Winged lions through time and space

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We're talking about the griffin / griffon / gryphon (Ancient Greek: γρύψ, romanizedgrýps; Classical Latin: grȳps or grȳpus; Late and Medieval Latin: gryphes, grypho etc.; Old French: griffon), "a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion, and the head and wings of an eagle with its talons on the front legs".  (source)

Wolfgang Behr called my attention to an interesting paper by Olga Gorodetskaya (Guō Jìngyún 郭静云) and Lixin Guo 郭立新, who teach at National Chung-cheng University in Chiayi, Taiwan and at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, which hints at early West-East (Mesopotamia-East Asia) contact, an ongoing concern of ours here at Language Log:

Liǎng hé liúyù ānzǔ shényīng zài dìguó shíqí de yǎnbiàn jì yīngshī yìshòu xíngxiàng de xíngchéng


"The evolution of the Anzu condor in Mesopotamia during the imperial period and the formation of the image of the griffin-winged beast

The paper is available from Academia here.  Although the text is in Chinese (11 pages of small print in three columns), it is replete with scores of illustrations (mostly drawings of seals and seal impressions), and has a lengthy bibliography consisting of dozens of publications, mostly in European languages and again mostly about seals and their impressions.


From the Akkadian Empire to the Neo-Assyrian Empire, new ethnic groups continued to enter and gain control over Mesopotamia. Political changes brought about shifts in the religious system, causing the decline of the belief in Anzu, the lion-headed eagle in Sumerian civilization. The image of Anzu underwent a transformation from a flying gryphon to a gryphon with the characteristics of eagle wings and talons. Its religious connotation also developed in a negative direction, becoming a monster that causes a great flood or steals the book of life, requiring gods or heroes to overcome, control, shoot. or subdue it.  In the context of this era of changing beliefs, ancient sacred beasts are seen as pseudo-beliefs that need to be overcome.

[Key words] Anzusia, ancient beliefs, eagle worship, lion worship, personal god

(GT translation with modifications)

During the first millennia BC and AD, we find parallel beliefs and images all the way across Eurasia.  One of the most conspicuous is the píxiū 貔貅 (Old Sinitic [Zhengzhang)] /*bi  qʰu/).  Not only do these hybrid creatures have an alien appearance, their binomial name sounds non-Sinitic.  Píxiū 貔貅 are important as architectural ornaments and stone sculpture (often monumental) already from the Han period (202 BC–9 AD; 25–220 AD) for their supposed apotropaic properties.

See also bìxié 辟邪 ("a chimaera-like figure common in Chinese and Persian art") and its homophone bìxié 避邪 ("ward off evil spirits").

Olga Gorodetskaya is said to be a controversial figure in the PRC.  Judging from the article surveyed above, it is not too hard to guess why.  Below, let us take a look at a review of a major book of hers that reveals more aspects of her archeohistorical stance that might prove problematic for nationalistic investigators.

Jiāng Guǎnghuī 姜广辉, "Zhōngguó wénmíng de yuántóu shì běifāng háishì nánfāng 中国文明的源头是北方还是南方" ("Is the origin of Chinese civilization in the north or the south?"), Zhōnghuá dúshū bào 《 中华读书报 》(12/4/13), 10:

The content of the 500,000-word book, Xia, Shang and Zhou: From Myth to Historical Fact, before me is not as romantic as the title. The whole book is almost a collection of archaeological briefings in recent decades, but the system of the book, the views and conclusions, are extremely explosive and shocking. I cannot specifically predict how many scholars will oppose or support its main points after the book is published, but it will undoubtedly cause huge repercussions and shocks in the academic world. Did ancient Chinese civilization first originate in the Jianghan-Huaihe River Basin and then spread from south to north; or did it first originate in the Yellow River Basin and then spread from north to south? The view of this book is that it is the former, which is very different from the traditional view, but it is true. It is reasonable and well-founded. Scholarship prior to the Qing Dynasty's research on China's ancient history before the Western Zhou Dynasty was basically based on a few handed-down documents such as Sima Qian's Historical Records of the Han Dynasty. Historical Records begins with "Basic Annals of the Five Emperors". The five emperors are Huangdi (Yellow Emperor), Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, Yao, and Shun; the second is "Benji of Xia", which first talks about Dayu; the third is "Benji of Yin". The centers of political activities of Yao, Shun, Xia, and Shang are generally considered to be in today's Shanxi and Henan. Thanks to the discovery and research of oracle bone inscriptions over the past hundred years, the academic community has gained a reliable understanding of the history of the Yin/Shang Dynasty. However, as for the history of the Xia Dynasty, the academic community is still at a loss due to the lack of written evidence of the corresponding era.

When the Erlitou site in Yanshi, Henan was excavated in the middle of the last century, academic circles defined it as an urban site from the Xia Dynasty to the early Shang Dynasty. Such an ancient history research background makes scholars take it for granted that the spread path of China's ancient civilization was from the north to the south. Later discovered sites in the Yangtze River basin similar to the Erlitou culture were interpreted by scholars as the spread of Xia and Shang culture to the south. This book quotes [archeology official] Qiao Yu's opinions and puts forward a different view: research on the population and land utilization around Erlitou shows that the population and settlement density there have always been very thin, and the land utilization is also very low. Erlitou belongs to a farming culture. With enough farmland and residential areas, the agricultural society lacked the motivation to expand outwards; there were not many weapons at the Erlitou site, and there were no ethnic groups that made a living by war. How did they expand their influence outwards?

After the discovery of ancient city sites such as Qujialing and Shijiahe in Hubei, the prototype of an ancient united city-state in the Han River Basin has emerged. In other words, the Jianghan Plain had formed a complete national civilization before the Bronze Age. The so-called "Erlitou Culture" is actually the cultural aspect produced by the Hanshui Civilization in the Bronze Age and affected the Zhengluo area, mainly originating from the south. Archeology has proven that civilization in ancient China did not spread from north to south, but from south to north.

The legendary holy kings and heroes such as Yao, Shun, and Yu are the result of the merger of myths from different traditional sources. Shun and Yu were not originally heroes born in the north. For example, Shun was called "Lord of the Xiang" in The Songs of Chu, and his two wives were called "Lady Xiang". They were all regarded as the gods of the Xiang River, and the Xiang River was the the southern part of the Qujialing cultural range. Thr Historical Records says that the ancestor of Chu came from Zhuanxu, while the Bamboo Chronicles records the genealogy of the holy king and says: "Zhuanxu gave birth to Bo Gun." Gun is the father of Dayu. In this way, Dayu was originally the ancestor and hero of the Chu people. . Huainanzi "Benjing" says: "At the time of Shun, Gonggong raised the flood…Shun then asked Yu to dredge the three rivers and five lakes, open up Yique, guide the Xianjian, level the land, and so that the waters could flow into the Eastern Sea." "Three rivers" and "Five Lakes" are not northern scenery. In contrast, in the north, the risk of floods in the Wei and Fen river basins was very low. The climate in the middle reaches of the Yellow River is quite dry, and there was an obvious tendency toward aridity in the north during the Xia era. Therefore, it is difficult for Weifen or Zhengluo areas to create the myth of water control. The author believes that the center of political activities of the Xia Dynasty should be in the south. Specifically, it is most likely to be in the Xia River in Hubei (see Shui Jing Zhu (Annotations on the Classic of Waters), now named Changxia River. According to Shui Jing Zhu, the lower reaches of the Han River were all known as "Xia River"), and it was located in the Jianghan Plain. Many ancient cities in Qujialing and Shijiahe stood near the Xia River. In ancient times, due to the topography, there were frequent floods here. Water control was in great need, and the ancestors of Qujialing indeed had already devised the engineering system for water control was. In this case, why don’t we regard the city sites such as Dengjiawan or Jingnan Temple as the Xia Kingdom where Dayu controlled water?

The author also proposes that among the civilizations before the Yin-Shang Dynasty, there existed a pre-Chu civilization. Its scale, tradition and degree of nationalization were probably the highest and most glorious among all ancient civilization groups at that time. This means that the cultural tradition of Chu should be older than that of other countries, especially earlier than the tradition of Shang and Zhou rulers who came from the north to the south. So, why is the history we see today not like this? And the original history is missing? The author believes that the history handed down to the world is often written by the victors, which is bound to be mixed with the ideas based on the victors. The ideology of viewpoints even obscures the truth of the original history. The era when these handed down documents were written began in the Zhou Dynasty, and they were recorded using the characters of the Yin and Zhou civilizations, so they must represent the position of the northern ethnic group from which the nobles of the Yin and Zhou Dynasties came. Judging from the development process of various cultures in China, the northern ethnic groups developed later and their history is relatively young. From the Yin and Zhou dynasties, they gradually promoted the vast city-states into a unified political power and became the so-called "winners" of history. Therefore, they also have the right to express history and can write a history that promotes their own power and "virtue" and pass it down to the world. They borrowed the ancient myths of the southern ethnic groups and regarded Shun and Yu as the holy kings of their own ethnic group. But even so, in the orthodox history centered on the north, there are still clues that allow us to discover that the ancient south was actually civilized earlier than the north. In other words, although the mythology we generally recognize today seems to be a unified history at first glance, in fact, the original source of each mythical story and sacred hero in it is probably the result of the intersection and merging of the sacred histories of many different ethnic groups.

The above is the main line and theme of this book. Although these views are bold and shocking, they are not whimsical arguments, but are put forward by what I think is a serious and rigorous academic work. After this book is published, it will inevitably be criticized or criticized, and it may even be "beaten black and blue", but I believe that this book will become an immortal historical masterpiece. In the past hundred years of Chinese historical research, our academic community has been lacking this kind of historical research works that combine dense data with big thinking methods. Its significance is not mainly whether the conclusions in the book are completely consistent with historical reality, but that in the face of those cultural relics without written records, we cannot only use the limited handed down documents as the frame of reference for interpreting them, but should rely on the hard work of the historian to interpret them. The hard work of the author has created a new frame of reference that is helpful for analyzing possibilities.

We should not only use the limited number of handed down documents as a frame of reference for interpreting [the archeologically recovered cultural relics], but should rely on the hard work of historians to create a new frame of reference for them that is conducive to the analysis of possibilities.

(GT translation with modifications)

(citation courtesy of Petya Andreeva)

Both the dispersal of the winged lion across Eurasia and the radical reenvisioning of the development of Chinese history as having much more to do with the south than traditional accounts would have it possess important implications for future research on East Asian civilization and language.  It will take many years to reassess these new insights.  Meanwhile, they have already helped me understand better problems that have puzzled me for decades, such as why the first poet in Chinese history known by name (Qu Yuan [339-278 BC]) came from the south, why the vast majority of archeologically recovered classical period manuscripts have been recovered in the south (esp. Chu), why the founder of the epochal Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Liu Bang (256-195 BC), and his closest competitor, Xiang Yu (232-202 BC), in defeating the brief (221-207 BC) eponymous (for "China") far (over 1,000 km) northwestern, semi-barbarian Qin dynasty ʣəɲ 秦 (Old Sinitic Minimal [OSM] reconstructed pronunciation) were both from the same southern state of Chu where the first Sinitic / Hannic poet came from.

Perhaps we should henceforth refer to "China" (< Qin) as "Tshraq" (OSM of "Chu").  The Sinoglyph for Tshraq / Chu is 楚.  

oracle bone form

Western Zhou bronze inscriptional form

The word is of Mon-Khmer derivation and had the meaning "thorn".

Source:  Axel Schuessler 2007, 2009

And we should look more intensively and extensively at words like píxiū 貔貅 ("winged lion-like chimera"), bìxié 辟邪 ("a chimaera-like figure common in Chinese and Persian art"), and its homophone bìxié 避邪 ("ward off evil spirits"), to go beyond the pathbreaking work of Jerry Norman and Tsu-Lin Mei in demonstrating Sinitic borrowing from Austro-Asiatic.


Selected readings


  1. Martin Schwartz said,

    May 4, 2024 @ 7:32 pm

    The Wiki "Griffin" mentions the possibility (which I like) of
    Greekgrups (gryps) coming from Heb. k(e)rūb or similar Semitic form referring to a composite critter Moreoverf, Middle West Iranian,
    asthe article indicates, shows a word paskuč or baškuč for
    a composited critter; given iconographic realia, this may be a
    Scythic word. for which I can think of an Iranian etymology *'loathesome'.
    Is there any chance that pi xiū goes back to such a word?
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Terry Hunt said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 4:08 am

    I read some time ago that the original idea of griffins/gryphons may have been based on very early discoveries of fossils of Protoceratops and similar beaked dinosaurs: Wikipedia tells me that this has been suggested by "Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist and historian of science" and the author of your last three 'Selected readings'.

    Might the likely locations of such possible discoveries (modern science first found them in the Gobi desert) contribute to calculating the geographical origins of early cultures that first mention griffins? Apparently Mayor has concentrated on the idea originating in a Greek milieu, but I suspect it is older, perhaps considerably so, and passed to early PIE speakers from further East.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 10:13 am

    Surely "condor" is a mistranslation?

    I've read Mayor's book; she very much talks about Scythians, it's just that the Scythians didn't write, so for an early description of a griffin Greek is your best bet.

    The geography is a bit vague, though; the southern Gobi is not where the gold is that the griffins are supposed to be guarding.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 11:27 am

    Adrienne Mayor reads Language Log. Perhaps she will answer some of your questions.

  5. Doctor Science said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 9:37 pm

    It sounds as though Dr. Gorodetskaya has been arguing for something I only came to realize recently on LL, while we were talking about words for rice, silk, and/or peaches: that the Jianghan Plain (and even points further south) is likely to be the place of origin of much of "traditional Chinese culture", in a linguistic matrix that was *not* Sinitic.

    Rice, silk, and peaches are only part of it–I've been wondering about the origins of Sinitic writing. I mean, it's such a handy coincidence that the first writing to be invented is the one written on clay. How thoughtful of the Sumerians! And then the Egyptians, keeping everything so *dry*, also very considerate. It must make Sinologists weep, to know that cuneiformologists (Assyriologists, whatever) get to play with a corpus millennia deep, and so broad it includes personal letters and complaints.

    Is there any undisturbed anxoic mud in Jianghan? Someplace where wooden/bamboo slips could sit for 4 or 5000 years?

  6. Adrienne Mayor said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 6:05 am

    The Greeks first heard about griffins in the 7th-6th c BC from Issedonians, Scythians who controlled the trade routes at the crossroads in the Altai-Tien Shan region; they said that fierce quadrupeds with beaks "guarded" the gold deposits "beyond" Issedonia, which would point to the Gobi. The geography is necessarily vague, due to little actual Greek and Roman knowledge of Central Asia. Gold in the form of dust or flakes occurs in the foothills and gulleys along the trade routes in the region where Griffins were said to be located. Prospectors would have left the main routes and searched the Junggar, Turfan, Taklamakan, Kizylkum, Issedonian, and western Gobi deserts for gold dust widely dispersed by gravity, rain, wind, and sandstorms. Along the ways to search for gold, they would have come upon abundant dinosaur skeletons and nests. The exact locations of Scythian and Asian gold deposits were unknown to the Greeks and Romans in antiquity and little known today and the locations of the Griffins in ancient Greek and Latin descriptions only stated that the animals lived in wildernesses, deserts, and mountains far beyond the Black and Caspian Seas, “beyond Issedonian territories”—referring to the Gobi desert.
    Griffins were poetically associated with the rich gold resources exploited by Scythians as “guardians” of the gold. Gold dust and particles constantly erode down from the Altai and Tien Shen ranges and can be windblown across the deserts. In antiquity gold was prospected for and sifted in the hills along the ancient trade routes to China. Conspicuous, well-articulated fossils of beaked dinosaurs and ubiquitous ground nests containing eggs and hatchlings occur in the same general territories where gold was prospected and where it was said that legendary strange animals with beaks and four legs made their nests on the ground, containing eggs and young. New paleontological discoveries of Protoceratops and Psittacosaurs have extended the range of beaked dinosaur fossils westward. For example, three-horned beaked dinosaur fossils have been discovered in the western Kizylkum Desert, Uzbekistan, south of the Aral Sea, far west of the more famous Gobi dinosaur deposits. This means beaked dinosaur fossils could be observed “guarding” the western approaches to gold deposits of the Altai.

  7. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 8:02 am

    Griffins in post-Minoan Cretan art.

  8. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:11 am

    These representations of griffins began during the Large "Bronze Age trade" between the Mediterranean world, passing through Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and northern China from 1500-1400 BC.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 2:07 pm

    Highly recommended:

    Adam Smith and Qin Zhongpei, "Marking the Spirit Road: Funerary Stone Sculpture in China", Expedition Magazine (Penn Museum), 59.3 (2017).

    The motif of a winged, horned lion or griffin appears in the art of sedentary and nomadic cultures throughout Eurasia, though the monumentality of the Chinese stone lions and their association with columns links them most directly to Iranian and Indian stone sculptural traditions.


    The two winged lions that confront each other across the span of the Rotunda are the oldest and most massive Chinese sculptures at the Penn Museum. Carved around 200 CE, as the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) was disintegrating, they predate all the stone monuments surrounding them in the gallery, and represent the first flourishing of monumental stone sculpture in East Asia.

    This presents us with some interesting questions, especially when we consider the Egyptian Galleries next door filled with large-scale stone sculpture that date millennia earlier than the winged lions. Why are large stone monuments rare in early China, which by the time the winged lions were made had already experienced 1,500 years of literate civilizations with sophisticated arts in a variety of media? What initiated the Chinese enthusiasm for large stone sculpture, seen in the Buddhist monuments that fill the gallery? The winged lions are not Buddhist, but like that religion, which began to influence China at approximately the time they were made, they are the product of impulses from more westerly regions of the Asian continent.


    Richly illustrated. Traces the winged lion from the Neo-Assyrian (9th to 7th centuries BC) and Achaemenid (6th to 4th centuries BC) empires in the west to the heartland of China in the east.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 2:57 pm

    Prospectors would have left the main routes and searched the Junggar, Turfan, Taklamakan, Kizylkum, Issedonian, and western Gobi deserts for gold dust widely dispersed by gravity, rain, wind, and sandstorms. Along the ways to search for gold, they would have come upon abundant dinosaur skeletons and nests.

    That's what I mean. The abundant skeletons and nests are far beyond even the western Gobi in the southern Gobi…

    For example, three-horned beaked dinosaur fossils have been discovered in the western Kizylkum Desert, Uzbekistan, south of the Aral Sea, far west of the more famous Gobi dinosaur deposits.

    These (Udanoceratops and Turanoceratops) are rare (each known from one or two individuals to date), fragmentary (i.e. no recognizable skeletons), and not associated with any eggs, however. No comparison to the Flaming Cliffs. The different preservation is a general property of the sites; the Qızılqum is also full of isolated mammal fragments (you know, "the tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth" other than the occasional left or right lower jaw) while the southern Gobi preserves complete articulated skeletons.

    I have no problem with saying that Protoceratops and the nests are beyond where the gold was found, and that this could have been garbled in transmission to "they guard the gold", just as the frill (rarely preserved intact) would have been garbled into wings. But saying that the gold really is in the same places as the skeletons and the nests strikes me as an error.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 5:50 pm

    David Marjanović : "saying that the gold really is in the same places as the skeletons and the nests strikes me as an error."

    Who's saying that? Not Adrienne Mayor. Being the excellent scholar that she is, Mayor uses language like this:

    "… This means beaked dinosaur fossils could be observed 'guarding' the western approaches to gold deposits of the Altai.

    "…ubiquitous ground nests containing eggs and hatchlings occur in the same general territories where gold was prospected…."

    These are not errors.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 8:53 pm

    The following chapter is somewhat related to this post:


    Rostovtzeff, Michael Ivanovich. “Parthian Art and the Motive of the Flying Gallop.” Independence, Convergence, and Borrowing in Institutions, Thought and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937, pp. 44-56.


    It is a good example of how excellent scholarship does not have to be overly lengthy and never goes out of date.

    From the same book, another immortal paper, although I don't agree with the author's negative assessment of the impact of India upon China:


    Hu Shih. "The Indianization of China: A Case Study in Cultural Borrowing." Independence, Convergence, and Borrowing in Institutions, Thought, and Art. (Cambridge: Harvard College, 1937), pp. 219–247.


  13. Chris Button said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:39 pm

    @ Martin Schwartz

    Middle West Iranian, asthe article indicates, shows a word paskuč or baškuč for a composited critter;

    There seems to be Pahlavi bškwč.

    We can take 貔貅 back to OC bəjxəʁ in which earlier -əʁ would have merged with -əw, but it's going back to pre-OC at that stage. There was also some kʰ- (from sk- in pre-OC) and x- alternation in Old Chinese (as would be expected in any living language).

  14. chris Button said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:45 pm

    I should say "many a living langauge" rather than "any living language".

  15. Adrienne Mayor said,

    May 7, 2024 @ 2:12 am

    Note that we don't know all the locations of gold deposit areas exploited in antiquity nor do we know of all the beaked dinosaur exposures conspicuous in antiquity; moreover surviving oral folklore about exotic places recounted by other cultures cannot be expected to be precise. Recall that the Greeks referred to Asia east of the Caspian as "India" and "land of the Serres."

    It should also be noted that some details of griffins "guarding" gold came to Herodotus and other authors through several translators, with the story originally recounted to the Greek traveler Aristeas by the Issedonians. The Issedonians controlled two cities or stations along the ancient "Silk" routes, Issedon Scythica and Issedon Serrica–these were the gateways to Scythia in the west and Serrica/China in the East.

    Keep in mind the traffic went both ways; this means that tales related to strange creatures with four legs and beaks, nests and eggs on the ground, etc might just as well come from traders and gold seekers traveling WEST from China and passing through Issedon Serrica to Issedon Scythia, after observing or hearing garbled descriptions of beaked dinosaur skeletons east of those points, on their way to the gold dust gullies of the Altai ("Gold") Mountains and the Tien Shan gold belts.

  16. Lasius said,

    May 7, 2024 @ 3:31 am

    Regarding the griffon Dinosaur connection, there is a great post about it by Mark Witton.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 4:19 pm

    might just as well come from traders and gold seekers traveling WEST from China

    That would make sense of Protoceratops being southeast of the gold (map in Mark Witton's blog post), but would still leave the enormous distance between them (yes, Prof. Mair, I'm afraid "in the same general territories" is an error), the fact that the Gobi was pretty far out of the way from China to the gold, and of course the Mesopotamian griffins from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th millennia BCE.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 4:21 pm

    …and I forgot that "just as well" is doing a lot of work here. Do we even have evidence of 7th-century-BCE-or-so Scythians that far east, or of any contact between them and China?

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