Lion and Bull

22 March 2010

Bull and lion on a relief from Persepolis.

I usually hesitate to read books about art. Art historians always seem to directly start with the interpretation of the paintings or sculptures. Somehow, they often appear to ignore that beautiful things can also be made to be precisely that: beautiful things. Art is meant primarily to be enjoyed, not studied.

Take the fight of the bull and the lion that is shown so very often in Achaemenid art. I once read that it represented the eternal cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil; I also read that they represent two constellations, Taurus and Leo; and I also read that these two theories are not mutually exclusive. But the truth is that we don’t know what it symbolizes.

Actually, we do not even know what it represents. I once believed that the struggle was equal, until I showed one of these reliefs to a man who worked at a zoo. He told me that the lion had already lost the fight, because this animal kills its prey by attacking its victim’s head. Obviously, that’s not what we see: the lion has leaped and has landed on the wrong place – the bull will escape.

Coin of Mazaeus

I recently told this to someone who had lived in Tanzania. She said that she had once witnessed this very type of fight, and added that the lion always leaps to the lower part of an animal’s back. He will remain hanging over there, until his prey is tired. It is only then that the lion kills its victim. This may be shown on the coin of Mazaeus to the left.

So, next time I have to explain this relief, I will do what I always do: explain why we don’t know.

Meanwhile, I learned one thing else. The astronomical explanation is almost certainly incorrect. The next example of an animal representing a celestial sign is the horoscope at Nemrud Daği, which is four centuries younger. Under the Roman Empire, this type of picture rapidly spread, which is why we’re accustomed to it, but it simply had not yet been invented when Persepolis was built.

Moving Livius.Org (8)

5 December 2008
The river Eurymedon

The river Eurymedon

As I already announced, I am moving several pages of my website to facilitate a transfer to a Content Management System. Today, I transferred seven articles from their original sites and gave them new URLs:

  • Carmo: a provincial town in ancient Spain;
  • The Cilician Gate: one of the main roads through the Taurus mountains, of great strategic importance;
  • Eurymedon: the site where the Athenian commander Cimon twice defeated the Persians;
  • Istakhr: an ancient Sasanian residence, of which very little remains;
  • Cape Mycale: the site where the Greek navy defeated the Persian navy;
  • Pactolus: a little river with gold dust;
  • Taurus: a mountain range in southern Turkey.

Still 213 pages to go…


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