|Protoceratops, the Late Cretaceous horned dinosaur widely suggested as being the inspiration for the griffin myth. This image shows the lesser seen P. hellenikorhinus, a larger, more ornamented species of Protoceratops than the familiar P. andrewsi.|
|Bird-griffin statue, 7th century BCE. Was Protoceratops the inspiration for this creation? From Mayor and Heaney (1993).|
I recently became genuinely interested in this interpretation as part of research into the earliest accounts of palaeoart - if griffin art is indeed of horned dinosaur origin, it might qualify as some of the oldest on record. But reading about the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis (in Mayor and Heaney 1993; Mayer 2011) did not deliver the proverbial 'nugget of truth' behind the griffin myth I expected based on its fame. My impression was that evidence cited for this hypothesis was generalised to account for as much griffin lore as possible, that several major, obvious questions remained unanswered, and that there was not any attempt to refute other, non-fossiliferous takes on griffin origins. Digging into the primary literature on griffin iconography seemed to confirm my concerns, suggesting that the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is unfavourable among archaeologists (e.g. Frankfort 1937; Goldman 1960; Wyatt 2009; Tartaron 2014). Moreover, there are far more parsimonious and well substantiated takes on these creatures which do not rely on fossil data. In the interests of providing a counter-argument to all the 'pro'-Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis media out there, I'm sharing the products of my research here.
The griffin timelinePerhaps the largest issue with the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is the fact it largely ignores griffin lore before the 7th century BCE. Griffin iconography extends deep into human history with one of their best early appearances dating to 4th millennium BCE Susa - an ancient city in what is now Iran (below, Frankfort 1937). Similarly aged or older artefacts from Egypt also show griffin-like forms (Wyatt 2009), and by the 3rd millennium BCE griffins were a regular component of art in many Near Eastern countries. The role of griffins in these communities remains a matter of controversy because we have little or no written explanation of their significance. Nevertheless, they are abundant enough to suggest some importance in these cultures, and modern scholars have attempted to interpret griffin imagery based on religious and cultural practises of these times (e.g. Wyatt 2009).
|Line drawing of perhaps the oldest known image of a griffin, from Susa, 4th millennium BCE. From Frankfort (1937).|
Taking this point further, overlooking the early history of griffin art also means that the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis does not engage with current, mainstream interpretations of the spread of griffin culture to Ancient Greece. Griffins are thought to have become popular in Greece during the 'Orientalizing Period', a cultural event occurring around the 7th century BCE when Greek art, technology and literature became heavily influenced by Near Eastern civilisations (Tartaron 2014). Put simply, the uptake of griffins into Greek culture coincides exactly with their sudden interest in the guys who'd been drawing and sculpting griffins for thousands of years. It's easy to understand why this is the preferred explanation for the rise of Grecian interest in griffin imagery. It involves the civilisations known to have depicted these animals before anyone else, fits the dates attributed to Greek and Near Eastern griffin art perfectly, and is easily explained as part of a well-established period of cultural exchange between these peoples. A compelling explanation is needed here to explain why this interpretation is inferior to the far more complex one involving distant peoples, a disjointed chronology and fossil animals found 6000 miles to the East.
Griffin appearance, variation and the 'need' for exotic fossil anatomyThe Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis also presents a simplified interpretation of griffin iconography. Numerous variants on griffins are found in the ancient world, reflecting differences in anatomy, pose and behaviour. The 'bird-griffin' - the winged lion with an avian head (see images, above and below)- is the type Protoceratops is thought to have inspired, but is just one of many griffin chimeras identified by researchers. Reflecting taxonomy on real animals, the identification of distinctive griffin 'species' varies between researchers, but they are generally thought to include wingless sphinxes (human head on a recumbent lion), bipedally standing winged lions with human heads, winged humans with avian heads, winged lions, long necked 'lion-griffins' (sometimes called 'lion-dragons'), and lions with avian heads, wings and forelimbs (Frankfort 1937; Goldman 1960; Wyatt 2009; Gane 2012). Within these forms are more variation: they may or may not include wings, tails, ears, 'crests' or horns on the snout, manes of hair or feathers, and teeth, as well as differences in neck length, mouth gape and claw size. The animal species used in these chimeras differ too. For instance, there are bird-griffins with eagle, peacock and falcon heads, a variety of big cat species are thought to be used for the body and limbs. Tails may be of either avian or felid identity.
|A selection of griffins forms from Goldman (1960). Note variation in tails, faces, neck length and ears.|
However, this homogeneous treatment of griffin imagery is troublesome, for two reasons. Firstly, the disregarding of griffin form shows a somewhat selective approach to evidence gathering, highlighting elements that suit the Protoceratops origin while ignoring those which are problematic. The fact is most griffin artworks do not look like Protoceratops beyond the superficial similarity of being being beaked quadrupeds (see below). Furthermore, griffin art remains differentiated even after Greek and Scythian cultures were known to have been communicative and, theoretically, tales of Protoceratops could influence griffin depictions. Homogenising griffin forms also contradicts modern interpretations of griffin art. Many researchers stress the unique histories, origins and cultural significance of different griffin forms, some authors even directly cautioning about treating these chimeras as interchangeable for fear of obscuring their true meaning and history (e.g. Goldman 1960; Wyatt 2009; Gane 2012). Most scholars simply see griffins as chimeras - creatures invented from components of animals and human individuals for symbolic or literary intent (Wyatt 2009; Gane 2012). As with other chimeras, the difference between griffin types likely reflects efforts to convey information about these creatures or the scenarios they were depicted in. For example, the addition of wings may indicate swiftness or divinity; large, erect ears suggest alertness; claws suggest ferocity and so on. These features were not added randomly to griffin art, and the development of distinctive griffin types can be traced over time (e.g. Goldman 1960). The message from mainstream archaeology seems to be that griffin iconography had complex origins and development within the framework of chimera creation common to ancient cultures, and that generalising their form is probably not the best way to understand them.
|Sketch of a juvenile Protoceratops andrewsi skull, right lateral view.|
It should be stressed that much of this contrasts with the anatomy of Protoceratops. I need to be careful that I don't set up a straw man here - after all, it's likely we know far more about Protoceratops than anyone who lived thousands of years ago, and the hypothetical passing of tales about Protoceratops from central Asia to eastern Europe is an incredibly long game of Chinese whispers. However, if the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is to be accepted it needs to pass some basic anatomical tests, even if they are very simple. Let's start with the head. Immediately obvious is that there is nothing projecting rearwards from the posterior head region of most griffins, whereas all Protoceratops (even very small juveniles) have some sort of frill extending posterodorsally from the back of the skull (above). The ears and crests of griffins, explained as being the broken frills of Protoceratops fossils, are structures which project upwards from the head, not backwards. If we must give these structures a basis in reality, we can look to the ornamental head feathers of birds for the crests (remember that the heads of some elaborate birds, like peacocks, are used in some griffin art) and any number of common mammal species for the ears. These are surely simpler alternatives than the broken skull bones of dinosaur fossils occurring thousands of miles away. It is often suggested that griffin wings might be mistaken interpretations of the Protoceratops frill, but the wings are clearly set on the shoulders in most reconstructions and behind lion-like neck manes in some imagery. Moreover, as noted above, not all griffins have wings. Protoceratops is also not toothless, its densely packed cheek teeth being obvious in even weathered skulls. The majority of griffin images show a fully toothless beak far more like that of a bird than a ceratopsian dinosaur.
|Scott Hartmans's skeletal reconstruction of Protoceratops andrewsi. Borrowed from the excellent Scott Hartman's Skeletal Drawing.com.|
Written accounts of griffin behaviour, and the development of griffin loreEven if Protoceratops did not inform the raw appearance of griffins, could it be referenced in written accounts of griffin appearance and behaviour, such as their desert-living, parental care and gold-guarding habits? It's perhaps these accounts which provide the best evidence for the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis, as it's these which indicate the deserts of central Asia as the griffin's home and their association with gold. It's worth summarising some details of the first griffin accounts here as their nature and propagation is important. Please check out Phillips (1955), Bowra (1956), Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) for more details.
Much of Greek griffin lore is derived from stories of the Greek poet Aristeas, who travelled through Asia in c. 675 BCE. His adventures and travels are first recorded in texts from 460-450 BCE (Mayor and Heaney 1993) and were so influential that they continued to be referenced well into the Common Era. However, it's worth stressing that these stories are semi-mythical tales of a semi-mythical man: Aristeas was a real chap, but he is described as seeing and doing things which are combinations of real and fantastic phenomena. Scholars still discuss the realities behind the locations, events, creatures, and peoples Aristeas encountered, and even ancient Greek authors, such as Herodotus, did not believe everything Aristeas was said to have seen and done (Phillips 1955, Bowra 1956). Among the earliest accounts of Aristeas' travels is the tragedy Prometheus Bound, a tale involving gods, titans, gorgons and other monsters. Here, griffins and other creatures were suggested to live to the far north-east of Greece in a desolate desert setting where nomadic barbarians (the Scythians) also hunted for gold. Other documents from the fifth century BCE, also influenced by tales of Aristeas, tell of griffins guarding the gold sought by men and other beasts. Griffin burrows were mentioned by Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, written in 77 CE, as well as by Pausanias in 170 CE. These authors, again citing Aristeas, described how griffins were engaged in a constant war with a race of one-eyed men, the Arimaspi (Bowra 1956). Later accounts, penned in 200 CE, provide specifics of griffin anatomy and behaviour. They include the familiar accounts of their far eastern habitation of mountains and deserts, as well as new information: their membranous wings (considered useless for flight), the extent of their feathering, the colouration of different body parts, the fiery look in their eyes, the fact that men cannot best adult individuals but can capture their offspring, their nesting behaviour and parental nature, and how miners prospect for gold at night to avoid upsetting them.
This also present a further complication to the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis: are Protoceratops localities likely to contain gold when they're so far away from the alluvial gold sites? Both Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) argue that desert storms may have transported nuggets of gold to Protoceratops localities, and that seeing these transported nuggets alongside Protoceratops fossils may account for the gold-guarding element of the griffin mythos. This is something we can test because the geology of Protoceratops sites is well documented and understood. Assuming the same basic meteorological processes occur today as thousands of years ago, we should see evidence of windswept gold in the Protoceratops bonebeds. But as far as I'm aware, no gold has been reported from these sites, either as surface debris or as buried elements. Moreover, although the possibility of wind transportation is not excluded entirely, no gold is mentioned by the palaeontologists with Mongolian field experience interviewed by Mayor and Heaney (1993) or Mayor (2011). All this considered, the evidence for it seems the link between Protoceratops and gold deposits is not as strong as it first seems.
Finally, it's worth noting that the Greek accounts of griffins may no longer be the only texts on these creatures from the first century BCE. Gane (2012) discusses Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian literature which is tentatively thought to describe another take on griffin lore. They provide a very different interpretation of griffins, where they are divine guardians against evil spirits and possibly associated with funerary rites. This sounds little like the idea that they were desert-dwelling, gold-hoarding wild animals, and of course suggests no obvious link to fossil animals of China and Mongolia. The implication here is that the Greek stories are only one set of lore about griffins. They are more familiar to us because of their transition to the post-classical period, but they might not be the only, or even the original interpretation of these creatures. Thus, even if Protoceratops is something to do with the griffin - which is far from clear - it is likely only involved in one component of griffin folklore. This seems to echo points made above about the griffin as a very old and complex concept, and how interpretations of its origins are blurred by multiculturalism.
So... is Protoceratops the basis of the griffin myth?Before we answer that, here's a quick summary of the main issues outlined here:
- Near Eastern griffin culture seems to occur thousands of years before we have evidence for it in central Asia, suggesting Protoceratops anatomy could not be referenced in any way by the original griffin artists.
- Griffin anatomies, in all their variants, are best and entirely explained as chimeras of extant animals. There is no need to invoke any exotic fossil anatomies in their design.
- Griffin iconography, and perhaps written legends, are sufficiently varied to suggest a complex set of origins and legends for these creatures.
- Ancient Greek writings seem to lack compelling references to Protoceratops, and aspects of appearance and behaviour they discuss clearly indicate they were not informed by fossilised animals. Several details of these accounts suggest they must be talking about imaginary creatures.
- Protoceratops fossils are found hundreds of kilometres from ancient Scythian gold mines, undermining the suggestion they might be the source of griffin gold guarding lore. There is no indication that these dinosaur fossils are associated with gold.
With all this said, it seems invoking Protoceratops to the griffin myth is nothing but a complication for griffin origins. Data has to be selected to fit this model and then worked around, rather than with, existing ideas on griffin origins that better account for its history, cultural diversity and spread among ancient peoples. So, in short, no, I can't see any reason to think Protoceratops has anything to do with griffin lore, and entirely understand the mainstream view of it as a chimeric animal cooked up by ancient cultures of the Near East. Interestingly, none of the recent papers on griffin lore and imagery I looked at in preparation for this article mention the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis, and it's surprisingly challenging to find much mention of it in any peer-reviewed literature. This is despite its 23 year vintage and wide popularity among educators, media outlets and some palaeontologists. it clearly has not been adopted as readily by archaeologists as by those of us interested in dinosaur science. I suspect this idea has found greater mileage among the palaeontologically minded because it presents an interesting and seemingly reasonable story, but that also one that sufficiently straddles disciplines and knowledge bases to discourage further research from people mainly interested in extinct species. Given the lack of commentary on this idea from archaeological quarters, I'm genuinely curious to know what those with this sort of background make of this idea.
This Protoceratops article and painting has origins at PatreonThe artwork and words you see here are supported by folks who back me on Patreon, the service which allows you to directly support artists and authors with monthly payments. This long, detailed article is exactly the sort of thing I can produce because of this support. If you enjoyed it and would like to see more, you can back my blog from $1 a month. In exchange, you get access to bonus art, discussion and rewards - the more you pledge, you more bonuses you receive! For this post, my patrons were privy to in-progress versions of the painting at the top of the article, discussions of Protoceratops anatomy, and narrowly avoided lots of swearing about rendering of complicated frill geometry. As usual, thanks to everyone who already supports me!
- Bowra, C. M. (1956). A Fragment of the Arimaspea. The Classical Quarterly, 6(1/2), 1-10.
- Fastovsky, D. E., Badamgarav, D., Ishimoto, H., Watabe, M., & Weishampel, D. B. (1997). The paleoenvironments of Tugrikin-Shireh (Gobi Desert, Mongolia) and aspects of the taphonomy and paleoecology of Protoceratops (Dinosauria: Ornithishichia). Palaios, 59-70.
- Frankfort, H. (1937). Notes on the Cretan griffin. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 37, 106-122.
- Gane, C. E. (2012). Composite Beings in Neo-Babylonian Art (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley).
- Goldfinger, E. (2004). Animal Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form: The Elements of Form. Oxford University Press, USA.
- Goldman, B. (1960). The development of the lion-griffin. American Journal of Archaeology, 64(4), 319-328.
- Lambert, O., Godefroit, P., Li, H., Shang, C. Y., & Dong, Z. M. (2001). A new species of Protoceratops (Dinosauria, Neoceratopsia) from the Late Cretaceous of Inner Mongolia (PR China). Bulletin-Institut royal des sciences naturelles de Belgique. Sciences de la Terre, 71, 5-28.
- Mayor, A. (2001). The first fossil hunters: paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press. (First edition)
- Mayor, A. (2011). The first fossil hunters: paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press. (Second edition)
- Mayor, A., & Heaney, M. (1993). Griffins and Arimaspeans. Folklore, 104(1-2), 40-66.
- Phillips, E. D. (1955). The legend of Aristeas: fact and fancy in early Greek notions of East Russia, Siberia, and Inner Asia. Artibus Asiae, 18(2), 161-177.
- Tartaron, T. F. (2014). Cross-Cultural Interaction in the Greek World: Culture Contact Issues and Theories. In Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (pp. 1804-1821). Springer New York.
- Wyatt, N. (2009). Grasping the Griffin: Identifying and Characterizing the Griffin in Egyptian and West Semitic Tradition. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 1(1), 29-39.