A mythical, hybrid creature, the griffin has its origins in the art of the ancient Near East, where it assumed the role of guardian of the royal treasure.
In the Orientalising Period of Greek art, during the 8th and 7th centuries, Greek artists drew inspiration from the artistic vocabulary of the east, and the image of the griffin was assimilated into the Greek iconographical corpus, remaining popular throughout the Archaic and Classical periods. Whereas Near Eastern griffins were depicted in a variety of forms, Greek griffins are typically represented with the beak and forelegs of an eagle,the body and hind legs of a lion, long, pointed ears, and a characteristic spike or knob protruding from the head.
As an amalgam of the lion and the eagle, king of beasts and king of birds respectively, griffins had obvious associations with power, might and majestic grandeur. Their apotropaic function and role as guardians of treasure, as conceived of in their eastern origins, was then adopted and adapted by the Greeks, who considered them to be sacred to Apollo and the guardians of his treasure. They also thought them responsible for protecting Dionysos’ ever-flowing bowl of wine. The significance and symbolism of the griffin is reinforced by archaeological discovery. Griffin heads were used as protomes (figural attachments) on bronze cauldrons set on tripod stands that were given as offerings to the gods at the major Greek sanctuaries throughout the Orientalising and Archaic periods. Many have been found at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, and at that of Hera on Samos. Indeed, Herodotus recounts how the Samian seafarer Kolaios and his crew, upon their safe return to Samos, “took six talents, a tenth of their profit, and made a bronze vessel with it, like an Argolic cauldron, with griffins’ heads projecting from the rim all around and they set this up in their temple of Hera” (Hdt. Histories, IV.152.4). Such elaborate and expensive dedications were public reminders of the wealth, status and benefaction of the donor. Set around the shoulder of these magnificent vessels, looking outwards in all directions, these striking creatures stood proud in their role as guardians.
Notable examples of such griffin head protomes can be found at the Museum of Olympia, the Paul Getty Museum, and the British Museum. They also circulate on the international art market, including the example below, which recently sold at Christie’s for £35,000.
Author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek (November 1st 2014)
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