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The Griffin in Architecture and Design

An Ancient Symbol Sends a Powerful Message


When we talk about symbolism in architecture, we often first think of churches, temples, and other religious buildings. However, any building--sacred or secular--can incorporate details or elements that carry profound meanings. Consider, for example, the fierce, birdlike griffin.

What Is a Griffin?

Griffin crest on a bronze Roman helmet, 1st or early 2nd century AD
Photo ©Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A griffin (also spelled gryphon and griffon) is a mythical creature. Bulfinch’s Mythology describes the griffin as having "the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, and back covered with feathers." The combination of eagle and lion makes the griffin a powerful symbol of vigilance and strength. The bronze griffin in this photo is a crest on a Roman helmet from the first or early second century AD.

Where Do Griffins Come From?

Ancient ivory carving of an Amazon riding a griffin
Photo © Michel Porro/Getty Images

Griffin symbolism was used on architecture in ancient Persia (Iran and parts of central Asia). Shown here is an ivory carving of an Amazon riding a griffin. Found during an archaeological exploration in Afghanistan, the carving comes from furniture that dates back to the first century AD.

According to some legends, griffins built their nests from gold they found in the mountains. Scythian nomads carried these stories to the Mediterranean, where they told the ancient Greeks that giant winged beasts safeguarded the natural gold in the northern Persian hills.

Folklore researchers such as Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (compare prices), suggest a basis for such classical myths as the griffin. Those nomads in Scythia may have stumbled upon dinosaur bones amid the gold-infested hills. Mayor claims that the myth of the griffin may derive from the Protoceratops, a four-legged dinosaur much larger than a bird but with a beak-like jaw.

Is a Griffin a Gargoyle?

Gargoyle on St. Mary the Virgin church at Oxford University, circa 1312-1325
Photo © Anthony Baggett / iStockphoto

Surviving the centuries, griffins became familiar figures during the middle ages, joining other types of grotesque sculptures on walls and rooftops of Gothic cathedrals and castles.

Some (but not all) of these medieval griffins are gargoyles. A gargoyle is a sculpture or carving that serves a practical purpose: to move roof water away from the base of a building.

Griffin, or gryphon, comes from the Greek word for curved or hooked nose, grypos, like an eagle's beak. A griffin may serve as a drainage gutter or its role can be purely symbolic. Either way, a griffin will always have the bird-like qualities of an eagle.

The gargoyle-griffin shown here serves both a practical and a symbolic function at the medieval St. Mary the Virgin Church at Oxford University in England.

Is a Griffin a Dragon?

Dragon statues surround and protect the City of London
Photo © Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The fierce beasts that surround the City of London look a lot like griffins. With beaked noses and lion feet, they guard the Royal Courts of Justice and the financial district. However, London's symbolic creatures have webbed wings and no feathers. Although often called griffins, they are actually dragons.

A griffin doesn't breathe fire like a dragon and may not appear as threatening. Nevertheless, the iconic griffin has been characterized as having the intelligence, loyalty, honesty, and strength necessary to guard what is valued – literally, to protect their nest eggs of gold.

Griffins Protecting Casinos

A griffin guards the entrance to the Mandalay Bay Casino Hotel in Las Vegas
Photo CC BY-SA 2.0 Mark Kent via Flickr

Legends are filled with all sorts of beasts and grotesqueries, but the griffin is especially powerful because of the gold it protects. When the griffin defends its valuable nest, it safeguards an enduring symbol of prosperity and status.

Perhaps taking a page from Robert Venturi's 1970s book Learning from Las Vegas (compare prices), griffins guard the entrance to the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in the Gambling Capital of the World. No doubt, gryphon iconography is what helps the money spent in Vegas stay in Vegas.

Griffins Safeguarding U.S. Commerce

Griffin sculpture at 90 West Street in New York City
Photo © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When 90 West Street in New York City was severely damaged after the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001, historical preservationists made sure to restore the Gothic Revival details of the 1907 office building. Designed by architect Cass Gilbert, the design included griffin figures that symbolically protected the shipping and railroad industries housed in the skyscraper.

For days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 90 West Street withstood fires and people began to call it the miracle building. Cass Gilbert's griffins now safeguard 400 apartment units in the reconstructed building. A New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation bronze plaque on the façade tells the story of the 90 West Street building and its griffins.

Griffins, Griffins Everywhere

The Regimental Coat of Arms for the US Army Finance Corps
Finance Corp Coat of Arms / United States Army Institute of Heraldry

You're not likely to find griffins perched on contemporary skyscrapers, but the legendary beast still lurks around us. For example:

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