Mythical Beasts and their Symbolism. The Gryphon and Hippogryph, are two mythical animal-bird hybrid creatures, that in the history and culture of Venice have assumed great symbolic meaning to the State, Church and Alchemic Science.
The Gryphon (griffin or griffon), is a legendary and fantastical creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle. It sometimes has an eagle’s talons as its front feet and often depicted with large pointed and upright ears. It was said to make its nest near treasure and itself to lay golden eggs in a golden nest.
Its name derives from the Greek words (gryphon or gryps) and the Latin (gryphus); meaning curved, in the sense of a beak or hooked nose.
The first mention of these mythical beasts is found within Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian cultures; who depicted them in both sculpture and painting.
In ancient Greece, it was believed that gryphons lived in the mythical place to the north known as “Hyperborea” (beyond the north winds) and the home of the Arimaspians and also the paradise of the gods.
The Arimaspians were said to be a tribe of one-eyed people, who lived at the foot of the Rhipaean mountains (probably the Carpathians), in northern Scythia (Central Asia). They warred constantly with the gold-guarding gryphons of the mountains.
Pliny the Elder wrote, “griffins were said to lay eggs in burrows on the ground and these nests contained gold nuggets.”
Since classical antiquity, griffins were known for guarding treasures and priceless possessions.
Various theories regarding the origins of such mythical creatures have been put forward.
One rather speculative theory, is that the gryphon of classical Greek literature and art that began after the 7th century B.C., was influenced by observations and accounts brought back to the Mediterranean region by traders, prospectors and travellers; along the Silk Road between Central and Eastern Asia.
LEFT: Seal Of Heraklion, Greece
In dry areas such as the Gobi desert, numerous fully articulated fossils of beaked dinosaurs, such as Protoceratops have been found. Such fossils seen by ancient observers, may have been misinterpreted as evidence of a half bird-half mammal creature. Disintegration of fragile parts of the skeleton and an ignorance of anatomical structure at the time, together with repeated story-telling and copying; may have resulted in the false interpretation.
The dinosaur’s beak may have been treated as evidence of a part-bird nature; leading to bird-type wings being added; as well as the addition of mammal-type external ears.
Others have contested this hypothesis, believing that it ignores pre-classical griffin accounts and art, which have occurred considerably before the growth of Central Asian trade.
A multitude of imaginary composite creatures combining features of birds, reptiles, and mammals can be found in ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern art, including quadrupeds with bird heads in Minoan, Mycenaean, and Egyptian art.
However, there are no “pre-Greek” written accounts that exist, to tell us what was believed about imaginary hybrid bird-mammal and other composite creatures in earlier cultures.
By the Middle Ages, because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts, and the eagle the king of the birds; the gryphon was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature.
In medieval heraldry, the gryphon became a Christian symbol of courage, divine power and a guardian of the divine.
The creature was depicted in “coats of arms” of many European noble families, since they were attributed to many virtues; especially courage and freedom from any defects. When depicted on coats of arms, the griffin is called the Opinicus, which may be derived from the Greek name Ophinicus; referring to the serpent astronomical constellation.
The gryphon also became the symbol of the Libra zodiac sign, given its keen sense of justice, the value it put on the arts and intelligence and the fact that it dominated the skies and the heavens.
In alchemy, the gryphon symbolised the relationship between fixed and volatile principles. Thus it was associated with the “subtle essence” of salt and mercury. The fixed and volatile, could also be a reference to “water and air”, to the “male and to the female”. Hence the gryphon became the symbol of the “Hermetic Cup” (aka the Philosopher’s Cup or Philosopher’s Egg). This was a specially shaped ceramic bottle, used as a condenser in the process known as “sublimation”; the final phase of the transmutation of “coarse into subtle” elements.
Even in modern culture the Griffin is back in the limelight. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, the little wizard who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft, is a member of the house of Gryffindor; considered the bravest of all wizards.
The Gryphons of St Mark’s Basilica.
A stone sculpture of a gryphon can be seen on the exterior of the Basilica.
When you enter St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice for the first time, you tend to look up and admire the 4000 square meters of sparkling mosaics; covering the domes and arches of the ceiling.
However, the floor is also like walking on an amazing work of art, made with polychrome marble tiles.
In the floor of the St. Mark’s Basilica, there are many geometric figures and various animals, which have mostly a symbolic function; such as eagles (divine wisdom), peacocks (rebirth) and herons (sacrifice of Jesus Christ).
There are also some gryphons, characterised by having the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.
The Hippogryph (Hippogriff): a Horse (Mare) – Gryphon Hybrid
According to ancient Greek legend, gryphons mated with horses, producing a creature called a “hippogryph”. It had the front half of an eagle and the hind of a horse.
The second recorded mention was made by the Latin poet Virgil in his Eclogues. It was used by Ludovico Ariosto in his Orlando Furioso, at the beginning of the 16th century. Within the poem, the hippogryph is a steed born of a mare and a griffin; is extremely fast and is presented as being able to fly around the world and to the Moon. It is ridden by magicians and the wandering knight Ruggiero (Roger), who, from the creature’s back, frees the beautiful Angelica (Angelique).
Sometimes depicted on coats of arms, the hippogryph became a subject of visual art in the 19th century, when it was often drawn by Gustave Doré.
ABOVE RIGHT: Roger délivrant Angélique (1824) by Louis-Édouard Rioult depicts the scene of Orlando Furioso where Roger rescues Angélique, while riding on a hippogriff.
An example of a winged horse creature flanked by two gryphons, can be seen on the canal side of the Palazzo Morosini. You need to take a boat along the Rio del Santissimo, to view these amazing sculptures that decorate this side of the building.
Pegasus, the winged horse in Greek mythology, was said to be born from the blood of Medusa; after Perseus beheaded the monster. Where Pegasus’s hoof struck the ground of Mount Helicon, it caused water to flow forth. This “Horse Spring” (Hippocrene), would become identified with the source of poetic inspiration and its immortality. Pegasus was subsequently immortalised by Zeus, who turned him into the constellation Pegasus within the northern hemisphere. Ultimately, the winged horse would become the symbol of the “Primordial Tradition of Alchemy”, its flanks said to be made of gold – a reference to the Philosophers’ Gold; the ultimate aim of the “Great Work of Alchemy”.
On this quiet canal, it symbolises Divine Wisdom, referring to Pegasus’s ability to create, with a mere blow of its hoof; a miraculous spring that can give humans immortality.
The crossing of a gryphon with a horse, represents something which is considered impossible. The medieval expression,”To mate Griffins with horses”, meant about the same as the modern expression, “When pigs fly”.
As gryphons and horses are considered mortal enemies; the hippogryph, symbolises both love and impossibility. It also can represent Christ’s dual nature as both human and divine.
In medieval legends, this imaginary beast was often associated with knights in love with a maiden, who was impossible to conquer. Similarly, it would become the symbol of those engaged in the magical arts, who achieved the apparently impossible, by submitting the material to the laws of the spiritual.
Description of the hippogryph by Ludovico Ariosto in his “Orlando Furioso”, at the beginning of the 16th century:
no fiction wrought magic lore,
But natural was the steed the wizard pressed;
For him a filly to griffin bore;
Hight hippogryph. In wings and beak and crest,
Formed like his sire, as in the feet before;
But like the mare, his dam, in all the rest.
Such on Riphaean hills, though rarely found,
Are bred, beyond the frozen ocean’s bound.
Drawn by enchantment from his distant lair,
The wizard thought but how to tame the foal;
And, in a month, instructed him to bear
Saddle and bit, and gallop to the goal;
And execute on earth or in mid air,
All shifts of manege, course and caracole;
He with such labour wrought. This only real,
Where all the rest was hollow and ideal.
For a fascinating and comprehensive list of all hybrid mythical creatures in worldwide folk-lore, please copy and paste into your browser the following link:
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