With the death of Georgia Representative John Lewis, the talk of political lions has once again resurfaced. Lewis is described as a “lion of U.S. civil rights” for his decades-long work in the area. And many would agree that it’s an apt description. But what does being a “lion” of something really mean? And what is the historical and mythological importance of these majestic animals?
Throughout history, leaders, fighters, and heroes have been described as lions. Each time there have been differences in what this appellation defines. Yet, there are also strong themes, instantly recognizable that allow us to determine for ourselves if we would consider this or that person a “lion.”
Perhaps the most famous lion would be Jesus. In the book of Revelation (5:5) in the New Testament, we read, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.”
And in Genesis, we see where this naming originally came from.
“Judah,[b] your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
9 You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,[c]
until he to whom it belongs[d] shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
11 He will tether his donkey to a vine,
his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes will be darker than wine,
his teeth whiter than milk.[e]”
Judah’s father, Jacob, describes Judah as a young lion, who will be both fierce and a lawmaker. The lion metaphor has seeped into so much of history that it sometimes feels like all the threads of culture are entwined within this act. Jerusalem adopted the lion symbol as part of the city’s emblem, having been part of art and tradition for centuries. But it spreads much further.
Consider the Ethiopian Empire, with its lineage dating back to around 950 BC. Emporer Menelik the First, the founder of the Solomonic dynasty, is theorized to be the offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. With Solomon, of course, being of the tribe of Judah, the lion symbolism has been notable within Ethiopia in its art, heraldry, and culture.
From 1897 to 1974, the lion was emblazoned on the Ethiopian flag. The leaders of the Empire, up to and including Haile Selassie, were known by a string of titles, such as King of Kings, and of course, the Lion of Judah. That’s almost 3,000 years of unbroken history that all came to an end when the Communist Derg deposed Selassie. The Derg’s most famous member being Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who so recently rose to become the Director-General of the World Health Organisation.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, much loved by generations of adults and children alike, tell the story of a land of magic, Narnia. The only character to appear in all seven books is Aslan, the King of all Kings, and, of course, presented as a Lion. In fact, the Turkish word for Lion just happens to be “Aslan.” In a letter discussing his acclaimed work, Lewis wrote:
“Since Narnia is a world of Talking Beasts, I thought He [Christ] would become a Talking Beast there, as He became a man here. I pictured Him becoming a lion there because (a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts; (b) Christ is called “The Lion of Judah” in the Bible; (c) I’d been having strange dreams about lions when I began writing the work.”
But these references so far are all Christian in nature.
In China, there is a tradition of having stone lions know as “Shisa” at the entrances to homes or other buildings. The lions are sculpted often with one having a closed mouth and the other being open; this former is to keep the good spirits in and the latter to ward off evil.
Lions have a long history in China as being guardians, also in Japan and in Buddhist teachings. But again, it appears that these might also be connected to the Old Testament. The Book of Han, one of the famous histories of the Han Dynasty written between 25 and 220 AD, describes many gifts from far-off traders of lions and lion pelts… and these traders brought their stories with them. In later versions of these ornaments – which can even today be found at the entrance to banks, corporations, and office buildings – one of the lions often has a ball either in its mouth or under its paw.
If this image sounds familiar, it may be because of the famed sculptures that once adorned the entrance to the Villa Medici from around 1594. The first of the pair is an ancient marble piece from around the second century the twin was made as a pendant by the Italian sculptor Flaminio Vacca. They are now known as the Medici Lions.
So powerful and commanding are these statues that they have been imitated as casts all over the world, including in the United States. Copies guard the intercoastal bridge in Florida, aptly named the Bridge of Lions. Another cast pair (in iron) sit in the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, with the title The Florentine Lions. But what is the significance of the ball? It represents the world, but more specifically, it represents the lion’s dominion and power over the world. In effect, expressing one’s power and strength as if one were a powerful creature with the world at one’s mercy.
So, lions have represented the qualities of courage and power in the Bible, of sacrifice, and of a willingness to bear the burdens of others. Or, as the artist Murray Zimiles writes, “The lion is the defender of faith, strength, valor, fortitude, and kingliness.”
The wartime prime minister Winston Churchill is known as “The Lion of England,” and, in fact, his latest biography is titled The Last Lion. In 1941, Churchill made a compelling speech to the United States from London to accept an honorary doctorate; this speech is known as The Old Lion. He spoke of challenges, of relations, but most of all, he sought to rally hearts and minds across the world to unite against the rise and power of Hitler. He concluded, saying:
“And now the old lion with her lion cubs at her side stands alone against hunters who are armed with deadly weapons and impelled by desperate and destructive rage. Is the tragedy to repeat itself once more? All no! This is not the end of the tale.”
A rare lion, indeed.
The symbolism of the lion throughout history carries on to this day, not only with John Lewis. Theodore Roosevelt was nicknamed The Lion for leading his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba in 1898. Ted Kennedy was known as the Lion of the Senate, and Andrew Jackson as the “American Lion.”
Perhaps what America needs now more than ever is another lion or even a whole pride of them. For it is lions, rather than lambs, who will determine the future.
Read more from Mark Angelides.