The Gryphon In Symbolism


A golden Gryphon protecting the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas. Picture from Corbis.com The Gryphon is probably the most symbolic mythical creature that has ever lived, and rightly so, because everyone seems to have portrayed the Gryphon differently, giving it a confusing array of attributes. Evil, Good, benevolent, malevolent, guardian, punisher, Satan, Christ, the Gryphon has been all these and more. The numerous symbolic characteristics of the Gryphon made it a popular charge in Heraldry, which at it's base is nothing more than glorified personal symbolism. Even in today's scientific age we still are able to recognize the imagery of this beast. In the picture to the left, for example, is a golden Gryphon, watching over the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, just as it used to guard gold mined from the earth so many years ago. In fact, Sir Thomas Browne states in his Vulgar Errors that man's "creation" of the Gryphon may very well have stemmed from the beast's highly symbolic nature. (Which is practically the only redeeming virtue he leaves to Gryphons.)

Below is a list of the various symbolic aspects of the Gryphon, and why it has become associated with each.

Dual Nature

This one is rather straightforward I suppose. Eagle and Lion, each monarchs of their own contrary worlds, combine to create the noblest creature of them all. Most everything that the Gryphon does and represents is in twos or opposites; Good and Evil, Satan and Christ, fearsome and gentle, wild and tamed. It is the duality of Christ, both Son of Man and Son of God. It pulls the chariot of the god Apollo, Lord of Day and Night, and the goddess Nemesis, avenger of crimes. It has warred with the Amazons and Arimaspians. Alexander the Great used two yoked Gryphons to go on his Celestial Journey. Even Lewis Carroll writes of the Gryphon's dual nature. "The Gryphon sat up and rubbed it's eyes; then it watched the Queen till she was out of sight; then it chuckled. 'What fun!' said the Gryphon, half to itself, half to Alice" The comparison to a Gryphon can likewise be attributed to any person or thing that seems to take up both sides of the same coin.

Sun and Light

A Gryphon t-shirt design by Laura Whent Writes Philostratos, "'For these animals [Gryphons] do exist in India,' he said, 'and are held in veneration as being sacred to the sun." Of all of the Gryphon's symbolic traits, this one is the most powerful, long lasting and unyielding of them all. It should be pointed out that the two creatures which comprise the Gryphon, eagle and lion, are both strongly connected to the Sun to begin with. The Gryphon is connected to Apollo, Athena, Dionysus and Baal, all of which are gods associated with Light. Artistic portrayals of Gryphons pulling the chariots of Apollo, Zeus and Nemesis across the sky are symbolic of the rising of the Sun. The Gryphon's war with the Amazons is representative with the Sun's eternal fight with the moon, (as well as male against female) each strong and obdurate, day in and day out. (The name "Amazon" derives from the Armenian word for "moon", maza.) Pausanias writes that, "...The gold which the Gryphons guard, he says, comes out of the earth...", another possible symbolization of the rising Sun, since Gryphons were known to come from the far east, where the Sun rises. So writes Robert Brown that "...[Gryphons are] the 'avenging bird' of Nemesis, because Time, of which the Sun is lord, brings in due course the doom and retribution upon the evil-doer; and because the light-power searches and finds out the wicked..." The Sun is also represented by the egg of agate which the Gryphon lays, the literal "solar-egg".

Gods

When it comes to gods, Gryphons sure get around, although they are most strongly associated with the Greek god Apollo, the god of both night and day, music, magic and other minor traits. Gryphons were commonly depicted as drawing the chariot of Apollo, as well as simply standing by his side as the ever vigilant protector. Gryphons also pull the chariot of Nemesis, the avenging goddess, and are her instruments in providing retribution for mortals. Zeus, master of the heavenly sky, also claims the Gryphon as his companion. So writes Aeschylos, "Be on thy guard against the Gryphons, the keen-mouthed unbarking hounds of Zeus..." Gryphons are also connected to Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, and another Light deity, and is shown as such by Pausanias. "As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena... the statue itself is made of ivory and gold... and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief." The Gryphon has also been depicted as drawing the chariot of Dionysus, (see vase below) the Greek god of Wine, and is also connected with Baal, a Semitic Sun-god, as well as Ashur, an Assyrian god of War. In the ruins of a sanctuary to the goddess Hera, hundreds of bronze Gryphon busts were discovered.

Chariots

Dionysus' chariot being driven by a Gryphon, amongst other beasts. So writes Philostratus, "...the Indian artists, when they represent the Sun, yoke four of them abreast to draw the images..." Gryphons pulling chariots was a popular subject in Greek art, such as in the vase (c. 400 BC) to the right. Gryphon heads adorned chariot poles and wheel hubs on many Greek chariots. Gryphons have been known to pull the chariots of the gods Apollo, Nemesis, and Zeus, and in Dante's Divine Comedy, the Sacred Gryphon, the embodiment of the Dual Nature of Christ, pulls the chariot of the Church.

Circle and Wheel

The symbolism of Gryphons with the circle / wheel comes from their other symbolic traits, such as chariots and the Sun. The Sun, itself a circle, also traverses a circular path across the sky. As a companion of Nemesis, the Gryphon represents the Circle of Retribution, because all things return to the beginning, even vengeance.

Gold

This is another straightforward explanation. Gryphons love gold. Nearly everyone who has written of the Gryphon recalls this simple fact. They horde it, much like dragons or magpies, and woe be to the person who tries to steal it from beneath the Gryphon's vigilant beak. Symbolically speaking though, gold represents, again, the Sun, the shining circle of gold in heaven.
Gryphons and a Sphinx stand guard on an ancient sarcophogus. Picture from Corbis.com

Tombs

The Gryphon is appropriately sculptured on tombs as the constant guardian and protector, even in death, to show that the Sun is still watchful, even in the dark Underground. On a tomb the Gryphon is a symbol of the Sun, and life, everlasting, and for some, the ultimate Retribution of Nemesis, Death.

Satan and Christ

Satan and Christ, Evil and Good, Light and Dark; of the two Great Opposites, the Gryphon has been both. Early in the ever growing Christian kingdom, pagan ideas and symbols were used to represent the imperfectness of earth, without a second thought. Joe Nigg writes, "As a combination of the rapacious eagle and the ferocious lion, the medieval Gryphon represented the Devil and his legions to some. To others, the earthly strength of the lion and the ascendant splendor of the eagle symbolized the earthly and divine natures of Christ." For the most part though, it was early in the Christian world that the Gryphon was evil, yet after a while people began to actually look at the symbols they were using and realized that the Gryphon was more a symbol of Christ than Satan.

Good Qualities

Protector, guardian, gentle, noble, vigilant, steadfast, strong, fleet, virtuous, loyal.

Bad Qualities

Sinful, rapacious, vengeful, avaricious, wild, gluttonous, ferocious.