Quick Facts about Griffins
- There are three acceptable English spellings of the word: griffin, griffon and gryphon.
- The griffin is featured on one side of coins minted in Abdera, Greece.
- At 42.5 inches tall, the “Pisa Griffin” is the largest bronze medieval Islamic sculpture on the planet and was made in the 11th Century CE. While a replica remains on the roof of Pisa Cathedral, the original can be seen within Pisa’s Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.
- A variant of griffin, known as the alke or keythong, lacks wings but is otherwise identical to the physical form of the traditional griffin.
A griffin is a hybrid of lion and eagle. The lion manifests in its body, tail and legs, while the eagle manifests in the head, wings and, sometimes, the forelimbs of the beast, resulting in a creature with two clawed paws and two sets of talons. Some older depictions of this creature restrict the eagle elements to the head and wings, giving the beast the same forelimbs as a regular lion.
While eagles are capable of hearing with special ear holes, depictions of griffin ears tend to take after the lion but with a more pronounced aesthetic, resembling those of a horse’s albeit with feathers lining the skin.
The earliest evidence of anything resembling this paarticullar blend of bird and beast can be traced back to artwork made in Egypt and Iran some time before 3,000 BCE. Notably, the first instance of a griffin in Egyptian artwork was carved into a palette intended to store makeup.
The griffin of Iranian mythology is known as a “shirdal” and its name literally means “Lion-Eagle.” These creatures appeared in Iranian artwork produced in the regions of Susa and Luristan. Griffins also appeared in various pieces made within Anatolia, the Levant and Syria during the Middle Bronze Age (1950–1550 BCE). Illustrations of animal-raptor hybrids were a common design element of Ancient and Classical Greek artwork, especially around the 6th and 5th Century BCE; this is when tales of the “gryps” began to proliferate as trade through Central Asia flourished. We also have Scythian artworks of griffins, dated between the 6th and 4th Century BCE, but nothing was written down to give them context.
Powers and Abilities
Tales of griffins claim that they have the physical strength of lions. While the ancient stories do not specify where the breakdown between bird parts and beast parts breaks up in regard to ability, the power behind an eagle’s bite is 400 pounds per square inch (PSI) and the grip strength of its talons ranges between 300 and 791 pounds PSI, depending on the particular species. For comparison, the bite force of an average adult human is around 160 PSI.
In addition to the obvious qualities as natural weapons, it was believed that the claws of a griffin could be used as a catalyst for healing and a charm against illness. It was also believed that these healing qualities allowed a person to detect the presence of poison by changing color when pressed against or immersed within something believed to be poisoned. Furthermore, the feathers of such a creature were purported to be capable of curing the blind.
Due to contemporary perceptions that regarded the lion and eagle as being the kings of the land and sky, respectively, the Middle Age interpretation of this beast is that it was truly majestic. This connection to rulership also links back to earlier connections to gold and treasure; Classical texts from Greek and Rome claimed that griffins watched over gold deposits in Central Asia. Pliny the Elder specifically claimed that griffin nests were festooned with golden nuggets that the creatures had dug up from out of the earth with their talons. Touching upon medieval heraldry, griffins were synonymous with the power and might of the Christian god.
Stories or Fairy Tales Involving Griffins
There are multiple accounts of griffins being used to pull chariots owned by Apollo the Greek god of the sun, music and poetry, and Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution. This sort of servitude is believed to be why griffins are connected to the sun and also to guardianship. Beyond serving as Olympian beasts of burden, griffins were also known as “hounds of Zeus.”
Outside of Greek mythology, griffins feature in a tale about Alexander the Great. It was said that he once captured a pair of griffins and tethered them to his throne. Furthermore, he managed to tame on the creatures and rode it into the skies without a saddle, flying over all he had conquered for a solid week.