A Gryphon Newsletter

Volume 2, Number 3, Summer 2002


Certain articles in The New, Improved Eyrie simply cry out for illustrations from historical sources. I planned to buy a scanner this year at last, but I have stepped up my savings-intense plan to get a Masters of Library Science (which I have mentioned often on my main web-page, "Fiction and Reality"). So the idea of buying a scanner, along with many other useful items, has gone on hold again.

The written word will have to do for now in describing the pictures, carvings, and artifacts having to do with gryphons and their kin. If I can retro-fit appropriate illustrations later, I probably will -- and this short note may well disappear. Until then, read about the possibility of:


Michael D. Winkle

Cambridge professor Arthur Bernard Cook uncovered some intriguing mythological details concerning gryphons in his massive three-volume compendium Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion (1914-25). The items required some argument and build-up on Cook's part, however.

His first proposal was that the Roman goddess Diana was more equivalent to the Greek Nemesis than to Artemis. Most scholars believe the name Nemesis to come from nemo, "I impute" or "I accuse" -- thus giving us a personification of vengeance or inescapable justice. However, "The cult of abstractions was relatively late," Cook argues, while "The cult of Nemesis was relatively early." His own theory? "Nemesis was a goddess of the greenwood (nemo, 'I pasture,' nemos, 'glade') -- a patroness of animal and vegetable life. As such. . . she would be the Greek counterpart of the Italian Diana Nemorensis (Nemus, 'the Glade'). This is no merely speculative philological equation, but a fact borne out by a comparison of cult with cult." (Volume 1, p. 273)

Cook describes coins, frescoes, and carvings that show Diana and Nemesis with the same attributes. "Nemesis at Rhamnous had the same insignia as Diana at Nemi, to wit, an apple-branch and stags; and presumably for the same reason, because the Greek, like the Italian, goddess was a woodland power controlling both vegetable and animal life." (Vol. 1, p. 275)

A statue worshipped in Rhamnous was described by Pomponius Mela as a statue of Nemesis, but by Julius Solinus as an image of Diana. That's a feeble bit of evidence, admittedly, but a chapel of Nemesis "at Aquincom (Alt-Ofen) in Lower Pannonia" gives the goddess' full name as "Diana Nemesis Augusta", which was a fine attempt at covering all the bases. "She has a winged griffin on one side, a wheel on the other." (Vol. 1, pp. 275-76)

Once we've made this leap, hauling in gryphons should be easy, as it has been fairly well established that the lion-eagles were the representative beasts of Nemesis, and that goddess was often depicted riding in a gryphon-drawn chariot.

A marble relief discovered in Peiraieus shows a winged Nemesis, and some lines carved at the bottom would fit a gryphon goddess rather well (Vol. 1, p. 269):

I am -- you see -- the Nemesis of men,
Well-winged, immortal, dwelling in the sky.
I flit through the world exultingly
And have all mortal tribes within my ken.

Which brings us to:


"A fresco still in the triclinium of the 'House of Livia' on the Palatine [in Italy]" depicts a shrine dedicated to Diana. At the center of the shrine stands a tall pillar, apparently of wood, to which the spoils of the hunt -- the heads of a stag, boar, and goat -- are attached. Surmounting the column is a disk and from this a ring of animal heads rise on curved, S-shaped necks. Arthur Cook calls these "a row of deer-heads?", always using a question mark because there is not enough detail to identify them by species.

To the left of the wooden post in this ancient painting stand a number of short stone columns. On one sits "a great gold crown, set with red and green jewels and adorned with a row of deer heads (?) precisely resembling those of the disk. . . The whole scene almost certainly depicts a shrine of Diana Nemorensis decked with spoils of the chase."

So what does this have to do with gryphons? Cook gets much of his information from a German professor named M. Rostowzew (author of such learned works as "Die hellenistisch-romische Architekturlandschaft"), who insisted that the "deer-heads" on the pillar and crown of Diana were actually Greifenkopfe, gryphon's heads! That professional archaeologists can't tell if the painting shows gryphon or deer heads demonstrates how little detail there is to work with -- but two statues of Artemis found in Ephesos [Turkey] depict the goddess wearing a crown with the front halves of tiny gryphons stabbing out in all directions. (Vol. 2, Part 1, pp. 406-407)

Cook remarks in a footnote: "If Rostowzew's interpretation of the upstanding ornaments as griffin-heads is correct, we must comfort ourselves with the reflection that the griffin was a more frequent attribute of Nemesis than the stag." (Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 146)

As mentioned, most scholars are already of this opinion. I am more interested in Cook's idea that Nemesis is the real equivalent of Diana. That would indicated that the hunting goddess' genuine creature of choice was not the stag (an association that came about due to the story of the hunter-turned-stag Actaeon), but the gryphon!

One other detail in the "House of Livia" fresco interests me: Behind the crown of gryphon (or deer) heads rises a taller pillar, and on this column perches a large parrot. It is the first time I've seen a parrot associated with anything that (possibly) has something to do with gryphons. . . No big whoop, just interesting.

See: Cook, Arthur Bernard. Zeus; A Study in Ancient Religion Volume 1, Volume 2 Part 1, and Volume 2 Part 2. New York: Biblo and Tannan, 1965 [1914-25].


A Timeline for the Eternal Wanderer

As I have mentioned before, it was the ancient Greek traveler Aristeas of Proconnesus who entered central Asia and returned with the first known tale of the gryphons and their traditional enemies the Arimaspians. His lost poem, The Arimaspea, also told of other fabulous creatures and peoples, according to the Oxford scholar J. D. P. Bolton. But the old boy himself proved to be as fantastic a being as the legendary gryphons, an apparent immortal showing up every couple of centuries to stir up controversy and gossip.

Here then is a speculative timeline tracing the career of Aristeas the poet. It is slightly "tilted" toward my own fiction (I say he spent time in my fantasy land of Aanuu, for instance), but it is gleaned mostly from the myths and folklore of the world: Aristeas the Eternal Wanderer.

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