Master and Mistress of Animals

In ancient art from Europe to India a particular artistic motif frequently appears: a male or female figure grabbing two wild creatures, one in each hand. These are the Master and Mistress of Animals.

Master of Animals
British Museum [CC BY-SA]
A man or a woman with arms outstretched. Clutched in each hand, an animal: lions, bulls, wolves, snakes, birds, lammasu… the first known examples of this motif date back six thousand years, to prehistoric Mesopotamia. Given how widespread it seems to be in the historical record, though, it was probably a Thing much earlier.

The Master of Animals appears on a prehistoric Egyptian dagger (3450 BCE), an Indus Valley seal (2500-1500 BCE), and a Bronze Age Iranian stone (2500 BCE). The gold pendant pictured above is Minoan (1700-1500 BCE). The Greeks connected the Mistress of Animals with Artemis; the Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark (150-1 BCE) and an Anglo-Saxon purse-lid from Sutton Hoo (around 624 CE) also feature this design. By some accounts, the famous Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, who is flanked by lions, is an early example of the Mistress; that one dates back an incredible eight thousand years.

(Side note: I’ve visited Çatalhöyük and seen the Seated Woman in Ankara; the weight of history behind them left me feeling awed and reverential.)

Why is it so common? What does it represent? Some people have suggested that it’s a kind of proto-deity, a god and goddess with control or dominion over the animals. Others suggest that it’s just a motif, a common pattern that spread alongside the growth of art and crafts through the ancient world. A related design, of two animals facing each other, is equally widespread and doesn’t seem to have a specific meaning attached to it. We’re still using the “confronted animals” motif today, by the way, in things like coats of arms and The Neverending Story.

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