Timbs on Griffins
A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book III, chapter 11

From John Timbs, F.S.A. (1856) Popular Errors Explained and Illustrated (pp. 340-343):


Sir Thomas Browne refers to the supposed Griffin, as "a mixt and dubious animal, in the fore part resembling an Eagle, and behind the shape of a Lion, with erected ears, four feet, and a long tail", the belief in which "many affirm, and most deny not". Sir Thomas then shows this twofold nature of bird and beast to be monstrous, "if examined by the doctrine of animals", or, in other words, the state of zoological knowledge in his time. The Grypes, or Griffins, of Scripture he regards as a large species of eagle. The story of Griffins defending mines of gold, near the Arimaspi, or one-eyed nation, he treats as a poetical fable — a mere hearsay of Herodotus. Yet, hieroglyphically, Sir Thomas allows the Griffin to "make out well the properties of a guardian; the ear 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 applicable 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 Sir Thomas Browne claims for the Griffin a far more ancient appropriation than as an heraldic distinction; since he considers it to be a hieroglyphic of the Egyptians, implying the great celerity, strength, and vigour of the sun. Thus, "in antient coins, we meet with Gryphins, conjointly with Apollo's Tripodes and chariot-wheels; and the marble Gryphins at St. Peter's, in Rome, as learned men conjecture, were first translated from the Temple of Apollo".

We find the Griffin to have been a favourite emblem with the Greeks; and a distinguished naturalist of our times has offered an ingenious idea of its origin from the Tapir, now known as the largest land animal in South America. M. Roulin observes, that the Greeks, who trafficked across the Black Sea, came in contact with the Scythians; and they, on their part, traded with the Argipeans, a Tartar people inhabiting the valleys at the foot of the Ural Mountains; the rich mines of which, doubtless, were known to the Greeks through the Scythians. In those early and superstitious ages, every treasure was supposed to possess its peculiar guardian: such warders were chosen for their strength and frightful appearance; and hence arose the compound images of the winged Serpents, the Dragon, and the Griffin with the beak of an eagle and the claws of a lion. This last figure, our author conceives, was originally the guardian monster of the treasures of the Ural Mountains, the Cordilleras of the Argipeans; and its representation and its fabulous history were conveyed to the Greeks by the intervention of the Scythians, mingled with traditions of the gold mines, in a manner conformable with the spirit of the times.

Griffin and Tapir

This animal, as is evident by the illustration of M. Roulin's memoir, which we have copied, possesses, in its general outline, a close resemblance to the Tapir in a sitting attitude (a); and the learned naturalist thus accounts for its possession of the various addenda of wings, crest, and tail. It is evident, he adds, that the original image of the Griffin, when introduced into Greece, was destitute of wings; as Herodotus, the oldest author who describes it, does not mention the wings; and his silence upon that point is important testimony. But the more ancient dragons of the caverns of Greece were nearly all furnished with these members; wherefore, upon the introduction of a new monster, it would appear requisite, according to the preconceived notions of the people, to add them to its figure; and it was no very great stretch of imagination to accord the wings of an eagle to an animal which seemed already to possess its head; for the proboscis of the Tapir, when bent down in its usual position, bears no little similitude to the beak of that bird.

The sculptors, who considered the Griffin in a picturesque point of view, employing it in their arabesque ornaments, again contributed to alter its original form. To bestow additional gracefulness to its neck, they surmounted it with a mane, like that of their horses, making the hairs short, straight, and erect; and it is not impossible that they might have retained the genuine hogged mane of the tapir. Afterwards, to render still more fantastic a being which was already intermediate between a quadruped and a bird, they converted this crest into the likeness of the dorsal fin of a fish.

The division of the toes of the tapir caused, with the Greeks, the same error as with the Chinese in the fabrication of their Mé; and accordingly, they substituted for them those of the lion. As to the tail, it was almost certain that they would attempt to supply that appendage; and whilst some merely gave to the animal one conformable with its feet, others desiring to make the figure wholly imaginary, bestowed upon it a spiral scroll, and ornamented it with the leaves of the acanthus.1

It remains to be explained how the Tapir was known to the Greeks; whereas, at present, only three species are known, two peculiar to South America, and the third lately discovered by M. Roulin, in Malacca and Sumatra. There have, however, been discovered by Cuvier, at Paris, the fossil remains of Palæotherium, a genus apparently intermediate between the rhinoceros, horse, and Tapir, and its outline closely approximating to that of the American and Indian Tapirs.


1. Annales des Sciences Naturelles. [Thus Timbs. Roulin is the first great classifier and specialist in the tapir. I have not read the article in question, and it should be noted that Timbs is not a very good reader and has a tendency to go off on tangents of his own that lead to further errors, rather than correcting old ones. (Timbs believes, for instance, that a silver teapot necessarily retains heat better than a dark, thick ceramic one, an idea of which a trip to the kitchen would quickly have disabused him.) Annales des Sciences Naturelles, Zoologie Paris (1829) 17:26-55. The idea that Greeks were familiar with Palaeotherium, which, as near as I can make out, died out no later than 20 million years ago, is odd.]

James Eason.