Welcome to my third instalment about mythical creatures. The first two are here, on dragons and fantastical horses. Today we’re looking at the fearsome beasts populating our fantastical skies.
If you’re a fantasy writer you probably spell this ‘Gryphon’.
Is there a fantasy writer alive who can resist the lure of replacing an ‘i’ with a ‘y’ or an ‘f’ with a ‘p’? It just looks so much more mystical! I’m guilty as charged, so I am here to introduce you to the gryphon (or griffin, maybe griffon, if you’re nota fantasy writer!).
The gryphon has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The gryphon inherited a certain amount of status from the traditional belief the lion was king of the beasts. As such, the gryphon was considered powerful and majestic and itself a king of creatures. It was also the symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
Traditionally, gryphons were found guarding treasures and priceless possession. That’s some heavy duty guard dog!
Gryphons appear in a number of fantasy books but the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Mercedes Lackey’s ‘Valdemar’ books. Oh yeah… and those weird War of Power books. That was possibly a genre confusion between ‘fantasy’ and ‘erotica’.
Sphinx – Greek not Egyptian!
In the Greek tradition, the sphinx is part lion, part woman and part eagle. Yep, always a woman. Sorry guys, you lucked out on this one, no lion and eagle bits for you! The sphinx has the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird and was the guardian of the city of Thebes. Visitors were only permitted to pass after they answered this riddle:
“Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?”
If you didn’t give the right answer, the sphinx strangled and devoured anyone who couldn’t answer the riddle. Eww! Certainly discourages hasty answers. I wonder how long you could think about it and if you could just decide to leave instead of answering?
The riddle was ultimately answered by Oedipus. Apparently devastated, the sphinx threw herself from a high rock and died. Seems a bit strange for something with wings, but it’s preferable to the alternative ending, which is she devoured herself. Double eww!
The death of the sphinx was followed by the rise of the new Olympian deities.
I can’t think of a book I’ve read with a sphinx, but I’ve got one featuring in my book The Blood Infernal. They also cropped up in some of the really old Dungeons & Dragons computer games, the Forgotten Realms ones I think. True to form, they asked riddles!
Phoenix – Holy Smoke!
The phoenix is a bird described with colourful plumage and a tail, most traditionally, of gold and scarlet (like Fawkes in the Harry Potter movies). Some legends describe the tail feathers as blue, green or purple, but really red and gold makes more sense. It fits with the fire theme, yeah? It’s so important to make an impact! The phoenix also has a beautiful song.
The phoenix lived anywhere between 500 – 1000 years before bursting into flame. OK, it builds a nest first, and then ignites. Close enough! It burns to ash and a new phoenix is born (or reborn) from the ashes (or sometimes an egg). I’m not sure why the nest is important. Legends differ as to whether the new phoenix is the offspring of the old phoenix or the old phoenix itself reborn. If the latter, this is one immortal bird!
The phoenix appears in Egyptian and Greek legends, but is described differently. To the Egyptians it was a stork or heron type bird, to the Greeks a peacock or eagle. In Greek tradition, the phoenix lived next to a well (in Phoenicia… surprise surprise). Each dawn it would bathe in the well and the Greek sun god, Helios, stopped his chariot to listen to the phoenix sing. Naturally, his chariot was the sun… your preferred vehicle of choice is the sun too, isn’t it? No? Time for an upgrade, Helios style!
Fawkes of Harry Potter fame is likely the most well-known phoenix currently, but phoenixes also appear in many other fantasy books.
Hippogriff – Is That A Hippo Griffin Hybrid?
Actually the hippogriff has nothing to do with hippos! Supposedly it was the offspring of a gryphon and a mare (female horse). That tends to make it a little rare since gryphons look at horses more as, well, lunch than lover! Interestingly, it’s been suggested this gave rise to the expression “to mate griffins with horses” – or in modern language, “pigs might fly!”.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, to know the hippogriff was a symbol of impossibility and love. Oh… how sweet.
Hippogriffs do all right for themselves, apparently being faster, stronger and smarter than their fathers (sorry guys, looks like Mum holds all the cards in this one!) and able to travel at the speed of lightning. On the other hand, hippogriffs were easier to tame than gryphons, I guess because they were half domesticated animal to start with. I want me a hippogriff!
The most well-known hippogriff of the moment is Buckbeak from Harry Potter. I can’t think of another book featuring a hippogriff, but they also appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons computer games.
What mythical creature would you like to see in future instalments? Or do you have a burning, unanswered question about a mythical creature? Let me know in the comments!
Photography by Erin Janssen Photography © 2012
You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here – Dragons, Fantastical Horses, Mythical Creatures of the Sea – Part 1 and Part 2, and Spirits of Inland Waterways.
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