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Griffin
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The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Greek: γρύφων, grýphōn, or γρύπων, grýpōn, early form γρύψ, grýps; Latin: gryphus) is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle's talons as its front feet. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. The griffin was also thought of as king of all creatures. Griffins are known for guarding treasure and priceless possessions. Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, proposes that the griffin was an ancient misconception derived from the fossilized remains of the Protoceratops found in gold mines in the Altai mountains of Scythia, in present day southeastern Kazakhstan, or in Mongolia. In antiquity it was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.

Etymology

Bronze griffin head from Olympia, Greece. 7th century BC. Olympia museum

The derivation of this word remains uncertain. It could be related to the Greek word γρυπός (grypos), meaning 'curved', or 'hooked'. Also, this could have been an Anatolian loan word, compare Akkadian karūbu (winged creature), and similar to Cherub. A related Hebrew word is כרוב (kerúv).

Form

Most statues have bird-like talons, although in some older illustrations griffins have a lion's forelimbs; they generally have 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.

Infrequently, a griffin is portrayed without wings, or a wingless eagle-headed lion is identified as a griffin. In 15th-century and later heraldry such a beast may be called an alce or a keythong.

In heraldry, a griffin always has forelegs like an eagle's hind-legs. A type of griffin with the four legs of a lion was distinguished by perhaps only one English herald of later heraldry as the Opinicus where it also had a camel-like neck and a short tail that almost resembles a camel's tail.

History

While griffins are most common in the art and lore of Ancient Greece, there is evidence of representations of griffins in Ancient Persian and Ancient Egyptian art dating back to before 3000 BC. In Egypt, a griffin can be seen in a cosmetic palette from Hierakonpolis, known as the "Two Dog Palette", which is dated to ca. 3300-3100 BC. In Persia, griffins appeared on cylinder seals from Susa as early as 3000 BC. Griffin depictions appear in the Levant, Syria, and Anatolia in the Middle Bronze Age, dated at about 1950-1550 BC. Early depictions of griffins in Ancient Greek art are found in 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 centuries

Medieval tapestry, Basel c. 1450

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.

The Pisa Griffin is a large bronze sculpture which has been in Pisa in Italy since the Middle Ages, though it is of Islamic origin. It is the largest bronze medieval Islamic sculpture known, at over three feet tall (42.5 inches, or 1.08 m.), and was probably created in the 11th century in Al-Andaluz (Islamic Spain). From about 1100 it was placed on a column on the roof of Pisa Cathedral until replaced by a replica in 1832; the original is now in the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Museum), Pisa.

Ancient parallels

There are several ancient mythological creatures that are similar to Griffin. Among them is the Lamassu, an

Bronze griffins from ancient Luristan (Iran) (1st millennium BC) Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin

Assyrian protective deity, often depicted with a bull or lion's body, eagle's wings, and human's head.

In Sumerian and Akkadian mythology, there's a demon Anzu, half man and half bird associated with the chief sky god Enlil. This was a divine storm-bird linked with the southern wind and the thunder clouds.

In Jewish mythology, there's Ziz, that is similar to Anzu, as well as to the ancient Greek Phoenix. Ziz is mentioned in the Bible (Psalms 50:11). This is also similar to Cherub. Cherub, or sphinx, was very popular in Phoenician iconography.

In ancient Crete, griffin was very popular, and was portrayed in various media. A similar creature is the Minoan Genius.

In Hindu religion, Garuda is a large bird-like creature that serves as a mount (vahana) of the Lord Vishnu. It is also the name for Aquila (constellation).

Medieval lore

Statue of a griffin at St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

In legend, griffins not only mated for life, but if either partner died, then the other would continue the rest of its life alone, never to search for a new mate. The griffin was thus made an emblem of the Church's opposition to remarriage. A Hippogriff is a legendary creature, supposedly the offspring of a griffin and a mare. 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's New Dictionary of Heraldry, 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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