Lion Tattoo

The Rich Symbolism Behind Lion Tattoos

Lion Tattoo Symbolism

Lions are known as the King of Beasts.

Typically, when someone gets a lion tattoo, they choose the striking male lion.

Lions as we know them have golden fur, amber eyes, and large bushy manes.

The male lion loves to sunbathe with a serene expression.

The male lion has a combination of tranquility, and the ability to take charge when needed.

This gives them a regal quality. Lions are often associated with royalty as a result.

In American pop culture, lions generally have a reputation for being courageous.

They are depicted as having leadership abilities and a benevolent personality type.

When a cartoon King is drawn as a lion or with lion-like traits, it is generally because he is a good leader.

There are very few evil lion characters.

Depending on the style of your lion tattoo, it may symbolize different things.

Lions are such a symbolic fixture in so many cultures.

To decide what style of lion tattoo you should go with, try researching the many legends about lions.

Once you find something that resonates with you, an artist will be able to help you pay a respectful homage.

Let’s dive into lion tattoo symbolism in different cultures!

How did they get their regal and courageous reputation, and what are some of the more popular lion legends?

  • African Lion Symbolism

When an African artist chooses a creature for their work, they do it with the animal’s symbolism in mind.

There are different art styles across Africa.

Lions may have a slightly different meaning depending on the region.

Overall, putting a male lion in an art piece symbolizes royalty, wisdom, and courage.

Female lions represent maternal instincts and the moon.

Both male and female lions symbolize protection.

With that in mind, a lion tattoo may be a good companion for difficult times in your life.

Alternatively, it may symbolize the courage and wisdom it took to get you out of a bad situation.

It’s worth noting that there are also many African folktales about terrifying lions.

In many of these folktales, animals find ways to outsmart the lion and escape its clutches.

Though lions are revered as a symbol, they are hunters and will do what they need to do to get fed.

To admire a lion is also to acknowledge its primal nature.

They are regal and courageous, yes, but they are animals in the truest sense of the word.

A lion tattoo may be a good way to remind you to be aware of your primal nature but in control of it.

  • Greek Mythology About Lions

The Greek mythology around lions is less about their courage and royalty.

The legend of the Nemean lion has more to do with their ferocious nature.

Before Heracles was a hero in Greek legend, he was a murderer.

Heracles and the Nemea Lion
Oil painting of Hercules slaying the Nemean Lion by Peter Paul Rubens

Driven mad by Hera, he ended up murdering his own wife and children.

Heracles was horrified at what he had done and prayed to Apollo for a way to redeem himself.

Apollo said that Heracles would need to serve King Eurystheus.

Heracles did not respect Eurystheus, but agreed to humble himself.

He was told he would have to complete 12 seemingly impossible tasks.

These are known as the 12 labors of Heracles.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the Roman equivalent of Heracles is Hercules.

The two stories have become conflated over time. They are the same.

Heracles’ first task was to end an unstoppable lion monster.

The lion had been terrorizing the people of Nemea, and was known as the Nemean lion.

Many people had tried to end the lion, but its golden fur was impenetrable.

Heracles told Eurystheus that he would return from the task in 30 days.

Managing to lure the lion into a cave, he grabbed the great beast’s throat and ended it.

He then carried the lion’s body back to Eurystheus.

The King was so surprised that Heracles was able to end the lion, he became terrified by the hero’s strength.

He built a hiding spot for himself so he could avoid Heracles when necessary.

For the remaining 11 labors, Eurystheus sent a herald to deliver the instructions.

He would not dare to look Heracles in the face, his strength was so great.

The moral of the story may be interpreted in different ways.

One idea is that you must work hard to redeem yourself for your unthinkable actions.

The first task Heracles was handed should have ended him, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

He literally got hands-on with it, using his brute strength.

Lesser men may have given up, but Heracles was truly remorseful and ready to do what he needed to do.

Have you faced a trial of your own, and were you brave enough to admit fault and redeem yourself?

The lion of Nemea may be a great tattoo choice for you!

  • Chinese Lion Symbolism

Lions have never lived in the wild in China.

But the people of ancient China would have heard of lions through travelers and silk traders.

Chinese lion statue

Though most of the world’s lions live in Africa, a small population of them can be found in India.

People in China likely learned about lions through Indian people and their art.

Chinese lions have a distinct look to them, and are a popular tattoo symbol.

They do not really resemble real lions, likely because they were based on hearsay.

But that’s what makes Chinese lions so special!

  • Guardian Lions

You’ve likely heard of guardian lions, the statues that guard Buddhist temples.

These lions evolved from an Indian design, were embraced in China, and can be found in Korea and Japan today.

Chinese guardian lions, whether they are in art, statue, or tattoo form, always come in pairs.

The two lions represent the dual nature of the animal.

In China, the lion represents calmness and energy, lively happiness, and peace.

They both contrast and complement one another.

The images communicate the idea of yin and yang, the opposing qualities that govern the whole universe.

Feeling out of balance? Maybe a Foo Dog Tattoo will help.

  • The Legend of Nian

Another fun lion legend from China corresponds with the Lunar New Year.

The story takes place hundreds of years ago in a small village.

Each year, a lion-like monster would terrorize the village.

People surrendered to the beast by staying inside and locking their doors and windows.

They lived in fear of being killed by the monster.

The next day they would find their village torn to shreds by Nian, and would clean up the mess.

One year on the night of Nian, an old beggar came through the village asking for a place to stay.

When no one would open their doors, a woman explained to him that they were frightened.

She begged him to be safe and leave the village. She told him his life would be in danger if he stayed.

The man told her that if she let him stay, he would show her how to defeat Nian. Dubious, she opened her door to the man.

That night when Nian came, he was drawn to the light coming from that woman’s house.

The man had covered her doors and windows with red decorations and lit bright lights.

When Nian approached, the man set off firecrackers and played a loud drum. Frightened, Nian scampered off into the night.

This legend is the basis for many of China’s New Year colors and customs.

Each year the people gather together to ward off Nian and drum up some positive energy for the village.

  • The Lion Dance

Another piece of the Lunar New Year celebration in China is the lion dance.

Chinese Lion Dance

This dance is for good luck, and to ward off evil spirits like Nian.

Two dancers get into an elaborate lion costume and dance to music made by drums, gongs, and symbols.

In the South, the dances tend to mimic a lion’s movements like scratching and licking. In the North, the movements are martial arts-based.

Some people pay homage to their Chinese roots with a lion dance tattoo.

The striking colors and cartoonish features of the costume make for a beautiful design.

Why not ward off evil spirits all year long?

  • Lion Symbolism in the United Kingdom

Lions have been a large part of heraldry in the United Kingdom since 1189.

Richard I the Lionheart, King of England
Richard I the Lionheart, King of England by Merry-Joseph Blondel (oil on canvas, 1841)

During this time, King Richard I “The Lionheart” was in power.

He is depicted as a real lion in Disney’s 1973 portrayal of Robin Hood.

King Richard was compared to a lion because he was a great military leader.

In the United Kingdom, lions are seen as symbols of courage and bravery.

On the official emblem for the UK- A lion (England) stands with a unicorn (Scotland).

The ferociousness of the lion symbol is balanced out by the Unicorn’s purity and innocence.

A lion tattoo in England may represent your patriotism and dedication to the monarchy.

  • Lion Symbolism in Tarot Cards

Tarot, a very old form of divination, is gaining more popularity in the mainstream lately.

Many people may want to be marked by their favorite cards.

The lion in the tarot card “Strength” represents your primal nature.

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck
Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck (1909)

A lion kills not because it is cruel, but because it is in its nature.

In the strength card, a woman approaches the lion with love, taming him.

This is another example of the union of opposites concept.

The card suggests to tame your wild nature with a gentle, feminine strength.

The primal lion and the fair maiden balance one another out.

In other cards, the lion represents Leo, one of the fixed signs of the zodiac.

Leo is ruled by the element of fire, so it’s well suited to someone with a passionate way about them.

Are you a Leo sun? Maybe a lion tattoo in the style of your favorite tarot card would be a nice birthday gift!


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