Wednesday, September 21, 2011

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - ~400 BC: The Griffin


~400 BC
The Griffin

Apollo riding a griffin circa 380 BC (
Continuing along through Greek mythology we have the griffin. The griffin is a combination eagle head with a lion's body. I picked ~400 BC as the date for this stop because this is when the famous tale of Prometheus Bound was likely written by Aeschyles. In the story Prometheus is bound to a rock as torture for giving fire to humanity. While he is tied to this rock he is force to endure griffins repeatedly eating out his liver. Then, when they are done, the liver is allowed to grow back again, starting whole process over again. This isn't the first occurrence of griffins in history but it is one of the most prominent early examples so I figured this would be a good place to mark it. Within mythology, one of the principle traits of the griffin, other than its ability to fly, is that it is often found guarding treasure.

Protoceratops replica from Gaston Designs

One theory for the origin of the griffin is that the Greeks were trading with a group of people called the Scythian Nomads. The trade routes of these nomads traveled from Mongolia and down into Greece where they traded gold, among other things. The source location for their gold was likely at the base of some cliffs near the Gobi Desert. The gold would have likely eroded out of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia and settled on the fringes of the desert. Along side the gold deposits the traders found these bizarre looking skeletons, unlike what they have ever seen before. When coming across such things most people try to relate it to what they know. They recognized the beak, like that of a bird, and the bird-like-talons, but the size and shape of the body didn't make sense. This must be a beast that is a combination of a bird and something else, possibly a lion. We now know that the skeleton was that of a Protoceratops. The only question that now remained is what happened to the frill of the dinosaur in the nomads reconstruction? It is likely that if the frill was broken into pieces, the placement of the frill along the back could give evidence for the presence of wings. Once discovering these and creating the griffin myth, the nomads then transported this tale all over Europe during their travels (Mayor, 2000; Ancient Monster Hunters; Wikipedia). 

Mayor, Adrienne. 2000. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

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