The symbolism of the lion

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The figure of the lion has always raised great fascination and concern in human beings because of its majesty and, at the same time, ferocity. It constitutes, from the earliest times, a metaphor of the enemy-animal to defend against in order to safeguard life.

The Lion-man of Holenstein

A particular evidence of this ancestral state of nature is a statuette of only thirty centimeters, made of ivory from mammoth tusks. It is the first symbolic manifestation made by the Homo sapiens, known as the Lion-man of Holenstein. The statuette has a leonine head and upper limbs, while the lower part of the body has human features. The fusion of the two natures, human and animal, takes on a profound apotropaic significance. Human beings, when faced with the precariousness and unpredictability of nature, react by humanizing the lion, so as to exorcise the atavistic fear. Therefore, the lion no longer signifies the uncontrollable danger, but is recoded into a new framework of symbolic meaning that allows for a better acceptance of the state of nature.

Lion-man
The Lion-Man of Hohlenstein

Ancient Egypt

This attitude is also manifested through the definition of the earliest forms of worship, totemism, and then the more complex religions. In Ancient Egypt, for example, representations of deities were intermediate manifestations between the human being, the animal kingdom, and the divine, with which a particular symbolic meaning was associated. Ancient Egyptians believed that there were different and numerous hierophanies of the divine in the visible reality, according to a principle of immanence; each natural phenomenon corresponded to a specific deity.

The lion, “Great King” of the animal world, assumed a sacred role. Egyptians saw in it Sekhmet, deity of war, epidemics and healing, the generating principle of ferocity and destructive violence. The goddess was depicted with the head of a lioness and red robes, which sometimes revealed breasts in the form of stylized rosettes. Sekhmet watched over Ra’s boat against enemies who wanted to prevent the rising of the Sun.

The divinity Sekhmet

Lion in Judaism

The symbolism of the lion has a predominant significance even in the Jewish religion, through an intricate corpus of biblical references. The animal, present in the Middle Eastern highlands until at least the late Middle Ages, was to represent a cohabitant as fearsome as fascinating to the people of Israel. This dual nature is found in Old Testament descriptions, where the lion is a figurative expression of God the judge:

“The lion roars – who will not be afraid! The lord God speaks – who will not prophesy!”

Amos 3,8

This symbolism inspired the coat of arms of the Tribe of Judah, the Jacob’s fourth son, from whose lineage King David descended.

“Judah, like a lion’s whelp, you have grown up on prey, my son. He crouches like a lion recumbent, the king of beasts – who would dare rouse him? The scepter shall never depart from Judah, or the mace from between his legs, while tribute is brought to him, and he receives the people’s homage”.

Genesis, 49, 9-10

However, the lion is also a metaphor for sin and its consequences:

“As a lion crouches in wait for prey, so do sins for evildoers”.

Sirach, 27,10

The Jewish Messiah

Also, in the Book of Hosea, it is prophesied that God’s judgment will come like a lion toward sinners:

“For I am like a lion to Ephraim, like a young lion to the house of Judah; It is I who rend the prey and depart, I carry it away and no one can save it from me. I will go back to my place until they pay for their guilt and seek my presence”.

Hosea, 5, 14-15

God himself, therefore, assumes kingship and elicits the fearful respect that were ascribed to the animal. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew term for lion ‘ryh if read backwards becomes hyr‘, meaning fear. The Word of God is thus “lion’s roar,” as written in Proverbs1.

Judaism prophetically addresses the expectation of the Messiah (mashiach), the “anointed king of the Lord” who can rule his people toward an era of peace and prosperity. The Messiah does not have divine connotations, but is sent by God to elevate the human condition in an anthropological sense. The Hebrews await the king who will enable them to overcome the condition of nature, the primordial uncertainty in the face of life’s inevitability. They prefigure a kind of messianic man-lion who could reconcile nature with man, giving a permanent order to the world and bringing justice to enemies.

The lion in Christianity

While Judaism is addressed to messianic expectation, Christianity affirms the fulfillment of revelation in Jesus Christ, man and God at the same time. Christ is a descendant of the Tribe of Judah, and consequently belongs to the lineage of David:

“One of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed, enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals”.

Revelation, 5,5

Here the symbolism of the lion becomes Christ. The Messiah did not come to establish a terrestrial kingdom in the Jewish manner; his mission is not reconciliation with the wilderness, but is to go even further.

According to the Holy Scriptures, Christ dies on the Cross and then resurrects; this event thus enables the overcoming of the state of nature. Above all, he deals with and solves man’s deepest problem, the state of death, intended in both a physical and ontological sense. Christ is the true Messiah; he is lion since he rules over nature that is beyond nature.

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

Nevertheless, in the New Testament the lion still preserves its ambivalent nature: on one hand it symbolizes Christ fighting the dragon, on the other hand it personifies the devil:

“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for (someone) to devour”.

1 Peter, 5,8
lion
The lion as a symbol of the devil and the sin

From the earliest sources on which the medieval bestiary is based, such as the 2nd-3rd century Alexandrian Physiologus2, the lion is thus an emblem of the deadly sins, a metaphor for concupiscence of the flesh and pride.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

  1. Book of Proverbs 20,2. ↩︎
  2. Il Fisiologo, a cura di Francesco Zambon, Milano, Adelphi, 1975. ↩︎
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