Griffins Are Awesome

I love griffins, these majestic creatures have been one of my favorite mythological creatures for ages….almost more than dragons. I remember in my youth when there was a line of statuary out of fantasy creatures that included unicorns and dragons, but also a family of griffins and I had desperately wished in my youth that I had the cash to get those lovely dark feathered beasts. Imagine of course my delight years later when I came to discover that griffins were so strongly associated with Apollon. Yes they are the dogs of Zeus as well, and the predominance of griffin imagery at Olympia certainly bolsters the Zeus connection….but they have a strong sacred association with Apollon as well. And why not? They combine the majesty of two of nature’s formidable predators…the raptor (could be an eagle, hawk or falcon) and a lion. this stylization is perhaps not too dissimilar from the chimera-type creature associated with the Mesopotamian god Nergal that is more of a lion-dragon with its winged feathers and long ass-like ears.

The griffin’s association with Apollon seems to have largely to do with the movement of the god and his sacred northern garden of Hyperborea. These creatures are said to cherish gold which they covet (tres dragonish) which in many ways can symbolize the beauty and radiance of Apollon whose locks of hair were of gold. Guardians of divinity in a sense, dwelling in a place beyond human reach…true liminal guardians bearing such ferocity that they truly are great counterparts for other guardian spirits: dragons/great serpents who often guarded sacred trees, caverns. streams, well etc, and the three-headed hound Cerebos who guards the entrance of the next world, friendly to the dead who enter only.

Between the dragon and the griffin we have two distinct point of Apollon’s domain being expressed. Whereas the dragon is associated with the chthonic nature of Apollon, with his provision over tombs, sacred groves/orchards as a guardian figure more in touch with the human cycle and needs, the griffin is actually less directly associated with the human existence and is utterly unapproachable by any humans. They figure into the part of Apollon’s domain as gatekeeper, lord of the doors, and that which divides humanity and the divine…guardians of the most holy. This makes them too guardians of that which is given unto us in divine blessings. Thus it is on the back of a griffin that Apollon returns bearing the blessing of grain as he returns from Hyperborea whereas Apollon had departed in a chariot pulled by swans. Unlike many sacred creatures, griffins, like sphinxes, are most holy by their composition…by their evolution and complexity (the sphinx far more so than the griffin tho).

It is for these reasons all that on my altar for Apollon that a pair of griffins stand at either side of his offering bowl as guardians of the blessings of Apollon…

Apollo and griffin statue Apollo and griffin Apollo with griffin on sarcophagus Apollo with griffin

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6 thoughts on “Griffins Are Awesome

  1. I’m curious, what do you think of Adrienne Mayor’s theory (in her book The First Fossil Hunters) linking Classical stories of griffins to Protoceratops fossils in Central Asia? Protoceratops are beaked, four-legged dinosaurs often found as intact skeletons near gold deposits (and often seemingly “guarding” their young).

    I’m always a little wary of potentially euhemeristic explanations for the “origins” of myths (as if that was a singular thing that could be pinned down), but the potential connection is also fascinating…

    • Actually I am not familiar with this idea, although I can see how perhaps there is a possibility that if one came across intact fossils of such a creature how it could inspire ideas of griffins. I am often leery about such ideas regarding roots of spiritual motifs as I think that largely the imagery of these beasts is often symbolic….but still worth reading on so thanks 🙂

      • If you have access to her book through your local library, the chapter on griffins is definitely worth reading. It’s much more detailed and nuanced than my brief summary, of course.

        One of the things I remember from that chapter is that Mayor says that Herodotus’s account of griffins seemed to be zoological rather than mythological (though he was only repeating what he’d heard from the Scythians), leading her to believe that the description was based on some sort of physical animal (albeit a fossilized one).

        But as I suspect you and I both agree, that doesn’t mean that griffins don’t also have significant mythological significance, such as some of the associations you write about in your post (which I hadn’t heard of before, actually).

    • I think it’s Pausanias who describes bones in a temple that are attributed to a griffon. The description appears to be some dinosaur. This theory would also make sense of dragons being related to the earth.
      And also there are number of other descriptions of sacred bones that were attributed to heroes and monsters (mammoth skulls being cyclops).
      It is a fascinating subject and really makes sense without destroying the myths, when you think about it, dinosaurs really are mythical monsters.

      Also I love griffons too! (Why I use one as a personal icon.)

      • Interesting, I don’t recall Mayor mentioning Pausanias’s account of griffin bones specifically, though she definitely talks about the mammoth skull-cyclops connection (which is fairly convincing as well, given the huge nasal cavity in the center of the mammoth skull). I remember Herodotus being singled out, because Mayor was emphasizing the second-hand nature of the narrative (and suggesting that the Scythians/their trading partners may have spread the story as a way to deter travelers from their gold fields).

        I’m glad that you feel like these explanations can co-exist with the myths without destroying them, and I agree. I’m just cautious because there are certain people who would like to use these kinds of explanations to dismiss the myths out of hand. A lot of Mayor’s work seems to be along these lines (of providing “rational” explanations of strange stories from antiquity), but my impression is that she actually respects the ancients for being “the first fossil hunters” and for making the effort to fit the gigantic bones they were finding into their cultural framework.

      • TBH I can’t find the reference in Pausanias in regards to Griffons, so it’s a possibility of my brain inviting stuff based on what I’ve heard of Mayor’s work (I haven’t read her book, but it looks like I should!)
        The ‘rational’ trend in explaining myth gives me the shits too, but the dino bone theory is pretty neat.

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