Sunday, 21 October 2012

Consciousness of Griffins

The gold the griffin guards is its own integrity, or soul, which it keeps intact through every test of life, not for self-love but for love of a part greater than itself. 
The gold the griffin guards is all the money we've paid in taxes and will never get back.
That's the wonderful thing about griffins: for 5000 years, people have made up anything they like about griffins, or gryphons, or griffons, to protect their personal sacred treasure. Even its name can be spelt whichever way you prefer. Whatever you value or are scared of, the ancient griffin will be your friend in need. 

 An avenging Griffin of Dürer's imagination, resembling Nemesis, full of Weltschmerz and reforming zeal while it guards humanity from moral self-destruction. Detail of Triumphal Arch, woodcut commissioned by Emperor Maximilian I, 1515.

The griffin, half-lion, half-eagle, guardian of mountain gold and royal thrones, defender of justice and truth, a king among beasts and companion to pharoahs, protector from evil, supporter of marriage and good reputations, is one of the most ancient of all mythical creatures, known to the great early eastern and mediterranean civilizations since the Bronze Age, in Egypt, Minoan Crete, Greece, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, India and China, and recorded in their histories by Herodotus and Pliny. In appearance it resembled the cherubim of the Hittites; it was later adopted as an emblem of Jesus by early Christians, and its statues erected outside Buddhist and Hindu temples; it was borrowed as an heraldic device by ambitious medieval dynasties, and as a popular mascot for religious, civic, educational, financial and business institutions across the globe, and even now the griffin is flying its majestic course through fantasy stories and films. CONTINUED

Sacred guardians of civilization:  
one of the two blue feathered griffins facing each other on either side of the throne in the palace at Knossos (Late Bronze Age fresco c.1700 - 1450 BC). The serenity of these pagan griffins is similar to the Hittite cherub and unlike later western medieval incarnations when Christian sense of guilt and retribution changed its aspect. The earliest surviving gryphon motifs are even older Scythian and Persian artefacts, c.3000 BC.

The griffins' lairs or eyries were variously said to be in the gold mines of Scythia, or in other remote mountainous regions in India, or Northern Russia. An empirical explanation for descriptions of mythical animals is the discovery by travellers in the ancient world of dinosaur skeletons or fossils, and in the gryphon's case one was found in Scythia, part of modern-day Central Asia, on the borders of China and Kazakhstan. The State, attracted to the divinity and gold protection associated with griffins, used them for its own ends. Initially, they were treated with respect, independent guardians of kings and tombs, and sometimes, in Egypt, gods in their own right; but in later accounts, megalomaniac leaders like Alexander the Great supposedly captured and tried to tame them, tying them to their chariots so that earthly rulers could be tranported like gods through the air. During the Crusades, griffin eggs and claws were exploited for having special healing qualities and were hoarded as medicinal drinking cups and reliquaries. After that, it was miraculous that griffins still wanted to help human beings at all. The final insult of anthropomorphism, talking in a funny English voice in books and movies, was yet to come.

Their god-like combination of attributes, belonging to two elements of earth and air, winged and feathered like heavenly angels, terrifying but just, strong enough to destroy or to forgive, intelligent and steadfast, still make griffins ideal as winged avengers and loyal friends to floundering humans. Unlike most gods and people, male and female griffins are monogamous, and, like many swans, stay true to their mate even after death parts them. Even among faithful swans, who, when bereft, all grieve alone for a time, there are one or two known to find a new mate, if one happens to fly in, but all griffins exist in unbroken spiritual union with a single partner. Aaah. What a comforting feeling is aroused by this well-behaved beast of prey, a guardian not only of wealth but of enduring love, a perfect example of romantic psychotherapeutic myth. 
Cherubic: the Gryphon asleep in John Tenniel's illustration 
to Chapter 9 of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1866. Image source: Wikipedia

But there's a snag in all this complacency. When Lewis Carroll imagined a Gryphon, it was as an endearing (even more so in Tenniel's illustrations), if cranky, creature, asleep in the sun, hiding its head in its paws, but the first griffin or gryphon was not cuddly.  In Ancient Egypt it was reportedly seven times bigger than a lion, with an oppressive wing span and omniverous claws. It was known to hunt out evil-doers and avenge crimes. 
  Another of Dürer's cross looking griffins, designed for the woodcut of the Triumphal Arch of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, 1515. The griffin looks ferocious, reminding us that it is a wild beast of primal instincts, while the banner it pins down with its talons declares Halt Mass, meaning "keep to moderation", the Emperor's personal motto, adapted from Aristotle. The griffin is capable of  moderating its own nature and of acting the part of the human imperial conscience. Detail from the original woodcut in Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nurenberg. Image source: Web gallery of Art

Why did humans go to the trouble five thousand years ago of imagining anything as fabulous and contradictory as griffins just to demote them to bank security guards - plenty of dragons around for that - and matrimonial officials? It is a prosaic end to a legendary career, to be dragged from your own mountain fortress to civil service, your individuality subsumed in being a figurehead for morally dubious man-made institutions. We don't let that happen to our human folk heroes, who remain independent, sometimes rebellious, for ever. What is the real point of the griffin's duality and of its lifelong devotion to a soulmate? Once married, its personality is composed of a trinity, the form most favoured for centuries as a paradigm for the human soul by philosophers and healers of the psyche.

The last hundred years has found labels, like Freud's id, ego and super-ego first printed in 1926, more credible than metaphorical visualizations for describing the layers of the mind, but classical gods and metamorphizing humans, and later soliloquizing Shakespearean heroes, had the same function. Encumbered with a delusional notion of progress, and too easily swayed by branding, we tend to think of psychoanalysis as an early 20th century invention and underestimate the analytical powers of our distant ancestors, who were as interested as we are in explaining themselves whenever Church, State and public prejudice allowed. Apollo and Dionysus/Pan evolved like the conscious and unconscious parts of the same personality. When Hamlet tears into himself and says "conscience does make cowards of us all" he is using the word in its original sense of "conscious". He is fully aware himself without paying a psychiatrist that his intellect confuses his instinctive desires or "will" to act.

Though denied a post-Freudian interpretation of himself, Hamlet, being classically educated, would have been familiar with Socratic and Platonic theories of the tripartite soul. The term "psychology" referring to the study of the soul was used in 16th century textbooks. Shakespeare's unfunny Fools, Lear's above all, are devices to set up a dialectic about the conscious and unconscious mind of the main protagonist. In other plays of the period, the unlabelled but accurately observed personality and psychiatric disorders and the scenes set in mad-houses were not just written to satisfy the Jacobean box-office demand for horror. By 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633) the figurative world of emotion and identity have got too much for the incestuous Giovanni, who confounds image with literal reality when he cuts out his sister's heart with a dagger to display as proof of their mutual love, without which he cannot be whole: "one soul, one flesh, one love, one heart, one all".

The term "holistic", coined by Smuts in 1926, described an approach to spiritual, physical and mental health that had originated in ancient Indian and Chinese civilizations, and was later promulgated in the West through the teachings of 4th century BC Greek philosophers. Amidst the misguided theories of the Four Humours that dominated attitudes to medical treatment until the17th century, and had more in common with astrology than science, is the sensible proposition that there is a physiological explanation for many personality disorders and that they can be cured when metabolic balance is restored.

The modern separation of psychology both as an intellectual and professional profit-making discipline from philosophy and poetry has not necessarily been helpful to people struggling on the edge of reason to make sense of their feelings. The resurgence of daemons and familiars in contemporary fiction and of conflicted comic book superheroes, every one a Freudian test case, in film, shows how conscious of the fragility of our identities and discontented with our destinies we are. Even some vampires, much to the annoyance of horror-film traditionalists, have become introspective and self-loathing, though thankfully they manage to keep dressed to kill. All these constructs of popular culture are effective placebos and an entertaining alternative to the modern disease of endlessly talking about ourselves.
The first glimpse of a griffin and its mate helped reconcile the disparate components of a human personality, the extraordinary combination of physical power and limitations (given it's half mammal, the griffin cannot fly very well) and all the emotions, instincts and thoughts that seem to at almost perpetual war, always threatening to break apart through adversity or loss. How when you have loved and lost do you keep your sanity? Long before Socrates crystallized the idea, people had begun formulating the principle that the part can never be well unless the whole is well. The griffin's lifelong fidelity is to all of its parts without which it can not be whole. The gold it guards is its own integrity, or soul, which it keeps intact through every test of life, not for self-love but for love of a part greater than itself.

 The mighty crowned Griffin becomes a banker, sitting on a gold chest.
Detail of the frontispiece to the Statute and Register of the Moneychangers' Guild, Perugia, illuminated miniature by Matteo di ser Cambio, 1377. The Griffin was the city's symbol. 
Image source: Web Gallery of Art