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Greek and Persian



Alternate Names

Gryphon, Gryps

Appears In

Herodotus's Histories, Persian and Scythian myths



Character Overview

The griffin was a creature that appeared in the mythology of Greece and the ancient Near East. A popular figure in art, it had the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle or other bird. Sometimes the griffin is shown with the tail of a serpent.

According to Greek mythology , griffins pulled the chariots of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the king of the gods, as well as his son Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh). They also guarded the gold that lay near the lands of the Hyperboreans (pronounced hye-pur-BOR-ee-uhnz) and the Arimaspians (pronounced air-uh-MAS-pee-uhnz), mythical peoples of the far north, and represented Nemesis (pronounced NEM-uh-sis), the goddess of vengeance.

The griffin appears in Christian art and mythology as well. At first, it symbolized Satan and was thought to threaten human souls. But the griffin later became a symbol of the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ. During the Middle Ages, Christian myths often spoke of the magical powers of griffins' claws, which if made into drinking cups were said to change color when they came in contact with poison. The griffin was also thought to prey on those who mistreated Christians.

Griffins in Context

Scythians, who lived in a large region northeast of Greece, popularized myths about griffins, and may have done so to protect their own resources against invaders. It was common legend that griffins guarded the gold that could be found in the area called the Pontic-Caspian steppe. These legends may have dissuaded people who lived in nearby regions from trying to claim this gold. Scythians may have even used dinosaur bones—also commonly found in this area—as evidence that the monstrous griffins really did exist.

Key Themes and Symbols

With its eagle's head and lion's body, the griffin represented mastery of the sky and the earth. It became associated with strength and wisdom, with the head of the eagle—wisdom—leading the way for the strength of the lion's body. To the ancient Hebrews, the griffin symbolized Persia because the creature appeared frequently in Persian art.

Griffins in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Griffins have become a common fixture in art and literature, especially in Europe. Griffins appear regularly on coats of arms, and are used as the heraldic symbol for many European cities. Griffins have appeared as characters in literary works such as Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1320) and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Sir John Tenniel's illustrations of the Gryphon from Carroll's novel are perhaps the best-known images of griffins today. Griffins also appear in many other fantasy works, including J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and C. S. Lewis's Chronicles ofNarnia books.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998) is a humorous fantasy novel by Diana Wynne-Jones that takes place in a magical world constantly being invaded by tourists looking for supernatural adventure. The main character, Derk, has several children who are griffins. The book won the 1999 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature. The novel has a sequel, Year of the Griffin (2000), which features one of the griffins from Dark Lord of Derkholm as its main character.

SEE ALSO Animals in Mythology; Greek Mythology; Persian Mythology; Semitic Mythology

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