Artaxerxes II Lion and Sun
A 13th century tile with lion and Sun motif
pre 1979 Lion and Sun Emblem
The New Lion and Sun Emblem since 1980 used by Nationalist Iranians who are not endorsing Iran as an Islamic state
(Click to enlarge)
The Lion and Sun Motif
Edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav
The best-known symbol of Iran has been the lion and sun motif, which has a long history in Iranian civilisation. The sun rising over the back of the lion or, astrologically, in back of the lion, has always been considered symbolic of power and kingship in Ianian culture.
It is difficult to get precise historical data, but the oldest surviving Lion and Sun emblem in its' early form, date back to the reign of King Artaxerxes II (436-358 BCE). The Achaemenid seal depicting king Artaxerxes (a Mithraist), honouring Goddess Anahita who is riding on a lion and sun is rising from the lion's back.
The lion motif dates from ancient times in Iran, and is found on innumerable objects of daily use such as seals, vessels, horse equipment, and weapons and in the decoration of palaces, tombs, and temples as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. Lion has been one of the most persistent iconography in Iranian art and religion, albeit with changing connotations.
Since the ancient times lion motif has a long tradition in political iconography and has always been used for the glorification of imperial power with well-known occurrences in artistic enterprises related to strong monarchic territorial structures in Iran; In literature, art, stories, and the social-life of the Iranians, lions have always been the symbol of power, courage and greatness. Iranian Kings and noblemen have demonstrated their greatness and glory through illustrations of lions on coins and swords.
In ancient Iranian religion of Mithraism, lion was connected to the sun and to fire and was perceived as a moral cleansing and purifying force, and it was the Sun God Mithra's "totem" animal, just as in the Greco-Roman culture Athena's animal was the owl and Artemis' animal was the deer.
Ferdowsi the greatest of the Persian epic poet whose Book of Kings (1010) recounts the history of ancient Iran mentions that the lion was the insignia used by Rostam, the legendary national hero of Iran.
From 10th century onwards, the emblem (with an added sword) remained the official symbol of Iran until 1979 revolution, when Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who was opposing to the concept of the Iranian-nationalism and anything Iranian, ordered the ban and removal of the "Lion & Sun" from public life and government organisations.
Although, since 1979 extensive governmental efforts and repressive actions were made to demonise the "Lion & Sun" emblem in order to minimize the feelings of nationalism amongst the Iranians, as well as have the successive generations accept the Islamic Republic's "Allah" emblem, but the Lion and Sun still considered by majority of Iranians (apart from the Islamic fundamentalists and the communists) as the sole symbol of the nation.