Mythology in Art

By Carroll, Colleen | Arts & Activities, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Mythology in Art


Carroll, Colleen, Arts & Activities


The griffin is one of mankind's original mythical hybrids. As Dante describes, griffins (also spelled griffon and gryphon) are a combination of lion and eagle, two creatures that symbolize many shared traits: strength, ferocity, cunning, and regal bearing. A creature with combined elements of these animals makes for the king (or queen) of mythic beasts.

The exact origin of griffin mythology is unknown, but visual representations of them appear in the Bronze Age throne room of the Palace of Knossos in ancient Crete and in ancient Persia. In her book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press, 2000), Folklorist Adrienne Meyer posits that the griffin legend arose when ancient gold miners discovered the fossilized bones of long-dead creatures.

In an attempt to make sense of the bizarre bones of these fantastic and frightening beasts, they created stories that eventually were told to Greek literates interested enough to write them down. "The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground." [Source: http ://press.princeton. edu]

Griffins run and fly across the centuries that span the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations: painted onto pottery, carved into relief and free-standing sculpture, and cast into elaborate metal work. In medieval times, the griffin assumes heraldic and Christian significance. In early Christian iconography, the griffin is one of the pure symbols of Jesus Christ. As Jesus was simultaneously of the earth and the heavens, so too the lion/eagle, terrestial/celestial griffin.

Yet, given its dual nature, early Christians also employed griffin imagery to symbolize Satan or demonic powers. In medieval heraldry, the griffin was the most commonly emblazoned monster. Griffins also were commonly used as decorative and functional elements in Gothic architecture, such as rain spouts (gargoyles).

Today, the mystique of the griffin is alive and well. …

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