The King of Beasts and the King of the Sky combined. They’re pretty awesome. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought they were just mythological creatures. Believe it or not, there is evidence indicating they may have really existed!
As I was studying these creatures, I stumbled across an old, super boring-looking paper postulating that griffins may have been real. Yes, I am a child at heart who wants the fantastical flying beasts to be real things. It’s true. But bear with me.
Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist and historian of ancient science, stated in said boring-looking paper: “The griffin is not an obvious hybrid like the half-human, half-animal Centaur, the Minotaur…the Sphinx, or Pegasus…. In fact, the griffin does not play a role in any surviving texts of Greek myths. Unlike other ancient monsters, the griffin does not interact with mythical heroes; instead it is encountered by real people of a distant land….The dissimilarity between the griffin and other mythical creatures, the consistency of the image over centuries, and the rather mundane details about nests and gold added by later writers, suggest that the griffin may have been based on something observed and verified over time by many people in a specific landscape.”
Woah! So all those times griffins were mentioned in ancient texts, people were talking about having seen them or hearing of other people seeing them. They were only mentioned in the recounting of events that actually happened. Not in mythological stories! Anyone else been assuming they were just a part of mythology all this time?
With a little more digging, I found that they are said to have pulled the Greek god Apollo’s chariot, and that he also sometimes rode one. But the myths also say much more frequently that his chariot was pulled by four horses. And, according to Mayor, no griffin was ever mentioned by name or played any significant part in a mythology. So what if the legends are true?
Could they have been real? Many authorities on the subject have different ideas. Some think that it could have been Tibetan mastiffs that people were seeing, and not what we imagine griffins to be at all. If you compare the sagging shape of the mouth of a Tibetan mastiff to the mouths of many of the griffin art pieces, there could be something there. And many artistic renderings of griffins display the tongue sticking out.
Tibetan mastiffs are huge, and have thick fur that could possibly have been mistaken for feathers at a distance. They come in black, white, and red, the three colors used to describe the griffin's plumage. But what about the wings? The beak? Plus, do necks get any more different than the two examples above? And I’ve heard of certain types of birds hoarding shiny things, but not dogs. Also, many accounts mention the griffins' eggs, and dogs don't lay eggs! So I'm going with a no on that theory.
Others have postulated that they could have been what we now call protoceritops. This is an animal that is mostly presumed to have been a
dinosaur, but is four-legged and does have a beak. Also some descriptions of griffins include a protrusion on the head, and protoceritops has such a protrusion. Take a look at this skeleton. Imagine it with fur or feathers instead of the reptilian scales.
And this fresco from a Grecian building depicts a cranial projection of the same shape as the protoceritops' coming from the head of the griffin (behind the curly frills).
But what about the wings?
According to Mayor: “Around the time of Pliny, the sage Apollonious of Tyana was said to have traveled in Far Asia, and he added important new details. As for wings, he claimed that they were not true bird-wings but only webbed membranes that helped griffins make short hops when they fought.”
So my guess is, if the protoceritops skeletons are actually griffin skeletons, maybe their wings were supported by some kind of cartilage instead of bone—contributing to the uselessness of the wings for actual flying—and their evidence eroded over time and now only the bones are left, making it appear that there weren’t wings. What do you think? Am I totally crazy?
Also the word griffin comes from the Greek word grypes, meaning "hooked," like claws or a beak. Interesting that it was named for its claws or beak and not for its wings, which one might assume would be their most noteworthy trait. Maybe Apollonious was right about the puny membranes after all, if the people who named them thought their claws and beaks were more important than their wings.
Here are a few ancient passages that talk about the griffin's most commonly noted features.
Ctesias, a Greek physician and historian, wrote: "There is also gold, not found in rivers and washed, as in the river Paktolos, but in many large mountains which are inhabited by Grypes. These are four-footed birds as large as a wolf, their legs and claws resembling those of a lion; their breast feathers are red, those of the rest of the body black. Although there is abundance of gold in the mountains, it is difficult to get it because of these birds."
Here’s one from a Greek historian called Herodotus. “But in the north of Europe there is by far the most gold. In this matter again I cannot say with assurance how the gold is produced, but it is said that one-eyed men (Arimaspians) steal it from Grypes.”
Lets take a look at the other recorded characteristics we have for them. Instead of boring you with tons more ancient literature, I’ll summarize for you.
A griffin is consistently described as a giant four-legged beast like a lion with wings and a beak like a large bird of prey. They lived in the wilderness or desert and defended gold mines from horseback-riding humans called Sythians and one-eyed men called Arimaspians. They were diurnal, so they could only be approached on a moonless night. Their young could be caught, but the adults were too fierce. The griffin has been said to symbolize vigilance, swiftness, the sun, the sky, Christian marriage, Christ, guardianship, generosity, Apollo, Zeus, royalty, loyalty, death, and the difficulty of mining gold.
So could they have been real? Part of me really hopes so! But the paper that I found most of the information in was littered with typos, which makes me a little skeptical. Though most of what it said I could back up with other sources, it did make the claim that griffins were NEVER mentioned in Greek mythology, when in fact they are said to have drawn Apollo’s carriage. Though Mayor does seem to be correct about them never being named or playing significant parts in surviving mythological stories. But what about the one-eyed Arimaspians? If the stories about griffins are true, then the Cyclopes must have really existed, as they are mentioned in many griffin accounts. It is possible, but we just don't really know.
I'll admit though that I am partial to the idea that protoceritops skeletons could really be griffin skeletons. Could there still be some alive today?
What do you think? Do you know something about griffins that I missed? Please share!
In Recent Media
My first thought of a griffin is the one in the Chronicles of Narnia, then the one from the Spiderwick Chronicles, then the one on the cover of Rick Riordan's Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy. My personal favorite griffin is the one from the Chronicles of Narnia. I think he was the first griffin I’d ever seen/heard of when I saw the movie as a kid. He’s pretty cool! What is your favorite book or movie with a griffin character?
So how might you use some of these interesting facts in your own story?
Start with the general information we have and build on it. Griffins lived in ancient Europe with a lot of sand and some mountains. They fought off one-eyed people and also dealt with the Scythians on horseback. They protected their young. The adults were too big to catch, but the young could be captured. They were fearsome by day, but could be snuck past at night.
I have about a thousand ideas for a book now. You?
What if a young cyclopes stumbles upon a baby griffin, is attacked by its parents and some Scythians, manages to get away with it, and they end up the best of friends?
Or what if someone goes on an expedition for gold. To make his fortune and support his family or something. They all laugh about the legends of the griffins on the way, but then find that they are true. How will they find out that griffins really exist? Will they all survive the encounter? Will they still try to get some gold? What will happen next?
Someone go write this book, please! I want to read it now!
Comment your favorite modern griffin and what you think about the possibility that they could have been real!