Griffins are portrayed with a lion’s body, an eagle’s head, long ears, and an eagle’s claws, to indicate that one must combine intelligence and strength.
The three spellings for griffin are – gryphon, griffin and griffon.
Over the centuries the griffin – as with other mythological creatures – has taken many shapes.
The griffin has served many purposes, including but not limited to “the vigilant guardian of treasure and of kings.
It has been called “The Hounds of Zeus”.
Griffins throughout history
It has pulled the chariots of Pharaoh, Apollo, Nemesis, and Alexander the Great. A major heraldic animal, it has been emblazoned on the shields of knights and on the coats of arms and royalty. It has been watchful and loyal, graceful and swift, rapacious and vengeful, monstrous and divine. While the griffin is a mortal enemy of horses, its magic talons have detected poison and its feathers have cured blindness.
Winged lions are not true griffin, nor is the winged lion of the sea.
All of them, though – along with countless other hybrid variations – are ‘gryphonic.’
The first griffin was carved on a cylinder seal from an ancient city called Susa in Iran. It has the familiar griffin form, and is dated to around 5000 B.C. Other griffins have been found in Egyptian tombs and on Mesopotamian cylinder seals, which were used as signatures at the dawn of written language.
Later, griffins, lacking wings, were found on the island of Crete at the Palace of Minos at Knossos. These griffins are frescos, painted into wet plaster and brilliantly colored. They “protected kings and drew chariots of goddesses”.
In later Greek art the aspect of griffins change. No longer protectors, they are now fierce beasts. Molded in bronze, they “feature a hooked beak, pointed ears and tongue. In Greek vase paintings, the griffin is often depicted attacking other animals or men, but the beast was also associated with the god Apollo and the goddesses Athena and Nemesis.”
Despite its large presence in art, though, griffins didn’t usually show up in written literature. The griffins most people think of were the ones featured in ancient stories, guarding hoards of gold high in the mountains and defending it against all who desired it. Herodotus mentions this story as being in an epic poem The Arimaspeia by Aristeas of Proconnesus. Pliny and Aelian talk about gold-guarding griffins, too.
During Medieval times the griffin was either evil or good, depending on who you asked. Griffins in heraldry were almost always snarling and ready to strike out with their talons. In art of the time they are shown devouring sinners and ripping animals apart. In contrast to this, Church people saw the griffin as “a symbol of the earthly and divine natures of Christ”.
The unique form and noble look of the griffin made it perfect for heraldry. Female heraldic griffins on shields and crests have wings, while the males sport fans of spines growing from their shoulders. They live on today at Renaissance festivals and in our imagination.
From Hans Biedermann’s Dictionary of Symbolism
A griffin is a fabulous animal. It is symbolically significant for its domination of both the earth and the sky. This is because of its lion’s body and eagle’s head and wings. It has typological antecedents in ancient Asia. Especially in the Assyrian k’rub, which is also the source of the Hebrew cherub. The frequent representations of griffin-like creatures in Persian art made them symbolize ancient Persia for the Jews.
In Greece the griffin was a symbol of vigilant strength. Apollo rode one, and griffins guarded the gold of the Hyperboreans of the far north. The griffin was also an embodiment of Nemesis. Nemesis is the goddess of retribution. She turned her wheel of fortune. In legend the creature was a symbol of superbia (arrogant pride). This is because Alexander the Great was said to have tried to fly on the backs of griffins to the edge of the sky.
At first also portrayed as a satanic figure entrapping human souls. The creature later became (from Dante onward) a symbol of the dual nature (divine and human) of Jesus Christ. Precisely because of its mastery of earth and sky. The solar associations of both the lion and the eagle favored this positive reading. The griffin thus also became the adversary of serpents and basilisks. Both of which were seen as embodiments of satanic demons.
Even Christ’s Ascension came to be associated with the griffin. The creature appeared as frequently in the applied arts (tapestries, the work of goldsmiths) as in heraldry. In the latter domain, Boeckler (1688) offered the following interpretation: “Griffins are portrayed with a lion’s body, an eagle’s head, long ears, and an eagle’s claws, to indicate that one must combine intelligence and strength.”