What is their role in mythology? What do they symbolise?
The symbolism of Griffins evolved as they travelled and were adopted by very diverse civilisations. They symbolise power (a lion’s body), vigilance (an eagle’s piercing eyes) and ferocity (the bird’s talons and sharp beak). To the Egyptians, Griffins symbolised victorious kings – archaeologists have mostly found them in places associated with royal circles, namely temples close to the pyramids that date back to the third millennium BC. Gold pectorals (necklaces) from the second millennium BC also represent the king in the form of a Griffin slaughtering foreigners. Lastly, we have the Greek language to thank for the word Griffin (in the fifth century BC); it means ‘curved’ or ‘hooked’.
How are they represented after ancient times? What legacy do they have in modern history and art?
Interestingly, ever since those first traces were found in Iran, Griffins have always had the same head but, with their constant peregrinations, they’ve tended to change what is on their heads. So, in the first millennium BC, they had pointed ears like Mesopotamian demons, and they’re still represented in this way in Medieval bestiaries. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they featured in a number of coats of arms. In travel writing, such as the work of Marco Polo, we’re told that huge Griffins were seen in India and Ethiopia, and that they could carry elephants in their talons; they would then drop them mid-flight and swoop down to devour them. The common ground between all these legends is that these mythological animals were powerful and dangerous, feared and respected.
As for the statue of a Griffin in the visual for Asterix and the Griffin, it perfectly matches how they were represented in the first millennium (a representation adopted by the Greeks and all Mediterranean nations to this day), because it has inherited those small, pointed ears. And here’s the surprise … it looks as if this is the largest sculptural depiction of a Griffin ever found!