Why do lions appear on coats of arms even though Europe didn’t have any?

Dear Cecil:

How did some medieval Europeans come to display lions on their coats of arms? Few if any would have been able to see a real lion during their lifetimes.

Cecil replies:

You never heard of Daniel in the lion’s den? So much you have to explain to these post-religious Generation X’ers. Lions once ranged more widely than any other land mammal. While there were none in Europe during the middle ages (they had become extinct in Greece, their last European outpost, by 100 AD), they survived in considerable numbers in the Middle East and North Africa. Medieval Europeans had regular contact with these areas, and presumably with lions, via trade and (in the middle east) via pilgrimages and the crusades. The last middle eastern and north African lions weren’t wiped out until this century.

But even if medieval Europeans had had no contact with the big cats at all, they’d probably still have had a thing about lions. Lions show up in the art of China, after all, even though none has ever roamed there. Lions early on attained mythic stature and became embedded in the culture, after which point it didn’t much matter if the real thing was around or not. No animal has been given more attention in art and literature. C.A.W. Guggisberg, in his classic book Simba, says the lion is referred to 130 times in the Bible. The lion can be found in stone-age cave drawings and no doubt has been considered king of beasts since the dawn of man.

The high regard in which lions traditionally have been held to a large extent accounts for their greatly reduced numbers today. They have always been considered the premier game beast and men have slaughtered them in vast numbers to prove their manliness. But it seems certain lions would survive in human recollection as a symbol of nobility and courage even if, as may well happen, all living specimens were destroyed.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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