Animals and Us
The personification of animals in modern wildlife documentaries is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it makes their lives relatable to us, helps us empathise with the ups-and-downs of a wild living, helps us appreciate the wonderful, safe bubble we have built around ourselves and makes an otherwise niche interest very available.
On the downside we have thousands, possibly millions, of people who think lions are wholly adorable when some of the stuff they get up to would make your soul shiver, that meerkats are sweet little advertising mascots when they’re closer to slut-shaming organised crime gangs, and let’s not even speak of the sea otters.
This giving of human characteristics, identifications or symbolism to animals is not new. Like so much humans do there even seems to be some innateness to it. Cultures have been lining animals up to see how they relate to humanity since…well…humanity.
I’ve written multiple times about the Löwenmensch, the roughly 40,000 year old mammoth ivory carving. It is clearly a lion’s head on a person’s body.
I can’t say for sure that the person made that figurine out of any specific worship or reverence for lions. Yet there is something about the figure, something I think people from 40,000 years ago can look at and get exactly the same notion as someone from 40 minutes ago.
We want, to some extent, to be like lions.
We have two concepts at play. Anthropomorphising is the giving of human qualities, characteristics or attributes to animals. Zoomorphism is the giving of animal qualities, characteristics or attributes to humans. Culturally we seem to love doing both.
But this thing gets pretty circular! Seeing qualities in animals we relate to, or seek to emulate, we thus creat art, dance, music, trance-states etc. in order to become like the animal, which makes it more relatable, so we see qualities… etc.
To an extent I think the harsh recognition that we can never be the animal, and the animal can never be us, makes this circular state possible. It’s like orbit, at some point it ought to come crashing down but the angular momentum, those fragments of relatability, just finds a way to make it go around once more.
It also led to a very powerful pantheon of animal symbolism. Over the course of human development animals have come to be icons, symbols, reflecting certain ‘truths’ about ourselves.
What grand purpose, what lofty reason could I have for tackling this topic now?
‘Cause I got a fucking dope pendant!
That’s the honest reason.
You see I don’t really wear jewellery, if we exclude my mandatory peacock phase in my teens. I’ve never really enjoyed it.
Ear piercing never did it for me, I didn’t understand it then and I don’t now. I don’t judge people for having piercings I can just think of no reason I would personally stick a hole in myself to dress it up in sparklies.
Rings are just uncomfortable. I do stuff with my hands – yup get the wanking jokes out now! – But I write, I play guitar, I was dishes, I scrabble about in dirt, among rocks and in the mud. I can feel rings on me at the best of times, but they’re there, when doing stuff I’m always very aware of them.
Watches can piss off. I’ll wear one that can read universal time once physicists have actually puzzled out what the hell time is. Until then I don’t give a shit if it cost £5 or £50,000 what you have on your wrist right there is an arbitrary linear human perception device. I already have one built into my brain so I don’t need a ticking mortality reminder on my wrist. Plus my phone does the job and dangles in a pocket rather than awkwardly straps to my wrist.
So why on earth would I buy something to wear around my neck? I wear shirts at funerals with the top button undone. I’m uncomfortable with stuff around my neck. Why would I inflict discomfort on myself?
The answer is all in the symbols.
What really drew me to this piece was the image of a lion hunting a stag.
I want you to think what that might mean to you. How would you interpret that? Is that a horrifying sight to you and not the kind of thing you want on your person? Perhaps you think it is majestic, beautiful even?
I know it meant something to me.
As I have already said, there’s nothing new about the lion as a symbol. I have written articles about lions, cave lions, about cats in human culture and I’m fairly certain in all of them I mention how lions and humans are kin. We were born in the same cradle of cruelty, radiating from Africa into Europe at around the same time. We competed over resources, hunting much of the same prey, and no doubt admired each other’s prowess from a safe distance.
It is unsurprising, under those circumstances, to find many of our earliest depictions of animals feature lions. From the Löwenmensch, and the cave paintings of Chauvet all the way up to present day as pissed-up football revellers belt “VREELAHN ZAHNA SHERD” which I think is drunk-footballese for “Three lions on a shirt.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that my Greek replica is far from the earliest coin depicting a lion. The kingdom of Lydia (roughly modern Western Turkey) is, as far as we know, the first culture to produce metal coinage. Lions feature heavily, as does the symbolism of the lion facing off against the bull. That lion/bull image is a whole essay in and of itself, that seems to have its roots in Sumerian astronomy and astrology but that puts fingers into cultural pies throughout history.
So given their rich history what do lions as symbols mean? I’d pose that question differently. How many layers of meaning have been given to lions throughout history? It’s a lot and once you get into any sort of interpretation of symbolism you have to accept that different symbols mean different things to different peoples at different times. It’s very situational.
The most obvious meaning is wildness and yet how often do we see the lion, particularly used symbolically, represented as bestially ferocious? It is rarely. You could argue that this is exactly what is happening in my pendant, the ferocious lion is tearing apart the meek and passive stag.
It isn’t! And I’ll elaborate.
The lion as a symbol if I had to sum it up is best represented as ‘light’. The fiery mane of the male lion is an easy association to make with the sun and this appears to have happened. There is also, though, a representation of one’s own light – the self – in it. This seems counter to what a lion is, especially when they had likely been a key danger to humans for tens of thousands of years. So, in a sense this is not a ‘self’ in a conscious way. This lion represents our inner light, our inner illumination or our inner selves.
So why choose such an aggressive, gnarly looking beast for it?
Probably because this symbolism was initiated by people who had actually watched lions and not merely worn out their VHS cassette of The Lion King as a kid and saw some docs on Animal Planet.
For all of their associations with brute force and masculinised alpha-nonsense the male lion is, mostly, a measured creature. People who wish to lionise themselves for their aggression or flashiness do not know lions.
His place in a pride is not to hunt, his place is barely even to involve himself in scavenging disputes (and when he does get involved he’s either hungry or the pride is in serious trouble). The male lion is stately. He is proud, stoic and calm. He fights only when he has to and uses every other behavioural tool in his arsenal to avoid it because when a male lion clashes with a male lion serious damage occurs. Other male lions are some of the biggest dangers lions face in the wild. The males of the pride (and there can be multiple, usually no more than three) thus provide for their community by being the first line of defence against that great harm. They provide the safety and the pride provides the food.
It’s very protection racket, but nature is vicious like that. To me it sounds an awful lot like some kind of warlord shit. One thing the lion represents is royalty, which is fancy-words for warlords. At least it was, until it came to mean undeserved, heritable entitlement.
Of course the other thing, then, is far from being symbolic of a violent light or an uncontrollable beast within perhaps the self that the lion represents is neither conscious nor unconscious. Perhaps it is the reins on those aspects of self. The lion is not our natural cruelty nor is it our stoic passivity. It is the ability to control oneself when either of those is needed.
Exactly traits a monarch may need, too! In the helter-skelter world of the 8th-4th century BCE Mediterranean there were no Kings, Queens or rulers as we’d think of them today. With a few exceptions they were mostly warlords! They were organised bands of self-interested pilferers and pillagers, they dressed themselves up in the regalia of civilisation but they were warlords. We can’t judge them too harshly for it, though, because they were surrounded by other organised bands of self-interested pilferers and pillagers and if you don’t defend your own you will get pilfered and pillaged!
What the lion represents of self, then, is the knowledge, the measure and behavioural control to know when to stand guard, or back down, when to fight the very urge to fight, in order to protect what is valuable; and when to raise your head, roar and let the world know you’re ready to go on a warpath. In a more warlordy sense it is knowing when to sheath your weapon and when to unsheathe it for the best possible outcome.
We all know that the lion is a symbol of royalty, of power and of courage, such is the power of the symbol and the universality of the lion or big cat – but the roots, the sun representation, the tales traced across the stars in the constellation of Leo, this is where the meat comes from. The lion is royalty, with respect. The lion is power, in measure. The lion is courage, where needed. The lion is not mere aggression, the lion is protection. The lion does the right thing.
The lion doesn’t just represent what can be done it is rather a reflection on what should be done. It is a moral agent. It does not necessarily represent the power and illustriousness that comes with being monarch. It is a reminder of the responsibilities that come with the role.
This, also, fits with kind of what happened as moral attitudes and responsibilities changed. What began as an obvious symbol of individual or royal power in the Fertile Crescent morphed into a representation of a greater good, of the power of ‘state’ itself, before becoming a highly charged religious symbol. The lion has been morally guiding us all along. Being secretly controlled by wild big cats would explain a lot about our collective social situation.
What, then, of the stag? Well there’s a tricky one because there are basically deer species all over the damn world and whilst every culture with lion symbolism runs a similar track with it, the old stag, the deer, or the hart – well they mean different things to different people.
Overall it is not dissimilar to the lion. A stag is good, old, upright strength. The hugest difference to note is of course a lion is a predator, whilst even to humans the stag was prey. It was honourable prey, though. The animal stands, its antlers, almost coronal, crown-like, stabbing through the mists as human hunters watchfully gaze. We have reverence for the stag, not like other prey species.
They are often portrayed as symbols of spirituality, of a connection between worlds. I’d wager a solid portion of this is best summed up with the Japanese “Itadakimasu” – usually translated as “Let’s eat!” or “Thanks for the food!” It has its roots in the animist traditions of Buddhism and the respect for the souls of all living things. It can probably be better translated as “I humbly receive.”
You see before meat came in standard cuts, a mutilation of the body it had been, and pre-packaged in supermarkets, before supermarkets were even a thing. Indeed before markets were a thing, humans had to look at an animal, admire an animal, in some hunting traditions ‘become’ or embody that animal (which some cultures still do today), walking a mile in its shoes before they killed it for food. It wasn’t some pointless ritual although it no doubt became ritualised, it was a necessity. If you didn’t get close, stay out of sight, make the animal comfortable and know how it felt, you didn’t get your damn fat and protein and that stuff goes a long way for a small band of hunter-gatherers.
Perhaps the boundary between life and death that the stag inhabits carries some of this hunter’s legacy. To themselves they are wild beasts roaming free, but we know, through hunter’s eyes, when we look at them they’re already dead – at least we hope.
So stags have a reputation as a creature of spiritual mystery, majesty and grace in many cultures, the UK and Ireland, across Europe in Celtic traditions etc. But how would they have been thought of in Ancient Greece?
Not too dissimilarly, though perhaps with a shade less reverence.
Artemis and Actaeon
The stag is probably most associated with Artemis, the amazing goddess of the hunt and, upon my apotheosis, my future wife. I have written an adoring article about her too, if you want some more background. We will focus on the story of Artemis and Actaeon, from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.
In Ovid’s telling of this tale Artemis is bathing in a grove with her nymph buddies. She is approached by Actaeon, a deer hunter. He ‘accidentally’ sees her naked and Artemis is so enraged she wants to majorly fuck him up. Unfortunately she doesn’t have her bow to hand so just throws water on Actaeon, slaps a couple of antlers on him, mutilates his form until he’s a stag and then slaps him on the rump and says “fuck off!”
I am, of course, paraphrasing. For all his reputation for gratiutousness and profanity Ovid ain’t got shit on me!
This is from the Brooks More translation available here but we have the wonderful, and telling, lines;
“…His courage turned to fear.
The brave son of Autonoe took to flight,”
Autonoe is Actaeon’s mother, by the way.
Here we see one of the key differences in reception between a lion and a stag. There is a clear dividing line between a royal predator and royal prey. The lion stands proud, courageous even when afraid; the stag, though, is afraid and runs.
After being sent on his way Actaeon is torn apart by his own hunting dogs.
I’ve read, so often, that this is about human sacrifice to the Gods. The stag, particularly the white hart, has been used as symbolic of Christ or the Holy Spirit. At least as far as Christian myth goes representing the ultimate sacrifice. Stags are also often depicted in hunting scenes being absolutely, brutally, mauled. The sacrifice idea definitely holds weight.
However I see it a little differently. Actaeon is the hunter become the hunted, a very ironic punishment for what could be construed of as a minor transgression (if we believe he accidentally saw Artemis naked – possible. Or that he didn’t gawp, stare and marvel at her beauty – almost definitely impossible.) Either way it does not matter because who is the hunter to gaze upon the very hunt herself? Artemis is nature, in all her nurturing cruelties. Actaeon, in daring to even objectify her, has transgressed that.
If this were just a matter of sacrifice or humiliation why not transform him into a sacrificial beast? The ancient Greeks would usually sacrifice sheep, goats or oxen. Why not one of those? Why not have another hunter find him rather than his own stag-hunting dogs?
The symbol of the stag here is important, I feel. We are to know that even transformed Actaeon is a potent beast. Indeed it is that very ‘potency’ that Artemis is angered by. Turn him into a goat and she’s just another goat-slayer. She has to show her power, by turning him into that which is considered powerful but that she, herself, controls. She is goddess of the hunt, the very spirit of hunting itself, and it’s not very good sport if you don’t have worthy prey.
Actaeon, such an accomplished hunter he can sneak up on a goddess and her nymphs, is very quickly bested as the most accomplished prey.
In another version of the story I believe Actaeon boasts that he was a better hunter than Artemis and that’s why she kills him. Either way I think my interpretation works. The sacrifice is of less significance to the transformation and Actaeon’s handling of it.
What, then, is the lesson? Besides don’t stop and stare at random naked women you find in the seclusion of a woodland glade, of course?
What we have is the transformation of a human considered strong. He is transformed into a beast known to be hunted, but also considered strong, as well as noble and good sport in the hunt. He is promptly turned into Pedigree Chum. I mean, don’t fuck with Artemis is a good enough lesson but this, to me, is about human impotence in the face of nature.
Artemis represents the ‘higher’ aspect of hunting. She is the brutal beauty, the personification of those hunting practices that had nurtured humans to that point, and a representation of nature’s abundance, but violence. To me at least she represents that cruel duality of what so many people like to call ‘mother earth’. I hate those two words because anyone who has studied anything remotely related to life, the universe and everything knows; if nature is our mother she’s bloody abusive!
Actaeon is hunting when he finds Artemis, a behaviour that could be considered very human but that is also shared with a great deal more of the living world, too. Artemis is, obviously, drop-dead gorgeous. He is transfixed, the very epitome of the human animal, hunting and lusty, gazing at a virgin Goddess. His animal lusts get the better of him and he stares, clearly objectifying the goddess as if a human woman. This might flatter some of your other goddesses, perhaps even causing them to toy with you romantically, but Artemis is famously virginal. She is above human, she is superhuman.
Artemis turns Actaeon into a stag not merely for the sacrifice, those Greek gods used humans like action figures. The very opposite! She delights in her hunt. In many ways you could perceive his transformation as making him more than what he was. A human hunter has weapons, they have dogs, and they have communication and cries and calls to tell those dogs what to do. Artemis strips Actaeon of those, leaving only a challenge. “Stags have got away from you in the past now let’s see how well you do.” And naturally, he fails. The stag is a deliberate choice, he has his cunning, his speed, his strength, he even has a big old pair of antlers. It’s of no use, though, if you don’t know how to use it.
The stag, then, is a worthy adversary. The hart is an opponent to be recognised and respected, but with the knowledge that it is ‘lesser’ and can be destroyed. Certainly to those of us who are lions.
Let’s talk about the coin itself a little.
From what I can find out the piece is a replica of a silver didrachm of Hyele (Velia), and was likely minted around the 4th century BCE, although similar designs appear in Velia in the 6th century BCE and do not vanish from the record until around 275 BCE when an alliance with Rome meant they stopped minting their own currency.
Hyele was a city in Magna Graecia (Greater Greece – the name given by Romans to Greek settlements around the Southern coast of Italy) and is on the Tyrrhenian Sea in Southern Italy where there were many such Greek settlements. It is supposed settlers from Greece began arriving on the Italian peninsula from around the 8th century BCE, and they established many great, ancient cities such as Neapolis (Naples), Massalia (Marseille) and Syracuse (New York…Nah it’s obviously Sicily). They also had a thing for sticking lions on their coins!
It has been pretty much a universal symbol on Hyele’s coins, from first to last. So why did they choose this image?
Well, actually trying to find specifics on what certain images meant to certain cultures is tough. Despite the huge amount of scholarship around coins it’s like the ancient equivalent of trying to figure out why we always eat processed cacao and talk about the weather by watching Tay Zonday’s memetastic, but deeply symbolic, ‘Chocolate Rain’.
That’s why I’ve written a whole article of cultural interpretative bollocks! The actual, contextual meaning has vanished in the tangled cable-drawer of time.
The single lion seems to represent ‘royalty’, or, at the very least, the power of the state or community. It is not necessarily a symbol of an individual. We return to the ‘three lions’ of the England football team. There are no ‘three lions’. Those three lions are not Alan Shearer, Bobby Moore and Sam Allardyce. They are abstract.
However a single lion hunting is not a passive symbol. It is active. And if the single lion represents the courage, power, bravery and domination of the community it is produced for it stands to reason the prey item represents something over which these ‘lions’ have mastery.
Lion Attacking a Horse
Let’s turn to another amazing lion hunting symbol for a moment. The sublime “Lion Attacking a Horse”, a marble sculpture likely dating back to 4th century BCE Greece (around the same time as Hyele was making their coins, and switched from a single, prowling lion to the hunting motif) most associated with Rome.
As mentioned, lions as symbols, especially lions hunting, was not an uncommon theme in the East. Now I’m not quite sure if there are any major events around that time that could have led to the cultural appropriation of Eastern symbols for use in Greek culture. I mean there was that young lad who went on a bit of a rampage, Alexander the Something-or-other, a Macedonian fella who fought against the Achaemenid Persian empire to become King of All Asia.
The meaning, then, could be quite obvious. Our Alexander is the lion and the horse is the Achaemenid Persian culture he bit down on the neck of.
Like with the stag imagery, a horse is not a weak, submissive prey item. They are big, strong and well regarded. For all of their propaganda, and the post-‘300’ pop-culture memes, the Persians were not necessarily thought of, universally, as uncultured, indulgent barbarians by the Greeks. Considering those ‘barbarians’ had battered them – TWICE – by that point it would be hard to call them ‘inferior’ with a straight face. There is enough evidence to show Greeks at the time did regard the Persians, their way of life and their culture. The horse embodies that regard.
This amazing sculpture, with Roman dominion over Greece, was transported to Rome. An ironic symbol as the new lion makes a horse of the old.
Here it is believed the statue stood for a long time. The location it is described as having been found in, a streambed at the base of the Palatine Hill, has led some to believe it was on display at the Circus Maximus, the go-to venue for horse racing and beast hunts. It would be a rather apt location for such a wonderful portrayal of the brutal beauty of nature. It is very realistic and very pathetic.
Sadly all lions age and all lions must one day die. Although if it was at the Circus Maximus it was likely still stood there when the last events and races occurred in the mid-6th century CE, after this it disappears for a few centuries.
Didn’t think this story could get any deeper? Think again! Rome left a lot of old shit behind and the statue, now slightly worse for wear, was found near the bottom of the Palatine Hill at some point before the 14th century CE. By then it had been installed at the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill.
It was also broken, the rear legs of the lion were ruined, the delicate limbs of the horse long since fractured and the horse’s head removed. Rumours that the sculpture Mafia put it in the bed of a sculpture movie producer are likely overstated.
And that’s where the story ends?
Because this piece, even a fragment of its former self, was so enrapturing to the burgeoning Renaissance movement in Italy and for a couple of hundred years was an historic masterpiece to be admired. But inevitably someone would want to restore it and one Ruggero Bascapé did the job. Who he? He was one of Michelangelo’s students!
This statue, once forgotten to time, is now considered one of the finest examples of classical sculpture, a forgotten symbol of the imperial might of Rome, that had one of Michelangelo’s students fix the broken bits so we get to see the glorious cut-and-shut job it is today and – somehow – it’s all the more beautiful for that journey.
The Killing Bite: A Conclusion
What’s that gotta do with my silly bling?
That imagery that drew me in has been drawing people in for millennia. The compassionate, but brutal portrayal of suffering, the notions of victory and victimhood, they resonate. A lion attacking a prey item is just striking imagery to the human mind.
We have already seen symbols of lions squaring off with, or fighting other creatures before Alexander. This is not a post-Alexander phenomenon and he did not popularise the lion. There are images of the lion attacking a stag on coins from Hyele from before Alexander was even born. They did not take their designs from this ‘Lion Attacking a Horse’, from the suspected influx of Eastern inspired lion imagery Alexander exported with his victories. It just all seemingly flower from the same wellspring.
The image, the symbol of the lion, its use as a symbol of power, strength, victory, conquest, light, life – all of it was thousands of years old before Alex had bridled Bucephalus. It had another meaning to the people of Hyele, perhaps a less fixed one, one where the symbol persevered over centuries exactly because it meant so much, but so broadly its symbolism could change.
It is likely the overarching significance of the lion and the stag is similar to the lion and the horse, or the lion and the bull. Often the lion confronting, or hunting motif is used on coins to commemorate a war or victory, the proud lion conquering a worthy, but ultimately inferior, prey.
It could be purely symbolic, the lion, symbol of life, symbol of the sun, vanquishing this noble beast of the mysterious, spirit-filled forest.
It could be a conquest of consciousness over unconsciousness, a celebration of life vanquishing death.
It could be that the lion is a representation of Artemis herself and this is a celebration of the human will and its triumph over the cruelties of nature under her guidance.
It could be the person who designed it just loved cats and stags.
Frankly I don’t know a lot! That’s why I’m a Curious Idiot™. I do know that the ‘head’ side of the coin is Athena, which was a lovely bonus. She is not my dear Artemis, but in many ways she’s a better friend for it. I’m at home in the woods or the hills, marching with sore feet to the Trumpet Voluntary of the birds in the trees. Artemis gets me at my best.
I’m not so at home in the cities, or with conflict. Having the goddess of the urban, the cultured and the wise next to my heart is a wonderful talisman. I also happen to be bad at conflict and she is also a goddess of war and peace, so have some bonus on your bonus. It means, though, that poor Athena has to be there to comfort me through my worst!
I don’t know a lot. To be honest, we don’t know a lot. The past is an alien place and what feelings images inspired, what thoughts and associations they brought up, is something it is mostly impossible to know. Even when another writes of it we are only hearing their opinion, from their specific sub-culture, for their time. Even where the imagery has a lasting legacy, like the lions and stags, the associations change so much over time that even if the concept is the same it could still be very different in interpretation.
These exercises in symbolism, what words, pictures, animals, concepts etc. would have meant is fascinating because it is so interpretative and requires those deep dives of research I love doing. And there’s never an answer, it’s the everlasting gobstopper of academic interests. This is the wonderful subjectivity of art and I know nothing about that, either!
What I do know is this lion and stag is an enduring image and I spent money I didn’t have on something I didn’t need because it rang a bell inside of me.
To me I am the lion. But I haven’t always been. That’s what makes it so powerful. I actually know much better how to play the stag. My life’s been no bed of roses, and I’ve had my share of teeth on my neck. To see that suffering portrayed so simply, elegantly and compassionately as on this coin, is striking.
Eventually, though, one fights back or dies. In fighting back there is a very real danger that the stag morphs into the lion. Like the moving of the ‘Lion Attacking a Horse’ sculpture from Greece to Rome, an old lion eventually just becomes some other predator’s prey.
The lion is not necessarily me, I’m changeable. But it is who I want to be, I want to bite down on the stag I was in the past.
To me this is a symbol of my control. Control over the fear that had me darting off as a startled stag in the forest. Control over my aggression that once had me attempting to bite the back of the world and inflict so much harm I only ended up hurting myself and the people important to me. It is my responsibility, and my control of those responsibilities. It is my light, and my control of that light.
Perhaps me buying a piece of jewellery, itself symbolic of status and importance, featuring this particular imagery is significant? Perhaps it’s merely a premature mid-life crisis!
Or perhaps it is a gift from me, to me. Perhaps it is me telling me that it’s time to let out my mane, roar and be ready to tackle any stag, myself included, so that I can finally show what I have to offer the world.
If you would like the kind of pendant that inspires a 5,000 word essay don’t forget to follow @Agameganon on Twitter for updates on her online shop. Or the shop is available here (although stock comes and goes so check back later if it’s empty).