Bunnies, gnomes, birds, and ladies with red polka-dot bloomers. Common garden statuary, but for a unique look, Iíll take the beasties. It must be my darker side coming through.
Since ancient times, human beings have believed in the super powers of mystical beasts. Whether creating these creatures to ward off evil, keep bad people off the property, or protect the sanctity of marriage, cultures have carried these traditions for centuries. Some of the charming and not-so-charming creations can be found in gardens and estates around the world. Even today, these interesting and unique creatures are appearing in home decorator stores. Today's beasties are made of modern materials such as resin, concrete, marble, and glass.
One certainly cannot entertain the notion of giving a Griffin or Grotesque a place in one's garden unless one understands these important creatures. They have, after all, been here a lot longer than we have. They are also difficult to find and somewhat temperamental.
This wonderful creature came to me quite by accident. I was minding my own business in one of those places you see along the road--the ones with hundreds of stone or concrete figures lined up and stacked everywhere. I was actually looking for a birdbath, and around the side of the building, I found just the one I wanted. As I scrutinized it, I heard a strange sound from behind a row of gnomes. I looked, and there stood a small gray creature that looked like a Griffin, except it had the wrong head. I'd never seen such a delightful statue. I had to have it. The saleslady asked me where I found it, and said she didn't think it was theirs. I gave her ten bucks for it and happily made my way home--without a birdbath.
The legendary Griffin has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. As you can see, my guy has the wings, but his head looks like a dragon. He's a real joy and has guarded my front porch for over six years now.
Cultural beliefs in ancient times considered the lion to be the king of beasts. The eagle was the king of the birds, and so the two monarchs were joined together, creating a mythical creature that would always be known for guarding treasure. (I treasure my front porch and, so far, no one has stolen it, so my Griffin is doing his job.) The ancient Greeks told the story that, like the eagle, the Griffin builds a nest; unlike the eagle, a Griffin lays sapphires instead of eggs. (I'm still waiting.) Stephen Scotus, a ninth century Irish writer, stated that Griffins were monogamous, mating for life and remaining alone if a partner died. Thus the Griffin became the emblem for the Church's views on remarriage.
Griffins are used widely in heraldry in many diverse depictions, but always staying true to the lion body with eagle head and wings. The creature shows up in architecture, literature, and natural history. Lewis Carroll's version of Alice in Wonderland has a fantastic illustration by Sir John Tenniel. In real life, some Old World vultures are called "gryphons": the Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). Some breeds of dogs are also called griffons. The Andean Condor is Vultur gryphus, and who can forget the dinosaur, Hagryphus giganteus?
Once I caught the "mythical creature bug," I began to search for more of these treasures for my garden. No easy feat!
Traditionally, a Gargoyle is the primitive model for our modern gutter systems. Carved of stone and usually having grotesque features, these water spouts projected from the parapet of the roof and funneled runoff rain out through the gaping mouth. (Imagine being caught under one of these during a rainstorm.) I haven't thought up a way to install Gargoyles on my eaves, but some statuary places have reproductions of the sometimes humorous images of creatures and people that were used for Gargoyles. If you're wondering about the word "gargoyle", it originates from the French gargouille, meaning "throat" or "gullet." Castles and cathedrals alike installed Gargoyles into the architecture; Notre Dame de Paris has the most famous examples of this art form. Another impressive collection is at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Gargoyles were powerful spirits as guardians of the buildings on which they were placed, keeping evil spirits away.
In my ongoing search for strange creatures to live in my garden, I discovered a new breed. Largely the fruit of someone's imagination, a Grotesque can be any combination of animal and human. Sometimes referred to as Chimera, the sculpture is only for ornamental purposes. In New York City, the Chrysler Building sports stainless steel Grotesques fashioned after Gargoyles.
I discovered a small Grotesque in the garden department of some store (I don't remember which). As with my pseudo-griffin, this new creature was the only one on the shelf. I snatched him up and hurried home, knowing exactly where I'd put him. The first year, he lived under my dwarf Japanese maple. Then we moved, leaving the tree behind (sob) and, the following year, he lived under the Bleeding Hearts. The next year, I placed him in my rock garden where he seemed to be happiest. Visitors always do a double-take when they spot his green body and beady brown eyes peering from amongst the alpine plants.
I do make sure not to let the two creatures be too close to each other. Who knows what might happen? A word of caution: much of the small statuary you find in garden centers will not stand up to years of winter weather. I take Griffin and Grotesque in every fall to assure that they'll be with me the following spring.
The Egyptians were well-known for their belief in the afterlife, and the power of the guardians of the tombs. Again, the lion's body was usually the basis for the fantastical creatures used to protect the pharaohs. A lion with a falcon's head is the closest resemblance to the Griffin. In Luxor, the temple at Karnak is guarded by two rows of sphinxes; these animals have the bodies of the lion and the head of the ram. A statue of the pharaoh Ramses is protected between the statue's front paws. All Egyptian gardens are filled with statuary that promises guardianship.
If I could have another protector in my garden, it would be the lion pictured here. Though sleeping, he exudes power and danger. Who would dare intrude if this majestic animal were resident in the garden? Alas, I won't be able to have him. He weighs over 3 tons and still sleeps in the gardens of Ismalaia, Egypt.
To quench your thirst for more knowledge about legendary guardians, visit this wonderful website for sculptor and stone carver, Walter S. Arnold.
About Toni Leland
Toni Leland has been writing for over 20 years. As a spokesman for the Ohio State University Master Gardener program, she has written a biweekly newspaper column and is the editor of the Muskingum County MG newsletter, Connections; she currently writes for GRIT, Over the Back Fence, and Country Living magazines. She has been a gardener all her life, working soil all over the world. In her day job, she scripts and produces educational DVDs about caring for Miniature Horses, writes and edits books about them, and has published five novels.