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Eurwentala's avatar

The Griffin

I'm currently reading Adrienne Mayor's fascinating book The First Fossil Hunters. The first chapter makes a convincing case showing that the roots of the mythical griffin lie in the Gobi desert. Frequent, deadly sandstorms expose white bones from the red earth, and many of those bones belong to lion-sized animals with four legs and a nasty beak.

Today, we call those animals Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus. Ancient Gobi nomads called them griffins and told tales of them to their Greek trading partners. Apart from the wings (which were apparently later added by Greek artists), the nomads made a surprisingly accurate reconstruction of an extinct animal. Arguably more accurate than the first attempts of Western scientists.
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Philoceratops's avatar
Mark Witton objects to this:…

But very nice!
Eurwentala's avatar
He has good points and might well be right. Though the explanations don't necessarily rule each other out. The griffin lore itself is much older, but the placement of griffins into Scythia specifically and their treatment as real animals instead of godly creatures might be because of fossil finds. It might be an untestable hypothesis, though.
Philoceratops's avatar
I see what you mean.
Falken02's avatar
Whoa! gave me some great ideas!! i will totally check some of those books
platypus12's avatar
Interesting concept you have there. I often like to believe that animal we deem as mythical must've been inspired off an actual animal.
randomdinos's avatar
Mammal-like front limbs, birdlike back limbs, a powerful head with a huge beak, and a rather long but thin tail. Heck, apart for the wings, both creatures have the exact same description.
AlexornisAntecedens's avatar
This is cool! I love the depiction of the griffin you put here. It's so fasinating to see how dinosaurs sparked legends of giant beasts, like dragons or griffins. How interesting would it be to be one of the first people to find the bones of these ancient animals?! ;)
RoFlo-Felorez's avatar
i just got that book not too long ago, i'm so excited to read up more on it! :D the case about the protoceratops griffin is really interesting huh :)
DinoBirdMan's avatar
I just know this one or two fossils (such as protoceratops and pssitacosaurus) are just create a fantasy creature called the griffin, as the legend told, that flying creature is has a head of a eagle or hawk, and the shape body of the lion. And I'm also read that Adrienne Mayor's book.^^
Paleohyperspace's avatar
Coincidentally, this recently came to my attention as well.  But what about Bagaceratops? To me, it looks much more like the traditional griffin than Protoceratops.
Eurwentala's avatar
Bagaceratops does look griffin-like, but I'd think it's not common enough to be the main inspiration. Only five complete skulls are known today, and not even a single articulated skeleton, while articulated Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus skeletons are unearthed by the hundreds.

Mayor also points out that the crest of Protoceratops is very thin and fragile, and is often broken in specimens exposed by erosion. When broken, it only leaves a horn-like knob on the head - much like the weird knobs many Greek bronze griffins have.

Probably all bones of beaked, four-legged animals found in the Gobi were considered griffins, in any case.
Paleohyperspace's avatar
Ah. That's logical.
I wonder if the thunderbirds of North American Indian mythology were similarly inspired by fossils of pteranodontids?
Eurwentala's avatar
I'm pretty sure that topic is covered in Adrienne Mayor's other geomythology book, Fossil Legends of the First…

I haven't read it, but it does look interesting.
Zimices's avatar
Nice image, and this book is very interesting too. It have  a good chapter about the skull of Samotherium :)
WhiskerfaceRumpel's avatar
I always wondered how the griffins got wings if they were based off of Protoceratops.  This cleared that up.  Thank you!  Pixel Rose  
SpinozillaRex's avatar
could you possibly link a picture of the greek dapictions :) (hopefully if that sentence makes sense :P )
the fact that they where more accurate than todays depictions sounds really awesome :)
Eurwentala's avatar
Not more accurate than today's depictions, but arguably more so than the depictions of earlier paleontologists. They imagined Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus as a sluggish, reptilian creatures with sprawling limbs. These reconstructions can still be seen online, for example here:… and…

The ancient Scythians and Greek, however, thought the griffin essentially as a four-legged bird: warm-blooded and active with a fierce bite, possibly either feathery, scaly or leathery (the writers often noted that they are unsure what griffin skin was like). That's quite a bit more like our current notion of the animals. These dinosaurs had bird-like beaks, were probably hot-blooded and at least Psittacosaurus had feather-like quills.

Here are a couple of antique Greek depictions:…
Evenape's avatar
Also intriguingly, cladistically speaking, all of these creatures ( along with dinosaurs) can be considered stem-birds :xD:
Patrikia-Bear's avatar
Clock--Heart's avatar
that is so interesting! i love learning stuff like this, where the roots of mythological creatures come from

if you learn about more roots, please share! La la la la 
Eurwentala's avatar
Koeskull's avatar
I've also heard that the broken crest bones could've been mistaken for parts of wings
Eurwentala's avatar
Yeah. Apparently the crests are often broken off from Protoceratops skeletons weathering out from the rocks, and could look like wing parts. The bony stub left from a broken crest could be the inspiration for weird horns, ears and other headgear griffins are portrayed with.
TheBattyCrow's avatar
That's so neat! Just like the rhino and the unicorn legends :)
I can definitely see the resemblances here, not so much about the rhino, though
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