For several years now, our school’s mascot has been the Griffin. One of the final touches to our new building was to place a bronze sculpture of the griffin outside our front door.
Like most sculpture, this one has a lot of symbolism, which is explained by the bronze plaque below the griffin. Despite the plaque, however, I still expect to field questions about why our school is so into Harry Potter. I don’t know why, but it seems that liking anything medieval means that you’re a rabid Potter fan–as if the Middle Ages were invented by J. K. Rowling.
The history of griffins is much more illustrious than cameos in Harry Potter films. The purpose of this post is to present an outline of this history, and hopefully pre-empt some of the questions.
The Biformed Beast
First of all, the Griffin is a “biformed beast,” a hybrid animal whose front half is an eagle and rear half is a lion. Medieval Christians used the griffin to represent the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation: two distinct natures joined together in one being. But the Griffin existed sixteen centuries before Christ and played a role in the mythologies of several ancient cultures: Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Persian.
In the earliest civilizations the Griffin had a simple allegorical meaning. Since the lion was the king of the beast, and the eagle the king of the birds, the Griffin represented the supreme power of the king. The Persians, Assyrians, Hindus, and Greeks all connected the Griffin to the sun in some way, believing that it drank fire, another connection to supreme power in creation.
Griffin as Guardian
The Greeks also represented the Griffin as sitting at the feet of Apollo, god of the sun and poetry. For this reason, the Griffin was an animal of light and beauty, and was used to represent poetic inspiration. When Apollo inspired a poet, the powerful wings of the Griffin would lift away from the common things of this world. And according to Herodotus, the Griffin also served Apollo as the vigilant and invincible guardian of his treasures.
This guardian role became one of the most important functions of this beast. By the second or third century BC the Greco-Roman world viewed the Griffin as tomb-guardians. Funerary emblems of griffins even appear on early medieval Christian sarcophagi. Later in the middle ages, the Griffin appears on coats-of-arms as guardian of various kingdoms, states, and families.
Griffin as Christ-Figure
In the thirteenth century the great Dante Alighieri immortalized the Griffin as the symbol of the Incarnate Christ in the final cantos of Purgatorio. The aquiline-leonine body represents Christ’s divine and human natures, as well as Christ’s heavenly and earthly kingdoms. The aquiline parts are gold to show the immutability of Christ’s divinity; the leonine parts are white and crimson, signifying Christ’s pure humanity and his crucifixion.
Finally, late medieval symbolism frequently depicted the Griffin with an emerald. According to the legend of the Holy Grail, when Lucifer rebelled, a great emerald fell from his brow. Ages later this emerald was carved into the chalice that Christ used to bless the wine at the Last Supper. The medieval mind quickly associated the biformed beast with emeralds.
Griffin as…Just a Griffin
Then, of course, a few years ago Harry Potter had some adventures with Griffins (in the form of Hippogriffs), but J. K. Rowling left out much of the symbolism the Griffin had accumulated over 2600 years. Rowling’s griffins are simply watchdogs with wings and beaks. They are merely props that add to the mythical/magical ethos of Hogwarts.
That should give some perspective to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. Much of their strength results from Rowling’s use of medieval symbolism and motifs that stretch back to the classical period. Much of their weakness comes from Rowling’s failure to stay true to that symbolism.
As popular as they were, the Potter books will pass away. But the Griffin will remain.