Monday, September 26, 2011


Derek B. Counts, Bettina Arnold (ed.), The Master of Animals in Old World Iconography. Archaeolingua 24. Budapest: Archaeolingua, 2010. Pp. 261. ISBN 9789639911147. €56.

Reviewed by Judith Weingarten (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of contents is given at the end of the review.]

Who or what qualifies as a 'The Master of Animals' (hereafter Master)? The classic representation of a central male figure in hand-to-hand contest with one or more animals is already a relatively standardized image by the end of the 4th millennium in Mesopotamia. The editors of this stimulating volume, however, extend the title to all male humans (or humanoids) demonstrating power over animals. Thus, a king/hero/god qualifies if he is controlling, destroying, or even hunting wild beasts. As such, the type is not only extraordinarily long-lived but demonstrates almost universal appeal. The elements of the Master's depiction are nonetheless variously mixed and recombined in different cultural contexts: "the function and context of the Master of Animals were always a matter of local concern." (p. 13)

The volume covers a wide swathe of cultures, including areas rarely considered by 'Old World' archaeologists from the Indus Valley to Europe circa 500 CE. On the other hand, we are taken from 4th/3rd millennium Mesopotamia straight to Neo-Assyrian times, omitting both the Old Assyrian and Babylonian periods, while Syria and the Levant are nowhere to be seen. In compensation, perhaps, Minoan-Mycenaean Greece is privileged with three chapters.

In the "Prolegomenon", the editors recapitulate the role of animals in shaping human social practice across so many geographical and temporal boundaries. They find that one of the strongest associations in all contexts 'is that between representations of the Master of Animals and elite behaviour and status: there appears to be a consistent link between hunting and mastery as signifiers for other forms of socio-political domination....". (p. 19)

Sarah Kielt Costello traces the earliest appearance of the Master back to the 'priest-king' figure of the late 4th millennium who is often shown hunting lions and horned animals and may represent the metaphoric power of civilization over the wild. In the 3rd millennium, his place is taken by a superhuman Nude Hero with bearded frontal face and distinctive hair curls. Physically powerful, he wrestles lions and bulls or a hybrid foe/friend, the bull man. The Nude Hero may be an allegory for the kings of the Early Dynastic period—idealized, strong, and able to control natural forces. The Nude Hero is always unarmed, but a third heroic figure—pictured in profile and beardless—stabs a lion with dagger or sword; this figure perhaps represents the king as god-like hero.

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer traces Early Harappan (ca. 3300-2800 BCE) horned anthropomorphic images through the Indus cities period (2600-1900 BCE), at which time human-animal hybrids have become common. Horned deities with either short zebu-bull horns or wide water-buffalo horns may be pictured on a throne/bed in the yogic position. The hybrids presumably represent deities or powerful nature spirits.

Surveying Hittite Anatolia, Billie Jean Collins notes that scenes of divine hunters and heroes in hand-to-hand combat with animals are abundant in the Assyrian Colony period but very rare during the Hittite Old Kingdom. Instead, festival programs organized by the king and queen included a sacred hunt of stag and bull on behalf of the Storm God and/or Stag God. Textual and iconographic evidence (ca. 1500 BCE) describe ritual games and bull sacrifice in the cult of the Storm God. In the Empire period, the God on the Stag appears as a Tutelary Deity of wild nature.

Janice L. Crowley presents a catalogue of the Master and Mistress in Minoan-Mycenaean glyptic. Always in antithetic pose, Masters/Mistresses are classified by their animal or fantasy familiar: lion, hound, bull, agrimi (Cretan wild goat), stag, dolphin, bird, griffin, Minoan Genius. Master and Mistress share most beasts, some ferocious, others fairly tame. Crowley rightly stresses the Aegean identity of the Master and many of his animals. She also considers other male and female authority figures (dubbed 'Lords' and 'Ladies') as deities although represented with animal attendants in quite diverse poses.

Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw considers Minoan animal-human hybrids as either heterosomatic (humans adopting animal parts as a notional hybrid; e.g. animal-hide skirts, boar's tusk helmets) or homosomatic (a fusion of distinct corporealities). When animals occupy the heads, arms, or front legs of homosomatic hybrids (with the bottom parts human), these are almost always edible and herbivorous beasts; when, however, they have human heads, the bodies are of more aggressive animals. Such hybridity appears at times of socio-political shifts and may be contextualized "as a set of expressions of wider mastery—of bodies, cultures, and audiences." (p. 102)

Louise Hitchcock focuses on the Knossos Throne Room where, between gypsum benches and wall-paintings depicting griffins, palms and reeds, stands a gypsum high-backed seat. Certainly, whoever sat on this 'seat of honour' would have been the focus of whatever activities took place in this room. But what if the throne were empty and no one sat on it? Hitchcock proposes that the throne "was not occupied at all but that the seat ... instead served as an aniconic element and focal point for sacred emptiness and indicated the presence of an invisible deity in the Master of Animals position" [i.e. between two antithetic griffins] (p. 111). The invisible deity would be Kothar-wa- Hasis (better known in the Aegean as Daidalos) who, according to an Ugaritic account, had a throne in Crete. The Throne Room is seen as the Daedaleion mentioned in Linear B in connection with oil offerings.

In Iron Age Greece, the Master is decidedly less popular than the Mistress. Susan Langdon judges only Herakles as an exemplar of male power over monsters and monstrous wild beasts. Images of man-lion combat decline in Late Geometric art, replaced by hunters pursuing smaller edible and inedible quarry. Later 8th/7th century images show the successful hunter carrying home the makings of a feast. In the later city-states, farmland and pastures of the polis were gendered male while the wilderness with its beasts was female.

On Cyprus, Derek Counts traces three divine Master types reflecting Cyprus' situation at the crossroads of east-west: 1) in 'smiting god' pose holding a club over a mastered lion, mixing eastern images with the trappings of Greek Herakles; 2) a ram-headed or ram-horned human often with cornucopia; 3) a human with goat horns and ears, frequently ithyphallic, and carrying pipes—related to Greek Pan. The hybridized iconography stresses divine potency and control over natural forces.

Mark Garrison defines the iconographic meaning of the Master in Assyrian culture as either 1) a central male figure upright with arms extended out to hold animals/creatures or who cradles them at his chest—the 'heroic encounter'; or 2) a figure who holds a weapon, grapples, or chases an animal/creature as if in hand-to-hand combat—the 'heroic combat'. The 'heroic encounter' is very rare in Neo-Assyrian sculpture or ivories but common in Assyro-Babylonian glyptic: the hero, often winged, holds a sword or scimitar in one hand and grasps the animal/creature (itself often winged) with the other as it either moves away from or confronts him. More than 100 versions of an Assyrian royal- seal type show the king grasping a confronted rampant lion while stabbing it with dagger or sword. In the Achaemenid period (522-331 BCE), hundreds of seal impressions from Persepolis archives picture the hero in a multiplicity of guises, from winged bull man to crowned king, most commonly controlling lions and winged leonine creatures.

Bryan K. Hanks considers the role of human-animal symbolism in the construction of social relationships and identity across the Eurasian steppes in the first millennium BCE. The development of mounted warfare led to shifts in society as indicated such monuments such as Arzhan I and II burial complexes (ca 900 BCE) and the 4th - 2nd centuries BCE Pazyryk tombs in which horses were buried with flamboyant masks, saddles, and other prestigious accoutrements. Although Master of Animals imagery was known to Greek colonists along the northern Black Sea coast, the type had little resonance in the Eurasian steppe region.

Bettina Arnold reviews the evidence for animal sacrifice in ritual and mortuary contexts in Iron Age temperate Europe, ca 750 BCE-200 CE. Metres-deep faunal bone and ash deposits in Hallstatt open-air sites resulted from the burning of victims on large pyres over hundreds of years. Human and animal remains often found together in Celtic ritual contexts may suggest human sacrifice, as many Classical sources report. Highly stylized animals flanking a human figure (Cernunnos?) who grasps them around the neck or waist appear on belt hooks and wooden carvings. From the Hallstatt to the La Tène period, hunting becomes the role of paramount elites, perhaps represented by the rare burials with arrowheads.

Anthony Tuck shows that the Mistress of Animals was adopted in Etruscan central Italy early in the Orientalizing period (end 8th century) and almost immediately incorporated into a range of objects found in elite burials. At the late 7th century elite residence at Poggio Civitate (Murlo), bucchero cups are decorated with potnia theron images. Alternating sculpted female antefixes and feline waterspouts on buildings at the site may reflect the identity of the Mistress. Comparatively rarer male antefixes might similarly have evoked the Master. Most 'Masters' in early Etruscan art, however, are being bitten by their flanking lions, an anthropophagus image possibly echoed in 4th century representations of the myth of Acteon.

Martin Guggisberg points to the transalpine transfer of potnia theron as exemplified by the Mistress with bird and beasts on the Grächwil bronze hydria, made ca. 600 BCE in the Mediterranean area and deposited almost a century later in a Celtic burial in Switzerland. Early La Tène representations remain close to these figures so the imagery of such imports may have reflected the religious world view of their Celtic owners. Still, the Master will predominate in the Celtic world, and not the Mistress. The abstraction of Celtic art usually reduced the human body to the head alone: the Master appears as a bearded or moustached head, antithetically flanked by rams, sphinxes, or birds on gold neck rings and bracelets, among other objects. The shift in the 5th century BCE from images of the Mistress to a Master is associated with the new warrior elite who developed a martially equipped Master of Animals.

The Germanic areas of Europe during the Early Middle Ages (ca. 400-600 CE), as Peter S. Wells shows, also favoured a human face flanked by an animal or hybrid on metal objects. Most such images appear on personal ornaments: the motif's focus on faces was intended to capture the attention of the viewers. From the 6th century onwards, the motif is represented on new media associated with Christianity (reliquaries, chalices, gravestones, etc.) but portrayals are more naturalistic: their creators wanted to show viewers figures and stories they would recognize. In these cases, the animals are subordinate whereas on non-Christian objects, the animals are at least as significant as the human faces.

Summing up, animal mastery was associated with a range of concepts, from divine ancestry and sacral kingship to the most basic symbols of authority and elite identity. While some contributions in this volume are of dubious relevance to the main theme or tropes, every scholar will undoubtedly find much fascinating new material in this rich and engaging collection.

Table of Contents

B. Arnold - D.B. Counts, "Prolegomenon: The Many Masks of the Master of Animals", 9-24
S. Kielt Costello, "The Mesopotamian 'Nude Hero': Context and Interpretation", 25-36
J. M. Kenoyer,"Master of Animals and Animal Masters in the Iconography of the Indus Tradition", 37-58
B.J. Collins, "Hero, Field Master, King: Animal Mastery in Hittite Texts and Iconography", 59-74
J. L. Crowley, "The Aegean Master of Animals: Evidence of the Seals, Signets, and Sealings", 75-91
A. Simandiraki-Grimshaw, "Minoan Animal-Human Hybridity", 93-106
L.A. Hitchcock, "The Big Nowhere: A Master of Animals in the Throne Room at Knossos?", 107-118
S. Langdon, "Where the Wild Things Were The Greek Master of Animals in Ecological Perspective", 119-133
D.B. Counts, "Divine Symbols and Royal Aspirations: The Master of Animals in Iron Age Cypriote Religion", 135- 150
Mark Garrison, "The Heroic Encounter in the Visual Arts of Ancient Iraq and Iran ca. 1000-500 BC", 151- 174
B. K. Hanks, "Agency, Hybridity, and Transmutation: Human-Animal Symbolism and Mastery among Early Eurasian Steppe Societies", 175-191
B. Arnold, "Beasts of the Forest and Beasts of the Field: Animal Sacrifice, Hunting Symbolism and the Master of Animals in Pre-Roman Iron Age Europe", 193-210
A. S. Tuck, "Mistress and Master: The Politics of Iconography in Pre-Roman Central Italy", 211-221
M.A. Guggisberg, "The Mistress of Animals, the Master of Animals: Two Complementary or Oppositional Religious Concepts in Early Celtic Art?", 223-236
P.S. Wells, "Meaning in Motif and Ornament: The Face Between the Creatures in Mid-First-Millennium AD Temperate Europe", 237-250

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