Lions in Ancient Egpyt

Happy New year and welcome back to my series of bi-weekly blogs now I was going to do an entire blog post on the ancient Egyptian calendar but I will have to save that for the end of the month rather than the beginning as there is a lot of information to sift through and wrap my head around. So, instead, I have decided to look at lions in ancient Egypt. I recently watched a documentary, don’t ask me which one I watch a lot about ancient Egypt, that included the discovery of a mummified lion. Because depictions of lions were so common in ancient Egypt, researchers have long wondered why only one lion mummy at that point had been discovered. I will put a link in the references for a fuller article about the discovery.

Figure 1 : Handle Depicting a Lion Subduing a Nubian reign of Ramesses II Met Musuem 1989.281.92

The King and Lions

Figure 2: The sandals of King Tutankhamun showing the Nine Bows by wearing this sandals every step he took he was crushing his enemies underfoot.

By the pharaonic period, the number of lions in ancient Egypt had declined greatly compared to numbers during Predynastic times. But even at the outset during predynastic Egypt, the symbolism of the lion had become established quickly. The possible connection between the king and the lion could stem from the hunting of these animals by chiefs during the predynastic period [1]. The significance of the lion then continues throughout pharaonic Egypt and is often shown as being both a representation of the king or the prey of the king. Figure 1 shows the image of a lion, as the pharaoh, subjugating a Nubian, a group considered to be one of the traditional enemies of Egypt and shown frequently in Ramesside era art especially pieces belonging to the reign of Rameses II[2]. The usual representation found in art is a bound Nubian kneeling before a lion that holds the back of the man’s head in its jaws. This image creates a powerful feeling of dominance by Egypt over their enemies. In general the enemies of Egypt as referred to as the Nine Bows. The Nine Bows is a broad term and should not be taken literally but is a catchment term used to cover all potential enemies of Egypt. Nubians and Asiatics always appear among the enemies their arms tied behind their backs, are depicted on many temple walls[3]. In Egyptian art, the bows were frequently depicted in such a way that (a representation of) the king literally walked on them, thus under the feet of a statue of the king, on the base of a throne or, as for example with Tutankhamun, on sandals[4] (Figure 2). Or in the case of this handle shows the subduing of such enemies. But the opinion of the Ancient Egyptians of their enemies and warfare should be left for another time. Back to lions.

Figure 3: Commemorative Scarab of Amenhotep III Recording a Lion Hunt 26.7.264
Fgiure 4: Artist’s Sketch of Pharaoh Spearing a Lion 26.7.1453

Pharaohs also took part in lion hunts Figure 3-5. Amenhotep III seemed to be a p[artucialr love of lion hunting and other game hunting as a sport. Among over 200 commemorative scarabs Figure 3 that date to his reign generally covers five different events; Bull Hunts, lakes, the arrival of and marriage of his new wife Gilukhepa and finally lion hunts. 123 of the 200  of the scarabs records the number of lions 102 that were slain by Amenhotep ‘with his own arrows from his first regnal year up to his tenth[5]. The king’s success as a hunter stood for his victory on the battlefield and symbolized the triumph of order, embodied in the divine rule over the forces of chaos. The ostracon in Figure 4 shows a hunting scene. Showing an unidentified Ramsesside king is represented symbolically slaying the enemies of Egypt in the form of a lion. The hieratic text reads: “The slaughter of every foreign land, the Pharaoh—may he live, prosper, and be healthy.”[6] Figure 5 from Medinet Habu again shows a pharaoh this time Ramesses III successfully felling a lion during a hunt.

Figure 5: Ramesses III in this scene from his moutary temple at Medinet Habu he is show in a chariot successfully felling a lion with his arrows.

Lions in myth

Sekhmet Statue card
Figure 6: Statue of Sekhmet 1390 BC – 1352 BC about (Dynasty 18: Reign of Amenhotep III)

As lions characteristically lived on the desert margins they came to be considered guardians of the East and West. I have written about the part of guardian lions last year so you can read more here Ruty link. Furthermore, the sun could be personified as a lion as the god Aker guarded the gateway that the sun came in each day. Chapter 62 of the Book of the Dead states ‘ May I be granted power over the waters like the limbs of Serth, for I am he who crosses the sky, I am the Lion of Ra’[7].

When it comes to leonine gods and goddesses there are a few instantly you think of Sekhmet, Bastet and maybe even Mihos. Lion gods were not as important as lion goddesses, but the lion as we have learnt was a symbol of royal power. Leonine goddesses have a short mane or ruff like that of a lynx or adolescent lion[8]. The lion often formed part of Egyptian monsters such as Bes / Taweret and other mythical creatures such as the Sphinx all magical guardians of people and places[9]. According to the myth of Osisirs four lion goddesses Wadjeyt, Sekhmet, Bastet and Shesmetert [10]. The most important lion goddess though is Sekhemt (Figure 6) who was regarded as one of the Eyes of Ra and the goddess who almost destroyed mankind. Given the power and potency of lions for the ancient Egyptians, it is no surprise that amulets of recumbent lions were produced from as early as the 6th Dynasty right up until the Greqaco-Roman Period[11].  

Bastet, Leaded bronze, precious metal and black bronze inlays
Figure 7: Bastet Statue Accession Number: 34.6.1

Another lion-headed goddess is Bastet (Figure 7). I know that she is commonly thought of as being a cat but up until the second millennium BCE, she was shown masa a lion-headed woumen[12]. She is seen to be a protective maternal figure to the king but as a fierce destroyer of his enemies. But that is not the only lion-headed deity in the family Bastet and Amun-Ra are believed to be the parents of the God Mahes/ (Mihos in Greek (Figure 8) was also lion deity, so it runs in the family. The Delta site of Leontopolis was sacred to Mahes, the name itself gives it away as it translates to lion city. He was regarded locally as important but not a diety of high regard across Egpyt but he is often shown as part of a slue of gods who helped the sun god in the fight against Apophis the serpent of chaos[13].  

File:Thronender Gott mit Löwenhaupt, Mahes.JPG
Figure 8: Statue of Mihos held in the Natural History Museum, Vienna.,_Mahes.JPG

I think I am going to leave it there for this week with the image of a lion god fighting the snake Apophis feels like a good place to stop. I have been promising it for a while so maybe next blog I will finally give the goddesses Sekhmet the write up she deserves. Happy reading and happy new year!


Lion Mummy discovery

[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 181

[2] Acessed Jan 2022

[3] Acessed Jan 2022

[4] Acessed Jan 2022

[5] O’Connor, D., 2001. Amenhotep III: Persepectives on his reign. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. Page 13

[6] Acessed Jan 2022

[7] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 182

[8] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.  Page 133

[9] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 133

[10] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 134

[11] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 65

[12] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.  Page 115

[13] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page  Page 178


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