What Was the Griffin? – History and Symbolism

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One of the most prominent motifs in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean areas, the griffin is a mythical creature, often depicted with an eagle’s head and a lion’s body. Here’s a closer look into the origin and significance of the griffin today.

History of the Griffin

Griffin symbol

Most historians point to the Levant, the region around the Aegean Sea, as the place of origin of the griffin. It was popular in the region around 2000 B.C.E. to 1001 B.C.E and became known in every part of Western Asia and Greece by the 14th century B.C.E. Also spelled as griffon or gryphon, the mythological creature was seen as a guardian of treasures and priceless possessions.

It’s difficult to say whether the griffin originated in Egypt or Persia. In any case, evidence of the griffin has been found in both regions, tracing back to around 3000 BC.

  • Griffin in Egypt

According to An Aegean Griffin In Egypt: The Hunt Frieze At Tell El-Dab’a, a griffin-like creature was found on a palette from Hierakonpolis, Egypt, and was dated to before 3100 B.C. In the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, it was believed to be a representation of pharaoh when it was found inscribed on the pectoral of Sesostris III and on ivory knives as an apotropaic creature.

The Egyptian griffin is described as having the head of a falcon, with or without wings—and is depicted as a hunter. In Predynastic art, it is featured attacking its prey, and was also featured as a mythical beast in paintings. Griffins are sometimes depicted pulling the chariot of the pharaohs and played a role in depictions of several figures including Axex. 

  • Griffin in Persia

Some historians believe that the griffin may have originated in Persia since griffin-like creatures occurs frequently in ancient Persian architectural monuments and art. During the Achaemenid Empire in Persia, depictions of the griffin, known as the shirdal (meaning lion-eagle in Persian), can be found in palaces and other places of interest. The legendary creature was also regarded as a protector from evil and witchcraft.

Myths of the Griffin in Different Cultures

According to The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, many of the ancient myths and folklore were a representation of the fossil remains of actual animals. It’s possible that the relics found around the Mediterranean area led to the myths of griffins.

Later, the mythological creature was elaborated in the archaic poem Arimaspea by a semi-legendary Greek poet, Aristeas of Proconnesus. It was mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History as gold-guarding creatures. As the legend goes, the griffin builds its nest, and lays agates instead of eggs. The griffin was portrayed as a guardian watching over gold mines and hidden treasures, as well as beasts that killed men and horses.

In Classical Greek Art

According to historians, the concept of the griffin made its way to the Aegean countries, including Greece, by travelers and traders who returned from the Silk Road, also known as the Persian Royal Road. It was an ancient trade route that connected the capital of Persia, known as Susa, and the Greek peninsula.

Early depictions of the griffin in ancient Greece can be found in the 15th century frescoes or mural paintings at the Palace of Knossos. It’s likely that the motif became popular during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E.

Some also believe that the Syrian cylinder seals with griffin motifs, which were imported to Crete, had an impact on Minoan symbolism. Later, it became associated with the god Apollo and the goddesses Athena and Nemesis.

Griffin in the Byzantine Age

Byzantine griffin
Late Byzantine Griffin Depiction. Public Domain.

Eastern elements influenced the Byzantine style, and the griffin became a common motif in mosaics. The stone carving from the Late Byzantine age features a griffin, but if you look carefully, you’ll notice four Greek crosses at the midway point of each side, signifying that this was a piece of Christian artwork. Even at this time, Christians still believed in the power of the griffin as a guardian of wealth and a symbol of power.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Griffin Symbol

While it is more likely that the griffin was a creation of myths in different cultures, it continues to be a popular symbol.

  • A Symbol of Strength and Valor – The griffin was perceived as a powerful creature since it has the head of a falcon—a bird of prey with sharp talons—and body of a lion, which is regarded as the king of the beasts. Together, the creature was considered doubly powerful.
  • A Symbol of Power and Authority – In some cultures, people view the griffin as a hunter or a predator. This gives it a sense of authority and power.
  • A Guardian and Protector – The griffin was often depicted as a guardian of secretly buried wealth. People saw it as a creature that warded off evil and malignant influences, offering protection.
  • A Symbol of Prosperity – Since griffins are often portrayed as gold-guarding creatures, they eventually gained the reputation as a symbol of wealth and status.
Symbolism of the griffin

Griffin Symbol in Modern Times

Surviving the centuries, the griffin has become a common motif in decorative arts, sculpture, and architecture. There’s a statue of a griffin at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, as well as  at the monument at the Farkashegyi Cemetery in Budapest.

The symbolism and appearance of the griffin made it perfect for heraldry. In 1953, a heraldic griffin, known as The Griffin of Edward III, was included as one of the ten Queen’s Beasts made for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s also featured in the coat of arms of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Greifswald in Germany, and Crimea in Ukraine. You’ll also see the griffin on some logos too, such as Vauxhall automobiles.

The griffin has also made its way into pop culture and video games. Some of them include Harry Potter, Percy Jackson series, and Dungeons and Dragons game.

In jewelry designs, the griffin signifies power and strength, as well as a touch of the mythical. It’s portrayed on medallions, lockets, brooches, rings, and amulets. The griffin is also a popular symbol in tattoos.

In Brief

Regardless of its exact origins, the griffin has been part of many different cultures and remains significant as a symbol of strength, power, and protection. It’s likely that the mythological creature will continue to play a role in arts and pop culture for a long time to come.