Tracing Scythia’s Griffins

My early childhood recollection of griffins comes from watching the Golden Voyage of Sinbad when, in the final act, the eponymous hero witnesses a spellbinding stop-motion clash between a giant one-eyed centaur and a griffin. After recently reading about the nomadic Scythians of eastern Europe and central Asia, I once again came upon a griffin in combat, this time in 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 Phoenician scarab, most likely used as a seal, depicts the Egyptian God Bes locked in a struggle with our mythical creature.

Engraved Scarab with Bes Fighting a Griffin, 500 B.C., green jasper original featured alongside a stamp impression, 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 Scythians 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 a 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 are also content with providing socio-political commentary such as Indira Gandhi’s restriction of civil liberties during The Emergency 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 is human agents and their capacity to transform uninhabitable maneater infested swampland into the verdant paddy fields we see in Bengal today.  

References

[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.