After my Monster Meditations on the Sphinx and two on Dragons (east & west), I’d planned do delve into the Chimera — another cross-cultural mythological monster — but on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art GRIFFINS kept jumping out at me.
Well, not exactly jumping. But I wasn’t looking for them and yet, I kept spotting them! The Met is a large museum, and if you’ve never been there, I should mention that it’s easy to pass through a wide range of art going from one exhibit to another. It’s not weird to pass through Medieval Europe when leaving the Post-Impressionists to visit Ancient Rome. I’d just visited a small but wonderful solo exhibit of work by the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to see next.
The first Griffin jumped out at me in Medieval Europe. The second was the Byzantine Griffin. By that time, I’d decided to head over to the Islamic Rooms — where there is a particularly charming Griffin. But a Greek Griffin provided a temporary distraction along the way.
At this point, with all those Griffins jumping out at me, I decided I’d better go home and do a little research. Just about the only thing I knew about Griffins is that this weird combination of eagle and lion appears in the mythologies of many cultures.
I’d also read speculation about that fossilized pentaceratops remains could be a source of Griffin stories. But, since this particular herbivorous dinosaur, was native to North America, I’m not buying it as the genesis of the Griffin mythology in far flung locations on the other side of the Atlantic and Pacific. Maybe it was another dinosaur’s bones that got things rolling?
Griffins are often associated with wisdom and fearsome strength. Sometimes the lion body is interpreted as related to Christ and Griffins are popular in both heraldic symbols and as gargoyles. But unlike the Sphinx — with one story told in many cultures with variations— and dragons — with many famous stories in many cultures. References pop up and images jump out — on urns, chair legs, lamps, jars, etc. But other than wisdom and strength, I’ve yet to find a definitive Griffin tale.
In my old Dictionary of Classical Mythology (I’ve had this since I was a child), Griffins are described as the hounds of Zeus, guarding the gold flowing in the stream of the Arimaspi — one-eyed horsemen of the north. These “hounds” never barked. Kinda of weird and wonderful! The same story fragment is in my copy of Edith Hamilton’s overview of mythology. (I got this one in college, but only because the first one crumbled.)
I’m now hunting for Griffin-y monster stories from different cultures. I don’t have to hunt for Griffins — THEY found me at the museum.