When this ancient Greek statue of a Lion was brought as to Venice from the Byzantine Empire to decorate the main gate of the city in 1687, it came equipped with Old Norse Runic graffiti. These Runic notes, once prominently visible on both sides, on the lion’s chest and leg, tell of Scandinavian warriors and their business enterprises in ports of faraway Greecein ports of faraway Greece. As such, they attest to a kind of proto-globalization of the medieval world based on economic interests.

The two large white marble lions today placed on either side of the main gate (the Magna Porta, c.1460) of the Arsenal in Venice were brought to their present location in 1687. They were originally made in Greece ca. 360 BCE and by the 1st or 2nd c. CE marked the entrance to the port of Piraeus, in Athens. In the second half of the 11th c., while still in Piraeus, the sitting lion received elaborate and decorative Old Norse Runic graffiti containing the Scandinavian names of the inscribers, and commemorating others. The two Scandinavian authors of the inscription were probably members of the Varangian Guard. Continued use of Old Norse language in graffiti of 11th c. Byzantium indicates that fresh warriors and traders continued to travel there from Scandinavia. They would have followed the well-established Dnieper-Byzantium route, joining locally established Rus (Vikings), Nordic groups who since the late 9th c. had formed settlements north of the Black Sea and whose language had begun to assimilate with that of local Slavic people. The prominence of the two lions, symbolic guards at the entrance to the port for 1300 years, was such that from at least the 14th c. Piraeus was known as Porto Leone, as we know from a map made by the Genovese Pietro Visconti in 1318 BCE.  This made the lions very significant items of booty for the Venetians to bring home, after success in war against the Ottomans. The other two, smaller lions that are placed to the right of the Piraean statues in the Arsenal were taken from Greece at the same time. There are copies of this lion at the Piraeus Archaeological Museum and at the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities. This graffiti is in the form of looped and decorative ‘words on a tape’ (runic bands) typical of Swedish rune stones and known as the lindworm form (a lindworm is a wingless, serpentine dragon, originating in Norse mythology). The shape of the dragon’s head (at the top on the right shoulder) and the shapes of the runic letters identify the inscription as belonging to the second half of the 11th c. The writing on the lion was not, however recognized as a runic until the last years of the 18th c., by which time it had already mostly eroded into illegibility.  Attempted reconstructions of the original text have varied greatly, require the addition of many words and phrases to replace lost parts of the inscription, and are highly speculative.


Badly eroded


Al. N. OikonomidesRecords of ‘The commandments of the Seven Wise men’ in the 3rd c. B.C. «The Classical Bulletin, 63/2»198767-76

Carl Christian RafnAntiquités de l'Orient. Monuments RunographiquesCopenhagende l'imprimerie de Thiele1856

Eric BratePireus-lejonets runinskrift «Antikvarisk Tidskrift för Sverige 20: 3»Stokholm1914

Omeljan PritsakThe Origin of Rus'Cambridge (Mass.)Harvard University Press1981

Thorgunn SnædalRuninskrifterna På Pireuslejonet i VenedigStokholmSwedish National Heritage Board2014

The Piraeus Lion

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Welcome to EUROTALES,our widespread museum, where you can visit places and discover objects scattered throughout the territory of the European and Mediterranean area: these are the traces of the voices of Europe, testimonies of different linguistic cultures that preserve the memory of the languages that have resounded and resonate in Europe. Tracks can be located on our map and along the time line