The art of the ancient Near East includes some of the most vivid images of animals to be found anywhere. Interactions with animals shaped the world of the ancient people of the Near East: they shepherded flocks, guarded against dangerous wild animals, traveled long distances with the help of pack animals, hunted for subsistence and for sport, rode horses into battle, and marveled at powerful beasts and exotic creatures from distant lands. Images of animals took many forms, including painted pottery and clay sculptures, carved stone, and sculpture in precious metal. These images frequently appeared within compositions that evoked divinity, kingship, and the fertility of the natural world.
From earliest times, animals were represented in the art of the ancient Near East (1984.175.13; 1984.175.15). Sculptures from the Uruk period show that artists were carefully attuned to the anatomy of domesticated and wild animals (1981.53). During the late fourth to early third millennium B.C. in Elam (southwestern Iran), craftspeople created remarkable depictions of animals behaving like humans—a theme that may have related to early myths or fables, now lost (66.173). Both naturalistic and abstracted animal portrayals are found throughout the history of the ancient Near East (1978.58), and the selection of a stylized or exaggerated form is best understood as the craftperson’s wish to emphasize a particular desirable or representative quality of the animal (59.52).
Interest in wild animals, and particularly in features like horns, wings, and claws that were considered especially dangerous or powerful (47.100.88; 17.190.2055), is characteristic of ancient Near Eastern art of all periods, dating back at least to the Neolithic period. At the site of Göbekli Tepe, stone pillars were carved in relief with images of animals such as vultures and foxes, while at Çatal Höyük, plaster installations of animal teeth and horns and wall paintings of animals, including one of an enormous bull, were found in domestic spaces. Contrary to what we might expect of the peoples who first domesticated many animals and plants, it is not the inner controlled and domesticated world that they chose to represent but the outer, wild world. During the Uruk period, the lion and bull became especially prominent in the art of the ancient Near East and first began to be used in images expressing the power of rulers. Images of lions were also used in protective contexts, and were set up in pairs to guard passageways into royal and ritual spaces (31.13.1; 31.13.2; 48.180). Conflict between two or more powerful creatures is a recurring theme in ancient Near Eastern art (17.190.1672). Fierce animals shown locked in combat were perhaps meant to embody strong opposing forces in nature.
Many animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs, and cats, were first domesticated in the Near East. (In contrast to modern perceptions about the Middle East, camels were not common in the ancient Near East until the first centuries A.D., when camel caravans traveled the long-distance trade routes that were the forerunners of the Silk Road.) Amulets and foundation deposits show that images of domestic animals could be thought to have protective functions. Portrayals of domesticated animals were also used to communicate ideas about fertility and to enhance ritual activities.
The horse was an animal of paramount importance. Memory of the mountainous origins of horses is reflected by references to these animals in Mesopotamian texts of the third millennium B.C. as the “donkeys of the mountains.” After 2000 B.C., horses entered the Near East in large numbers, most likely from areas to the east and north. Horses became the premier animal of transportation and warfare, as well as symbols of royalty (1976.5). A defining moment in the history of the horse came with the invention of the war chariot in the seventeenth century B.C. The war chariot conferred an enormous advantage in the primarily infantry-based warfare of the ancient world. It is clear from the Amarna Letters that horses and chariots were among the most prized commodities in the elaborate system of royal gift exchange among the great powers of the late Bronze Age.
Fertility and Abundance
Animal imagery was used to express the importance of reproduction and the fertility of the natural world. Animals are shown either nursing their young or feeding from vigorously sprouting plants. Pairs of male and female animals allude to fertility through sexual reproduction. Depictions of particular animals appearing to infinitely repeat on bowls or cylinder seals may have been meant to evoke the desire for abundance and agricultural productivity (50.218).
Animals and the Divine
Ritual observance, whether in the mode of a sacrifice, a ceremonial hunt, or in the decoration of sacred objects, was deeply connected with the animal world. Animals common to the diet of ancient Near Eastern peoples were sacrificed to the gods as daily meals. Exquisitely crafted temple equipment often included images of animals. Luxurious vessels in ceramic, stone, or metal in the form of animals or animal heads that often took the form of rhytons were especially favored as gifts for the gods (1979.447; 54.3.3). According to texts from the Hittite capital dating to the mid-second millennium B.C., these vessels were used by elite worshippers in rituals (1989.281.10).
Fierce animals, such as bulls and lions, as well as hawks, stags, and other powerful beasts, could be linked with certain gods whose qualities they shared (49.71.2): the storm god Adad was linked to the bull in part because of the similarity between the rumble of thunder and the roar of a mighty bull. Horned headdresses were markers of divinity in the ancient Near East (a greater number of horns corresponded to a higher status in the world of the gods). However, the gods of the ancient Near East did not commonly appear with animal features. Occasionally, gods appeared with wings and other birdlike elements, but they remained recognizably human. Thus a depiction of a bull, for example, would be understood to refer to the storm god’s presence and powers, rather than to represent the god himself in animal form.
Animals as Expressions of Power
Animal imagery was regularly used to express authority. Imitation through adornment or rhetoric allowed the power of an animal to be appropriated. Animal masks or skins may have facilitated spiritual ascent and may have been thought to enhance a hero or demon’s power (2007.280). Metaphors for kingship often relied upon the animal world. Kings described themselves as lions, having taken on the mantle of the animal’s power by defeating it in combat. The Neo-Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal, in his Standard Inscription, refers to himself as ekdu, “fierce,” a word that is often used to describe the might of strong bulls. By contrast, the subjects of a ruler were often imagined as domesticated flocks, with kings referring to themselves as shepherds.
Control of the natural world, as expressed by fierce animals, was a key aspect of the iconography of kingship. Hunting was one way in which control over the natural world was demonstrated (41.160.192). The royal hunt, in which the king could appear alone, mounted, or in a horse- or donkey-drawn chariot while shooting swiftly running animals with arrows, defined the ruler’s attributes of strength, skill, and mastery of the natural world (43.135.2). Lion hunts were specifically restricted to royalty, and the motif of the lion hunt is among the earliest imagery affiliated with leadership. Even into the Sasanian period, the royal hunt motif was maintained (1994.402). Rulers could also demonstrate the vast reach of their domains by collecting rare and exotic animals from distant lands. According to cuneiform texts, Assyrian kings set up royal parks, similar to private zoos. Here they not only gathered elephants, lions, apes, and other animals but also planted lush gardens with non-native flora such as grapevines and date palms. Territories subject to Assyrian rule were required to offer the riches of their lands, including both animal products and the living creatures themselves, to the Assyrian kings as tribute (60.145.11). Ivory became increasingly popular during the second half of the second millennium B.C., and large quantities of ivory sculpture were found in the Neo-Assyrian palaces. Although the collection and representation of wild animals in the first millennium B.C. served different purposes than the early Neolithic installations, the essential role of animals in efforts to grasp, control, and represent the earthly and supernatural worlds speaks to the power of animal imagery in the ancient Near East.
Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Animals in Ancient Near Eastern Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/anan/hd_anan.htm (February 2014)
Hodder, Ian. The Leopard's Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.
Winter, Irene J. "Representing Abundance: The Visual Dimension of the Agrarian State." In Settlement and Society: Essays Dedicated to Robert McCormick Adams, edited by Elizabeth C. Stone, pp. 117–38. Los Angeles: Costen Institute, 2006.