By Chris Parker, Copyright 2010
Top Photo: Moundbuilder “Griffin” with Persepolis stone griffin, Persia 5th century B.C. Click for Higher Resolution photo
No doubt some are beginning to grow weary of the creature show we’ve been featuring here lately but in terms of the various topics that we cover, we mostly take them as they come. Lately I’ve beem poring over old books about the ancient Americans known as the Mound Builders and have come across some very interesting material-including some recent material on American creatures of the past.
This short article is about one of the most interesting items I’ve come across in some time.
Dragons have appeared in the art of virtually all cultures on all continents since the beginning of time. A subset of the dragon is the griffin (or gryphon). The griffin has appeared in the arts of ancient cultures in Asia, Persia, Greece, Rome to name a few spanning time and place from the 15th century versions in the palace at Knossos to Medieval times in Europe.
In each of these places and times, the features of the creature have been remarkably similar; long ears or sometimes horns, a prominent curved “beak” and wings.
Wikipedia gives this report:
The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Latin: gryphus) is a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. As the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle was the king of the birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. Griffins are normally known for guarding treasure and well valued priceless possession.
One classical folklorist propounds the griffin was an ancient misconception derived from fossilized remains of the Protoceratops found in conjunction with gold mining in the Altai mountains of Scythica, in present day southeastern Kazakhstan. In antiquity it was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
Most statues have talons, although in some older illustrations it has a lion’s forelimbs; it generally has a lion’s hindquarters. Its eagle’s head is conventionally given prominent ears; these are sometimes described as the lion’s ears, but are often elongated (more like a horse’s), and are sometimes feathered. The earliest depiction of griffins are the 15th century BC frescoes in the Throne Room of the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos, as restored by Sir Arthur Evans.
It continued being a favored decorative theme in Archaic and Classical Greek art. In Central Asia the griffin appears about a thousand years after Bronze Age Crete, in the 5th-4th century BC, probably originating from the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Achaemenids considered the griffin “a protector from evil, witchcraft and secret slander”. The modern generalist calls it the lion-griffin, as for example, Robin Lane Fox, in Alexander the Great, 1973:31 and notes p. 506, who remarks a lion-griffin attacking a stag in a pebble mosaic Dartmouth College expedition at Pella, perhaps as an emblem of the kingdom of Macedon or a personal one of Alexander’s successor Antipater.
Infrequently, a griffin is portrayed without wings,”
Why are Griffin Depictions So Consistent?
Naturally, science considers “griffins” to be mythological. It should be noted that the griffin down through history has been reported on as a living creature. In fact, the griffin doesn’t to a lot of mythological work; it kills dogs and sheep and pigs and attacks the occasional human but has no magic powers and eats what it kills.
Photo: Moundbuilder “Griffin”. Click for Higher Resolution photo.
A puzzling problem for science and for the “mythological hypothesis” is the consistency of their depictions in virtually all cultures. As Wikipedia briefly noted in the quote above, Folklorist Adrienne Mayor in her book “The First Fossil Hunters Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times”, postulated that the griffin was indeed mythological but that its features were derived from the ancient’s mistaken identification of certain dinosaur bones;
âAccording to Greek legend, the ferocious griffin was a medium-sized creature, half lion and half eagle, who protected vast quantities of gold in the Atlai Mountains of the Gobi Desert. Various classical scholars, ancient historians, art experts, historians of science, archaeologists, and zoologists had insisted that the griffin was an imaginary creature, a symbol created by the ancient Greeks to represent vigilance, greed, or the difficulties of mining gold. But, Mayor suspected differently.
Mayor writes that the griffin was no simple composite; that it didn’t seem to belong with other ‘obviously imaginary’ hybrids of Greek tradition like Pegasus (a horse with wings), the Minotaur (a man with a bull’s head), or the Sphinx (a winged lion with a woman’s head). Unlike these creatures, the griffin did not play a role in Greek mythology, but instead was a creature of folklore, grounded in naturalistic details.
Plus, the descriptions of these griffins seemed to remain constant over many centuries. These facts led Mayor to believe that the myth of the griffin may have been based in paleontological legend.â
……The First Fossil Hunters, By Adrienne Mayor, Review by Steve Brusatte
Photo: Mayor’s “griffin hypothesis”. Click for Higher Resolution photo.
Mayor specifically identifies the fossils of protoceratops, a âbeakedâ horned dinosaur as the inspiration behind the griffin. The beak of the protoceratops she is convinced is the model for the griffinâ beakâ, which has been portrayed consistently through many cultures from 500 B.C. through the middle ages-and even in modern eyewitness accounts.
The protoceratops of course, had no wings. If Mayor’s theory, (which has been widely held and is now cited as fact) is correct, how does a protocertops skull and bones discovered in various times and locations throughout the world always result in a long eared, winged creature?
Mound Builder Culture Griffin from Ohio Turns Many Theories on Their Heads
“Mound Builders, in North American archaeology, is a name given to those people who built mounds in a large area from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mts. The greatest concentrations of mounds are found in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. The term âMound Buildersâ arose when the origin of the monuments was considered mysterious, most European Americans assuming that the Native Americans were too uncivilized for this accomplishment.
In 1894, Cyrus Thompson of the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the Mound Builders were in fact the Native Americans. Clarence Moore, who excavated numerous mound sites in the South between 1892â1916, believed the southern Mound Builders were heavily influenced by the Mesoamerican civilizations, an idea now generally discounted.
Archaeological research indicates the mounds of North America were built over a long period of time by very different types of societies, ranging from mobile hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. The prehistoric mounds had a wide variety of forms and fulfilled a range of functions. Many served as burial mounds, individual or collective funerary monuments. Others were temple mounds, platforms for religious structures. Burial mounds were especially common during the Middle Woodland period (c.100 B.C.âA.D. 400), while temple mounds predominated during the Mississippian period (after A.D. 1000).” …InfoPlease.com
On page 280 of the book:”The Mound Builders: Their works and relics”, 2nd Edition, By Stephen Denison Peet published 1n 1903 is a drawing of a “bird pipe from Ohio”, which is virtually identical to the “classical” griffins of Persia, Greece, Rome and Medieval Europe. The elongated ears are there. The curved beak is there. The large eyes and the wings are there. The wings are special. The wings are not the wings of a bird; they are more closely aligned to the wings of a bat. The piece is featured here in this article in close comparison with many archaic griffin depictions and has been sculpted in a very natural style like the hundreds of other Moundbuilder bird and animal pipes that have been discovered.
Photo: Terminal with a Griffin Head, Scythian culture. 7th century BC
Click for Higher Resolution photo.
Clearly the same creature somehow here depicted in ancient America is the same creature that has been depicted among other times and places from the 15th century B.C. at the Palace at Knossos, and in ancient Persia, Greece and Rome in the 7th century and down through the medieval period in Europe!
Squier and Davis, too famous archaeologists who specialized in Mound Builder artifacts had identified the artifact in question an owl and others had continued to identify it as a bird even though it looked nothing like other bird pipes from Ohio–or elsewhere.
In the book; “Animal Carvings from Mounds of the Mississippi Valley, Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution”, 1880-81, by Henry W. Henshaw, he says regarding the “owl”:
“The erroneous identification of the manatee, the toucan, and of several other animals having been pointed out, it may be well to glance at certain others of the sculptured animal forms, the identification of which by Squier and Davis has passed without dispute, with a view to determining how far the accuracy of these authors in this particular line is to be trusted, and how successful they have been in interpreting the much lauded “fidelity to nature” of the mound sculptures.
Fig. 20 (the “owl”) (Squier and Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, p. 225, Fig. 123) represents a tube of steatite, upon which is carved, as is stated, “in high relief this figure of an owl, attached with its back to the tube.” This carving, the authors state, is “remarkably bold and spirited, and represents the bird with its claws contracted and drawn up, and head and beak elevated as if in an attitude of defense and defiance.”
This carving differs markedly from any of the avian sculptures, and probably was not intended to represent a bird at all. The absence of feather etchings and the peculiar shape of the wing are especially noticeable. It more nearly resembles, if it can be said to resemble anything, a bat, with the features very much distorted”.
Discussion re the “bird pipe” and similar artifacts from the book: The Mound Builders: Their works and Relics:
“Now, the record which is contained in the earthworks and relics is never so reliable as that which comes from the art of writing; but if the study of relics or earthworks is of any value to science or history, we ought to gain from it information in reference to the succession of tribes and the periods of occupation, and separate them from one another. We maintain, however, that this work of interpretation has been hindered more than helped, by the various attempts to identify the Mound-Builders with the Indians, for the term “Indian” conveys the idea that they were all contemporaneous and on a common level; whereas the other term ” Mound Builder,” conveys the idea of great antiquity and suggests the thought that there may have been a succession of tribes during the moundbuilding period.
The social status ot the Indians is supposed to be the same among all the tribes, and on this account it would be very difficult to draw a distinction between them were it not for their language and physical appearance; whereas there was a great contrast among the Mound-Builders in their social status, their art products, their mythological systems, their religious symbols and ceremonies, and all that went to make up their inner and outer life.
Photo: Left to Right; Terminal with a Griffin Head, Scynthian, 7th century B.C.; Moundbuilder griffin; Apollo and griffon, 380 B.C.; Arimaspe and Gryphon, Pompeii, 380 B.C.. Click for Higher Resolution photo.
We think generally of the Indian as a hunter and a savage, but we think of the Mound-Builder as having some degree of civilization, and this impression is increased by th.e study of the relics, especially those in the Ohio Valley. Relics have here been discovered which have so modern a look that there is doubt whether they belong to the historic or prehistoric period, but there are other relics which have such an air of antiquity about them, that there is no doubt whatever but that they belonged to prehistoric times; and, what is more, there is difference enough between them to prove that they belonged to a succession of tribes, and not to one tribe of MoundBuilders.
To illustrate: the relics which were discovered just before the Centennial Exposition in Chicago, and which came from the Hopewell group ot mounds, have such a modern look about them that their antiquity has been doubted by many, and yet it is difficult to identify them as belonging to any known tribe, or to absolutely prove that they were affected by the touch of the white man. On the other hand, the relies which were discovered by Squier & Davis nearly fifty years before, have been acknowledged by all to have belonged to the MoundBuilders’ period. A few have thought that even these, especially the carved pipes, were too good to belong to any prehistoric people.
These relics, however, have been subjected to close scrutiny, both in this country and in England, where they are at present, and the universal belief is that they belonged to the MoundBuilders, and prove that the art of the Mound-Builders was higher than that of the ordinary Indians. These relics are distinguished for their highly-polished and delicately-carved pipes, some of which have been called monitor pipes, from their resemblance to the monitors.
These carved pipes have been discussed many times. Some have claimed that they were close imitations of the birds and animals which were peculiar to the region; but others contain the figures of birds, such as the toucans, which are only found in Mexico, and of animals, such as the manitus, which were only found in the Gulf States. At the same time there were obsidian arrowheads from the Rocky Mountains, mica sheets from North Carolina, copper from the ancient mines of Lake Superior, pearls from the seacoast, shells from various distant regions, as well as specimens ot cloth and many other articles, all of which reveal a high stage of imitative art; but there were no patterns which could be recognized as belonging to a historic country. The difference between the relics exhumed by Squier & Davis and those discovered by Mr. Moorehead is just this: in the latter we discover patterns and symbols which are known to be common in Europe and are not uncommon in America.
The mica sheets seem to have been cut into patterns by sharp instruments. The spool ornaments seem to have been melted in a mold. The copper axes were hammered into shape by a process different from that common among the Indians.
The conventionality of the symbols and patterns, and the size and number of copper axes, and the peculiar form of the pipes, throw a shade of doubt upon their being of prehistoric origin; and yet they were all discovered in the same locality, and some of them in the same group of mounds as those which have been pronounced by all as a purely prehistoric group. The majority of these relics were placed beside the forms of Indian chiefs, and seem to have been buried as though they were their personal possessions.
This may be said in favor of their prehistoric origin: that the same kind of material was used in these relics which have such a modern look, as was common in all the buried relics of the regionâsheets of mica, copper axes, copper spools, pearls, shell beads, obsidian knives and arrow-heads, brown hematiteâand many of them were placed upon altars similar to those discovered by Squier & Davis over fifty years ago.
What are “Griffins” in Actuality?: Arimaspe and Gryphon, Pompeii
âThis fresco comes from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii and was reconstructed from fragments. It shows a battle between a gryphon, a legendary beast with the head, talons and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, and a hooded figure, trying to protect himself from the gryphon claws with his leather shield.
It dates from about 120 years before the eruption which destroyed Pompeii in AD79â ….Aliraqi.com
Photo: Pompeii griffin and long tailed pterosaur. Click for Higher Resolution photo.
This âgriffinâ appears in this fresco as a natural creature. As Mayor noted in her book, there is nothing particularly âmythologicalâ about how the griffin appears in ancient art and history. The narrow wings, the long tail (possible tail vane). This is one of many ancient works of art which depict specific, unexplained knowledge of pterosaur features. Our Moundbuilder griffin may closely match the heads of ancient griffins but what about the “lion body” etc? Remember that pterosaurs were thought to have been able to walk both as bipeds and quadrupeds.
Possibly the most telling feature are the âhandsâ which show three grasping fingers, which is precisely correct (pterosaurs have four, one of which is elongated and is hidden inside the wing) and unprecedented elsewhere among wing creatures. The hands are precisely in the correct location as wellâthey appear to be on the wing.
Graphic: Rhamphorhynchoid Pterosaur sketch by Cornelio Meyer; Link of a “dragon” that lived in a cave in Rome in 1691
The wings are depicted as feathered; what we know about pterosaur wings is that they were not as bat-like as they are frequently depicted by modern illustrators but that they were âhybridâ wings with âfeather-like actinofibrilsâ on the underside for stiffness. The form of this griffin follows Cornelio Meyerâs 1691 drawing of an alleged living fossil rather than the bat-like depictions of today.
This Pompeii “griffin” is recognizable as a cousin to the creature sculpted by the ancient American Moundbuilders–and it also unquestionably a pterosaur…..