Kion: Dad c'mon we gotta get you cleaned up an- Simba: *is perfectly clean and neat* Ah one of my loyal subjects..How may I be at your acquaintance today? Kion: What….B-but how..h-how did you?… Simba: Hush, my son. Your father is trying to talk at the moment. …: Oh your majesty is so elegant and well mannered! Kion: You were just covered in mud and bug guts seconds ago! How did you do that? Simba: …….Hm? What did you say Kion? Kion: Sure..go ahead ignore my entire question………Are you sparkling?….
Simba may be a responsible king and father but there’s a difference of how he portrays himself in front of his family and friends (He’s a bit of mess, since he still keeps part of his hakuna matata life style) to how he portrays himself in front of any one else.
Disney classics are no strangers to us. In fact, those of us who were born in the late ‘80′s and early ‘90′s practically grew up on Disney’s golden age and are bearing witness to a bit of a Disney renaissance. Throughout each Disney film, magic has a tendency to play a prominent role in some way: either it is meant to assist the main character, or it is meant to hinder. Later on, the role of magic became a little more fuzzy - the curse cast on the Prince in Beauty and the Beast, for instance, was meant to assist the Prince but was perceived otherwise.
But one Disney classic stands out in my mind as being fairly devoid of any kind of cinematic curses or spells: The Lion King. This 1994 film is magical in and of itself, to be sure. There is hardly a ‘90′s child out there who hasn’t cried over the death of Mufasa or sung along with Timon and Pumbaa during “Hakuna Matata.” The animation and the music are exceptional, and while many cite the story’s many parallels with Hamlet as being part of why the story endures almost two decades later, I tend to think that it goes a bit deeper than that.
First, a brief overview for those who haven’t seen the film for some reason. The Lion King follows the story of Simba, a young lion cub, and his coming of age and journey to discover his role as king. Though naive in his youth, he is forced to flee his kingdom after his power-hungry uncle, Scar, framed him for murdering his father. Convinced that he is responsible for his father’s death and afraid to return, he stays hidden in an oasis paradise while Scar’s tyranny reigns supreme over the kingdom. Simba is discovered by Nala, his childhood friend who had run from home in search of help, who tries to convince him to return home. Faced with a choice between returning home and staying put, he begins to question who he is and where he belongs. With a little help from Rafiki - a baboon shaman - he comes to terms with his past and returns home to dethrone his uncle and become the proper king.
Aside from giant lion heads in the sky during a moment of revelation, the movie tends to lack a supernatural component, which separates it a bit from quite a few other Disney movies. But we need look no further than the opening scene to see that the film is laden with magic and pagan symbolism.
Before I go any further, I am not approaching this from the standpoint of African religious beliefs. I am no expert regarding that subject, and will not pretend to be. Instead, these are observations made from the point of view of a witch who was watching for moments where spirituality was prominent. So keep that in mind as we head forward.
I’m going to focus on that first scene to start, but these themes can be found throughout The Lion King. This opening scene, backed by a version of Elton John’s “Circle of Life,” shows the animals of Africa gathering to see their newborn prince for the first time. When they’ve gathered, Rafiki arrives and presents Simba to the kingdom in a ritual reminiscent of a blessing or baptism before the scene concludes.
I mentioned earlier that Rafiki was a shaman. there is a reason as to why I refer to him as this instead of as a “witch doctor” as I’ve seen him referred to in other analyses. To begin, let’s consider the music playing.
A core, running theme in many pagan religions and forming the groundwork for most shamanic practices is that life and nature does not run in a linear fashion. Instead, the belief is that every “beginning” is an end, and every “end” is a beginning. Everything is cyclical, and this is often seen where reincarnation is a huge part of a belief. What binds many of these religions and beliefs together is that all must be treated with love and respect.
When the animals are gathered, we see Rafiki walking among the crowd toward Pride Rock, and this is a key moment to consider. As he passes, the crowd parts to let him through, and bows as he walks by. Shamans in shamanic practice are treated with great respect, often honored and followed more closely than a chief or king. This is because the shaman is the mouthpiece of spirituality.
A shaman was believed to be able to cross into the spirit realm - often through dreams or vision quests - and back, bringing ancient knowledge and wisdom with them for the betterment of society. They were historians and healers, capable of working magic and acts of prophecy. In addition, they were the religious leaders of society, guiding the younger generations in matters of the heart and spirit.
The fact that Rafiki is treated with such deference is an indicator that he is a figure of authority, and the warm greeting between him and Mufasa shows that in addition to being friends, they are on equal footing.
After seeing baby Simba, he smiles and shakes a rattle of gourds over the cub. Growing up, I’d often thought that he was gently playing with Simba as a parent or close relative might with a newborn. But as I got older and deeper into my spirituality, I began to find that that explanation didn’t sit right. Eventually, I realized what purpose the rattle has.
Like bells in modern witchcraft, rattles are instruments used for more than just music. They held a ritual purpose as cleansing tools, as well. And frequently seen in many cultures, percussion instruments are used for anything ranging from communication (both between living parties and the spirit world) to cleansing to even summoning or invoking a spell. Rafiki shaking his rattle over Simba was not simply an act of affection. It was the start of the ritual - a cleansing act before the blessing.
Breaking open a fruit (possibly a gourd or melon), Rafiki then anoints Simba’s head with some of the juices. This is the blessing act, which in other cultures may be done with oil. Food is a source of life, but fruit is also cool and refreshing in hot climes. In addition to this, the juice is a source of water. Nearly every culture has some sort of respect shown toward water due to its life-giving properties (i.e. baptism in Christianity, ritual washing of feet in several other cultures, blessing of water in all cultures). Anointing Simba’s head with water is a wonderful way of both blessing the child as well as encouraging a connection with the elements.
This is further reinforced by the scattering of dust over the juices (accompanied by an adorable sneeze). Like water, nearly every belief system acknowledges to a certain extent that we come from the earth. By blessing Simba with both earth and water, Rafiki is connecting the cub with the two most respected elements in nature religion (arguably… some would say that air is just as respected, or fire respected out of fear…).
Simba is then presented to the animals of the kingdom, raised up and graced by sunlight. The animals make quite a bit of noise before bowing, and like the rattle, I had at one point thought that they did so simply out of excitement. But with further reflection, I do think there may have been an additional reason. In some cultures, producing a lot of loud noise is said to drive away negative energy and evil spirits. This can be done during rites and holidays, but also as a way of protecting a newborn. It’s possible that this could be part of Simba’s blessing - a communal act of protection.
So within that first scene, we have a huge amount of pagan symbolism, and a strong acknowledgement of shamanic belief. But these themes don’t stop there.
Later on in the film, Mufasa pulls Simba aside to discuss the young cub’s duty to the kingdom when he comes of age. He points out the stars and explains to Simba that each star is the light of an ancestor, watching and guiding the living so as to protect the kingdom, even after they have passed away.
Ancestor worship is part and parcel to many shamanic and pagan paths, and honoring one’s ancestors is a theme found in nearly every culture in some form or another - consider Samhain in Celtic belief, Dia de los Muertos in Mexican Catholicism, and mummification in various cultures. In shamanism, the shaman is sometimes seen as the mouthpiece of the ancestors, communicating their wisdom with the living. In addition, respecting and honoring ancestors helps us see and learn more about ourselves.
This very same aspect of ancestor worship is brought up again midway through the film (during a moment of stargazing between Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa) and then closer to the climax when Rafiki reminds Simba that Mufasa lives on through Simba’s legacy.
Easily the most magical moment in the film is Simba’s discussion with Mufasa - a moment of revelation in which the young Prince is tasked with remembering his place in the Circle of Life. But this same magical moment further emphasizes the role ancestors play in some beliefs.
While music and the Shakespearean inspirations behind The Lion King may play a part in what makes this movie so relatable, I do feel that it goes much deeper. To some extent, we all have some part of our pagan origins still living on in our lives today. Whether this is in our culture or religion, it chimes in with our more primal selves.
So with this movie, Disney didn’t have to choose an arcane villain or cast any kind of spell on the main character in order to communicate with us. All the movie needed to do was identify with the magic that we have in our lives already, turning it into a timeless classic.