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Lion statue in front of Brunswick Cathedral (referring to Henry the Lion)

Lions have been an important symbol for thousands of years and appear as a theme in cultures across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Despite the recorded incidents of attacks on humans, lions enjoy positive depiction in popular culture as creatures that appear strong, but gentle at the same time. The most consistent depiction is in keeping with their image of "king of the jungle" or "king of the beasts", hence lions are popular symbols of royalty and stateliness and a symbol of bravery.


in religion and mythology


First depictions

Sekhmet, from the temple of Mut at Luxor, 1403-1365 BC
Cave Lions, Chamber of Felines, Lascaux caves

The earliest recorded depictions of lions can be found in some of the earliest paleolithic human cave art possibly dating to 32,000 years ago in the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France, where lionesses are depicted hunting for the pride in much the same strategy as contemporary lions. [1] Some have proposed a more conservative estimate in line with the better known cave paintings of Lascaux, that are 15,000 years old.[2] In the Lascaux, two lions were depicted mating in the Chamber of Felines. The ivory carving from Vogelherd cave in the Swabian Alb in southwestern Germany has been determined to be about 32,000 years old from the Aurignacian culture.

Found first in Ancient Egypt the sphinx, which had the head and shoulders of a human and the body of a lioness, represented the goddess who was the protector of the pharaohs. Later pharaohs were depicted as sphinxes, being thought as the offspring of the deity. Bast (cat goddess of protection and the eye of Ra) originally was depicted as a lioness.[3]

The war goddess Sekhmet typically was depicted as woman with a lioness head or, just as a lioness.[3] During the New Kingdom the Nubian gods Maahes (god of war and protection and the son of Bast) and Dedun (god of incense, hence luxury and wealth) were depicted as lions. Maahes was absorbed into the Egyptian pantheon, and had a temple at the city Leontopolis "City of Lions" in Lower Egypt attached to that of the temple of his mother. Dedun was not absorbed into the Egyptian religion and remained a Nubian deity. The Egyptians held that a sacred lioness was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile.[3]

Lions were represented in other middle-eastern cultures. In ancient Mesopotamia it was regarded as a symbol of kingship.[4] The Dying Lioness is a relief panel from 650 BCE, Nineveh (modern day Iraq) depicting a half-paralyzed lioness pierced with arrows, while the Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been represented driving a chariot drawn by seven lions.[3] Ishtar's Sumerian analogue Inanna was frequently depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses.

The Lion Gate (detail) of Mycenae - two lionesses flank the central column

Ancient sculptures

Lions have been widely used in sculpture and statuary to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings.[5][6] This usage dates back to the origin of civilization.[7] There are lions at the entrances of cities and sacred sites from Mesopotamian cultures; notable examples include the Lion Gate of ancient Mycenae in Greece that has two lionesses flanking a column that represents a deity,[8] and the gates in the walls of the Hittite city of Bogazköy, Turkey.[6]

Classical period

The most notable lion of Ancient Greek mythology was the Nemean lion, killed barehanded by Heracles, who subsequently bore the pelt as an invulnerable magic cloak.[9] [10] This lion is also said to be represented by the constellation of Leo, and also the sign of the Zodiac.

Lions are known in many cultures as the king of animals, which can be traced to the classical book Physiologus. In his fables, the famed Greek story teller Aesop utilized the lion's symbolism of power and strength in The Lion and the Mouse and Lion's Share.

Daniel's Answer to the King by Briton Rivière, R.A. (1840-1920), 1890 (Manchester City Art Gallery).

Biblical references and Christian tradition

Several Biblical accounts document the presence of lions, and cultural perception of them in ancient Palestine. The best known Biblical account featuring lions comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 6), where Daniel is thrown into a den of lions and miraculously survives.

A lesser known Biblical account features Samson who kills a lion with his bare hands, later sees bees nesting in its carcass, and poses a riddle based on this unusual incident to test the faithfulness of his fiancee (Judges 14).

The prophet Amos said (Amos, 3, 8): "The lion hath roared, who will not fear? the Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?", i.e., when the gift of prophecy comes upon a person, he has no choice but to speak out.

In 1 Peter 5:8, the Devil is compared to a roaring lion "seeking someone to devour."[11][12]

In Christian tradition, Mark the Evangelist, the author of the second gospel is symbolized by a lion - a figure of courage and monarchy. Mark has John the Baptist preaching "like a lion roaring" at the beginning of his Gospel. It also represents Jesus' Resurrection (because lions were believed to sleep with open eyes, a comparison with Christ in the tomb), and Christ as king. Some Christian legends refer to Saint Mark as "Saint Mark The Lionhearted". These probably false legends say that he was fed to the Lions and the animals refused to attack or eat him. Instead the Lions slept at his feet, while he petted them. When the Romans saw this, they released him, spooked by the sight.

Arthurian Legend

In a key scene of "Yvain, the Knight of the Lion" (French: Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion), a romance by Chrétien de Troyes, the hero is depicted as rescuing a lion from a serpent.

Subsequently, the lion proves to be a loyal companion and a symbol of knightly virtue, and helps Yvain complete his altruistic ventures. In the happy end, the lion comes to dwell with Yvain and his wife Laudine at their castle.

A Qing-era guardian lion pair within the Forbidden City.


The common motif of the "majestic and powerful" lion was introduced to China by buddhist missionaries from India, somewhere in the 1st Century AD [1]. Lions themselves, however, are not native to China, yet appear in the art of China and the Chinese people believe that lions protect humans from evil spirits, hence the Chinese New Year Lion dance to scare away demons and ghosts. Chinese guardian lions are frequently used in sculpture in traditional Chinese architecture. For instance, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, two lion statues are seen in almost every door entrance.

Lions feature prominently in the Tibetan culture with a pair of Snow Lions seen on the Tibetan flag. The Snow Lions are mythical creatures that are seen as protector entities. The Snow Lion symbolizes fearlessness, unconditional cheerfulness, east, and the Earth element. It is one of the Four Dignities. It ranges over the mountains, and is commonly pictured as being white with a turquoise mane.

Lions (獅子, shishi) feature prominently in many kabuki plays and other forms of Japanese legend and traditional tales.

The island nation of Singapore (Singapura) derives its name from the Malay words singa (lion) and pura (city), which in turn is from the Tamil-Sanskrit சிங்க singa सिंह siṃha and पुर புர pura.[13] According to the Malay Annals, this name was given by a 14th century Sumatran Malay prince named Sang Nila Utama, who, on alighting the island after a thunderstorm, spotted an auspicious beast on shore that his chief minister identified as a lion (Asiatic Lion). [14] Recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there, and the beast seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger.

India and Sri Lanka

Flag of Sri Lanka

Narasimha ("man-lion") (also spelt as Narasingh, Narasinga) is described as an incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism and is worshiped as "Lion God" thus Indian or Asiatic Lions which were commonly found throughout most of India in ancient times are considered sacred by all Hindus in India.

Singh is an ancient Indian vedic name meaning "Lion" (Asiatic Lion), dating back over 2000 years to ancient India. It was originally only used by Rajputs, a Hindu Kshatriya or military caste in India. After the birth of the Khalsa brotherhood in 1699, the Sikhs also adopted the name "Singh" due to the wishes of Guru Gobind Singh. Along with millions of Hindu Rajputs and numerous other Hindu martial groups today, it is also used by over 20 million Sikhs worldwide[15][16]. The appellation of the name Singh was used by the Rajputs before being adopted by the Sikhs in 1699. [17] Therefore, all "Singh"s in Indian history before 1699 are Hindu and mainly Rajputs; after 1699, Singhs from the Punjab are mostly Sikhs, while the Singhs from the Shivalik hill ranges of Punjab (also Kangra, Chamba, Simla) are mainly Rajputs.

A page from Kelileh va Demneh dated 1429, from Herat, a Persian translation of the Panchatantra — depicts the manipulative jackal-vizier, trying to lead his lion-king into war.

Found famously on numerous flags and coat of arms all across Asia and Europe, the Asiatic Lions also stand firm on the Emblem of India.

The lion is symbolic for the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's ethnic majority; the term derived from the Indo-Aryan Sinhala, meaning the "lion people" or "people with lion blood", while a sword wielding lion is the central figure on the modern national flag of Sri Lanka.

The entrance to Sigiriya, the Lion-Rock of Sri Lanka, was through the Lion Gate, the mouth of a Stone Lion. The paws of the lion can still be seen today. It is one of 7 World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.

Southeast Asia

Lion guardian of Borobudur.

Statue of a pair of lions often founds in temples in Southeast Asia as the gate guardian. In Borobudur buddhist monument Central Java, Indonesia andesite stone statues of lions guarding four main entrances of Borobudur. The statue of winged lion also found in Penataran temple East Java, as well as in Bali. In Myanmar, the statue of lion guarding the stupas, pagodas, and buddhist temples in Bagan.

in art

in heraldry

Coat of arms of England

The lion is a common charge in heraldry, traditionally symbolizing courage.[19] The following positions of heraldic lions are recognized:[20]

  • rampant
  • guardant
  • reguardant
  • passant
  • statant
  • couchant
  • salient
  • sejant
  • dormant

The lion holds historical significance for English heraldry and symbolism. The Three Lions was a symbol for Richard the Lionheart, and later, for England. For many centuries the lion had been a feature of the Armorial of Plantagenet of the House of Plantagenet, and is still worn by both the England national football team and England cricket team.

A heraldic lion depicted as 'Dormant'

The Lion Rampant continues to be used widely today; the Royal Standard of Scotland has given rise to its use as the emblem for the Scotland national football team and Rangers and Dundee United of the Scottish Premier League, as well as Aston Villa in the English Premier League; and not only sport but businesses such as the French car company Peugeot, the international beer company Lion Nathan, and Caledonian MacBrayne ferries. Arising from heraldic use, the Red Lion is also a popular pub name, with over 600 pubs bearing the name.[21] A rarer inn name is the White Lion, derived from Edward VI or the Duke of Norfolk.[21] Though the Lion Rampant appears on the Lyon coat of arms and flag, the French city's name has an unrelated derivation despite the similarity.

In the Middle Ages, when lions became a major element in heraldry, few Europeans had any chance to see actual lions. The lions were, for them, nearly as much as legendary anumals as were dragons or gryffins, also commonly appearing on coats of arms.


National currencies of three countries in Europe are named after the lion. The name of Romanian and Moldovan leu (/leŭ/, plural: lei /lej/) means "lion" in Romanian language. The Bulgarian lev (Bulgarian: лев, plural: лева, левове / leva, levove), the currency of Bulgaria, has the same etymology.

A lion appears on the South African 50-Rand banknotes (see South African rand).

Ship names

No less the eighteen consecutive ships of the British Royal Navy bore the name HMS Lion. Also various other navies used the name for their vessels, as did civil shipping companies.

Place names

  • Singapore's name is the Anglicised form of the original Sanskrit-derived Malay name Singapura, which means 'Lion City'. Malay mythology describes how the founder-prince of Singapore (then called 'Temasek') sighted a strange red and black beast with a mane when he first set ashore the island. Believing it to be a lion and a good omen (although lions were not known to exist anywhere in Southeast Asia) he renamed the island Singapura. The lion features on the Singapore national coat of arms and is also the nickname of the national football team. 'Lion City' is also a common moniker for the city-state.
  • Using Leon (lion) as a placename started in Ancient Greece; several locations in Greece itself had the name (Greek:: Λέων) as well as a Greek colony in Sicily.
  • León, Spain is an important city and the capital of a province of the same name.
  • Derived from the Spanish original, there are numerous towns, cities and provinces in Spanish-speaking countries with this name (notably Nuevo León in Mexico). There are also numerous towns and counties of this name in the United States, and the name occurs as "Léon" also in French place names - see Leon.
  • The name of Leeuwarden, capital of the Dutch province of Friesland, has nothing to do with the Dutch word for "lion" ("leeuw"), but is composed of "luw" or "liw" ("lee", "shelter") and "werd" or "waard" ("foreland") (see
  • Kiryat Aryeh (קרית אריה), "Lion City" in Hebrew, is part of the Israeli city of Petah Tikva (see [2]).
  • Lviv, the major city of western Ukraine, is named for Prince Lev I of Galicia. Lev is a common Slavic name meaning "lion". The Latin name for Lviv is Leopolis, meaning "Lion City".
  • Despite common misconception, the name of the French city of Lyon is a corruption of Lugdunum, a Latin term meaning light.

Modern culture


In Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, the lion is used as a metaphor to describe a human who rebels against old knowledge, to make a new morality possible. The morality of the overman.

The lion's symbolism continues in fantasy literature. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz features the Cowardly Lion, who is particularly ashamed of his cowardice because of his cultural role as the King of the Beasts.[22] Aslan, the "Greatest Lion" is the central figure in C.S. Lewis' Narnia series.[23] The word aslan is Turkish for lion. The lion is also the symbol for Gryffindor house, the house of bravery, in the J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back is a 1963 children's book written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein. Lions also tend to appear in several children's stories, being depicted as "the king of the jungle", when, in fact, there are actually no lions whatsoever that live in jungle regions as they mostly tend to inhabit savanna like areas or dry deciduous forests.

In award-winning children's picture book, Charlie and Mama Kyna, Leo, the lion, befriends and journeys home with Charlie in vivid illustrations.


The lion's role as King of the Beasts has been utilized in cartoons, from the 1960s Leonardo Lion of King Leonardo and his Short Subjects to the 1994 Disney animated feature film The Lion King.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios have used a lion as their logo since 1924. Five different lions have played Leo the Lion, the lion seen at the start of every MGM film.[24]

  • In 1966, the live action picture Born Free appeared, based on the true story from the bestselling book of the same title. It covered the story of the Kenyan lioness Elsa, and the efforts of Joy Adamson and her game-warden husband George in training the lioness for release back into the wild.
  • The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) is a movie set in 1898. It is based on the true story of two lions in Africa that killed 130 people over a nine month period during the construction of a railroad bridge across the Tsavo River in what is now Kenya. The two lions, both males, were given the names 'The Ghost' and 'The Darkness' by the local natives.[25]
  • In 2005, the Kenyan lioness Kamuniak captured international attention when she adopted oryx calves, an animal species that is normally preyed upon by lions. She fought off predators and lion prides who attempted to eat her charges. Kamuniak's story was captured in the Animal Planet special "Heart of a Lioness".[26]

Most Famous Lioness

Elsa the Lioness is certainly the most famous lion ever, having been written about in three books which were all bestsellers and featured in a major motion picture titled Born Free which won two Academy Awards and was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards. Elsa the Lioness is known to millions and shows a personal relationship with humans, notably Joy and George Adamson, that was never before imagined.

Modern symbolism

The lion is a popular sporting mascot or symbol, not only for sports but also businesses and other entities; Patience and Fortitude, are the large stone lions outside the main branch of the New York Public Library, and are the mascots of the New York and Brooklyn Public Library system. A modified heraldic lion is the emblem of Australian car company Holden, an iconic Australian brand.[27]

The Flag of Iran bore the Lion and Sun from 1946 to 1979.[28]

In Brazil, the lion is a popular symbol of the income tax.

At the 1966 FIFA World Cup and the 2006 FIFA World Cup, both contained lions as their mascot

Some Ford Motor Company motor vehicles of the 1960s and 1970s featured a lion as part of the car emblem e.g. the Ford Torino, Ford LTD, Mercury Marquis, and Ford XL.

See also


  1. ^ Packer, Craig; Clottes, Jean (November 2000). "When Lions Ruled France" (PDF). Natural History: 52–57. Retrieved 2007-08-27.  
  2. ^ Züchner, Christian (September 1998). "Grotte Chauvet Archaeologically Dated". International Rock Art Congress IRAC ´98 - Vila Real – Portugal. Retrieved 2007-08-27.  
  3. ^ a b c d Garai, Jana (1973). The Book of Symbols. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 671-21773-9.  
  4. ^ Cassin, Elena (1981). "Le roi et le lion" (PDF). Revue de l'histoire des religions 298 (198-4): 355-401. Retrieved 2009-12-03.  
  5. ^ "The Art Institute of Chicago". The Chicago Traveller. 2007
  6. ^ a b "The Hidden Language of Anatolia". Skylife Magazine, 2001
  7. ^ "Iraqi Multi-National Force & Corps Logos, Ancient Assyro-Babylonian Images". Zinda Magazine, 2004.
  8. ^ Matthews, Kevin (2007). Lion Gate. Great Buildings Online.
  9. ^ Graves, R (1955). "The First Labour:The Nemean Lion". Greek Myths. London: Penguin. pp. 465–469. ISBN 0-14-001026-2.  
  10. ^ Leadbetter, Ron (7 May 2001). "Nemean Lion". Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved 2007-07-20.  
  11. ^ C.A.W. Guggisberg, Simba
  12. ^ Wikisource:Bible (American Standard)/1 Peter#Chapter 5 Verse 8
  13. ^ "Singapore". Retrieved 2006-04-14.  
  14. ^ "Early History". Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, Singapore. Retrieved 2006-04-14.  
  15. ^ Dr. McCleod, Head of Sikh Studies, Department of South Asian Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  16. ^ Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Volume I
  17. ^ A History of the Sikh People (1469-1988) by Dr. Gopal Singh Isbn: 8170231396
  18. ^ "Coat of arms of Dacia (medieval)".  
  19. ^ Wade, W. Cecil (1898). Symbolisms of Heraldry. London: Kessinger Publishing. p. 168. ISBN 0766141683.  
  20. ^ "Heraldic Dictionary:Beasts". University of Notre Dame. Retrieved 2007-07-20.  
  21. ^ a b Dunkling L, Wright G (1994) [1987]. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Reference. ISBN 1-85326-334-6.  
  22. ^ L. Frank Baum, Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Wizard of Oz, p 148, ISBN 0-517-500868
  23. ^ Lewis, C.S. (1950). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-023481-4.  
  24. ^ "TV ACRES: Advertising Mascots - Animals - Leo the MGM Lion (MGM Studios)". TV Acres.  
  25. ^ The Ghost and the Darkness Were Their Names on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
  26. ^ Heart of a Lioness
  27. ^ Superbrands:An Insight into more than 80 of Australia's Superbrands - Volume II. Sydney: Stephen P. Smith. 1999. ISBN 0-9577000-0-8.  
  28. ^ Shahbazi, A. Shapur (2001). "Flags". Encyclopedia Iranica. 10. Costa Mesa: Mazda.  


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