Penn State Statue: The Nittany Lion

History of the Nittany Lion, how it got its name, and the fable of Mount Nittany.

Penn State's mascot is the Nittany Lion. "Lion" is an animal that most everyone recognizes. But a "nittany lion"? What the heck is that?

The original Penn State mascot was a typical lion, with a large bushy mane, and was invented as a reaction to Princeton's tiger mascot. In 1943, the senior class gift commissioned a statue of the lion mascot, and the sculptor, Heinz Warneke, based his masterpiece not on the African lion, but instead, on the lion that roamed the mountains of Centre County, Pennsylvania.

Thus, the Penn State mascot lost the mane and became a mountain lion. A Nittany Lion, named after the unusual mountain that lies on the outskirts of the town of State College, where Penn State is located. Mount Nittany stands alone, a mountain ridge with a long slope which can be seen from town, or from campus, or from the seats in the football stadium. There are mountain ranges all around, but Mount Nittany is surrounded by a valley and nothing more.

Centuries ago, the valley in Centre County was populated with Native Americans. The legend has it that there was no mountain in the valley at that time. The Indian tribe that inhabited the woods of central Pennsylvania included a young princess named Nit-a-nee. Princess Nit-a-nee was in love with a young warrior. That much is considered standard to the legend.

However, there are various twists. In one version, the princess's father would not allow her to marry the young warrior, and in her sadness, she laid on the ground and wept until the grief killed her. And where her body lay, a mountain arose. In another version, the young warrior was killed, and again, the mountain arose from Princess Nit-a-nee's grief and death.

The mountain was named in her honor, Americanized to Nittany (pronounced Nit-nee). When Penn State's lion mascot became the mountain lion, the powers that be decided that the lion take on the name of the mountain that sat in the shadows of the college.

So, quite technically, a Nittany Lion is nothing more than a Penn State mascot, although there were once mountain lions that roamed along the sides of Mount Nittany.

Today, Mount Nittany is a beloved landmark. As the farms and hills of Centre County become populated, there are efforts to keep the mountain so closely associated to the University as pristine as it was a hundred years ago. There is a Mount Nittany Society that sells pieces of land by the square foot, making it nearly impossible for a developer to come in and turn it into a hill of condominiums. Football fans have fought to keep a view of Mount Nittany possible from their Beaver Stadium seats, especially in late October, when the mountain is ablaze in autumn colors. And thousands of students have climbed the paths of the mountain and looked down on the valley, just to say they were part of Penn State lore.

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