The plundering of art objects in times of war is not a new invention and already in ancient times many objects of importance changed hands. The horses of San Marco, which were stolen by Doge Dandolo during the conquest of Byzantium, are a well-known war booty of this kind. Less known, but all the more mysterious, is another loot of war in Venice. It is even said to be enchanted and to have magical powers. It is the lion of Piraeus.
The tourists who pass today in Venice the arsenal of the former Venetian armed forces see there a series of four stone lion statues. Hardly any of them will be surprised at their presence, given that the winged lion of St Mark is the heraldic animal of the city.
However, these lions have nothing to do with the city or its saint, but were stolen. The most important of them is the three metre tall marble lion sitting furthest to the left. It dates from the third century BC and was created long before the birth of the Evangelist Mark. It once served as a symbol of the port of Athens, Piraeus. This lion, so little known today, acquired once such fame that the Italians called the port ‘Porto Leone’. When the Venetians took it during their battles with the Ottomans in 1687, they seized the famous piece and from then on decorated their own city with it. However, with the transfer the memory of the fame and the exact details of the lion’s history were lost and so it is now a mystery why the lion bears strange inscriptions on both flanks.
It seems that these are signs of an old Nordic magic writing, the runes.
Most likely, the inscriptions were placed on the statue in the same way as the scribbles on the walls of old houses today. Nordic Waräger, who had been summoned by the Byzantines to suppress an uprising, probably cut the signs in the form of a lindworm into the flanks of the animal. If one can believe the interpretation attempts of the washed out signs by Nordic scientists and above all by Carl Christian Rafn, the local population already complained bitterly about the disfigurement at that time.
On the right side of the lion, however, is written since then (in bold the still decipherable characters): ASMUDR : HJU : RUNAR : ÞISAR : ÞAIR : ISKIR : AUK: ÞURLIFR : ÞURÞR : AUK : IVAR : AT : BON : HARADS : HAFA : ÞUAT : GRIKIAR : UF : HUGSAÞU : AUK : BANAÞU :
The translation is probably: Asmund engraved these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the High, although the Greeks, when they noticed it, tried to forbid it.
It is also written on the left: HAKUN : VAN: ÞIR : ULFR : AUK : ASMUDR : AUK : AURN : HAFN : ÞESA : ÞIR : MEN : LAGÞU : A : UK : HARADR : HAFI : UF IABUTA : UPRARSTAR : VEGNA : GRIKIAÞIÞS : VARÞ : DALKR : NAUÞUGR : I : FIARI : LAÞUM : EGIL : VAR : I : FARU : MIÞ : RAGNARR : TIL : RUMANIU . . . . AUK : ARMENIU :
This probably means the following: Hakon, Ulf, Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold the High raised a strong tax because of the revolt of the Greeks. Dalk is held captive in distant lands. Egil went with Ragnar on a mission to Romania and Armenia.
While the mysterious runes only attracted the attention of science in the 18th century, the local population immediately imputed magic powers to the runes on the lion. And rightly so. Runes only form a very fragmentary script, but they have always been said to possess special magical powers.
Thus, the legend goes that in November 1719, after a storm, the torn bodies of two sailors were found at the new place of the lion in Venice. A short time later, after another storm, another body was found, that of a certain Jacopo Zanchi, a local nonentity. In view of the three atrocities apparently caused by wild animals, police forces hid near the lion statues during the next storm. They watched an old merchant with the reputation of a sorcerer lay his hands on the runes of the Lion of Piraeus, bringing to life all four marble lions sitting at the door of the Arsenal. He sent them against the third murder victim’s wife, who had already directed suspicion at him.
When an officer thrust a sword into the man’s heart, two of the lions obediently turned back into stone. A third, however, kept the head of a living animal and roared so much that it had to be cut off.
In fact, today one of the lions sitting next to the lion of Piraeus is wearing a head that obviously does not belong to it.
Since these magic deeds the lion seems not to have moved anymore, but the dear reader can of course check on stormy November nights if the laying on of hands on the runes awakens the lion again.