Griffins

Course #1 / Mythological Creatures

Griffin Fresco

One of the most commonly used creatures in the heraldry; the majestic griffins have always remained controversial mythical figures across the various mythologies.

Appearance & character

As for every legendary creature, the various writers and artists throughout centuries have updated griffin’s image. Generally, griffin is a creature with four legs and strong stature. His body is a mix of parts of lion and eagle. Head with a sharp beak, wings and sometimes, front feet of griffin comes from an eagle, while most of his body and back legs come from a lion. Griffins are gifted with great strength and speed.

These mighty creatures are believed to have a fierce and fearless character and they can be dangerous to anyone that invades their territory. Griffins can easily fight against other animals and in particular, they are ferocious against horses. However, they are also described as very loyal creatures. This is why griffins are often associated with a guardian status of a precious object, in particular – gold. It is interesting that it is impossible to catch an adult griffin, only a young one.

Origin of griffins

The first mentions of griffin-like hybrid creatures can be found in Ancient Egypt and Persia. The ancient artists created some of the visual depictions back in 3000 BC. Since there were no written mentions of griffins in this period, nomads carried tale stories about these mythical beasts to other regions through the trade routes. Initially, there was a belief that griffins lived in Scythia and in the mountains of India. North of Europe and the Gobi Desert also were seen as the possible locations of griffins. All these places were associated with wealth and gold that griffins supposedly guarded. Mentions of these mythical creatures later appeared in Greek mythology and artworks.

Griffins might not be frequently mentioned in the Greek literary works; however, Greeks were the ones, who formed the modern visual image of these mythical creatures. There are tales where they used to carry Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus in their journeys. Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus associated griffins with the god Zeus. In his view, griffins were something like majestic guardian dogs for the king of the Mount Olympus gods.

Medieval legends and heraldry

There is a popular stereotype from the medieval period that griffin was a good-minded creature with Christian traits. It was created as a result of the romanticized medieval symbolism, heraldry and later on enhanced – by Dante Alighieri and other writers. Since griffins were a combination of a lion and eagle – they became an appealing symbol widely used by the noble families, cities and even countries. People, who used griffin as their symbol, viewed it as a synonym of courage and strength. On the opposite, the dual nature of griffin associated it with the good and the evil, Christ and Satan, the light and the darkness. Because of this, legendary beast always remained relatively controversial creature.

Heraldry saw its birth in the middle of the 12th century and griffin was one of the original heraldic symbols. The merchant Republic of Genoa adopted it and legendary beast remains a part of the Genovese coat of arms and the local football club. Symbolically, the association of griffins and gold at times matched the historical route of Genoa and its periods of prosperity.

The 12th century also saw the foundation of the House of Griffin – a dynasty that ruled the Duchy of Pomerania for 500 years. Griffin was also a symbol of the Hungarian noble family Esterhazy, Polish noble families Branicki and Mielecki. This influenced many villages, towns, and regions across Europe to choose griffin as their symbol. It is featured on the various coat of arms in countries, like Germany, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, and Italy. Majestic figure of griffin also became a part of the architecture. Many European buildings feature sculptures of this legendary beast.

Latgalian heraldic symbol You can see a silver-colored griffin with a sword on the coat of arms of the Latgale region. Its roots are historically tied up with the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its origins can be traced back to the 16th century. In 1566, Polish-Lithuanian noble Jan Hieronimowicz Chodkiewicz became the governor of the Duchy of Livonia and since the coat of arms of Chodkiewicz family had the griffin as its symbol, it was adopted by the Duchy. Griffin remained as the symbol of the region after Truce of Altmark, when Swedish Empire conquered a large part of the Duchy and remaining part that also included Latgale – became the Inflanty Voivodeship in 1621.

Sources | Mayor A., Heaney M. Griffins and Arimaspeans (1993) | John Woodward, George Burnett. A Treatise on Heraldry, British and Foreign: With English and French Glossaries (1892) | Пугаченкова Г.А. Грифон в античном и средневековом искусстве Средней Азии (1959) | Jorge Luis Borges. Book of Imaginary Beings (1957)

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