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The symbology of the lion

From the beginnings of civilization the lion and its symbolism have always aroused fascination and disquiet, due to the majesty and wildness of the animal. It certainly represents the enemy-animal against which man, since his origins, had to defend himself to safeguard his life. 

The Holenstein Lion-Man

A statue of only 30 centimeters, in ivory obtained from mammoth tusks, is one of the anciest witnesses of the ancestral state of nature of our ancestors. It is the first symbolic expression by the Homo Sapiens, known as the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein. The statue has a leonine head and upper limbs, and a lower human part. The combination of the two human and animal natures has a deep apotropaic meaning. In face of the precariousness and unpredictability of nature, the human being reacts by exorcising the atavistic fear of his existence through the humanization of the lion. It is the signification of the uncontrolled danger, recodified in a symbolic  frame that allows a better acceptation of the state of nature. 

The Lion-Man of Hohlenstein

The Ancient Egypt 

In Ancient Egypt animals had a deep dimension. The Egyptian divinities, in fact, were a complex expression of the combination between man and the divinity: the representation of the divinities in the forms of animals or men had a particular symbolic meaning. Ancient Egyptians believed that there were multiple visible realities and manifestations of the divine, according to a principle of immanence. Every natural phenomenon then corresponded to a precise divinity. 

Even the “Great King” of the animal world assumed a sacred role. For the Egyptians, Sekhmet, divinity of the war, epidemics and healings, generator principle of the ferocity and disruptive violence, was symbolized by a lion. In fact the divinity was presented by a female figure with a lioness head, red dresses which sometimes allowed a glimpse of breasts in the shape of stylized rosettes, which was a typical leonine symbolic expression. She watched over the Ra boat against the enemies who ideally prevented the rising of the Sun. 

The divinity Sekhmet

The Lion in the Judaism 

A symbology of the lion also appeared in the Jewish religion, by a complex of biblic references to the Old Testament. It was present in the Middle Eastern highlands until the Middle Age, and it was considered a scary and fascinating animal from the people of Israel. This double nature appears also in the Old Testament, where the lion is a figurative expression of God’s judge (“The lion has roared– who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken– who can but prophesy?”) [Am 3: 8] but also of the sin and its consequences (A lion lies in wait for prey; so does sin for the workers of iniquity”) [Sir 27: 10].

With reference to the first acception, the leonine coat of arms of the Tribe of Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, is explained. It is the lineage of the King David and also of Jesus Christ. 

Judah is a young lion, my son, you return from the prey. Like a lion he crouches and lies down; like a lioness, who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah,  nor the staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes and the allegiance of the nations is his.” [Genesis 49:9]

The Jewish Messiah

It is prophesied that the God’s judgement will strike down like a lion to sinners: 

For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a great lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces and go away; I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them. Then I will return to my lair until they have borne their guilt and seek my face– in their misery they will earnestly seek me.” [Hosea 5: 14-15].

God assumes the connotations of royalty and fearful respect attributed to the animal. It’s not a coincidence that the Hebrew term to indicate the lion, ‘ryh, when read backwards, becomes hyr’ which means fear. Even the God’s Word is like the roar of a lion [Pr 20: 2].

In its historical and Old Testament version, Judaism is prophetically addressed to the waiting for the Messiah (mashiach), the King “anointed of the Lord”, who could rule his people towards an era of peace and prosperity. The Messiah has not divine connotations, but he is sent by God to solve the human condition, in a strictly anthropological sense. Jews are still waiting for the King who could help in overcoming the human condition, the primordial uncertainty in front of the unquestionable nature of life. Similarly the Holenstein men foreshadowed a messianic lion-men, the only one who could reconcile nature with man, by providing a permanent order to the world and do justice to their enemies. 

The lion in Christianity 

In Christianity the waiting for the Messiah is like an already completed revelation. It is embodied by the Messiah Jesus Christ, a man with a divine nature. Christ is a descendant of the Tribe of Judah as well as the kings of David’s lineage: 

“Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed to open the scroll and its seven seals.” [Revelation 5: 5].

Hence, the symbolism of the lion belongs to Christ; however the Messiah has not come to establish a terrestrial reign like for in the Jews vision.  The mission of Christ is not the reconciliation with the wild nature, to do justice against the enemies, but it is to go even further

He dies on the cross but he rises, and it allows the overcoming of a deep issue related to the physical and inner state of death, not a simple state of nature. Christ is the Messiah, is a lion, since he wins over nature that goes beyond nature. 

The stone lions in the central door of the Modena Cathedral, symbolism of Christ watching over the entrance to the Church.


However, the lion assumes a double nature in the New Testament: from one side, it is symbol of Christ who fights against the serpent or the dragon; from the other side the lion personifies the devil: 

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” [Peter, 1].

The lion as a symbol of the devil and the sin

It is emblem of the deadly sins, symbol of the lust of the flesh and pride. 

Daniela Campus and Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

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