The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Greek: γρύφων, grýphōn, or γρύπων, grýpōn, early form γρύψ, grýps; Latin: gryphus) is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. The griffin was also thought of as king of all creatures. Griffins are known for guarding treasure and priceless possessions.
In Greek and Roman texts, griffins and Arimaspians were associated with gold. Indeed, in later accounts, “griffins were said to lay eggs in burrows on the grounds and these nests contained gold nuggets”. Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, proposes that the griffin was an ancient misconception derived from the fossilized remains of the Protoceratops found in gold mines in the Altai mountains of Scythia, in present-day southeastern Kazakhstan, or in Mongolia, though this hypothesis has been strongly contested as it ignores pre-Mycenaean accounts. In antiquity it was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
Most statuary representations of griffins depict them with bird-like talons, although in some older illustrations griffins have a lion’s forelimbs; they generally have a lion’s hindquarters. Its eagle’s head is conventionally given prominent ears; these are sometimes described as the lion’s ears, but are often elongated (more like a horse’s), and are sometimes feathered.
Infrequently, a griffin is portrayed without wings, or a wingless eagle-headed lion is identified as a griffin. In 15th-century and later heraldry, such a beast may be called an alce or a keythong.
In heraldry, a griffin always has forelegs like an eagle’s hind-legs. A type of griffin with the four legs of a lion was distinguished by perhaps only one English herald of later heraldry as the Opinicus, which also had a camel-like neck and a short tail that almost resembles a camel’s tail.
There is evidence of representations of griffins in Ancient Iranian and Ancient Egyptian art dating back to before 3000 BC. In Egypt, a griffin can be seen in a cosmetic palette from Hierakonpolis, known as the “Two Dog Palette”, which is dated to ca. 3300-3100 BC. In Iran, griffins appeared on cylinder seals from Susa as early as 3000 BC. Griffin depictions appear in the Levant, Syria, and Anatolia in the Middle Bronze Age, dated at about 1950-1550 BC. Early depictions of griffins in Ancient Greek art are found in the 15th century BC frescoes in the Throne Room of the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos, as restored by Sir Arthur Evans. It continued being a favored decorative theme in Archaic and Classical Greek art.
In Central Asia, the griffin appears about a thousand years after Bronze Age Crete, in the 5th–4th centuries BC, probably originating from the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Achaemenids considered the griffin “a protector from evil, witchcraft and secret slander”. The modern generalist calls it the lion-griffin, as for example, Robin Lane Fox, in Alexander the Great, 1973:31 and notes p. 506, who remarks a lion-griffin attacking a stag in a pebble mosaic at Pella, perhaps as an emblem of the kingdom of Macedon or a personal one of Alexander’s successor Antipater.
The Pisa Griffin is a large bronze sculpture that has been in Pisa in Italy since the Middle Ages, though it is of Islamic origin. It is the largest bronze medieval Islamic sculpture known, at over three feet tall (42.5 inches, or 1.08 m.), and was probably created in the 11th century in Al-Andaluz (Islamic Spain). From about 1100 it was placed on a column on the roof of Pisa Cathedral until replaced by a replica in 1832; the original is now in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Museum), Pisa.
Several ancient mythological creatures are similar to the griffin. These include the Lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted with a bull or lion’s body, eagle’s wings, and human’s head.
Sumerian and Akkadian mythology feature the demon Anzu, half man and half bird, associated with the chief sky god Enlil. This was a divine storm-bird linked with the southern wind and the thunder clouds.
Jewish mythology speaks of the Ziz, which resembles Anzu, as well as the ancient Greek Phoenix. The Bible mentions the Ziz in Psalms 50:11. This is also similar to Cherub. The cherub, or sphinx, was very popular in Phoenician iconography.
In ancient Crete, griffins became very popular, and were portrayed in various media. A similar creature is the Minoan Genius.
In the Hindu religion, Garuda is a large bird-like creature which serves as a mount (vahana) of the Lord Vishnu. It is also the name for the constellation Aquila.
In legend, griffins not only mated for life, but if either partner died, then the other would continue the rest of its life alone, never to search for a new mate. The griffin was thus made an emblem of the Church’s opposition to remarriage.[dubious – discuss] Being a union of an aerial bird and a terrestrial beast, it was seen in Christendom to be a symbol of Jesus, who was both human and divine. As such it can be found sculpted on some churches.
According to Stephen Friar’s New Dictionary of Heraldry, a griffin’s claw was believed to have medicinal properties and one of its feathers could restore sight to the blind. Goblets fashioned from griffin claws (actually antelope horns) and griffin eggs (actually ostrich eggs) were highly prized in medieval European courts.
When Genoa emerged as a major seafaring power in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, griffins commenced to be depicted as part of the republic’s coat of arms, rearing at the sides of the shield bearing the Cross of St. George.
By the 12th century, the appearance of the griffin was substantially fixed: “All its bodily members are like a lion’s, but its wings and mask are like an eagle’s.” It is not yet clear if its forelimbs are those of an eagle or of a lion. Although the description implies the latter, the accompanying illustration is ambiguous. It was left to the heralds to clarify that.
A hippogriff is a legendary creature, supposedly the offspring of a griffin and a mare.