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The Griffin, Hydra And Crocodile, Mantichora And Mermaid Or Syren

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE griffin is a fabulous bird which lives in the deserts of India, where it can find nothing to eat. To obtain sustenance for its young it will go off to other regions, and it is so strong that it can fly away with a live ox. The griffin signifies the devil who is ready to carry away our souls to the deserts of hell.

This monster is to be seen on the Tournai font of Lincoln Cathedral, and on Norman tympana such as those of Barfreston and Ridlington, Rutlandshire. At Ridlington it seems to be fighting with a lion. At Barfreston a tiny griffin is placed in the right-hand bottom corner of the tympanum, which contains Our Lord in glory, a sphinx, a mermaid, angels and crowned heads.

In heraldry and in the Bestiaries the griffin has the forepart, beak and claws of an eagle, and the hinder part of a lion ; but the architectural examples are more like animals than birds.

The hydra (Greek ) was not like, except in name to the mythical monster of the classics, which was killed by Hercules near the Lerneau lake, but it probably is the water-snake. The Greek word means " otter " as well—indeed, there is a close etymological connection between " otter " and " hydia." The following fable is, therefore, told of both the otter and the water-snake. It is said that the hydra lives in the marshes where the crocodile also lives. These beasts are on terms of bitterest enmity. The hydra wishes to destroy the crocodile, and so devises the following plan. When the latter is asleep, the hydra rolls itself into damp mud till its look is indistinguishable, and then makes its way into the mouth of the crocodile, which swallows it unawares, and instantly bursts asunder.

The hydra is a type of Christ, the crocodile of hell, and the whole story symbolises Our Lord's Resurrection which was the forerunner of the Resurrection of all believers.

In the mappa mundi at Hereford the mantichora is placed on the opposite side of a tree to the tiger, and the inscription which the former fabulous beast bears there is drawn directly from the Bestiaries. It is said to be a native of India. It has three rows of teeth, the face of a man, grayish eyes ; its colour is the colour of blood ; its body is like a lion's ; its tail like a scorpion's ; its voice like that of a sibyl.

The mantichora is mentioned by the Greek writer Ctesias of the fifth century B.C., and also by Pliny in his Natural History, where the additional details are given, that its teeth fit together like those of a comb, and that it is particularly fond of human flesh. The word mantichora is connected with the Persian word maid-khora, which means " man-eater "

Mr. R. Allen figures a sepulchral stone from Meigle, Perthshire, where a mantichora is carved in profile. I t has a long human nose, and is pursuing a naked man, who is looking back in unpleasant anticipation of his fate.

There is another clear instance of the same fabulous beast on one of the arch-stones of the Kilpeck door, where we can clearly see the bearded face, the lion's paws, and mane, and the peculiarly fat tail curled between its legs, which must represent the scorpion's tail. It seems to be listening for any signs of its prey, but there is nothing edible quite near, with the possible exception of dragons and grotesque heads.

A careful scrutiny of other arch-stones, etc., would no doubt discover more examples. Much, though possibly insufficient, attention has already been paid to Norman tympana, but the animals of the arch-stones have as yet been thought too small or too difficult to receive adequate attention from competent archeologists. What to us often seems a nearly hopeless and confused riddle was in the Middle Ages somewhat easily interpreted or else the figures would not have been carved where they were.

The mermaid seems to be a kind of syren in the Bestiaries—it is half woman, half fish ; but there is another sort which is half woman, half bird. In the Septuagint and Vulgate versions of Is. xiii. 21 syrens are mentioned as being destined to dwell among the ruins of Babylon. The syren was reputed to be death-bearing : it sang at the approach of a storm, but wept in fine weather. In the Odyssey, Book xii, we read that Odysseus was charmed by their voices as his ship went by the island of the syrens. So much so that, bound to the mast though he was, he tried to get to them, whilst his men, whose ears had been filled with wax, restrained him from his rashness, and bound him still more closely.

Homer knows only of two syrens, but Plato increases the number to eight. In the Bestiaries it is rather their playing on various instruments and not their singing which is especially noted.

When the hapless voyager is in their clutches, he is slain ; and the island where they dwell is full of the bones of foolish men, who have first been charmed to sleep and then destroyed.

The adventures of Odysseus with the syrens were depicted, and it was thought that the ship in its Christian application meant the Church. The mast was the Cross of Christ, to which the faithful must cling tightly if they are to conquer temptation, and the syrens are our temptations on the sea of life. In a MS. in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, among representations of virtues and vices, one of lust has a syren on her shield.

Sometimes the idea will be varied, and the syren will tempt a man by offering him a fish, as in thirteenth and fourteenth century Bestiaries in the British Museum (Harl. 4751, and Slo. 3544), and in the church at Civaux, France.

In the mappa mundi a mermaid is drawn in the centre of the Mediterranean, just north of Crete, and the Labyrinth.

There is also a good carving of one on a misericord in the choir of Bristol Cathedral, where a mermaid with both hands upraised is placed between a dragon and a winged and bearded man, the latter having hold of her tail. The two seem to be attacking her.

There is a mermaid at the feet of the glorified Christ at Barfreston, and another on the eastern capital of the Norman door of Nately Scures, Hants. Her long plaited hair, arm and tail and mutilated face all in low relief can be distinguished with care in the photograph. She seems to be swimming at the bottom of the sea among the weeds.

At Stow Longa, Huntingdon, the tympanum has a mermaid with long hair and hands up-raised. She is in the middle of two animals, one of which is possibly the Agnus Dei, as the foreleg is bent up as if to support a cross, though the tail seems to be too much floriated.

On the other side there is an unknown animal with its forefeet practically touching an altar. No satisfactory interpretation of this extraordinary composition has vet been given. On the fonts of Anstey, Herts, and S. Peter's, Cambridge, are mermen grasping their tails. In heraldry, Mermen are called Tritons serpent or reptile, and the face of a girl. (" Spinx avis est penna, serpens pede, fronte puella.") The only considerable difference between the example at Upavon and that on the mappa is that in the latter the sphinx seems to have two forelegs, and in the former two hind legs. The tail at Upavon is very curious, just like a fox terrier's shortened tail.

An illustration of a sphinx is given by Mr. E. P. Evans, from a capital in the Abbey of Vézelai. Here a man is riding on a dragon-like basilisk, and the sphinx (here with four legs) is holding a crystal to beat back the basilisk's venom.

Mr. Evans gives as a meaning of this carving the idea of spiritual knowledge and strength overcoming evil.

Most curious creatures are the terrebolen, which can fairly come into this book only because they have a place in the Bestiaries. The terrebolen—a name corrupted from (or fire casting stones) are also called in the Bestiaries igniferi lapides.

They were stones found in a certain mountain in the East, and they are both male and female.

So long as they are kept apart, they remain cool, but when they are brought near one another, they emit fire. The symbolism of animal love is very naturally drawn from this fable, and men are exhorted to live chaste and devoted lives in consequence, and to avoid carnal temptations.

At Alne the terrebolen are carved as human figures scantily draped with their left hands upraised and their right hands across their waists, while the mountain behind has burst into flames.

In a tenth century miniature at Brussels they are shown as two stones in the hand of a woman, one bursting into flame. A man is holding out his hand for the stones.

We have sometimes thought that the Adam and Eve carving at Llangattock, near Mon-mouth, may really be meant for Terrebolen, but no examples of these human stones can be cited from anything like so late a period.

The story about the unicorn is one of the strangest in the strange pages of the Bestiaries. It is said to be a small animal with the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant ; and it has one long straight horn four feet in length. The unicoi n is at enmity with the elephant, and in the conflict between them the latter is often killed by the sharpness of its adversary's horn.

Hunters are exceedingly desirous of capturing the unicorn, and yet it is so fierce that they dare not approach near. To gain their object they have recourse to the following plan. They ask a chaste virgin to deck herself in all her beautiful ornaments, and then they set her in the middle of a forest. Directly the unicorn sees her, it comes and puts its head into her lap, where it is easily captured. The captive is afterwards taken off to the king's palace, where the hunters receive a great reward. In some Bestiaries the virgin is shown standing and not seated. The unicorn's horn, which is mentioned in Ps. xxii. 21,

" Thou hast heard me also from the horn of the unicorns," was supposed to be a safe-guard against poisoning, as well as a dangerous weapon of attack.

It is curious that the unicorn is made to stand for so sacred a subject as the Incarnation of our Saviour : " the horn of salvation in the house of His servant David." Many desired to see Him, but none could bring Him to earth, save the Virgin Marv, in whose spotless body He abode. There is a carving of this fable in S. Botolph's Church, Boston. A unicorn may be roughly carved on a poppy head at Westwell, Kent, but on the other hand the position of the forefoot makes the animal look more like a horned Agnus Dei.

There is a unicorn also on a panel of the perpendicular font of Southfleet, Kent, which lias cloven hoofs (instead of an elephant's feet) a mane, and fierce-looking jaws. It is resting back upon its haunches. This representation not only may recall the fact of the Incarnation, but may bear witness to the purity of life which ought to be characteristic of all who in baptism are united to their incarnate Lord. The one horn has been held to signify the oneness of the Father and the Son, and the small size of the animal the extreme condescension and humility of Our Lord.

Mr. Jameson says that when the unicorn is used in connection with certain saints, it is an emblem of female chastity. It is appropriate especially to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to S. Justina, the pure virgin martyr of Antioch.

The unicorn of the Bible is probably a wild ox, or European bison. The idea that it had one horn is probably due to the Septuagint, which translates the Hebrew word by its horn was the symbol of power and might, and it is thought that it may possibly have been the ancestor of our domestic cattle.

The serra is a small sea monster with the head of a lion, and the tail of a fish. It has great wings and spreads them out so that it may try to overtake ships by their aid. But after going some distance it grows weary, and disappears beneath the waves. This creature signifies the man with good intentions, who is not strong enough to keep them. In a thirteenth century Bestiary in the British Museum (Vit. D. 1) it is contrasted with the man who endures to the end, and on that account will be saved. In a fourteenth century MS. in the same place (Slo. 3544) the serra is figured pursuing a boat. Its wings are like nothing more than a huge open umbrella, held point downwards.

A somewhat similar creature is the remora, which, though only a tiny. fish, can keep a ship steady by fastening itself on to the keel. It is therefore typical of Christ, Who will pre-vent our being capsized among the temptations of this world. Pliny, according to Mr. Evans, supposed that the fate of the battle of Actium was decided by a remora holding on to the keel of Antony's ship, and preventing it going into action.

It was fabled that the phoenix, the last of the fabulous creatures that we shall deal with, was a bird which lived in India or Arabia. It had a crest like a peacock, a red breast and azure body. When it was 50(1 years old it flew to Mount Lebanon, and filled its wings with aromatic spices and gums. Thence it hastened to Heliopolis, where it burned itself to death on the altar. The priest would come presently to remove the ashes, and he would discover a very sweet-smelling worm, which in three days became a young bird, and the next day was fully grown.

The phoenix is a symbol of Christ, Who said in John x. 18 : " I have power to lay it (My life) down, and power to take it again." Its sweetness represented the savour of the Old and New Testaments. Another version of the story declares that at Lebanon the phoenix builds itself a nest in a tree, and then flies up to the sun, so as to bring down fire with which it may set itself and its nest alight. On the third day it rises from its ashes. So Jesus Christ rose from the grave on the third day.

The story about the phoenix was derived originally from the classics. It is found in Herodotus' history. So, too, Ovid in his Metamorphoses (xv. 392) alludes to its self-recreation, and the story is copied as an argument for the Resurrection by Tertullian and Ambrose, though. other fathers throw doubt on the story. Mr. E. P. Evans states that the phoenix was sculptured on pagan cinerary urns. In the Septuagint version of Ps. xcii. 11, " the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree," it is uncertain whether phoenix or palm tree was meant, as the Greek word is precisely the same for both.

Bede took the analogous passage of Job xxix. 18 to mean : " I shall multiply my days as the phoenix," and the Revised Version margin suggests the same rendering. The confusion in the Greek translation is, of course, due to the ambiguity of the original Hebrew.

Curiously enough, the palm tree, which had considerable symbolic significance among the Jews owing to its fruitfulness and beauty, is associated in early Christian art with the phoenix. Thus, on a glass vessel in the Vatican Library there is a nimbed phoenix on a palm tree, together with figures of Our Lord and S. Peter and S. Paul. Similar scenes were depicted in the mosaics of Roman churches. We have heard of no absolutely certain representation of the phoenix in English architecture, and the difficulty of finding one is intensified by the great similarity of the carvings of all birds to one another.

Mr. Romilly Allen thinks it possible that the bird sometimes carved over the head of Christ in Irish Crucifixions may be a phoenix, if it be not indeed the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The bird in question on these crosses has a human head. The phoenix is to be seen in the glass of Le Mans and Tours Cathedrals in France, and on the door of S. Laurence, Nuremberg. Other examples are to be found at Magdeburg and Bâle. It ought to be possible to discover one after diligent search in our architectural carvings.

Symbolism of Animals & Birds In English Architecture:
The Griffin, Hydra And Crocodile, Mantichora And Mermaid Or Syren

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