The lion was a complex symbol to the ancient Egyptians, capable of representing alternately danger and chaos or protection and the defeat of chaos. It was a secondary attribute of several gods, and of the king as well. Always, it represented power and vitality, and depending upon context it could be a worthy foe, a capable defender, or a fierce avenger.
The lion figures on many of the earliest examples of Egyptian artwork. Lions appear on the decorated handles of Predynastic flint knives, and on several of the famous palettes. If one includes the fanciful beast that appears to be a lion with a very long, snakelike neck, it even appears on the Narmer Palette. Two sources, the Gebel Tarif knife and the Hierakonpolis Palette, use the lion in the very same manner that it would be used in dynastic artwork, depicting the lion in its pounce upon its prey. It may be premature to assume the same interpretation in these cases, but the lion that appears on the Battlefield Palette looks tantalizingly like a royal symbol. In this case, a larger-than-life lion is attacking a defeated enemy in the wake of a successful battle, with bound captives and fallen foes around it. It may well be that a victorious king is here identified with a lion, in the same way that the Narmer Palette appears to identify that king with those other two royal symbols, the falcon and the bull.
Certainly, the lion was used as in this manner in dynastic history. Among the treasures of Tutankhamun is an alabaster unguent jar which features a sculpted lion on its lid and carved lions on its sides. The prominent lion on the lid, presented in a state of repose, bears the inscription “the Good God, Nebkheperure” on its shoulder; Nebkheperure was the “throne name” of Tutankhamun, while the phrase “the Good God” was a typical way to speak of the Pharaoh in the third person, used much as we might say “His Majesty.” This sculpture makes the identification clear, but it is the carvings on the side that gives it its context. In desert scenes, lions are shown in the act of bringing down their prey. As long as the lion represents the king himself, such a scene depicts his strength and his mastery over the natural world. The inscription on the shoulder of the lion on the lid is only one sign that this is the intention here; others include the fact that the lion is aided in its attack by a hunting dog, which a natural lion would not have had, as well as the placement of the heads of foreigners at the base of the jar, adding to the overall theme of representing the king in the act of subjecting his foes.
Of course, a lion in the wild is potentially dangerous to any human; when the king went on the hunt, a lion would make a most worthy foe. Under such circumstances, the symbolic meaning would reverse itself. The king remained the focus of the powers of order, and so the lion became a dangerous beast that the king needed to kill in order to preserve order, or Ma’at.
In general, however, the lion was depicted far more often as a guardian of Ma’at than as an opponent; in part this was the result of the Egyptian artistic tradition that made the image the magical equivalent of the reality. It did not do to depict the lion as a rampant threat, for fear of letting such a threat loose in the world; if the lion were a foe, it was best to show it just after its defeat, with two or three of the king’s arrows sticking out of it. Depictions of the lion in a protective mode were far more popular, alongside the fiercer role already described in which the lion defeated the king’s enemies.
An important variant of this image is that of a sphinx, in which a conquering lion is depicted with the head of a king. The Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khafre, or Chephren, pioneered this image in the form of the Great Sphinx, but subsequent Pharaohs happily adopted the image for themselves. Even the lesser king Tutankhamun used the image, appearing among his tomb goods on a ceremonial shield and on a colorful box. Such images served the same purpose as the lion attack shown on the unguent jar, but this time, the king’s face makes that identification clear, just as the bodies of trampled enemies demonstrates who the conquered forces of disorder were intended to be.
Kings did not use the lion image alone; several gods have leonine aspects, and one important goddess had the lion for her primary aspect. Some early lion gods or goddesses, such as Tjel and Pakhet, were assimilated into more important divinities; this helps to account for lion aspects in the case of gods that otherwise should not have such an aspect. Horus, for example, assimilated the northeastern god Tjel, giving a lion image to a god overwhelmingly associated with the falcon. It is worth noting that the Great Sphinx, which is associated on one level with the Pharaoh Khafre, was also associated on another level with Horus; in the New Kingdom, the Sphinx was often called “Horus of the Horizon.” Other gods have also taken on variants of the sphinx as their symbols; Amun, for example, is often represented as a ram-headed sphinx.
Shu, the god of the air, and his sister Tefnut have a secondary lion aspect, based upon an early myth that had them take the forms of lion cubs at their own infancy. The outgrowth of that myth has those lion-forms take on a life of their own as the guardians of the horizon, protecting the sun-god Ra in his rising and setting. In this, they blend with an alternate myth which has a lion-god known as Aker perform the same service.
The beloved cat goddess, Bastet, may very well have begun as a lioness goddess, and over time her image may have been softened to that of the figure we know today. The same cannot be said of another goddess often linked to her, and to the aforementioned Pakhet: Sekhmet, the daughter of Ra and the wife of Ptah. Her name means “the Powerful One,” and by those two family connections, she is a part of both of the dominant creation myths in Egyptian history. No docile housecat is she; she is the manifestation of the sun’s power to wither life with its heat. In this, however, she typifies the dual nature of the lion as destroyer and protector: she became the goddess of disease, especially plagues, but also the one to whom one turned to protect oneself from diseases. Her priesthood was renowned for its medical acumen. Plague, possibly the infamous bubonic plague itself, became a real concern during the New Kingdom, and in an effort to stave off further outbreaks, commissioned hundreds of statues of Sekhmet in Thebes.
Bold and virile, cruel and unpredictable, fierce and mighty, the lion conveyed many meanings to the ancient Egyptians. Sometimes only the context could determine which of the contradictory meanings applied, and sometimes, the contradictions stood at the heart of the meaning. In many ways, the lion is a quintessential Egyptian symbol, having emerged from prehistory as a fully-formed image that pointed to the gods and the king that defined Egypt itself; over time, it accumulated additional meanings without losing the old ones or undermining the integrity of the symbol itself.
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