The Guennol Lioness and Her Secrets: An Enigmatic Figure in Ancient Iran
The world of the ancient past is undoubtedly filled with many mysteries. The knowledge of the ancients escapes us today: we are not fully aware of the extent of their wisdom and their ability to comprehend the world around them in incredible detail. To that end, several millennia later, researchers find themselves puzzled by some enigmatic discoveries. One such ancient mystery is the so-called “Guennol Lioness.” This remarkably well-made limestone figurine has proven to be quite a conundrum in the scholarly world. Why was it made, and whom does it depict? Is it merely some lost mythological being from times long past, or a deity whose importance eludes us? A whimsical creation of some imaginative ancient craftsman? Numerous theories surfaced, including truly kooky ones that mention an ancient lion-headed race. Luckily, the explanation is much more rational, and gives us a perfect insight into the advanced views of ancient civilizations.
The full figurine of the 5,000-year-old Guennol Lioness, which is only about 8.5 centimeters or 3.3 inches high. ( Unknown sculptor / Public domain )
What do we Know of the Guennol Lioness?
The figurine of the Guennol Lioness is truly remarkable in many aspects. Considering its age, it is exceptionally well-made. In many ways, it gives a nod to the craftsmanship of the sculptors of classical antiquity that came many centuries later. The figure is made from limestone and has been called a true ancient “tour de force.” It measures roughly 8.4 centimeters (3.3. inches) in height. What it depicts is simple to grasp: a powerful and robust lioness, standing upright in a human-like posture. In front of her, on her chest, her paws are clasped in a unique gesture. The human body of the figure is muscular and heavily set. It boasts thick and defined thighs, large biceps muscles and truly heavy trapezoids and shoulders. The neck is wide and heavy, and from it emerges the majestic and graceful leonine head that is the central piece of the entire figure.
And the head, of course, tells us that it is a lioness, there is no mane that lions boast, and the slight slenderness apparent in the entire form clearly indicates that it is a feminine form. The clue also lies in the abdomen: the stomach rises ever so gently in the true form of the female body, balancing the heavy build of the thighs. The swell of the stomach continues on to the genitalia: the form here is again clearly feminine, though the private parts were not modeled in detail.
When all these features are combined and observed, we can see that the Guennol Lioness clearly depicts a powerful, muscular, and strong female, albeit with a lioness’ head. Still, no one can confirm with certainty that the figure is indeed female: the lack of a clear depiction of female genitalia eliminates the possibility. Leading scholars that studied the figure, such as Edith Porada, claimed that the figure is indeed a lioness "because of the feminine curves of her lower body and the absence of male organs" but that there was still the possibility "that the figure represented a sexless creature."
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The curves and the attention to detail tell us that the Guennol Lioness was made by a master craftsman of ancient times. The superbly realistic curves of the body, the natural posture and the detailed leonine head tell us that the man and his compatriots had a good knowledge of both the lion form, and the muscular human anatomy. However, the figure seems unfinished: its form ends abruptly just at the knees. The stumps of the legs are smoothed off, and one stumps shows a dowel hole that suggests that the lower legs were attached separately, perhaps created from a different material. Another theory is that the lower legs were broken off, by accident or on purpose, and that someone made attempts at repair with the hole that was drilled. Nevertheless, the legs were never found and thus the Guennol Lioness remains known as she is. And legs or no, she is still magnificent.
The Guennol Lioness was certainly made in the Ancient Near East by the Iranian Proto-Elamite culture. Elam was a sophisticated ancient civilization situated in the far west and southwest of modern-day Iran, perched on the banks of the Persian Gulf. (Morningstar1814 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Guennol Lioness: From the Dawn of Time to a Collection
What about its provenance? For researchers, tackling this question was a big challenge. This is mainly due to the fact that the Guennol Lioness hails from a private collection and was not found through conventional archeological excavations. The sculpture belonged to the collection of a noted art dealer and collector, Joseph Brummer, and was acquired from him by a private collector , Alastair Bradley Martin. How it came into the collection of Brummer in the first place remains somewhat of a mystery.
Many works of ancient art find their way to private collections through channels that are questionable and enigmatic. Alleged claims say that it was found, likely in the early 1900s, in Baghdad, Iraq . Still, a general consensus on its age has been agreed on. The leading scholars agree that it originates in the Ancient Near East, and that it belongs to the Proto-Elamite culture.
Elam was an ancient civilization situated in the far west and southwest of modern-day Iran, perched on the banks of the Persian Gulf. With its center in the capital city of Susa, Elam civilization and its states were the leading political players in the Ancient Near East. Existing from roughly 3200 BC to 529 BC, it was contemporaneous with the earliest civilizations of Sumer, in Mesopotamia.
And the states of Elam and of Mesopotamia were ever at odds as long-term enemies. And the Guennol Lioness is dated to the earliest stages of Elam, to the so-called Proto-Elamite stage, or Susa III. That places the figure’s creation date to around 3,200 to 2,800 BC. Many agree that the figure was contemporaneous with the earliest most significant inventions of mankind, such as the first use of the wheel, the appearance of the first large cities, and the invention of cuneiform writing.
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But what does the figure represent. Sure, one can simply say that the Elamite artist, some 5,000 years ago, created nothing more than a human body with the head of a lioness. But such a crude explanation is not acceptable. There is more to this work of art, and a better explanation requires thorough research and knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history. That is something that people on the fringe did not possess. They are those that claim that the Guennol Lioness is a clear proof of an ancient race “of lion-headed people”. Right! But if we once again remember that wonderful thing called “ biology,” and we recover the bearings of logic and common sense, we can finally decipher the actual meaning of the Guennol Lioness. And you’d be surprised how logical it all seems!
Lions lived all around most ancient Near East civilizations and they were revered as above by the Assyrians’ famous Ishtar Gate, where Ishtar is another name for the legendary Inanna goddess. The Guennol Lioness was present in Elam in real form and also for her attributes that were used for the ancient Leo lion zodiac form. (Einsamer Schütze / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
An Explanation that Lies Within Nature
The ancient civilizations of the world were always fascinated by the zodiac. Leo, Capricorn, Taurus, Scorpio, the creatures from our own world, were natural and akin to us. It is no wonder that the ancient people chose them to create their own solar calendar, and the distinct 12 months of the year, the 12 signs of the zodiac. Because each of the zodiac signs corresponds to a natural occurrence of a respective part of a year. And Leo the lion is no exception. It was chosen by the early Near Eastern civilizations for the months of July and August, because that is the hot and dry part of the year, and the time when the Eurasian Lion begins its mating season.
And when this is considered, it is then no wonder that many of the Ancient Near Eastern deities were represented as lions, or alongside them. The foremost of these is the famed goddess Inanna . A major deity of Sumer, she was also worshiped extensively by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Akkadians, who called her “Ishtar.” Inanna was associated with the planet Venus and the Morning Star, and her most prominent symbols were a lion and an eight-pointed star. In her most famous depictions, many of them from Akkadian cylinder seals from roughly 2500 BC, she is depicted astride a lion, or standing on top of one. Why? This is because she was depicted “in Leo,” as she rose in the month of Leo, according to ancient zodiacs. And all of this is because the ancient peoples of the Near East associated Inanna with the star Sirius , the brightest star in the heavens.
Around 3,000 BC, Sirius rose before the Sun, and was thus seen as the “morning star.” The ancient Assyrians called their Goddess Inanna (Ishtar) as “ Inanna, Great Light, Lioness of Heaven. ” This, together with her connection with lions and her depictions with them, is made all the more logical since she was Sirius, the star rising in Leo. From all this, we can understand that the ancient peoples were well aware of stars and constellations and found them important in their early beliefs.
They also understood the hot and dry parts of the year, and the wet ones, and observed the events unfolding yearly in nature to create their own solar calendar and the zodiac. So, for example, the annual rise of Sirius marked the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egypt, one of the most important times of the year for this ancient civilization. Likewise, the Ancient Greeks observed the special “dog days” when Sirius rose, the days of the year when it is hottest and driest.
The goddess Inanna standing on two lions is the star Sirius which rises during the hottest and driest time of the year in Iran, August, which is in the Leo zodiac period from July 23 to August 22. (British Museum / Public domain )
The Hot and Dry Part of the Year Converted into Art
From all this, we can understand that the Guennol Lioness is likely an early depiction of Inanna, or some other, early form of this Near Eastern goddess. The lion-headed human symbolizes the Sirius star, the destructive hot and dry part of the year when droughts and sudden thunderstorms can destroy crops and become the boundary between life and death. The lion too, especially the lioness, is powerful and violent, and was seen by peoples in early civilizations as a being of great importance and majesty. And if we consider that many depictions of Inanna are linked with a leonine form, the whole thing seems even easier to understand.
What is more, the people of ancient Mesopotamia had many demonic creatures in their mythology that were depicted as lion-headed. For example, there is mention of a lion centaur called Urmaḫlullû, who “ fended off attacks of the leonine demon Mulkil-reš-lemutti.”
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Of course, it is important to remember that much older lion-headed figures have been found elsewhere in the world, long before the Guennol Lioness was crafted. By far the most spectacular of such finds is the Löwenmensch figure, also known as the Lion-man, which was found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave. This spectacular figurine was made from ivory and depicts an upright man with the head of a cave lion. It has been dated to roughly 40,000 years before present, which puts it into the archeological Aurignacian culture of the Upper Paleolithic. As such it is the oldest artistic representation, and one of the oldest statues ever discovered. It is not the only such lion-headed figure discovered in modern-day Germany and dated to roughly the same era. Finds from the Geissenklösterle, Hohle Fels, and Vogelherd caves are all very similar.
The stars fascinated people living in the earliest civilizations and they were linked to the seasonal changes on earth and from there turned into zodiac representations. ( vovan / Adobe Stock)
Have Human Beings Always Looked Up into the Stars?
What we know of the distant past is that stone age man likely revered powerful creatures such as the cave bear and the cave lion. But is it possible that they too also recognized the movements of the stars and the yearly dry and wet cycles of the year? Could the Löwenmensch figure also represent the anthropomorphic representation of the hottest and most destructive part of the year? It is quite likely. Perhaps our distant ancestors were much more advanced and rational than we think.
Top image: The Guennol Lioness of Elam from ancient Iran is over 5,000 years old! Source: Unknown sculptor / Public domain
By Aleksa Vučković
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