Coconut Shells and Griffin Eggs

When it comes to wealth, very little has changed over the centuries. Jewellery, works of art and exquisite furniture have filled collections from early times to the current day. In modern times, a list of the items in a collection might be assembled  for insurance purposes. In the past, sometimes a list was required just to know everything that a King had acquired and where it was kept, such as the 1379-80 inventory of King Charles V of France’s collection.[ref]

Interpreting Objects and Collections Susan M. Pearce – Psychology Press, 1994 [/ref]

Inventories of Noble families collections in the past occasionally reveal strange objects. One thing that was deemed valuable was a drinking cup crafted from the coconut shell. These days you can buy a coconut at the local supermarket, but during the middle ages, to reach Europe, a coconut would have to travel thousands of miles via the trans-Asian silk roads, making it an extremely scarce commodity. [ref] [/ref] Even by the 16th century when the Portuguese were importing coconuts via sea, they were still a rare and expensive object. The shells were fashioned into goblets and decorated with jewels and metalwork.

Coconut cup, Hungarian circa 1650

Coconut cup, Hungarian circa 1650 from the Metropolitan of Museum of Art collection. Distributed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

But an even rarer object was bequeathed by John Hill of Spaxton in Sommerset to his son in 1434 [ref] The Archaeological Journal, Longman, 1846 p264 [/ref], namely a griffin’s egg cup. Now in reality, it may have been an Ostrich egg, but in a place where a coconut shell was a marvel, who was to doubt the authenticity of a griffin? Both were meant to come from far distant lands, lands that a person in the middle ages could never hope to travel to.  And while a griffin was meant to be imbued with magical powers, so too a coconut was supposed to hold magical healing properties.

horns of a Capra ibex

Not Griffin claws, but the horns of a Capra ibex (photo by Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden). Distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Meanwhile, in 1383 a griffin’s claw was listed in the inventory of St Cuthbert’s shrine [ref] Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 1883, vol. ix, p250. [/ref]. While often, what was passed off as a griffin claw was actually the horn of an ibex, stop for a moment and think of the wonder of a viewer who speculated on the size and grandeur of the full sized creature. A ‘griffin’ claw is held in the collection of the British Museum.


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