Persian Lion and Sun Symbol – History and Meaning

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The lion and sun (Persian: شیر و خورشید) motif features a lion looking to its left, holding a sword in one paw with the rays of the sun shining behind it. Although it appears in many cultures, the lion and sun symbol has a special significance in Persia, present day Iran. Prior to the Islamic revolution, the symbol featured on the Iranian flag.

In ancient Iran, it was a symbol of kingship and divine power. As the king of animals, the Lion (Persian shir) represented power and royalty. The Sun (Persian Khurshid) was associated with the ancient Iranian god of light, Mithra. The Shir-o-Khurshid is one of the most famous Persian symbols.

The lion and sun motif is largely based on astrological configurations. It refers to the ancient sign of the Sun in the house of Leo, tracing back to Babylonian astrology and Middle Eastern traditions.

Persian Lion and Sun – History and Origin

Persian lion and sun symbol

The lion and sun motif became popular in the Middle East in the 12th century on Turkish and Mongolic flags and coins. With different dynasties and rulers, the symbol’s design changed as well.

  • Lion and Sun: The motif then found its way to Iran, first introduced in ancient Iran during the rule of the King Sausetar in 1450BC. The image was that of a sun resting on two wings, with the two lions guarding at the base. By then, the symbol had taken on new significance. The Lion was a mythological symbol of strength and virility. The Sun was a manifestation of an ancient god Mithra, who controlled the order of the cosmos.
  • Resting Lion: During the Safavid era of Iran, the Lion was depicted lying on the ground, and the Sun had a human face. The symbol represented the two pillars of society – the state and religion.
  • Lion, Sword and Sun: Later, the Lion was shown standing and facing right. It had a sword in its right paw, and the Sun was laid across its back.
  • Lion, Crown and Sun: In the 19th century, during the Qajar dynasty, the symbol became an Iranian national emblem. Fat’h Ali Shah changed the design by adding the Qajar crown, which represented the monarchy. The Sun was a symbol of the king and a metaphor for the motherland. The Lion symbolized the heroes protecting the country against enemies. The crown was later changed to that of the Pahlavi dynasty when they took over from the Qajars.
Pahlavi dynasty lion and sun
Pahlavi Dynasty Version

The lion and sun motif remained the official symbol of Iran until the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, it was removed from public places and government building, and was replaced by the modern Iranian coat of arms.

Persian Lion and Sun Symbolism

A lot of the symbolic meaning of the Persian lion and sun is built upon astrological configuration and connection of the planets, especially the Sun and the zodiac sign of Leo. Both the Sun and the Lion are powerful symbols worshiped by many ancient civilizations.

The Sun was idolized as a life-giving deity in many great ancient civilizations, such as the Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Roman, and Greek cultures. It’s considered to be a universal symbol of cosmic power. In many different mythologies, sunrise and sunset, as a repeated cycle of light and darkness, represented life and death, regeneration, and reincarnation.

The Lion has always been a symbol of power, pride, and justice. It was worshiped by kingdoms throughout history and used as a symbol of kingly power and might as well as authority and immortality.

Symbolism of lion and sun

These two motifs combined in the Persian Lion and Sun symbol, offer a broad spectrum of meanings:

  • Power and authority – this is the common interpretation of the Persian symbol. The Lion is seen as a powerful animal, a deadly predator at the top of the food chain. It also represents strength and leadership. The Sun is the star around which the planets of our solar system orbit and represents life, power, and glory.
  • Royalty – As the king of beasts, and the king of the jungle, the Lion often represents kingship and nobility. In the ancient Middle East, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia, the Sun was often seen as a personification of gods and symbolized royalty and divinity.
  • Life – As the source of light and warmth, the Sun represents a life-giving force enabling life to thrive on our planet. It also symbolizes fertility and generosity. The Lion is a fierce animal that symbolizes our inner driving force and the zest for life.
  • Wisdom – In many cultures, the Lion is an embodiment of the divine power, and its symbolic meaning is often associated with godly attributes, such as all-encompassing knowledge.
  • Courage – Lions are a universal symbol of self-confidence and courage. Likewise, the sun symbolizes the heroic and courageous force that guides us and inspires us to create.
  • Dignity – As the source of brightness, Sun inspires nobleness of the heart, radiance, and majesty. Not only do lions have a mighty presence, but they’re also honored with pride in many cultural myths. They remind us to find our inner sense of dignity and respect within our tribe – our society, community, and family.
  • Vitality – As the most significant source of energy, the Sun symbol encourages people to draw strength and vigor from the vitality of this fiery star, starting every day with renewed vitality. The Lion’s health, force, and masculinity are symbolic of youth and liveliness and exemplify virility and creating a new life.
  • Protection – This meaning comes from ancient times, where the Lion, holding a sword in his paw, represented the warriors protecting the motherland from adversaries.
  • Dominance – As natural leaders, the lions’ intimidating presence and roar represent their innate leadership and dominion. The Sun’s predominant appearance and nature in our planetary system clearly refers to its symbolic meaning of dominance over all aspects of life.

In astrology, Leo is the fifth astrological sign of the zodiac. It’s ruled by the Sun and represents the element of fire. Charming Leos are known for their passion, loyalty, strength, and self-confidence. It also represents the balance between emotions and intellect.

Modern Use of The Persian Lion and Sun

The importance, popularity, and continuity of this unusual motif is shown on medals, coins, banknotes, tiles and other items in Iran. It still finds its use in contemporary jewelry design and is often depicted on pendants, brooches, cufflinks, and others. Many modern Iranians see it as a national symbol.

Today, people usually wear it as a piece of statement jewelry to portray who they are and what they value. The bold and stylish Persian lion and sun symbol is worn to represent cherished values.

Sri Lankan lion and sword flag
Sri Lankan Flag

While the lion and sun is no longer used on the flag of Iran, it’s interesting to note that the flag of Sri Lanka features a similar motif – a lion holding a sword. While the origins for the Sri Lankan flag are completely different to the Persian lion and sun motif, they share striking similarities.

To Sum It Up

The Persian Lion and Sun is a versatile symbol that is almost thirty centuries old. Its meaning, interpretation, and significance have changed over time with different rulers of the ancient Middle East. It’s a prevalent symbol today and represents strength, vitality, courage, and wisdom.