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Potent kings and antisocial heroes: lion symbolism and elite masculinity in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece

  • Micheál Geoghegan EMAIL logo


In the great kingdoms of ancient Mesopotamia, the king’s power was often evoked by means of lion symbolism. This has led scholars to conclude that lion motifs, and especially that of the lion-slaying hero, in early Greek art and literature were cultural borrowings from the more populous and urbanised civilisations to the east. Yet it is also notable that the Greek tradition, at least from the time of the Homeric poems, tended to problematise the ethics of the leonine man. This article explores the function of lion imagery in narratives of elite masculinity in western Asia and early Greece respectively. It will argue that Greek myth and epic reflect on and problematise any potential equation between lions and kingly prestige, power and masculinity, instead drawing attention to the savagery and social isolation of the lion-like man-of-power, and his difficulty in conforming to the expectations of civilised society.


Sincere thanks to Dr Edward Herring, who provided invaluable advice on early drafts of this article.


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Published Online: 2021-06-11
Published in Print: 2021-06-26

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