The Gryphon In Literature Page 2


"Alas, poor Gryphon, I knew him well..." Drawn by Cecilie Larsen

Authors Before the 11th Century | Authors From the 11th to 20th Centuries


From Bundahis (c. 1178)
to
Gubernatis (c. 1872)


Pahlavi | Albertus Magnus | Dante | Prester John | Benjamin of Tudela | Mandeville | Ariosto |
Bourchier | Nostradamus | du Bartas | Chester | Shakespeare | Swan | Browne | Ross |
Milton | Timbs | Carroll | Gubernatis



Bundahis (Cosmogony) - c. 1178

The Bundahis is a Pahlavi text, meaning that it was written in the Middle Persian language. (300 B.C. - 950 A.D.) It is one of two great works about the ancient prophetic religion, Zoroastrianism, which was founded around the 12th century B.C. The work itself took an extraordinary amount of time to come together, having finally stopped growing in 1178. There are three subjects that the Bundahis covers; creation, the nature of earthly creatures, and the Kayanians (an ancient dynasty of Iran). According to the Bundahis, Gryphons were the largest and the first of all birds upon creation, and is associated with the bat. There are also remarks of "the griffin of three natures". These three natures, I can only presume to mean those of the eagle, lion, and the monstrous (chimerical).

Bundahis Online | Chapter 14 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 24

Albertus Magnus - De Animalibus - c. 1200-1280

Not only was Albert of Cologne (or Albertus Magnus - "Albert the Great") a noted student and teacher of alchemy, chemistry, and possibly magic, he was also an expert zoologist, and his exceptional work, De Animalibus proves it. Unlike many books of the period, he did not hold back his cynicism towards many "fantastic" creatures, including the Gryphon. This is also the first (and only) reference that I can find about the agate egg associated with Gryphons. Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
    "GRIFES according to folk tales are said to be birds, but their credibility as real animals is not based on he experience of philosophers nor the evidence of natural science. The tales relate how the foreparts of these birds - i.e. their head, beak, wings, and forefeet - resemble an eagle, though on a much larger scale. The posterior portion of the animal, including the tail and rear legs, looks like a lion. The forefeet have long aquiline talons, while the rear feet have short but massive leonine claws which they use as cups for drinking; thus griffins are said to have both long and short claws. They are supposed to live in the mountains of the extreme North, are especially inimical to horses and men, and are so strong they can carry off a horse and its rider. Their mountain aeries are claimed to be laden with gold and gems, particularly emeralds. The stories also tell that griffins deposit agates in their nests because of the agate's special beneficial properties."

Dante Algheri - The Divine Comedy - c. 1265-1321

The Gryphon was portrayed through much of the early Middle Ages as a voracious monster, yet it was also during that period in which the Gryphon becomes exalted in the highest, and turns into the symbol of Christ's dual nature in Dante's Purgatory, a part of the Divine Comedy. According to Joe Nigg;
    "... Isidore of Seville had suggested similar correspondences in his Etymologies, declaring, 'Christ is a lion because he reigns and has great strength; and an eagle because, after the Resurrection, he ascended to heaven.'"
After descending through Hell and climbing the mountain of Purgatory, Dante and his guide, the poet Virgil, witness a divine procession which has come to greet them, at the end of which is the Sacred Gryphon, pulling the Chariot of the Church. The Sacred Gryphon appears in Cantos 29, 31 and 32, and I have provided links to all.

Purgatiorio | Canto 29 | Canto 31 | Canto 32

The Letter of Prester John - c. 12th-14th Centuries

The kingdom of Prester John was a most magnificent one. He claimed to be the Christian king of India (later the kingdom moved to Africa), and in his kingdom could be found "every kind of beast that is under heaven", a river of gems flowing from Paradise, provinces that knew not of poverty or war, and a palace of ebony, ivory and crystal. Although all of these claims are false, and no one really knows who wrote the Letters, they are still a wonderful source of medieval folklore and most likely influenced another false account of the world, Mandeville's Travels. Translation from Joe Nigg's Wonder Beasts.
    "Also in our land are gryffons. It is a great bird and a mighty, for he will carry to his nest an ox or a horse for his young birds to eat. In a town called Grounzwyk, in Saxony, is one of its claws which is as great as the horn of an ox."

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela - c. 1159-1173

Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela was a "Wandering Jew", a man who wished to make contact with his far spread brethren, traveling for trade and money, or possibly both. Yet whatever his reasons, it is true that Benjamin traversed through Egypt, Persia, the Near East, India (noting that it was the land of Prester John), and is quite possibly the first European to travel to and write of China, which he calls "Zin". It is in that country where he hears of an interesting tale of the stormy Sea of Nikpa (Ning-po). When sailors are accidentally blown into the Sea, they manage to escape by hiding in animal skins and being snatched up by Gryphons. Below is a link to a great online translation provided by the Colorado State University at Pueblo.

Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela Online

Sir John Mandeville - Travels - c. 1356

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is probably one of the most celebrated works of "Traveler's Tales" of the Middle ages. (Akin to The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, Marco Polo's Travels, The Voyage of St. Brendan, etc.) It can only now be regarded as little more than a remarkable fiction however, since the book and it's author were rejected as elaborate fabrications centuries after the book was published, much like the fabulous animals represented therein. The author of the book, whoever he was, used such sources as Herodotus, Pliny and Solinus, and even claimed to have traveled through the Kingdom of Prester John. There are a few items to note of his description of Gryphons. First, he locates them in the country of Bactria, "...where be full evil folk and full cruel...", which is a neighbor of India, one of the traditional Gryphon homelands. Secondly, he makes no mention of the beast's gold hoarding nature, although he does hint at their animosity towards horses. In fact, the only amazing trait that he ascribes to the Gryphons aside from their appearance is their enormous strength and size. Below are links to the Travels online.

Travels Online | Section on Gryphons

Ludovico Ariosto - Orlando Furioso - c. 1474-1533

Although there are no Gryphons in Ariosto's epic poem (46 cantos!) of fantasy, adventure and chivalry, there is a very close relative, the Hippogryph. It was once thought that Ariosto was the creature's creator, which we now know to be false, although it is true that Orlando Furioso is the Hippogryph's most famous appearance. In fact, Ariosto may have been motivated to use the Hippogryph (or "horse-Gryphon") as a symbol of impossible love from a line in Virgil's Eclogues (c. 37 BC);
    "...soon shall we see mate Gryphons with mares, and in the coming age shy deer and hounds together come to drink..."
It is also interesting to note that Ariosto writes that the Hippogryph's homeland is "Ryfee", since both Mela and Solinus identify the Mountain Riphey as the Gryphon's place of origin. Below is a link to an online version of Orlando Furioso, as well as the section describing the Hippogryph.

Orland Furioso online | Canto 4, Verse XVIII

Sir John Bourchier - The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux - c. 1469-1533

Although not actually composed by Sir John Bourchier, he is the one who transposed The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux, a thirteenth century epic, from it's original French into English in 1534. Here is Joe Nigg's summary of the Boke:
    "One of the cycle of Charlemagne romances, the Huon tale begins with court treachery that leads to Huon's murder of the Emperor's son and Huon being sent on a mission to Babylon, from which he is not expected to return. Often aided by Oberon, the dwarf king of the fairies, Huon survives a series of adventures in the East and triumphantly returns to the court of Charlemagne. Among those adventures is his shipwreck on a magnetic island which draws the nails from passing ships. To escape from the castle of the Adamant, Huon, like Sindbad and Eastern sailors, uses deceit to be carried off by a gigantic bird. After battling and killing five young birds in the griffin's eyrie, Huon is attacked by the vengeful mother. Later in the romance, Huon presents to the King of France a foot of one of the griffins he slew, and it is hung for prosperity in the holy chapel."
If that is not enough for you however, then below is a link to excerpts from the book concerning Gryphons, still in Bourchier's original sixteenth century text, from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.

The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux

Nostradamus - Propheties - c. 1503-1566

Physician, astrologer, prophet and legend in his own time, Michel de Nostradame is more commonly known to us simply as "Nostradamus". When he published his first 353 prophetic verses in 1555 in the Propheties, Nostradamus was immediately summoned to attend Queen Catherine de Medicis and thus began his tumultuous career until he finally propheciesed his own death in 1566. He uses the Gryphon in three of his verses to apparently symbolize a future northern European leader of a massive counter invasion against occupying Muslim forces in World War III.

Century X.86 | Sixains 29 and 56

Guilliaume de Salluste du Bartas - The Divine Weeks - c. 1544-1590

The Divine Weeks (La Semaine ou Creation du Monde) is an epic and controversial (during it's time) poem about the Creation of the world, written by the French Huguenot poet Guilliaume de Sallust du Bartas in 1578. It is during the fifth and sixth days of Creation that we see a plethora of fabulous creatures being created, with the creation of birds beginning with the Phoenix, and the Gryphon following close behind. Translation from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
    "The Phoenix, cutting th'unfrequented Aire,
    Forth-with is followed by a thousand paire
    Of wings, in th'instant by th'Almighty wrought,
    With divers Size, Colour, and Motion fraught...

    The rav'ning Kite, whose traine doth well supplie
    A Rudders place; the Falcon mounting high,
    The Marline, Lanar, and the gentle - Tercell,
    Th'Ospray, and Saker, with a nimble Sarcell
    Follow the Phoenix, from the Clouds (almost)
    At once discovering many an unknowne Coast:
    In the swift Ranke of these fell Rovers, flies
    The Indian Griffin with the glistring eyes,
    Beake Eagle-like, backe sable, Sanguine brest,
    White (Swan-like) wings, fierce tallents, alwaies prest
    For bloody Battailes; for, with these he teares
    Boares, Lyons, Horses, Tigres, Bulls, and Beares:
    With these, our Grandames fruitfull panch he pulls,
    Whence many an Ingot of pure Gold he culls,
    To floore his proud nest, builded strong and steepe
    On a high Rock better his thefts to keepe:
    With these, he guards against an Armie bold,
    The hollow Mines where first he findeth gold,
    As wroath, that men upon his right should rove.
    Or theevish hands usurp his Tresor-trove.
    O! ever may'st thou fight so (valiant Foule)
    For this dire bane of our seduced soule,
    And (with thee) may the Dardane ants, so ward
    The Gold committed to their carefull Guard,
    That hence-forth hope-less, mans fraile mind may rest-her
    From seeking that, which doth it's Maisters maister..."

Robert Chester - Love's Martyr - c. 1601

In Robert Chester's large diverse book of allegorical love, there is a poetical bestiary presented within a dialogue between Nature and the Phoenix, the section about the Gryphon represented below. Although in Love's Martyr Chester's own poems were ridiculed, the book is significant in that it contains the first published poem attributed to Shakespeare, The Phoenix and the Turtle. Excerpt from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
    "The Griffon is a bird rich feathered,
    His head is like a Lion, and his flight
    Is like the Eagles, much for to be feared,
    For why he kills men in the ugly night:
    Some say he keepes the Smaragd and the Jasper,
    And in pursute of Man is monstrous eager."

William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream and Henry IV - c. 1564 -1616

Fantastic animals were favorite metaphors of the Bard, and are used in over two thirds of his 37 plays. Dragons, phoenixes, basilisks, unicorns, Gryphons and more all made verbal appearances. One such instance of the Gryphon metaphor is in Act II, Scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here Demetrius has just told the love stricken Helena that he will run away and leaver her in the forest, to which she replies:
    "The wildest hath not such a heart as you.
    Run when you will, the story shall be chang'd;
    Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
    The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind
    Makes speed to catch the tiger,--bootless speed,
    When cowardice pursues and valour flies."
(Note that Apollo, who is associated with Gryphons, is jointly mentioned.) A Gryphon is spoken of again in Act II, Scene I of Henry IV, although this time as a flight of fancy, a tremble of the earthquake that is soon to come from Sir Thomas Browne. Here the hot-tempered Henry Percy, or "Hotspur", is speaking to Edmund Mortimer about his dislike for Mortimer's father-in-law.
    "I cannot choose: sometimes he angers me
    With telling me of the moldwarp and the ant,
    Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophesies,
    And of a dragon and finless fish,
    A clip-winged griffin and a moulten raven,
    A couching lion and a ramping cat,
    And such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff
    As puts me from my faith..."

John Swan - Speculum Mundi - c. 1635

John Swan's sundry Speculum Mundi; or A Glasse Representing the Face of the World portrays the growing doubt of certain fantastic creatures. A clergyman by profession, Swan uses some biblical references to cast uncertainty upon some beasts, yet accepts a variety of others. The Gryphon is not one of the latter however, as he states that belief in such "shall be left to every man's liberty." Excerpt from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
    "The Griffon is a creature (if there be any such, for many doubt it) which whether I may reckon amongst the birds or beasts, I cannot tell. Howbeit as I find him marked by Aelianus, he is thus described; namely that he is a kind of beast with four feet, keeping most of all in India, being as mighty in strength as a lion: he hath wings and crooked talons, black on the back, and in the forepart purple. His wings be somewhat white, his bill and mouth like an eagles bill, his eyes fiery; he is hard to be taken except he be young, he maketh his nest in the high mountains, and fighteth with every kind of beast, saving the Lion and Elephant: he diggeth up gold in desert places, and giveth repulse to those that come near him. But (as I said) some doubt whether there be any such creature or no: which, for my part, shall be left to every mans liberty."

Sir Thomas Browne - Pseudodoxia Epidemica ("Vulgar Errors") - c. 1605-1682

Even before the seventeenth century people were skeptic of certain beliefs and creatures, but popular belief reigned on because no one had written an authoritive work specifically saying that the old ways were wrong. No one until physician Sir Thomas Browne that is. Tired of the guessing game about certain traditions, Browne took it upon himself to create a fastidious work that would permanently dispel all misgivings through the ways of Reason and scientific Proof. The culmination of his work was the Pseudodoxia Epidemica; or Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, more commonly known as Browne's Vulgar Errors, first published in 1646. Aside from the Gryphon, Browne also attacks the centaur, basilisk (cockatrice), phoenix, unicorn, and amphisbaena (a snake with a head on each end). Below is a link to an online version of the Vulgar Errors, as well as a link to the section pertaining to Gryphons.

Vulgar Errors online | "Of Gryphins"

Alexander Ross - Arcana Microcosmi - c. 1591-1654

Although he was a schoolmaster and chaplain to Charles I, after reading Vulgar Errors Alexander Ross became enraged with the defense of the popular beliefs which he held dear. Passionately so, 6 years after Browne attacked the old ways, Ross fired back with his own devoted work, Arcana Microcosmi, which fought against not only Browne, but other advocates of New Science at the time. The little known Ross soon became the "Champion of the Ancients". Yet despite his amusing epithet, Ross and his Traditions lost the war against Browne and Science, and the populace found a "reason" to finally forsake their old beliefs. Below is a link to an online version of the Arcana Micocosmi, as well as a link to the section pertaining to Gryphons.

Arcana Microcosmi online | "What the Ancients have written of griffins may be true..."

John Milton - Paradise Lost - c. 1608-1674

An epic in every sense of the word, John Milton's Paradise Lost is considered one of the greatest works of English literature of all time. Even though most of the fantastic animals had recently been denounced as flights of fancy, Milton makes use of their very wondrous nature in a variety of metaphors and similes through his retelling of Man's downfall in the Garden of Eden (first published in 1667), although mostly to represent Satan. In point of fact, Satan's movement towards Earth is described as such (Book II, lines 943-950):
    "As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
    With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
    Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stealth
    Had from his wakeful custody purloined
    The guarded Gold: So eagerly the fiend
    Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
    With head, hands, wings, or feet pursues his way,"
Below is a link to an online version of Book II of Paradise Lost.

Book II of Paradise Lost

John Timbs - Popular Errors Explained and Illustrated - c. 1801-1875

The gryphon stayed in relative hiding after the battle between Browne and Ross, until 1856 when John Timbs, F.S.A. published his Popular Errors Explained and Illustrated, which closely followed the same vein as Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Timbs was an English antiquarian and writer, having written and edited over 150 works since he was 19. And though Timbs did not want to instruct in any of his works, "...but to contribute to the intellectual chat of the fireside", it should be noted that he tended to go off in tangents which sometimes caused more errors than he was trying to correct. In this particular work he makes great reference to Browne, as well another person to suggest the idea of the origin of the Gryphon myth stemming from a misinterpretation of the South American animal the Tapir. Timbs doesn't even really seem to add anything of his own to the discussion, but it is still an interesting, if not farfetched, idea. The excerpt below is provided by James Eason of the University of Chicago.

Timbs On Gryphons

Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures In Wonderland - c. 1832-1898

Thanks to Walt Disney, most of us are already familiar with one of Lewis Carroll's masterpieces, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, (first published in 1865) not to be confused with the sequel, Through the Looking Glass (published in 1872). However, for whatever reasons, the Disney movie cut out a rather important scene in which the Queen rudely introduces Alice to a creature sleeping in the sun. I say important, because this creature is none other than a Gryphon, in it's most noted appearance in more than 200 years. Yet time has taken it's toll on the Gryphon, who is recognizable as the mythical creature of yore from it's appearance and first words. ("'What fun!' said the Gryphon, half to itself, half to Alice," befitting the creature's own Dual Nature.) Below is a link to an online version of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, as well as a link to the scenes with the Gryphon.

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland online | Gryphon scenes

Angelo de Gubernatis - Zoological Mythology - c. 1840-1913

Zoological Mythology: or, The Legends of Animals is according to Joe Nigg, "one of the earliest full-length studies of animals in comparative mythology..." Written by the Italian professor Angelo de Gubernatis, and published in 1872, the book is an extensive mythological and symbolical history of a wide variety of animals, most real, some not. He catalogues Gryphons as "birds of prey", who in turn are placed under the classification of "Solar Birds". Excerpt from Joe Nigg's Book of Fabulous Beasts.
    "The gryphes are represented as of double nature, now propitious, now malignant. Solinus calls them, "Alites forocissimae et ultra raviem saevientes." Ktesias declares that India possesses gold in mountains inhabited by griffins, quadrupeds, as large as wolves, which have the legs and claws of a lion, red feathers on their breasts and in their other parts, eyes of fire and golden nests. For the sake of the gold, the Arimaspi, one-eyed men, fight with the griffins. As the latter have long ears, they easily hear the robbers of the gold; and if they capture them, they invariably kill them. In Hellenic antiquity, the griffins were sacred to Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, and were represented in sepulchres in the act of pressing down a bull's head; but they were far more celebrated as sacred to the golden sun, Apollo, whose chariot they drew (the hippogriff, which, in mediaeval chevaleresque poems, carries the hero, is their exact equivalent). And as Apollo is the prophetical and divining deity, whose oracle, when consulted, delivers itself in enigmas, the word griffin, too, meant enigma, logogriph being an enigmatical speech, and griffonage an entangled, confused, and embarrassing handwriting."


Authors Before the 11th Century | Authors From the 11th to 20th Centuries