Few creatures capture the imagination as fiercely as the majestic lion. Hence, the mythical lion is a figure in the mythologies of cultures around the world. With their regal presence, powerful bearing, and awe-inspiring beauty, mythological lions have battled heroes, guarded treasure, and given messages to prophets. In this post, we’ll take a look at both famous and lesser known mythical lions from cultures around the world.
Aker is a double-lion deity. He is depicted as facing opposite directions, symbolizing his protection of the eastern and western horizons. He is associated with the god Ra, whom he guards and protects as the sun journeys through the underworld at night.1
2. Anzu, or Imdugud
In Sumerian mythology, Anzu (also known as Imdugud) is a fearsome creature, depicted as a lion-headed eagle. He was conceived by the pure waters of the Abzu and Earth. Sometimes he is described as the son of Siris (the goddess of beer.) As a hybrid monster, he represents thunderstorms and divine retribution. Anzu is also notorious for stealing the Tablet of Destinies – an act that challenged the gods.
Culture: Egyptian and Nubian
Arensnuphis is a lion-headed deity who was revered in both ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures. He is an amalgamation of Egyptian and Nubian mythological elements, reflecting a blend of these two cultures. Although his Egyptian name, Ari-hes-nefer, suggests a benign nature, specific details about his role and attributes are unknown.2
While she is often depicted as a domestic cat goddess, Bastet was originally a fierce lioness warrior goddess. She has been worshiped throughout most of Egyptian history.
Bastet was the daughter of Ra and Isis, and the consort of Ptah, with whom she had a son, Maahes. She was also the defender of the king and her father Ra.3
She is a protector of women, children, pregnancy, and childbirth.
Bes was a dwarf god in Egyptian mythology. He is associated with Bastet and was depicted with the face of a lion. Like Bastet, he was a protector deity and was associated with childbirth, music, and dance
In Greek mythology, the Chimera is a giant monster who possesses a lion’s body, a goat’s head, and a serpent’s tail. A fearsome amalgamation, he represents chaos and destruction.
Chnoubis is another Egyptian deity (related to the Egyptian creator god Khnum) who is depicted as a lion-headed serpent. He represented protection and creation. The Egyptians placed Chnoubis on jewelry, amulets, and other treasures because of his protective powers.
Dedun was a lion-headed deity in Nubian mythology, He was associated with the flooding of the Nile River, a period of abundant crops and prosperity.
9. Gilgamesh’s Magical Lion
In the epic Sumerian legend of Gilgamesh, the hero was strong enough to defeat a magical lion. The fact that only the strongest of men could defeat the almighty lion is a testament to how ancient people revered the lion.5
Cultures: Greek, Persian, and others
With a lion’s body and an eagle’s head and wings, the Griffin is an iconic mythical lion who is famous for his immense courage, strength, and power. As a symbol, the Griffin has withstood the test of time, appearing in Christian and European heraldry, and even modern-day corporate marketing.
The Lamassu is a winged lion in Sumerian mythology. He served as a protective deity, embodying strength and guardianship.
12. Winged Lions in the Bible
Culture: Judaism and Christianity
Winged lions appear in the Bible, such as in the seventh chapter in the Book of Daniel. In the passage, Daniel dreams of four mythical creatures, one of which is a winged lion. Some biblical scholars theorize that the lion is symbolic for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar and three other kings (of Persia, Rome, and Greece) are represented as mythical beasts. The symbols convey that while these mythical beasts (or kings) were strong, none were as strong as God.6
13. The Lion of St. Mark
A winged lion is also associated with Jesus’ apostle Mark. While interpretations vary on why the winged lion is associated with Mark, one story tells the tale of a lion coming to Mark in a dream.
In the story, Mark sails towards Alexandria in Egypt when he runs into a heavy storm. He takes refuge on land in a fishing village near Venice. Falling asleep in a fishing hut, he dreams of an angel who comes to him in the form of a lion with wings. The angel says, “Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist. Here your body will rest.”7
14. The Lion of Yvain the Knight
A mythical lion also appears in the King Arthur legends. In the story of Yvain, the knight comes across a lion fighting a dragon, or giant serpent. (This story is also told of the famous knight Perceval.)
Because the lion is the more “natural” beast, whereas the dragon’s origins are more suspicious, Yvain takes the side of the lion and helps him to defeat the dragon. The lion is so grateful for the help that he stands on his hind legs and bows his head to Yvain and the two become traveling companions.8
Culture: Persian, Greek, and others
The Manticore is another mythical lion. In this case, the creature has a lion’s body, a human head, and a poisonous tail. The Manticore is a ferocious monster who appears in a few different legends.
16. Maahes, also Miysis
Mehen is another mythical lion deity in Egyptian mythology. (He was also depicted as a serpent.) He was a protective force, guarding the sun god Ra during his journey through the night. Mehen is sometimes compared to an ouroboros.
Menhit, an Egyptian goddess with a lioness head, is associated with warfare and protection. She represented both lunar and solar energy.
19. Milarepa’s Lion
In Tibetan Buddhism, the monk Milarepa teaches that a lion doesn’t simply chase sticks when you throw them as a dog does. Instead, the lion turns to see the source of the stick. The analogy teaches the difference between unconscious or avoidant behavior vs. facing the source of one’s thoughts, which leads to mental freedom and enlightenment.9
Narasimha is an avatar of the god Vishnu. He is depicted with a man’s body and a lion’s head. He represents divine power, the destruction of evil, and the restoration of Dharma.
21. The Nemean Lion
In Greek mythology, the strongman Heracles battles a giant lion, called the Nemean Lion. The formidable creature has magical golden fur, but is nevertheless defeated by the hero in one of his twelve labors.
Pazuzu was a Mesopotamian demon who is depicted with lion-like features. He embodies a dual nature. At once, he represents destructive winds; at other times, he is a protector against evil spirits.
In Chinese culture, the Qilin is a mythical lion creature who has scales and a single horn or horns. He is a benevolent creature who brings good fortune and prosperity.
The ancient Egyptians loved felines, and the lion was no exception. With a lioness head, the goddess Sekhmet embodied the sun’s destructive as well as healing powers.
25. Shishi Lions
In Japan, Shishi lions (or dogs) guard temples, ward off evil, and have protective and purifying powers.
The Simurgh is a mythical creature that looks like a peacock with a dog’s head and a lion’s claws. Monstrous as she sounds, she represents wisdom and protection in Persian mythology. Mythologists often compare her to the phoenix bird,
Culture: Egyptian and Greek
One of the most iconic mythical lions, the Sphinx is a creature with the body of a lion, sometimes having the wings of a bird, and the head of a human. A protector, the sphinx stood outside of temples as the guardian of pharaohs, such as the Great Sphinx of Giza, which faces from west to east on the Giza Plateau in Egypt.
In Greek mythology, the Sphinx was a monster who would terrorize people.
28. Yali, or Vyala
Culture: Indian, South Asian
The Yali is a mythical lion- and griffin-like creature with the body of a lion, the trunk of an elephant, and other strange features. With placements on temples and pillars, the Yali represents strength and protection.
Powerful in their own right, lions don’t need any embellishment. Yet it’s undoubtedly due to their beauty, awesome strength, and regal bearing that lions have sparked the imaginations of people from diverse cultures, including in places where lions are not native. Representing power, messages, lessons, and divinity, the mythical lion is a beautiful reminder of the timeless connection between humans, wild animals, and the magical world of our imaginations.
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