“Danger hides in beauty and beauty in danger.”
— Belva Plain (1915 – 2010)
Although the role of lions in ancient culture were later mostly confined to being slain with lances and spears, the lioness has been an important symbol to humans for tens of thousands of years and appear as a theme in cultures across Europe, Asia and Africa. The earliest historical records in Egypt present an established religious pantheon that included a lioness as one of the most powerful cultural figures, protecting the people as well as their rulers. The earliest tomb paintings in Ancient Egypt, at Nekhen, c. 3500 BC., include images of lions, including an image of a deity flanked by two lions in an upright posture. The war goddess Sekhmet, depicted as woman with a lioness head, was one of the ancient Egyptian’s major deities. Even before the rise of Skehmet’s popularity, there was already a belief that a sacred lioness was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. Although the name sometimes differ from one region to another, a lioness deity was the patron and protector of the people and the land. As the country united, a blending of those deities was assigned to Sekhmet. The image of lions and great goddesses did not stop there. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been represented driving a chariot drawn by seven lions. Ishtar’s Sumerian Inanna was frequently depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses and Persian goddess Anahita was sometimes portrayed standing on a lioness.
Archeologists discovered a figurine at Çatal Hüyük, dating back approximately 8,000 years, which depicts the Mother Goddess flanked by two leopards, squatting, while in the process of giving birth. The leopards were replaced by lions centuries later. Cybele was frequently depicted wearing her turreted crown, while she was seated on a throne, with either a lion lying in her lap or with one of them lying on each side of her. She has also been pictured driving a chariot which was drawn by two lions. Her association lions lend more strength to her already formidable image – that her power was so great, that even lions became meek whenever they were in her presence. Later, lions were used in sculpture to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings. Ancient cities would have an abundance of lion sculptures to show strength such as lions at the entrances of cities and sacred sites from Mesopotamian cultures, the Lion Gate of ancient Mycenae in Greece and the gates in the walls of the Hittite city of Bogazkoy, Turkey. “The Lion of Menecrates” is a funerary statue of a crouching lion, found near the cenotaph of Menecrates. Lionesses often flanked the Gorgon, a vestige of the earliest Greek protective deity that often was featured above temples of later eras.
Then, the powerful needs to be conquered. A poem later relates how a eunuch priest of Cybele, sheltering during a snowstorm in a cave, saves himself from a lion’s attack by beating the great kettle-drum which was used in the worship of Cybele and scares it away. This poem was evidently popular enough that ancient writers such as Alcaeus c. 620 – 6th century BC) and Simonides ( c. 556 – 468 BC) paraphrase it with variations and elaborations of their own.
The Dying Lioness, depicting a half-paralyzed lioness pierced with arrows, is a well-known detail from the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, a large set of Assyrian palace relief from about 645–635 BC, depicting dozens of lions being hunted, originally in an Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh (modern day Iraq).
Panopeus, hunter of lions and leopards, dies from the sting of a scorpion; the accident is not impossible, though this may be merely a rhetorical exercise, showing how the boldest man may be overcome by the weakest of animals:
Tis in this tomb strong Panopeus rests,
Lion-hunter, piercer of rough panthers’ breasts.
On the hills a scorpion from earth issuing
Wounded his heel with its death-giving sting.
Upon the ground lie his poor darts and spear,
Alas ! — the playthings of audacious deer.
Hercules, slayer of the Nemean lion, is frequently hymned and brave men like Leonidas have lions sculptured on their tombs. We also have the well-known lines from Aristophanes comparing Alcibiades to a lion-cub which should not have been reared in the city. A figure of Eros, driving a chariot drawn by lions (the “whip” has been noticeably absent from previous depictions of lions and deities) is noted by Marcus Argentarius:
Upon this seal Love whom none e’er withstands
I see, guiding strong lions with his hands;
One flaunts o’er them a whip, the other holds
The reins ; and grace abundant him enfolds.
I fear this bane of men; he who wild beast
Can tame won’t pity mortals in the least.
Besides these, there is an anonymous poem praising the Roman Emperor because he emptied Libya of her lions and other prowling monsters, and sent them to Rome to fight in the Circus. In Socrates’ model of the psyche (as described by Plato), the bestial, selfish nature of humanity is described metaphorically as a lion, the “leontomorphic principle”.
One night we were together, you and I,
And had unsown Assyria for a lair,
Before the walls of Babylon rose in air.
How languid hills were heaped along the sky,
And white bones marked the wells of alkali,
When suddenly down the lion-path a sound . . .
The wild man-odor . . . then a crouch, a bound,
And the frail Thing fell quivering with a cry!
Your yellow eyes burned beautiful with light:
The dead man lying there quieted and white:
I roared my triumph over the desert wide,
Then stretched out, glad for the sands and satisfied;
And through the long, star-stilled Assyrian night,
I felt your body breathing by my side.
Edwin Markham (1852 – 1940)