Animal Instincts – The Lions of Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #2)

During my week long stay in Lviv I was stalked by lions. Lions were on every corner in the old town, they could be found at High Castle, protruding from the facades of business and glowering at the entrances to residential buildings. Some of these lions were sleeping while others looked fierce and determined, supersized stone statuary demanding attention. These lions are lasting remnants that recall the very earliest days of Lviv. Scarcely any structural remains of 13th century Lviv still exist, but symbolically lions are everywhere, a symbol of the city that goes back over 750 years.

Lion sculptures on facade of Lviv residential building

Residential instincts – lions can be found on many facades in Lviv

Leo and the Lions – The Name Of A City & Its Eternal Symbol
It has been at least 5,000 years since lions roamed the land that is today Ukraine. Fossils found near the Black Sea regions of the nation have been identified as belonging to lions with manes. These wild, magnificent and deadly creatures likely roamed all across Ukraine, including Galicia in the western part of the country, during the final (and also current) geological epoch, the Holocene (12,000 years ago to the present). Human settlement and population growth eventually brought the era of wild lions in Ukraine to an end. Nonetheless, lions are an ever present part of Lviv. They can be found laying and lounging, guarding or greeting at buildings and parks across the city. These lions are not alive in a biological sense. Instead they act as the living embodiment of the city’s majestic history. These static sculptures may not be able to roar, but their presence can still be felt today as a lasting symbol of the city’s most ancient history.

Lviv has been associated with lions since its founding in 1256. This is because the city was named after Lev Danylovych, or as he was otherwise known, Leo I of Galicia. Leo I was the King of Galicia-Volhynia (King of Rus’) and Grand Prince of Kiev during the latter part of the 13th century. Leo in the Latin language means lion. Latin was a much preferred language of royalty, while lions were often used as an enduring symbol of royalty. They symbolized courage, dignity and grandeur. These were traits Leo I would certainly want to be known for. They are also symbolic of attributes a city might want to reflect both its past and present. A person or a city symbolically aligned with lions evokes a certain powerful image. Leo I lived up to his name in many ways. He was certainly brave when it came to martial affairs. He was on the warpath for much of his reign. He attacked westward in attempts to take control of parts of Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. During a 14 year period beginning in 1375, he led no less than six military campaigns against his kingdom’s foes. By the end of his reign he had expanded the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia to its greatest territorial extent.

Lion on a gate in Lviv

Lions in Lviv guard many a gate

What’s In a Name? – Legacies Of Ambition, Legacies of Failure
The power and territory he acquired would seem to cast his name and the city that bore his name in a radiant glow. Leo I had moved his capital to Lviv in 1274. The capital city continued to grow and bask in glory, after his death, but Leo’s legacy soon faded. It was never that solid to begin with. His costly military campaigns brought as much failure as success. The territorial gains achieved were relatively small compared to Leo’s ambitions. A half century after Leo’s death, the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, including Lviv, was subsumed under Polish rule.  The truly lasting legacy of Leo I came to center around the meaning of his name and what it came to symbolize for his namesake city. Lions and Lviv became inseparable, a powerful image of a city’s grandeur and status.

Every empire and every conqueror of Lviv incorporated the lion into disparate city seals and coats of arms. For instance, during the late 16th century the papal coat of arms was added to Lviv’s. The lion on these was no longer passive, but now rampant. During the Soviet era – an empire that was virulently anti-aristocratic and anti-royal – the coat of arms was redesigned to add the hammer and sickle. The traditional trio of towers above a city gate was colored red, while a lion rampant stood in the entrance. This could be seen another way. The lion, like the people of Galicia and their traditions were caught against their will by the red menace of Soviet Communism, but they were trying to fight their way out.

Lviv lion on a manhole cover

Lviv’s lions lurk everywhere – even on manhole covers

Symbolic Recognition – The Lion Lives On
When the Soviet Union disintegrated and Ukraine declared independence, the coat of arms and city seals reverted back to their original form from the late Middle Ages. The towered gate was still there, but now covered in yellow, as was the lion. All of this was done on a blue background, colors symbolic of the Ukrainian flag. This reversion to the earliest design hearkened back to the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, one of the very few times in the city’s history that east Slavic peoples were in control of the city and surrounding region. The lion had managed to survive all the iterations of empires that had now vanished. The same was true of Lviv’s Ukrainian citizenry. The lion, that quintessential symbol of Lviv, has now become an inseparable representation of the city as well as its people.

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