The Academy of Classical Christian Studies bears as its mascot the griffin, a half-eagle, half-lion creature with a long and venerable history. The English word “griffin,” sometimes spelled “gryffin” or “gryphon,” derives from the Greek word “gryphon” or “gryps.” The Greeks in turn, however, had derived their word from the ancient Near Eastern “karibu,” a word and a creature that seem to be directly related to the Hebrew “cherub.” Depending on whether the closest relative of the Hebrew word is Phoenician or Persian, William Gesenius suggests it may mean either “divine steed” or “one who ministers at God’s throne” on the one hand, or else “keeper” on the other hand.
Although neither portrays them with exact consistency, both Hebrews and other peoples of the Near East commonly depict these creatures as having the bodies of lions and the wings of eagles, but often with a human face. Secular scholars often seem to suggest that the Hebrews borrowed their creature from, for instance, the Persians, but the Persians could well have learned of it from the Hebrews instead. Besides, isn’t it possible that as it was cherubim that God assigned to guard the gates of Paradise (Genesis 3:24), various peoples throughout the world might have preserved independently some dim knowledge of these creatures that barred their ancestors from the place of their fall?
It is the Greeks that most consistently give their “gryphes” the head of the eagle, with its characteristic hooked beak. After all, the resemblance of the Near Eastern terms for this eagle-like creature to a Greek root meaning “curved” or “hooked” seemed to suggest to ancient Greeks the predominance of aquiline characteristics. But the Hebrew cherub too partakes of the aquiline. Note that the cherubim in the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1) have an eagle’s head along with those of the man, the lion, and the ox. In St. John’s vision of heaven, moreover, the cherubim around the throne of God each have one of these faces, “the fourth living creature” being “like a flying eagle” (Revelation 4:7).
Medieval Christians, having read of “gryphes” in classical authors and “cherubim” in the Scriptures, and lacking the more extensive and sophisticated knowledge of etymology that we now possess, did not realize that there was any connection between the two. Nevertheless, just as Herodotus and Pliny describe the griffin as a real animal, so the medieval Christians in turn did not regard the Greek “gryphes” as having any pagan religious significance, but as an actual earthly creature. Thus, the 7th-century encyclopedist, St. Isidore of Seville, lists the “gryphon,” along with a scientific description of the beast, in his compendium of known animals, and the later Sir John Mandeville actually claims to have seen griffins in the course of his travels. Meanwhile, the cherub was given a wholly theological connotation, and the Church Father traditionally known as St. Dionysius the Areopagite gives the meaning of the word as “fullness of knowledge” or “outpouring of wisdom” (The Celestial Hierarchy 7.1).
Thus, the “griffin” for medieval Christians was not a mythological or “borrowed” pagan creature, but a real animal created by God and bearing, like other animals, a symbolic significance that points us toward its Creator. The griffin became for them a rich symbol of the two natures of Christ Himself: the eagle, which is lord of the sky, reminds us of the divine nature, while the lion, which is lord of the earth (the “king of beasts”), reminds us of the human nature. Together, they remind us that our Lord is the true King of the heavens and the earth. Also, St. Isidore notes, “Christ is Lion because He reigns and has strength; Eagle, because after the Resurrection He rises into Heaven.”
The most famous example of the use of this symbolism is in Dante Alighieri’s magnum opus, The Divine Comedy. Towards the end of the Purgatorio (Canto 29), Dante sees a chariot drawn by un grifon. As he writes, “All of his limbs that were a bird’s, were gold; / the rest were white, stained with the red of blood” (Anthony Esolen’s translation). Commentators unanimously agree that the chariot represents the Church and, as Dorothy Sayers puts it, “The Gryphon, a classical and heraldic monster…, appears in the Masque as a symbol of the Hypostatic Union of the two natures in Christ.” She goes on to write:
So far as he is a bird (divine) he is of gold incorruptible; so far as he is animal (human) he is mingled of red and white. White and red are the colours which Dante assigns to the Old and New Testaments respectively; so that here again he emphasizes the meeting of the two Dispensations in the Incarnation. They are also the colours of righteousness and love. But they are most especially the colours of the Sacrament itself—the Flesh and the Blood, the Bread and the Wine.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this “Masque”—as Sayers calls it—within the Purgatorio, is that at each of the wheels of the chariot, just as in Ezekiel’s vision, there is a cherub! It should be added that, as Dante himself notes, they are not the four-faced cherubim that Ezekiel describes, but the four living creatures of St. John’s Revelation. Thus, oddly enough, at the height of the classical Christian tradition of the Middle Ages, we have an eagle-faced cherub supporting one wheel of the chariot drawn by the Griffin. One wonders whether there was any connection between the two in Dante’s imagination, but it is the “twy-natured Sacred Griffin,” as Charles Williams names it—that Dante the Pilgrim sees reflected in the celestial eyes of Beatrice:
As the sun in a mirror blazing bright,
so shone the double beast within her eyes,
now with these lineaments and now with those.
First the divine, and then the human nature of her Lord, shine like the sun in the form of this “rough beast.”
It is with all of this in mind that The Academy of Classical Christian Studies proudly adopts the griffin as mascot. It is in its origins a biblical creature, and while that connection may have been forgotten through centuries of Classical, Hellenistic, and Late Antique descriptions of a fabulous beast, it is as though our Christian forebears of the Middle Ages somehow intuited this. The griffin is a creature with a whiff of heaven about it.