Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gryphons! Creatures From The Imaginal World?

Any theory that we can come up with also needs to explain the huge popularity of the gryphons. Many different cultures over thousands of years were fascinated with them. Could the gryphon have been "made" in the minds of those who coneived of them by combining the actual physical artifacts with conceptual patterns? There are some truly fantastical accounts of peoples and beings encountered by ancient travellers. India was said to be home to many bizarre people-the Sciapodes ("Shadow-feet"), a people whose feet were so large that they blocked the sun by raising their legs! The Headless people of Western Libya weren't blind because they had eyes on their breasts-and so on.

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!


Autumnforest said...

Fantastic post! I just love the exploration of mythical creatures. I think about Native Americans and the Windigo and the concept of an evil person taking on other creature's personas to gain the attributes of the creature. I see the gryphon as a symbol of man taking on aggressive or angry or ruthless attributes, being sort of permanently changed in a physical way, such as a person who's an ass, taking on a donkey's face...
Love the series--keep doing more--there's great mythical creatures to explore.

Michael said...

I'm very much enjoying this series, Devin. Thanks so much for doing it.

Cheers, Michael

Alex Robinson said...

Hi Devin
I could definitely go with the imaginal world on gryphons & many other things too. I remember a lucid dream I had once, it didn't last long but I remember looking at a leaf & it was SO real, I knew I was dreaming (whatever that is) & yet I could not deny the clarity of that leaf - your info on the imaginal world really works for me!

I hope you (& AZ) are having a splendid day. Hi to Clementina :)

Devin said...

Thats a great way to look at it Autumnforest! and as always there are two sides to the nature of the gryphon -I am sure you heard of the "Windigo" attack on the Greyhound bus in Canada? that was a scary story to say the least!! all the best to you my friend!!

Michhael I am very happy you are enjoying this series !! I hope to do another article in just a bit and then get caught up on other people's work -thanks so much for stopping by my friend!!

Alex thanks for stopping by -very interesting about your dream !! some images from lucid dreaming almost seem "hyperreal" to me -yesterday I saw a "Gryphon Roofing" truck -thought that was a neat synchronicity (or the conincidence was meaningful to me anyway) all the best to you my friend!! hope your weekend is going great!!