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Apotropaic Lions in Herodotus

David Branscome

Florida State University

According to Herodotus, the early Lydian king Meles carried around the walls of Sardis a lion born to him by his concubine (1.84.3). This anecdote has long puzzled scholars. Herodotus reports that following the declaration of Telmessian seers that “if the lion was carried around the wall, Sardis would be impregnable,” Meles carried this lion all around Sardis’ walls except for one spot—the very spot at which, in the reign of the Lydian king Croesus, Cyrus’ Persian soldiers would manage to scale the walls and so to capture Sardis. Some scholars have focused on identifying the particular divinity to whom this lion may have been sacred, whether the Lydian gods Sandon and Cybele or the Greek hero Heracles (Shear; Legrand; Hanfmann and Ramage). By contrast, Bunnens traces the story, as well as a similar one in Cicero’s De divinatione (1.53), back to a Babylonian omen text about a city being taken when a woman gives birth to a lion. Even so, Asheri rightly notes that the lion in Herodotus’ account is supposed to prevent—not presage—Sardis’ capture. In this paper I argue that commentators on Herodotus 1.84.3 have not fully appreciated the significant apotropaic protection that Meles’ lion was meant to confer on Sardis. In addition, there are two other passages that join 1.84.3 in emphasizing the apotropaic power that lions could hold in Herodotus’ work: the Phoenicians’ sacrifice of a Greek captive named Leon on the prow of a ship (7.180) and the Spartan king Leonidas’ self-sacrifice at Thermopylae (7.224.1). Ironically, all three of these attempts to evoke the apotropaic properties of lions ultimately fail, either in whole or in part.     

Lions were potent iconographical figures in Near Eastern and Greek visual sources. Not only were images of lions often arranged in heraldic groupings, but at the same time lions often took the form of guardian reliefs or statues, from the Lion Gate at Mycenae to the lion statues found at Neo-Assyrian palaces and temples (Faraone; Strawn). Such statues, in particular, were placed at entryways and were meant to channel divine powers in order to magically ward off evil.

The lions involved in the three Herodotean passages all occupy this same Near Eastern and Greek apotropaic milieu. Herodotus implies that Meles’ carrying the lion around the walls of Sardis might have granted them full apotropaic protection and thus made them impossible for even an army to take, if Meles had only not neglected one precipitous section of the walls (McCartney). Before the Battle of Artemisium, when Xerxes’ Phoenician sailors capture their first enemy ship (from Troezen), they lead the “best-looking” Greek marine onboard, a man named Λέων (“lion”), to the prow of the Troezinian ship and slaughter him there (7.180). Herodotus remarks, rather cryptically, that “perhaps [Leōn] would in some way benefit (epauriskein) from his name.” The “benefit” in question may have an apotropaic nature; while Leon’s name does not end up saving him (Macan; Dyson), perhaps the Phoenicians hope that by sacrificing him they can exploit the power of Leon’s name so as to grant magical protection to the Persian fleet either in the upcoming naval battle or even in Xerxes’ invasion as a whole. Vannicelli contrasts Leon’s involuntary sacrifice (7.180) with the voluntary one by another “lion-man,” Leonidas (Λεωνίδης) (7.224.1). Greeks might have hoped that Leonidas, by taking his stand at Thermopylae, could impart some of the apotropaic power of lions to this mountain pass, which marked an entrance into Greece from the north. Although Leonidas failed to hold the pass (McNellen), Greeks, nevertheless, erected at Thermopylae a stone statue of a lion in Leonidas’ honor (7.225.2). This lion statue was erected to commemorate a fallen “lion,” who had been sent to a topographical entryway in order to protect it—both physically by force of arms and magically by the apotropaic force of his name.                        

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Herodotus and Thucydides

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