LIONS . Largest of the cat family and feared by most wild animals, the lion is almost universally known as the "king of beasts." Its physical appearance, size, strength, dignified movements, and fierceness in killing other animals have, since early times, left a deep imprint on the human psyche. Associations with the concept of royalty (i.e., power, majesty, control of others) have elevated the status of the lion as symbol; such figures as Richard the Lion-Hearted; various Catholic popes who have taken the name of Leo; the Buddha, who was known as the "Lion of the Śākya Race"; and Christ, called the "Lion of Judah," have all been identified with this animal through their imputed possession of certain heroic qualities. Sekhmet, Gilgamesh, Herakles, Samson, David, Daniel, Aeneas, and Aphrodite all share some of the "lionlike" qualities of ferocity, strength, valor, dignity, and nobility.
In astrology, such connotations of royalty were taken a step further: The lion was equated with the solar principle, which is often identified as the illumination of consciousness. The constellation of Leo was assigned the sun as its ruler, and the zodiacal sign of Leo appearing during the hottest time of the year (July–August). This relationship between the sun and Leo is central to an understanding of the major role played by the solar principle in this complex symbolism.
In early Western mythology, sun/lion attributes were identified as powerful cosmic forces, eventually replacing the moon/bull themes that had dominated earlier myths. In Sumer and Crete, the lion was associated with the blazing sun, which slays the moon and parches vegetation. In Egyptian art and mythology, representations of lions were frequently stationed at the end of tunnels and placed at palace doors and tombs to protect against evil spirits. Sekhmet appears as a lion-headed woman holding a sun disk. She was known as a war goddess and became associated with the Temple of Mut during the reign of Amunhotep II (1450–1425 bce). In his study The Great Mother (New York, 1963), Erich Neumann sees Sekhmet as a symbol of fire—the devouring, negative aspect of the solar eye that burns and judges.
In the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), the lion appears as a symbol of strength and power and an object of fear intended as a catalyst in humanity's relationship to God. The allusion in Judges 14:18—"What is stronger than a lion?"—and the story in Daniel 6 of the prophet who was sent into the lion's den as a test of his faith in God exemplify the awe-inspired associations of the lion with God's power to judge humankind.
In Christian iconography Mark the evangelist is depicted as a winged lion, perhaps because the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark refers to "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Mk. 1:3), a voice that reputedly resembled a lion's roar. The lion is also symbolic of Christ's royal dignity. The Book of Revelation contains a reference to the lion as symbolic of Christ, particularly his ability to conquer evil and overcome darkness: "Weep not, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered" (Rv. 5:5). The lion also came to symbolize resurrection. According to popular legend, lion cubs, when born in litters of three, were stillborn; they were brought back to life by their father, who after mourning for three days, revived them with his breath. Similarly, Jesus, three days after his death, was resurrected by God the Father.
Royal and superhuman qualities are also reflected in the portrayal of the Hindu Great Mother goddess, Śakti, who rides upon a lion. In one of Viṣṇu's many incarnations, he manifests himself in the form of Narasimha, the "man-lion," to defeat the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu. Numerous references in the Bhagavadgītā demonstrate the importance of the lion as a symbol. In battle scenes, Bharata, chief of warriors, is compared to Indra and described as an "invincible lion of a man."
Well-known representations of the lion in Indian Buddhist art include the Aśoka pillar, capped by a four-faced lion, and the Sarnāth pillar, crowned by a lion upholding a great wheel or disk indicative of the solar principle. In Tantric Buddhist art, the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mañjusrī are seated on lions, and the fierce goddess Siṃhamukha is depicted as having the head of a lioness. The stylized posture called the Buddha Entering Nirvāṇa is also known as the Lion Posture and forms part of the ritual for disciples being initiated into certain ceremonies.
In addition to its function as a representation of the solar principle, the lion symbol has also been variously used to depict contemplation and the solitary life. These qualities are best illustrated in the lives of certain Christian saints, especially Euphemia, Ignatius, Jerome, Paul the Hermit, and Mary of Egypt.
Rebirth motifs have also focused on the lion. In the Mithraic cult, the lion-headed god Aion (Deus Leonto-cephalus) is associated with time and the shedding of light so that rebirth may ensue. C. G. Jung regarded the lion, as discussed in alchemical literature, as a "synonym for mercurius … or a stage in transformation." "The fiery lion," he concludes, "is intended to express passionate emotionality that precedes recognition of unconscious contents."
According to Heinrich Zimmer, the insatiable qualities of the lion as devourer are demonstrated in Śiva's creation of a lion-headed monster. The Book of Job (4:10) also notes the destructive, fear-inspiring characteristics of the lion in epitomizing its roar as the "voice of the fierce."
Bleek, W. H. I., and L. C. Lloyd, eds. Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911). Reprint, Cape Town, 1968.
Goodenough, Erwin R. "The Lion and Other Felines." In his Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 7, Pagan Symbols in Judaism, pp. 29–86. New York, 1958.
Gray, Louis H., et al., eds. The Mythology of All Races. 13 vols. Boston, 1916–1932. Consult the index, s.v. Lions.
Gubernatis, Angelo de. "The Lion, the Tiger, the Leopard, the Panther, and the Chameleon." In his Zoological Mythology, or The Legends of Animals, vol. 2, pp. 153–161. London, 1872.
Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk Literature. 2d ed., rev. & enl. 6 vols. Bloomington, Ind., 1955–1958. Consult the index, s.v. Lions.
Stith, D. Matthew. "Whose Lion Is It, Anyway: The Identity of the Lion in Amos 3-12." Koinonia 11 (Spring 1999): 103–118.
Kathryn Hutton (1987)
lions led by donkeys courageous troops disastrously under the command of stupid leaders. The phrase is often used in the context of the First World War, but is recorded from earlier conflicts, such as the Boer War and the Franco-Prussian War.
see the lions see the things of note, celebrity, or curiosity for which a particular place is known. The expression comes from the practice of taking visitors to see the lions which were once kept in the Tower of London.
throw someone to the lions to put in an unpleasant or dangerous situation, originally with reference to the practice in imperial Rome of throwing religious and political dissidents, especially Christians, to wild beasts as a method of execution. The earliest use in English appears to be in a 17th-century sermon. The Latin phrase Christianos ad leones ‘Throw the Christians to the lions’ is recorded in Tertullian's Apologeticus.
See also lion, a pride of lions.