What is a Griffin?
A griffin (or gryphon) is a chimeric creature, part eagle and part lion. With incredible strength, unfailing protective instincts, and a zero-tolerance policy against evil, it is the superhero of mythological creatures. No villain can mess with the griffin!
Griffins combined the best traits from the eagle (“king of the birds”) and the lion (“king of the beasts”). Their heads come from the eagle; they are coated in glossy feathers, usually brown or golden, and have dangerous, curved beaks. Two tufts of feathers spring up from their heads, representing a lion’s ears. At their shoulders, a pair of powerful, feathered wings emerge. Behind the wings, the feathers fade into tawny fur, and the lion’s body takes over. These beasts are usually drawn with the front legs of an eagle and the back legs of a lion, but sometimes, all four legs are lion-like.
The griffin is hailed as “the king of all creatures,” and it is has the right personality for its title: noble, fearsome, and above all else, protective. It will fight to the death to keep evil and corruption out of its territory. In some cases, the griffin’s “territory” might be a precious object, or even a living creature, rather than a piece of land. They are well-known for guarding treasures, sacred sites, and royal families. Their loyalty can also be seen in their mating habits; they choose only one mate for their whole lives, and if that mate dies, they spend the rest of their days alone.
As you can probably imagine, the griffin is a terrible enemy in a fight. It has all the strength of a lion, and it can launch aerial attacks! Ancient historians claimed that this creature preyed on elephants and giraffes—so it made short work of human intruders.
The griffin’s mighty body has magical properties as well. Alchemists and early physicians prized the beast’s claws and feathers, which could restore sight to the blind. Griffin eggs were also valuable. They were made into goblets and drinking from them was said to prolong life.
Finally, the griffin has an eye for shiny objects, especially gold. It likes to nest in rocky areas where seams of gold can be found, and nuggets of gold can be found scattered around its nest.
The first griffins crop up as sculptures in ancient Egypt and Iran, around 3000 BC. Much later, the “king of all creatures” melded into Greek culture. Frescos from the 1400 BC show the beast guarding Greek palaces. Later, Greek natural historians, including Pliny the Elder, attempted to describe the griffin’s form, habitat, and behavior. Eventually, the Greeks passed the griffin along to the Romans, who spread its legend throughout Europe. Meanwhile, the eastern cultures who first dreamt up the griffin spread its legend to surrounding areas, including India and Syria.
No medieval bestiary was complete without the griffin, king of all creatures. It was highly popular, both as a symbol and as a real creature, who could contribute to scientific advancement.
Both Christians and Muslims seized upon the griffin as a religious symbol. Christians used the bird to reinforce Christ’s mandate against marriage, since the noble bird was said to mate for life. Griffins were often carved into churches, and in Dante’s Divine Comedy griffins were stationed at the entrance to paradise, guarding it from evildoers. Meanwhile, the Muslim poet Rumi used griffins as symbols of Islamic virtue, and Muslim artists created the “Pisa Griffin,” the largest bronze statue to be made during Medieval times.
Individuals also claimed the griffin as their own personal symbol. It was extremely popular in heraldry, representing strength and bravery.
Alchemists and physicians bought up “griffin” claws, feathers, and eggs to be used in experiments. In reality, these were usually antelope horns, eagle feathers, and ostrich eggs.
Today, the griffin has been surrendered to the realm of fantasy, but it is still a popular figure there! The Percy JacksonI series, the Spiderwick Chronicles, and the Harry Potter series all welcome griffins into their cast of characters. Games like World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons also allow players to test their skills against the mighty griffin!