Among the shepherds’s homesteads it simulates human speech, and picks up the name of one of them so as to call him to come out of doors and tear him to pieces, and also that it imitates a person being sick, to attract the dogs so that it may attack them…
This Old Monster: The Griffin
By popular vote of an unprecedented number of readers, it has been decreed that this, the second This Old Monster article be dedicated to the griffin… or gryphon… or griffon—somehow all of those are right.
Except no. It’s the griffin. First thing I’m going to establish for this critter is a single, correct spelling and that’s G-R-I-F-F-I-N. From now on, all others are wrong for this monster. Seriously, ‘gryphon’ is suffering horribly from 90’s naming syndrome despite the term being far older and ‘griffon’… no. That is not how ‘o’ works.
Spelling aside, griffins occupy a rather unfortunate niche in the fantasy bestiary. First, they belong to the monster-making school of thought that feels that all you need to make a monster is stapling two animals together and you’re golden. Second, while other monsters like vampires and werewolves have gotten smarter and more sophisticated in the telling and retelling of their tales, griffins… have gotten stupider.
Unfortunately for them, they’re still largely impractical for TV and even movies and by extension, they’re not usually simmering in the imaginations of aspiring writers coming up. Because of this, there’s been a big of stagnation in their development as monsters. Writers just tend to play them ‘straight’ and what’s come to mean ‘straight’ for griffins is boring.
This is a case unlike the unicorn, where the variant just fails at being monstrous. It’s more that it’s monstrous, just not all that interesting.
But never fear friends! Your friendly flavorist is forthcoming with feats to favor these fine, feathered fiends!
The sad part is, a lot of you might not even know that smart griffins were a thing, considering how these days they’re mounts at best varmints at worst in fantasy stories. Even works that portray them with some level of a culture, such as Lilith Saintcrow’s The Iron Wyrm Affair (seriously check it out, it makes ‘Sherlock Holmes’ into a superpower and has dragons whose mere presence warps reality), do so on top of a ton of bestial savagery.
It might surprise you to learn then that once griffins filled the niche now occupied by the ISO Standard Metric Dwarf (by the way, while I dislike a lot of lazy world-building, I still love the Standard Dwarf who drinks, mines and beards [yes, ‘beard’ is a verb in dwarven].). Yes, the stately lion-bird got its start as a creature known to guard gold mines and even dig up said gold so as to better guard it. Really, they were also less lazy dragons (when’s the last time you heard of a dragon digging for gold?)
Another point against the griffin is it’s actual origin. It’s not even as awesome as drunken sailors trying to sex up sea cows, or impatient explorers deciding they don’t need that deer to turn around to decide it’s only got one horn. No, the theory goes that the griffin sprang into being when medieval peoples happened upon Protoceratops skeletons in gold mines.
In case you didn’t follow the link, this is a Protoceratops:
Yes, I picked one being violent. It’s still adorable.
Yes, the fearsome eagle-lion was mistaken for the infamous cuddlesaurus. It’s hard getting street cred when you’re totally adorable. It’s just as hard to guard a royal mine with something you insist on calling Lord Huggington.
The actual griffin is… blah: some combination of eagle (or other bird of prey) and lion. The typical configuration is the head, wings and fore-claws of an eagle (with feathered, housecat-like ears that no lion has) and the back end and size of a lion. Variations include totally feathered bodies, beaked, winged lions, bird head only, and tubby Rhode Islander.
As mentioned before, they’re deployed nowadays either as a flying mount (a fighter plane to the pegasus’s Cessna), or just a random predator that live in the wild, typically mountains.
With that said, let’s look at what we have to work with here…
This one is laughable simple. One one hand, you have a huge eagle and on the other you have a lion, right? I guess if you wanted to quibble, we could throw the Protoceratops in there too… okay, no; I’ve got nothing with the Protoceratops.
On the side of the eagle, you have flight (doy), keen eyesight, and that kickass eagle shriek that’s actually a redtailed hawk, because real eagles sound like chumps. That’s pretty good. A big eagle in and of itself is a totally legitimate monster, especially when it’s ludicrously big like the roc.
Lions meanwhile, are lazy, shiftless asshats who murder cubs of their species for sex. Okay, that’s male lions. Female lions are lazy, shiftless asshats that steal prey from more competent hyenas. Um… Okay, the classical lion is a badass predator, the King of all big cats who hunt with the power of teamwork and also pouncing with big ol’ claws.
Considering eagles come with big ol’ claws and their pounces come at one hundred miles and hour, all the lion really brings to the party is teamwork and size (assuming it wasn’t a huge eagle like a golden eagle).
For a while, this article was ‘replace with golden eagle, ~fin’.
There’s also the mine guarding, proto-dwarf thing we can work with, but my concern is that… there’s not much to the griffin besides looking cool.
In fact, when you stop and think about it, a lion-size flyer with the combined natural armor of an eagle and a lion is going to become a feathery pincushion instantly. There’s a reason lions are Savannah creatures and the sky is notorious for its lack of long grass. The griffin is a magical creature who lacks magic.
We’re going to fix that.
Also, let’s stop and think a bit about the lion part. It’s… kind of a weak link. The shape lends a lot of the cool factor to the package, but it lacks punch and versatility. Seeing as hyenas are more liony in real life than real lions, it’s worth thinking about them.
Hyenas are pack hunters like lions and are pretty legendary for their viciousness. They also have a fairly complex social structure, but we’re not going to go into how the hyena matriarch keeps everyone in line. What I will talk about down the line is a Hyena-based legend that I thought came from a Buffy episode, but in actuality came from Pliny the Elder.
So while I’m keeping the lion shape, I’m adding the hyena to its pedigree to pick up some of the slack. Hyenas are actually a good choice here, as they’re sort of a hybrid creature themselves, being essentially cats, but with some morphic and behavioral traits from canines—this weirdness has led to the four species of hyena to be one of the smallest families both in Order Carnivoria and in the larger Class Mammalia.
From the legends of the griffin itself, we’re really only left with the gold thing and the fact that they dig it out with their beaks. That’s not a lot, but their love of gold can be a pretty good MO down the line.
So the elements are in place. Let’s get to work.
A magic power is my first priority. There’s just not enough in the griffin to be a credible threat in a fantasy world with even basic magic.
My initial inspiration is that red tailed hawk thing. No, I didn’t just mention it to be that jackass who throws ‘reality checks’ at people, it was totally set-up for this. This gives me the concept of a sound power. A sonic scream is pretty well overdone now, so we won’t be using that. How about some nice subharmonics? Did you know that certain frequencies have been linked to our fight-or-flight response and might be responsible for many ‘hauntings’? Imagine a creautre that can do that sort of thing to you on purpose.
Still not enough though. So it can unsettle you, so what? Let’s up the ante a bit. Since we’re giving it subharmonics, we can assume this creature has a robust or magical voice box, so let’s make it a sound mimic as well.
What’s that you say? It doesn’t sound scary? Take a step back, because I’m about to blow your mind (and I don’t want brain all over me). This is where they hyena comes in, or rather the legendary version of the hyena. While I’m not sure of Buffy’s attribution of the myth to the Maasai people is true, Pliny the elder had this to say about hyenas:
And lo, a thousand creepypastas sprang into being!
There’s on more problem I feel the need to address and that’s one of size. As I’ve mentioned before, there are several bands of monster size that are effective: man-sized, where the monster can get wherever a human can, wall-buster size where the monster can easily smash their way into wherever you hide, and kaiju size where it doesn’t matter where you hide because they can destroy the building if not the block.
Griffins, being based on lions are in that awkward place between man and wall-buster. A lion is larger than a human to the point that they’d be rather awkward in narrow halls even before adding a huge wingspan, and yet, they’re not big enough to reliably rip through concrete. This can be remedied by giving them some kind of super strength, but I actually think making them smaller works better.
That’s the other end of scary monster sizes. Small can be nasty. Not only can a smaller creature get into all the same places you can, but they can get through places you can’t, making it harder to barricade yourself away from them. I’m not talking ‘housecat’ size here, more like ‘medium dog’; about three feet from nose to rump. Considering that both lions and hyenas hunt in groups, this doesn’t reduce their threat level.
Speaking of packs, when you add in their love of gold and the mining thereof, I imagine griffins living in colonies centered on these mines. Like dwarves, the mine would both by an actual mine and a nest where the beasts live and guard jealously; a claustrophobic maze of tunnels and chambers with tons of treasure waiting for anyone stupid enough to try and take it.
That greed and pack behavior also gives us the griffins’ MO: they either want to defend their mines from encroaching (whether intentionally or not) races, or they seek to take the mines of others to expand their territory.
Imagine if you will, a town of settlers who have just moved into the lush foothills of a mountain. Unbeknownst to them, as they set up their farms and start their sheep grazing, that the mountain above them is full of gold… and griffins.
It doesn’t matter to the griffins if the humans intend to steal their gold or not. They will eventually—all humans do. It’s the one thing the griffins refuse to risk, so the pride descends into the foothills to end this threat before it can begin.
As the first harvest arrives and coll autumn falls, workers in the field start disappearing without a trace (oh hey, hyenas are bone crushers too!). Their friends and family go out in search, braving the alien wilderness that for some reason feels supernaturally foreboding. There are tales of ghosts in the woods and worse. They can’t know that even now, the griffins are stalking them, using their subharmonics to disorient and unsettle them. The beasts hide, wait and observe.
Then the cries in the night start. The tormented voices of the lost, calling the names of their loved ones. Those who venture out find themselves led up into the mountains, following the pleading of their friends, siblings or parents. But then they find the source: a beast with cruel golden eyes set above a heavy, hooked beak designed to tear into earth and flesh with equal ease and crush stone and bone all the same. It pads out of the undergrowth, wings folded tightly, claws flexing, tail swishing. The last false call is a mockery, a blending of the stolen voice and the griffin’s own croak as it laughs at its latest victim.
The prey turns to run, but the pack has already surrounded them; on the forest floor, in the trees, circling above. The fear is heightened by their subharmonics to a maddening degree. The first strike comes from the sky at a hundred miles per hour. There’s no hope of surviving that impact.
Months later, explorers happen upon an empty village. Everything of value has been stripped from the houses and the only signs of the inhabitants are bloody tatters and diaries recounting the disappearances and the last days marked by ghosts and choruses of things calling their name in the dark.
Fearful as they might be, they press on. After all—there’s a rumor of gold on the mountain.
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