The Lion-and-bull is one of the oldest mythological symbols in the world, possibly as old as the great goddess motif of the Stone Age. It can be found in numerous cultures in a clear line of historical transmission. It passed from culture to culture during periods of contact, with each new group expressing the symbol with its own emphasis. It is a symbol of great complexity and range.
The basic sense of the bull brought down by beasts of prey is an image of the fundamental forces of life and death in a terrible, intense struggle. As an image of the conflict that provides the sustenance of life, the lion and the bull are bound together as a single symbol.
If the bull is taken as the life-giving principle, the lion must be interpreted as the dynamic force that activates its release.
The Sumerians were the first to fix our zodiac in the heavens, and they assigned to Leo the house that the sun must traverse during the summer solstice. The bull, representing the principle of the sacrifice that gives life, is associated with spring, and so Taurus rules the house which the sun traverses in the vernal equinox, when the world returns to life.
In the symbolic language of Sumer, the lion is the great solar animal. Just as the light of the sun never varies, the lion exemplifies the clear light of awareness of eternity. The bull represents the lunar principle, which, waxing and waning in a constant cycle, exemplifies consciousness in the field of time. While the lion-consciousness is eternal and unchanging, the bull-consciousness, like the light of the moon, follows an eternal cycle of death and resurrection.
In one of the earliest extant religious poems, the Sumerian lament “The Wild Bull Who Has Lain Down and Died,” the goddess Inanna, equivalent to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, both paired with a lion, is lamenting the death of her husband Dumuzi, represented in this poem as a bull:
Dumuzi, the slain wild bull
lives no more.
The slain wild bull
lives no more.
Mithra, the sun-god, deity of wisdom, light, contract, and war in pre-Zoroastrian Iran rode and later killed the life-giving cosmic bull whose blood fertilized all vegetation and animals. Tauroctony or Mithra’s slaying of the bull became the ritualistic prototype of fertility in Mithraic cult.
Mithra performs the sacrifice with a knife he was born with, so did the ‘karpans’ whose act Avesta denounces; it seems likely that the ceremony was a part of old Iranian paganism. This inference is corroborated by an Indian text in which Mitra – as the name appears in Vedic literature – reluctantly participates in the sacrifice of a god named Soma, who often appears in the shape of a white bull or the moon.
According to Avesta, Angra Mainyu kills the primeval bull, whose seed is rescued by Mah (Avestan: Maonghah, the moon) as the source for all other animals.
For economical purposes, the sheep replaced the bull in the sacrificial ceremonies necessitating a common meal to sanction the event in question, mainly a contract or an appeal to a god. To justify the replacement the unfortunate sheep was called ‘gau spanti’ literally meaning ‘sacred bull’. The practice was so frequented that the assumed name gau spanti extended over ceremonial usage and became the accepted, general term for sheep, now pronounced ‘gusfand’ in Persian after several centuries.
One of the most famous motifs found at Persepolis is the relief of a lion attacking a bull. Open to interpretation, this relief has been seen as symbolizing the defeat of winter by the Spring Equinox; an interpretation supported by the fact that Persepolis was a major centre for the celebration of the New Year which took place in spring each year.
French Turkologue and specialist of Islamic culture Jean-Paul Roux (1925 – 2009) believes the answer to the question of the animal combat/contest is to be found in Central Asian shamanism. However, bulls and lions are found among the fabulous beasts in heraldic groups in the so-called proto-Elamite glyptic art of north-western Iran, researcher Gary D. Thompson wrote in Critique of Willy Hartners’s Astronomical Interpretation of Lion-Bull Iconography.
Pierre Amiet, Chief Conservator, Departement of Oriental Antiquites at the Louvre, holds that those associations may simply stand for “elementary powers charged with the stability of the world.”
The lion-bull combat/contest scene has proved difficult to interpret. In their 1964 essay “The Conquering Lion,” Willy Hartner and Richard Ettinghausen express their belief that undoubtedly the significance of the motif has changed over time.
They see the lion-bull combat/contest as an astronomical symbol in its earliest occurrences, thereafter a symbol of royalty, and finally a religious motif. This view is supported by Mirjam Gelfer-Jorgensen: “Thus these animal combat motifs, once their precise significance from days gone by has faded away, can in the long run become a symbol of the forces of renewal, a kind of life-giving symbol.
A possible scenario for change in the significance of the motif may be from astronomical symbol to symbol of royal power then to symbol of seasonal change (i.e., the lion as symbol of summer, defeats the bull a symbol of winter).