THE GRIFFIN: Dominating the Imagination for Five Thousand Years
By Stephen F. Beiner
After showing a visitor the many ancient treasures on display in the Griffin Gallery, he thanked me saying, "This was a most enjoyable and edifying experience, Mr. Griffin." It was an understandable mistake. However, the gallery was not named after our surname, although we do have a grandson, Griffin Bader. We decided to name our gallery after that mysterious, mythical beast that has been portrayed in the art of most ancient cultures for more than five thousand years.
The belief systems of the ancient world - Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Greece, Etruria, and Rome - was teaming with fabulous flying creatures, hybrids composed in part of birds, other animals, and often, of humans. The ancients invented various bird-animal mixtures - such as the lion-headed eagle, the Anzu-bird, which first appeared in the art of Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C.E. Human and bird components were combined to form the griffin-demon, a bird-headed human found in the ancient Near East, and the human-headed bird, the siren of the ancient world. The image of the human-headed lion, the sphinx, was familiar to all ancient peoples. The winged lions and bulls of Mesopotamia were the counterpart of the winged horses in the classical world.
I have long been fascinated by how each of the ancient cultures depicted the eagle-headed lion, the griffin. Griffin is the name used in medieval Europe for the composite creature with the hind legs and tail of a lion, the head and foreparts of a bird, generally an eagle, often, but not always with wings. Such creatures were known in the art of the Near East as far back as the 14th century B.C.E., probably originating in Syria during the 2nd millennium. The Near Eastern version of the griffin has a crested head, while the Greek griffin (first appearing in the late Minoan and Mycenaean periods) usually has a row of spiraling curls that form its mane. Both Near Eastern and Greek griffins have large donkey ears and a birdís beak, generally slightly opened to reveal its curling tongue.
The Mesopotamian name for the eagle-headed lion is unknown, though scholars suggest that it is identified with the creature known in Akkadian texts as the kuridu, a non-human creature known for its protective qualities. It is fascinating that the word kuridu is related to the base word karabu, which meant, "to pronounce formulas of blessing." Karabu is the cognate of the biblical word keruv, which is commonly translated as angel, from which the English word cherub is derived.
Not only is the creatureís name unclear, but so is the nature of the Mesopotamian griffin. Judging from its physical characteristics and actions as depicted in Mesopotamian art, the griffin was a threatening and dangerous beast. It is usually portrayed with the long ears of a wild ass, linking it to that animalís aggressive and untamed nature. While the griffin is often depicted attacking other animals, it also seems to possess magical protective qualities; it apparently held some religious significance, which is corroborated by the griffinís association with the kuribu (source of blessing).
The griffin was imported into classical art in the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. along with many other Near Eastern motifs. The classical Greek griffin was depicted with a knob on its head, a role under its chin, spiral locks on its neck (perhaps deriving from the lionís mane), and a donkeyís upright pointed ears.
The word griffin comes from the Greek word gryps meaning "hooked," reflecting the griffinís claw or beak. The first known use of the word gryps occurred in a work written by Aristeas, a Greek who journeyed into central Asia in about 675 B.C.E., around the time of the earliest Greek contacts with the Scythian nomads living east of the Caucasus. Aristeasí work, the Arimaspea, is now lost, but it was famous in antiquity and fragments of it are preserved in the works of other ancient authors that are still extant. The Greek playwright Aeschylus drew on Aristeasí Arimaspea in about 460 B.C.E. in writing his tragedy Prometheus Bound, set in distant Asia. Aeschylus describes a remote, dangerous land reached by caravan routes far east of the Caucasus, a land inhabited by nomads who prospected for gold. He describes the route to this desolate area as the home of fearsome gorgons who turn living things into stone, hideous creatures who share a single eye and tooth, one-eyed horsemen, and finally the gryps or griffin, the "silent hounds with sharp beaks." The Greek historian Herodotus, who was Aeschylusí contemporary, also speaks of the rich gold deposits of Asia and the one-eyed men who try to steal it from the griffins, "a race of four-footed birds as large as wolves and with legs and claws like lions," who guard the gold. Scythian art of the 8th century B.C.E. and earlier is notable for depictions of griffin-type animals. Scythian tombs of the mid-5th century - the time of Aeschylus and Herodotus - were excavated in the 20th century by Soviet archeologists, who found hundreds of gold artifacts portraying a beaked, bird-headed lion. The most remarkable discovery in the Scythian tombs was the mummified body of a Scythian chief, whose skin was tattooed with griffins.
In classical Greek literature, the wild and dangerous nature of the griffin is obvious. As Aeschylus warns in Prometheus Bound: "Beware of the sharp-beaked hounds of Zeus, that do not bark, the griffins..." Clearly in Greek literature and art, a function of the griffin was to stand guard. Griffins served Apollo, to whom they were sacred, as guardians. They are also depicted as serving Nemesis, as well as Dionysus, for whom they guarded his everlasting bowl of wine. They guarded the streams of gold in their mountain homeland, furiously defending the gold from marauding neighbors. The Greek griffin is depicted in graves and on pottery as a creature with the primary task of protecting house and property. The medieval version of the griffin, visible in the sculpture adorning European churches, clearly recalls this protective and guarding function. The griffin as protector brings us full circle to the Mesopotamian conception of the griffin and to the biblical Cherubs who guarded the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24).
My ongoing research and exploration into how ancient cultures depicted the griffin, the namesake of our gallery, continues to be compelling. I plan to travel in October to Bulgaria to explore, among other things, Scythian art and its treatment of the griffin. The Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, that houses the magnificent collection of ancient art of my late friend and mentor, Elie Borowski, presently has a new exhibition entitled "Dragons, Monsters, and Fabulous Beasts" which displays a rich array of art depicting the fantastic creatures of antiquity including, of course, the griffin, which is prominently featured. On view are masterpieces of ancient art, drawn from museums throughout Israel, which showed the cultural interrelationship between the classical world and the civilizations of the Ancient Near East. For those of you interested in exploring this subject further, I commend to you the exhibition catalogue, researched and edited by the Museumís Chief Curator, Joan Goodnick Westenholz. The Bible Lands Museum, located adjacent to the Israel Museum, is a gem; I found this exhibit to be exceptional and it is not to be missed. The art that I have used to illustrate this article on griffins is currently on display at the Bible Lands Museum.
In a future article I will explore other ancient hybrid creatures such as the siren, the human-headed bird; the sphinx, the human-headed lion; the centaur, the human-horse hybrid; the satyr, goat-like humans: and Pegasus, the mythical flying horse. Stay tuned.
STEPHEN F. BEINER practices family law; wills, trusts, estates, and probate law; and art law in Boca Raton. Together with his wife, Dr. Judith Beiner, he owns the GRIFFIN GALLERY OF ANCIENT ART, Gallery Center, Boca Raton, Florida.