The Sampler Sleuth
Mystical Motifs Deborah Fasano
Throughout history, dragons have been depicted as breathing fire as described in the Old English poem “Beowulf.” Representing war and conquest, they are a sign of strength to those who have borne their image throughout the ages on pennants, shields and coats of arms.
The word dragon entered the English language in the 13th century. It is a derivative of the Latin word draco, from the Greek word drákon (plural drák
ous), meaning “serpent of huge size” or “water snake.” The first literary mention of “dragon” is found in The Iliad. There, King Agamemnon's breastplate is described as having three dark blue drákous rearing up like rainbows on either side.
The wyvern is another mythical form of a dragon. The word is derived from the Anglo-French word wivre, which means “viper” or “worm.” Existing in European folklore and mythology, wyverns are described as being twolegged and having hard or armored hide. In England they are often called “dragonets” due to their smaller stature.
After much research, The Petite Gryphon Sampler is aptly named, for it depicts not a dragon or a wyvern, but a gryphon (which may also be spelled as griffin, griffon or gryfon)!
The meticulously stitched gryphon of this sampler fits the profile. The classic gryphon has the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle covered in feathers, and a barb or a spade shape at the tip of the tail. Throughout folklore, hyperborean (meaning an inhabitant of the cold north) gryphons were found in the northern forests and mountains of Europe and Russia, building their nests or aeries from the gold they found in the mountains. They were vigilant guardians of treasure, keeping plunderers at a distance.
Decorative gryphons in ancient Greek art were depicted as fierce protectors and vigilant guards of such caches. In the fifth century BC, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote: “But in the north of Europe there is by far the most gold. In this matter again I cannot say with assurance how the gold is produced, but it is said that one-eyed men called Arimaspians steal it from the griffins.” Perhaps this Petite Gryphon Sampler echoes this guardianship as it sits regally upon a treasure box motif.
While gryphons are most common in the art and mythology of ancient Greece, there is evidence of representations of gryphons in ancient Persia and ancient Egypt dating back to the fourth millennium BC. The symbol carried forward into the late Roman and Christian era as well.
In AD third century, Roman teacher and author Claudius Aelian wrote: “[The gryphon's] feathers along its back are black, and those on its front are red, while the actual wings are neither, but are white.” According to Aelian, the Ancient Greek physician and historian Ctesias recorded that the gryphon's “neck is variegated with feathers of a dark blue; that it has a beak like an eagle's,” and “its eyes are like fire.” This decorative symbol was later depicted in many medieval bestiaries and heraldry.
Like the unicorn and other species of myth, magical traits were assigned to the gryphon. According to Stephen Friar's A New Dictionary of Heraldry, “a talon of the gryphon was said to detect poison in a liquid when used as a drinking cup, and its feathers could restore sight to the blind.”
The gryphon had major spiritual significance in various countries and religions around the world and was also considered a protector of divine power. The ability to soar like an eagle made the gryphon an emblem of poetic and spiritual inspiration. It is perhaps natural, then, that in medieval Christian lore, the gryphon came to represent Christ, His dual nature, both divine and earthly, having mastery over both the heavens and the earth. The sampler adds to this symbolism with the butterflies stitched above the gryphon's head. Historically, butterflies have been symbols of the soul and its association with the miracle of transformation and resurrection.
Gryphons were emblematic of Christian saints as well. The eagle part of the gryphon represented the thoughts, aspirations and souls of the saints, lifted toward God. Its lion's half symbolized their courage in the Roman arenas, where many met their fates, and the church's continuing struggle against sin and evil. As emblems of the saints, gryphons are sometimes pictured eating fruit picked from the Tree of Life, mirroring Revelation 2:7: “To him who overcomes, I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
Regardless of the true origins of this intriguing symbol, the mythical gryphon has been part of human culture for thousands of years and still persists today as seen in various textiles, ancient and modern art, coats of arms, and even popular movies and literature. It is likely that the gryphon and its history will continue to play a role in mankind's imagination and endeavors for years to come.
A final example of the ubiquitous gryphon comes from John Milton's
Paradise Lost, Book II, who employed a simile using the gryphon for his description of Satan flying to find Hell's Gate:
“As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness, With winged course o'er Hill and moory Dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stealth
Had from his wakeful custody purloin'd
The guarded Gold: ....”