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Source: British Library Images Online Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 6r



Latin name: Leo

Other names: Leun, Lyon

The lion is the king of the beasts


General Attributes

The lion is the king of the beasts, and as such is usually the first beast described in the bestiaries. The lion chapter is generally one of the longest and most complex.

The lion has three natures: when a lion walking in the mountains sees that it is being hunted, it erases its tracks with its tail; it always sleeps with its eyes open; and its cubs are born dead and are brought to life on the third day when the mother breathes in their faces or the father roars over them. Some sources add more natures: a lion only kills out of great hunger; it will not attack a prostrate man; it allows captive men to depart; it is not easily angered; the lioness first has five cubs, then one less each year.

There are two kinds of lion: one is timid, has a short body and curly hair; the other has straight hair and a long body and is fierce. A lion's strength is seen in its chest, its firmness in its head, and its courage in its forehead and tail.

Lions are frightened of the sight of hunters with spears, so they look at the ground when surrounded. They also fear the sound of creaking cart wheels, fire, and the sight of the white cock. A sick lion cures itself by eating an ape, eating on one day and drinking the next; if the meat does not digest properly the lion pulls it out of its stomach with its claws. Lions are harmed by scorpions and killed by snakes.

When a lion is hungry it treats other animals with anger, leaping on them as it does on the ass. A hunting lion makes a circle with its tail around other animals, which do not dare to cross the line and so become its prey. The roar of a lion is alone enough to make other animals weak with fear.

Lions do not like to eat the previous day's prey, abandoning the remains of their last meal.

Unlike most animals, lions mate face to face. The lioness give birth to five cubs the first time, then four the next, and three the next, until after the birth of a single cub in the fifth year, they become sterile.


In Christian allegory, the three main natures of the lion each have a meaning. The lion erasing its tracks with its tail represents the way Jesus concealed his divinity, only revealing himself to his followers. The lion sleeping with its eyes open represents Jesus, physically dead after crucifiction, but still spiritually alive in his divine nature. The lion roaring over his dead cubs to bring them to life represents how God the father woke Jesus after three days in his tomb.

The other natures of the lion are taken as examples of how people are to live. Just as the lion will not attack a prostrate man, will allow captive men to depart, and is not easily angered, people should be slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Sources (chronological order)

Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] (Aesop: The Complete Fables (London, 1998) Temple 210): The lion was complaining to Prometheus that while the god had made him big and strong, he was still afraid of the cock. The lion felt foolish because of this lack of courage. He went to talk to the elephant and found him being tormented by a gnat. When the lion asked him about his trouble, the elephant said that he was afraid of the gnat, because if it got into his ear he would surely die. The lion, hearing that, felt much better about his own courage, since a cock is much more frightening than a gnat. (Temple 269): An ass and a cock were together one day, when a lion attacked the ass. The cock began to crow, and the lion ran away, since lions are afraid of the crowing of the cock. The ass, believing the lion was fleeing through fear of him, gave chase, but as soon as the lion was far enough from the cock so that its crowing could not be heard, he stopped running and killed the ass.

Herodotus [5th century BCE] (History, book 3): The lioness, on the other hand, which is one of the strongest and boldest of brutes, brings forth young but once in her lifetime, and then a single cub; she cannot possibly conceive again, since she loses her womb at the same time that she drops her young. The reason of this is that as soon as the cub begins to stir inside the dam, his claws, which are sharper than those of any other animal, scratch the womb; as the time goes on, and he grows bigger, he tears it ever more and more; so that at last, when the birth comes, there is not a morsel in the whole womb that is sound.(The History of Herodotus (London, 1858/1997) Rawlinson translation)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 17-21): Pliny notes the popular belief that the lioness only gives birth once, because her womb is injured by the claws of the cub, but (quoting Aristotle) refutes this. The lioness bears five cubs the first year, four the next, and one less each following year, until she becomes barren after the fifth year. The cubs are born as mere lumps of flesh the size of weasels, do not move at all in their first two months of life, and cannot walk until six months old. Lions are found in Europe only between the rivers Achelous and Mestus; these lions are stronger than those of Syria and Africa. There are two kinds of lions: a timid kind, with curly manes; and a long-haired kind that is bold. They drink infrequently, and eat only every other day, sometimes fasting for three days after a large meal. If a lion eats too much, it will reach down its throat with its claws and pull out the meat from its stomach. The lion is the only animal that spares people who prostrate themselves before it. When angry it attacks men, not women, and only attacks children when extremely hungry. A lion's greatest strength is in its chest, and its blood is black. When a mother lion is defending her cub from hunters, she looks at the ground so as not to be intimidated by the sight of the hunter's spears. Lions are frightened by turning wheels, empty chariots, crowing cocks, and fire. A lion which has lost its appetite for food can cure itself by tasting the blood of a monkey. (Book 10, 83): Lions produce young that are unfinished at birth, and shape them by licking them. In this they are like bears and foxes. (Book 11,115): The lion's breath contains a severe poison.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:3-6): The lion is the king of all beasts, thus its name in Greek (leo) means "king" in Latin. The kind of lion with a curly mane is weak, but the ones with straight hair are larger and more violent. Their courage is seen in their front and tail; their endurance is in the head; and their strength is in the chest. If they are surrounded by hunters with spears, they look at the ground so as not to become frightened. They are afraid of the sound of wheels but even more so of fire. They sleep with their eyes open. When lions walk, they erase their tracks with their tail so hunters cannot follow them. When they give birth to a cub, it is thought to sleep for three days and nights, until the place where it sleeps is shaken by the roar of the father, which wakes it. Lions can fight with their claws and their teeth even while they are cubs. Lions will only attack a man when they are extremely hungry; otherwise they are so gentle that they cannot be provoked unless they are struck. They spare anyone who prostrates himself and allow captives to return home.

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): It is proper that we should first speak of the nature of the lion, which is a fierce and proud beast and very bold. It has three especially peculiar characteristics. In the first place it always dwells upon a high mountain. From afar off it can scent the hunter who is pursuing it. And in order that the latter may not follow it to its lair it covers over its tracks by means of its tail. Another wonderful peculiarity of the lion is that when it sleeps its eyes are wide open, and clear and bright. The third characteristic is likewise very strange. For when the lioness brings forth her young, it falls to the ground, and gives no sign of life until the third day, when the lion breathes upon it and in this way brings it back to life again. (Bestiaries and Lapidaries (London, 1896) Kuhns translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): Some lions be short with crisp hair and mane, and these lions fight not; and some lions have simple hair of mane, and those lions have sharp and fierce hearts, and by their foreheads and tails their virtue is known in the beast, and their stedfastness in the head: and when they be beset with hunters, then they behold the earth, for to dread the less the hunters and their gins, that them have beset about: and he dreadeth noise and rushing of wheels, but he dreadeth fire much more. And when they sleep their eyes wake: and when they go forth or about, they hele and hide their fores and steps, for hunters should not find them.... It is the kind of lions, not to be wroth with man, but if they be grieved or hurt. Also their mercy is known by many and oft examples: for they spare them that lie on the ground, and suffer them to pass homeward that were prisoners and come out of thraldom, and eat not a man or slay him but in great hunger. Pliny saith that the lion is in most gentleness and nobility, when his neck and shoulders be heled with hair and main. And he that is gendered of the pard, lacketh that nobility. The lion knoweth by smell, if the pard gendereth with the lioness, and reseth against the lioness that breaketh spousehood, and punisheth her full sore, but if she wash her in a river, and then it is not known. The lion liveth most long, and that is known by working and wasting of his teeth: and when in age he reseth on a man: for his virtue and might faileth to pursue great beasts and wild. And then he besiegeth cities to ransom and to take men: but when the lions be taken, then they be hanged, for other lions should dread such manner pain. The old lion reseth woodly on men, and only grunteth on women, and reseth seldom on children, but in great hunger.... In peril the lion is most gentle and noble, for when he is pursued with hounds and with hunters, the lion lurketh not nor hideth himself, but sitteth in fields where he may be seen, and arrayeth himself to defence. And runneth out of wood and covert with swift running and course, as though he would account vile shame to lurk and to hide himself. And he hideth himself not for dread that he hath, but he dreadeth himself sometime, only for he would not be dreaded. And when he pursueth man or beast in lands, then he leapeth when he reseth on him. When he is wounded, he taketh wonderly heed, and knoweth them that him first smiteth, and reseth on the smiter, though he be never in so great multitude: and if a man shoot at him, the lion chaseth him and throweth him down, and woundeth him not, nor hurteth him.... He hideth himself in high mountains, and espieth from thence his prey. And when he seeth his prey he roareth full loud, and at the voice of him other beasts dread and stint suddenly: and he maketh a circle all about them with his tail, and all the beasts dread to pass out over the line of the circle, and the beasts stand astonied and afraid, as it were abiding the hest and commandment of their king.... And he is ashamed to eat alone the prey that he taketh; therefore of his grace of free heart, he leaveth some of his prey to other beasts that follow him afar.... And the lion is hunted in this wise: One double cave is made one fast by that other, and in the second cave is set a whiche, that closeth full soon when it is touched: and in the first den and cave is a lamb set, and the lion leapeth therein, when he is an hungered, for to take the lamb. And when he seeth that he may not break out of the den, he is ashamed that he is beguiled, and would enter in to the second den to lurk there, and falleth into it, and it closeth anon as he is in, and letteth him not pass out thereof, but keepeth him fast therein, until he be taken out and bound with chains till he be tame.... The lion is cruel and wood when he is wroth, and biteth and grieveth himself for indignation, and gnasheth with his teeth, and namely when he hungreth, and spieth and lieth in wait, to take beasts which pass by the way. He hideth himself in privy caves, and reseth on beasts unawares, and slayeth them with his teeth and claws, and breaketh all their members, and eateth them piecemeal: and if he see any come against him to take away his prey, then he beclippeth the prey, and grunteth and smiteth the earth with his tail, and if he nigheth him he leapeth on him, and overcometh him, and turneth to the prey. First he drinketh and licketh the blood of the beast that he slayeth, and rendeth and haleth the other-deal limb-meal, and devoureth and swalloweth it. ... [The leopard] is less in body than the lion, and therefore he dreadeth the lion, and maketh a cave under earth with double entering, one by which he goeth in, and the other by which he goeth out. And that cave is full wide and large in either entering, and more narrow and straight in the middle. And so when the lion cometh, he fleeth and falleth suddenly into the cave, and the lion pursueth him with a great rese, and entereth also into the cave, and weeneth there to have the mastery over the leopard, but for greatness of his body he may not pass freely by the middle of the den which is full straight, and when the leopard knoweth that the lion is so let and holden in the straight place, he goeth out of the den forward, and cometh again into the den in the other side behind the lion, and reseth on him behindforth with biting and with claws, and so the leopard hath often in that wise the mastery of the lion by craft and not by strength (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]: The leun stant on hille, and he man hunten here, / Other thurg his nese smel smake that he negge, / Bi wilc weie so he wile to dele nither wenden, / Alle hise fet steppes after him he filleth, / Drageth dust with his stert ther he dun steppeth, / Other dust other deu, that he ne cunne is finden, / Driveth dun to his den thar he him bergen wille. / An other kinde he haveth, wanne he is ikindled / Stille lith the leun, ne stireth he nout of slepe / Til the sunne haveth sinen thries him abuten; / Thanne reiseth his father him mit te rem that he maketh / The thridde lage haveth the leun, thanne he lieth to slepen / Sal he nevre luken the lides of hise egen. / Welle heg is tat hil, that is Heven riche. / Ure loverd is te leun, the liveth ther abuven; / Wu tho him likede to ligten her on erthe, / Migte nevre divel witen, thog he be derne hunte, / Hu he dun come, / Ne wu he dennede him in that defte meiden, / Marie bi name, the him bar to manne frame. / Tho ure Drigten ded was / And dolven, also his wille was, / In a ston stille he lai / Til it kam the thridde dai; / His Fader him filstnede swo / That he ros fro dede tho, / us to lif holden. / Waketh so his wille is, so hirde for his folde. / He is hirde, we ben sep; silden he us wille, / If we heren to his word that we ne gon nowor wille.


The three natures of the lion are commonly illustrated, with the revival of the cub perhaps the most frequent. Often several illustrations are provided for the lion. The lion fearing the creaking cart and the cock is illustrated in Merton College Library, MS. 249 (f. 2v) and Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8º (f. 10r).


The lion was one of the most popular animals in heraldry, though many of the heraldic animals taken as lions are actualy intended as leopards. The attributes the lion was meant to represent in heraldry are similar to those given in the bestiary; the lion is noble, brave and fierce, but will only attack if attacked or in great need of food.

The lion was most often depicted rampant (standing upright on its hind legs, with its fore legs, claws extended, held in front of its chest), but sometimes passant (standing on all four feet or lying down). There were several varieties of lion pictured: ones with a forked tail (queue fourchée), the tail indicating the fierceness of the beast ('for when the Lion is wroth, first he beateth the earth with his taile, and afterwards as the wroth increaseth, he smiteth and beateth his own back'); with one body and two heads; with one head and two bodies (bicorporate), three bodies (tricorporate), four bodies (quadricorporate), or more; lions with wings, symbolic of the Christian concept of Resurrection; the Sea-Lion, not the natural sea lion but a beast with the head and mane of a lion, fore legs with webbed feet in place of claws, and a fish tail from the waist down, ending in whale-like flukes; and combinations such as a winged Sea-Lion.

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