Griffins Were Mythical Gold-Guarding Hybrid Creatures Known For At Least 5,000 Years

A. Sutherland  -  - If you were to ask a random passerby on the street what the most fantastic creatures are, they would undoubtedly say - griffin, among others.

At least five thousand years old, a mythical hybrid animal known as 'griffin' had the body of a lion and head, sharp claws, and snow-white or golden wings of the eagle.

A statue of a griffin on the Basilica di S. Marco

A statue of a griffin on the Basilica di S. Marco. source

These magical beings symbolized power over heaven and earth, vigilance, strength, and pride. They became an attribute of the Nemesis goddess of retribution, and she was often depicted in a chariot drawn by griffins. This creature used to turn her wheel of fortune. It is one of the oldest magical creatures, which today remains a powerful protector of modern civil institutions such as banks, car plants, and breweries in many countries. It is used in heraldry and appears widely as school sports team mascots and various insignia.

Intelligence, strength, and majesty of the lion that was long ago proclaimed "King of the Beasts" and the superiority of the eagle, the "King of the Air," are combined in the mysterious griffin creature.

"In Sumerian myth, the griffin is the mount of the weather god, Iskur, where it is depicted vomiting forth streams of water or lightning from its mouth upon the parched land. In Assyrian art, the griffin is frequently shown venerating and protecting the Tree of Life, as well as flanking divine figures to assist the check of evil…" 1

Tradition Has It Griffins Were Born In Ancient East

They appeared in ancient Assyria and soon became known almost everywhere, from China to the Himalayas, Persia to Egypt. During the Fifth Dynasty, the Pharaoh himself was depicted as a griffin, successfully fighting the enemy, and this representation symbolized the power of the ruler.

In Egyptian mythology, the griffin is a lion (king) and a falcon, a symbol of the god Horus. We can trace Egyptian influence to the Minoan culture, which gave the griffin creature the qualities of a great warrior.

 Left: Griffin segreant wearing the mural crown of Perugia, 13th century; Right: The Gryphon is the emblem and mascot of the University of Guelph Left: Griffin segreant wearing the mural crown of Perugia, 13th century, source; Right: The Gryphon is the emblem and mascot of the University of Guelph, source

The griffin became a popular decorative motif in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean region. The applied tapestries frequently used a griffin motif, as did goldsmiths in their art. This hybrid appears in animated films, fantasy novels, and computer games.

Representations of griffin-like hybrids with four legs and a beaked head appeared in Iran's ancient art since the late 2nd millennium BC. In Iranian mythology, the griffin is called Shirdal, which means "Lion-Eagle," and was displayed on old cylinder seals from Susa as early as 3000 BC. Shirdals also are common motifs in the art of Luristan, the North and North West region of Iran in the Iron Age, and Achaemenid art.

Depictions of griffin-type creatures dated about 1950–1550 BC accompanied people in the Levant, Syria, and Anatolia in the Middle Bronze Age.

Early depictions of griffin-types in ancient Greek art date back to the 15th century BC; a good example can be frescos in the Throne Room of the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos.

Griffins In Greece Were Bearers Of The Soul

In the 7th century BC, the ancient Greeks made the first contact with the nomadic people of Central Asia. They also encountered some most fascinating creatures like griffins.

Left: Saqqara, Alexandria National Museum; Right: Furniture plaque: incised griffin, ca. 18th century BC Old Assyrian Trading Colony

Left: Saqqara, Alexandria National Museum; Right: Furniture plaque: incised griffin, ca. 18th century BC Old Assyrian Trading Colony. Source

In the Scythian myths and legends recounted in Greek and Roman texts, griffins were associated with gold, and so were the mysterious Arimaspians.

The existence of griffins is mentioned in the first literary work, "Arimaspea," by the Greek Aristeas of Proconnesus in 675 BC.

We also encounter them in the lore of ancient Greece and art, as the artists adopted them to decorate vases, seals, mosaics, lyres, gems, coins, and reliefs, but they appear primarily to have been carved upon tombs to guard the dead and to act as bearers of the soul.

The representations of griffins were also common in Egyptian and Persian art, and their impressive, powerful statues decorated Persian palaces.

The griffins were extremely strong and dangerous. They inhabited desert areas, including which China and Mongolia and the regions of the Altai Mountains, the Tien Shan, and the Gobi desert. According to Greek myths, they guarded Apollo's treasure in the Scythian desert and protected him from the legendary Hyperborean tribe of the far north that inhabited the area.

Knossos fresco in throne palaceKnossos fresco in throne palace. source

"In the 5th century BC, the Greek writer Herodotus related a story about a one-eyed people known as the Arimaspians who wrested their immense wealth of gold from griffins. He learned this tale from a mysterious traveler, Aristeas of Proconnesus, who told how the griffins guard the gold of the northern lands of Scythia. 1

The same myths tell these divine creatures also guarded the gold of the Hyperboreans of the far north and used to pull the chariot of Apollo and Zeus himself and the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis.

Griffin And Christianity

At first, this mythical animal was identified with evil and even with the Antichrist himself. Depicted as a satanic figure, it had surprisingly very easy to entangle human souls. Over time, however, the griffins' negative symbolism changed and symbolized two aspects of Jesus Christ's dual nature- the divine and the human.

As the last scholar of the ancient world, Isidore of Seville (570-636) wrote in "Etymology":

 "Christ is a lion, for he reigns and has power; he is an eagle, for after the resurrection he ascends to heaven."

Ancient people considered the griffin to be a symbol and protector of divine power and, therefore, the king of all creatures, which was a fierce opponent of serpents (snakes) and basilisks, both of which were considered the personification of satanic demons.

Updated on August 25, 2022

Written by – A. Sutherland  - Senior Staff Writer

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Expand for references


Eberhart George M. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology - Volume 1

1. Matthews, J., Matthews, C. The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures

The Complete Works Of Nostradamus