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Lion and Sun Emblem of Iran
A Pictorial Historical Analysis
Part 1: Pre Islamic Era

 

Lion and Sun Emblem of Iran, a Pictorial Historical Analysis
Historical Analysis in 3 Parts
Part 1: Pre Islamic Era

Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
manuvera@aol.com
July 23, 2013


Dr. Kaveh Farrokh

Index of Parts
Part 1: Pre Islamic Era
Part 2: Post Islamic Era
Part 3: Qajars and After

Part 1: Pre Islamic Era

Introduction and Preamble

Major political events often imprint their own profound repercussions upon historical memory. Nation-building, the consolidation of political power and movements against that consolidation often result in the differentiation of points of view. The tragic events of July 2009 in Iran are certainly no exception. Once again as is so often the case in the Iranian arena, the very history and identity of Iran have once again been questioned.

Much of this is based on literature from the late 1970s in Iran and some western venues attempting to depict much of the history of pre-Islamic Iran as “propaganda” by the former Pahlavi regime. On July 2008, the Spiegel Magazine and the Daily Telegraph, wrote articles portraying Cyrus the Great as a blood-thirsty conqueror, and wholly rejected all favorable Greek, Babylonian, Biblical, etc. references as “propaganda“. Both of these articles were widely condemned by the Iranian community and the diaspora.

Almost a year later (July-August 2009) two ancient symbols of Iranian identity have been seriously questioned. A very select few have claimed that the sword-wielding Lion and Rayed sun are dated to and solely representative of the former Pahlavi regime of Iran thereby having no basis in Iranian history or identity. There are two distinct issues here: partisan politics and historiography. Our concern here is strictly with the latter:

Historically and culturally speaking, the Lion and the Sun have existed as potent mythological symbols of Iran for thousands of years. While true that the background colors of Iranian flags have varied across the centuries, the Lion and Sun motifs have endured the test of time. It is also important to note that the primary standards of the Achaemenid and Partho-Sassanian eras were (as generally agreed at this time) the Eagle standard and the Derafsh-e Kaviani (the Standard of Kaveh) respectively. However it is possible that the simultaneous depiction of the Lion-Sun motif may have existed during the late Sassanian era as well, pending the conclusion of the analyses of the finds made in late December 2006 by an Iranian archaeological team at the ancient Castle of Nishabur and Shadiakh.

The brief survey below will discuss the origins of the Lion and Sun motifs in Iran since the Achaemenid era, through the Partho-Sassanian and post-Islamic eras up to 1979.

The Pre-Achaemenid Era: The God Mithras (Mitra)

The sun has been a major ancient Iranic symbol and has appeared alongside the moon and heaven on the banners, standards and flags of Iran since pre-Achaemenid times (Khorasani, 2006, pp.316; Nayenuri, 1965, pp.1).

Mithra (Mitra), who was to become the Sun-God, is perhaps one of the best known Iranic gods, and was at one time widely worshipped in the Roman Empire. Mithra in Avestan is translated as “pact, contract, covenant“. As the god who controls the order of the cosmos, hence the change of seasons and night into day, Mithra

“…was associated with fire and the sun…” [Sarkhosh-Curtis, 1993, pp.13].

This is affirmed in the ancient Yasht writings which describe Mithra as:

“…first of the heavenly gods reaches over the Hara [Alborz Mountains in Iran]; before the undying swift-horsed Sun; who foremost in a golden array, takes hold of the beautiful summits, and from there looks over the abode of the Aryans [Iranic peoples] with a beneficent eye” [Yasht 10, 13].

The connection between Mithra and the Sun is seen in the cult of Mithras where Mithra is, according to Sinclair:

“…identified with the sun, the bringer of light to humanity, the mediator in the cosmic struggle” [Sinclair, 2008, pp.9].

Mithras was also popular in India as a result of the Indo-Aryan migrations into the subcontinent thousands of years ago. The Roman Empire too was to also adopt the cult Mithras, where it enjoyed a strong following from 100-400 AD (Hinnels, 1988).


A Roman version of the statue of Mithras in a Mithraic temple in Ostia, Italy (Consult, Hinnels, 1988, pp.83). Note the opening on the ceiling just above Mithras, allowing from the sun rays to “illuminate” the god. Mithras in Iranian mythology is the bringer of light and justice and a manifestation of the eternal sun.

The ancient Iranic cult of Mithras from which the sun motif is derived, has had a thousand year long tradition. Variants of this cult are still practiced among the Kurds of Iran.


Kurdish man engaged in the worship of Mithras in a Pir’s (mystical leader/master) sanctuary which acts as a Mithraic temple (Courtesy Kasraian & Arshi, 1993, Plate 80). Note how he stands below an opening allowing for the “shining of the light”, almost exactly as seen with the statue in Ostia, Italy. These particular Kurds are said to pay homage to Mithras three times a day.

Over the course of time Mehr or Mithra (Meher in Armenia) and the Sun were to be considered as the same entity (Khorasani, 2006, pp.320).

The pre-Achaemenid and the Achaemenid Era: The First Simultaneous Representation of the Lion-Sun Motif

The simultaneous representation of the lion (Shir-e Iran) and the Sun have often been attributed to the post-Islamic era, especially from the 13th century AD. In reality, the Lion-Sun motif first appeared together at least as early as the Achaemenid era. However there is evidence that their simultaneous appearance occurred even earlier.

Khorasani (2006, pp.320) and Nayenuri (1965, pp. 78) note that the oldest evidence for the simultaneous representation of the Lion and the Sun date to a cylinder of King Sausetar dated to 1450 BC. The image is that of a sun-disc resting on a base flanked by two wings, with two lions guarding at the base.


The Cylinder of King Sausetar (Courtesy of Khorasani, 2006, pp.320). This is the oldest evidence of the Lion-Sun motif as noted by Nayernuri (1965, pp. 78).

The primacy of the sun as a major symbol appears to have taken place at a later date during the Achaemenid dynasty, as the moon had played this role during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC (Khorasani, 2006, pp.317; Nayernuri, 1965, pp.28). In Iranic mythology, the Goddess Anahita is the virgin mother of the Sun-God Mithra.

A plaque from Achaemenid times depicting such a motif seen with Artaxerxes II (404-359 BC ) being faced with the figure of goddess Anahita who is depicted as riding a lion – in the background (of Anahita) is the clear depiction of the sun.


King Artaxerxes II (at left) facing the goddess Anahita who sits atop a lion. In the background to Anahita can be seen the clear display of the sun which is a representation of the ancient Iranic god Mithras. Note that the sun emanates 21 rays, the same symbol which is used by various ancient Iranic cults among the Kurds of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. The 21 rays may be related to the festival date of Mehregan (Festival of the Sun-god Mithra) which takes place from the 16th to the 21st of Mehr of the Iranian calendar.

As noted already, the sun is a manifestation of the ancient Iranic god Mithras, whose cult predates the Achaemenid dynasty. The sitting figure of Anahita represents fertility and life. The temples of Anahita often had canals for water streams, most likely representing another aspect of the life-giving force of the goddess Anahita. In a sense the manifestation of Mithras and Anahita go beyond mere tribal symbols – they are an expression of ancient Iranian mysticism and theology.

The lion too was another one of ancient Iran’s most enduring mythological icons as well as an ancient symbol of Iranian identity. The theme occurs at the reliefs of the city palace at Persepolis.


Depiction of a Lion tormenting prey at the stairway of the Apadana Hall of Persepolis. The Lion was an Iranic mythological symbol of strength and virility. The same type of Lion hunter theme is also in the arts of North Iranic peoples such as the Scythians of ancient Ukraine and south Russia.

Ancient Iran had a number of symbols in addition to the sun of Mithras and the lion; examples being the eagle and the ram. At this time both the lion and the sun appear to have had religious and mythological symbolic significance and were not crude “tribalistic” symbols.


Achaemenid eagle as displayed upon a tile at Persepolis, which was according to Sekunda “…probably representing the Royal standard” (1992, pp.12). This symbol along with the lion and the ram was to endure well into Sassanian times. The lion motif however was to survive the Islamic conquests and resurface on the banners and flags of Iran well into the twentieth century.

As noted by Khorasani (2006, pp.316), the eagle was both a symbol of heaven as well as a good omen.
The lion and lioness however consistently appear in the arts of ancient Iran. The Lion/Lioness has a close connection with the Persian royalty and state authority of the time. Examples include rows of lions decorating Achaemenid garments and the covers of thrones (Consult Tilia, 1978, pp. 46-57 as well as figures. 3, 4, 6);


Achaemenid Rhython in the shape of a Lioness. Iranian rhython arts also influenced the arts of ancient Greece as seen in the Athenian rhython now housed at Museo di Archeologia Ligure, Genova.

As noted by Hinnels, a leading expert of ancient Iranian theology:

“The lion is a traditional symbol of power” [Hinnels, 1988, pp.10].


This lion’s head from the top of a column at Persepolis (Consult Hinnels, 1988, pp.10.

By the end of the Achaemenid era, the sun was a central symbol of Iranian royalty or “Farr” (divine glory). Quintus Curtius, (3.3,8) for example, noted that the tent of Darius III (approximately 380-330 BC) was associated with:

”a crystal image of the sun“


A reconstruction by Duncan head and Richard Scollins (1992, Plate Eight) of Darius III (380-330 BC) the last Achaemenid king. By this time, the image of the sun (like the lion) had become a primary symbol of the Iranian realm.

It is also important to note of the astrological relationship between the Lion and Sun in Iranic mythology, a relationship that has spanned across centuries of time. As noted by Nafisi (1949, pp.55) the unique relationship between the Lion and the Sun is an ancient Iranian concept which views this relationship as a Zodiac sign.


A winged Lion (or griffin) as depicted in Achaemenid arts. As noted by Darius Kadivar, this image was falsely depicted as a “Roman” symbol in the blockbuster movie, Gladiator starring Russell Crowe.

The Northern Iranians: The Scythians of ancient Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Much of what is now southern Russia and Ukraine as well as Central Asia was settled by northern Iranian peoples known as the Scythians (or Saka) (Channon & Hudson, 1995, p.18; Newark, 1998, p.6; Mariusz & Mielczarek, 2002, p.3; Sulimirski, 1970, p.22).

The Saka who are represented in the Persepolis reliefs, shared much of their culture, architecture and arts with their Medo-Persian Iranic cousins. One vivid example of the Persepolis type lion motif (attacking its prey) is seen in a golden large necklace of an Iranian queen or princess who had lived in the vicinity of what is now northern Ossetia (in southern Russia) to the north of the Georgian Republic.


Golden necklace or pectoral of an ancient Iranian queen in what is now North Ossetia. The areas shown with black rectangles depict lions attacking their prey – these are virtually identical to those seen in the Apadana stairway at Persepolis.

The symbolism of the lion is also seen in the world’s first Persian carpet found at Pazyryk in Central Asia.


A portion of the Pazyryk carpet found in Central Asia dated to 2,500 years ago. Known as the first known Persian carpet, note the depictions of mythical (winged) lions on the bottom panels. Of interest are the “X” type symbols along the top panels. These were to become a central motif in the major standard of Partho-Sassanian Iran: the Derafshe e Kaviani or the Standard of Kaveh.

The Partho-Sassanian Era: Mithras and the Lion.

The Parthian dynasty (c. 250 BC-224 AD) was the first Iranic dynasty to succeed the post-Alexandrian Seleucids in Iran. As noted by Tertullian, the Parthian standard displayed an image of the sun (Apologeticum, 16).


A Parthian standard bearer with the Sun of Mithras standard (Iranian army reconstruction in 1971).

The Sassanians (224-651 AD) defeated the Parthians at Hormozgan in 224 AD. The Sun-God was to increase in significance during the Sassanian dynasty. Stone inscriptions of Ardashir for example do mention the name of Mithras or “Mehr”, which as stated earlier is manifested by the sun symbol. The post-Sassanian Iranian epic, the Shahname, also states that the symbol of the pre-Islamic Iran was the sun (Khorasani, 2006, pp.317; Nayernuri, 1965, pp.28). This is exemplified by this verse:

Ke chon mah-e Torkan bar ayad boland [and when the moon of the Turks ascends]
Ze Khorshid-e Iranash ayad qazand [it shall be damaged by the Sun of Iran]

An interesting citation by Malalas (18.44) notes of the hail from the “Persian king, the Sun of the East…” in a letter to the “…Roman Caesar, the Moon of the West“. By “Rome” we are referring to not only the Roman Empire but also its “eastern” successor, the Romano-Byzantine Empire which ruled over much of what is now the Middle East past eastern (and at times western) Iraq and Anatolia. The latter was referred to as “Rum” by the Iranians, a designation inherited by the later Arabs and Turks of the Islamic era.

The Sun-God Mithras known as “Mehr” is also the name of various Partho-Sassanian and other Iranic kings: Mehr-dad (in Iranic) or Mithradates (n Greco-Roman sources). is now a major entity. Mehr or Mithras is clearly displayed in Sassanian relief work at Taq-e-Bostan near Kermanshah.


Investiture of Ardashir II (r. 379-383) (center) by the supreme God Ahuramazda (right) with Mithra (left) standing upon a lotus (Ghirshman, 1962 & Herrmann, 1977). Trampled beneath the feet of Ahura-Mazda and Ardashir II is an unidentified defeated enemy (possibly Roman Emperor Julian). Of interest are the emanating “Sun Rays” from the head of Mithras. Note the object being held by Mithras, which may be some sort of diadem or even a ceremonial broadsword, as Mithras appears to be engaged in some sort of `knighting`of Ardahsir II as he receives the `Farr`(Divine Glory) diadem from Ahura-Mazda.

Another expression of the Sun-God is found in the western or Roman version of Mithraism, which (as noted earlier) was popular in the Roman Empire from 100-400 AD. Roman Mithraism’s had seven stages of ascension, namely Stage I-Cerax (the raven), Stage II-Nymphos (the bride), Stage III-Miles (the soldier), Stage IV-Leo (the lion), Stage V-Perses (the Persian), Stage VI-Heliodromus (the Sun Runner), and Stage VII-Pater (the Father).

Three of these stages are of interest, namely Stage IV (Leo or lion), Stage V (Perses or Persian), and Stage VI (Heliodromus or the Sun Runner), as they signify strong mythological ties between Roman Mithraism and ancient Iranian mythology. The lion and the Sun in particular feature prominently in the Roman version of Mithraism (Hinnels, 1998, pp.84-85).


The Heliodromus (Sun-Runner) as seen in the mosaic isle of the Temple of Mithras at Felicissimus at Ostia, Italy. It is a historical irony that even as the Romans were fighting their enemies the Parthians and the Sassanians, they had adopted an ancient Iranic cult from the land of their enemies.

By Sassanian times a number of motifs existed which were carried on flags and banners and also appeared on various art works. Motifs included the Sun-Disc, the Mithras symbol, lion, ibex, tiger, elephant, mythological creatures, etc. (Farrokh, 2005, pp. 20-23). While the Sun and Lion were among the primary symbols of Sassanian Iran, these are not seen as appearing in a single-motif as each motif was represented with its own unique banner or flag.


The Khwor or Sun-Disc carried on flagpoles and swords (left) and a possible Mithras symbol from the Sassanian era at right – note inset crescent moon (Farrokh, 2005, pp.23).

The lion-theme is clearly seen is lions decorated on the pectoral worn by Ardashir on his Naqsh-e Rostam investiture relief (Hinz, Pl. 63). This was also found decorated on various works of arts.


Sassanian disc with head of a lion. This symbol which appeared on banners, continued to be seen as a symbol of Iranian state authority and prowess.


Sassanian ewer with crossed lions; note star on each lion.

The only “combined” motif symbol found in the Sassanian era is that of Sassanian Iran`s primary standard, the aforementioned Derafsh-e Kaviani (Standard of Kaveh). Legend ascribes this to a certain blacksmith by the name of Kaveh who united the ancient Iranians against the mythical oppressor, Zahak. In reality, the banner most likely existed during the Parthian era as Iran`s royal standard.


A reconstruction of the Sassanian Royal Standard, the Derafsh-e Kaviani (Farrokh, 2005, pp.22). There were apparently a number of versions of these; however the major national banner measured roughly 16 by 20 feet and was studded with gold, silver and jewels. This was captured by Arabo-Islamic forces after the Battle of Qadisiyah in 637 AD. Note that the above version also displays the eagle which was seen among the royal standards of the Achaemenids, centuries before the Sassanians. The eagle symbol was viewed as a benevolent protector and sign of good heavenly fortune. Harper (1978, pp.84) has noted that Sassanian warriors often adorned their weapons with the feather decoration of the bird-god Varagna.

The actual origins of the Derafsh-e Kaviani may be traced to the Achaemenid era, to the aforementioned Pazyryk carpet. There are four petals facing northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast with fixtures at north, south, east and west.


The Pazyryk carpet displays the first depiction of the Derafsh-e Kaviani. The Pazyryk region was settled by North Iranic Scythian peoples. It is possible that the Parthians, who were of Scythian stock, introduced this ancient Iranic theme as Iran`s major standard.

Please continue to Part 2 on the next page.

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