Aslan, the God figure in the Chronicles of Narnia series, is but one of a long line of powerful sacred, mythological, or supernatural lion creatures. And no wonder. Lions are apex predators, golden as the sun in color, and the males have a kingly mane. Tigers may be larger and more eye-catching, but they lack this crowning glory. In addition, lions roamed over a larger part of the civilized world, including Europe, the Middle East, and Western Asia at one time, and became firmly embedded into the myth structure there. Tigers, on the other hand, were Asiatic cats. Though figuring much in Indian myth, they played second fiddle to the lion even in the Far East.
The earliest mythic lions in Western civilization belonged to Mesopotamia, like the Shedu below. Like the Sphinx of Egypt, the Shedu had a lion body, wings, and, usually, the head of a bearded human male. Sometimes the lion body was swapped for a bull one. Shedu were not monsters, but sacred guardians and symbols of kingship, often appearing on city gates and palace doorways.
In Egypt, several deities were associated with lions, chief among them Sekhmet, who sported the head of a lioness, and Maahes, a god of war. There was also this strange creature below, known as the Ammit or soul-eater, who devoured sinful souls in the Egptian afterlife. The beast had the head of a crocodile, the forequarters of a lion, and the rear of a hippopotamus, all animals that must have been terrifying to the ancient Egyptians. The hippo aspect seems comical, but not when you consider that even today more people in Africa are killed by hippos than crocodiles or lions.
Egypt also had the Sphinx, of course, which came in several varieties: Gynosphinx (woman’s head); Androsphinx (man’s head); Criosphinx (ram’s head) and Hieracosphinx (falcon’s head.) The Hieracosphinx is illustrated below. Unlike a gryphon, which it resembles, it has no wings or eagle talons.
Isn’t it adorable how the mother and baby sphinx have matching headdresses?
In Hindu mythology it is common for the deities to have multiple avatars, some of them animals or animal mixes. Narasimha was an avatar of the god Vishnu, appearing in this form as a four-armed, lion-headed man with a living hood of living cobra hoods, if that makes sense.
Lions were still roaming Greece when the first Grecian myths were composed, which is how we got creatures like the Nemean Lion, which Hercules battled as part of his Twelve Labors, and the Grecian Sphinx who asked riddles of travelers and ate them if they couldn’t guess the answer. She was eventually bested by Oedipus and, very ladylike, threw herself off the cliff in defeat.
This is actually a 1883 print from Ingres’ painting of the myth, chosen in part because I couldn’t find a good color image of it on the internets, but also because it shows the detail better. Ingres actually did three versions of the painting, frustrated that none of them accurately reflected the vision he had in his artistic eye. I love this one because of the compositional and linear qualities, and also because it’s so damn silly. Why is Oedipus walking over a mountain pass stark naked, for starters? It’s also silly how imposing Oedipus is, and how tiny the Sphinx is, and how she’s supposedly responsible for those scattered bones and wonderfully detailed right foot she saved for a later snack. I also love the doltish look on Oedipus’s face and how, by his gesture, he looks about to diddle the right nipple of the Sphinx, who draws back in alarm with her paw extended to swat him like an annoyed kitten.
Like Ingres’ Sphinx, the Nemean Lion is often depicted by artists in a decidedly underwhelming fashion. Some artists show a massive feline giving Herc a frightful wrestle for his life, other times, the beast is merely ocelot-sized and he bests it easily. I don’t get it.
If you’re looking for the Greek Chimera, by the way, another lion monster, read about it here.
Another lion creature with a human head is the Persian Manticore, which has a precise description from Claudius Aelianus, a Roman writer at the court of Emporer Septimus Severus in the second century CE. I’m not going to quote it because it’s long, but basically, the Manticore lived in India, had reddish, shaggy fur, a face like a man, and three rows of sharp teeth. It was the size of a lion and had a lion’s feet and claws, and, presumably, a lion’s body and tail, which ended in a scorpian’s sting. At the sides of the tail were sharp quills the beast could fire off like missiles.
The Manticore was said to be very fierce and had a hankering for the flesh of humans. Unlike this modern depiction, it did not have wings or horns. It was assumed to be an actual animal until science proved otherwise.
Another widespread lion creature is the Gryphon, which might have have evolved from the Egyptian Hieracosphinx, or from ancient Iran during the Bronze Age. The Gryphon (I prefer spelling it that way) was doubly blessed as a mythic creature, united the lion, king of the animals, with the eagle, the king of the birds. It came into its own in Europe during the Medieval Age, being depicted in church art, on coats of arms, in bestiaries, and in secular decoration. As with the Sphinx, it has many variations: the Hippogriff, the Keythong, the Opinicus, even a Gryphon-Marine, which has a fish’s tail. I suspect its popularity came in part because it’s just so much damn fun to draw.
Gryphons figure in the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian movie adaptations, but they are not mentioned in Lewis’ books.
In Hindu myth it’s another two powerful creatures who are united together: lion and elephant, in the hybrid beast known as the Gajasimha.
Unlike Europe and Near and Central Asia, artists of the Far East had no access to any lions living or dead, and their depictions of the beast are based only on hearsay. As in the West, lion creatures serve most commonly as guardians and protectors, like these depictions of Japanese Komainu from a modern artist.
They are known by many other names in different cultures: Foo Lions, Foo Dogs, Shishi, Fengshui, Shizuguo, Shisa, Pixiu, Nian, Haetae, Barong.
The Snow Lion roams the Himalayas and is a symbol of Tibet. It has a white body and turquoise mane.
Like many Asian lion creatures it resembles a Lhasa Apso dog more than a real lion. Which begs the question, did the dog breed derive from representations of the mythical lion, or the mythical lion evolve from the appearance of the small, loud-barked shaggy dogs who guarded the temples?
Meanwhile, the city of Singapore took the Sea Lion, or Merlion, as its symbol. Merlions also figure in Southeastern Asian myth.
Lions also figure in the Bible. Christ is known as The Lion of Judah. In the New Testament, the Book of Saint Mark is symbolized by a lion, as Luke is by a lamb, Matthew by a human man, and John by an eagle.
In this charming Medieval illustration the lion is actually helping St. Mark with his writing by holding the end of the scroll for him. But for a more exotic lion we have to go to the Book of Revelations.
|Then I saw a monster coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of the ten horns was wearing a coronet, and blasphemous names were written on the heads. The monster I saw was like a leopard, with bear’s feet and a lion’s mouth.|
I am sorry, God, but this is one silly and implausible-looking beast.
There’s also a bunch of lion-headed horses that rampage across the earth.
|As I looked, this is how the horses and their riders appeared. They had breastplates made of fire, sapphire and sulphur. Their heads were like lions’ heads, and fire, smoke and brimstone came out of their mouths.|
In the 21st century humans are making their own lion monsters. The big cat below is a liger, created by breeding a male lion to a female tiger.
Ligers tend to be larger than either cat and have an individual appearance depending on the roll of the genetic dice. This one has pale tiger stripes and a short mane the color of its coat. If that’s not exotic enough for you, there are white ligers (on the right, one of its parents is on the left.)
A pair of lion-jaguar hybrids. The one in the back surprised the owners with her black coat, in which faint spots and rosettes can be seen.
It’s likely that the physical appearance of the Cave Lion and the American Lion likely resembled these big cats more than their maned African cousin. Cave Lions are featured in Palaeolithic art done by human ancestors … proving, indeed, that lions in the human imagination go way, way back.
Think about that the next time you read the Chronicles.