connexion. And given Rudra’s further prominent association with the wild mounted shooters of both Sky and Steppe, even the Arimaspoi proximity may make sense – especially if it is the Blazing (Third) Eye which is considered as underpinning this terminology [although for reasons I shall explain in a further, future piece – it is the Solar-signed and Sun-eyed Ribhus that are also quite directly relevant here; not least due to Philostratos’ ‘The Life of Apollonius of Tyana’ declaring that the Indian Griffin is ‘Sacred to the Sun’] .
But let us turn back to the Greek and Roman sources.
I earlier mentioned the Dzungarian Gate, and in terms of the local folklore of the region, the incredibly high winds of the area are explained by the saliency of the ‘Buran’ – the Storm Wind which brings cold, snow, and stinging sandstorms where applicable. This has its ‘home’ either in a cave on a mountainside at Dzungaria itself, or in some tellings located under a metallic gate in a nearby lake. The former accords rather well with the ancient Greek belief in the home of Boreas being just such a mountain-cave – although in this instance, relocated somewhat from Thrace to the yet-further barbarian hinterlands even more to the extreme east-by-north-east; a necessary alteration in order to preserve the idea of ‘Hyperborea’ being some ways beyond the immediate Greek ‘neighbourhood’ [although it is perhaps possible that in earlier times, the notion of ‘Hyperborea’ had something in common with the ‘Realm of the Ancestors’ in a more literal sense – and in fact meant the area of the Proto-Indo-European Urheimat … which does, indeed, lie not far beyond Thrace, to the north of the Black Sea].
Pliny’s Natural History appears to make exactly this link – “Also a tribe is reported next to these, towards the North, not far from the actual quarter where Aquilo [the North Wind -Boreas] rises and the cave that bears its name, the place called the Earth’s Door-Bolt (Ges Clithron)–the Arimaspi whom we have spoke of already, people remarkable for having one yes in the centre of their forehead. Many authorities, the most distinguished being Herodotus and Aristeas of Proconnesus, write that these people wage continual war with the Griffins, a kind of wild beast with wings, as commonly reported, that digs gold out of mines, which the creatures guard and the Arimaspi try to take from them, both with remarkable covetousness.”
And as for why that matters, it has long been my belief that the Sky Father has a standardized ‘form’ or ‘aspect’ as the Wandering Wind Lord. We see this most clearly with the linkage of Shiva-Rudra with Vayu in the Vedic tradition – and in the similarly conservative Old Norse reckoning, Odin wherein the two ‘facings’ are simply the same. Scattered hints of this can be attested in the Greek and later Roman tradition, although I shall leave the in-depth explication of this for another article – and the particular material around Boreas in this role may make an appearance in the upcoming ‘Scythian Sons’ portion of our ‘Sons of the Sun’ series. Whether one accepts that the figure of Boreas may indeed have something to do with the Sky Father deific or not, the pattern of these associations – geographically as well as mythically, indeed mytho-geographically – is not coincidental.
Nor is the fact that the most archaic source we have (incredibly fragmentarily and indirectly) available to us which directly speaks to the traverse between Ancient Greece and the Realm of the Arimaspi – the account of Aristeas of Proconnesus – is effectively a ‘Wind-Walk’ metempsychotic journey of the soul of a theoretically dead man. Which had him, empowered by the Bright God (although I personally suspect that Phobos may be near as relevant as Phoebus for this journey – perhaps similar to the role of Bhairava in some more Dharmically oriented equivalents), (meta)physically run the entire distance to the borders of the Arimaspi; before returning, some seven years later, to extol the knowledge and experience of which he had gained in a now almost entirely lost poetic verse. He then left again, only to reappear in another part of the world entirely, claiming that he had ventured there previously in the form of a Raven, following the leadership and footsteps of Apollo and urging the locals to construct an altar thereto in consequence. Following which, he is supposed to have lived for a further two hundred and forty years.
While the notion of Aristeas making the physical journey across the wilds of Scythia to its further extremes is not, itself, entirely implausible in mundanely literal (or, if you prefer, euhemeric) terms – the concept of him doing this despite being dead is somewhat less viable. As is the idea of his then accomplishing further divinely-guided journeying in the form of a Crow or Raven, and most especially his then subsequent living for a span of almost a quarter of a millennium. It is therefore my belief that his account and circumstance is best understood somewhere between ‘metaphorically’ and ‘metempsychotically’ – ‘mythically’. A position perhaps strengthened by Herodotus’ own expression of dubiousness at Aristeas’ presentation of inter-national relations and history in that far-flung part of the world, on grounds of it not according with the Scythians’ own understanding of their history.
To phrase it more directly – I believe that Aristeas’ Steppe sojourn was at least in part a Soul’s journey up almost to the edge of the Divine Realm (or, at least, the beginnings of the liminal zone intermediate between this world and Theirs), and then heading back down to this plane of Earth armed with both wisdom and a Mission; and potentially also equipped with that most particular sort of ‘Gold’ found amongst the Upplands … the ‘Gold’ that is ‘Immortality’ – at least, in some certain small supply of it fit to sustain him for the further length of time he needed here to carry out his purpose. This interpretation is perhaps strengthened via his mention of flitting about the world in the form of a Raven – not merely due to the Bird’s association with Apollo or Odin, but due to the manner in which we Hindus regard these as ‘Yamadutas’ (‘Emissaries of Lord Yama’, the Ruler of the Realm of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead), and as ‘Pitrs’ (Spirits of the Ancestors come back amidst us). Now by necessity, such a journey would, of course, have taken him up to the North and then the East – proceeding somewhat ‘astrally’ backward along the ancient migratory routes that had borne the Greek people out Southward from the Proto-Indo-European Urheimat so many centuries before; until eventually reaching such ‘deepa’ point at which to cross over any further would run the veer-y real risk of there being no chance of turning back – to vigorously Ascend the World-Mountain, endeavour to attempt to make it past the watchful Sentinels of the Sky-Road [as mentioned in, for instance, RV X 14 10-12], and attain the proper un-dying-ness of the Ancestors, of which Aristeas was only given a temporary simulacra.
This was, of course, semi-euhemerized by later and more rationalistically minded Classical authors, for whom “Scythian” was both some strange and otherwordly semi-mythical figure … but also a somewhat prominent and in-the-street (in certain cities, anyway – Athens being a standout example) encounterable human people. And therefore so, too, did all the other more overtly mythical or even downright mystical elements in Aristeas’ account or the others no doubt like it, get brought together in ‘History’ books as descriptions, regarded as unusually fanciful even for their day, of what might lie out there in the mundane world under that most map-legendary of designators: “Here Be Monsters”.
Speaking of ‘Monsters’ –
The ‘[Sky]Hounds of Zeus’ found along ‘Plouton’s River[crossing]’, at the Mountains where Gods dwell [‘DevaLoka’] and where the Sky-realm of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead is also to be found [‘Paramevyoman’]. The ‘Bird of Vengeance’ aligned with Nemesis, to be found at Her Throne (or, perhaps interestingly, in a team of several drawing Her Chariot – perhaps recalling the Lion associations of the Great Goddess Cybele, Parvati-Durga – wherein in the former case, Her Chariot is drawn by Lions, and in the latter, the Lion is Her Vahana, occasionally sent upon particular missions, and with Durga also described as Ruling from the Lion Throne; there also exist depictions of Artemis riding a Gryphon, and record of Athena having an iconographic association with these creatures). The Sharabha and AshuGaruda. The Eagle-and-the-Lion-as-One, Master of Land and Air, Bird and Beast. The Great Guardians of that which is Gleaming and Golden and Precious and Plutonian. The Grypes, The Griffins, The Gryphon!
These are all , it would seem , ways of referring to the same truly Mythic form. Emblematic of the Divine Power in a way that few other creatures can be; and assigned an appropriate station in the cosmos as a result. No more formed purely from fossils than a fossil-bed is an Afterlife-Underworld.
“Be on thy guard against the Gryphons – the keen-mouthed, sharp-beaked, unbarking Sentinels of the Skywards-Road to the Realm of the Sky Father”
For in amidst the High Places of the Early-Astral Escarpments en route to the Gates of High Heaven, THEY are the Apex Predator.