The Griffin

Griffin fresco in the "Throne Room",...
Griffin fresco in the “Throne Room”, Palace of Knossos, Crete, Bronze Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Griffins feature prominently in my current project and have long been a favorite in my D&D campaigns. But where do they come from?

The name, alternately griffon or gryphon, appears to come from the ancient Greek gryps meaning “curled, curved, having a hooked nose,” according to Joe Nigg’s Wonder Beasts (see below for full title). When I first saw that, I was a bit puzzled: yes, the griffin has a hooked nose thanks to its eagle beak but the wings and fore-talons seem to be a more prominent feature than the nose. The name makes more sense when you realize some of the earlier representations, circa 1400s BCE, mate an eagle head to a lion body, as in the picture above of the griffin fresco in the “Throne Room” of the Palace of Knossos. Even as late as the classical period, the double griffin beam supports at Persepolis depicted something fairly similar. However, a cylinder seal from Susa, circa 2000 BCE, depicts the more familiar forebody of an eagle, including the wings, mated to the hindquarters of a lion. By the Middle Ages, the griffin was most commonly depicted in this familiar form.

English: Achaemenid Griffin at Persepolis فارس...
English: Achaemenid Griffin at Persepolis فارسی: شیردال هخامنشی در تخت جمشید (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout history, the griffin has been associated with royalty (although the Knossos “Throne Room,” may not actually have been for the King). This is not surprising since the griffin combines the eagle, lord of sky, with the lion, lord of the land. It soon moved into heraldry where it can denote strength, leadership and military prowess. In British heraldry, both wingless male and winged female forms are used. Similarly, it can be rampant (standing on one hindleg) or passant (walking). Seems like if your going to have something as fierce as a griffin for your symbol, rampant might more appropriate but perhaps a griffin passant would suggest a wise war leader, rather than a ferocious one(?)

There are many references to griffins from Herodotus to the present. Though they seem to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean in Crete or Egypt, they came to be associated with the further east, Bactria and India. There, they were said to have a fondness for gold, scrapping it from their ground with their beaks and guarding it fiercely. Herodotus  (5th century BCE) also has them procuring gold but in mountainous northern Europe. Pliny the Elder moves this to Scythia, north of the Black Sea, a region known in the Roman Era for its beautiful gold-work.

English: or a griffin sable
English: or a griffin sable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gold association seems to be more a feature of antiquity, although those stories were collected and repeated in Medieval bestiaries. In the Middle Ages, griffins also acquired additional aspects: their talons were said to be a measure against poison, with some historical figures supposedly possessing cups made from their claws. The cups probably existed but as with unicorn horns and other fancies, crafted from a more mundane creature than a mythological beast. Their feathers were also said to cure blindness and some tales have the hero on a quest to acquire one to cure his father or the king of his land (the classic hero “faces horrible beast plot.”)

Traditionally, griffins hate (and ate) horses but the mating of a mare and a griffin was said to produce a hippogriff, which seems to be a relatively late addition to the bestiary.

Around the world, there are similar mythological aerial creatures although many are more over-sized eagles than a mix of eagle and a terrestrial animal. The Rukh (or Roc) of the Indian ocean was said to be able to carry off elephants. A creature similar to the Rukh terrorized in the China Sea, according to Benjamin of Tudela (who preceded Marco Polo to China by a century).

In the modern era, griffins are still quite common. You find them on corporate and sport logos and all over the fantasy world from books (Harry Potter’s Griffindors) to MMOs (you can hop on a griffin in World of Warcraft). They were one of the earliest creatures defined in Dungeons and Dragons, where they are depicted as a fairly tough opponent, weaker than a dragon but still requiring a seasoned group to face. Players prize them for the griffin eggs, typically valued at 2000 gold pieces, or as mounts.

In my current project, griffins were created by an Archon, a great wizard, who wanted a mount so his companion could accompany him when he rode a dragon. At the start of the book, the protagonist is a member of an order of griffin riders based on a floating fortress.

For further reading, Joe Nigg’s book (below) provides a good survey of various references to the griffin.

3 thoughts on “The Griffin

  1. Thanks!

    I bet it is more just a conflation of a limited number of achetypes: we take for granted all the different creatures, aliens, metaphysical concepts, etc. that we’re exposed to. 4000 years ago, telling stories with other shepherds around the campfire or while picking berries, there were only so many images to work with. So when the lions and eagles got stale, it was time to come up with the eagle-lion! Next up, the lion-eagle, followed by the lion with an eagle middle 🙂

    It’s odd, these mixed animals things don’t usually do anything for me but I do like griffins.

  2. I enjoyed this a lot, as griffins are another favorite of mine. Not so common in stories as dragons, and perhaps more wondrous because of it. By the way, I had griffins in my second fantasy novel, Too Many Princes. A group of wizards were in a hurry, so they tamed some griffins and rode on them.

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