Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
By Sir Thomas Browne (16051682)
From Pseudodoxia Epidemica
THAT there are griffins in nature, that is, a mixed and dubious animal, in the forepart resembling an eagle, and behind the shape of a lion, with erected ears, four feet, and a long tail, many affirm, and most, I perceive, deny not. The same is averred by Ælian, Solinus, Mela, and Herodotuscountenanced by the name sometimes found in Scripture, and was an hieroglyphic of the Egyptians.
Notwithstanding we find most diligent enquirers to be of a contrary assertion. For beside that Albertus and Pliny have disallowed it, the learned Aldrovandus hath, in a large discourse rejected it; Matthias Michovius, who writ of those northern parts wherein men place these griffins, hath positively concluded against it; and, if examined by the doctrine of animals, the invention is monstrous, nor much inferior unto the figment of sphynx, chimæra, and harpies; for though there be some flying animals of mixed and participating natures, that is, between bird and quadruped, yet are their wings and legs so set together, that they seem to make each other, there being a commixtion of both, rather than an adaptation or cement of prominent parts unto each other; as is observable in the bat, whose wings and forelegs are contrived in each other. For though some species there be of middle and participating natures, that is, of bird and beast, as bats and some few others; yet are their parts so conformed and set together, that we cannot define the beginning or end of either; there being a commixtion of both in the whole, rather than an adaptation or cement of the one unto the other.
Now for the word [Greek] or gryps, sometimes mentioned in Scripture, and frequently in human authors, properly understood it signifies some kind of eagle or vulture, from whence the epithet grypus, for an hooked or aquiline nose. Thus when the Septuagint makes use of this word, Tremellius, and our translation, hath rendered it the ossifrage, which is one kind of eagle. And although the vulgar translation, and that annexed unto the Septuagint, retain the word gryps, which in ordinary and school construction is commonly rendered a griffin, yet cannot the Latin assume any other sense than the Greek, from whence it is borrowed. And though the Latin gryphes be altered somewhat by the addition of an h, or aspiration of the letter [pi], yet is not this unusual; so what the Greeks call [Greek]; the Latin will call trophæum; and that person which in the Gospel is named [Greek], the Latins will render Cleophas. And therefore the quarrel of Origen was unjust, and his conception erroneous, when he conceived the food of griffins forbidden by the law of Moses; that is, poetical animals, and things of no existence. And therefore, when in the hecatombs and mighty oblations of the Gentiles, it is delivered they sacrificed gryphes or griffins, hereby we may understand some stronger sort of eagles. And therefore also, when it is said in Virgil, of an improper match, or Mopsus marrying Nysa, Jungentur jam gryphes equis, we need not hunt after other sense, than that strange unions shall be made, and different natures be conjoined together.
As for the testimonies of ancient writers, they are but derivative, and terminate all in one Aristeus, a poet of Proconesus, who affirmed that near the Arimaspi, or one-eyed nation, griffins defended the mines of gold. But this, as Herodotus delivereth, he wrote by hear-say; and Michovius, who had expressly written of those parts, plainly affirmeth, there is neither gold nor griffins in that country, nor any such animal extant; for so doth he conclude, Ego vero contra veteres authores, gryphes nec in illa septentrionis, nec in aliis orbis partibus inveniri affirmarim.1
Lastly, concerning the hieroglyphical authority, although it nearest approach the truth, it doth not infer its existency. The conceit of the griffin, properly taken, being but a symbolical fancy, in so intolerable a shape including allowable morality. So doth it well make out the properties of a guardian, or any person entrusted; the ears implying attention; the wings, celerity of execution; the lion-like shape, courage and audacity; the hooked bill, reservance and tenacity. It is also an emblem of valour and magnanimity, as being compounded of the eagle and lion, the noblest animals in their kinds; and so it is appliable unto princes, presidents, generals, and all heroic commanders; and so is it also borne in the coat-arms of many noble families of Europe.
But the original invention seems to be hieroglyphical, derived from the Egyptians, and of an higher signification; by the mystical conjunction of hawk and lion, implying either the genial or the syderous sun, the great celerity thereof, and the strength and vigour in its operations: and therefore, under such hieroglyphics Osyris was described; and in ancient coins we meet with griffins conjointly with Apollos tripodes and chariot wheels; and the marble griffins at St. Peters in Rome, as learned men conjecture, were first translated from the temple of Apollo. Whether hereby were not also mystically implied the activity of the sun in Leo, the power of God in the sun, or the influence of the celestial Osyris, by Moptha, the genius of Nilus, might also be considered. And than the learned Kircherus, no man were likely to be a better dipus.2
Note 1. Ego vero contra, etc. I, on the contrary, against the opinion of the older authors, would maintain that griffins are to be found neither in that northern region nor in any other quarter of the globe. [back]
Note 2. a better dipus = a better solver of riddles. [back]