Alternatively named Griffon, Grifon and Gryphon.
A composite creature, half lion and half eagle, the griffin was far more formidable than either of those beasts. It had the body and the tail of a lion but was eight times as large; it had an eagle's head and wings but was a hundred times stronger — though there have been variations on these features in different cultures.
In European bestiaries the griffin is usually portrayed as awesomely fierce. This bizarre creature was thought to dwell in the mountains, from which it swooped down on its prey; with powerful talons the beast could carry back to its nest a horse and rider — it was said to have a ravenous appetite for both — or even a pair of oxen yoked together. Sometimes, griffins were themselves used for transport by the gods; the chariot that bore Nemesis, the ancient Greeks' dreaded goddess of vengeance, was frequently drawn by griffins.
Naturally enough, humans were well advised to avoid the beast at all costs. But it was so powerful that parts of its body were greatly prized as talismans against evil and misfortune. Especially sought after were its claws, the size of oxen horns, which were said to darken at the merest touch of poison. During the Middle Ages, antelope horns or the tusks of extinct mammoths were often sold to the gullible as griffins' claws.
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The griffin first appeared in carvings in the ancient Middle East and Greece. Then gradually its image became widespread in European art. Though it was often pictured, it was rarely described. One of the earliest written references to it was in 'Arimaspea', a long travel poem written in the seventh century BC by the Greek mystic Aristeas of Proconnesus. Peoples now thought to be the Chinese and Mongols told him about fierce, gold-guarding monsters that Aristeas called griffins. Over the centuries the griffin was allotted a variety of roles. In 'Prometheus Bound', the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525-456 BC) called griffins "the silent hounds of Zeus." And in the 14th century, inspired by medieval comparisons of Christ with an eagle and a lion, the Italian poet Dante made the griffin a symbol of Christ.
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For others, however, the griffin was a demon that carried off sinners. If the griffin was based on any actual animal, the most likely candidate is the Lammergeier, one of the largest birds in the world, which inhabits mountainous regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its name is a German word meaning 'lamb vulture'. The creature is alleged, probably mistakenly, to swoop down on lambs and carry them off.
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Sources: (1) Rose, Carol, Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth, W. W. Norton & Company; (2) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (3) Beahm, George W., Fact, Fiction, and Folklore in Harry Potter's World: An Unofficial Guide, Hampton Roads Publishing Company.
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