Griffin | Mythic Creature

Griffin Greek Mythology

Griffon is a legendary creature with ancient Asian origins. Its most current description shows it as a hybrid half eagle and half lion, but it was a common image in a wide range of civilizations in the East and West, where its representation and attributes varied significantly.

In the East, in Egypt and in archaic Greece it maintained for long centuries a strong connection with the sacred, being representative of gods and invoked in rituals and ceremonies, associated with justice, divine light and authority, and the cycle of death and rebirth.

In the West it has remained a cherished icon since its appearance in the early days of Greek civilization, but already in the classical period there were those who doubted its existence.

It remains to this day, however, in a prominent place among the fabulous animals in the popular imagination, art and folklore, besides playing a role in culture as allegory and symbol, appearing in a multitude of visual representations and literary works, usually associated with concepts of power, strength, dignity and protection.

Origin and dispersion

The origin of the griffin figure is not known for certain, and several theories have been proposed. The one that has received the most acceptance says that the figure is possibly a fabulous interpretation of dinosaur bones seen by prehistoric peoples. There is evidence that the creature was already present in the mythology of prehistoric nomadic peoples living in the Altai Mountains region.

The earliest iconographic records were found in Egypt and Elam, east of Mesopotamia, in the mid-4th millennium BCE, and then the figure dispersed over a wide area of the Near East, including Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia, with dates ranging from three to two thousand years B.C.

The griffin belongs to a large family of winged hybrid beings found in these ancient civilizations, which include the sphinx, winged bull, winged lion, winged men with bird heads, and their variants.

In Ancient Egypt the figure seems to have been derived from varying combinations of the lion, hawk and sphinx, attested as far back as the pre-dynastic period, and in its classical form the earliest record was found in the Abusir Tomb of the 5th Dynasty (2491-2477), where the pharaoh is depicted in the form of a griffin defeating his enemies.

The Egyptian griffin is also interpreted as a manifestation of the god Horus, who had the function of protecting the pharaohs, as well as having functions as guardian of sacred places and of the boundaries between the visible and invisible world.

It was associated with royal power and, through its status as symbols of the gods Osiris and Seth, with the pairs of opposites light/darkness and life/death. They appear described in one papyrus as the most powerful beings on earth and as representatives of the solar divinity, and in such capacity were the dispensers of blessings and executors of the divine will.

The Egyptian griffin seems to have been one of the origins of the early forms of the cherubim and seraphim in the Semitic and Palestinian tradition, as the words used to describe them in the oldest texts seem to derive from the same root, as well as seeming to have performed similar functions in myth.

In Syria they appear several times on clay cylinders with a crest from the 2nd millennium BCE and became a prominent motif in Assyrian and Mithanite art, where leonine features predominated and their symbolism was linked to destruction, possibly associated with regal power.

It was also particularly common in Persia since the Achaemenid Empire, as well as in parts of India and Asian regions influenced by Zoroastrianism and Lamaism, being an important character in festivities, sacrifices and rituals and in mythology related to death and burial, for as terrible predators they were symbolically responsible for the destruction of the body enabling spiritual rebirth.

In this sense their image was often fused with that of other scavenging animals, such as wolves and vultures, and in Persian oral and literary traditions their regal, beneficent and miraculous character is invariably emphasized. They were also attributed qualities as mediators between heaven and earth and guardians and protectors against slander, the evil eye and sorcery.

The figure was introduced into Minoan culture probably through Syria, by means of images on cloth, and in mainland Greece the classical Western image of the griffin as a hybrid of eagle and lion was consolidated, with the head, wings, and forepaws of the bird and the rear body and tail lionlike. It may have horns, ears, or a crest along its neck.

By the 7th and 6th centuries BCE it had become a very common decorative motif over a wide region, found in the form of painting, engraving, tapestry or sculpture in monuments, temples and altars, palaces, tombs, dwellings, vases, mirrors, harnesses, jewelry and other utilitarian objects from Greece, the Levant, Caucasus, Persia, Syria, southern Russia, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and other Asian regions.

It is difficult to accurately interpret the meaning of the griffin in all these various cultures, and it probably performed different functions in each, although some characteristics were very common in most of them. Its shape also had variations.

Sometimes the eagle aspect is dominant, and at other times it has more leonine characteristics.

Magical and religious associations seem to have been more common, appearing as protective creatures of sacred environments and as companions of gods or heroes, they were also an emblem often carrying attributes of power, dignity and majesty, being used by royal families or the nobility, or they could be an identifier of certain clans, having associations with ancestry and family traditions.

Greece and Rome

The griffin has been present in Greek imagery since the Minoan and Mycenaean origins of their civilization, probably introduced through various sources from Syria, Anatolia and Egypt, when it appears with or without wings, it usually has a crest of peacock feathers over its neck and may be adorned with jewels.

In the Archaic period it is usually depicted with a prominent beak, pointed ears, horns, a raptor's head and wings, and a lion's body.

In the classical period the horns tend to disappear and a neck covered by a crest becomes common. At this time the first literary mentions of the griffin appear. In the tragedy Prometheus in chains by Aeschylus the griffins are creatures to be feared.

Herodotus speaks of the griffins several times, mentioning that they were guardians of Pluto's gold, defending it from the greed of the arimaspos, one-eyed warriors.

He also says that they were mentioned in a (lost) poem by Aristeas of Proconeso, that they were used as a decorative motif by the Samians, and that they lived in mountains in India also guarding gold, describing them as "four-legged birds as big as wolves, their legs and claws resemble those of the lion, their chest feathers are red, and their body feathers are black.

Although there is much gold in these mountains, it is difficult to get it because of these birds." Both authors use the word γρυψ (gryps) to designate them, meaning "hook" or "curved," possibly a reference to their curved beak.

Pausanias said that their body had spots like the leopard. Philostratus mentioned that the griffins of India were revered as sacred animals of Helios, the Sun.

He said that they had legs palmed with red membranes, their strength exceeded that of elephants and dragons, but they were surpassed by tigers, and although they were winged they were not excellent in flight, being capable only of short flights because of the inadequate shape of their wings.

In Rome Claudius Elian described them as natives of India,

"quadrupedal like a lion, they have claws of enormous strength that resemble those of the lion. Usually the accounts show them with wings, their back feathers are black, and the front feathers are red, while the wings are white.

Clésias says that their neck is decorated with feathers of a dark blue color, that their beak is like that of the eagle, as well as their head, the way artists portray them in painting and sculpture.

The eyes, he says, are like fire. It builds its nest among the mountains, where although it is not possible to capture an adult animal, young ones can be captured. And the peoples of Bactria, neighbors of the Indians, say that griffins guard gold in those regions, that they build their nests with it, and that the Indians pick up all gold that falls from their nests."

In the classical world they were often associated with royalty, courage and protection, they were also linked to rites of passage from life to the world of the dead, there was a strong connection with light and solar gods like Helios and Apollo, their eggs were believed to be able to neutralize poisons, and they were associated with other gods like Hera, Dionysus, Nemesis and Artemis, but not all classical authors accepted them as real beings. Pliny the Elder, as well as Strabo, questioned their existence.

Middle and Modern Ages

The griffin remained a popular motif in the following centuries. Isidore of Seville in his work Etimologias described them as a quadrupedal animal with a lion's body covered with feathers and as an enemy of men and horses.

They were depicted guarding treasures, in medieval bestiaries they often appear preying on large animals, and in Alexander's Romance they are the animals that carry the king's flying chariot, being propelled by pieces of meat placed before them, as an allegory against pride.

In the Huon of Bordeaux gesture song the hero is carried by a griffin to his nest, where he is attacked for killing the chicks; Huon overcomes the beasts and takes a claw as a gift to the emperor Charlemagne. 

Albert the Great repeated the classical tradition that they lived in the country of the hyperboreans, and travel books that were widely read, such as the chronicles of Odoric of Pordenone, Johannes of Plano Carpini, and John Mandeville, carried accounts of such animals living in far-off countries of the East.

Mandeville, for example, said that although they had lion and eagle bodies, they were larger and stronger than eight lions and more powerful than a hundred eagles combined.

With the rise of heraldry the griffin was quickly adopted as a symbol of valor, strength and heroism. The merchants' guild of Perugia displayed a griffin on its coat of arms as a guarantee of safe trade.

In Christian philosophy it was often interpreted positively as a symbol of courage and power, bringing together the best qualities of the heavenly and earthly worlds, since the eagle was seen as the queen of the flying animals and the lion as the king of the pedestrian animals, or as an allegory of the both human and divine nature of Jesus, and it is in this sense that it is figured in medieval Christian art and in Dante's Divine Comedy, where they take the heroine Beatrice to heaven.

Griffins appear to this day in Jewish art as angelic manifestations and guardians of the Torah.

As the scientific spirit developed griffins were increasingly considered unreal elements of fantasy and folklore. The Polish writer Matias Michovius in the 16th century doubted their existence, the humanist Ulisse Aldrovandi included griffins in his list of fabulous creatures, and Thomas Browne devoted an entire chapter in his book Popular Errors (1646) to proving their purely fictional character. Skeptics generally explained them as misinterpretations of real animals.

But although scientism advanced by shaking the foundations of belief, the transition was slow, and in the Modern Age some cabinets of curiosities and collections still preserved fossils, ostrich eggs, claws, skins, and horns of little-known animals identifying them as parts of griffins.

Nor have they lost their appeal as symbols and as illustrious extras in fictional narratives and art. John Milton used the legend of griffins in search of gold stolen by arimaspos as a metaphor for humanity's relentless pursuit of the Devil.

The Enlightenment's Voltaire included him in the philosophical novel Zadig, or The Fate when ironizing religious superstitions, and in The Princess of Babylon two griffins take Princess Formosanta in an aerial chariot on her quest for Amazan.