They once carried a Sun god across the sky, stood watch over golden treasures, and even protected the mighty Zeus with their sharp beaks; myths of griffins thrived across many ancient civilizations and continue in popular culture to this day.

The prevalence of such monstrous beaked hybrids across diverse cultures has led some researchers to believe the inspiration for these fantastical beasts lay in reality, attributing the origins of their mythical existence to the discovery of fossilized dinosaur bones in Asia.

Two researchers from the University of Portsmouth have now laid their case arguing the dinosaur-griffin origin story is itself a myth.

"Not all mythological creatures demand explanations through fossils," says paleontologist Mark Witton.

"Invoking a role for dinosaurs in griffin lore, especially species from distant lands like protoceratops, not only introduces unnecessary complexity and inconsistencies to their origins, but also relies on interpretations and proposals that don't withstand scrutiny."

Tales of a beast with the head and forelimbs of a raptor and a body of a lion were attributed to central Asia by ancient Greek and Roman authors. The spread of such stories along international trade routes led classical folklorist Adrienne Mayo to suggest some 30 years ago they were imagined by Scythian gold miners who'd stumbled across beaked dinosaurs like protoceratops. This has since become the popular theory of how myths of griffins began.

On reevaluating fossil records, Witton and his colleague Richard Hing found a number of inconsistencies in this idea.

illustration of a griffin perched above a dinosaur skeleton
Painting of a griffin above the fossils of the horned dinosaur protoceratops. (Mark Witton/University of Portsmouth)

Griffins were regarded as protectors in ancient Greece, often associated with guarding caches of gold – hence the proposed connection to gold miners.

There's one problem: protoceratops fossils have actually never been discovered near gold.

"There is an assumption that dinosaur skeletons are discovered half-exposed, lying around almost like the remains of recently-deceased animals," explains Witton. "But generally speaking, just a fraction of an eroding dinosaur skeleton will be visible to the naked eye, unnoticed to all except for sharp-eyed fossil hunters."

What's more, the myth of griffins existed in the Mediterranean, as depicted by a Mycenaean vase from at least the 12th century BCE, hundreds of years before news of the dinosaurs could have reached the same area.

Witton and Hing also point out dinosaurs such as protoceratops, are only griffin-like in that they have four limbs and a beak.

Dinosaur fossil compared to griffin depictions
Comparisons between a protoceratops skeleton and depictions of ancient griffins. The long and flexible tails and coiled manes of the griffins strongly suggest their bodies are based on a big cat, not a dinosaur. (Witton & Hing, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 2024)

"There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea that ancient peoples found dinosaur bones and incorporated them into their mythology," explains Hing.

"But we need to root such proposals in realities of history, geography and paleontology. Otherwise, they are just speculation."

There are examples of geomythology that are founded in shreds of truth. For example, stories of magical stone swallows with curative properties flying free during thunderstorms are likely to be fossils of shellfish from China's Devonian era, which resemble the spread wings of a bird.

Later in their history, fossil relics were associated with griffins too. During the middle ages the horns of hoofed mammals and extinct rhinos were identified as the mythical beast's claws. But these were centuries after myths of griffins had been well established.

An outline imprinted in clay from an engraved Mesopotamian stamp found in what is now now Iran is the oldest known depiction of a gryphon, dating back to 3000 BCE.

"Everything about griffin origins is consistent with their traditional interpretation as imaginary beasts, just as their appearance is entirely explained by them being chimeras of big cats and raptorial birds," Witton concludes.

Sometimes a fantasy is just that, even when shared across vast amounts of time and cultures.

This research was published in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews.