Griffins, Myths and Religion

A review of the archaeological evidence from ancient Greece and the early nomads of Central Asia

  • Kenneth Lymer (Author)

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Classical writers have provided us with marvelous tales of strange hybrid creatures known as griffins that dwelt along the peripheries of their known world. These fabulous beasts with raptor heads and winged feline bodies have captured the Western imagination and have been referred to in literary works since medieval times. Dante Alighieri, for example, encountered a chariot being pulled by a griffin in the earthly Paradise of his 14th-century work the Divine Comedy. A few centuries later, the renowned story of griffins guarding gold stolen by Arimaspian thieves was incorporated into John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost. Much attention has been devoted to the earliest mentions of griffins in Classical Greek texts that associate them with the mysterious Arimaspians. Their geographic origin has been a source of much scholarly debate and the proposal of the eastern edges of Central Asia has come to the fore with the discoveries of frozen tombs belonging to an early nomadic culture in the Altai mountains. One theory, though, which has gained prominence in recent years, argues the griffin was a legendary monster based on folkloric accounts of ancient sightings of dinosaur bones found in the Gobi desert that lies further beyond the Altai. A re-examination of griffin imagery in the art and archaeology of Archaic Greece and early nomadic Central Asia, however, presents a different picture. Moreover, as opposed to being mere creatures of folklore and myth, there is significant evidence for the griffin being embedded in the religious worldviews of the early nomads of the Altai.