The basis of the association between the lion and the sun is the animal’s strength, its golden-brown color, and the ray-like mane of the male. Similarly as the eagle, the lion is believed to be able to look straight into the sun without blinking.
As a symbol the lion represents both religious and stately power and leadership. The Gita calls Krishna “a lion among wild creatures”; the Buddha is “the Lion of the Shakyas”; and Christ “the Lion of Judah.” Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, honored by the Shi’ites, is the Lion of Allah.
Many divinities are depicted riding or seated upon lions, and they decorated Solomon’s throne as well as the thrones of the King of France and medieval bishops. Also the lion symbolizes Christ as judge and teacher, carrying his book or scroll; and is the emblem of St. Mark. In medieval iconography the forequarters of the lion represented Christ’s divine nature, while the hindquarters, deliberately contrasted because of their weakness, symbolized his human nature.
However, the lion’s strength is not always effective because infrequently he does not restrain it in order to use it properly. St. John of the Cross noted the lion’s “heedless, angry appetite,” a symbol of imperious will and uncontrolled strength.
This led to the phrase “pot-bellied lion,” a symbol of blind greed which Shiva treads down. In Christianity too, where the aspect of controlled strength of the lion symbolized Christ, this aspect of uncontrolled strength represents the Anti-Christ. Even though this is a negative aspect, it might also justify the lion being symbolic of imperial heraldry and medieval bishops, greed is a human failing too.
As can be seen, like the eagle, the lion has an androgynous nature too. Many ancient cultures also associated him with chthonic creatures and deities such as the crocodile.
In Egyptian iconography, lions placed back to back, each looking in the opposite direction, one to the east and the other to the west, represented their watching the course of the sun passing from one end of the earth to the other.
Watching as they did the birth and death of daylight the lions came to represent yesterday and tomorrow, and from this they took on a rejuvenation symbol since the sun’s nightly underground journey brought him from the lion’s jaws of the West to the lion’s jaws of the East so he was reborn each morning.
In ore general terms, the lions symbolized renewed strength ensured by the day-night cycle of exertion and rest.
From the above description it is easy to understand the alchemical association of the lion. Like the eagle the lion has an androgynous nature, all of the opposites are present he is strong and weak, courageous and cowardly, the symbol of power and creed.
The opposites in the lion’s nature are similar to the snakes of Mercury’s caduceus; their treatment determines their appearance just as the alchemist’s mixture determined his product. The lion’s golden brown color resembles the sun or gold which the alchemist strived for. The lion also symbolizes rejuvenation, in alchemical terms, the destruction of the base material and rebirth of the new. A.G.H.
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. (Transl. by James Hulbert). New York. Facts On File, 1992. pp. 208-211.
Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. A Dictionary of Symbols. (Transl. by John Buchanan-Brown). New York, Penguin Books. 1996. pp. 611-613.
Jung, C. G. Mysterium Coniunctions. (Transl. by R. F. C. Hull). “The Collected Works of Jung” Vol. 14. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 1970. pp. 298-299.