Constellations of Words

Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

the Lion

Urania’s Mirror1825

1. Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature
2. The fixed stars in this constellation
3. History_of_the_constellation

Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature

Leo the Lion, from Latin leo, ‘lion’, the word was borrowed by the Greeks from some unknown source. The Latin word is related to Greek leon, leontos (earlier *lewon, *lewontos), which appears in the name of the Spartan king Leonidas, Lion’s son. The Greek word is somehow related to Coptic labai, laboi, lioness. In turn, Coptic labai is borrowed from a Semitic source related to Hebrew labi and Akkadian labbu [AHD]. Compare also Homeric liz, ‘lion’, which is probably a loan word from Hebrew layish, ‘lion’ [Klein]. Related names: Lionel, Leander, Leonard, Leonid, Leonine

In Greek and Roman myth Leo represented the Nemean Lion slain by Hercules, giving the titles for this constellation: Nemeaeus, NemeasAlumnus, NemeesTerror, NemeaeumMonstrum. The first of Hercules‘ twelve labors was to slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its skin to his cousin Eurystheus who had set twelve labors for him.

The name Nemea is believed to be cognate with Latin nemus, from Greek nemos, ‘grove’ [Klein].

“A grove (nemus) is named for divinity (numen), because pagans set up their idols there, for groves are sites with larger trees, shady with foliage.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.341.]

“Etymologically the Latin word numen originally and literally meant ‘nodding.’ It has the sense of inherent vitality and presiding, and was also associated with meanings of ‘command’ or ‘divine majesty'” []. This is also how Varro understood it to mean:

“By invoking your name And your numen with many a prayer. Numen ‘divine will or sway,’ they say, is imperium ‘power,’ and is derived from nutus ‘nod,’ because he at whose nutus ‘nod’ everything is, seems to have the greatest imperium ‘power’; therefore Homer uses this word in application to Jupiter, and so does Accius a number of times. [Varro: On The Latin Language, 1st century AD, p.339.]

Latin numen, ‘divine will, divine command’, properly ‘divine approval expressed by nodding the head’, from nuere, ‘to nod’, which is cognate with Greek neuein, ‘to nod’ [Klein], from the Indo-European root *neu ‘To nod’. Derivatives: nutation (nodding the head), innuendo, numen (plural numina), numinous (characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence). [Pokorny 2. neu– 767. Watkins

[The changing of names of the crown prince of Nemea, must have some significance; Nemea might also relate to the word ‘name’ from Indo-European root *no-men– ‘Name’?]

Nemea in Southern Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula was also famous in Greek myth as the place where the infant Opheltes, the crown prince of Nemea, lying on a bed of parsley, was killed by a serpent while his nurse fetched water for the Seven against Thebes. The Seven founded the Nemean Games, as a funerary festival, in his memory which were one of the four great Greek athletic festivals conducted every second year, starting in 573 B.C., and the crown of victory was made of parsley (others say celery). This infant who before he was killed by a serpent was called Opheltes (from Greek ophis, serpent – the infant was found dead within the coils of a snake []). The Seven Heroes renamed him Archemoros, from arche beginning + moros, death; ‘Beginner of Death’. Other legends attribute the institution of the Nemean games to Heracles, after he had slain the Nemean Lion [].

Regulus, the alpha star of Leo, was referred to in Greek as Basiliskos by Ptolemy, translated “Little King”, and his name was also believed to be related to the basilisk serpent. Greek βασιλίσκος Basilískos, “little king”; is translated into Latin as Regulus, the word being a diminutive of Latin rex, “king”. There seems to be no myth or legend linked to the naming of Regulus. It seems likely to me that there could be a connection between the infant Opheltes, whose name is from Greek ophis, serpent, and Latin Regulus, Greek Basilískos; both names translated “little king”, and the Greek name also meaning a type of snake.

The comparison of the resurrected Christ to a lion’s whelp was made in the second century AD Physiologus, the story is told of the lion whose cubs are born dead and receive life after three days when the father lion comes and roars over them, or vivifies them by his breath [, p.73]. “Just so did the Father Omnipotent raise Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day” [The Book of Beasts: p.8].

The lion traditionally symbolizes royalty, and rulers. Greek leon was sometimes translated as ‘king’ (rex) from Greek into Latin, because the lion is the king of all the beasts. []. Regulus is the alpha star of Leo, from Latin rex, “king”, from the Indo-European root *reg-, ‘To move in a straight line, with derivatives meaning to direct in a straight line, lead, rule. right just, correct, straight’. Derivatives: right (as in a privilege or legal claim, also ‘morally correct, just, good, fair, proper, fitting, straight’), realm, rectitude, recto, rector, rectum (the straight portion of the lower bowel.), rectus (straight muscles, as of the abdomen, eye, neck, and thigh.), regent, regime, regimen, regiment, region (an area ruled), address, adroit, alert, correct, direct, dirge (Latin dirige (first word of the antiphon in the funeral service, Psalm 5:8), imperative singular of dirigere to guide ), dirigible (to steer, an airship), dress (arrange, make straight, prepare), address, droit (claim due), adroit (deft skillful), direction, director, erect (vertical, ‘Homo erectus’, ‘upright man’), erection, incorrigible, rectangle, resurge, resurrect, resurrection, source, surge (Latin surgere, to rise  : sub-, from below; + regere, ), Reich, rich, regal, regulus, reign, royal, viceroy, raj, rajah, maharajah, rail, regular, regulate, rule, rake (for raking grass), rack, reckon (counting up), abrogate, arrogant, arrogate (‘claim for oneself’ without right’), interrogate, prerogative, surrogate, ergo (in consequence of), reck (to take heed), reckless. [Pokorny 1. reg– 854. Watkins

Jason, leader of the Argonauts, was compared to a lion when he and the Argonauts were stranded in the Libyan desert:

“He spoke, and leapt to his feet, and shouted afar to his comrades, all squalid with dust, like a lion when he roars through the woodland seeking his mate; and far off in the mountains the glens tremble at the thunder of his voice; and the oxen of the field and the herdsmen shudder with fear” [The Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius, 2nd century B.C.]

“Hercules killed an enormous lion in Greece and set it among the twelve signs as a mark of his own valor. When the sun reaches this sign, it gives excessive heat to the world, and causes the annual Etesian winds.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.106.]

On page 253 of Star Names Allen says the Syrians called Leo Aryo; the Jews, Arye; meaning a Lion. Ari or Aryeh, is the Hebrew for “lion”, cognate with Akkadian aria, Aramaic arya. Aryeh in Sanskrit (a PIE, Proto-Indo-European, language) means “noble” and in Hebrew means “lion”. Ari was used in Hebrew as an honorific for an important man. The Hebrew name Ari-el translates to “lion of God” []. The word Aryan is a synonym for Indo-European (people and language). The original word in Vedic Language for Lion is ‘Hari‘ [10] which is phonically similar to ari. Linguists say that the Indo-European languages are not related to Hebrew and might deny a link in this case, but they are unsure of some words and they term the Hebrew words that have strayed into these languages “borrowings”. The term “Arya” derived from the Proto-Indo-European, generally carries the meaning of “noble” or “free”, is cognate with the Greek-derived word “aristocrat” [11].

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

“Who can doubt the nature of the monstrous Lion, and the pursuits he prescribes for those born beneath his sign? The lion ever devises fresh fights and fresh warfare on animals, and lives on spoil and pillaging of flocks. The sons of the Lion are filled with the urge to adorn [or ‘dress’; from *reg-] their proud portals with pelts and to hang up on their walls the captured prey, to bring the peace of terror to the woods, and to live upon plunder. There are those whose like bent is not checked by the city-gates, but they swagger about in the heart of the capital with droves of beasts; they display mangled limbs at the shop-front, slaughter to meet the demands of luxury, and count it gain to kill. Their temper is equally prone to fitful wrath and ready withdrawal, and guileless are the sentiments of their honest hearts” [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, p.237.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Leo
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
Alterf lambda 16LEO29 17LEO52 142 13 05 +23 11 22 +07 53 07 4.48 K5
Ras Elased Australis epsilon 19LEO18 20LEO42 145 45 15 +24 00 19 +09 42 43 3.12 G3
Ras Elased Borealis mu 20LEO02 21LEO26 147 28 51 +26 14 36 +12 20 49 4.10 K3
Subra omicron 22LEO51 24LEO15 144 37 15 +10 07 15 -03 45 34 3.76 F5
Adhafera zeta 26LEO10 27LEO34 153 28 42 +23 40 02 +11 51 43 3.65 F0
Al Jabhah eta 26LEO30 27LEO54 151 09 09 +17 00 26 +04 51 46 3.58 A0
Algieba gamma 28LEO12 29LEO37 154 18 16 +20 05 43 +08 48 45 2.61 K0
Regulus alpha 28LEO26 29LEO50 151 25 40 +12 12 44 +00 27 47 1.34 B7
rho 05VIR00 06VIR23 157 32 42 +09 33 52 +00 08 52 3.85 B1
Zosma delta 09VIR55 11VIR19 167 51 47 +20 47 52 +14 19 58 2.58 A2
Coxa theta 12VIR02 13VIR25 167 54 17 +15 42 11 +09 40 27 3.41 A4
Denebola beta 20VIR14 21VIR37 176 37 39 +14 51 06 +12 16 15 2.23 A4
06LIB01 07LIB24 158 47 56 -47 57 56 -51 03 23 4.06 FO

Hevelius,Firmamentum, 1690

History of the constellation

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

In pride the Lion lifts his mane

To see his British brothers reign

As stars below.

— Edward Young’s Imperium Pelagi

Leo, the Lion, is Lion in France, Lowe in Germany, and Leone in Italy. In Anglo-Norman times it was Leun. It lies between Cancer and Virgo, the bright Denebola 5° north of the faint stars that mark the head of the latter constellation; but Ptolemy extended it to include among its … the group now Coma Berenices

The Loewe Surname: German Löwe: from Middle High German lewe, löuwe ‘lion’, hence a nickname for a brave or regal person. The personal Jewish names Levin, and Levy, also used by German Christians is a derivative of Liebwin. The surname in the sense ‘lion’ is also found in Dutch, Swedish, and Danish. [

In Greek and Roman myth this was respectively Leon and Leo, representing the Nemean Lion, originally from the moon, and, after his earthly stay, carried back to the heavens with his slayer Hercules, where he became the poet’s Nemeaeus; NemeasAlumnus; NemeesTerror; NemeaeumMonstrum; and, in later times, No Animal Nemaeo truculento of Camoes. It also was Cleonaeum Sidus, from Cleonae, the Argolic town near the Nemean forest where Hercules slew the creature; Herculeus; and Herculeum Astrum. But the Romans commonly knew it as Leo, Ovid writing Herculeus Leo and Violentus Leo.

Bacchi Sidus was another of its titles, that god always being identified with this animal, and its shape the one usually adopted by him in his numerous transformations; while a lion’s skin was his frequent dress. But Manilius had it Jovis et Junonis Sidus (Jovis = Roman Jupiter or Greek Zeus; Junonis = Roman Juno or Greek Hera), as being under the guardianship of these deities; and appropriately so, considering its regal character, and especially that of its lucida (Regulus).

The Egyptian king Necepsos, and his philosopher Petosiris, taught that at the Creation the sun rose here near Denebola; and hence Leo was Domicilium Solis, the emblem of fire and heat, and, in astrology, the House of the Sun, governing the human heart, and reigning in modern days over Bohemia, France, Italy, and the cities of Bath, Bristol, and Taunton in England, and our Philadelphia. In ancient times Manilius wrote of it as ruling over Armenia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, Macedon, and Phrygia. It was a fortunate sign, with red and green as its colors; and, according to Ampelius, was in charge of the wind Thrascias mentioned by Pliny, Seneca, and Vitruvius as coming from the north by a third northwest.

Ancient physicians thought that when the sun was in this sign medicine was a poison, and even a bath equally harmful (!); while the weather-wise said that thunder {Page 253} foretold sedition and deaths of great men. The adoption of this animal’s form for a zodiac sign has fancifully been attributed to the fact that when the sun was among its stars in midsummer the lions of the desert left their accustomed haunts for the banks of the Nile, where they could find relief from the heat in the waters of the inundation; and Pliny is authority for the statement that the Egyptians worshiped the stars of Leo because the rise of their great river was coincident with the sun’s entrance among them. For the same reason the great Androsphinx is said to have been sculptured with Leo’s body and the head of the adjacent Virgo; although Egyptologists maintain that this head represented one of the early kings, or the god Harmachis. Distinct reference is made to Leo in an inscription on the walls of the Ramesseum at Thebes, which, like the Nile temples generally, was adorned with the animal’s bristles; while on the planisphere of Denderah its figure is shown standing on an outstretched serpent. The Egyptian stellar Lion, however, comprised only a part of ours, and in the earliest records some of its stars were shown as a Knife, as they now are as a Sickle. Kircher gave its title there as Pimentekeon, Cubitus Nili.

The Persians called it Ser or Shir; the Turks, Artan; the Syrians, Aryo; the Jews, Arye; and the Babylonians, Aru, — all meaning a Lion; the last title frequently being contracted to their letter equivalent to our A.

It was the tribal sign of Judah, allotted to him by his father Jacob as recorded in Genesis xlix, 9, and confirmed by Saint John in The Revelation v, 5; Landseer suggesting that this association was from the fact that Leo was the natal sign of Judah and so borne on his signet-ring given to Tamar.

Christians of the Middle Ages and subsequently, who figured biblical characters throughout the heavens in place of the old mythology, called it one of Daniel’s lions; and the apostolic school, doubting Thomas.

On Ninevite cylinders Leo is depicted as in fatal conflict with a bull, typifying the victory of light over darkness; and in Euphratean astronomy it was additionally known as Gisbar-namru-sa-pan, variously translated, but by Bertin as the Shining Disc which precedes Bel; the latter being our Ursa Major, or in some way intimately connected therewith. Hewitt says that it was the Akkadian Pa-pil-sak, the Sceptre, or the Great Fire; and Sayce identifies it with the Assyrian month Abu, our July-August, the Fiery Hot; Minsheu assigning as the reason for this universal fiery character of the constellation, “because the sunne being in that signe is most raging and hot like a lion.”

Thus throughout antiquity the animal and the constellation always have been identified with the sun, — indeed in all historic ages till it finally appears {Page 254} on the royal arms of England, as well as on those of many of the early noble families of that country. During the 12th century it was the only animal shown on Anglo-Norman shields.

As a zodiacal figure it was of course entirely different from the ancient Asad of Arabia, that somewhat mythical Lion extending from Gemini over our Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, and parts of other constellations, both north and south of the zodiac; but the later Arabians also adopted Ptolemy’s Leo and transferred to it the Asad of the early constellation. This appeared in the various corrupted forms cited by Bayer, — Alasid, Aleser, Asis, Assid, and others similar, of which Assemani gives a long list; Schickard adding Alasado and Asedaton; and Riccioli, specially mentioning Asid and Ellesed, cautioned his readers against the erroneous Alatid and Alezet.

Early Hindu astronomers knew it as Asleha, and as Sinha, the Tamil Simham; but the later, influenced by Greece and Rome, as Leya, or Leyaya, from the word Leo. It contained the 8th nakshatra (Moon Mansion), Magha, Mighty, or Generous; as also the 9th and 10th, Purva, and Uttara, Phalguni, the Former, and the Latter, Phalguni, a word of uncertain meaning, — perhaps the Bad One, — the single station being represented by a Fig-tree, and the combined by a Bed or Couch.

Nearly the same stars were included in the 8th, 9th, and 10th manazil of Arabia as Al Jabhah, the Forehead; Al Zubrah, the Mane; and Al Sarfah, the Turn.

Of the sieu (Chinese Moon Mansion), however, none appear in Leo, the Chinese having adopted, instead, stations among the stars of Hydra and Crater, so that many infer that their lunar asterisms were original with themselves. In the later native solar zodiac of China the Lion’s stars were the Horse, and in the earlier a part of the Red Bird; while Williams says that they also were Shun Ho, the Quail’s Fire; but in the 16th century the Chinese formally adopted our Leo, translating it as Sze Tsze. The space between it and Virgo was Tae Wei, or Shaou Wei, and the western half of Leo, with Leo Minor, was regarded as a Yellow Dragon mounting upwards, marked by the line of ten stars from Regulus through the Sickle. It also was another of the Heavenly Chariots of imperial China.

Its symbol, , has been supposed to portray the animal’s mane, but seems more appropriate to the other extremity (the tail); the Hyginus of 1488 and the Albumasar of 1489 showing this latter member of extraordinary length, twisting between the hind legs and over the back, the Hyginus properly locating the star Denebola in the end; but the International Dictionary, in a more scholarly way, says that this symbol is a corruption of the initial letter of Leon. Lajard’s Culte de Mithra mentions the hieroglyph of Leo {Page 255} as among the symbols of Mithraic worship, but how their Lion agreed, if at all, with ours is not known.

One of the sultans of Koniyeh, ancient Iconium, put the stellar figure on his coins.

Its drawing has generally been in a standing position, but, in the Leyden Manuscript, in a springing attitude, with the characteristic Sickle fairly represented. Young astronomers know the constellation by this last feature in the fore parts of the figure, the bright Regulus marking the handle; its other stars successively being eta, gamma, zeta, mu, and epsilon. Nor is this a recent idea, for Pliny is thought to have given it separately from Leo in his list of the constellations; but not much could have been left of the Lion after this subtraction except his tail.

These same Sickle stars were a lunar asterism with the Akkadians as Gis-mes, the Curved Weapon; with the Khorasmians and Sogdians as Khamshish, the Scimetar; but with the Copts as Titefui, the Forehead.

The sun passes through Leo from the 7th of August to the 14th of September. Argelander catalogues in it 76 stars, and Heis 161.

In Leo and Virgo lay the now long forgotten asterism Fahne, of which Ideler wrote:

The Flag is a constellation of the heavens, one part in Leo and one part in Virgo. Has many stars. On the iron [the arrowhead of the staff] in front one, on the flag two, on every fold of the flag one.

This is illustrated in the 47th volume of Archaeologia, and it appeared as a distinct constellation in a 15th-century German manuscript, perhaps the original of the work of 1564 from which Ideler quoted.  Brown repeats a Euphratean inscription, “The constellation of the Yoke like a flag floated,” although he claims no connection here, and associates the Yoke with Capricorn.

II Petto del lione ardente

— Dante’s Paradise. 

Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]