The Gryphon In Literature
This is the "meat and potatoes" of the Gryphon Pages. Throughout time men have marveled at the world around them and it's vast wealth of creatures, lands and cultures. Fortunately for us, there were those who were wise enough to know that should future generations ever wish to behold what they have seen, it must be written down and chronicled. Many authors however, have tried to pass off fiction as truth, and then there are those who try to copy those before them, and present the work as their own. One man writes of a lie as though it were true. Then another man comes, reads the lie, and tries to pass it off as his truth, embellishing the original lie to make it seem more like his own, then another man comes, and so on turns this vicious circle. (The phrase "History doesn't repeat itself; historians merely repeat each other" comes to mind.) Nevertheless, we still regard these works as ancient art, and doors to eras long past. Herein you shall find references to a variety of authors spanning over two thousand years of Gryphon lore. Where possible I have provided links to online versions of the texts.
For information about how the Gryphon has invaded the literature of our more modern times, please view my Gryphons In Modern Literature page.
This page very well may not have been possible were it not for the amazing books of Joe Nigg, author of The Book of Gryphons, Wonder Beasts, and The Book of Fabulous Beasts. Learn more about Joe Nigg on my Modern Literature page.
For sake of ease and speed, I have divided this section into two separate parts. This page concerns all authors up to the Eleventh Century and the other will deal with the Eleventh Century until the 20th.
From Aristeas (6th Century B.C.)
St. Brendan (9th Century A.D.)
Aristeas | Aeschylos | Herodotus | Ctesias | Alexander | Lucretius | Mela |
Pliny | Pausanias | Aelian | Philostratos | Solinus | St. Isidore | St. Brendan
Aristeas - The Arimaspia - c. 7th Century BC
Aristeas is the first person that we know of who has written about Gryphons, immortalizing them in his poem, Arimaspia, one of the first tales from a Greek of far eastern lands. Not only was Aristeas the first person to document Gryphons, but he was also the first to write of the Issedones (the furthest North he traveled), and the Arimaspians, the one-eyed adversaries of Gryphons. A subject of note is that Aristeas was supposedly dead when he wrote his poem. Let me explain. Herodotus writes in his Histories, that while in a shop in Proconessus, Aristeas had suddenly dropped stone dead, disappeared for six years, returned to Proconessus and wrote his poem, then disappeared again. (He turned up 250 years later to demand that a statue be built of him.) Unfortunately, much like its creator, Arimaspia has been lost to Time and is no longer extant. However, if you would like an entertaining look at Aristeas' life, and what MAY have happened to him, then check out Gillian Bradshaw's wonderful book, Beyond the North Wind. (Go to my modern literature page for more info.) For a more scholarly outlook of Aristeas however, not to mention the Armiaspia, look to Aristeas of Proconessus, by J.D.P. Bolton. This book is not often available in stores, so I suggest the online rare book finders Biblifind.com or Abebooks.com.
Aeschylos - Prometheus Desmotes (Prometheus Bound) - c. 5th Century BC
The legend of Prometheus goes that as punishment for stealing fire from Olympus to give to the mortals, Prometheus was shackled to a mountain and every day an eagle would come to eat his liver, and in the night his liver would grow back, thus he was condemned to a life of eternal pain. (It is also interesting to note that in some versions of the Prometheus myth, Gryphons eat his liver every day, not eagles or vultures. This is plausible since Perseus was chained to a mountain in Scythia, a location reputed to harbor Gryphons.) In Aeschylus' play about the myth, Prometheus Desmotes, Prometheus warns Io, a visitor:
"Be on thy guard against the Gryphons, the keen-mouthed unbarking hounds of Zeus, and the one-eyed Arimaspian host, who dwell around the stream flowing-with-gold, the ferry of Plouton."
Below is a link to the online version of the play at the Perseus Digital Library should you wish to read more.
Prometheus Desmotes at the Perseus Digital Library
Herodotus - The History - c. 5th Century BC
"The Father of History", so called by Cicero, traveled through much of the ancient world and meticulously recorded all that he saw and heard into nine volumes of one of the first prose histories of the Western world, simply called, The History. It is from his work that most of our knowledge of Aristeas of Proconessus is derived, and it also contains one of the earliest accounts of Gryphons that remains today. Note that Herodotus gives no physical description of Gryphons and only speaks of their gold-hoarding nature. To learn more of Herodotus and his History, below are links to the Perseus Digital Library. The links will bring you to the main page as well as the sections of the work that contain Gryphons.
The History at the Perseus Digital Library | Section 3.116 | Section 4.13 | Section 4.27
Ctesias - Indika - c. Late 5th Century BC
Ctesias (Ktesias) the Cnidian was a physician at the royal Persian court for seventeen years, during which period he wrote two books, Persica, a history of Persia, and Indika, a collection of tales of the distant land which he most likely heard of while at court. He does his best to defend himself though, as he writes:
"Ktesias thus writing and romancing professes that his narrative is all perfect truth, and, to assure us of this, asservates that he has recorded nothing but what he either saw with his own eyes, or learned from the testimony of credible eye-witnesses."
It is in his second book, Indika, which we find a menagerie of fabulous beasts, such as the martikhora (manticore), the wild ass of India (unicorn), and Gryphons. Ctesias provides us with a very fine (and colorful) description of the beasts, but note that Aristeas placed the Gryphons beyond the Issedones, which is far north of India. Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"There is much silver in their part of the country, and the silver-mines though not deep are deeper than those in Baktria. Gold also is a product of India. It is not found in rivers and washed from the sands like the gold of the river Paktolos, but is found on those many high-towering mountains which are inhabited by the Griffons, a race of four-footed birds, about as large as wolves, having legs and claws like those of the lion, and covered all over the body with black feathers except only on the breast where they are red. On account of those birds the gold with which the mountains abound is difficult to be got."
The Romance of Alexander - c. 356-323 BC
Although Alexander the Great was a real person, the various tales of his exploits and adventures have elevated him to a legendary status. The Romance of Alexander is a compilation of stories centering around the great conqueror, collected over hundreds of years, and developed into favored romance tales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Note that there is no "true" version of Alexander's feats, but rather a myriad of tales from all over the world. One of the many tales is Alexander's Gryphon Flight, or Celestial Journey. After conquering all of the earth, (which he never actually did of course) Alexander attempts to seize the realm of the sky. To do so, he yokes two (or four, depending on the tale) Gryphons to a chariot and holds lances of meat above their heads. As the Gryphons fly towards the food, they lift Alexander into the air. The excerpt below is from the Thornton Manuscript and is taken from Joe Nigg's Book of Gryphons.
"...When he came down the mountain, he ordered his master workers to build a chair with iron bars on each side. And four Gryphons were tied to the chair with iron chains, and over the chair he put meat, just far enough from the Gryphons that they flew upward and carried Alexander into the air. The earth seemed so small, and the sea looked like a dragon encircling the earth. Then, suddenly, God's mysterious veil enveloped the Gryphons and forced them to land in a field, a ten day march from the army, but Alexander was not hurt."
Lucretius - De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) - c. 28-55 BC
I place Lucretius here only because he gives a novel (to say the least) idea of the origin of chimerical (combination) creatures, which may be of interest to Gryph fans. His De Rerum Natura is highly influenced by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (c. 341-270 BC) and is one of the first looks at the atomistic theory of matter. Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"Let me now explain briefly what it is that stimulates the imagination and where those images come from that enter the mind.
My first point is this. There are a great many flimsy films from the surface of objects flying about in a great many ways in all directions. When these encounter one another in the air, they easily amalgamate, like gossamer or goldleaf. In comparison with those films that take possession of the eye and provoke sight, these are certainly of a much flimsier texture, since they penetrate through the chinks of the body and set in motion the delicate substance of the mind within and there provoke sensation. So it is that we see the composite shapes of Centaurs and Mermaids and dogs with as many heads as Cerberus, and phantoms of the dead whose bones lie in the embrace of the earth. The fact is that the films flying about everywhere are of all sorts: some are produced spontaneously in the air itself; others are derived from various objects and composed by the amalgamation of their shapes. The image of a Centaur, for instance, is certainly not formed from the life, since no living creature of this sort ever existed. But, as I have just explained, where surface films from a horse and a man accidentally come into contact, they may easily stick together on the spot, because of the delicacy and flimsiness of their texture. So also with other such chimerical creatures. Since, as I have shown above, these delicate films move with the utmost nimbleness and mobility, any one of them may easily set our mind in motion with a single touch; for the mind itself is delicate and marvelously mobile."
Pomponius Mela - De Situ Orbis (The Situation of the World) - c. 44AD
De Situ Orbis is a general geographical work of the known world written by the first Latin geographer, Pomponius Mela. The work is comprised into three different books, with the far off places of Scythia, India, Arabia and Ethiopia comprising mostly the last book. Mela moves the Gryphons again, this time west of the Issedones to the mountain Riphey, in Scythia. Like Herodotus though, he provides no descriptions of the creatures, yet remarks on their animal nature. Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"The boundaries and location of Asia, extending to our Sea and the river Tanais, are such as I have shown before. Now to them that row back again down the same river into Maeotis, on the right hand is Europe, which was directly on the left side of them as they sailed up the stream. The river borders the mountain Riphey. The snow which falls continually makes the country inaccessible to travel. Beyond is a country of very rich soil, but it is uninhabitable because the Griffons (a cruel and unyielding kind of wild beast) jealously love the gold which lies above the ground and are very hostile to anyone who approaches it. The first men are Scythians, and of the Scythians, the first are the Arimaspians: which are reported to have but one eye apiece. From there up to Maeotis are the Issedones..."
Pliny the Elder - Naturalis Historia (Natural History) - c. 23-79AD
One of the most influential and monumental works of the ancient age, the Naturalis Historia was compiled by Pliny the Elder from over 2000 tomes and hundreds of authorities, and is the only book of the many which Pliny had written which has withstood the test of Time. It was considered "the" standard work of natural science until it was discredited sometime in the seventeenth century. It is interesting to note that Pliny writes more of the Arimaspians and their flesh-eating monstrous nature than of the Gryphons, which again receive very little description. He also casts doubt upon the credulity of what he is reporting, but he seems determined to tell the world what he knows. There is a link below to an online version of the work at LacusCurtius, but alas, it is only available in its original Latin. Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"We have pointed out that some Scythian tribes, and in fact a good many, feed on human bodies - a statement that perhaps may seem incredible if we do not reflect that races of this portentous character have existed in the central region of the world, named Cyclopes and Laestrygones, and that quite recently the tribes of the parts beyond the Alps habitually practiced human sacrifice, which is not far removed from eating human flesh. But also a tribe is reported next to these, towards the North, not far from the actual quarter whence the North Wind rises and the cave that bears its name, the place called the Earth's Door-Bolt - the Arimaspi whom we have spoken of already, people remarkable for having one eye in the centre of the forehead. Many authorities, the most distinguished being Herodotus and Aristeas of Proconessus, write that these people wage continual war around their mines with the griffins, a kind of wild beast with wings, as commonly reported, that digs gold out of mines, which the creatures guard and the Arimaspi try to take from them, both with remarkable covetousness."
Naturalis Historia online | Section on Gryphons
Pausanias - Description of Greece - c. 150 AD
Description of Greece, a collection of Pausanias's "first hand accounts" of the entire country, provides a remarkable look at that ancient world, and is still used today as a relative guidebook by archaeologists and historians. In the work, Pausanias notices Gryphons on the helmet of a statue of Athena and then refers to Aristeas's Arimaspia, much like Herodotus before him. At least here he also provides a general description of them. Later on in the book he again writes of Gryphons, dispersing a rumor about them:
"I have also heard that the griffins have spots like the leopard, and that the Tritons speak with a human voice... Those who like to listen to the miraculous are themselves apt to add to the marvel, and so they ruin the truth by mixing it with falsehood."
Anyone else see the irony in this statement? *grin* To read more, below are links to the Description of Greece at the Perseus Digital Library, and the sections of that work containing Gryphons.
Description of Greece at the Perseus Digital Library | Section (1.24.6) | Section (8.2.7)
Aelian - De Natura Animalium (On Animals) - c. 170-235 AD
The De Natura Animalium is Claudius Aelianus's compilation of stories and tales from others before him, borrowing heavily from sources like Ctesias, Herodotus, Pliny, Aristotle (c. 384-322 BC) and others. His lengthy description of Gryphons is one of the most detailed and informative of all of the ancient writers, and essentially holds all of the common information known about the creatures: their description, their gold hoarding nature, their fight with other people for that gold. Note however that Aelian makes no mention of the Arimaspians. (Nor did Ctesias for that matter.) Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"I have heard that the Indian animal the Gryphon is a quadruped like a lion; that it has claws of enormous strength and that they resemble those of a lion. Men commonly report that it is winged and that the feathers along its back are black, and those on its front are red, while the actual wings are neither but are white. And Ctesias records that its neck is variegated with feathers of a dark blue; that it has a beak like an eagle's, and a head too, just as artists portray it in pictures and sculpture. Its eyes, he says, are like fire. It builds its lair among the mountains, and although it is not possible to capture the full-grown animal, they do take the young ones. And the people of Bactria, who are neighbors of the Indians, say that the Gryphons guard the gold in those parts; that they dig it up and build their nests with it, and that the Indians carry off any that falls from them. The Indians however deny that they guard the aforesaid gold, for the Gryphons have no need of it (and if that is what they say, then I at any rate think that they speak the truth), but that they themselves come to collect the gold, while the Gryphons fearing for their young ones fight with the invaders. They engage too with other beasts and overcome them without difficulty, but they will not face the lion or the elephant. Accordingly the natives, dreading the strength of these animals, do not set out in quest of the gold by day, but arrive by night, for at that season they are less likely to be detected. Now the region where the Gryphons live and where the gold is mined is a dreary wilderness. And the seekers after the aforesaid substance arrive, a thousand or two strong, armed and bringing spades and sack; and watching for a moonless night they begin to dig. Now if they contrive to elude the Gryphons they reap a double advantage, for they not only escape with their lives but they also take home their freight, and when those who have acquired a special skill in the smelting of gold have refined it, they possess immense wealth to requite them for the dangers described above. If however they are caught in the act, they are lost. And they return home, I am told, after an interval of three or four years."
Philostratos - The Life of Apollonius of Tyana - c. 170-245
Flavius Philostratus wrote that Empress Julia Doma, of whose literary circle he was a part of, (along with his friend, Aelian) presented him with the memoirs of a wandering prophet, Apollonius, and ordered him to write the life history of Apollonius in order to increase that prophet's decreasing credibility. The memoirs, in turn, were written by one of Apollonius' disciples, Damis. The result of Philostratos' work is The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a rousing tale of marvel and mysticism. The way Philostratos writes of the Gryphons is remarkable in that he hits on the three major symbolic elements of the Gryphon: gold, the Sun, and chariots. Note however the exceptional "wings" which he attributes to Gryphons. The link below will bring you to an online translation of the work, and to the section on Gryphons.
Apollonius of Tyana Online | Section on Gryphons
Solinus - Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium (Collection of Remarkable Facts) - c. 200
The opus of Gaius Julias Solinus, Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium, was one of the most frequently cited books for over a thousand years, yet is now considered nothing more than a poorly written and compiled collection of interesting tales. Solinus borrowed heavily from Pliny and Mela's works (earning him the name "Pliny's ape"), as well as other authors before him. Note that he places the homeland of the Gryphons in the mountain Riphey, just as Mela had done over one hundred years earlier. It is also interesting that he turns the Gryphon from a colorful animal protecting its young from outsiders (as Aelian wrote) into fierce beasts, "cruel beyond all cruelty", a symbol of punishment for those controlled by avarice. Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"The Arimaspes, which are situated about Gesglithron, are a people that have but one eye. Beyond them and the Mountain Riphey is a country continually covered with snow, called Pteropheron. For the incessant falling of the hoarfrost and snow makes it look like feathers. A damned part of the world is it, and drowned by nature itself in the cloud of endless darkness, and utterly shut up in extreme cold as in a prison, even under the very North Pole. Only of all lands it knows no distinction of times, neither receives it anything else of the air than everlasting winter. In the Asiatik Scythia are rich lands, but notwithstanding the uninhabitable.
For whereas they abound in gold and precious stones, the Gryffons possess all, a most fierce kind of fowl, cruel beyond all cruelty, whose outrageousness stops all comers, so that hardly and seldom arrive any there. For as soon as they see them they tear them in pieces, as creatures made of purpose to punish the rashness of covetous folk.
The Arimaspes fight with them to get away their precious stones..."
Isidore of Seville - Etymologies - c. 560-636
The prototype of traditional medieval bestiaries, St. Isidore's Etymologies was also a major reference and influence upon similar later works. A highlight of the Etymologies was that it presented creatures in a straightforward, almost scientific approach, as opposed to the usual Christian allegorical and emblematic method of the time. In the work, St. Isidore classifies the Gryphon under "beasts of prey". Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"The Gryphes are so called because they are winged quadrupeds. This kind of wild beast is found in the Hyperborean Mts. In every part of their body they are lions, and in wings and head are like eagles, and they are fierce enemies of horses. Moreover they tear men to pieces."
(I laughed hard when I read that last sentence for the first time. Perhaps it was just because it is so blunt without any buildup at all, not to mention totally wrong.)
The Voyage of St. Brendan - c. 9th Century
The Voyage of St. Brendan is an account of an Irish monk's 7 year sea voyage to discover the Promised Land of the Saints. Saint Brendan, who lived from 484 to 578, is said to have traveled about Ireland and the Scottish islands, and possibly Wales on his expedition. Many other Irish monks sailed on various quests, but St. Brendan was the most famous, and he quickly rose to legendary status. During his voyage, he and his crew were attacked by a lone Gryphon, although are saved by another large bird. (For another account of Gryphons attacking sailors, see Benjamin of Tudela.) Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
"When they had gone on board the boat's sail was hoisted to steer where the wind directed. After they had sailed, the bird called they Gryphon appeared to them, flying from far away towards them. When his brothers saw it they started saying to the holy father:
'That beast has come to devour us.'
The man of God said to them:
'Do not be afraid. God is our helper. He will defend us on this occasion too.'
The bird stretched her talons to seize the servants of God. Just then, suddenly, the bird which on the earlier occasion brought them the branch with the fruits, flew swiftly up to the Gryphon, which immediately made to devour her. But this bird defended herself until she overcame and tore out the eyes of the Gryphon. The Gryphon then flew high up into the sky so that the brothers could scarcely see her. But her killer pursued her until she killed her. For the Gryphon's body fell into the sea near the boat before the eyes of the brothers. The other bird returned to her own place."