The Griffin and the Phoenix

The migratory patterns of mythical beasts (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 1)

A handy thing about living in London is I can go to the British Museum. San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is decidedly minor league by comparison, really doing a fair job only as a historical cross-section of Western painting, with wunderkammer-style collections of anything else, including their selection of ancient artifacts. The British, on the other hand, has more of this stuff than they can even display properly.

To this point, my research has mainly been done online, a painstaking, time-consuming, and often frustrating affair. Additionally, my access to WorldCat via my son’s university is shortly to end, making things considerably worse. Indeed, the UofM seems to have noticed I’m trying to use their service from a different country and now refuses requests except from my phone, a less-than-ideal device for such purposes.

There are drawbacks to the museum to be sure: the relevant artifacts might be displayed based on contexts entirely dissimilar to what one has in mind, and of course, there are tourists from which at least the dark corners of the internet remain free. They really only came to the museum to take selfies in the great hall in an attempt to give their friends some form of cultural FOMO, but hey, now they’ve come all this way, they might as well play it out a bit, in case someone asks them about it, so they can repeat hazily understood facts about the Rosetta Stone, e.g., but assuring everyone, “such history—it was amazing!” Basically, they clutter the halls, each with a sense the items on display must be important but unsure as to why. When one of them stops, they all stop, assuming something particularly noteworthy has been spotted by a member of the herd.

Then there are the tour guides; one was trying to explain cuneiform to his group in one of the Assyrian galleries and started out well, saying it had been invented by the Sumerians, but then took a sharp left turn, saying it was an alphabet and that the Assyrians who supplanted the Sumerians used the script to write their own language. I uttered a series of three “no”s each a bit louder than the last before I could stop myself.¹ I’m sure it was passed off as a mild attack of Tourette’s, but for the rest of my visit, I wondered if there was someone I should report him to.

Anyway, if, for example, I want to establish a continuity of ritual practice between the magic of the ancient Near East and the Graeco-Roman sphere, I can simply stroll through a few galleries (dodging past tourists) in order to do so. The process is simple: I look in the Mesopotamian or Egyptian galleries for items I recognize, more or less, from the ancient West, and moreover can also view items from this last area if needs be. So on we go.

The griffin is tricky, as one of the earliest recognizable images comes from Crete, specifically the royal palace complex at Knossos, causing people to associate it with Greek culture. And indeed, the Bronze Age Greeks did draw significantly from the Minoans, including at least their mode of dress, the buon fresco technique, and the Linear B script. Maybe the Mycenaeans also borrowed the bird-creature along with many other things, but we don’t know because of the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

Nonetheless we encounter similar chimerae in Mesopotamia, including some versions of Imtukut/ Anzû (𒀭𒅎𒂂), whence also the Ziz (זיז) generally with more birdlike properties, and the Alat/ Lamassu/ Shedu (𒀭𒆗), with a lion or bull’s body, eagle’s wings, and a human face, which components also flowed into Jewish lore as the four living creatures that draw the chariot of God and thence to each of the Christian Gospels and their writers, who sometime reassemble à la Voltron to form the mighty Tetramorph.

Strong examples of the griffin in bronze appear in Rhodes, which, while traditionally Greek is closer to Asia Minor than it is to the mainland, with its name possibly stemming from the Phoenician word for snake, 𐤓𐤏𐤃‎𐤄 (possibly ero’od—the script is an abjad, so we can only guess at the vowels), since the island was apparently once quite infested with the creatures. Extremely near cousins of these griffins also turn up in Etruria; they are so similar indeed that they form part of the hypothesis of the Anatolian origin of the Etruscans.

The phoenix, on the other hand, has a name which in itself is etymologically inextricable from Phoenicia, as both once referred to the color purple. Mycenaean attests both po-ni-ke (probably ponikes²) meaning the creature and po-ni-ki-ja (ponikia) meaning the color. As might be expected because of the extensive trade network and the moderate sprachbund formed thereby, these words are as migratory as the gray heron the Egyptians may have based a phoenix-like idea on, originating in the word bnw (maybe bennu—another abjad here). Thence, conjecture runs, it was borrowed by the Minoans, and from them by the Mycenaeans.

Meanwhile, the ethnonym—and really it’s an exonym as people generally identified with their city, e.g., those near Tyre were Tyrians—is attributed also via Minoan to a different Egyptian word, fnḫw (fenekhu), referring to woodcutters, as their lumber came from Canaan, i.e., the famed cedars of Lebanon.

However, Dutch history of religion scholar Roelof van den Broek expresses some doubt:³

It is clear that there are certain parallels and relationships between the benu and the phoenix, but it is not possible to demonstrate that the Classical views were based on Egyptian, as some others have assumed. […] there are no indications that these notions [of the rebirth of the soul] developed from Egyptian conceptions, even though it has been assumed by some Egyptologists and others as well. It is at least equally probable that this symbolism developed spontaneously from the Classical phoenix myth.

He continues in a more etymological vein thus:

The name of the phoenix has also been considered to be derived from that of the benu, which has been taken as evidence of the Egyptian origin of the Classical myth. Sethe and Spiegelberg, followed by many others, have argued that the Egyptian word benu should be pronounced *boin or *boine, on the basis of the fact that it is written as bjn-w. The name φοῖνιξ is therefore considered to be only a Greek version of the Egyptian term for the benu. Several serious objections to this conclusion can be put forward […].

Unfortunately, in rather meta fashion, my limited ability to access this book online meant I could only find out what a few of these objections were. All I could find was the Google Book, which hides significant portions of the text presumably to protect the copyright, even though the book is nullibiquitous for purchase. I trudge on nonetheless.

There is a near homophony of the Mycenaean words p’onikes and p’onikia, such that the latter appears simply to be the genitive form of the first, linking the two terms so deeply either the mythical fowl’s plumage becomes reddish purple to match the dye of that color that originates in Phoenicia, or vice versa. There’s another confounding homonym in this cluster, po-ni-ki-jo (p’onikios) which appears just a masculine-gendered variant of p’onikia, but means a date palm, whose Latin name remains Phoenix dactylifera. There are yet more meanings in Ancient Greek, which at least seems clearer as it refers to a guitar-like instrument of the Phoenicians, and the letters of the Phoenician alphabet are called Φοινικηια (Phoinikeia) by Herotodus (Ἡρόδοτος).

Various theories of which sense is the primary one abound, based on authorities such as Isidore of Seville, who says the bird is named for the color, and Ovid, who says the name came from “the Assyrians”, meaning the Phoenicians, and Lactantius, who says exactly the reverse, although they both agree the palm is named for the bird, as it nests in said tree, while the Spaniard says the palm is named for the bird because they share a long lifespan, an idea Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria also puts forth. Ultimately, it seems the name of a fabulous creature must be the original sense, coming to Mycenaean from a Semitic source and moreover covering both the bird and the griffin, which then was extended to the land, the color, the palm, and the musical instrument. And indeed, these creatures both appear in Minoan art. A French language review of the van den Broek book—one of the few traces I could find of it—reflects he agrees:⁴

Le Po-ni-ke mycénien, l’oiseau de Phénicie, serait alors une espèce de griffon, d’origine sémitique.

The Mycenaean Po-ni-ke, the bird of Phoenicia, would then be a species of griffin, of Semitic origin.

Van den Broek also concludes the name of the bird has to have been transferred to the palm rather than the other way around, perhaps because both had the aspect of long life, also bringing the idea of victory symbolized by the palm frond into the complex and resulting in depictions of the bird perched in a palm tree.

Neither van den Broek, nor anyone else I can discover, points to an actual origin for the word and it seems to have been lost to the ages. I’ll be bold and suggest Sumerian p’iring (𒊊). The literal meaning is “lion”, but also “bull”, or “wild bull”, and indeed as there is a tendency in the language to group felines and canines together, we should add “dog” to these; animal, wild, and dangerous seem the proper cluster of associations. Furthermore, it’s used in descriptions of the 11 chaos monsters birthed by the dragon goddess Nammu (𒀭𒇉, better known by her Akkadian name 𒀭𒋾𒊩𒆳, Tiamat) to avenge the slaying of her consort, Ap’tsu (𒍪 𒀊):

p’iring iki ushumkal
lion with the face of the Ushumkal (Great Dragon)

p’iring iki mush’khush
lion with the face of the Mush’khush (Furious Snake)

p’iring mush’khush ap’shaka luka
lion, the Mush’khush that lives in the center of the sea

These creatures are chimerae, their nature embodying the primordial chaos their mother represents: dragons like those mentioned above, a bull-man, a scorpion-man, a fish-man, one with a lion’s head and bird’s feet (clearly griffin territory), and even a lion-man who is named Uritim (𒌨𒅂), “Mad Lion” (which uses the character for dog).

The transformation to p’onikes is explicable, though there is no evidence for the direction I propose: the Sumerian consonant ⟨ĝ⟩, with the value /ŋ/ (essentially /ng/, as I’ve rendered it above) does not exist in Linear B, and so the word might’ve been syllabized as pi-ri-ni-gi. Eventual and common decay of the tapped /r/ and a shift in the first vowel takes us to po-ni-gi. Alternation from /g/ to /k/, and a standard Greek third declension ending take us the rest of the way.

In any case, while concepts did tend to wander across the ancient world, their general East-to-West direction eventually becomes clear.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection


  1. The correct answers are: logographic/ syllabic script, Akkadians, and Akkadian.
  2. ⟨p(h)⟩, later expressed by ⟨φ⟩ and with the phonetic value /f/, seems to have been said in Mycenaean Greek as /pʰ/; a hard /p/ with a breath of air after it, which I’ve rendered as ⟨p’⟩. ⟨p⟩ in Sumerian is also aspirated, and so I’ve rendered it the same way.
  3. R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix according to Classical and Early Christian Traditions (Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain, 24), 1972.
  4. Marcel Detienne, Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 1973.

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