I recently started asking people what their favourite fantasy character or creature was. Paul Weimer is first up.
For decades, the premier big creature in fantasy literature has been the dragon. Since the days of early myth, heroes have taken on dragons with blade, spell, and even words. And sometimes they’ve teamed up. Cadmus slew a dragon, sowed its teeth, and founded a city. Beowulf took on a dragon in his old age, proving he still ‘had it’. The curious creature Bilbo Baggins riddled Smaug. Anne McCaffrey gave us dragon riders on Pern. Naomi Novik has given us bonded dragons used for war on Earth in Napoleonic times. And there are a myriad other examples.
I am here to tell you there other mythological creatures out there worth your attention besides Dragons. Creatures every inch the equal of Dragons in lore, power, grace and story potential who have not had anywhere near the press of Dragons, but deserve it.
I am here to tell you all about Griffins.
Griffins in their most basic form are a hybrid animal, with the rearquarters of a lion, and the head, and wings of an eagle. Masters of air and land, Griffins are usually depicted in literature and myth as intelligent, majestic creatures. The medieval Catholic Church used them as symbols of fidelity, adding strict and abiding monogamy to their list of traits.
But where did they come from and how did they enter our mythology and lore? No one is certain, but I particularly like the theory put forward by Adrienne Mayor in her book The First Fossil Hunters. In that book Mayor suggests that the origin of Griffins lies with gold miners in the Gobi desert in the Classical Era of ancient history. These Scythian gold miners came across a lot of Mesozoic-era fossils, particularly dinosaurs, just as paleontologists still flock there today to uncover. Among the most common of dinosaur fossil there, and anywhere else, really, is the Protoceratops.
If you imagine a fossilized head and frill (often found separate from the body or the rest of the skeleton) you can see where the stories might arise of creatures that had the combination of the beak of an eagle, and the mane of a lion. The rest of the details were filled in by the likes of Herodotus, adding in their love of gold and treasure. Voila, Griffins!
Combining the King of the Air, the Eagle, with the King of the beasts, the lion meant that lots of rulers adopted the Griffin as their heraldic symbol or the symbol of their kingship going as back as far as Achaemenid Persia in the 6th century B.C. Depictions of Griffins have been found in other Mediterranean cultures as well, ranging from the Minoans to the Egyptians. In the middle ages, cities and polities ranging from Genoa to the Baltic States adopted the Griffin as their own, and helped standardize the classical look of the Griffin most often seen today. Even so, there still appear to be two schools of thought in their depiction on whether the forearms of the Griffin are bird-like, or lion-like.
Although the classical form is half-eagle and half-lion, in recent times, Griffins have expanded their taxonomy into a more general form. Griffins in this modern era can be a combination of any great-cat and any bird of prey. Thus, I have seen depictions of, and read combinations of, ranging from gyrfalcon and snow leopard to hawk/puma crosses, to even a macaw/spotted cat cross. The possibilities are as unlimited as the types of dragons out there.
There are two species of Griffin-Kin that are very similar to Griffins that I want to highlight here.
Hippogriffs are sometimes thought of a cross between a Griffin and a horse. With the head, wings and tail of an eagle and the rest of the body a horse, Hippogriffs are formidable creatures and often are envisioned as steeds for heroes rather than actors in their own right.
Buckbeak, from the Harry Potter novels and movies, is the most well known Hippogriff in fantasy, although there are a few others. Universally, they are seen as dangerous to strangers, but loyal and protective of their own.
And then there are the Sphinxes.
Sphinxes are, at a minimum, possessed of the body of a great cat, and the head of a human, although most sphinxes have the wings of an eagle too.
The most well-known Sphinx is the statue in the Egyptian desert, and possibly nearly as well known is the Greek Sphinx of the classic riddle:
“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?” Oedipus. of the tragic greek myth (but before that business with his mother), answered the riddle, caused the Sphinx to suicide, and thus saved the city of
Thebes which had been plagued with its presence on the highway outside of it.
Like Griffins, Sphinxes were also common in Persian art and are, no surprise, extremely common in Egyptian art. For example, this depiction of a sphinx with the head of Queen Hatshepsut:
As for me, I’ve been a fan of Griffins since I first spotted one in a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. They looked appealing, were different than the overly popular dragons, and I adopted it as my own. I enfolded Griffins into the mythology of imaginary kingdoms in my roleplaying games and read what few books I could find, such as the Mercedes Lackey Mage Wars Trilogy (Black Gryphon, White Gryphon, Silver Gryphon). One of my favorite Zelazny stories, Unicorn Variation, features a number of mythological creatures besides the titular Unicorn, including a boisterous Griffin named Rael.
Still, I’ve always thought of Griffins as a niche love of mine, never getting the respect and press I’ve thought they’ve earned. Still, this Griffin lover is extremely pleased that Griffins have gotten more press, more play and more exposure in fantasy literature recently.
Rachel Neumeier’s Griffin Mage trilogy (Lord of the Changing Wind, Land of the Burning Sands and Law of the Broken Earth.) introduces us to intelligent Griffins who magically terraform the lands they inhabit into the deserts they love by their presence, causing conflict with the humans who want the same lands for themselves and have no use for the hot arid world the Griffins desire.
KV Taylor’s Fallen Moon series (The Dark Griffin, The Griffin’s Flight, The Griffin’s War) takes a page from Anne McCaffrey and has human-Griffin bonded pairs.
And notably, Erin Hoffman’s Chaos Knight Series (Sword of Fire and Sea and Lance of Earth and Sky) features intelligent, civilized Griffins that are a major part of a high magic, high fantasy universe of the novels. In point of fact, Hoffman originally created her universe with Griffins in mind years ago as a roleplaying player characters and protagonists.
The takeaway, I hope, from all this is that you will agree with me: Griffins are cool.
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota for the last 8 years, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to his reading and gaming interests, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, the Functional Nerds, the SF Signal Community, Twitter, Livejournal and many other places on the Internet.