Tracing Scythia’s Griffins

As a child I’d spend weekends watching and re-watching VHS cassettes of classic monster films. Fast-forwarding through the adverts, which had also annoyingly been recorded, I’d eagerly anticipate the final act of the Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Having fought his way through an unknown world, the eponymous hero witnesses a spellbinding stop-motion clash between a formidable one-eyed centaur and a copper-hued griffin. After recently reading about the nomadic Scythians of eastern Europe and Central Asia, it was a serendipitous discovery to observe a griffin in combat, this time within the medium of jewellery.

Symmetrical and intricately woven, the crescent-shaped golden pectoral of Tovsta Mohlya from southern Ukraine provides a snapshot of Scythian life and folklore. It dates from the fourth century B.C. and was discovered by Soviet archaeologists in a kurgan, a Scythian burial mound, along with the graves of servants and horses nearby.[1]

Measuring roughly thirty centimetres in diameter, the pectoral consists of three detailed panels. The top panel portrays Scythian daily life, including two figures fashioning clothing out of sheepskin. The middle panel features pastoral scenes of birds, spiralling vines and conch-like flowers. It is the lower frieze which holds one’s attention. Here, fears about predators are interwoven with magic. Lions feast on boars, yet the eye is drawn to the centre where winged griffins dismember a horse.

Pectoral, Historical Treasures Museum, Kyiv

The predator-prey dichotomy features heavily in Scythian artwork, reflecting the harsh existence the nomads would have faced.[2] What was truly fascinating was that a near identical motif, dating roughly from the same century, was found in a terracotta fragment in southern Italy some 2½ thousand kilometres away from the kurgan. Likewise, the Olynthus mosaic of Northern Greece, also dating from the same time period, shows a similar scene. [3] What could have accounted for these identical artistic themes separated by such a huge geographical distance?

Applique Fragment, 350-300 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu California. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The answer to this may lie in trade. Griffins originate in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia where they appear in artistic depictions as early as 3000 B.C.[4] Below one can observe such art from the region, although dated some 2,500 years after the motif’s original introduction. The Phoenician scarab, likely used as a seal, depicts the Egyptian God Bes locked in a struggle with our mythical creature.

A stamp impression of an engraved scarab with Bes Fighting a Griffin, 500 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu California. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Ann Farkas suggests the griffin-in-combat motif may have been transferred to Scythia via the ancient textiles trade from the Near East.[5] For instance, a rug portraying stags and griffins was found in a Scythian burial site in Pazyryk in southern Siberia. It was theorised that the rug would have been gifted or traded by Persia or nearby polities. Similarly, it is possible that Persian textiles featuring griffin motifs may have been exported to Greece and across the Mediterranean to southern Italy. From Greece, Hellenic traders and artisans may have transported the featured motifs to the northern shores of the Black Sea, where it would have caught the eye of local Scythians.[6]

What has been described is the proliferation of an ancient artistic trend, not dissimilar to the trends we see in our globalised world. The Scythian reception and indigenisation of the griffin demonstrates that even ancient nomads did not exist in total cultural isolation.


References

[1] Piotrovsky, Boris. “Excavations and Discoveries in Scythian Lands.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 32, no. 5 (1973): 31.

[2] Cunliffe, Barry. The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe. Oxford University Press, 2019. 283.

[3] Farkas, Ann. “Interpreting Scythian Art: East vs. West.” Artibus Asiae 39, no. 2 (1977): 128.

[4] Mayor, Adrienne, and Michael Heaney. “Griffins and Arimaspeans.” Folklore 104, no. 1-2 (1993): 41.

[5] Farkas, Ann. “Interpreting Scythian Art: East vs. West.” Artibus Asiae 39, no. 2 (1977): 128.

[6] Ibid.,128.

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