Griffin
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Source: British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 7v


 

Griffin

Latin name: Gryphes

Other names: Grifon, Gripon, Gryphon

A beast with the body of a lion and the wings and head of an eagle

 

 
General Attributes

The griffin is a winged, four-footed animal. It has the body of a lion, but the wings and head of an eagle. It is born in the Hyperborean mountains, or perhaps in Ethiopia; some say it lives in the Indian desert, which it leaves only to find food. Griffins are the enemy of the horse. A griffin will tear a man to pieces or carry him to its nest to feed its young. Griffins are strong enough to carry away an entire live ox. They are also known for digging gold from mines.


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 70): The griffin with its terrible hooked beak Pliny judges to be fabulous.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:17): The griffin is both a feathered animal and a quadruped; its body is like that of a lion, but it has wings and the face of an eagle. Griffins are hostile to horses and attack any man they see.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): A griffin is accounted among flying things (Deut. xiiii.) and there the Gloss saith, that the griffin is four-footed, and like to the eagle in head and in wings, and is like to the lion in the other parts of the body. And dwelleth in those hills that are called Hyperborean, and are most enemies to horses and men, and grieveth them most, and layeth in his nest a stone that hight Smaragdus against venomous beasts of the mountain. (Book 18): The griffin is a beast with wings, and is four footed: and breedeth in the mountains Hyperborean, and is like to the lion in all the parts of the body, and to the eagle only in the head and wings. And griffins keep the mountains in which be gems and precious stones, and suffer them not to be taken from thence. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Sir John Mandeville [14th century CE] (Travels, chapter 29): In that country [Bacharia] be many griffins, more plenty than in any other country. Some men say that they have the body upward as an eagle and beneath as a lion; and truly they say sooth, that they be of that shape. But one griffin hath the body more great and is more strong than eight lions, of such lions as be on this half, and more great and stronger than an hundred eagles such as we have amongst us. For one griffin there will bear, flying to his nest, a great horse, if he may find him at the point, or two oxen yoked together as they go at the plough. For he hath his talons so long and so large and great upon his feet, as though they were horns of great oxen or of bugles or of kine, so that men make cups of them to drink of. And of their ribs and of the pens of their wings, men make bows, full strong, to shoot with arrows and quarrels. (The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1900) Macmillan edition of 1900)


Illustration

The griffin is usually shown grasping an ox or another animal, or sometimes a man, in its claws. It is often holding a heraldic pose, with one foot raised.


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