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Seal of King Darius I (ca. 522-486 BC) fighting lions

Ancient Iranian culture was deeply connected to the animal world, and animal imagery makes up some of the most fundamental forms of Iranian symbolism. A line from the Bundahisn warns Zoroastrians that: “Those beasts which have no dread whatever of the hand are evil,” including lions and elephants (Bundahisn 24:10). But while Zoroastrian religious texts praise domestic animals (gospand) as vital for upholding the order of creation, ancient Iranian art shows an enduring fascination with the strength, power, and beauty of wild animals, even troublesome ones. The selection below highlights some of the most common Iranian symbols and their role in communicating ideas about kingship, religion, and fortune throughout the period of Ancient Iran.

The Royal Hunt is one of the oldest and most prominent motifs of Near Eastern art. Scenes displaying the kings' triumph over dangerous animals communicated their physical and martial prowess. This Achaemenid cylinder seal depicts King Darius I slaying a pair of lions. Silver plates of the Sasanian period continued this artistic tradition of royal hunt scenes, with Iranian kings on the hunt for lions, boars, bears, stags, gazelles, and other animals both on foot and horseback (but no longer in a chariot). 


Lion and bull locked in combat, Persepolis, ca. 500 BC

The Lion appears in Iranian art and literature from the Achaemenid period onwards, often (as here) in rivalry with a bull. As wild, untamed animals that sometimes preyed on humans, lions were classified as evil in Zoroastrian thought, but because they had been associated with kingship in other Near Eastern societies, especially in Assyrian depictions, they also became increasingly linked with royal power and strength in Ancient Iran. 

The danger that lions posed made capturing them an especially heroic act. In the Achaemenid period, lions were sometimes kept as tribute for royal menageries, paralleling menageries in Egyptian and Assyrian courts. The late Sasanian treatise known as Khusro and the Page describes capturing two lions alive as the second-greatest display of manhood; when the lions are brought to court, however, the king has them killed because of the danger they pose.


Ram with flowing ribbons from Ctesiphon, late Sasanian period, ca. 500 CE

The Ram was one of several animals associated with divine fortune, or farr, in Ancient Iran. In the Sasanian era, as in this late antique stucco from Ctesiphon, the animal’s symbolism is underscored by the addition of fluttering ribbons, a second symbol of farr often included in images of Sasanian rulers.

Rams appear in many contexts in the arts of Ancient Iran from the prehistoric period to the Islamic conquest, including decoration, personal jewelry, and royal iconography, as well as serving as a sign of wealth. The Bundahisn comments that mountain rams with horns have a majesty similar to horses (Bundahisn 14:15).


Silver plate with senmurv
Sasanian period, 224-651 CE

The Senmurv was a mythological animal associated with good fortune. With the head of a dog, the tongue of a snake, and the wings and tail of a bird, it was similar to other mythological creatures such as the griffin but had its own legends and folklore. Among other stories, the senmurv was believed to scatter seeds into water to make them into viable crops, thus increasing the fertility of the land and contributing to the orderly creation of Ahura Mazda.

Curiously, the senmurv seems to be an almost exclusively a Sasanian and Sogdian phenomenon, appearing on clothes, rock reliefs, and silver plates, and coins from the fourth century, but not before.