Astro Journal · Mythology

Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Leo

Out of the watery depths of Cancer springs a roaring Lion. As a fixed fire sign, Leo takes the natural creative impulse of life and gives it focus and stability to share it with the world. True creativity involves an heroic quest of self-discovery powered by the inner sun and the desire to find out who you are and who you might become.

Leo is a masculine sign and is ruled by the Sun. It’s balanced and complemented by the opposite sign of Aquarius, ruled by Saturn and Uranus. It’s the sign of individuality and personal sovereignty. Leo is heart-centred and idealistic and prone to self-mythologizing, like Aries, but instead of getting into fights, it prefers to ponce about and show off. Leos are regal and charismatic and tend to think the world revolves around them, but they’re not as confident as they seem.

The symbol for Leo is the Lion, an animal that radiates power and authority and has always been associated with ideas of kingship. The lion is the King of the Beasts and King of the Jungle, and these titles are naturally associated with the male animal. But lions are matriarchal – sort of. The female lions organise the pride and do most of the work, hunting and raising the cubs. But male lions protect the pride and get to eat first, and they will hunt when necessary. Sometimes when a male lion takes over a pride, he’ll kill any cubs sired by the ousted male, but this doesn’t happen as often as people think. The females are pretty good at deceiving the males to keep their cubs alive.

With this in mind, it’s interesting that one of the earliest symbols associated with the Mother Goddess is the lion and other large cats…

Leo Myths – Lions

In mythology, lions are associated with power, strength and protection, and they’re often shown guarding something, like a temple or throne, or standing outside the gates of a city. This association goes back to the Palaeolithic and the earliest myths.

Some of the oldest cave paintings dated c. 32,000 BCE were found in the Chauvet cave in France. In one of the chambers there are several lions surrounding a Venus represented as a yoni symbol, a reference to the Mother Goddess (see Cancer Myths). She stands at the entrance to the next chamber, perhaps symbolising the gateway between worlds, and the lions stand with her as guardians, along with a Bison shaman.

The Chauvet Venus and sorcerer (source)

The oldest example of a lion statue dates to c. 40,000 BCE and was found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany. The Lion Man was carved from mammoth ivory and was originally thought to be a goddess figurine. But once all its pieces had been put back together, it was clear the 30 cm high statue was half-man and half-beast (see below). The Lion Man represents a shaman wearing the pelt of a lion in order to take on the animal’s power, perhaps as part of a hunting ritual.

Goddess figurines with large cats have been found in the Neolithic agricultural town of Çatal Höyük in Anatolia (see Taurus Myths). The ‘Seated Woman’ figurine dates to c. 6,000 BCE and was found in a grain bin. She sits on a throne with cat armrests and appears to be giving birth – there’s something between her ample thighs – and was probably a fertility goddess. The cats could be leopards or panthers, but could just as easily be lionesses, although there are leopards depicted on wall reliefs in some of the houses.

In Sumer, Inanna was the goddess of fertility and war, and was called ‘Labbatu’, which means lioness. Her throne was supported by a pair of lions and she was often depicted with her foot on the back of a lion (see Aries Myths for more on her warlike antics). Ishtar was the Babylonian version of Inanna and was known as the ‘Lioness of Heaven’. The Processional Way that led to the Ishtar Gate into the inner city of Babylon featured friezes of sixty lions.

Later, the Minoan civilisation in Crete had a fertility goddess known as the Mistress of the Animals, and the Mountain Mother. She was often shown standing on top of a mountain flanked by lions – see below, and note the similarities between the poses being stuck by Inanna and the Mountain Mother on the Minoan seal. These ladies don’t mess about!

In Anatolia, the ‘Seated Woman’ found in Çatal Höyük may have developed into Cybele, a mother goddess often depicted on a throne with lions, or riding in a chariot pulled by two lions. Later she was known to the Greeks and Romans as the Mistress of Animals and the Great Mother. Meanwhile in India, the Hindu warrior goddess Durga represents the fierce, protective form of the mother goddess. She fights the evil forces that threaten the dharma while riding a tiger or lion.

One final example (there are many more) is Asherah, a mother goddess and originally the wife of El or Yahweh before she was written out of the story by the encroaching patriarchy. Asherah was known as the Lion Lady and shares characteristics with Inanna and Ishtar. She was also incorporated into the syncretic goddess Qetesh, a fertility goddess often depicted standing on the back of a lion.

Qetesh (source)

The curious connection between fertility goddesses and lions may be partially explained by a quick glance at the sky. The constellations of Leo and Virgo are right next to each other on the ecliptic, so as the zodiac rises each day, Leo precedes Virgo into the sky. Perhaps this is why there are so many goddesses riding around in chariots pulled by lions or standing on lions – it’s Leo rising ahead of Virgo.

Lions aren’t just connected to fertility via the goddess. Both the Babylonians and the Egyptians associated Leo with the heat of summer. It was seen as a time of death because the heat of the sun dried up rivers and killed off the vegetation. In Egypt, Sekhmet was a lion-headed warrior goddess whose breath was said to have created the desert. Her name means ‘the powerful one,’ and she protected the pharaoh and led him into battle.

My favourite Sekhmet story tells how Ra sends her to punish the people who have conspired against him. But once her smiting is done, Sekhmet can’t stop. She’s consumed by blood-lust and goes ballistic, killing everyone. So Ra tricks her into drinking a huge amount of beer poured onto the land. It’s infused with mandrake to make it look like blood. Sekhmet greedily drinks all the beer and gets absolutely hammered, before staggering back to her palace for a nice snooze.

The connection between the goddess and the lion shows the darker, ferocious side of nature, but also the fierce protective quality of the mother. In modern times, feminine energy is often characterised as receptive and passive, while the fierce side is overlooked or demonised. But the feminine is anything but weak and vulnerable, especially when it comes to survival and giving birth. Mother Nature is tough on any of her creatures who refuse to adapt to the cycles of life.

There’s a plaque from Sumer c. 2,500 BCE that shows this cycle of predator and prey using the symbols of a lunar bull being eaten by a lion-headed solar eagle. The bull looks quite happy about his sacrificial role! He stands for the king offering himself up to the goddess in the service of life.

Lunar bull and solar eagle plaque (source)

Originally it was the Mother Goddess of fertility who embodied the lion’s power of sovereignty and gave the king his right to rule. But over time, the emphasis shifted from the moon and pole star based cults of the goddess to the new gods, as explained by Joseph Campbell in Occidental Mythology:

“…the celestial orb to which the monarch is now likened is no longer the silvery moon, which dies and is resurrected and is light yet also dark, but the golden sun, the blaze of which is eternal and before which shadows, demons, enemies, and ambiguities take flight. The new age of the Sun God has dawned…”

But this dawn didn’t happen overnight. There was a transition as the Sun gods took over the symbolism that was once associated with the goddess, leading to a confusing period of mythological development called solarisation:

“whereby the entire symbolic system of the earlier age is to be reversed, with the moon and the lunar bull assigned to the mythic sphere of the female, and the lion, the solar principle, to the male.”

In other words, the ego had arrived and with it, the rise of the hero.

Leo – Hero Myths

There are many myths that feature a hero wrestling a lion. Gilgamesh killed Humbaba, a lion-headed monster, while Samson killed a lion with his superhuman strength, copying Hercules who did the same. The Hercules story is relevant here because, according to the ancient Greeks, this was how the Leo constellation came to be in the sky.

The story goes that a mythical beast was terrorising the Nemean countryside – the so-called Nemean Lion. As part of his twelve labours, Hercules took the beast on and quickly discovered that no weapon would pierce its skin. It was practically impossible to kill, so Hercules had to use brute force to throttle it with his bare hands. After killing the beast, he made a cloak and helmet from its hide.

Like the Lion Man we met above, Hercules takes on the beast’s qualities of power and strength by wearing the lion’s pelt.

Hercules giving the Nemean Lion a ‘hug’ (source)

The Nemean Lion represents the shadow side of Leo: the raw instinct and primitive drives of a child. The story symbolises overcoming the fears and instincts of your lower nature by becoming heart-centred. It takes willpower and courage to choose to become conscious. It won’t happen without a bit of effort. If you allow your lower nature to run wild, you’ll never grow up and become who you could be.

The Meaning of Leo

Aries, Taurus, and Cancer all have myths about battling monsters of various types that represent the instincts that need to be tamed before you can have a self-contained ego. In these stories, the monster doesn’t usually come out of it very well, but with Leo, the lion can be tamed. Rather than killing the lion, like Hercules, you can harness the power of your instincts and channel them into something positive – as seen in the Strength tarot card.

This process of conquering the instincts and gaining mastery over your lower nature is associated with ideas of kingship and sovereignty. Ideally, a king should have some self-control and be someone who isn’t going to go about half-cocked messing everything up because he’s being driven by his unconscious instincts.

If you want to rule effectively, you have to be conscious of what you’re doing. You need self-knowledge and self-mastery over your emotions. In other words, you can’t govern others if you can’t govern yourself.

In order to become yourself and gain sovereignty over your life, you have to undergo an alchemical transformation. You can’t express the lion’s instincts directly as pure emotion – at the bestial level. You have to transform them into something more, like turning lead into gold.

This is why children’s paintings are not really art – they’re the result of pure expression and haven’t been channelled through the conscious mind. There’s no understanding or conscious control of the process. In the same way, spewing your thoughts into a book doesn’t make a novel. Self-expression is more than just venting and demanding that people listen. You have to have something to say that’s worth hearing, and to do that, you have to know who you are.

Leo stands for creativity and self-expression but it’s not just about making art or things for others to admire and applaud. It’s also about this process of becoming or creating yourself which involves a quest for the source of the true Self – the hero’s journey that Jung called individuation. This quest is a search for meaning and plays out in myths through stories about heroes and their fathers, or Kings and their sons.

The perfect Leo myth about the search for meaning is Perceval and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Perceval starts out innocent and naïve, inspired by the idea of being a knight called to noble deeds. He’s ruled by his emotions and instincts and lacks compassion. It’s all about him – a typical self-involved youth.

Perceval has a vision of a castle and a wounded king and a ritual involving the Grail. He’s completely baffled and just watches and keeps his gob shut. But the next day, the castle is deserted and he discovers he’s made a terrible mistake. He failed to ask the right question, the question that would restore the king to health.

So he wanders in the woods, searching for the Grail Castle of his vision, determined to get it right next time. After many adventures and suffering and hard lessons, Perceval finally finds himself back at the castle. This time, he asks the question:

Whom does the Grail serve?

The grail is represented as a cup, a plate or a stone – equivalent to the Philosopher’s Stone in alchemy – and stands for the spiritual Self or eternal Self. To search for the Grail is to search for your true centre, symbolised by the ruler of Leo, the Sun – the giver of life and source of inner illumination and creativity.

Ta Da! – the Holy Grail of Monty Python (source)

This process of becoming yourself takes a lifetime, and despite what you might want to believe, it’s not about glorifying the ego and doing whatever you want – that’s narcissism and self-aggrandisement. Individuation is about transcending the ego and learning to serve a deeper Reality.

Perceval has to go on his quest because he’s stuck in his ego. He lacks maturity and has no capacity for self-reflection. He doesn’t know who he is or what he’s doing or why. He’s not capable of understanding himself because he’s not yet fully conscious. He has no relationship to his inner sun – the Self.

The Self is beyond the ego, beyond the personal, and touches the infinite. To live from this centre is to have a sense of the meaning of your life, to ask questions and not live blindly. To be conscious and Awake.

The king in the story is wounded because he has lost that sense of meaning. He’s suffering from a wound to the soul, a spiritual sickness that drains the purpose from his life. When Perceval asks the question, it enables the king to become aware of his suffering and this enables him to heal.

The Greek sun god, Apollo, also symbolises the search for self-knowledge. Carved above the door to his oracle at Delphi were the words, “Man, Know Thyself.” The phrase is a fragment taken from the Egyptians who inscribed it over the entrance to the inner temple at Luxor:

“Man, know thyself and you shalt know the gods.”

The sun shines its light into the psyche and through its illumination you can come to know yourself. But the sun also creates shadows. So this process of illumination and self-knowledge is never-ending – a constant revelation of who you are now and who you might become.

But in the end, the hero’s journey isn’t really about you. It’s about what you bring back from your quest to share with the community – as reflected in the opposite sign, Aquarius. And it’s about how you answer the difficult questions of life:

What does my life mean? Why must I be myself? What am I living for? What does life require of me?

Or simply: Who am I?

Leo on Film

Films that represent the Leo archetype include anything that involves a hero’s journey of some kind. Hollywood being what it is, almost any major film could fit here because they’re all based on that archetypal story pattern. To see how it works, you can read my series on the Hero’s Journey in Thor, or the Heroine’s Journey in Jane Eyre.

Aside from the hero’s journey, you can include anything about creativity, kings and queens, and growing up or coming of age. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Leo on film:

  • Dorothy trying to find her way home in the classic hero’s journey, The Wizard of Oz.
  • Bertie, the Duke of York, overcoming his stammer in The King’s Speech.
  • John Keating encouraging his students to seize the day in Dead Poet’s Society.
  • Charlie surviving high school and uncovering the truth in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
  • Jon Burroughs living the dream of joining a band in Frank.
  • The reclusive LV finding her voice and escaping her mother in Little Voice.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail – obviously.
  • Jack Lucas seeking redemption by helping Parry with his own grail quest in The Fisher King.

More on the mythical quest in The Fisher King here. Next month we’ll look at Virgo Myths

Discover more Zodiac Myths here

More on Leo:

Images: Leo; Lion Man; Seated Woman; Inanna; Minoan; Cybele; Durga

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6 thoughts on “Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Leo

  1. Hey. I disagreed with how you described Leo much softer than was accurate. Leo is the only sign ruled by the Sun and the only one symbolized by an Apex predator, stronger than any ram.

    It’s less a “performer” (an archetype much exaggerated by modern astrologers) and more of a warrior-king, predator and conqueror.

    And the 5th House (which used to be associated with Venus and not the Sun or Leo) rules sports and all hobbies, not just romance and art.

    And the Sun symbolizes fire, strength, power and courage, not just warmth and generosity.

    I really hope that’s taken into account for future posts and that Leo is described more accurately.

    Thanks for listening.



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