Amazingly, belief in gryphons flourished without a single reported sighting or mythological story to tell among a tribe, town, village or city. It seems that awareness of the gryphon was passed along in the FOAF (friend of a friend) manner. For anyone travelling in the Caucausus region of the world in ancient times it was often necessary to listen to tales told by local Scythians of a mysterious tribe, the Arimaspeans. The Arimaspeans fought the gryphons for the gold they hoarded. The Scythians were a nomadic people whose burial mounds (kurgans) have been found as far west as Hallstatt, Austria, and northwest as Brandenburg, Germany-all the way to surround the Black Sea area, excepting the southern part where modern Turkey is.
The Arimaspeans were said to be one-eyed cannibals! The fantastic tales about the Arimaspeans were not at all ripped asunder by lack of any evidence or direct testimony of them. We can ask why-but yet again why not? Classicist Adrienne Mayer has an interesting theory that the popular belief in gryphons may have originated with actual fossil finds. The parts of the world that the gryphons were said to inhabit-an enormous area stretching between the Altai and Tien Shan mountian ranges and through the Gobi desert-was a popular nesting ground for a real creature.
The protocerartops was a dinosaur that had a wide bony frill arrayed around its beaked head. The remains of not only protoceratops, but other frilled beasts as well, are numerous around the region. In fact, there are so many that some paleontologists consider them a nuisance! Looking at a protoceratops fossil through ancient eyes, it would be very easy to recontstruct a gryphon from the skeleton. There would have been a prominent beak, large eyes and big claws left behind, and these are archetypal features of the gryphon. The bony ridge, of which usually only fragments are found could account for the high ears and the decorative knobs that can be found on some early sculptures of gryphons.
The body of the protoceratops was about the size of a lion. The gryphon has one feature thhat is much debated-wings. These are not always present, and could have been guessed at from protoceratops' avian-like shoulder blades and collar bone, and the fact that it also laid eggs. An extremely fascinating aspect of this ancient detective story is that gold is also common in this very same area. Over millions of years, rainwater has washed flakes and nuggets down from the mountains. These wind up in any shallow area they flow over. The net effect of this would be to make the nests of protoceratops very good places to find a "hidden hoard" of gold. Skeletons of the hatchlings could have led to the other theory that the gryphons fought to protect their young rather than the gold. Such finds may have been the inspiration for an Olympian bronze relief of a gryphon chick crouching underneath its mother's wing.
The tales of the one-eyed Arimaspeans may have also have had a paleontological origin. This is because this same region of our little planet is also home to dwarf elephants and their skeletons. The skulls of these creatures have a large, round nasal cavity in the middle of the forehead, and unusually low eye sockets. In esscence, the people of Central Asia were doing the same thing as modern paleontologists; trying to reckon the appearance and habits of unknown animals from ancient fossils. These people were not aware of the dinosaurs, of course, and different geologic eras, so they compared what the found to what the knew. The Meditteranean traders who heard their descriptions secondhand (FOAF) did the same. The gryps was already a motif in Near Eastern art. The Greeks just gave the Scythian creature a name, although the natives called it something else (Waltraud Bartscht: The Griffin in Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide, Malcolm South, ed. (NY, 1987), p 88. It is also possible that the near-eastern images were also based upon Cerotopean skeletons).
Perhaps the mystery of the gryphon is solved then? Not necessarily. The gryphon is such a unique creature that you have to wonder why the ancients just didn't identify the bones as something they were much more familiar with-like a reptile or amphibian? The Chinese and Indians identified the same bones as dragons, and this would seem to make more sense instead of combining a bird and a lion-something the ancients knew was physically impossible. The guarding of the gold seems to recquire quite a stretch of imagination, as the bones were only found with gold. If this is really how a "true" history of the gryphons came about, people were assigning a human value system to them. To be continued...