Gryffindor Crest: A Red Lion — or a Golden Lion?

It’s “Outrageous Hogwarts Professor Gaffes’ time, again, All-Pros! Not a month after learning I don’t know my King’s Cross stations from my underground tubes, I find out that I have symbolism dyslexia — or is it alchemical myopia? Either way, I’ve got red and gold egg on my face.

Kati from Germany writes:

A note on Gryffindor – the lion isn’t red, as you say (first time on p 12 or 21 of Looking for God, I think) – but rather its ‘natural’ golden colour set on a red background. As to why the symbol of Gruffindor isn’t a Griffin… I guess it would be too confusing with Ravenclaw’s Eagle.

I responded:

Dear Kati, if I may,

Your prayers.

(Sound of hand slapping forehead)

I confess that the names discussion left me cold but I was stunned by the observation above. How could I have missed this — and, more incredible (I’m notorious for blowing details), how could all the serious readers of the Hogwarts Saga have missed my error all these years?

Thank you for the gracious way you shared this. The golden griffin (Griffin d’or) is a golden lion only missing the eagle’s wings. Your conjecture on why it is not a griffin — to avoid confusion with Ravenclaw — is possible but I think it may have at least as much to do with the alchemical symbolism.

How did I make this mistake — and repeat it for almost a decade of talks? I think there are three reasons.

(1) Exeter conditioning: the prep school I went to had a red lion mascot. I think of lions as being red.

(2) Narnia Trips: I have spent just enough time in the alternate reality of C. S. Lewis’ Narniad that it’s a stretch for me not to think of emblems and symbols featuring lions, as in King Peter’s silver shield, as having a red lion on them rather than an Aslan-like golden hue.

(3) Seeing what you want to see: the ‘red lion’ in alchemical lore and Christian art has a special resonance and meaning that helped my argument in the Potter Panic war with the Harry Haters. ‘Gold’ certainly has an alchemical and Christian meaning in itself that is helpful and traditional (the griffin in Dante’s Purgatorio is golden, etc.) but it doesn’t have the association that the red lion has.

Which is to say, I saw what I wanted to see. Doggone it.

Thanks again to Kati for this find and for the kind way she shared my gaffe with me. It’s still crow I’m eating but it’s not quite as humiliating when I learn of my mistakes with an “oh, by the way..” rather than via a bashing.

If anyone has a copy of How Harry Cast His Spell, let us know if the mistake Kati found in Looking for God also made it into the updated edition….


  1. I’ll have to check when I get home, but I seem to remember something along those lines (that I didn’t catch at the time) in How Harry Cast His Spell… (Which is my favorite of your books by the way – I’m still in awe over the fact that no one else seems to catch that even Voldemort never invokes evil spirits to do his magic… it’s like DUH! yet we’re all fumbling around for other things to point to why Harry’s ok, when it’s right there in front of our faces!)

  2. p19 of How Harry Cast His Spell = red lion (though may I comment as one who has been working on my presentation for replacing wands with quills – if these are the only major errors you have from dealing with a lot more info (over so many books) I am greatly impressed!)

  3. Hi John, it’s been ages since I’ve read or posted on here! Good to see you’re still active 😉

  4. Perelandra says

    John, I must confess that I’ve had problems keeping the colors straight myself. Gryffindor’s arms reverse those of Scotland, which show a red lion on a golden field (with a red bordeur). The golden lion v. silver snake, red field against green field point up the opposition between Gryffindor and Slythrin. No other pair of houses has this relationship. Note that Slythrin has the only secondary color while the other three are primaries. Green is produced from blue and yellow but red has no part in it. Is this why the colors of Hufflepuff are black and yellow instead of black and silver or white like a natural badger? This also distinguishes them from the arms of Black. (There is a rare heraldic white that doesn’t stand in for silver.)

    Hogwarts heraldry deviates from conventional Muggle rules in that bronze is not a traditional metal nor yellow (not standing in for gold) a proper color. The decorative elements on the fields aren’t mentioned in the text and would therefore be artistic license.

  5. Will Sprague says

    Hey John,

    Just by way of addition to the discussion of the lion and the coloring..:

    The griffins that pull Beatrice’s chariot at the end of Dante’s Purgatorio have two “natures”, the divine is golden (the eagle) and the human (the lion) is red and white:

    “… drawn by a griffin… He kept both wings raised high… His wings rose higher than my sight could rise; the parts of him that were a bird were gold and all the rest was white, with deep red marks.” – Dante, Purgatorio, XXIX, 108-114 (tr. Mark Musa).

    Can’t get much more alchemical than that!

    Dante is rebuked, repents, dipped in Lethe for memories to be wiped away, takes communion looking into Beatrice’s green eyes and seeing the griffin’s two natures alternating but unchanging, etc. as has been shown already to link with Snape (and Slughorn), I just didn’t see if the coloring had been hammered out already…

    It doesn’t nullify anything either way, just wanted to throw it out there!

  6. Beatrice Groves says

    Just thought I’d add that Richard I’s arms are generally considered the first heraldic shield of English royalty – interestingly, identical to Gryffindor’s shield: a rampant gold lion on a red field (or background). By his death this had evolved into three gold lions, the heraldic image that remain the royal arms of England. Incidentally, this is expressed heraldically as ‘gules [red], three lions passant guardant or [gold]’ – as ‘gules’ is the heraldic name for red (not gold) is a very rare student of heraldry who hasn’t got red and gold mixed up at some point. You’re in good company!

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