We had a great time at our recent conference, Writing around the Ancient Mediterranean: Practices and Adaptations. Among a wonderful variety of perspectives on ancient writing systems, as presented by members of the CREWS family of researchers, one unexpected theme that surfaced involved lions (and some other felines) with inscriptions – which seemed like the perfect topic for a blog post!
By the way, if you missed the conference, don’t worry because we have uploaded the presentations to our YouTube channel – see HERE for the playlist.
What is it about lions? These magnificent animals have captured human imagination for a very long time, so perhaps it is no surprise to find them featuring in manmade art for many many thousands of years (just look at this 35,000 year old carved mammoth ivory lion’s head!). As the practice of writing grew up in the 4th millennium BC (nearly 30,000 years later…), it came to serve a range of purposes, both communicative and often decorative, and symbolic of learning, status, wealth and culture. And lions and other big cats begin to feature in writing systems from an equally early stage.
Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of the earliest attested world writing systems, has more than one lion-shaped sign (representing mꜣj, rw, ḥꜣt respectively):
𓃬 𓃭 𓄂
And sure enough, lions feature strongly in both Egyptian art and Egyptian writing. Here is one of the ‘Prudhoe lions’, for instance, one of a pair of 18th Dynasty statues (14th C BC) originally from the Temple of Soleb in Nubia. These statues were so popular in fact that they were later moved more than once, and many years later in the 3rd C BC the Kushite king Amanisio added his name to them and moved them to Jebel Barkal.
One of most famous inscriptions in the Egyptian-hieroglyph-inspired alphabet often termed Proto-Sinaitic is also to be found on a lion-themed object, namely a little limestone sphinx statuette from Serabit el-Khadim. Embarrassingly, I always thought it would be bigger until I saw it in person… but it’s a beautiful little object of immense historical significance. This is one of the earliest surviving examples of the alphabet that was to develop into Phoenician alphabet, spawning a series of related alphabets that include Hebrew, Aramaic, Phrygian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman. (We have an edited CREWS volume on this series of writing systems, see HERE to download it for free.)
Meanwhile, over in Mesopotamia (the other contender for the earliest attested writing), Sumerian cuneiform from the 4th millennium BC onwards (and subsequent varieties of cuneiform) also had a sign for a lion (PIRIG /labʾum/). It’s a bit abstract if it is supposed to look like one:
Again we also see numerous examples of lions bearing cuneiform inscriptions. This bronze lion from 22nd C BC Urkish, for example, has its paws on a text in the Hurrian language, and was laid down as a foundation deposit in a temple of the god Nergal. There is a very similar example in the Louvre with an inscription on a little stone pillow. I always wonder whether we are supposed to think of this lion as literate, from the way it is holding the inscribed surface as if able to read it. But this is also a nice example of what will be a recurring theme, the lion as a guardian.
Incidentally, on guarding lions in the broader cuneiform world, with a particular focus on portal lions, let me just recommend this wonderful thread on Twitter by Rana Zaher:
Before we move on from the Bronze Age, I have to mention that possibly the loveliest of surviving Ugaritic cuneiform inscriptions is also lion-themed, impressed round the side of a mug in the shape of a lion’s head. This is in some ways a sort of cousin to the Proto-Sinaitic sphinx, inscribed in an alphabetic system whose inventory is clearly closely related to the one used for Phoenician, but rendered in wedge-shaped signs inspired by logosyllabic cuneiform.
Zooming ahead to the first millennium BC, when types of cuneiform writing were still in use within the Neo-Assyrian and Persian empires, there are still lions a plenty. I particularly like this 9th C BC limestone lion’s head, which has an inscription naming Esarhaddon son of Sennacherib.
And look at this beautiful little set of bronze weights! They date from the 8th C BC, with inscriptions in Assyrian cuneiform, naming king Shalmaneser, and in Aramaic, giving the weight. Who wouldn’t love a set of these for their kitchen?
Working towards the Mediterranean, we come to the inscribed lion that inspired me to write this post: this one is from Anatolia, with an inscription in Luwian hieroglyphs from c.800 BC. Like the portal lions mentioned above, and the Hurrian foundation pegs, this lion again seems to have acted as a guardian. It was one of a pair with an uninscribed lion, and together they would have guarded the entrance to a palace or temple.
Incidentally, Anatolian hieroglyphs also had a lion’s head sign, which represented the concept of a wild animal. I always think it looks like a lion in a woolly hat, but I don’t think it’s meant to be…
From Anatolia we can take a small step to Cyprus, where we find another pair of lions who featured in our conference. These ones are an old favourite, a pair of lions from a funerary monument at Golgoi, 6th C BC, showing an early example of Cypriot use of the Greek alphabet alongside the locally popular Cypriot syllabic writing.
It’s quite common actually to find lions in pairs. While I was searching for images for this post, I came across this lovely pair of lions inscribed in Prakrit and Karoshthi, from Mathura, India, made in the 1st C AD.
I am not going to try to make this post in any way exhaustive – and let me tell you there are a lot more lion inscriptions out there (and indeed other inscribed felines), from all over the world! One lion that definitely deserves inclusion before I finish is this magnificent example, which you can now visit at the Venetian Arsenal. But that’s not where it originally came from. In fact it was famously one of the lions guarding the Greek port of Piraeus, sculpted around 360 BC – so famously that the Italian name for Piraeus came to be Porto Leone. So what is it inscribed in, you might wonder? Well not Greek or Latin or anything from the Mediterranean… It bears a Runic inscription, left by mercenaries from Sweden in the 11th C AD. What a lion!
I can’t resist finishing with a slightly lateral step by way of this rather adorable catfish, a sign found in one of the earliest Egyptian inscriptions, the Narmer Palette (c.31st C BC), as featured in Kathryn Piquette’s conference paper. This hieroglyphic sign spells out the first syllable of the name Narmer, represented in full by a catfish (n’r) plus chisel (mr) – a great example of what we often call the rebus principle, where a word is spelt out using signs for other objects whose names sound like parts of the word being spelt (on which, see more HERE).
I hope you have enjoyed this foray into the world of inscribed lions. As I said, there are many many more examples – so why not have a look for yourself, and if you find any then please do get in touch or tag us on Twitter (@crewsproject).
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)