Post Script added, July 2017
A few posts back we discussed the gryphons at the foot of the stairs. I said that they were like sentinels at the gateway to the unknown, "and that sort of thing." Well, today we plunge headlong into "that sort of thing." We've been schlepping around in the 19th and early 20th centuries looking for things that might have inspired the Imagineers. In this case, however, they are probably not taking inspiration from some specific source so much as they are making use of symbolism that must be measured by millenia rather than a few paltry centuries.
What does it mean to pass between a pair of gryphons? So glad you asked. The place between these creatures is a place of terrible and supernatural power. You often find them on the arms of thrones, in the form of cherubim. Oh yeah, I guess we'd better deal with the terminology thing first. In general:
- Lion body, human head = Sphinx
- Lion body, human head, eagle wings = Cherub
- Lion body, eagle head, eagle wings = Gryphon
Here's an ivory from Megiddo, ca. 1250 BC, give or take a century.
And we still use them in royal or supernatural settings. If you've got sharp eyes, you'll spy such a chair in Cocteau's La belle et la bête (1946), a film that profoundly influenced Rolly Crump, as many of you know.
Post Script (July 2017)
By the way, I'm not implying that the Imagineers were boning up on Mesopotamian iconography and drawing inspiration directly from there. It's more a matter of pulling up something that's been implanted in our psyches for millennia. If we want to look for a more immediate inspiration, one possibility (and that's all it is) might be the staircase in the old Munsters TV show, which also had a pair of gryphons at the foot of the stairs: