Are Griffins Real? (Do They Exist?)

Fantastical hybrid animals have been an integral part of human imagination alongside the development of civilization.

Over time, people passed these images off as pure myth and simple allegories of higher consciousness. And yet some people claim, even in modern times, they are real. No other creature creates such a whimsy of controversy around their existence than that of the Griffin.

But are griffins real? Is there any merit to their existence? The answer isn’t as easy as a simple yes or no. In one way, yes, they could have been real at one time but in another understanding, no, they could be mere figments of fabrication.

It’s up to you to decide whether they are real or not based on historical evidence and mythology.

What Is A Griffin?

A Griffin, or Gryphon, is a hybrid creature featuring a lion’s body with the head, legs and wings of a bird of prey, usually an eagle. Some descriptions say they have the head of a snake and other stories tell us they have a scorpion’s tail. Yet there are tales that relate lion-like hind legs and some species have the human heads.

When depicted as an eagle, Griffins are regal in nature and have great command of speech, giving powerful and enthralling oratories. They are fierce, strong and alert. Griffins are more approachable than dragons but more ferocious than unicorns.

Medieval traditions relate that Griffins enter into lifelong relationships. When a spouse dies, the other remains alone for the rest of their days.  

Griffins symbolize ferociousness, strength, intelligence, vision and speed. They combine the best and most prominent aspects of eagles and lions.

Where Do Griffins Come From?

It’s origins are unknown. Some say India, others Ethiopia and yet there are those who claim it to come from Greek antiquity. Griffins could also originate from the Scythian area of the Persian Empire and there’s evidence for their existence in archaic Egypt.

Griffins In Ancient Greece

Griffins appear in most poems and lore from ancient Greece and most likely the reason for many claims of the Griffin’s genesis there. Our first written account is from the seventh century BC, becoming very valued in Greece between 700-300AD. But generally, people regarded them as a real animal and shown in art as interacting with actual people.

Equestrian Associations

Herotodus, a famous ancient Greek writer and historian, tells us a very old story about how the Arimaspians, cyclops men of northeastern Eurpoe, stole a hoard of gold from griffins on horseback.

Horses play an interesting role in relationship to Griffins. Sometimes, Griffins attack horses and other times they mate with them. In the procurement of offspring, the Hippogryph came into the world. They have the same legs, wings and head of an eagle but the body of a horse.

Even though this doesn’t provide evidence of a Griffin’s existence, it does indicate how people could think they are real.

Minoan | Mycenaean Griffins

In the palace of Knossos on Crete, there are frescoes, carvings and statues of Griffins dating back to the 15th century BC, during the Bronze Age. The Griffin also has an intrinsic resemblance to that of the ancient Minoan and Mycenaean “Genius.” This Genius has connotations to sacrificial rites with animals intended for the gods.

It’s interesting to note that most Greek mythology involving classic heroes, like Hercules and Theseus, depict harrowing defeats of hybrid monsters. There are no myths in Greece dealing with heroes in conjunction with Griffins. But, depictions show the Mycenean Genius behind heroes making large-animal sacrifices, indicating their guidance and influence in the ritual.

In The Company Of The Gods

Other Greek art shows Apollo riding his chariot led by Griffins, associating these mythical creatures with the sun. They also pull the chariots of Nemesis, Goddess of Discord, and Zeus, King of the Gods. They’re also seen with Artemis, goddess of virginity and wild beasts. In this way, they link to being both guardians and keepers of justice.

Ancient Rome

Even some Roman stories chronicle how Griffins guard precious treasure and gold mines. Pliny the Elder in 77AD said that Griffins can unearth gold as they burrow into the ground. Aelian, a compiler from ancient Rome, made a report in 200AD describing the ferocity of Griffins toward humans who abscond with their young from nests of woven gold.

Ancient Near | Far East

But the truth in the existence of Griffins does have some merit. Some theories say that stories of the Griffin came about because Mongolian travelers through the Gobi Desert saw dinosaur bones with bird-like beaks near gold-laden nests. Since gold mines were nearby these nests, it may help explain the Griffin’s association with gold and the sun.

The wings could be from witnessing the bird-beaked skeletons by the nests. Indeed, some species of birds do collect shiny objects, which could explain the presence of gold in the nests. But journeys on the Silk Road through the Gobi Desert began long after the existence of the Griffin. So, this could mean they used the stories as a means to explain what they found.

Honorable Mentions

In ancient Assyria, there was the Lamassu. This beast had the head of a man, a lion’s or bull’s body and eagle’s wings. In Sumeria, the demon Anzu is a half bird, half man creature associated with Enlil, god of the sky, ruler of thunder clouds and the southern wind. The Hindu god, Vishnu, used the Garuda as his mount. It was a half-bird-half-human creature.

The Ziz come from Jewish mythology and are akin to the Sumerian Anzu combined with that of the Greek Phoenix. The Bible, in Psalms 50:11, discusses the presence of the Ziz. This particular psalm discusses God’s judgment of the Israelites and spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving. This could link back to the Minoan Genius, with their involvement in sacrificial rites.

Evolution | Popularity

The medieval era is when the image of Griffins takes hold, revealing a vast and rich symbology supported by immortality.

During medieval times, Griffins became demonized and vilified with stories around great battles between Griffins and knights. Griffins through this period were so big, they could carry a knight back to their nest.

Regardless of defamation efforts, the Griffin morphed into Christian symbolism and fine art. The most important one being an allegory for Jesus. This is because the lion aspect links to Jesus’s role as a human man and the eagle denotes his divinity.

The 12th | 13th Centuries

A tale from the 12th century said that Griffins fought a fierce battle with Alexander the Great and his army. Archers shot the Griffins out from the sky, thereby gaining victory over the beasts. Stories like this highlight the Griffin’s dangerous aspects rather than their more intellectual traits, removing the ancient Greek notion as guardians.  There is no story in Greek history or myth describing this battle of Alexander.

There are also enchantment properties of Griffin’s eggs. In the 13th century, Bartholomew Anglicus said an egg dispels poison, giving credence to a Griffin’s ability to protect and guard. But, it was later discovered that people often used ostrich eggs to pass for that of a Griffin’s.

Hoaxes | Healing

Indeed, many instances of artifacts once believed to belong to Griffins, were actually body parts from other animals. For instance, many people believed that a 7th century bishop of Lindisfarne named St. Cuthbert was in possession of a Griffin’s claw. But it was actually an ibex goat’s horn.  

But for those who considered the existence of Griffins a very real phenomenon, the claws of a Griffin have powerful healing abilities. According to lore, Griffins only gave their claws in exchange for medical assistance from a holy person. In 1383 at St. Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham, claws and eggs of a Griffin were among the inventory.

Symbolism

Byzantine mosaics are famous for their Griffin symbology. This kind of décor spread all over the world, from across the Holy Roman Empire and Persia to Italy, England, France and Spain. Griffins were often featured in paintings, sculptures, tapestries and illuminated manuscripts. Today, you can see gargoyle figures as Griffins adorning various buildings, like libraries and churches.

Many European families during the Crusades embroidered, painted and carved Griffins on their coats-of-arms. By this time, the powers of the Griffin were more allegorical and symbolic than something tangible.

Modern Depictions

The fascination with hybrid animals may stem from the human talent for imagination, allowing for deep and meaningful symbolism as a psychological model. Appearing on coats-of-arms to modern emblems, the Griffin is highly symbolic, whether real or imagined. Griffins abound in popular culture through corporate logos, fictional characters and as architectural gargoyles.

For centuries, scholars have debated about whether Griffins are real or not. Some believe they are inventions of human imagination and others argue that real animals serve as a basis for their reality, like mastiff dogs. And yet there are people who think it’s all a bunch of made-up hogwash.  What do you believe?

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