Friday, 29 June 2012

Come Fly With Me On Mythological Wings

Author: John Prytz
There are lots and lots of really real winged creatures – birds, bats, insects, and in prehistoric times flying reptiles like pterosaurs/pterodactyls. One might even count ‘flying' fish or ‘flying' foxes or squirrels if one had a broad enough definition of ‘flying'. But just because you have wings of course doesn't of necessity mean you can fly. There are lots of terrestrial flightless birds for example yet they still have wings.
There are also a lot of mythological creatures that ...
fly – the griffin (or gryphon – alt spelling), the dragon, and on and on and on. One can't of course forget Pegasus, the flying winged horse as one of those.
Now perhaps these are real terrestrial animals. Alas, despite lots of eyewitness accounts, there are no dead bodies available for examination or any other fossil evidence for them.
Or perhaps they are misinterpretations of real, or once real, terrestrial animals. In that latter case, dragons or griffins are misinterpretations of fossils. That's highly unlikely IMHO. Perfectly intact, fully articulated, fully exposed large winged reptiles from the Age of Dinosaurs are as rare as hen's teeth. Any vertebrate palaeontologist would probably sell their soul to the Devil for such a find. The norm is for much of any vertebrate fossil skeleton to have substantial bits missing; what remains is usually in a jumbled state; and near all of it is buried and out of sight.
Perhaps they are really real, but not of this Earth, that is to say, they are extraterrestrial, or in other words, alien life forms. That's the most likely scenario IMHO.
But of course the most logical explanation is that they are, as common knowledge has it, entirely mythological – that is purely fictional with as much reality as a $7 bill!
One facet in particular leads me to suggest that such beasties were considered as much a part of the ancient's menagerie as animals we today know exist. That is, dragons, Pegasus and griffins were 3-D physical flesh-and-blood organisms: for example…
*Dragons: I find it interesting that in the Chinese calendar, there are years for the rat; ox; tiger; rabbit; snake; horse; goat; monkey; rooster; dog; pig and dragon. Of all the twelve, only the dragon is considered by modern society mythical. I find it odd that the Chinese would employ eleven real beasties and one mythical one. Perhaps all dozen were real!
If only a Chinese emperor or empress could, under pain of death for transgressors, wear an image of a dragon, it's because their dragons weren't fictional. Could you imagine the President of theUnited Statesbeing the only American allowed under the Constitution to wear a Felix-the-Cat tee-shirt and anyone else receives the death penalty for doing so? It could only take place in the context of a really real highly significant ‘animal' that would we think be offended if just anyone of the great unwashed wore their image. Such extreme penalties are more than just a tad hard to comprehend if the ancient Chinese knew perfectly well that there weren't such things as dragons. Translated, the ancient Chinese (and other cultures) took their dragons very seriously indeed. The fact that the serious occupation of dragon-slaying is a popular, widespread image in ancient, even historical times speaks volumes IMHO.
Dragons could also be used in place of horses and hitched to aerial chariots. Medea (of Jason and the Argonauts fame) had an aerial dragon-drawn chariot.
And if you believe in the accuracy of the Bible then you need to accept the reality of, for example, those dragons.
Dragons were considered flesh-and-blood right through the Middle Ages; dragon-lore persists right down to our own modern era as witnessed by their popularity in video games, films and novels.
*Griffins: I recall seeing a photograph of an ancient Greek pottery piece, vase probably, that had surrounding the circumference illustrations of various animals, animals we today instantly recognise as a representation of reality. Bulls, horses, dogs, ducks, etc. – oh, smack dab in the middle of this reality was an image of a griffin!
Griffins dominate the images in the throne room of the palace atKnossosin Minoan Crete from roughly over 3,500 years ago. Ditto that at in the throne room at thePalaceofNestorat Pylos,MycenaeinGreece. That has images of lions, deer, and of course griffins!
One tends to decorate objects like murals and pottery with familiar things, and what could be more familiar than animals. If you hark back to all those Palaeolithic cave artists, nearly all their artistic images were of animals that all and sundry can recognise and name today with very few exceptions. So, the logic follows that if you have lots of images (and statues, etc.) of griffins, then griffins were a familiar animal and therefore no doubt really composed of flesh-and-blood.
Griffins were also well known and established in ancient Old Kingdom Egyptian lore as well, as far back as 3,300 BCE in fact. They were no stranger back in ancient Assyria andSumer, in fact throughout the entire ancientMiddle East. The popularity and reality of griffins extended right on through to and including the Middle Ages.
*Pegasus was that famous winged horse of ancientGreece. Pegasus was born out of a pregnant Gorgon, the Medusa, after her decapitation by Perseus.
Pegasus has been depicted on a 4th Century BCE Corinthian silver coin as well as on other antiquities such as a Parthian era bronze plate excavated in now modern dayIran. Of course Pegasus is well represented too as a stellar constellation.
Pegasus wasn't the only flying horse, of course. The Greek sun god, Helios, had his chariot pulled across the sky daily by a team of white winged horses.
There are lots of similar illustrations of a mixing between the obviously real animal kingdom and the ‘obviously' mythological equivalent in the various artistic, even everyday works of the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc.
Further, there's nothing in the ancient texts or inscriptions or images that says "Hey stupid, this is a work of fiction. I've imagined this all on my own. Aren't I really something for having conceived of this?"
And that's the crux of the question – did the ancients know that dragons, griffins and say Pegasus were as fictional as we know Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are? If so, did they just go along for the ride and the fun of it all, or did they accept their reality like we accept the existence of giraffes and the platypus? The latter is the answer.
Having, I trust, established the plausibility that griffins, dragons and Pegasus might exist, what about even more interesting, even exotic, winged beasties – of the humanoid kind.
Just as we tend to be more interested in and fascinated by extraterrestrial intelligence relative to extraterrestrial critters, and for obvious anthropological reasons associate intelligence with images of ourselves, or at least variations on that image – call it the humanoid image. One has to look no further than the depiction of intelligent aliens in the movies or on TV – nearly all have some sort of humanoid face.
So, I'm more interested in a humanoid extraterrestrial context, which is not to suggest that dragons or griffins couldn't really be alien but non-humanoid, rather I'm just looking for something say that's not just alien but human or humanoid in appearance with wings, and for that one needs to further examine primarily ancient mythology.
*The trio of Greek Erinyes, more commonly called the Eumenides or Furies (Roman) were hags that had snakes for hair and wings too. They go by the names of Alecto, Megaira and Tsiphone.
*The Gorgons were a trio of rather ugly appearing Greek ladies with copper hands, large fangs, snakes for hair, oh, and gold wings. The most famous of the trio was Medusa, decapitated by the hero Perseus. Medusa was the only one of the three who was vulnerable. The other two Gorgons (Stheno and Euryale) were apparently immortal, or should that be translated as just having an extremely long natural lifespan compared to humans since nothing can be really immortal unless the Universe itself is infinite in duration.
*Harpies (quasi-vultures) were monstrous flying creatures, half-bird and half-woman with the heads and faces of girls with claw-like fingers. The trio were called Aello, Calaeno and Ocypete. They had rather unhygienic habits of fouling things via their extreme bad breath or by pooping on people's food. Disgusting!
*The Lamassu (or Shedu) were life-size winged lions or bulls respectively with human heads in ancient Mesopotamian or Assyrian mythology. They played the role of guardians.
*Sirens were bird-like creatures with girls' faces and exquisite voices that any man would die for – and many did. Fortunately, they were outsmarted by two of ancient Greeks most noted heroes – Odysseus and Jason (of the Argonauts). Odysseus did the trick by plugging his crew's ears with wax while he himself was tightly strapped and bound to his ship's mast and thus could not surrender even if he wanted to – which he did. Jason thwarted the Sirens via having one of his crew, Orpheus, sing louder and better than the Sirens – drowned them out as it were. Not so much fighting fire with fire, but fighting vocals with a vocal. There's some dispute about the exact number of Sirens – it varies between two and five, but the standard tradition number is three – Parthenope, Leucosia and Ligeia.
*Sphinx: In this case it's the Greek version of a winged lion with a feminine face and head that was famous for posing a riddle (much like the operatic heroine Turndot). Much like with Turandot, if you failed to answer the riddle of the Sphinx (or in Turandot's case, a trilogy of riddles) you forfeited your life by becoming a Sphinx-snack (or in Turandot's case, via the use of that time-honoured phrase, "off with his head").
*Angels: Sorry, despite the zillions of images found across and around the world, angels, as in Biblical angels, haven't a wing to share between the whole lot of them. So, angels really shouldn't be mentioned here though I will just because of that popular misconception. Readers will expect to see angels referenced. Angels however could easily be extraterrestrial since they are clearly identified as sky beings from somewhere up there. You could say their home world address somewhere out there as described is a fairly exotic one.
*Boreas (Greek – North Wind): Well one would just about expect a deity representing the wind to have wings.
*Calais(Greek) was the son of Boreas and like father, like son – he had wings upon his back, or feet, depending on what version you read. His claim to mythological fame was being one of the crew on the Argonaut and doing battle with the Harpies.
*Cherub: In modern English the word cherub is sometimes used for what are strictly putti, baby or toddler angels, or winged children in fact, mainly shown in works of art. Sort of like our current images of Eros or Cupid but without the bow and arrows! In this case the cherubs appear to have some sort of kinship with the fairy-folk. Check out images of fairies and they are, though not childlike, are tending to be small and winged.
*Cherubim (Biblical): The cherubim (singular is cherub) are actually Assyrian in origin. They were depicted as enormous eagle-winged beings with the bodies of lions with human heads (Lammasu) or human heads on the bodies of bulls (Shedu). They seemed however to have shape-shifted from their Assyrian image just a bit and taken on a different persona in the Bible, especially prominent in the Old Testament. However, it was these beasties, a composite of some things human and wings that morphed into the stereotyped image of an angel, especially as both played the role of guardians. However, cherubim are named as such in the Bible and their image is anything but traditionally angelic. Angels and cherubim are two separate entities.
The definitive book in the Bible on cherubim is the Book of Ezekiel, mainly 1:10 and 10:14. The prophet Ezekiel first describes cherubim as a tetrad of living creatures, each having four faces: of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Later there's a slight shift to cherub, man, lion, and eagle. They are said to have four wings each. Two of the wings extended upward, while the other two stretched downward and covered the creatures themselves. In the New Testament similar beings are mentioned in Revelation 4: 7 with four faces: a man, a flying eagle, a lion and a calf. But just to muddy the waters, these entities had six wings each. That means they must be the somewhat related Seraphim since they instead of four wings have six wings. Just to further distance cherubim from traditional angels in either Ezekiel or Revelation, the cherubim's wings are multi-eyed – no doubt that's all the better to see you with I guess.
If you check out 1 Kings 6 (KJV), you'll find that cherubs have a wingspan of 10 cubits, and a height of 10 cubits, at least I gather that must be their real life size since Solomon manufactured two of them, I assume on a one-to-one scale. The whole story is repeated in the third chapter of 2 Chronicles by the way. Now a cubit is roughly 18 to 22 inches; say 20 inches on average. So our model cherub is 200 inches tall; ditto the wingspan. That's a tad over 16 ½ feet! Well, the Assyrians did say their versions were enormous being life-sized!
You'll also find several references to someone hitching a ride on a flying cherub (2 Samuel 22:11 and Psalm 18:10). At over 16 feet, well that sounds plausible.
*Eros (Cupid or Amour to the Romans) was in Greek mythology a deity with wings, celebrated or cursed by lovers or ex-lovers around the world.
*Eurus: (Greek – East Wind): See Boreas above.
*Fairies are known throughout the world, and it's a rare image that doesn't show them without wings.
*Hypnos is the Greek god of sleep; twin of Thanatos; born of the goddess Nyx (night) and her brother Erebus (darkness). Hypnos has wings attached to his head!
*Nike: The Greek goddess of victory (Victoriain the Roman pantheon), was the winged daughter of Pallas andStyx.
*Notus (Greek – South Wind): See Boreas above.
*Thanatos is the Greek personification of death; twin of Hypnos; born of the goddess Nyx (night) and her brother Erebus (darkness).
*Zephyrus or Zephyr (Greek – West Wind): See Boreas above.
*Zetes (Greek): See comments onCalaisabove. It's the same story.
ARTIFICIALLY WINGED HUMANS: Some reports of winged humans have wings that aren't biological but technological.
*Daedalus and his son Icarus in Greek mythology both donned self-manufactured wax-wings in order to escape imprisonment inCrete. Things ended badly for Icarus. Because this is relatively low-tech, just wax and feathers (the prototype of the hang-glider-parachute) and there's nothing else to suggest that these figures are anything but purely human beings in every sense of the term, I personally dismiss them from any further consideration in the context of this essay.
*Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) was among other duties, a messenger deity with winged helmet and winged sandals to facilitate his duties.
*Perseus, son of Zeus and the mortal woman Danae (and therefore a demigod), the heroic Greek slayer of the Gorgon Medusa, also had a pair of winged shoes with which to fly upon. Unlike Hermes, he didn't have a winged helmet, rather, like Hades, an invisibility helmet.
MODERN WINGED HUMANOIDS: In modern cryptozoology, there's no shortage of sightings of large unknown species of birds or bird-like creatures. Humanoids with wings are cited rather less frequently. One exception however was Mothman.
*Mothman: When talking real modern winged humanoids, one would be remiss not to mention Mothman, a winged hominoid with glowing red eyes, associated with the Point Pleasant area ofWest Virginiaaround the period of November 1966 through December 1967. Mothman's been the subject of several books, dozens of articles, and at least one motion picture ("The Mothman Prophecies" – 2002). However, there have been no sightings since. Perhaps Mothman's a purely imaginary half-breed, one never before or after seen. Well, maybe yes and maybe no.
DISCUSSION: If the ancients thought there was anything unusual, anomalous, out of place, or out of the ordinary with the presence of winged creatures or winged humanoids in their midst, I've found no reference to it. Despite having wings though, it isn't obvious that all these beasties from ancient history could actually fly. Images from ancient times clearly show Pegasus and dragons in flight, but not griffins, despite Apollo's gold chariot, by some accounts being pulled by griffins (other accounts suggest swans). Also those Lamassu (or Shedu) aren't actually depicted in flight. Ditto that of the Greek version of the Sphinx.
One interesting facet that emerges from this brief examination is that the Harpies, Gorgons, Furies and Sirens all seem to be kissing cousins; all nasty predatory examples on the feminine side of the coin. They all come in a trilogy. All are ultimately descended from the Titans branch of the Greek pantheon. All are shown in flight mode. All were dangerous to mortals. That may have nothing to do with the subject at hand of course, but it's a connection I haven't seen mentioned in the literature, not that I've digested every morsal on the subject which would be a very forbidding task indeed.
Slightly off topic, related to the Gorgons (sisters in fact) but un-winged though swan-like, are yet another trio of grey-haired crones, the Graeae (Enyo, Pemphredo and Deino) whose mythological claim to fame, apart from unwillingly assisting Perseus, was that they had to share their single tooth and lone eye between them.
Also those who can trace their ancestry in part or in full back to the Titans are Nike and Eros.
None of the original six Olympian gods and goddesses, Zeus (Jupiter), Hera (Juno), Poseidon (Neptune), Hades (Pluto), Hestia (Vesta) and Demeter (Ceres) was winged. The latter eight, Ares (Mars), Athena (Minerva), Apollo (Apollo), Artemis (Diana), Aphrodite (Venus), Hermes (Mercury), Hephaestus (Vulcan) and latecomer Dionysus (Bacchus) weren't winged either, apart from Hermes and that wasn't natural wings but technological ones.
The question is, could some, most, even all of the above be aliens? What entities are the most likely of the candidates? I personally would expect intelligent aliens to resemble something humanoid but not human and thus most of these winged beasties fit that bill although perhaps the winged gods and goddesses are illustrated as a tad too human to come across convincingly as extraterrestrial, with perhaps the exception of Hermes and Perseus.
Hermes and Perseus are obvious candidates being a god and demigod respectively who employ high technology to get around, the sort of high technology not yet to hand here in the 21st Century.
Mothman is a candidate since that beastie was associated with a UFO flap in the local area at the time.
Fairies could be extraterrestrial. They abduct people (like the UFO ‘Greys'); they have control over space and time, another trait UFOs seem to exhibit; and they inhabit rather exotic home worlds (extra-solar planets perhaps).
But the best candidates IMHO are the Cherubim. They are larger than humans by a wide margin; they are exotic looking; they are multi-winged; they are associated with UFOs (that ‘Wheel of Ezekiel'); they have an extraterrestrial home base even if it is Heaven. They have the added advantage from a cultural perspective of being Biblical. Greek mythology is still widely read and part of our culture, but way more people are willing to accept Biblical mythology as reality. The logic IMHO doesn't follow, but that's the way it is.
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About the Author
Science librarian; retired.

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