Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Lion Strangler: Symbol of Power in Ancient Persia

Achaemenid Lion Strangler at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio.
A hero strangling a lion was an enduring motif in the ancient Middle East. Possibly referring to the myth of Gilgamesh or Herakles, it was considered a symbol of Persian royal power. As a royal symbol it was already fully developed in the art of the Protoliterate period beginning approximately in 3500 BCE. In its earliest manifestations, the lion strangler was thought to depict the hero protecting the sacred flocks of the goddess of fertility. This concept was gradually replaced by the idea it reflected the eternal conflict between man and beast where man represented the defender of order and civilized life against the the chaotic forces of nature. Likewise, Gilgamesh in the early Sumerian epic, slew several monsters including Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven in such symbolic contests. Eventually, though, the iconography of the lion strangler simply became a symbol of power favored by kings who viewed themselves as powerful and brave enough to strangle a lion with their bare hands. The motif of the lion strangler continued in popularity long after the Muslim conquest and found its way to Islamic Spain where it adorned silk textiles. From there it was passed to the rest of Europe and was adopted by Romanesque sculptors for the decoration of capitals.

Image: Median Lion Strangler carved in Lapis Lazuli, Persian, Achaemenid Period, 1st half of the 5th century BCE.
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