The Griffin at Temple Bar, a lump of metal like a medieval nightmare,
is one of multitudinous monstrosities such as Burns described:

“Forms like some Bedlam Statuary’s dream,
The crazed creation of misguided whim;
Forms might be worshipped on the bended knee,
And still the second dread command be free;
Their likeness is not found on earth, in air or sea!”

The significance of the Griffin, however, goes deeper than the
conventionality, which alone the artists deride; for it is only half
an explanation to cry “conventional.” What made it “conventional?” Why
did men convene to admire such an object?

One has to grope among the beginnings of history to be able to guess;
and for that purpose, one has to stoop to the mental level of wild
backwoodsmen, not men of civilised breeds who have reverted, like the
mustangs of South America, but real, wild backwoodsmen, none of whose
ancestors have ever been anything else, since time began.

On trying the thing, I found it as easy to think with them as ever it
was to keep down to the level of civilised men, carousing after
dinner, when

“The soul subsides, and wickedly inclines
To seem but mortal, e’en in sound divines.”

Of course it is a commonplace to connect the Griffin with the winged
lion of Babylon and other misshapen beasts. But Babylon was as much
sophisticated as London is to-day, and as far removed from primitive

It is among the wild backwoodsmen, if anywhere, that one can reach
back to the real antiquity; and if you listen to them at home,
especially when they have forgotten you or suppose you asleep, you
gradually realise what a great place is filled in their minds by
beasts of prey, and in particular by the little-seen-but-much-felt
feline foes. Many a man and woman among the jungle folk has never
beheld them at all, but few have escaped their depredations. They
combine the terrors of force and cunning, and abide a bugbear to
humanity, from infancy to age.

Perhaps this may be best illustrated by one of the most famous
incidents in the life of Confucius, dated by the _Family Sayings_ at
B.C. 516, about the time when Darius was sacking Babylon. Here is the
paragraph in the old Chinese history (translated by Legge, _Li Ki_,
II. II. 3, 10.)

“As he was passing by the side of the Ta’e mountain, there was a woman
weeping and wailing by a grave. Confucius bent forward in his
carriage, and after listening to her for some time, sent Tsze-Loo to
ask the cause of her grief.

“‘You weep, as if you had experienced sorrow upon sorrow,’ said

“The woman replied, ‘It is so. My husband’s father was killed here by
a tiger, and my husband also; and now my son has met the same fate.’

“Confucius asked her why she did not remove from the place, and on her
answering, ‘There is here no oppressive government,’ he turned to his
disciples, and said, ‘My children, remember this, oppressive
government is fiercer than a tiger.'”

It takes an effort for a modern man to feel the force of the words of
the sage. The tiger means so little to us, and meant so much to the
weeping woman and her neighbours. Still harder is it for us to realise
the primitive ignorance of the exact shape of the enemy. Even to the
few backwoodsmen who have seen one dead, it soon becomes a vague
recollection. The infinite terror of the beasts and the ignorance of
their forms are not the less indubitable facts, because they are so
far beyond our ordinary comprehension; and these are the facts that
perhaps explain, so far as we can explain, the grotesque shape of the
Griffin. We must remember that our Zoos are a modern invention, almost
like firearms; for two or three millenniums do not make antiquity in a
world so old as ours. In the days when Griffins first took shape,
whatever was the most hideous object would seem to be the best
likeness of the horrid reality.

But the Zoos should let us know better now; and our writers and
speakers should teach us better than to hate the beasts of prey. It is
quite unnecessary. There is something coldly impartial in their war
with us. They do not hate us, any more than the rocks do, or the
icebergs. Red, “red in tooth and in claw,” they remain unconscious
instruments of Fate, and serve to stiffen us. If they kill us, it is
in self-defence or for food. There is no wanton cruelty; but there is
no mercy. There are surprises, but no treachery. Even the French do
not feel themselves betrayed, when it is the wolves that win. There is
no sentimental humbug about this war; but also, no excuse for

I never visit a Zoo and see the poor prisoners behind the bars without
hearing, with the mind’s ears, a greeting, an appeal for pity, as if
the poor big cats were really saying what they can only symbol in

“Look at and pity us! You will not have such cats to look at long.
Lions and tigers, leopards and jaguars, the species now all perishing
salute ye, O men!

“We are neither grotesque nor hideous, neither wicked nor cowardly,
neither cruel nor treacherous. We are merely cats. We had to live in
the only way for which we were adapted.

“The war between you and us is nearly over now. It has lasted long,
but the end is at hand. The world is lost to us big cats, and we are
passing away, on the wings of the wind….

“Woe, woe to the conquered!!!…

“Ye may lay aside your fears! Do lay aside your fears, for fear is
cruel. Ye have no need to fear us any more. We are your prisoners of
war, and spared to make a human holiday….

“We killed or left alone, and cannot guess why ye do otherwise; but we
cannot understand ye at all….

“We look around into daylight that is dimmer than darkness, and see
not why we are here. We submit, because we must; and we are dying,
dying, dying! All your devices but prolong our deaths! For life needs
liberty. There is no life in prison for cats, or for men….

“The species all about to die salute ye!

“Have pity on us, O men!!!”