Cultural depictions of lion
People have used lions as a symbol for thousands of years. Depictions of lions are a millennium old and appear in cultures across Africa, Asia, Europe and throughout the globe. The lion symbolizes various things in different cultures and religions. They appear in the stories of tribes as a wise leader who leads with confidence. In some regions, lion causes fear because of the power it wields and the fact that it walks in silent moccasins. Most cultures use the lion in a figurative sense. The same applies to nations. For instance, the king is frightening, the soldier courageous, leaders vicious, enemy nations destructive, and personal enemies stealthy. The Flag of Iran bore the Sun and Lion until 1979 from the year 1946. The coat of arms of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, India, Spain, and Sweden has the depiction of the lion.
In ancient Egypt, the lion is the brutal heat of the sun. The Egyptian goddess called Eye of Ra who is the power that annihilates the wicked and protects the good had the likeness of the lion. The ancient Egyptian sphinx had a lioness’s body and head and shoulders of a human, which was a symbol of the goddess who shielded the Pharaohs in the afterlife. Later, they thought Pharaohs were the deity’s offspring and so ancient Egyptians depicted Pharaohs as sphinxes.
The playful goddess of protection and dance appeared as having the head of a lioness instead of a domesticated cat. The fierce friend to children and women, Bast and Sekhmet’s son, Maahes, the war god, had lion likeness, so did many other beings in the Egyptian pantheon. The people in Egypt even portrayed Bast as a lioness. Egyptian culture represents lion back to back facing west and east to track the sun’s movement across the sky, simultaneously symbolizing tomorrow and yesterday, as well as rebirth and death.
The meaning of lions in Britain is shown in heraldic art as a universal emblem of British sovereigns because of the lion-like traits such as bravery, honor, leadership, royalty and strength. The lion is common in heraldry appearing either as puissant, rampant, curled up, standing, or rearing on the hind legs. Some iconography separates the lion symbol into two types. The lion with a straight mane depicts a longer, larger body and symbolizes fierceness, whereas the one with the curly hair represents a timider nature.
Ancient Greek myth indicates that the king of beasts drew the chariots for their gods and goddesses such as Artemis, Cybele, Dionysus, and Phoebus. Greek myth links lion to Heracles and the epic wrestling match with a lion, which no weapon on earth could harm. In this context, the animal is death, killed by the solar hero with his bare hands after which Heracles wore its skin as armor. Lions are known for its stalwart fearlessness and hence were viewed as vigilant guards even of the dead. Their statues are in the entrances of buildings and doorways of palaces, thrones, and shrines. Here, the symbolic meaning revolved around protection.
Middle Eastern art and stories show the lion as high kings. The goddesses and gods in this region had lion companions. Examples include Inanna who stands on two female lions’ backs and Ishtar with a chariot that is lion-drawn alluding to the feline as an emblem of authority and strength. The connection strengthens when we see the entrance to temples and great cities with flanking statues and lion gates as protectors.
For the Hopi, the lion is a sacred guardian of the tribe whom they look for advice during rituals. They depict him as a hunter who is fearless and vigorous in the face of challenges. For the Navajo tribes, the lion spirit is a guardian and protector.
Chinese Buddhist portray the king of beasts as a being of great majesty. They believed that lions safeguard humans from demons and ghosts. Therefore, the architecture throughout the country includes lions at entryways, standing guard. The Buddha sits upon the lion as a throne of wisdom, strength, and consistency. In one of the incarnations, Buddha looked like a lion.
In a Christian context, the lion is a symbol of the power of God. To most Christians, the lion can be the might and power of Christ or the open orifice of Satan. Christianity represents Jesus’ human and divine natures through the lion. The religion assigns the front half the divinity and majesty of Christ’s holy nature, and the comparatively weaker hindquarters Christ’s humanity. The symbolism of lions also deals with conversion and resurrection in Christianity. The meaning comes from the observation of lion cubs. People believed that the young of lions were born dead and that they came alive when the father lion passed its breath upon it. It was symbolic in Christianity as the father lion represented Jesus Christ and his breath represented the spirit flowing into the children awakening their minds to God’s light.
The lion in Hinduism is an avatar of Vishnu. The “pot-bellied lion” is a symbol of blind greed.
As an alchemy symbol, the symbolic lion takes on many representations. They gave the symbolic lion the highly prized and idealistic attributes of gold as well as the untreated raw material. In alchemical texts, a green colored lion indicates matter which is the starting point of transformation. When illustrated in red, the alchemical lion means Sulphur which speaks about the eternal aspiration to reach enlightenment and the multiplicity of human nature.
In astrology, the lion indicates the zodiac sign of Leo. They are a proud lot and know their place in the world. They have a natural knack for leadership and commanding communication skills. Leo personalities can come on as very assertive. Interestingly, the assertiveness mellows in older age when they become more easy-going and playful. Those born under the zodiac sign Leo are in control, fiercely independent and confident with a quiet demeanor. Most Leos tend to be influential and creative forces with the power to make positive changes in themselves and the lives of others. Leos have a strong sense of community and family and gain a sense of identity within their groups. Leo is a very loyal person and will defend family honor and friend to the death.
The cultural depictions of the lion are a global phenomenon found all over the world.