The Griffin in Architecture and Design

Symbols are everywhere in architecture. You might think of iconography in churches, temples, and other religious buildings, but any structure—sacred or secular—can incorporate details or elements that carry multiple meanings. Consider, for example, the lion-fierce, birdlike griffin.

What Is a Griffin?

Griffin On the Roof of The Museum Of Science And Industry

J.B. Spector / Getty Images

A griffin is a mythical creature. Griffin, or gryphon, comes from the Greek word for curved or hooked nose—grypos—like an eagle's beak. Bulfinch’s Mythology describes the griffin as having "the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, and back covered with feathers." The combination of eagle and lion makes the griffin a powerful symbol of vigilance and strength. The use of the griffin in architecture, like the griffons atop Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, is decorative and symbolic.

Where Do Griffins Come From?

Syrians bearing tribute to Darius the Great of Persia

Vivienne Sharp / Getty Images

The myth of the griffin was probably developed in ancient Persia (Iran and parts of central Asia). According to some legends, griffins built their nests from gold they found in the mountains. Scythian nomads carried these stories to the Mediterranean, where they told the ancient Greeks that giant winged beasts safeguarded the natural gold in the northern Persian hills.

Folklorists and researcher scholars such as Adrienne Mayor suggest a basis for such classical myths as the griffin. Those nomads in Scythia may have stumbled upon dinosaur bones amid the gold-infested hills. Mayor claims that the myth of the griffin may derive from the Protoceratops, a four-legged dinosaur much larger than a bird but with a beak-like jaw.

Griffin Mosaics

Ancient Roman griffin mosaic, c. 5th Century, from the Great Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

The griffin was a common design for mosaics in the Byzantine era, when the capital of the Roman Empire was located in present-day Turkey. Persian influences, including the mythical griffin, are well-known throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. The impact of Persia on design migrated to the Western Roman Empire, present-day Italy, France, Spain, and England. The 13th century mosaic floor of the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Emilia-Romagna, Italy is similar to the use of the Byzantine griffin shown from the 5th century onwards.

Surviving the centuries, griffins became familiar figures during the middle ages, joining other types of grotesque sculptures on walls, floors, and rooftops of Gothic cathedrals and castles.

Source of 13th century mosaic floor photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images / Hulton Fine Art / Getty Images

Is a Griffin a Gargoyle?

Gargoyles on roof of Notre Dame, Paris, France

John Harper / Getty Images

Some (but not all) of these medieval griffins are gargoyles. A gargoyle is a functional sculpture or carving that serves a practical purpose on the building's exterior—to move roof water away from its base, like a downspout of a gutter.  A griffin may serve as a drainage gutter or its role can be purely symbolic. Either way, a griffin will always have the bird-like qualities of an eagle and the body of a lion.

Is a Griffin a Dragon?

Close-up of dragon statue in the City of London

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images 

The fierce beasts around the City of London look a lot like griffins. With beaked noses and lion feet, they guard the Royal Courts of Justice and the financial district of the city. However, London's symbolic creatures have webbed wings and no feathers. Although often called griffins, they are actually dragons. Griffins are not dragons.

A griffin doesn't breathe fire like a dragon and may not appear as threatening. Nevertheless, the iconic griffin has been characterized as having the intelligence, loyalty, honesty, and strength necessary to guard what is valued—literally, to protect their nest eggs of gold. Symbolically, griffins are used today for the same reason—to "protect" our markers of wealth.

Griffins Protecting Wealth

Golden griffins stand guard over the bank at the 1879 Mitchell Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Raymond Boyd / Getty Images

Legends are filled with all sorts of beasts and grotesqueries, but the myth of the griffin is especially powerful because of the gold it protects. When the griffin defends its valuable nest, it safeguards an enduring symbol of prosperity and status.

Architects have historically used the mythical griffin as decorative symbols of protection. For example, MGM Resorts International built the 1999 Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada with huge griffin sculptures at its entryway. No doubt, gryphon iconography is what helps the money spent in Vegas stay in Vegas.

Griffins Safeguarding U.S. Commerce

Large, rescued Griffin from Cass Gilbert’s 1907 skyscraper at 90 West Street

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

These exterior architectural details, such as the griffin statues, are often huge objects. But of course they are! Not only do they have to be seen from the street, but they also must be prominent enough to deter the menacing thieves they protect against.

When 90 West Street in New York City was severely damaged after the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001, historical preservationists made sure to restore the Gothic Revival details of the 1907 architecture. The building design famously included griffin figures put high on the roof line by architect Cass Gilbert to symbolically protect the shipping and railroad industry offices housed in the skyscraper.

For days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 90 West Street withstood the fires and force of the collapsed Twin Towers. Local people began to call it the miracle building. Today Gilbert's griffins safeguard 400 apartment units in the reconstructed building.

Griffins, Griffins Everywhere

Vauxhall Motors logo is a Griffin

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

You're not likely to find griffins perched on contemporary skyscrapers, but the legendary beast still lurks around us. For example:

  • Regimental crests such as the coat of arms for the US Military Finance Corp.
  • Product logos, such as the symbol for Vauxhall automobiles
  • Lawn ornaments and garden decorations
  • Amulets, talismans, and jewelry
  • Playful re-creations of Gothic architecture, such as the Harry Potter Theme Park in Orlando, Florida
  • The Gryphon character illustrated by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
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Craven, Jackie. "The Griffin in Architecture and Design." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, July 29). The Griffin in Architecture and Design. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "The Griffin in Architecture and Design." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).