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Lions in the Desert: The Significance and Symbolism of Lions in Early Egyptian Monastic Literature
50th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2015)
  • Kyler K Williamsen, Western Michigan University
Early monastic literature is filled with symbolism and employs allegory to instruct future generations of faithful ascetics. Animals are regularly used in these writings to demonstrate the spiritual power and prowess of the monk. While works such as Waddell’s Beasts and Saints or O’Malley’s The Animals of St. Gregory present a wonderful summary of animals in monastic literature, an analysis of the possible symbolic nature of these animals’ behavior in monastic literature is sorely lacking. My paper, entitled Lions in the Desert, explores the symbolic roles which played charting a monk’s progress in the ascetic life. The interactions the desert fathers had with lions were indicative of their relative progression towards personal purity. Among the monastic works I examine are Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony, St. Jerome’s Life of St. Paul of Thebes and Life of Malchus, Evagrius’ Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, John Moscos’ The Spiritual Meadow, and a number of other, less well-known monastic works. These works clearly measure the monk’s attainment of personal purity through prayer and asceticism by their ability to conquer or control lions. The monks’ progression falls into four basic stages of relationship with lions, each of which symbolizes his spiritual progression. This research explores an important aspect of monastic literature, one which has not yet, to my knowledge, been analyzed in this depth.
  • early christian,
  • monastic,
  • christian literature,
  • symbolism,
  • animal symbolism,
  • early medieval Christianity,
  • christian,
  • ascetic literature,
  • ascetic symbolism,
  • lion,
  • lions,
  • medieval,
  • medieval history,
  • early medieval history,
  • late antiquity
Publication Date
May 14, 2015
Citation Information
Kyler Williamsen. "Lions in the Desert: The Significance and Symbolism of Lions in Early Egyptian Monastic Literature" 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies. Western Michigan University. May. 2015.