Four thousand years ago, Gudea, the ruler of Lagash, had a dream. "There was a man, who was a huge as heaven, as huge as earth. Underneath his feet was a very large bird--part eagle and part lion. He commanded me to build a temple."
Gudea built the temple. And while the authority the dream held for him may seem alien today, the images within it are perhaps more familiar. Fabulous creatures dwell in the labyrinths of our unconscious minds and reveal themselves to us in our dreams. From early cave paintings to our most private dreams, the human imagination is preoccupied with monsters. The trail of such imaginary beings is imprinted in both literature and art.
The griffin, fabled to be the offspring of the lion and the eagle, is among the most compelling of these mythological creatures. Its ancestors made their first known appearance around 3000 B.C., in the art of Egypt and Mesopotamia. They were believed to be sacred to the sun and to guard hidden treasure. A mere symbol of fear and evil in antiquity, the griffin made its debut in Western history and literature as a frightening reality. Later, it was again relegated to the sphere of fantasy and imagination.
The griffin roams the art world
The strange hybrid creatures of mythology are enigmatic, potent, and provoking images. Their representation in art reveals what they meant to ancient cultures, for the language of art is universal and expresses the inexpressible. Art stands midway between what is perceived and what is believed. It is part of a complex structure of beliefs and rituals, morals and social codes; a structure in which magic and science, myth and history, are indistinct.
The griffin figures prominently in art from ancient to medieval times. For more than four thousand years, it has roamed through the art of the Middle East, Greece, and Rome, eventually making its home in medieval cathedrals and manuscripts.
Known in the ancient Near East as the "cloud-cleaving eagle" and "king of beasts," the griffin was portrayed as having the legs, shoulders, and the body of a lion. Griffins were usually shown clawing their prey or fighting with bulls or lions. Large terrifying animals, they were associated with demons and other hostile forces.
But, because of its ferocity, the griffin was also used as a talisman to ward off evil. As a guardian beast, it protected sacred or symbolic objects by frightening those who would steal or desecrate them.
In Egyptian art, the early griffin had the head of a falcon, vulture, or other bird of prey. Its lion's body was mingled in various ways with birdlike characteristics. The griffin had the power of the king of birds and the king of beast, which made it doubly royal and strong. It represented the victorious pharaoh and was often portrayed with a serpent beneath its claws, trampling the pharaoh's enemies later, the griffin was replaced by other images of the pharaoh, such as the man-headed sphinx.
In ancient times, griffin were primarily birds of the sun. Egyptian art sometimes shows griffin with their sun god Malakbel or Amon-Re. In the pre-Zoroastrian religion of Persia, griffins draw the chariot of the sun god, Mithra.
As oriental religions were absorbed into Greek and Roman culture, so was the concept of griffins as sunbirds. The griffin became an important symbol in the worship of Sol Invictus, the "unconquered Sun," and in the grades of initiation into the mysteries of Mithras, the god of light. As an animal related to the sun, the griffin was a symbol of resurrection. The Greek Physiologus, a book about beasts and birds and their symbolism, tells how in the morning griffins catch the rays of the rising sun on their wings and, in pairs, carry them across the sky.
For centuries, until the end of the Roman Empire, griffins were known as Apollo's birds. A Roman poet describes how "with beating wings [griffins] drew his [Apollo's] chariot over land and sea in the sun's great daily journey from east to west." The griffin also became a symbol of Apollo's cult and a mark of royalty. A flying griffin shown on the breastplate of a statue of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, celebrates his debt to Apollo in defeating Mark Antony. This motif was adopted on public statues of later emperors as well, in recognition of their divine power and status.
In medieval Europe, the theme of griffins as sunbirds survived in the Alexander romance, a collection of well-known legends that developed around the heroic figure of Alexander the Great. In medieval manuscripts and church decorations, he is commonly illustrated as seated in his cagelike flying machine, borne through the air by four griffins.
The griffin as symbol
In the ancient Near East, life was seen as a constant struggle between human and bestial forces, good and evil. The ability to control and harness the demonic energy of many mythical beasts was an indication of heroic strength and status. This victory over primal inclinations was sometimes depicted as a human figure, usually a god, standing between two griffins: the Master of the Griffins. Other illustrations of control portray a god enthroned above a griffin, riding one, or in a chariot drawn by them. A Mesopotamian seal shows two griffins attending Ishtar, the powerful goddess of fertility. In this instance, the griffins are symbolic guardians of an essential crop, the date harvest. Society, the seal suggests, can put animal power to good use.
In Roman art, griffins draw the chariot of Nemesis, goddess of justice. According to myth, Nemesis flew around the world in a chariot drawn by vengeful griffins. She "spared the vanquished and cast down the proud," rolling them down to the ground from on high with her avenging wheel. The Roman Empire adopted this myth to express its own role in the administration of universal justice. The Roman emperor Antoninus Pius had coins struck showing one of Nemesis' griffins with her wheel beneath its paw.
Hybrid creatures mark the border between species. Ancient cultures used them to demarcate important borders and sacred boundaries and to guard entrances and crossing places. Frequently depicted with Nergal, the god of the afterlife, the griffin helped to control the border between life and death. One way of crossing this boundary was to be transported by a winged hybrid creature, such as the griffin, which would fly the soul to the afterlife. Roman religious art shows the griffin carrying a cloaked figure on its back, a soul on the way to its rest.
Throughout the centuries, artists used the griffin in lively decorative designs of animals and birds on a wide variety of objects: earthenware, ceramics, mosaics, tiles, ivories, seals, gold items, coins, and sculptured reliefs. Griffins most often appear in pairs, flanking such objects as the Tree of Life, a candelabrum, a fountain, a ceremonial bowl, a funerary urn, or an altar. As in earlier times, one of the griffins' main tasks was acting as watchful guardians. When carved on tombs, they protected the dead.
"Beware the sharp-beaked hounds of Zeus that bark not, the griffins, and the one-eyed Arimaspian folk, mounted on horses, who dwell about the flood of Pluto's stream that flows with gold," wrote Aeschylus, in his tragedy Prometheus Bound. Narrative accounts from classical times down to the Middle Ages portray griffins as enemies of men. The Greek writer Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C., provides one of the earliest written references to griffins. According to him, there was more gold in northern Europe than anywhere else, but the men there, a one-eyed race called Arimaspians, could obtain it only by stealing it from griffins. He mentions as his source an ancient traveler named Aristeas who wrote a poem called the Arimaspea. For hundreds of years, writers cited Aristeas as the earliest authority on griffins. No extant document supports the existence of such a poem or its author, however.
Regardless of its factual value, Herodotus' account of the battle between griffins and "a race of one-eyed men" took on a life of its own as writers handed it down through the centuries.
Pliny, in A.D. 79, wrote: "Near the land of the Scythians live the one-eyed Arimaspians who constantly fight for metals with griffins--flying creatures which dig up gold and guard it with extraordinary greed." Another writer reported: "In a sun-baked and uninhabitable region, there are griffins, a fierce and tenacious species of beast, which dig up gold and lovingly guard it, attacking any men who approach, namely the Scythians and the one-eyed Arimaspians."
The Roman Solinus, who compiled facts about the world's regions and wonders, wrote: "Griffins are large and very ferocious winged creatures, cruel beyond the bounds of fury, and they will tear up a man on sight. They are so dangerous and fearsome that the very purpose of their existence is to punish men so greedy and rash to steal the treasures."
As stories of these treasure-guarding birds circulated through the centuries, new details and motifs were added. A king in "India" sent a letter to the Greek emperor describing a valley full of jewels in his kingdom. Men would throw sheep's carcasses down so the jewels would become embedded in their flesh. Griffins would then swoop into the valley and carry the carcasses off to their nests in the high hills. Then, the jewelers would throw themselves upon the birds with great cries, beating their arms so the birds would drop their prizes and fly away. Triumphant, the men would pick out the diamonds from the fallen carcasses.
From myth to reality
The griffin is known in Arab literature as the rukh (or roc). It appears several times in the Arabian Nights as a guardian of treasure and plays a leading role in the stow of Sindbad the Sailor, as recounted by the British explorer Sir Richard Burton.
Sindbad discovers an enormous white object resembling a dome:
As I stood, casting about how to gain an entrance, behold the sun was suddenly hidden from me and the air became dull and dark. Methought a cloud had come over the sun, so I marveled at this and lifting my head saw an enormous bird which, as it flew through the air, veiled the sun and hid it from the island ... The bird alighted on the dome covering it with its wings, and ... fell asleep.
He recalls stories told by travelers and sailors that there existed, in a far island, a bird of terrifying size called the rukh, a bird that could lift an elephant. Sinbad concludes that the bird must be a rukh and that the white dome is one of its eggs. He ties himself to one of its claws with his turban when the great bird comes to sit on the egg. The next morning it flies off, carrying him to a valley full of jewels and snakes. As he looks around, a great joint of mutton suddenly lands with a loud slap on the rocks beside him.
Sindbad fills his pockets and clothes with jewels, ties himself to the rukh again, and is carried off to its nest. When the bird threatens to devour him, a merchant arrives, making a great noise. The rukh flies away, and Sindbad rewards his savior with some of the finest jewels.
"The griffin is at once feathered and four-footed. It lives in the south and in mountains. The hinder part of its body is like a lion; its wings and face are like an eagle. It hates the horse bitterly and if it comes face to face with a man, it will tear him up alive and carry him off whole to its nest." With little variation, this account of the griffin is repeated several times in the bestiaries, the medieval books on beasts. A bestiary is an account of the natural world, describing a variety of beasts, birds, and fishes, from the familiar to the fantastic. Huge, wild, and frightening, the griffin was thought of as an exotic northern or oriental bird, one of the marvels of the amazing world created by God.
Indeed, to the people of the Middle Ages, griffins were a terrifying reality. The Suda, a Greek tenth-century lexicon, records the plight of the Avars, an eastern tribe that had been forced to migrate west by two factors: a great sea fog and, it was claimed, the appearance of many griffins who threatened to devour the whole human race.
Fascinated by tales of these fierce creatures, medieval writers reported that
griffins are powerful enough to carry off a horse together with its rider, a yoke of oxen or two goats; they are strong and terrible animals; they are stronger than eight lions and a hundred eagles. They can run along the ground like lions and fly through the air like birds. Their claws are as big as ox-horns and can be used as drinking cups, and men can make strong bows and arrows from their feathers. (Mythical Beasts)
The griffin's eyes, they noted, were particularly fierce--"glowing with a color between yellow and red."
Legacy of the griffin
During the era of exploration in the sixteenth century, inquiring merchants, missionaries, and travelers looked for the griffin and the other races of monstrous beasts and men recorded through the ages. But no one saw any of these marvels. Slowly, belief in the existence of griffins died out. Nevertheless, the griffin continued to feature in romances, adventure stories, legends of the fabulous East, and traveler's tales.
Depicted as a mighty and fearsome creature in surviving art and antiquities, the griffin became an emblem of valor. Its regal image endures in heraldry, frequently figuring in the coat of arms of noble families in the East and Europe. The seventeenth century writer Sir Thomas Browne aptly captured the essence of the griffin:
So doth it well make out the properties of a Guardian, or any person entrusted; the ears implying attention, the wings celerity of execution, the lion-like shape courage and audacity, the hooked bill reservance and tenacity. It is an emblem of valor and magnanimity, as being compounded of the eagle and the lion, the noblest animals of their kind; and so it is applicable unto Princes ... (Mythical Beasts)
To the present day, the griffin continues to be used by chemists, banks, insurance companies, and others as a symbol assuring customers of their security. Though the beast is but a figment of the imagination, the thought of a griffin guarding our treasure is truly comforting. Such is the power of the griffin's image.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings, Penguin Books, London, 1974.
Richard Burton, trans., Arabian Nights, Bestseller Publications, London, 1985.
John Cherry, ed., Mythical Beasts, British Museum Press, London, 1995.
Rachel Hajar is a medical doctor based in Qatar and a frequent contributor to the Culture section. This essay is the first in a three-part series.
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|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
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