The Lions of Egypt, Pharaonic

The Lions of Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

Statue of a lion from ancient Egypt

It is interesting that, during most of the Pharaonic period, lions were relatively few in Egypt, but were at the same time significant to the Pharaonic Egyptians. Today, we know of no wild lions in Egypt. Their number declined steadily as the more lush climate of the prehistoric period faded into the desert climate that most of Egypt knows today, and as the inhabitable land of Egypt became more and more densely populated. However, it was probably during the prehistoric times that they became a symbol with religious associations. It is likely that the connection between the king and the lion grew from the tribal chiefs hunting these animals during the Predynastic period, just as they did Hippopotamus and Crocodiles, which no longer inhabit Egyptian waters above Lake Nasser.

The Headrest of Tutankhamun

Lions usually lived on the edges of the desert, and so they became known as the guardians of the eastern and western horizons, where the sun rose and set. Hence, in the hieroglyph for Horizon (akhet), they sometimes replaced the eastern and western mountains symbols. Headrests also took the form of this same akhet sign at times, supported by two lions, as with an example from Tutankhamun's tomb, where the flank Shu, the god of the air, who supports the head of the king, representing the sun. In fact, the sun itself could be depicted as a lion. Hence, we find in Chapter 62 of the Book of the Dead, "May I be granted power over the waters like the limbs of Seth, for I am he who crosses the sky, I am the Lion of Re, I am the Slayer who eats the foreleg, the leg of beef is extended to me...".

The Great Sphinx at Giza

It was the lion-god Aker who guarded the gateway to the netherworld through which the sun passed each day and so, since the sun was born each morning and died each evening on the horizon, the lion was associated with death and rebirth. In this regard, he was portrayed on funerary couches or biers, as well as embalming tables. The Great Sphinx at Giza, with the body of a lion, was also associated with the horizon as Horemakhet (Horus in the Horizon). Aker and also the god Ruty could be depicted as a double lion god and called, "yesterday" and "tomorrow". However, the beds and chairs of the living were also sometimes adorned with lions' paws or heads. Perhaps this was only decoration, but it may have also have had magical meaning, thus making sure that the individual would rise renewed after sleep or rest. On the roofs of temples, lions' heads became gargoyles rainspouts, probably because it was thought that the lion stood on the temple roof absorbing the evil rainstorms of Seth and then spitting them out down the sides of the building.

Paired lions representing probably Ruty

A Greek papyrus mentions lions that were buried in the sacred animal necropolis at Saqqara, but these have never been found. They were sometimes regarded as lion cubs created by Atum. Most lion deities (and cat deities) were female, of which Sekhmet was almost certainly the most important. In fact, her cult was eventually merged with Mut and the cat goddess Bastet. She was though to be one of the "Eyes of Re", but in one myth, she was almost responsible for the destruction of mankind. In the Delta site of Greek Leontopolis, (ancient Taremu, modern Tell el-Muqdam), the lion god Mihos (Mahes, Greek Mysis or Miysis), the son of Bastet or sometimes of Sekhmet, was sacred. It was not uncommon to find Shu and Tefnut, who were linked with the paired lion god Ruty, venerated in the form of a lion at this site Wadget, another goddess usually portrayed as a cobra, was another "Eye of Re" and therefore she could sometimes also appear in lion form depicted as a cobra with a lion's head.

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011






Reference Number

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