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.......Curiosity Corner .......

The Gryphon (or Griffin)

As many of our readers are well aware, a great deal of nonsense is written about heraldry, about the meaning of the different charges, of when they were first granted and to whom, and how they should be portrayed. Much of this may be found in novels, even more in newspapers, and substantially more in Hollywood films, but recently it has found its way also onto the Internet, and especially onto the Web.

Gryphon segreant

Our attention has been drawn to an exchange of views on one of the Compuserve fora. A correspondent had written of a handgun, a Glock, being used as a weapon by his friend Paul to protect its owner against attacks by gryphons. We do not have to inform our own readers how absurd this idea is but, nevertheless, we did consider that some might be interested in the manner in which a Scottish scholar disposed of the suggestion.

Dear Sir,

When I was a child we were occasionally troubled by what modern minstrels would doubtless describe as plagues of gryphons, but to be truthful I seldom saw more than a dozen or so at any one time, and it is on the basis of this comparatively limited experience that I write to tell you that your confidence in Paul's Glock may have been misplaced. You wrote ~

"The creature was clearly a Gryphon, a thoroughly different manner of beast, and quite dangerous, though I don't doubt he would have met his match in Paul's Glock."

It was commonly known among us that a hungry female gryphon could fly with a man in armour and his horse in her claws, and it was often reported that a pair of oxen yoked for the plough had been taken. In 1561, Gerard Legh, a scribbler somewhat younger than I, claimed that he possessed "a clawe which should shew them to be as bigge as two lyons." (vide "The Accedence of Armorie, fo. 60)

Sir John Mandeville, a traveller of great distinction, wrote to me some two hundred years earlier that ~

"Sum men seyn that thei had the body upward as an egle, and benethe as a lyoun; and treuly thei seyn sothe that thei ben of that schapp. But a Griffoun hathe the body more gret and more strong than eight lyouns of such lyouns as ben o' this half of oure worlde, and more gret and stronger than an 100 egles such as we han amonges us."

Your lack of precision is as remarkable as Paul's misplaced confidence in a weapon designed to stop a man being in any way a match for a gryphon. You should have noted that this was a female gryphon, for the male of the species (a possibly erroneous word in this case as will become apparent hereunder) has no wings and his body is covered in spikes. We had no male gryphons in Scotland, which is why some opine that we see no gryphons at all today.
Some scribes wrote optimistically that all gryphons would be eliminated if we prevented lions and eagles from cohabiting (which some foolish political pedants in England have interpreted in these modern times as ending the Atlantic Alliance between this Royal Kingdom and the former American Colonies), for these same scribes enjoin us to believe that the gryphons are not a species, which is to say that they do not form a group of mutually fertile individuals. They foolishly ignore that, for example, item 78 in the inventory of royal treasures of Edward III of England is a gryphon's egg valued at one mark (which is to say 13 shillings and 4 pence old money, or two-thirds of an English pound). But in England, as I have writ, they do have male gryphons, and it is reputed that there are some very odd couplings there, especially in their Parliament buildings in the Palace of Westminster.
I should not end these casual observations without noting that a related gryphon has the upper parts of an eagle and the lower parts of a mermaid. I believe this might be of help to your minstrel colleague who recently appealed for assistance with his tale of a submarine whose crew needed some sex to increase the number of his audience. This gryphon has been seen with wings, and so it is possible that Paul's unfortunate experience may have been with one of these.

You will doubtless have deduced from all the evidence available that Paul's assailant, whether tailed as a lion or as a mermaid, was female. No male gryphon has wings. This suggests that the attack was owed more to an excess of jealousy than of hunger, and may have been prompted by watching too much soap on television, which is all that is left for most deprived gryphons these days. (I have commented elsewhere on the responsibility of minstrels in this matter, the promotion of aggressive instincts, and if my words there remain unheeded there may well be more experiences such as that you relate of poor Paul.)

My correspondents in Brussels have reported to me that the gryphon is to be designated in the category of wildlife to be protected by the European Union, so Paul should lock his Glock away and avoid temptation when travelling within Western Europe.

One of my correspondents in the former American Colonies has reported that a famous vagabond player recently before a judge on a charge of murder had intended accusing a gryphon of the crime and that this made the jury so fearful that the vagabond player was acquitted. This gryphon must have been the bald-headed variety, which would make the outcome of this case peculiar to the American Colonies. Where your forebears lived in Scotland such a case would have "Jeddart justice" and the accused would be first hanged and then tried, thus removing any chance of a gryphon creating problems for the judge. I cannot recollect any instance of a gryphon being brought to court during the last seven hundred years (although some dishonest scribblers will say anything they fancy about gryphons, hoping not to be discovered).

In conclusion I should add that many careless commentators have loosely described gryphons as having the head of an eagle and omitted the detail of the gryphon's ears. These are furry, pointed and very large, enabling the gryphon to hear everything critical said against it. Verbum sat sapienti.

Lest it be thought that the gryphon is a dangerous creature we should add that Alexander Nisbet in 1722 noted its beneficent nature. He quoted Chassaneus's observation that ~

"Gryphus significat sapientiam jungendam fortitudini, sed sapientiam debere praeire, fortitudinem sequi."

....... which may be best rendered today as ~

"The gryphon represents wisdom joined to fortitude, wisdom leading, fortitude following"

....... thus allowing wisdom to the eagle and fortitude to the lion.

For others, such as the Cretans, the gryphon symbolised care and vigilance, combining the vision, alertness and speed of the eagle with the strength and courage of the lion. The essential factor is that, unlike the dragon with which it is sometimes confused, the gryphon is kindly, embodying all the feminine virtues of the pre-PC centuries.

The Martlet
The Cockatrice
The Baronage Contents page April-June 1999
© 1999 The Baronage Press and Pegasus Associates Ltd