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“Do not discourage your children from hoarding, if they have a taste to it; whoever lays up his penny rather than part with it for a cake, at least is not the slave of gross appetite; and shows besides a preference always to be esteemed, of the future” – Samuel Johnson

The unfortunate obsessive-compulsive griffin

The unfortunate obsessive-compulsive griffin

In the past 7000 years, humans have mined about 155,000 tons of gold, with rough estimates suggesting that there are about 50,000 tons left to be reasonably extracted from the earth before we reach “peak gold” (the date at which the maximum rate of global gold extraction is reached, and rate of production begins to decline, somewhere around 2022 A.D. unless we start mining asteroids – we currently mine about 2400 tons of terrestrial gold a year).  Melted down and formed into a cube, this means all the gold in the world roughly fits into 20 cubic meters.  The Hobbit’s Smaug must be feeling pretty good, considering that Wired magazine recently estimated that the treasure hoard he lounges around on represents about 158 cubic meters of gold, or nearly eight times the amount of gold in the world.  As I currently have exactly no gold (apart from a dental filling and a wedding ring, neither of which would be wise to melt down until I shuffle off this mortal coil), I am not a fearsome dragon, and some cunning entrepreneur already came up with the “cash-for-gold” business model, my dreams of having my own hoard likely represent an uphill battle.  Since few of us will soon be backstroking through piles of gold (except surprisingly in India, which is estimated to have about 11% of global gold), we must console ourselves with considering the problems that owning a mountain of gold entails.  Generally, if you’re going to start hoarding treasure, it pays to be either a king or a monster, since the central truth surrounding possession of fabulous amounts of gold is that others are keenly interested in relieving you of your financial burden, thus it behooves you to have either a well-paid standing army or alternatively, to convince people that you are an apocalyptically fearsome critter.  If you are already a king, that’s great for you, but historically the career of a king has been an expensive investment, not to mention nasty, brutish, and short (although not as short as the peasants), and the employment outlook for kings these days is unimpressive, whereas monstrosity has always been and remains a growth industry.  All but a few foolish action heroes with serious daddy issues are usually deterred at the prospect of being eaten and can’t carry that much away in the grand scheme of things, so the major concern of most gold-hoarding monsters is, frankly, other mythological monsters.  This is clearly demonstrated historically in the sad plight of the hard-working, mild-mannered, yet obsessive-compulsive hoarder, the Griffin (sometimes Gryphon, if you want to get your Greek on, or Griffon if you simply have a fondness for the letter “o”).

The archetypal Griffin is a chimerical beastie sporting the body, tail, and hind paws of a lion in admixture with the head, wings, and taloned forefeet of an eagle, basically half of the king of the beasts and half of the king of the birds, making the Griffin rather aristocratic in the Great Chain of Imaginary Being, putting in cameo appearances in the art and literature of ancient Greece, Persia, Egypt, Crete, Central Asia, and Medieval Europe, emerging as a way popular figure in European heraldry, presumably because of his royal aspirations, but also because he looks like he could have you as a snack before calmly dispatching the large army you brought along.  The most frequently mentioned characteristic of the Griffin, apart from its hybrid monstrousness (which would be obvious were you to meet one face to beak), is its unabashed love of gold and obsessive-compulsive need to accumulate it in vast hoards, sort of like Warren Buffett.  Interestingly, the Griffin is not usually credited with obtaining gold through nefarious predation, rather is simply really good at finding and mining it.  And then sitting on it.  And enjoying its shininess.  This is one industrious monster that prides itself in ingenious gold extraction methods, instead of resorting to an accumulation of ill-gotten gains from sacking castles and ransoming maidens.  There are no extant records of the Griffin spending his gold (no seven cars, diamond teeth, posh estates, or bling – apart from the obvious bling of sitting on a massive pile of gold), no folktales about Griffin-financed villainy, or devious plans to precipitate economic disaster on a worldwide scale.  These guys just like having gold, and lots of it, for no reason anyone can discern.  Classic compulsive hoarding disorder, just like you can see on reality television.  We all have our little insanities, so we really shouldn’t hold this particular neurosis against our Griffin friends, for they have bigger problems to deal with, in particular a long history of unprovoked aggression from cyclopean Arimaspians, interrupting their quiet contemplation of immense piles of gold and trying to steal their stuff.

In the 7th Century B.C., Greek poet Aristeas of Proconnesus is reputed to have made one of the first mentions of the Griffin in a poem called the Arimaspea, detailing his travels north of Asia Minor.  This is fairly hard to confirm, as the entire Arimaspea has been lost, excepting a six line quote by 1st Century A.D. Greek literary critic Longinus (who historians know nothing about except he authored a single work called On the Sublime) and a small fragment recorded in the Chiliades by 12th Century A.D. Byzantine grammarian John Tzetzes.  Of course, neither of these fragments has anything to say about Griffins, because that would be too darn helpful.  Luckily, Greek uber-historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) discussed the Arimaspea (although didn’t quote it directly) and graciously highlighted the reference to Griffins, as well as giving us some geographic clues to their original whereabouts.

The Issedones themselves affirm, that the country beyond them is inhabited by a race of men who have but one eye, and by Gryphons, who are guardians of the gold. Such is the information which the Scythians have from the Issedones, and we from the Scythians: in the Scythian tongue they are called Arimaspians, from Arima, the Scythian word for “one”, and spu, an “eye”(Herodotus, Histories Bk.4 Ch. 27).

To an Ancient Greek, Scythia would have been anything northeast of Europe, including Central Asia all the way out to Mongolia.  The Issedones were a people thought to be north of Scythia (possibly Western Siberia or Chinese Turkestan), and while regarded as human, were characterized by Herodotus as fairly unsavory, practicing polyandry (women take multiple husbands), and ritual cannibalism.  Of course, Herodotus likely assumed that anyone not awesomely Greek practiced cannibalism, so we’ll take that with a grain of salt.  Now the Issedones were not originally from the Scythian neighborhood, rather farther north, and were driven south by invading Arimaspians.  So Arimaspians herded the Issedones south, the Issedones elbowed out the Scythians and sent them south, and now all the Scythians do is bitch about it.  Well, not really.  They’re mostly dead.  If you ever meet a Scythian, you’ve probably time-travelled to the Carpathian Mountains in the Iron Age or in the words of Russell Crowe’s General Maximus, “If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you’re already dead”.  The Issedones seemed to ignore the local Griffins, but when they got their hats handed to them, the Armispians moved in and concluded that a redistribution of Griffin wealth was in order.  Roman writer Aelian (175-235 A.D.) provides a little more description and paraphrases fragments from the earlier Indica of Ctesias (5th Century B.C.) regarding the Griffin.  A word or two on Aelian.  Although a Latin-speaking Roman, he far preferred to write in an archaic version of Greek, which even his contemporaries regarded as a little weird, like Michigan-native Madonna adopting a British accent.  The Greek Ctesias, from whom Aelian derived his information on the Griffin was getting his data on monsters from hearsay in the Persian royal court where he worked, and they tended to place all strange creatures in India, so while much of the folklore surrounding the griffin is consistent with other scholars, the location of the Griffin is a little unclear, as it came from “India” (which could have been anywhere east of Persia) through the Bactrians (thought to be Northern Afghanistan) to the Persians.  Some confusion is understandable, and since the best we can figure the Arimaspians resided somewhere in Central Asia, its not a stretch to suggest that we are hearing a muddled version describing a conflict somewhere in the northern reaches of Asia.  Even if the Griffins of India and Arimaspians were different broods, it’s clear that someone was always trying to get their greedy little hands on their gold.

The gryphon, an Indian animal, is, so far as I can learn, four-footed like the lion and has claws of enormous strength closely resembling his. It is described as having feathers on its back, and these black, while the breast feathers are red and those of the wing white. According to Ktesias its neck is variegated with feathers of a bright blue; its beak is like an eagle’s; and its head like the representations which artists give of it in paintings and sculptures. Its eyes are said to be fiery red, and it builds its nest upon the mountains, and, as it is impossible to catch these birds when full grown, they are caught when quite young. The Baktrians who are next neighbours to the Indians give out that these birds guard the gold found in the regions which they haunt, and that they dig it out of the ground and build their nests with it, and that the Indians carry off as much of it as falls to the ground. The Indians however deny that the gryphons guard the gold, alleging, what I think is highly probable, that gold is a thing gryphons have no use for; but they admit that when these birds see them coming to gather the gold, they become alarmed for their young and attack the intruders. Nor do they resist man only, but beasts of whatever kind, gaining an easy victory over all except only the elephant and the lion, for which they are no match. The gryphons, then, being so formidable, the natives of these countries go not to gather gold in the day time, but set out under cover of night when they are least likely to be detected. Now the auriferous region which the gryphons inhabit is a frightful desert, and those who make a raid upon the gold, select a moonless night, and set out armed, the expedition being a thousand or even two thousand strong. They take with them mattocks for digging the gold and sacks in which to carry it away. If they are unobserved by the gryphons they have a double share of good luck, for they not only escape with their lives but bear a freight of gold in triumph home, where, the metal having been purified by those who are skillful in smelting ores, they are recompensed with overflowing wealth for all the hazards of the enterprise. Should they on the other hand be detected in the act of theft, certain death would be their fate. I have learned by enquiry that they do not return home till after an absence of three or four years (Aelian, De Natura Animalium, Bk.4, Ch 27).

Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) expanded on the conflict between the Arimaspians and Griffins, and while decrying the covetousness of the Griffins, was clear to point out that they did the hard labor of digging out the gold, while the nasty Arimaspians only got off their lazy, one-eyed backsides to try and mug them.  Often, folks deride these classical authors for being armchair anthropologists, but Pliny (his full name was Gaius Plinius Secundus) was a real life Action Jackson, despite being rather obese and suffering from asthma.  He died while sailing a rescue ship towards Mount Vesuvius, attempting to rescue any survivors from the just recently obliterated Pompeii and Herculaneum and spouting one-liners like “Fortune favors the brave” when rocks and cinders started falling on his boat and his helmsman advised against proceeding.  Turns out you should probably listen to your helmsman.

We have pointed out that some Scythian tribes, cannibals and in fact a good many, feed on human bodies—a statement that perhaps may seem incredible if we do not reflect that races of this portentous character have existed in the central region of the world, named Cyclopes and Laestrygones, and that quite recently the tribes of the parts beyond the Alps habitually practiced human sacrifice, which is not far removed from eating human flesh. But also a tribe is reported next to these, towards the North, not far from the actual quarter whence the North Wind rises and the cave that bears its name, the place called the Earth’s Door-bolt—the Arimaspi whom we have spoken of already, people remarkable for having one eye in the centre of the forehead. Many authorities, the most distinguished being Herodotus and Aristeas of Proconnesus, write that these people wage continual war around their mines with the griffins, a kind of wild beast with wings, as commonly reported, that digs gold out of mines, which the creatures guard and the Arimaspi try to take from them, both with remarkable covetousness (Pliny, Naturalis Historia, Bk. VII, Ch. I).

3rd Century A.D. Latin grammarian Gaius Julius Solinus confirms many of the traits of the “fierce fowl” called the Griffin, as well as their relationship to the Arimaspians, ascribing to the Griffin the moral role as punishers of avarice.  Obviously, Solinus has a less than charitable view of the Griffin, but it seems like most reasonable folks would be rather offended by the notion of a bunch of one-eyed thugs repeatedly robbing them of their treasure.  An incidental fact about Griffins is that they hate horses, but this is believed to stem from the constant conflict with the marauding Arimaspians, who although cyclopean, were noted equestrians – sensible if they were a steppe people that swarmed out of Central Asia to displace the unfortunate Issedones.  Arimaspians attacked the Griffins on horseback, so Griffins are reputed to hate horses by association.  If somebody mauled me in an alley with a tiger, I probably would similarly retain a certain irrational animosity towards tigers.

The Arimaspes, which are situated about Gesglithron, are a people that have but one eye. Beyond them and the Mountain Riphey is a country continually covered with snow, called Pteropheron. For the incessant falling of the hoarfrost and snow makes it look like feathers. A damned part of the world is it, and drowned by nature itself in the cloud of endless darkness, and utterly shut up in extreme cold as in a prison, even under the very North Pole. Only of all lands it knows no distinction of times, neither receives it anything else of the air than everlasting winter. In the Asiatik Scythia are rich lands, but notwithstanding the uninhabitable. For whereas they abound in gold and precious stones, the Gryffons possess all, a most fierce kind of fowl, cruel beyond all cruelty, whose outrageousness stops all comers, so that hardly and seldom arrive any there. For as soon as they see them they tear them in pieces, as creatures made of purpose to punish the rashness of covetous folk. The Arimaspes fight with them to get away their precious stones (Solinus, Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium, trans. Golding 1587: 15, 22).

Griffins like hoarding gold.  Sure, it’s a little odd, but they put in an honest day’s work mining it, so we really shouldn’t begrudge them the fact that it only has an aesthetic value for them.  The real problem here is that the world is filled with monstrous folks looking for an easy score.  If Griffins preferred to horde nuts and berries, we would regard them as gigantic, feathery squirrels and everybody would leave them alone.  We don’t necessarily choose our particular fetishes, and that has resulted in nothing but endless trouble and heartache for the poor Griffin.  No doubt, Griffins would be acclaimed wealthy from a purely financial perspective, but their true wealth is in their reputation, for as Publilius Syrus said, “Good reputation is more valuable than money”.  Despite their obsessive compulsive need to hoard gold, over time the Griffin has validated their character, in the manner, as observed by Voltaire, that “time, which alone makes the reputation of men, ends by making their defects respectable”.  Consequently, everybody has heard of the Griffin and wants him on their family coat of arms.  Nobody remembers the Arimaspians.  At least there is a little justice in the universe.

Golding, Arthus. Transl. Solinus.  The Excellent and Plaesant Worke of Julius Solinus Polyhistor.  London: Hacket, 1587, reprint 1955.
Herodotus. Herodotus. New York: Harper & Bros, 1836.
M’Crindle, John Watson, 1825-1913. Ancient India: As Described by Ktésias the Knidian. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & co., 1882.
Pliny, the Elder. Natural History. Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press, 1938.