AskDefine | Define griffin

Dictionary Definition

griffin n : winged monster with an eagle-like head and body of a lion [syn: gryphon]

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Alternative spellings


From grifoun, from gryphus, from .



  1. A mythical beast having the body of a lion and the wings and head of an eagle.


Extensive Definition

The griffin was a common feature of "animal style" Scythian gold. It was said to inhabit the Scythian steppes that reached from the modern Ukraine to central Asia; there gold and precious stones were abundant and when strangers approached to gather the stones, the creatures would leap on them and tear them to pieces. The Scythians used giant petrified bones found in this area as proof of the existence of these griffins and thus keep outsiders away from the gold and precious stones.
Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, has recently suggested that these "griffin bones" were actually dinosaur fossils, which are common in this part of the world. In The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, she makes tentative connections between the rich fossil beds around the Mediterranean and across the steppes to the Gobi Desert and the myths of griffins, centaurs and archaic giants originating in the Classical world. Mayor draws upon similarities that exist between the prehistoric Protoceratops skeletons of the steppes leading to the Gobi Desert, and the legends of the gold-hoarding griffin told by nomadic Scythians of the region.

Ancient Greece

In archaic Greek art bronze cauldrons fitted with apotropaic bronze griffon heads ("protomes") with gaping beaks, prominent upstanding ears and often a finial knop on the skull appear with such regularity that they are considered a genre, the Griefenkessel, by specialists. The "griffin cauldrons" are discussed by Ulf Jantzen, Griechische Griefenkessel (Berlin) 1955. Based on Anatolian prototypes for bronze cauldrons with animal heads, Jantzen concluded that the griffon cauldron was a Greek invention of c.700 BC, the earliest examples hammered over moulds rather than cast. Such griffon cauldrons were developed simultaneously in Samos and in Etruscan territories from the earliest 7th through the 6th centuries BC. The earliest Etruscan example is the famous griffon protomes from the Barberini Tomb.
In Greek literature, Scythian mythology is reflected by Hellenic writers' tales of griffins and the Arimaspi of distant Scythia near the cave of Boreas, the North Wind (Geskleithron), such as were elaborated in the lost archaic poem of Aristeas of Proconnesus (7th century BC), Arimaspea. Bedingfeld and Gwynn-Jones infer that Aristeas's griffin was, "the bearded vulture or lammergeyer, a huge bird with a wingspan of nearly three metres (ten feet), which nests in inaccessible cliffs in the Asiatic mountains. ... The gold of the region is real enough and is still mined today." They also suggest that Aristeas conflated the Scythian griffin with a similar creature - a composite of lion and eagle or lion and griffon vulture - already known to Greek culture.
In any case, Aristeas's tales were eagerly reported by Herodotus (484 BC–c.425 BC) and in Pliny the Elder's Natural History (77 AD), among others. Aeschylus (525–456 BC), in Prometheus Bound (804), has Prometheus warn Io: "Beware of the sharp-beaked hounds of Zeus that do not bark, the gryphons..." In his Description of Greece (1.24.6), Pausanias (2nd century AD) says, "griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle." It is not yet clear if its forelimbs are those of an eagle or of a lion. Although the description implies the latter, the accompanying illustration is ambiguous. It was left to the heralds to clarify that.

In heraldry

The griffin is often seen as a charge in heraldry. According to the Tractatus de armis of John de Bado Aureo (late fourteenth century), "A griffin borne in arms signifies that the first to bear it was a strong pugnacious man in whom were found two distinct natures and qualities, those of the eagle and the lion." Since the lion and the eagle were both important charges in heraldry, it is perhaps surprising that their combination, the griffin, was also a frequent choice.
Bedingfeld and Gwynn-Jones suggest a far more bellicose reason for its choice as a charge: That because of the bitter antipathy between griffins and horses, a griffin borne on a shield would instill fear in the horses of his opponents. They also note the first appearance of the griffin in English heraldry, in a 1167 seal of Richard de Redvers, Earl of Essex. (The variant with the forelimbs of a lion is distinguished as the opinicus, described below.)
Heraldic griffins are usually shown rearing up, facing dexter (to the right of the bearer of the shield)*, standing on one hind leg with the other hind leg and both forelegs raised (as shown in the image on the right and those in the gallery below). This posture is described in the Norman-French heraldic blazon as segreant, a term usually applied only to griffins (but sometimes also to dragons In the late 19th century, Sir Henry William Dashwood was granted supporters: two male griffins Argent [white] gorged with a collar flory counter flory. One was also recently granted as a crest in the arms of the City of Melfort, Saskatchewan (image).
The term keythong is rarer still. The definitive instance comes from James Planché, who notes, under the badge of the Earl of Ormonde (first creation) as recorded in a College of Arms manuscript from the reign of Edward IV, the single contemporary reference: "A pair of keythongs." Planche's footnote: ''"The word is certainly so written, and I have never seen it elsewhere. The figure resembles the Male Griffin, which has no wings, but rays or spikes of gold proceeding from several parts of his body, and sometimes with two long straight horns. ­­Vade [see] Parker's Glossary, under Griffin."
At the end of the 20th century the term keythong'' began to be taken up enthusiastically among adherents of heraldry - at least, among members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.


The opinicus is a heraldic beast that differs from the griffin principally in that all four of its legs are those of a lion., but is otherwise rare in British heraldry. A modern example can be found in the arms of Jonathan Munday: Azure an opinicus rampant Or armed Gules. (Note that it is described as rampant rather than segreant.)

Other oddities

  • The "griffin" in the arms of Östergötland has dragon's wings. This is essentially a composite of two older arms, one charged with a lion, the other a dragon.
  • The arms of the Duchy of Pomerania features several typical griffins. However, the white "griffin" in the gules (red) sinister fess (middle right) piece has a fish's tail - only its lion's ears confirm that it's a fish-tailed griffin rather than a fish-tailed eagle.

Similar heraldic beasts

The following heraldic beasts are not griffins, but might be mistaken for them.
  • The cockatrice, the king of the serpents, has a rooster's head, only two legs (rather like an eagle's or dragon's), dragon's wings, and a serpent's tail.

In literature

For fictional characters named Griffin, see Griffin (surname)
  • In Tamora Pierce's Squire, part of the Protector of the Small quaret, the main character Kel stumbles upon a baby griffin kidnapped from his parents and is forced to care for him until they can be found.
  • In Patricia McKillip's Song for the Basilisk (1998), a griffin is one of the book's main characters and appears as a symbol of the ruling house.
  • In Bruce Coville's Song of the Wanderer (1999), the second book of The Unicorn Chronicles series, a gryphon named Medafil is a character.
  • In Wilanne Schneider Belden's Frankie! (1987), a human baby turns into a griffin.
  • In Collinsfort Village by Joe Ekaitis (2005), a gentlemanly griffin resides on a mountain overlooking an imaginary Colorado suburb.
  • In Bill Peet's The Pinkish Purplish Bluish Egg (1984) a dove finds an odd egg, and raises the griffin that hatches from it. The griffin has the head of a bald eagle rather than the more usual golden eagle.
  • In Katherine Robert's "The Amazon Temple Quest" a gryphon is connected with the Amazons and it is the one to give them power and to give them the ability to reproduce without men.
(unknown dates)
  • In Nick O'Donohoe's Crossroads series (including The Magic and the Healing, Under the Healing Sign, and Healing of Crossroads) about veterinary students called upon to help mythological creatures, griffins play a significant role.

In natural history

Some large species of Old World vultures are called gryphons, including the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), as are some breeds of dog (griffons).
The scientific species name for the Andean Condor is Vultur gryphus; Latin for "griffin-vulture".
The name of an oviraptoran dinosaur Hagryphus giganteus is Latin for "gigantic Ha's Griffin".

As a first name and surname

In the mid-1990s, "Griffin" steadily became more popular as a baby name for boys in the U.S. In 1990, it was ranked 629th. In 2006, it was ranked 254th. Also rising in popularity is the various other spellings of the name such as Griffen or Gryphon.
"Griffin" occurs as a surname in English-speaking countries. It has its origins as an anglicised form of the Irish "Ó Gríobhtha", "O' Griffin", and "Ó Griffey".
Welsh people who were anglicised, changed the name to "Griffith" and similar names. This shift is reinforced where the family has taken canting arms charged with a griffin.
"Griffin" (and variants in other languages) may also have been adopted as a surname by other families who used arms charged with a griffin or a griffin's head (just as the House of Plantagenet took its name from the badge of a sprig of broom or planta genista). This is ostensibly the origin of the Swedish surname "Grip" (see main article).

Roller coaster

In 2007, Busch Gardens Williamsburg opened a themed roller coaster called the Griffon. The main feature of the coaster is a vertical drop simulating the dive of a bird.

Persian firstname

The creature griffin is known as Homa in Persian. The name Homa is a well-known firstname for girls in Iran and is also featured as a story in Iranian textbooks for third graders in the story about Homa who has lost one of her milkteeth.

Notes and references

External links

griffin in Tosk Albanian: Greif
griffin in Arabic: فتخاء
griffin in Bosnian: Grifon
griffin in Bulgarian: Грифон
griffin in Catalan: Grifó
griffin in Czech: Gryf
griffin in Danish: Grif
griffin in German: Greif
griffin in Modern Greek (1453-): Γρύπας
griffin in Spanish: Grifo
griffin in Esperanto: Grifo
griffin in Persian: شیردال
griffin in French: Griffon (mythologie)
griffin in Korean: 그리핀
griffin in Croatian: Grifon
griffin in Indonesian: Griffin
griffin in Italian: Grifone (mitologia)
griffin in Hebrew: גריפון
griffin in Latin: Gryps
griffin in Lithuanian: Grifas (mitologija)
griffin in Hungarian: Griff
griffin in Dutch: Griffioen
griffin in Japanese: グリフォン
griffin in Norwegian: Griff
griffin in Polish: Gryf (mitologia)
griffin in Portuguese: Grifo
griffin in Russian: Грифон
griffin in Simple English: Griffin
griffin in Serbian: Грифон
griffin in Finnish: Aarnikotka
griffin in Swedish: Grip
griffin in Tamil: கிறிப்பன்
griffin in Thai: กริฟฟอน
griffin in Turkish: Griffon
griffin in Ukrainian: Грифи
griffin in Chinese: 狮鹫
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