The Sam­pler Sleuth

Mys­ti­cal Mo­tifs Deb­o­rah Fasano

Just Cross Stitch - - Contents - By Deb­o­rah Fasano of His­toric Hand­workes

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: ....”

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