Mythic Creature: The Alphyn

Mythic Creatures

Name: Alphyn or Alpheyn

Appearance: A stocky creature, the alpyhn blends characteristics of lions and wolves with unique features of its own, its long, knotted tail perhaps the most distinctive. Most often, the tail was twisted into three knots, giving it a Celtic appearance. The alphyn’s white coloration, brightened by golden tufts and foreclaws, would have given it a regal appearance if the tufts didn’t stick out all over the body, with little rhyme or reason. The tufts combined with a long, pointed tongue often depicted hanging from its mouth gave the alphyn a quirky look. Depending on the artist’s depiction, it might have eagle, dragon, or goat forelegs, and sometimes it bore the scales of a dragon coat its chest and belly.

Unique qualities and traits: Some tales suggested that the alphyn could breathe fire, perhaps due to the dragon-like chest and forepaws. It seems also to have a reputation of fierceness which allowed for its use on banners of war, but like the origin, what exactly it symbolized remains vague. Strangely enough, the alphyn appeared in medieval chess sets in place of the bishop figure. These alphyn were described as judges, which could imply that imputing justice was one of the alphyn’s traits.

Quick facts:

  • The name alphyn comes from Germanic origin, meaning “chaser” or “wolf.”
  • Though invented for heraldic purposes, it remained obscure and rarely used, save as a chess piece.

Sources from myth and legend: The alphyn sprang into being during the medieval era, a time when many blended creatures first appeared in heraldry. Unlike many mythic creatures, the alphyn was apparently designed purely for heraldic purposes, but the exact origin remains unknown. It appears a bit like cross between a heraldic tiger and a griffin, suggesting they may have played a role in its conception.

A Lord de la Warr first incorporated the alphyn in his heraldic badges, but how he came to invent or borrow such a creature remains a mystery. As befitting its origin, the alphyn appears in many directories of heraldry and books exploring coats of arms, but typically not in medieval-era bestiaries.

Overview: Sometimes mythic creatures used in heraldry were based on figures believed to exist, other times they appear to have been invented solely to convey some sort of symbolic impression by blending characteristics of different real-world animals. The alphyn appears to fall into this category, a figure of strength that could hold its own in battle or sit in judgment over enemies.

Comments

  • Maria Tatham
    March 8, 2012 - 10:45 pm · Reply

    Sarah,
    The Alphyn looks kind of harmless, not like a symbol for judgment; somewhat like the French Poodle of mythic (here, heraldic) creatures — because of the tufts and non-threatening mouth: only two small teeth and a funny tongue. :0)
    Thanks for continuing to bring us intriguing posts about ‘things that never were’!
    How is your work in progress?
    Maria

    • Sarah Sawyer
      March 9, 2012 - 5:50 pm · Reply

      You’re right–it doesn’t look that intimidating (except perhaps for the claws). Yet for some reason, it was chosen to represent a judge in chess and to be worthy of display on certain banners of war. There must be something related to the meaning that has been lost to time.

      That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about mythic creatures. As lore passes down over the years, things change or new elements are added and they all become part of the legend.

      My WIP is slowly but steadily moving forward. Health issues continue to drain much time and energy, but I’m still plugging away at the book, and I know one day I’ll cross the finish line (hopefully not too far in the future). Thanks for asking!

      What about yours?

      • Maria Tatham
        March 9, 2012 - 6:00 pm · Reply

        Yes, this image must have conveyed its meaning originally, and been considered important enough to keep its place in heraldry.

        Sorry about your health concerns, Sarah! I’m cheering you on to cross the finish line with your wip, with God’s help!

        I’m still under the weather. Hope to cut back on some online involvements (# of blogs I subscribe to), so that I can focus on my own wip.

        God bless and keep you, and help you to keep the entertaining posts coming while you work on ultimate things!

        Maria

        • Andrew Nichols
          August 4, 2013 - 12:26 am · Reply

          I believe I saw this creature when I was very young sitting on my mothers bed. It has always made me wonder. If anyone can enlighten me on any other creatures similar or can give me a better I depth origin on this creature I’d greatly appraise you for it.

Leave a Comment