From ancient tales like Aesop’s Fables to modern films such as The Lion King, audiences love to experience nature’s “king of the jungle” fight for dominance and justice. There’s just something so gripping about an animal that fears no one and proudly roars with bravery in the face of threats.
This draws a lot of questions and ideas about artistic and societal depictions of the lion. What does it represent in media or symbolism? Why does the lion represent masculinity? Why do so many cultures give the same traits to their depictions of lions?
To answer questions like these, we need to take a closer look at lions as creatures.
The age-old kingly lion archetype makes a lot of sense if you actually witness lions in their natural habitat. Have you ever been lucky enough to go on a safari and see one with your own eyes? Probably not, but you’ve probably seen them on TV. They’re usually shown stalking or eating some weaker prey like a gazelle.
When you see that gloriously gold lion instinctively charging for a zebra, it’s hard not to get goosebumps. No animal is as determined or bold.
The male lion’s mane is fluffy and ostentatious as if to say “look at me, peasant!” In fact, the thickness of his mane protects him from other predators, by forming a natural protective shield against his neck. Lions are the only feline species that even has a mane.
Lions also travel in packs of “prides” which perfectly represent the playboy traits of the “alpha male trope”. A pride is made up of female lions with only a single man to lead them. This makes the mane (which is only found on male lions) even more of a trophy and masculine ideal.
Besides their posture, hunting practices, or mane, there’s one essential part of a lion’s dominance that makes them who they are: Their roar. A lion’s roar is one of the most memorable and distinguishable sounds known to man and nature.
You might remember seeing old movies with a lion roaring at the beginning. As a kid, it might’ve surprised or scared you, and that was on a screen! Once you picture yourself as an ancient human hearing that roar right in front of you, it becomes easy to see why humans fear and respect lions.
Funnily enough, lions don’t usually live in jungles, and they’re rarely the only predator in their ecosystem. So where does “King of The Jungle” even come from?
There’s a lot of theories, but one of the most popular one goes like this: Lions are seen as more graceful and prideful than other animals, especially in a chaotic environment with lots of life. They stand their ground, protect their young, and are very defensive. This makes them stand out against all the other animals in the thick “jungle” of species.
Lions as Masculine Symbols
We often associate lions with masculinity and male traits. After discussing their manly nature, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
What is surprising however is the amount of different cultures that have the same ideas about lions! In fact, the vast majority of inhabited regions with lions have lots of folk legend and lore about them. Let’s take a look at some depictions of them around the world.
Lions in the British Isles
Even in modern pop culture, English stories such as robinhood often use lions to depict royal figures, like King John of England, or King Richard I. It’s no wonder that their nickname is so prevalent, considering they have long been used to convey royalty.
One can even find lions in early celtic art and culture. Oftentimes, lions were painted onto the shields of Irish clans, or discussed in Irish catholic literature. For some powerful families, the lion was the “guardian animal” and can often be found on other protective equipment, like the Scottish Coat of Arms.
It’s pretty insane to know that the lion was big so long ago in such a far away place. Who would’ve thought that people would’ve even heard of lions in Northern Europe thousands of years ago?
The knowledge of their existence so far in place & time just goes to show how important and meaningful they have been to men of the past. Noble warriors and fierce merchants travelled far and wide across the Old World, and what did they all discuss when they got North? Lions!
Lions in Christianity
On top of Irish Catholicism, the symbol of the lion can be seen all throughout christianity. In medieval times, the lion’s reputation for bravery and strength was still developing. Early christian interpretations of lions gave them a more sinister, masculine persona.
For example, lots of myths were believed in the Middle Ages. People thought that they slept with their eyes open, or that all lions were stillborn until the patriarch blew air into them. A lot of these crazy stories were probably just created to keep people away from lions, and they worked.
Due to these early superstitions, lions are often seen as representations for omnipotence, and even evil, in Christian art.
Lions in Asian Cultures
Lions are very prominent in Indian folklore, where they are big in myth, ancient culture, and religion.
In Hinduism, lions are most famous for one particular story, in which a powerful figure named Lord Vishnu is transformed into a man/lion creature to fight the bad forces of the world and restore peace on Earth. This says a lot about their protective nature in specieses across the world.
In Japan, statues of lions can often be seen guarding important shrines and monuments. However, japanese culture often sees them as silly, playful creatures. Thus, most lion statues can be seen dancing, jumping, and making silly faces.
Lions were extremely popular in Japanese art during the renaissance, where they are again pictured dancing and laughing, but more importantly, protecting their young.
Japanese culture places a great deal of respect onto lions for their ability to defend themselves and their family. It’s no wonder that their statues are chosen as defenders of important monuments!
In China, lions are also portrayed as protective, but in a more serious light. For example, they often represent defense, and the reign of the Han Dynasty. Seeing a lion in ancient China meant nobility was nearby.
In ancient Buddhist scripture, the lion is often used as a comparison for noble traits. It’s even said the Buddha possessed the strength and wisdom of a lion.
A lot of European lion mythology is actually derived from early Israelis. These tribes witnessed lions firsthand in the Arab Peninsula, and spread legends from Egypt and Persia into western countries.
The island of Sri Lanka no longer has any lions, but they used to be everywhere in the country. You can still see this in their national animal, as well as any art related to nobility, where lions were again seen as “royal”.
Lions in Native American Culture
Native Americans experienced “mountain” lions, like cougars, panthers, pumas, and other felines consistently. They respected the courage and upward strength of the animal, often while competing for the same food sources.
Many American Indian creation stories involve a lion at the beginning, where he is often told to be guardian of the universe before it is created by the Gods. Other tribes associated lions with their inhabitants in far places, such as tall mountains or northern valleys.
Native American culture is unique because it is one of the only cultural areas where lions aren’t depicted as something to be feared, but respected. In fact, a lion acting quiet or peaceful is considered a “holy” moment. Lions were often seen as messengers of the Gods and were even protected by Native tribes against like-minded predators.