Lion (heraldry)

Lion (heraldry)

The lion is a common charge in heraldry. It traditionally symbolizes bravery, valour, strength, and royalty, since traditionally, it is regarded as the king of beasts.


The following table summarizes the attitudes (positions) of a heraldic lion:

The lion's head is normally seen in profile. If he faces the viewer he is "gardant" (or "guardant"), and if he looks back over his shoulder he is "regardant". These adjectives follow any other adjectives of position.

The lions in the coat of arms of Wales and of England are "passant gardant". In French blazon this charge is called a "léopard"; a lion rampant gardant is a "léopard lionné"; and a lion passant with his head in profile is a "lion léopardé". The position of the head, in this case, determines the species. This practice leads some people to insist bitterly that the beasts in the royal arms of England are leopards, not lions. There is no correct answer to this question; nevertheless, they are depicted officially with a mane. The case of depiction of a lioness lends another problem in these debates as well, since no mane would be depicted, yet they are the members of the species who develop the strategic and co-operative hunting behaviors that are so admired. They often are described simply as lions. Furthermore, panther is the genus for Panthera leo and may be abbreviated easily for application to lionesses, providing further inaccuracies. The cultural inclinations toward all things "male" as dominant after classical times lend a bias in this application as well as other developing traditions.

A lion (or other beast) "coward" carries the tail between the legs. The tail also may be forked ("queue fourchée") or doubled ("double-queued"); in the arms of the kingdom of Bohemia, the forked tail originally was an artist's flourish, but later became a distinctive and essential detail of the coat of arms.

Long history of lion imagery

Lions have been represented figuratively since the Stone Age. Ice age hunters depicted the lion this way in the cultural stage of the Aurignacian more than 30,000 years ago by showing the lionesses of a pride hunting in the same manner as contemporary lions. After that it frequently was the lioness who was represented as the protector and chief warrior of a culture. An early Naqada tomb painting that predates Egyptian culture in northern Africa shows two rampant lions flanking a figure that may be interpreted as a deity. Lions also play a role in numerous later ancient cultures. In Ancient Egypt the pharaoh sometimes was represented as the sphinx, a lioness with a human head. The best known representation of this type is the Great Sphinx of Giza. From the earliest written human records, the lioness was recognized as the fierce hunter of the formidable species in Ancient Egyptian and African cultures and was dominant in the pantheons of these ancient cultures as representing warriors and protectors of the country. Egyptian mythology featured images of lionesses such as Bast and Sekhmet from their pantheon. Male rulers might be associated with the son of the goddess, such as Maahes. While the Egyptians ruled over Nubia they documented the worship of Dedun as a god of wealth and prosperity, who was said to be the son of the Nubian lioness deity, although they did not incorporate that deity into their own pantheon.

In antiquity, lions were common along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, as well as in Greece and the Middle East. In Greek mythology a lion appears in a variety of functions. The Lion Gate of Mycenae features two rampant lionesses who flank a central column representing the major deity of this early Greek culture that dates to the second millennium BC. In later classical Greek mythology, the Nemean Lion was portrayed as a people-eating beast; killing it was one of the twelve tasks assigned to Heracles. In the story of Androcles, one of Aesop's fables, the hero, a run-away slave, pulls a thorn from a lion's paw; when he is later thrown to the lions as punishment for escaping, the lion recognizes him once again and refuses to kill the man. According to the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelite Tribe of Judah had the Lion of Judah as its symbol. for centuries has been the national emblem and landmark of Venice (detail from a painting by
Vittore Carpaccio, 1516)] The characteristic of the lion as the "king of the jungle" goes back to the influence of The Physiologus, an early Christian book about animal symbolism which spread into many cultures and generally had great influence in Western culture. First written in Greek in the second century AD, the book was translated into Latin in about 400 AD, next into Ethiopic and Syriac, then into many European and Middle-Eastern languages. Many illuminated manuscript copies such as the Bern Physiologus survive. It retained its influence over ideas of the "meaning" of animals in Europe for over a thousand years. It was a predecessor of bestiaries (books of beasts). Medieval poetical literature is full of allusions that can be traced to the Physiologus tradition; the text also exerted great influence on the symbolism of medieval ecclesiastical art.

The royal symbolism of the lion was taken up repeatedly in later history, in order to claim power, for example by Henry the Lion. The ongoing fascination is apparent today by the diversity of coats of arms on which lions are shown in various colours and forms (see below).

Many images from ancient times depict lionesses as the fierce warrior protecting their culture. Since in certain views lionesses seem to have a ruff, often the only clue to this difference between the genders is the lack of a massive mane. When no mane is apparent, the image often is described as a panther or leopard among cultures without familiarity with the nature of lion social organization and hunting strategies for prides. In literary and historical references, note of a figure or an image as depicting a lion may relate to either gender without being specific, and be easily misunderstood, thereby then being drawn with a mane since it is so distinctive.

Images of lions appears on many flags, coats of arms, and emblems. For example, it symbolises the Sinhalese people ("Sinhalese" Singha = Lion). Local folklore tells of Prince Vijaya, the first of the Sinhalese kings, as being the son of Sinhabahu, who was fathered by a lion. See history of Sri Lanka. Lions are recurring symbols in the coat of arms of royalty and chivalry, particularly in the UK, where the lion is also a national symbol of the British people, and in Ethiopia, where it is a symbol of the Monarchy.

Examples of lions in coats of arms

Lions rampant

Lions passant

Eastern depictions

See also

*Leo Belgicus
*Leo Minor
*Gallery of flags with animals#Lion

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