The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Greek: γρύφων,
grýphōn, or γρύπων, grýpōn; Latin: gryphus) is a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. As the lion was traditionally
considered the king of the beasts and the eagle was the king of the birds, the
griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. Griffins
are normally known for guarding treasure and well valued priceless
possession. One classical
folklorist propounds the griffin was an ancient misconception derived from
fossilized remains of the Protoceratops found in conjunction with gold
mining in the Altai mountains of Scythica, in present day southeastern
Kazakhstan.. In antiquity it
was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
Most statues have talons, although in
some older illustrations it has a lion's forelimbs; it generally has 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. The earliest depiction of griffins are 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 century 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 Dartmouth College expedition at Pella, perhaps as an emblem of the kingdom of Macedon or
a personal one of Alexander's successor Antipater.
A 9th-century Irish writer by the name of Stephen Scotus asserted that
griffins were strictly monogamous. They not
only mated for life, but also, if either partner died, then the other would
continue throughout the rest of its life alone, never to search for a new mate.
The griffin was thus made an emblem of the Church's views on remarriage.
Being a union of a terrestrial beast and an aerial bird, 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, 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 it emerged as a major seafaring
power in the Middle Ages
and Renaissance, griffins
commenced to be depicted as part of the Republic of Genoa'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.
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