Wednesday, September 21, 2011

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


~400 BC


Following along through Greek mythology we have the griffin. The griffin is a well known animal which is a combination part bird, part lion. I picked ~400 BC 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 it is allowed to grow back again, and the whole process starts over. This isn't the first occurrence of griffins in history but it is one of the first and most prominent so I figured this would be a good place to mark it. One of the principal traits of the griffin, other than its ability to fly, is that it is often found guarding a treasure of some variety.


The origin story for the griffin is not as well known as the cyclops but it is a pretty interesting one. Apparently 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 they 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. 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 trades (Mayor, 2000; Ancient Monster Hunters; Wikipedia).

References:

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

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