Posted on February 2, 2018
“Here in your mind…there’s no difference between what is and what could be.” – Chuck Palahniuk, a “transgressional” American fiction novelist.
In architecture, the ethereal essence of imagination is made reality by the actualization of the structure. Since the dawn of man, storytelling has thrilled the hearts of generations and was used to excite the imagination. An intriguing example of such as union between architecture and mythology is the use of legendary creatures to adorn palaces, temples, and common areas of residence. The depiction of literal beasts such as lions, eagles, hawks, and bulls could be representative of the natural order. However, mythological beasts represents our existential fear of the unknown.
Traditionally, there are three physical territories that man is subject to – the earth, the sea, and the sky. In the Hebrew mythos, the land is subject to the Behemoth, the Leviathan has dominion over the sea, and Ziz holds authority over the sky. Overall, these beasts reflect man’s inability to conquer his immediate surroundings, thus implying the need for safety and security within a community.
In a multitude of cultures, these titans are paralleled in a similar manner. For example, the Makara in the Hindu tradition is a sea beast who brings fertility and creation. As an amalgamation of a variety of animal parts; the creature commonly features aspects such as the under jaw of a gharial crocodile, the torso of an elephant, a fish like bottom half, and a tail of peacock feathers. They serve as transportation for the gods, guardians of thresholds, protectors of throne rooms and temple entryways. To this purpose, they are most commonly displayed above doors revealing the “Face of Glory.”
In the Western tradition, Gryphons, a combination of eagle and lion, are viewed as the king of all creatures. Considering lions are known as the king of the land and eagles are the king of the sky, a combination of both creatures would be fitting – and terrifying.
This creature was renowned for their habit of guarding treasure, including their golden eggs, and were a sign of wealth and military dominion. Well preserved evidence of gryphons in architecture can be found in ancient Iranian, Egyptian, and Greek throne rooms and treasuries.
After the Greeks, the Achaemenid Empire considered griffins a “protector from evil, witchcraft, and secret slander.” At the time, history records their distinction from similar species, such as the hippogryph, as “lion-griffins.”
Similar to the gryphon is the lamassu: The lumasi are protective deities representative of the zodiacs that were carved into clay tablets and placed under a door’s threshold. Also, they were often placed in pairs at the entrance of palaces. In this manner, they were sculpted to a colossal size when used as guardians for cities.
The Assyrian culture greatly influenced ancient Jewish iconography, as seen with the four Gospels represented by a human being, a lion, a bull, and an eagle. We can presume that this tetra-morph is directly related to the combined parts of the lamassu.
Finally, there is confusion as to what creature a Behemoth could relate to. Naturally, animals such as an elephant, rhinoceros, water buffalo, or hippopotamus would be a fitting suggestion, but others speculate that it may have even been a sauropod dinosaur.
The behemoth is equated to a primal terrestrial creature who’s reign over the land far surpasses its ability to be usurped. As a testament to its strength, once a year during the summer solstice, the behemoth roars so mightily that all land dwelling beasts are rendered docile. Without this phenomena, animals would return to their ferocious instincts and rip one another limb from limb.
Thus, large mammals have been associated with the earth, sturdiness, and the ability to endure. Therefore, when used in architecture, they are often depicted bearing large loads such as the elephant depicted above. An obelisk, the stone structure protruding from it, are a sign of conquest and strength. Together, the monument recalls the past Roman rule over the Mediterranean region.
For example, several ancient cultures revered the bull as a symbol of the earth and its properties of fertility and wrath. We can read the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, a beast that is half man and half bull, who given to the King of Crete as a punishment for disobeying Poseidon. Not only is the beast terrifying, but he lives in a maze designed by Daedalus and Icarus for the King Minos. Theseus must brave two obstacles, the confusing maze which penalizes his poor choices and the Minotaur to free several Athenian citizens.
The curious nature of mankind and its inclination to use the imagination to create stories continues to impress me. At the time, our ancestors perceived their fragility within their environment and naturally conjured up phantasms to spread this hysteria. Similarly, in the nineteenth century, writers such as H.P. Lovecraft generated the Cthulu mythos as an attempt to reach into space and come to terms with man’s place in the cosmos. To this day, these stories continue to be used in architecture to relay the values of a culture to its citizens and foreign visitors. I wonder, just what would archaeologists deem to be our values and norms in the future if our architecture has the same permanence.
“The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” – Chuck Palahniuk