What is a gryphon / griffin / griffon?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

The gryphon (alternate spellings include griffin and griffon depending on historical culture) is a mythological creature with the forequarters (including talons) and wings of an eagle and the hindquarters of a lion. Its first recorded appearance is believed to be Mesopotamian, though some sources indicate even ancient Sumer may have gryphons, and from there they made their way through Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Turkish, and a variety of other European cultures.

In Greek mythology, griffins guarded the gold of the Hyperboreans. According to different legends, they would either attack any who tried to claim the gold, ripping them to shreds, or would drag them high into the air and then drop them to their deaths. The story of the Hyperboreans and their griffins is referenced by Herodotus as appearing in the lost epic poem The Arimaspeia. Griffins were frequently associated with the guarding of gold by Greek writers, notably Pliny and Aelian, and in later ages griffins remain associated with wealth and guardianship. According to Greek legend, griffin eggs were made of either agate or sapphire, and so were extremely valuable themselves. Early legends show the griffin as primarily a formidable monster, but over time traits of intelligence were increasingly ascribed to it.

In one of the myths surrounding Alexander the Great, Alexander's army was attacked by griffins as they marched east, with a great number of soldiers killed. Rather than retreating, Alexander, admiring the creatures' strength and nobility, trapped four of them with meat lures fixed to his chariot. The griffins took the lures and were caught, then took flight, drawing the chariot high into the air, where Alexander saw the whole of Greece and Europe stretched out beneath him in the sun. Eventually they flew so high that the sun started to burn the griffins' wings, and they landed again. Since the establishment of this mythology, griffins have often been depicted as chariot- or carriage-pulling beasts for especially noble or powerful individuals. Nemesis, Greek goddess of balance and vengeance, and Apollo, Greek god of the sun, were both said to have chariots pulled by griffins.

To the Romans, gryphons were a natural synthesis of two symbols already powerful to the Roman Empire. As the Egyptians did, Romans used gryphons as guardian symbols on homes and tombs. This practice continues today, and gryphons often appear in stonework on the facades and entryways of modern buildings.

In medieval European heraldry, male gryphons did not have wings. Instead they had the typical eagle head and neck, but the four legs of a lion, and long spikes protruding from their front shoulders in the place of wings. The gryphon was adapted by early Christian mythology as symbolic of Jesus' half divine and half mortal nature, the eagle as king of the heavens and the lion as king of the earth. One historical record from 1688 attaches the gryphon's significance to the combination of intelligence (the eagle) and strength (the lion). As the griffin in some mythology was said to be phenomenally monogamous, only taking one mate in its lifetime (even if one of the two perished the survivor would never seek a second), the Catholic church used the gryphon for a time as a symbol of its approach toward remarriage. Today the gryphon continues to be a powerful symbol of regal strength and loyalty.

In modern usage and symbolism gryphons are common emblems of corporations, such as Vauxhall, Saab, and the Griffin imprint of St. Martin Press. They occasionally are used as sport team mascots, as with Reed College in Portland, Oregon and Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. The gryphon remains a symbol of nobility and guardianship. Gryphons appear in a variety of literary works, including Alice in Wonderland, as well as in the more modern fantasy worlds of Diana Wynne Jones, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Patricia A. McKillip, Tamora Pierce, and Mercedes Lackey. Some modern archaeological thought suggests that the gryphon myth may have originated from Scythian gold-miners passing through the Gobi Desert and encountering fossils of beaked dinosaurs such as Protoceratops.

submitted by Erin Hoffman