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The Lion of Kea

An Archaic enigma

A great stone monument dated to the Archaic period (ca. 600 BC), the Lion of Kea is an impressive early Greek monument. But it is almost entirely ignored in the history of Greek art.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on

Just outside Ioulis, capital of the Cycladic island Kea, there stands a great stone Lion. I visited Kea in 2013, travelling the Cyclades with my then-future spouse Whitney and our parents. Kea, also called Keos and Tzia, is the closest of the Cycladic islands to Athens and thus makes a natural stop on both the outward journey from and the return trip to the Attic port of Laurion from which we left. From Kondouros Bay on Kea, Whitney and I took a taxi the Chora, the local name for Ioulis, where we briefly saw the museum, the ancient city walls, and the Lion.

The Lion reclines some distance from the town, but is easily reached on foot being one of the key attractions of the island. As one approaches, the lion is visible from a distance away. The site itself is accessed from the road above it, where a sign in Greek and English proclaims: The Lion of Kea is one of the oldest works of Greek monumental sculpture and is dated about 600 BC.”

A close-up of the head of the Lion of Kea, showing off its “Archaic smile”. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

The Lion itself is around 8 metres long and 3 metres tall, and lies as in a feline curl on the slate from which it was carved. Its head, however, is raised, and it looks down on the viewer with a slight smile, reminiscent of the so-called “Archaic smile” of sixth-century sculpture and perhaps indicative of the statue’s date. It is a truly extraordinary ancient object, about which I can find almost no further information.

Lion hunt

Remembering my visit to the Lion after recording our podcast on sculptures yesterday, I decided to look into what the experts had to say about it in the context of early Greek sculpture. I checked Boardman’s Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period (1978) and found nothing; nor was there a mention in Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell’s A History of Greek Art (2015). The Wiley-Blackwell companions to Greek Art, the Archaic Period, and the Archaeology of Early Greece and the Mediterranean were similarly silent on the existence of the lion (and, in some cases, of Kea).

Turning to the internet, I discovered that the Lion has a Wikipedia page – but only on the Simple English version; it is, however, mentioned on the pages for both Kea and Ioulis in the standard English version.

The Lion of Kea and its immediate surroundings. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

Scholarly articles, however, revealed little. In an article for Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies in 1964, George Huxley attempted to reconstruct the mythic history of Keos by the mid-fifth century BC historian Xenomedes on the basis of Callimachus fr. 75. According to Callimachus (and perhaps Xenomedes), the nymphs originally resided at Parnassos but were driven to the island and named it Hydroussa.

Huxley also mentions a version of the myth where the lion drives the nymphs from Keos to Karystos, which is known from the second-century-BC historian Herakleides Lembos, who follows Aristotle’s Polity of the Keians (FGH 2.214; Aristotle fr. 611.26-29 Rose). Huxley suggests that both myths may be reconciled, with the nymphs harassed by two separate lions, but eventually returning to Kea; however, he also states that “it is not clear” that the stone Lion near Ioulis should be connected to the myth.

In an article on Keos for Hesperia in 1981, John L. Caskey makes reference to the myth of the Lion in the context of the island’s fertility, as the Lion was sent to chase away the nymphs of the many springs that supply the island with freshwater – in this version, to Euboea (no source is cited for the myth). He offers a rationalisation of the myth, connecting it to the sculpture: “surely a poetical record of a rare and damaging drought, still symbolized by a huge figure of the beast on a hillside near Ioulis” (p. 320).

This picture gives a better view of where the Lion is located on the hillside. The statue is in the centre of the image. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

Although he does not mention the statue, Jeffrey Hurwit mentions that lion teeth have been found on Keos in Bronze Age settings (1985, pp. 115-116; Warren 1979, p. 123). If we seek to rationalise the myth, we may suppose that it is connected not to a drought, but to the actual lions that may once have inhabited the island. However, myths need no rationalization. They may simply be stories.

Travellers to Kea

The Lion appears to have been visible since antiquity, and most connect it to the myth of the nymphs. Nineteenth century travel writers seem to have been particularly interested in the Lion, and it is to their writings that my internet searches took me.

Drawing of the Lion of Kea from the 1826 description of the island by Danish writer Peter Oluf Bröndsted.

Noteworthy among these was the description of James Theodore Brent (1885, p. 453):

The lion of Keos is the most interesting sight on the island. It reposes on the hillside, propped up by stones to prevent its further slipping. […] It is impossible to fix a date or assign a cause for the construction of the Keote lion; one thing is certain, that it is of very archaic work, more so that the lions at the gate of Mycene [sic.]; and there was an old legend which stated that Keos was once inhabited by nymphs, who fled from thence to Karystos, fearing a great lion which lived there. It is quite probable that the existence of this granite lion gave rise to this myth, and that it is distinctly belonging to a prehistoric and mythical age – perhaps adorning one end of a Pelasgic stadium.

Brent, we might note, explains the myth through reference to the sculpture, rather than the other way around. However, more interesting is that he assumed that the antiquity of the statue was greater even than the Lions’ Gate at Mycenae, which we now know to be some seven-hundred years older than the Lion of Kea.

Concluding thoughts

There is nothing about the Lion of Kea that is especially unusual for Archaic Greek sculpture. The sculptors of Naxos show that sculpture on this scale was well within the abilities of contemporary craftspeople in the Cyclades, with their monumental kouros dedicated on Delos and the incomplete colossal kouros at Apollonas on Naxos. While the Terrace of Lions, again on Delos, does not look similar to the Lion of Kea it does indicate interest in the beasts. Lions that look similar to the Kea Lion appear in sixth-century pedimental sculptures on Corfu and the Athenian Acropolis; they are common creatures in early Greek myth and art.

Nevertheless, the Lion’s context and its purpose remain something of a mystery. The connection to the myth of the nymphs seems likely, but we do not have evidence to show that this was the case. We do not appear to know its place within the ancient city of Ioulis, which lies largely under the modern settlement and thus has limited excavation. And scholarship, it seems, has paid it limited attention. And so, the lion lies outside ancient Ioulis, remaining something of a mystery.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • James Theodore Brent, The Cyclades: Or, Life Among the Insular Greeks (1885).
  • John L. Caskey, “Notes on Keos and Tzia”, Hesperia 50.4 (1981), pp. 320-326.
  • Jeffrey Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 BC (1985).
  • George Huxley, “Studies in Early Greek poets”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 5.1 (1964), pp. 21-33.
  • P. Warren, “The Miniature Fresco from the West House at Akrotiri, Thera, and its Aegean setting”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 99 (1979), pp. 115-129.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.