Lion in Egypt : Culture and Symbols
What is the place of the lion in Egypt? What are its symbols? Why are the Egyptian lions venerated?
Lion Kingdom has greatly studied the subject. And the lions of Egypt fascinate us by their history and the myths putting them forward.
The lion was a symbol of power and royalty in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs. Pharaohs sometimes liked to keep lions as pets, or hunt them to show that they were in control of these wild and powerful beasts.
In this article you will discover:
- What is the place of the lion in Egypt
- Why this wild animal was revered there
- What are the symbols behind the beast
After reading the following lines, you will know how integral the lion is to the culture of ancient Egypt and how this wild animal is not like any other animal for the Egyptians.
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Symbolism of the Lion in Ancient Egypt
In the time of the pharaohs, the big cat was associated with the sun. ☀️ It also symbolized the most powerful elements of life and death in ancient Egypt. And even after the Egyptian climate became drier and the lion prides migrated south for a wetter climate, the lion continued to be an important part of the culture of the Egyptians.
1) Symbol of Authority
“The fawn has a very important role in ancient Egyptian iconography,” says Conni Lord, an Egyptologist with the Animal Mummy Research Project at a Sydney museum. “The lion was a symbol of royal authority and its image was also used in everyday objects, such as chairs and beds. These objects may have been purely decorative, but it is likely that they had magical significance related to protection.”
2) Danger and Protection
The lion enjoyed a privileged status in ancient Egypt. Considered the fiercest warrior in the wild and a symbol of both danger and protection. Pharaohs were famous for taking part in lion hunts to prove their own supremacy, including Amenhotep III, who claimed to have killed 102 lions during his reign…
Big cats were also kept as pets in the castles of kings. Tutankhamun and Ramses II are both very often illustrated with a lion sitting next to them. To symbolize their strength of conviction. That of being able to adopt an animal as wild as the lion. It is easy to imagine that wild animals were walking in the royal gardens as dogs do in our time. 🦁
4) King of the Beasts
In ancient Egypt, the lion, titled “King of the Beasts”, symbolized strength, solar energy and royalty. Because of its frightening nature, it represented either danger and chaos or a guardian providing protection from chaos. Like many of the animals that roamed Egypt in ancient times (hippos, crocodiles, cobras, vultures…), lions were not worshipped as gods in their own right, but rather were seen as manifestations of the Egyptian gods, particularly Sekhmet.
Lion mummies can be associated with the cult of Sekhmet, the Egyptian warrior goddess with a lioness face. Very famous character in the history of Egypt. Let’s see it in details.
1) Goddess of the Egyptian Mythology
Sekhmet is one of the most famous Egyptian goddesses in history. This fearsome character was either represented as a lioness or as a lion-headed warrior. This image was obviously symbolic of what the lion represents. It was intended to give her the strength and courage of the wild animal as well as its beauty.
2) King’s wife
The lioness being the wife of the lion in the animal kingdom. It is the same for this image of the goddess. She is powerful, because she is the wife of the all powerful king. Her statue frightens her enemies and she exudes a confidence on all her representations that suggests that no one wanted to cross her path.
Moreover, the statues and frescoes representing Sekhmet are very aggressive. She is frequently seen attacking her enemy, with her mouth open, or protecting her companions at the front of the stage.
The goddess of cats, Bastet, also appeared as a lioness goddess and, with time, her image softened to become the one we know of her today. The same cannot be said of Sekhmet, the daughter of Ra and wife of Ptah. With her name meaning “the Mighty One”, being part of the two dominant creation myths in Egyptian history.
She is not a docile domestic cat, but the manifestation of the power of the sun to wither life by its heat. In this, however, she embodies the dual nature of the lion, destructive and protective: she became the goddess of disease, especially plagues, but also the one to whom one turns for protection from illness.
Culture of the Lion in Egypt
We have just seen what were the symbols of the lion in Egypt and the history of one of the most emblematic goddesses of the country. Now let’s look at why the lion is so ingrained in Egypt’s rich culture. 🇪🇬
1) Presence of the Lion in Egypt
It is interesting to note that for most of the Pharaonic period, lions were relatively few in number in Egypt. Despite their small numbers, they were important to the Pharaonic Egyptians. Today, there are no wild lions in Egypt. Their numbers have steadily declined as the milder climate of the prehistoric period changed to the desert climate that most Egyptians experience today. Another reason for the decline is that Egypt’s habitable land became increasingly densely populated.
2) The Lion as Tutankhamen’s headrest
These wild felines usually lived on the outskirts of the desert, and so they became the guardians of the eastern and western horizons, where the sun rises and sets. Thus, in the hieroglyph of the Horizon (akhet), they sometimes replaced the symbols of the eastern and western mountains. The headrests also sometimes took the form of this same akhet sign, supported by two lions, as in an example taken from the tomb of Tutankhamun, where the flank Shu, the god of air, which supports the head of the king, represents the sun.
3) The Great Sphinx at Giza
It is the lion-god Aker who guarded the door of the underworld through which the sun passed every day. Thus, since the sun was born every morning and died every evening at the horizon, the lion was associated with death and rebirth. The Great Sphinx of Giza, with the body of a lion, was also associated with the horizon as Horemakhet (Horus at the horizon). Aker and also the god Ruty could be represented as a double lion god and called “yesterday” and “tomorrow”.
4) Decorative elements
However, the beds and chairs of the living were also sometimes decorated with lions’ paws or heads. This may have been just a decoration, but it could also have a magical meaning, ensuring that the individual would rise renewed after sleep or rest. On temple roofs, the lion heads became gargoyles, probably because the lion was thought to stand on the roof of the temple, absorbing the torrential rains of Set and then spitting them out over the sides of the building.
Lion Cult in Ancient Egypt
The lion was a complex symbol in ancient Egypt. Able to represent alternately danger and chaos or protection and victory. It was a secondary attribute of many gods, and of the king as well. He represented power and vitality, and depending on the context, he could be a worthy foe, an able defender, or a fierce avenger. ⚔️
1) In the service of Egyptian Art.
The lion appears on many of the oldest examples of Egyptian art. Two sources, the Gebel Tarif knife and the Hierakonpolis palette, use the lion in the same way they would in dynastic artworks, depicting the lion pouncing on its prey. It may be premature to assume the same interpretation in these cases, but the lion that appears on the battlefield palette looks like a royal symbol.
In this case, a larger-than-life lion is attacking a defeated enemy following a successful battle, with bound captives and fallen enemies around him. It may well be that a victorious king is identified here with a lion, in the same way that the Narmer palette seems to identify this king with those other two royal symbols, the falcon and the bull.
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2) Representation of the King
It is certain that the lion was used in this way in dynastic history. Among Tutankhamen’s treasures is a lion carved on its lid and sides. The prominent lion on the lid, shown in a resting state, is inscribed on its shoulder with “the Good God, Nebkheperure”; Nebkheperure was Tutankhamun’s “name of the throne,” while the phrase “the Good God” was a typical way of referring to the pharaoh in the third person, used much as one might say “His Majesty.”
This carving makes the identification clear, but it is the carvings on the side that give it context. In the desert scenes, lions are depicted in the act of slaughtering their prey. As long as the lion represents the king himself, such a scene depicts his strength and mastery of the natural world.
3) Guardian of Ma’at
Of course, a lion in the wild is potentially dangerous to any human being; when the king goes hunting, the animal is an enemy. 💀 In such circumstances, the symbolic meaning would be reversed. The king remained the center of the powers of order, and the lion would therefore become a dangerous beast that the king had to kill in order to preserve order.
In general, however, the lion was much more often represented as a guardian of Ma’at than as an adversary. This was partly due to the Egyptian artistic tradition that made the image the magical equivalent of reality. The lion was not to be identified as a creeping threat, lest such a threat be allowed to spread into the world.
4) Egyptian Symbol Forever
Bold and virile, cruel and unpredictable, fierce and powerful, the lion had many meanings for the Egyptians of the time. In many ways, the lion is the quintessential Egyptian symbol, having appeared in prehistoric times as a complete image that pointed to the gods and king that defined Egypt itself. Over time, it has accumulated additional meanings without losing the old ones or undermining the integrity of the symbol itself.
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Mummified Lion of Egypt
Lions, like many other animal species, were mummified in ancient Egypt. The discoveries of the last century speak for themselves.
1) Archaeological discoveries
Only very few lion mummies have been discovered in Egypt. Until the recent discovery of a hundred mummified lions found in Saqqara. A real boon for science and history. Some of these bodies of yesteryear are tod
ay exposed in museums all over the world.
2) Why so few mummies?
Because representations of lions were so common in ancient Egypt, researchers have long wondered why only one lion mummy had been discovered before this big find. The answer is simply that they have not been researched enough to find them yet. Experts say there are thousands to be unearthed.
Feed on the Strength of the Egyptian Lion
We have just seen together what the meanings of the lion were in Egypt. Whether today or in ancient Egypt, the lion is highly revered and is without a doubt the most respected wild animal. 🦁 We also saw what goddesses were represented with a lion body or head. Now you know what the connections are between the wild animal and this country so iconic.
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