Two patterns can be discerned among the amazing variety of these supposed "peoples." 1) They had a trait that was made extreme by either lack or abundance, or 2) They are an "impossible" hybrid, such as the goat-footed men of northern Scythia, or the flying serpents of Arabia. The one-eyed Arimaspeans would belong in the first category and the gryphons in the second.
To the Greeks it was very important to value perfect physical proportion and to keep groups of things, animals and peoples properly divided. In the Greek mind and philosophy these notions were a very big part of "Greekness." The strange peoples and animals they imagined were a reflection of these ideals, but in a negative form. The Greeks had very exacting ideas about what the perfect proportions of the human body should be, so they thought that grotesquely out of proportion features were extremely interesting.
The "hybrid" people and animals imagined by the Greeks were as equally important as the disproportionate features of them. The Greeks thought that many of the hybrids were horrible because they were often unions of qualities that they thought were mutually exclusive. Hermaphrodites were a case in point. The blurred distinction between male and female was considered an extreme aberration in a strict patriarchy. These days we might not even recognize all unions of opposites because they embody dichotomies that aren't recognized as opposites anymore. The gryphon and the winged serpent would have been seen as hybridized opposites, since they mingle animals of the land with those of the sky.
All too often, we lose track of just how important dichotomies can be to a culture. The very fact that most creation myths rest of the establishment and separation of such opposites, shows us how important they are when looking at the way humans perceive reality. Light and dark, wet and dry, fire and ice or men and animals-each so very different, but each impossible to describe its Janus-faced opposite perspective with. Hesiod's account of creation begins with Chaos a word that originally meant "undivided." Those who threaten these distinctions are exiled from the Garden of Eden or are banished from some sort of primordial paradise forever.
Human interest in creatures who straddle dichotomies and situations where original distinctions become fuzzy is a way for people to explore and "feel" these distinctions. The Greeks also felt a sense of superiority and order when looking at non-Greek cultures. In the Greek world a man was a man, a woman a woman, and a dog a dog-there was no mixing between categories. The Greeks not only felt that there was a superiority to their way of life but their bodies also.
The gryphon also served this purpose, but not for the Greeks. Many years after the gryphon had lost its status as a real animal and had passed into the realms of fantasy, it continued to be a popular representation of opposing forces. Good and evil, God and Satan, Heaven and Hell. The gryphon also took on vastly different "personalities." It could be an extremely unthinking attacker or a victim of thieves, a greedy, vigilant hoarder or a selfless and generous protector. The gryphon, in embodying such opposite meanings, became an easy and safe way to talk about the true meaning of good and evil, charity and greed, etcetera. "Safe" in the previous sentence means several things. Uniting forces that are usually seen to be at opposite ends of the spectrum can be a dangerous practice.
The refusal to identify something as obviously either good or evil can be seen by many not as consciousness raising-but threatening. It can be seen as a way fo questioning the established order. Whatever the case may be-things that defy categorization exist. How does a culture deal with these things "safely." Anthropologists have shown several ways cultures do this. The first is to locate the strange creature or behavior as far away in space and time. Marginal things should be in marginal (or maybe imaginal?) places, the wilderness of the Earth, where the rules and laws of civilized life don't apply anyway.Another way to deal with them was by placing them in the securely vague "once upon a time." In this way they could be conveniently put to death by a hero or champion like Heracles-who bludgeoned many strange creatures to death. Or the creatures could simply disappear.
One way a society could deal with the ambiguous was by declaring it sacred. This was a smart way to deal with uncomfortable creatures and things because they could be accepted by the society, but kept apart from normal life. This was a typical destiny for the dinosaur bones that the Greeks and Romans found close to home. They interpreted these as the bones of gigantic (mortal/immortal) hybrids, as ancient heroes and treated as minor deities. A shrine might be set up or even a priesthood to guarantee the hero's worship in perpetuity. A great example of this is the shoulder blade of Pelops. Pelops was a youth who was chopped to pieces by his father and served to the gods to test their all-knowingness. The scheme was detected, but not before the goddess Hera had eaten a portion of the boy's shoulder, which the gods were kind enough to replace with ivory. Miraculously, Pelops's shoulder was found and enshrined in Olympia along with the rest of his body sometime before the Trojan War!
I hope to have the next article in the series here tomorrow, but can't promise anything. Thanks again so very much for your thoughtful and intelligent comments! The sources I have used or will use (so far) for this series are Wikipedia; Bulfinch's Mythology; Andrew Wheatcroft's wonderful book, The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire; Patrick Harpur's Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld; and especially for the last two articles, Dr. Mahalia Way's fantastic article in the June 2003 issue of Fortean Times magazine -"The Terrible Griffin." All the best to anyone stopping by!