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. Farkas 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.

Scroll Readers and Tiger Tamers

There is a cacophony of excitement as villagers gather under a banyan tree. Patua, or travelling minstrels, have called for the village’s undivided attention, hoping to both entertain and illuminate the audience with their scrolls. Carefully manipulating the bamboo handles of the scroll, the Patua progressively reveal elaborate scenes of a tale; making literal the term ‘the story unfolds’.

Often sung, this rural performance art, known as Pattachitra, is native to Bengal and Odisha. In the 19th century, the scrolls would include scenes from the Ramayana or depictions of the travails of local saints. Modern iterations have provided socio-political commentary such as Indira Gandhi’s restriction of civil liberties during The Emergency (1975-1977) and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement.[1] One traditional narration, found in the Gazi Scroll, dating from the 1800s, is now tucked away in the British Museum. The focal point of this artwork is the portrayal of the Sufi mystic Gazi pir who wields a serpent as a staff and rides a frightening tiger as his steed. Measuring thirteen metres in length, it represents the enormous historical transformation of the Bengal delta from centuries prior.

A scene from the Gazi Scroll, British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mughals, having conquered the Bengal Sultanate had acquired a province of which the eastern half comprised a thick, inhospitable jungle. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, the imperial administration sought to colonise this giant stretch of forest.[2] Local holy men, known as pirs, provided much initiative, encouraging their followers to act as pioneers by chopping the forest and building new settlements. With it came accounts of the pirs’ supposed magical abilities, including taming the fearsome crocodiles and tigers who threatened these nascent communities. As late as 1898, a British officer noted of pirs operating in Bengal’s jungles;

As these animals seldom attack man in this district, the Pir is generally allowed by persons of both religions to have restrained the natural ferocity of the beast, or, as it is more usually said, has given the tiger no order to kill man.[3]

Patua storytelling is fluid as is the case with many oral traditions. Depending on the performer’s mood or audience, the delivery may change ever so slightly, although a general outline would be fixed by the scroll’s illustrations. While the exact narration the scroll’s painter had imagined may not be retrievable, the Gazi Scroll serves to remind its audience of a past sprinkled with heroes and fiends. Central to this account are human agents and their capacity to transform uninhabitable maneater infested swampland into the verdant paddy fields we see in Bengal today.  


References

Featured image: Jagannatha, Balabhadra, and Subhadra in the Jagganatha Temple (1875-1900), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Ghosh, Pika. “Unrolling a narrative scroll: Artistic practice and identity in late-nineteenth-century Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies 62, no. 3 (2003): 835-871.

[2] Eaton, Richard Maxwell, and Richard M. Eaton. The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204-1760. Vol. 17. Univ of California Press, 1993.

[3] Ibid., 209.

The Caliph’s Dream

Skeletons of giants, Viking long ship funerals and medieval statecraft – ‘Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness’ widens the eyes in many ways. Superbly translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, it recounts several Arab travellers’ experiences in Russia, Central Asia and Hungary between the 9th and 14th centuries. What particularly drew my attention was Sallām the Interpreter’s voyage which followed Caliph al-Wāthiq’s dream of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj escaping their prison in 831 CE.  

Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj are magical beings featured in Islamic eschatology, transmitted from early Christian sources about Gog and Magog. This tribe was imprisoned beneath mountains in the Far North and sealed behind a barrier built by the ‘two-horned one’, commonly associated with Alexander the Great. Each day the creatures tunnel from beneath the earth using their teeth, allowing them to penetrate just enough soil to glimpse the world above them. Before falling into torpor at night, Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj promise to break through this hole once they awake. To this day they wake up to their work undone by the will of God; giving mankind reprieve from their pestilence. During the end of times, it is through God’s will that they shall finally leave their subterranean prison to consume every living creature until there is nothing but themselves.[1]

The Monster of Gog and Magog by Zakariya al-Qazwini (1717), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We can see why, upon dreaming of the world’s end, the Caliph al-Wāthiq commissioned Sallām the translator and fifty companions on an eighteen month journey to determine whether it was an imminent premonition. In the ninth century, Arab and Persian geographers divided the world into seven climes, beyond which was the domain of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj.[2] The region and people associated with this realm would change depending on historical realpolitik; with Mongols, Turkic tribes, and later Napoleon and the Soviets equated to Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj .[3]

In our ninth century travellers’ case, Sallām and his companions made their arduous expedition from Baghdad to outer China via Iran and Central Asia. Arriving at the fabled barrier, Sallām remarked of ‘a high mountain surrounded by fortifications’, a reference to the Great Wall of China.[4] Sallām returned to the Caliph to assure him that the damage to the barrier was no wider than a thread. With his fears allayed, the consoled Caliph granted the fatigued travellers  gifts and provided alms to the poor.  

The interpreter’s odyssey is a vivid description of an interconnected world of caravansaries.[5] Both overland and maritime routes linked the worlds between Andalucía and the Far East. More importantly, these travels present the reader with an imagined world tamed by physical verification. To trek beyond the pale of human settlement, prior to air travel, in order to satiate a dream, is an astonishing feat.


References

Featured image: Alexander the Great oversees the building of the wall to fend off Yajuj and Majuj. A miniature from a Book of Divinations (Falnama) [of Ja’far al-Sadiq[1]] made for Tahmasp I (r. 1524–76), via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Schmidt, Andrea B. and van Donzel, Emeri Johannes Andrea B. Schmidt. ‘Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest’, Brill (2010) pp. 95-97

[2] Ibid., 98

[3] Ibid., 4

[4] Lunde Paul and Stone, Caroline E.M., ‘Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North’, Penguin Classics (2011), p. 101

[5] Ibid., Xviii

The Giraffe of Bengal

Presented as a gift to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, a giraffe represented the intensive fifteenth century connections between China and the Indian subcontinent. We can safely assume giraffes are not native to South Asia and it was likely an accession gift from east African envoys of Malindi to Bengal’s sultan, Saif Al Din Hamzah. However, the sultan would not have been too impressed as the giraffe was re-gifted, finding its way to the Ming court in 1414.[1]

The gift was presented to the emperor as a qilin, a mythical creature which represents benevolence. Qilin are said to have the body of a deer, equine hooves, fish scales and a horn. Matching their strange form was a diet which consisted of “unhusked rice, beans and flour-cakes”.[2] How such creatures managed to cook flour-cakes escapes me.

Qilin tomb guardian, 4th century, Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The emperor himself was not too fussed about the creature, declaring:

If my ministers devote themselves to their work day and night, and exhaust all efforts to govern the empire and bring benefit to it, the empire will be at peace. Even without a qilin, there is nothing that hinders us from governing well. [3]

In spite of the apprehension, the Ming emperor reciprocated by providing velvet and silk; thus establishing cordial ties between the two polities.[4] The ties were soon interrupted by Bengal’s internal turmoil. Raja Ganesh, a Hindu chieftain, had overthrown the Turkic Ilyas Shahi dynasty who had ruled the Bengal delta for seven decades. Incensed by Ganesh’s enthronement of his twelve year old son Jadu as the new sultan, the Sufi mystic Nur Qutub ‘Alam invited the neighbouring Jaunpur Sultanate to intervene. In an attempt to legitimise his rule, Jadu converted to Islam and took the name Jalal-Uddin. This dispelled Nur Qutub ‘Alam’s apprehensions, but did little to dissuade Jaunpur, who viewed the succession struggle as an opportunity to weaken their rival.

For six years official records remained quiet about any envoys sent between Bengal and the Ming court.[5] It was in 1420, after Jalal-Uddin had domestically consolidated his regime, that Bengal officially requested China’s assistance against border excursions. In response, the Ming emperor sent a military expedition, leading to Jaunpur’s withdrawal from Bengal’s affairs. This may not have been possible without the qilin gift which facilitated a diplomatic relationsip six years prior.


References

[1] Duyvendak, Jan Julius Lodewijk. “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century.” T’oung Pao 34, no. 1 (1938): 348-354

[2] Church, Sally K. “The Giraffe of Bengal: a medieval encounter in Ming China.” The Medieval History Journal 7, no. 1 (2004): 22

[3] Ibid., 25

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 26

Caravans and Ancient Puzzles

 Welcome to my blog! I will be writing about many fascinating historical events, ideas and stories which dotted the the silk roads and beyond. In doing so, I hope to unravel how people communicated and maintained trust when journeys between regions could take months. For instance, how could a merchant from Mughal India ensure his cloth would reach its destination in Astrakhan, Russia?

I hope you enjoy my findings.

Eugène Flandin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons