A Gryphon Newsletter

Volume 1, Number 1, Winter 2001

The Coming of the Gryphons

Michael D. Winkle

guardian of knowledge When I started work on my own fantasy world, it seemed to revolve around several distinct loci, including the Pied Piper, werewolves, Indo-European languages, the books of Charles Fort -- and gryphons (or griffins as they are more commonly spelled). Unlike, say, werewolves, which are featured in legends all over the world, gryphons just seemed to appear in paintings and carvings without a tapestry of folklore to hold them.

Or so I thought before I found an obscure volume entitled Aristeas of Proconnesus, by J. D. P. Bolton (Oxford, 1962, reprinted 1999). The ancient poet Aristeas, it seems, traveled northeast from the Black Sea into realms unknown to the Greeks and brought back tales of the horse-riding Issedonians, one-eyed Arimaspi, and gryphons, all of whom vied for gold. He heard of other wonders as well - giant ants and wasps, magical Hyperboreans, and flying horses, to name a few - and he wrote everything down in his poem, The Arimaspea - a tale that has been lost to history. Bolton's task, as difficult in its own way as any Greek hero's journey, was to scrape together all quotes, fragments, and references to Aristeas in surviving classical texts. Almost by accident, he also collected together a new/old mythos, a set of tales and folklore that touched upon Greek, Russian, Indian, Mongolian, and Chinese legends without belonging wholly to any culture -- a myth cycle in which gryphons often appear.

So the stories and articles in The Eyrie will be dedicated to gryphons and other creatures, familiar and unfamiliar, sharing their world. I believe Aristeas' epic might have become as famous as The Odyssey had it not been lost -- but if it had been as familiar as Homer and Ovid to the authors of the past two thousand years, the font of gryphon tales would have been drained long ago. There is a price, I suppose, for everything . . .


Speaking of things ancient, L. Sprague de Camp and Willy Ley suggest in their book Lands Beyond that the idea of dragons hoarding gold came from the belief that gryphons hoarded gold: "Between the time of Herodotos and that in which the Fafnir legend originated, the dragon myth had come into being. . . Thus the transfer was not only from the Altai Mountains to the Rhineland, but also from the Asiatic griffin to the Germanic dragon." [1] This makes the bird-beasts ancient, indeed!

As a matter of fact, in 1922 historian G. Elliot-Smith wrote a book entitled The Evolution of the Dragon, in which he tried to trace all dragon legends to a single source. What was Elliot-Smith's primal source for dragons? Under a crude reproduction of a bird-headed beast, he writes: "Early representation of a 'dragon' compounded of the forepart of an eagle and the hindpart of a lion." [2] What does that sound like?

Elliot-Smith's primal 'dragons'

Modern researchers dispute Elliot-Smith's dragon-diffusion theory, but it is an interesting and humbling thought that the very idea of dragons might have come from gryphons. Most historians agree, however, that the earliest "dragons" in Western lore are not proto-gryphons but snakes of some sort, as Peter Costello explains in his book The Magic Zoo. [3] In The Bestiary (translated by T. H. White), "Draco the Dragon is the biggest of all serpents." This reptile's "strength is not in its teeth but in its tail. . . if it winds round anyone it kills him like that." [4] This sounds like a python or other large constrictor. The more familiar legged and winged dragon appeared in Western lore in medieval times.

"Probably originating in Syria in the second millennium BC, the griffin was known throughout the Near East, including Mesopotamia, and in Greece by the fourteenth century BC," write archeologists Jeremy Black and Anthony Green. [5] It seems then that gryphons are older than dragons -- although the strange case of the Sirrush of the Ishtar Gate may give one draconian species a pedigree reaching back to the Mesozoic Era. That's another story, however. [6]


1. De Camp, L. Sprague, and Willy Ley. Lands Beyond. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993 [1952]), p. 93.

2. Elliot-Smith, G. Evolution of the Dragon. (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1922). As reprinted in Newman, Paul. Hill of the Dragon. (Bath, UK: Kingsmead Press, 1979), p. 3.

3. Costello, Peter. Magic Zoo. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), p. 119.

4. White, T. H., trans. Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (New York: Perigree Books, 1980 [1954]), pp. 165-166.

5. Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992), p. 101.

6. Ley, Willy. Exotic Zoology. (New York: Bonanza Books, 1987 [1959]), pp. 62-74.


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