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The Last European Lion June 29, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

lion hunt mosaic macedonia

The ancient Greeks were lion mad. Lions frequently appear in the lively similes of ‘Homer’. They appear in Greek art and in legends: at a guess Pausanias probably has a score of lion legends from around Greece. But can any of this be taken to prove that lions actually lived in ancient Greece or, indeed, in ancient Europe more generally? Take an example. Hercules is said to have killed a vicious lion at Nemea. This might be a confused memory of a lion that had killed many locals or it may be legendary fluff. More problematic in every way is the tale of a lion on the island of Kea (aka Ceos) and a famous statue of the same there: the lion drove some nymphs out, fairies and lions evidently not getting on (?). But was there really, in historic times, a lion on a Mediterranean island? It seems unlikely and the story probably arose to describe a local placename, Leon: placenames and the need to explain them are responsible for countless abuses of history. A nice parallel here about animal extinction and the historical imagination is the British bear. The British bear was probably destroyed in the early centuries A.D. but it features in the Celtic and Germanic naming traditions of the island right through the early Middle Ages to and beyond the eleventh century: i.e. men called Bear.

However, with Greek lions there are a couple of sources that give pause for thought and that prevent us from banishing the European lion prematurely. Take this passage from Herodotus describing the Persian descent towards Thermopylae and the three hundred there in 480 BC.

Xerxes and his army marched from Acanthus through the interior to Therma; and while he was on his way through the Paeonian and Crestonian territories to the river Echidorus, his camels, which carried corn, were attacked by lions. These animals, leaving their usual haunts came at night and preyed on the camels but touched no man and no other beast. It appears marvelous that the lions should have abstained from other animals, and should have selected the camel, which they had never seen or tasted. In this region there are numerous lions, as well as wild oxen, whose horns of immense size, are imported into Greece. The country in which the lion is found, is bounded by the river Nestus, which runs through Abdern and the River Achelous in Acarnania. Lions occur between these two rivers; but they are never see in the portion of Europe to the east of the Nestus, or on the continent west of the Achelous (vii, 124-126)

This passage has been much discussed by lion types many of whom have argued strongly against  lions attacking camels, particularly camels escorted by Persian immortals and their attendants, and the lion types very likely have a point. But to dismiss this entire passage because of a concern over the central anecdote is plain silly and does the lion types no credit. Herodotus seems to have picked up a Macedonian tall tall: ‘even the lions rose up against the Persians…!’ But his precise information about the lions hunting grounds and the fact that he felt that he could tell a story about lions in Macedonia without adding to his reputation as the father of lies tells us all we need to know. There were lions in Macedonia in the early fifth century when the Persians attacked and there were presumably lions when Herodotus wrote in the later fifth century.

A little less specific but interesting are two references from the works of Aristotle (obit 322). Aristotle was born in Thrace and spent part of his life in Macedonia so his comments are unlikely to be thoughtless, throwaway lines. The comment here on the lion urinating sounds very like one of those instances where Aristotle had himself observed the animal.

The lion, like all other savage and jag-toothed animals, is carnivorous. It devours its food greedily and fiercely, and often swallows its prey entire without rending it at all; it will then go fasting for two or three days together, being rendered capable of this abstinence by its previous surfeit. It is a spare drinker. It discharges the solid residuum in small quantities, about every other day or at irregular intervals, and the substance of it is hard and dry like the excrement of a dog. The wind discharged from off its stomach is pungent, and its urine emits a strong odour, a phenomenon which, in the case of dogs, accounts for their habit of sniffing at trees; for, by the way, the lion, like the dog, lifts its leg to void its urine.

Here is his comment on the lion’s geography: was the phrase about the two rivers taken from Herodotus or did it, perhaps, echo a Macedonian expression?

Again, lions are more numerous in Libya, and in that district of Europe that lies between the Achelous and the Nessus; the leopard is more abundant in Asia Minor, and is not found in Europe at all.

Another writer who mentions the lion is Xenophon (obit 354 BC) in his On Hunting. However, he does so in a confused manner lumping together the non European panther and leopard. His writing is normally taken to suggest that the lion was found at this date on Mount Pangaeus and Cittus: it is not really good for any purpose though.  

Lions, leopards, lynxes, panthers, bears and all other such game are to be captured in foreign countries — about Mount Pangaeus and Cittus beyond Macedonia; or again, in Nysa beyond Syria, and upon other mountains suited to the breeding of large game.

More interesting is the reference in Pausanias (obit 180) to an Olympic athlete Polydamas who killed a lion without any weapon, Hercules-style. He did so on Mount Olympus, on the edges of Macedonia.

The Thracian mountainous country up from the river Nestos, which runs through the territory of Abdera, is stocked with wild beasts, including lions; they attacked Xerxes’ army and preyed on the camels that carried his provisions. These lions often range into the country round Olympus. One side of Mount Olympus is towards Macedonia, and the other faces Thessaly and the river Peneios. It was here, on Mount Olympus, that Polydamas completely unarmed, killed a strong, wild lion of considerable size. He was led into this adventure by an ambitious envy of the labours of Heracles, because the story goes that Heracles killed the lion at Nemea.

As in the case of Herodotus (who Pausanias alludes to here) the story is suspect, but the information that lions lived on Olympus seems incidental and factual.

As to evidence for when the Macedonian lion ceased to exist Polybius (obit c. 118 B.C.) wrote:

Again, all are aware of the numbers and strength of the elephants, lions, and panthers in Africa, of the beauty of its buffaloes, and the size of its ostriches, creatures that do not exist at all in Europe while Africa is full of them.

Polybius was a bit of generaliser. However, Dio Chrysostomus states emphatically, in the early first century B.C., that lions were extinct in Macedonia and we have no reason to disbelieve him. The last Macedonian lions presumably fell on a Macedone’s spears sometime in the second century B.C. Or are there any ambitious cryptozoologists out there who would like to argue that in a dell on the northern side of Olympus a peasant girl was recently walking when she trod on what looked like a yellow branch but was, in fact, the tail of a…?

There is archaeological evidence for lions (bones etc) in Greece but it tends to be extremely early. More interesting is later Greek art, where the lion could just be symbolic. The Macedonian lion hunt at the head of this post was probably, though, factual and terrifying. Any other evidence for European lions, Macedonian or otherwise? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Beach should end this post by saying that he has avoided questions of breeds here: was the Macedonian lion a cave lion? Was it an Asiatic lion or a ‘European’ lion (whatever that means)? For him it is exciting enough that lions of any description, with or without manes (though see the image above), ranged on the slopes of Olympus and howled at the setting sun. Sigh.