The griffin is a fabulous creature of myth with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. It has been drawn upon in stories and tales by writers and artists since ancient times and remains a source of inspiration for today’s generation of talents.
Over the centuries there have been many different spellings for the word ‘griffin’ and the most familiar variations include gryphon, gryphin, gryffon, griffon, griffen, etc. The ancient Greeks originally called them gryps, but they were also known as gryphoi from which our modern word ultimately derives.
The earliest images of the griffin appeared in the ancient Middle East at least over 4000 years ago and their iconic forms decorated many types of objects recovered from archaeological sites in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean during the 2nd millennium BC. There was considerable artistic variation in the griffin form as, for example, Sumerian images depicted a fierce monster with four birds' legs, while Minoan ones from Crete featured a gentle creature reclining on lions' legs with a falcon’s head plumed in long feathers.
Aristeas relates an account of his voyage to the far north where he encountered one-eyed men called Arimaspians, who stole the gold guarded by griffins.
One of the earliest recorded tales about griffins derives from the writings of the famous ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who lived around 5th century BC. Even more fascinating is the fact that Herodotus utilises the writing device of ‘a story within a story’ as he draws upon the folkloric imagery of a forgotten poem by Aristeas. Aristeas relates an account of his voyage to the far north where he encountered one-eyed men called Arimaspians, who stole the gold guarded by griffins. Aristeas is a mysterious, if not mythical figure, in ancient Greek literature and scholars of today still debate among themselves the nature of Aristeas’s poem: was it a work of fiction or truly based on a folktale collected by the author during his travels to the edge of the world?
...within a mountain range in India dwelled a race of four-footed birds that were large as wolves.
Around the same time, the Greek physician Ktesias (late 5th century BC) shifted the legend of the griffins from the north to the south. He claimed that within a mountain range in India dwelled a race of four-footed birds that were large as wolves. These griffins had the legs and claws of a lion but were covered in black feathers except on the breast where these were coloured red.
the griffin represented notions about foreign lands which could be considered the equivalent of ‘here be monsters’
These evocative accounts of guardian griffins were drawn upon time and time again by subsequent Greek and Roman writers. Moreover, the depiction of griffins and Arimaspians became a stock theme in Greek vessel designs known as grypomachy – the battle between griffins (gryps) and barbarian warriors. What fascinated both classical authors and artists is that these fabulous beasts and strange Arimaspians inhabited an exotic geographical setting located at the boundaries of the known ancient world. Thus, the griffin represented notions about foreign lands which could be considered the equivalent of ‘here be monsters’ dotting the edges of old European maps.
By medieval times in Europe, the griffin becomes an allegorical symbol representing the dualities and divisions between good and evil. As the guardian of treasure, the griffin may have stood for knowledge and wisdom, but it was a monster that could bring harm with its claws and, thus, represented injury and cruelty.
a griffin on a coat of arms signifies the bearer was a strong, pugnacious man.
The griffin also became entangled within the symbolic art of medieval heraldry that recognised its qualities of being a regal and highly emblematic creature. Since the griffin combined the features of noble beasts, the eagle and the lion, it became an iconic figure featured in the coat of arms of many noble families and institutions. Moreover, in the late 14th century, John de Bado Aureo wrote in his famous Treatise on Heraldry (Tractatus de Armis) that a griffin on a coat of arms signifies the bearer was a strong, pugnacious man. This individual also possessed the character and qualities of the eagle and the lion. Moreover, artistically speaking, the griffin becomes a standardised emblem fixed in a fierce pose, while standing on its two hind legs with an elongated tail as it sticks out its tongue from an open beak.
Additionally, fantastic animals were constantly employed as eloquent metaphors in the plays of Shakespeare, and the griffin was no exception. In Act II, Scene I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Demetrius tells the love stricken Helena that he will run away and abandon her in the forest. She long-windedly replies:
“The wildest hath not such a heart as you. Run when you will, the story shall be chang’d; Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase; The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind Makes speed to catch the tiger, – bootless speed, When cowardice pursues and valour flies.”
Moving forward a couple of centuries, a different griffin is presented by Lewis Caroll in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. In one scene the Queen of Hearts impolitely introduces Alice to a griffin sleeping in the sun. In a humorous reference to its dualistic nature Caroll writes,
“ “What fun!” said the Gryphon, half to itself, half to Alice”.
John Tenniel also created delightful illustrations of the witty griffin and Alice for the original publication in 1865.
Meanwhile, the Brothers Grimm offer a traditional fairytale called The Griffin where the young Hans strives to win the hand of a king’s daughter by attempting to fulfil numerous impossible tasks. The ultimate errand that he must perform, however, is fetching for the king the tail feather of a griffin!
Griffins are still drawn upon in the literary works of the 20th century up to the present day. They appear in the fantasy worlds of C. S. Lewis, Andre Norton and Diana Wynne Jones, while Neil Gaiman has a courageous griffin guarding the gates to the realm of dreams in his Sandman graphic novels. And don’t forget Maurice Sendak in his renowned picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, depicts a rather large, wingless griffin that plays with the boy Max.
All in all, from the edges of the known world to metaphor and flights of fantasy, the griffin offers creative inspiration to writers and artists who dare to pursue its golden treasury of myth and legend.
Ken Lymer is an archaeologist and folklore enthusiast with aspirations of becoming a children’s book illustrator and writer. He has designed and illustrated teachers' packs for schools (History Key Stages 1 to 3) ranging on topics from Celtic cauldrons and Roman bath-houses to Benedictine monasteries and the dissolution of Abbeys during late Tudor times. These also feature entertaining games designed by Ken including Dragons & Ladders and Tudor trump cards.