The lion rider:
These days a naked lady holding a snake and riding a lion is not the first image which comes to mind when the word “holy” is spoken. However, that is exactly the title of the goddess at the center of the picture above. This particular example is Egyptian, but this is a Canaanite (pre-Israelite) goddess from the Bronze Age, who is depicted much the same way throughout the region all the way up to Syria in that time period. She is labeled Qadesh (Qudshu), which means “the Holy One.” Who is she? Some say an as yet unknown deity whose name is Qadesh. Most, however, assume this is an epithet of one of the major Canaanite goddesses. She might be Astarte (Ashtart, biblical Ashtoreth), the western variant of Babylonian Ishtar, goddess of the planet Venus (a.k.a. the Morning and Evening Star) and the Goddess of Love and War. This goddess was associated with a lion there. But more likely she is Asherah, the Mother Goddess, who is called in some written documents the Qadesh and also is frequently given the title the Lion Lady.
This Egyptian version is from the wealthy New Kingdom era, after Egypt had thrown off its West Asian warlords, the Hyksos, and gone on to conquer the Canaanites who worshiped this goddess. She is depicted in both Canaan and Egypt wearing the wig of Hathor, an ancient Egyptian Goddess of Love and Fertility, and here she also bears Hathor’s cow horns and sun disc. These are no doubt intended to show that this Canaanite goddess is equated with Hathor, that they are aspects of the same divine feminine power.
The flower and the nudity are natural symbols of fertility; the snake is associated with wisdom. This fits with the archaelogical evidence that Asherah was worshiped by the Canaanites and later Israelites as the Mother Goddess and the Tree of Life. (See Asherah Part I and Part II.) But why is Asherah the Lion Lady?
I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that Asherah’s association with lions is far from unique in the ancient world. In fact, the Lady of the Lions is an image that extends across time for more than 6,000 years and across a wide geographic region as far as Minoan Crete to the west, Anatolia (Turkey) to the north, and Mesopotamia (Sumer, Babylon, modern Iraq) to the east. More than 40 goddesses in Egypt were associated with lions or other felines. Asherah herself would continue to be depicted with lions past the heyday of the Canaanites and through the days when Israel was the nation ruling that region.
Often, a goddess with lion symbolism is associated with a god identified with the bull. This is the case with Asherah, whose spouse was originally El, the Bull God, Father God of the Canaanites. Mythologist Joseph Campbell associated lions with the sun and bulls (and snakes) with the moon. So it is possible we have the remains here of an ancient identification of Sun Goddess and Moon God (just the reverse of the later pattern, interestingly).
Some Lion Goddesses are warriors. Lion-headed Sekhmet once battled the enemies of the sun god in Egypt and the lion (sometimes tiger) riding goddess Durga battles demons in India. One of the primary associations with lions is clearly strength, power and protection. They often appear in positions suggesting they are guarding a person or place of importance. Lions were emblems of the ruling tribe of Judah (the tribe of King David). According to the Hebrew Bible, the throne of King Solomon was covered with ivory, overlaid with gold and featured lions on each side of the armrests. Six steps led up to it and twelve lions stood on them, one at either end of each step. (I Kings 10:18-20.) The biblical passage claims nothing like it had ever been seen before. Maybe Solomon’s throne was the fanciest ever, and maybe not, but the lions guarding it certainly weren’t a new idea. In fact, lions were guarding the thrones of deities and kings well, all over the place before, during, and long after Solomon’s day. Lions are considered so powerful that their images eventually came to protect the thrones of kings as far away as China and England. Lions also guarded the gates of the great cities of the ancient empires of the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the early Greek Mycenaeans.
Variations on the lion often served as guardians of the sacred. Two cherubim, which are depicted in ancient art as winged lions, sometimes with human heads, are said to be guarding the way back into the Garden of Eden. (Later, cherubim were seen as angels.) Two cherubim of gold sat atop the Ark of the Covenant, guarding it with their wings. The enigmatic human-headed lion, the Great Sphinx, guards the Great Pyramids still today.
Perhaps most importantly, lions guarded the thrones of goddesses long before Solomon’s day, perhaps before even the invention of kingship. Long, long ago, back into the murky past of the Neolithic towns of the world’s first farmers in Anatolia, these giant felines guarded the throne of the Goddess. Lions have been the companions and perhaps the guardians of the Goddess, in other words, since the beginnings of what we might call Western Civilization and spread from there throughout the entire Old World.
The Lion Ladies
The figure to the right was created by an unknown artist about 8,000 years ago in an Anatolian town called Catal Hoyuk in what is now the country of Turkey. Although she was created long before writing was invented, we can clearly see she is a figure of some power, seated on what appears to be a throne. Her armrests are supported by two large felines, just as were Solomon’s 5,000 years later. These are sometimes identified as leopards, and they may be, but it seems more likely to me that they were lionesses. At the time this statue was made, Asiatic lions roamed this area and throughout the rest of western Asia. They could be found as far eastward as India, where their only living descendants (about 400 of them) can still be found today.
Notice that the Lion Lady here is, like Asherah and a great many Mother Goddesses, naked. We do not know her name, but we recognize her anyway. Unless she represents a queen who inexplicably rules in the nude (an assumption which might make conservative scholars squirm even more uncomfortably in their seats), the common sense interpretation of this figure is that she is a goddess–and a powerful one at that.
Compare this image to the sketch (left) of a statue of the Greco-Roman Goddess Cybele. Cybele comes originally from the same area as the Catal Hoyuk goddess, just much, much later (6,000 years later). Although lions are often considered a solar symbol and some goddesses associated with them are Sun Goddesses, Cybele is an Earth Goddess. The Romans called her Magna Mater, or Great Mother, Mountain Mother, and Mother of the Gods. Originally a Nature Goddess, she could be a powerful protector of nations as well. The crown on her head represents the walls of a city and her lions could also be found hitched to her chariot. She was adopted into Rome about 200 BC with the hope she would defend them against Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Apparently, Rome’s confidence in her was well placed, as they defeated Hannibal and eventually went on, of course, to become the greatest empire in the ancient world.
The lion on the left is patrolling the wall of the Ishtar Gate, built by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in about 600 BC. This was the king who conquered Judah and brought its residents captive to his city. Ishtar, after whom the gate was named, was the Babylonian Goddess of Love and War. Below the picture of the gate is a relief showing the earlier version of Ishtar, the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna who can be seen with a lion on a leash. The Sumerians created the first complex cities, writing, and the wheel, among other things, about 5,000 years ago. They believed much of their knowledge was given to them by Inanna, who stole the tablets of wisdom from the Wisdom God Enki. A few more Lion Ladies are shown below.