Lion in Culture, Symbols and Literature

African Lion

Lion in Culture and Symbols

The lion, particularly male’s face with mane, is one of the most widely acknowledged animal symbols in human culture. Illustrations have been found from the Upper Paleolithic period, with paintings and carvings from the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves, through almost all ancient and medieval cultures where they once occurred. It has been widely depicted in paintings, sculptures, literature, on national flags, and in present-day films and literature.

Lions have been kept in menageries since the time of Romans and have been a important species sought for exhibition in zoos the world over since the late eighteenth century. Zoos are working together worldwide in breeding programs for the Asiatic subspecies, which is endangered.

Cultural depictions

Cave lions in Chamber of Felines (Lascaux caves)
Cave lions in Chamber of Felines (Lascaux caves)

For humanity lion has been an icon for thousands of years, appearing in cultures across Asia, Africa and Europe. Despite the fact that this cat is known for attacks on humans, it has always enjoyed a positive portrayal in various cultures as a strong but a noble beast. They are commonly referred to as “king of jungle” or “king of beasts”; hence, they have been a popular symbol of royalty and stateliness, as well as a symbol of bravery; these animals have featured in several fables of the sixth century BC Greek storyteller Aesop.

Depictions of lions date back to 32,000 years. The lion-headed ivory carving from Vogelherd cave in the Swabian Alb in southwestern Germany has been found to be about 32,000 years old. They are from the Aurignacian culture, an archaeological culture of the Upper Palaeolithic, located in Europe and southwest Asia. Two lions were shown mating in the Chamber of Felines in 15,000-year-old Paleolithic cave paintings in the Lascaux caves. Cave lions are also portrayed in the Chauvet Cave, discovered in 1994; this has been dated at 32,000 years of age, though it may be of similar or younger age to Lascaux.

A wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjem. Mafdet’s head on the bed where Sennedjem is placed

In ancient times in Egypt lionesses (the fierce hunter) were venerated as the war deities and among those in the Egyptian pantheon are Mafdet, Bast, Menhit, Pakhet, Tefnut, Sekhmet and the Sphinx; Amongst Egyptian pantheon there are also sons of these goddesses such as, Maahes, and as attested by Egyptians as a Nubian deity, Dedun.

Careful examination carried out of the lion deities depicted in many ancient cultures reveals that many of them are lionesses. High regard for the co-operative hunting strategies of lionesses was evident in very ancient times. Most of the lion gates depict lionesses. The Nemean lion was emblematic in Ancient Greece and Rome, symbolized as the constellation and zodiac sign Leo, and described in mythology, where its skin was borne by the hero Heracles.

The lion of Judah on the coat of arms of Jerusalem (Emblem_of_Jerusalem)

Lion is also the biblical emblem of the tribe of Judah and later the Kingdom of Judah. It is contained within Jacob‘s blessing to his fourth son in the penultimate chapter of the Book of Genesis, “Judah is a lion’s whelp; on prey, my son have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him?” (Genesis 49:9). The Asiatic lion makes repeated appearances in the Bible also, most notably as having fought Samson in the Book of Judges. In modern Israel, lion is still a symbol of the capital city of Jerusalem and has been emblazoned on both flag and coat of arms of the city.

Lion was also a leading symbol in ancient Mesopotamia (from Sumer up to Assyrian and Babylonian times), where it was associated with kingship. The classic Babylonian lion motif, found as a statue, carved or painted on walls, is often referred to as the striding lion of Babylon. It was in Babylon where the biblical Daniel is said to have been delivered from the lion’s den.

Singh is an ancient Indian Vedic name for “lion” (Asiatic lion), dating back over 2000 years to ancient India. It was originally used only by the Rajputs, a Hindu Kshatriya or warrior caste since 7th century. After the Khalsa brotherhood was formed in 1699 by the tenth Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikhs also adopted the name “Singh“. As this name was associated with higher classes, and royalty, this action was to combat the prevalent caste system and discrimination as per last name. Today along with millions of Hindu Rajputs it is also used by over 20 million Sikhsworldwide.

Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu on his lap, as Prahlada watches at the left.

In the Puranic texts of Hinduism (Puran are said to be 108 in number, but 18 are most common and popularly read. They are divided into three groups of six), Narasimha (“man-lion”) a half-man and half-lion incarnation (avatar) of Lord Vishnu, is worshiped by his devotees. Narasimha, also spelt as Narasingh, Narasinga (nara = human, singh or simha = lion) meant human figure with head and claws of a lion. According to the mythology Narasimha saved the child devotee Prahlada from his own father, the demon king Hiranyakashypa. Narasimha Avtar is depicted with human torso and lower body, but with a face of lion and powerful feline claws. “Singhasana (singh = Lion, asana = seat)” is the Sanskrit word for throne of a Hindu king in India since antiquity.

A lion-faced dakini, a tantric deity described as a female embodiment of enlightened energy, appears in Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan Buddhist form is known as “Simhamuka” in Sanskrit and Senge Dongma (Wyl. seng ge gdong ma) in Tibetan. Narasimha (above) and Simhamuka has similar meaning — Simha means lion and muka or mukha means face.

The Tibetan Snow Lion (Wylie: gangs seng ge) is a mythical animal of Tibet. It symbolizes fearlessness, unconditional cheerfulness, the eastern quadrant and the element of Earth. It is said to range over mountains, and is commonly pictured as being white with a turquoise mane. It appears on the Flag of Tibet.

Found on numerous coats of arms and flags all over Asia and Europe, the Asiatic lions are also depicted on the National Emblem of India.

Farther south on the Indian subcontinent, the Asiatic lion is also symbolic for the Sinhalese, the ethnic majority of Sri Lanka; the word has come from the Indo-Aryan Sinhala, meaning the “lion people” or “people with lion blood” and refers to the myths regarding the descent of the legendary founder of the Sinhalese people 2500 years ago, the Prince Vijaya. A sword wielding lion is the central figure on the national flag of Sri Lanka.

Asiatic lions are common motif in Chinese art. They were first used in the art during the late Spring and Autumn Period (5th or 6th century BC), and became much more popular during the country’s Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), when imperial guardian lions started to be placed in front of palaces for protection.

Lions have never been native to China, however, Asiatic lions were found in neighboring India as well as western Tibet. Perhaps this is the reason that early representations of lions in China were somewhat unrealistic. Lions found in Indian temples were the model for those portrayed in Chinese art. It is understood that probably traders or the Buddhist priests brought descriptions to China of sculpted lions guarding the entry to temples. Chinese sculptors of that time then used the description to model “Fo-Lions” (“Fo” Chinese for Buddha) temple statues after native dogs (possibly the Tibetan Mastiff) by adding a shaggy mane. Depictions of these “Fo-lions” have been found in Chinese religious art as early as 208 BC. After the Buddhist art was introduced to China, during the Tang Dynasty (after the sixth century AD), lions were usually depicted without wings, their bodies became thicker and shorter, and their manes became curly. The lion dance is a form of traditional dance in Chinese culture in which performers, wearing lion costumes, mimic lion’s movement, often with musical accompaniment from cymbals, drums and gongs. Asiatic lions are the basis of lion dances that are performed at Chinese New Year, the August Moon Festival and other celebratory occasions for good luck.

Singapore (Singapura), the island nation, has derived its name from the Malay words singa (lion) and pura (city), which in turn is taken from the Tamil-Sanskrit singa or simha and pura, which is similar to the Greek pólis. Even in Hindi language meaning of the words is same sing or singh is for lion and pur is for city, locality or town.  According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th century Sumatran Malay prince named Sang Nila Utama. When he landed on the island after a thunderstorm he spotted an auspicious beast on the shore, which his chief minister identified as a lion (Asiatic lion). Recent studies indicate that lions have never been part of Singaporean fauna, and the animal seen by Sang Nila Utama could have been a tiger.

The symbol of the lion is closely tied to the Persian people. Achaemenid kings were known to carry symbol of lion on their thrones and garments. The Shir-va-Khorshid, or Lion and Sun, is one of the most prominent symbols of Iran. It dates back to the Safavid dynasty, and was used on the flag of Iran until 1979.

Aslan” or “Arslan” is the Turkish and Mongolian word for “lion”. It was used as a title by a numerous Seljuk and Ottoman rulers, including Alp Arslan and Ali Pasha, and is a Turkic/Iranian name.

“Lion” was also adopted as the nickname by numerous medieval rulers who had a reputation of great warriors, such as Henry the Lion (German: Heinrich der Löwe), Richard I of England, known as Richard the Lionheart, Duke of Saxony and Robert III of Flanders nicknamed “The Lion of Flanders“—a major Flemish national icon up to the present. Lions are commonly shown on coats of arms, either as a device on shields themselves or as supporters whereas lionesses are not much frequent. Lions are also being used as symbols by various sporting teams around the world.

These animals continue to feature in modern literature as well. From the messianic Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and following books from The Chronicles of Narnia series written by C. S. Lewis, Kenyan lioness Elsa in the movie Born Free, based on the true-life international bestselling book of the same title to the comedic Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are some of the well known examples.

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