A hybrid of lion and eagle, griffins are very ancient mythical beasts. They may have originated as symbols of the year, for the lion represented summer and the eagle winter. Although griffins were a combination of both animals, there was some confusion about what went where.
Today griffins are shown with an eagle’s head, wings and legs, and the rear of a lion. They have looked that way since the time of Ancient Greece. But around 5,000 years ago, one of the first cities, ancient Sumer, had a reverse griffin called the Anzu, which had a lion’s head and forelimbs on a winged eagle’s body.
A 3,500 year old mural from the Palace of Knossos in Crete shows an eagle headed lion, without wings.
Griffins were believed to live in the east on gold strewn plains, where they dug up gold with their sharp beaks to make their nests. Adrienne Mayor in ‘The First Fossil Hunters’ claimed this story came about because traders bringing gold from the Altai mountains near Mongolia, had seen fossils of the beaked dinosaur protoceratops weathering out of the rocks. It does not take much imagination to see a griffin’s head in a protoceratops’ skull.
Although we think of griffins as mythological beasts, a griffin is included on 2,000 year old Roman mosaic showing wild animals captured for the arena. While a thousand years ago the Avars, a tribe neighbouring the griffins’ traditional territory were forced to seek refuge in the Byzantine Empire because they claimed ravenous griffins were attacking their children and livestock.
In Medieval times people believed emeralds came from griffin’s nests; a griffin’s feather cured blindness; a griffin claw goblet made poison safe and swearing on a griffin’s egg (usually an ostrich egg) was sure proof against deceit.
With such magical attributes, griffins progressed from guardians of gold to guardians of occult secrets. They had also the ability to hide holy and magical places from profane eyes – which may explain why we cannot see griffins today.
The power to keep magical places from prying eyes is why in ‘Thomas the Rhymer,’ Fairy Queen Sylvie has griffins guarding her house. Prompting the plucky eleven year old hero Jack Hughes to demand… “Why can’t she get a dog like normal people?”
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