Animal Master

Animal Master

Tony Gerard Dolan 12-Sep-2012

This article is about the origin of the animal-master motif. There is a suggestion that this motif may have eventually become conflated with the iconography of Daniel in the Lion's Den.

Angel and Two Lions - Rieux Minervois

Rieux Minervois

Beyond the original entrance porch of the mid 12th century chapel of Rieux-Minervois in the South of France is the first of seven columns that support the central area of the heptagonal church. If we look we see an angel flanked by two lions. A guide giving a tour explained to her party in dramatic fashion how the lions represent evil, le mal, attacking the virtuous breast of the angel who, however, heroically pulls them away. However, on inspection the angel appears to be benignly supporting their legs from beneath. This is worth noting as nearly all such images (of the animal master) betray a similar trompe l'oeil tendency. The motif is repeated on all four sides but on the narrow inside panel the angel is only depicted by his wings - which stylistically look like fern fronds.
The church itself appears to be the work of an outstanding sculptor, or group of sculptors whose work has been found in Catalonia, Southern France and Tuscany in Italy. As the sculptor is unknown he is referred to simply as Le Maitre de Cabestany after a particular sculpture he did in an old Templar Commanderie which is hidden away in the suburbs of Perpignan in the former village of Cabestany.
Much of this sculptor's other work is far more dramatic but this image struck me immediately by its similarity to the motif referred to as the Master of the Animals. I was surprised by the appearance of a pre Christian image and deity in a Christian setting, even if the proposed meaning is no doubt different. For reference the year is about 1165AD.

Daniel in the Lions Den - Cabestany Museum
Abbey of Sant Antimo in Tuscany (Wikipedia)

On paying a visit to the museum for this sculptor at Cabestany we note a fairly dramatic depiction of Daniel in the Lions Den and if you follow the above Wikipedia article on Le Maitre, you will see a similar motif used on a capital in Tuscany. At this point nothing is suggested so let us go back about three hundred years to the glory days of Irish Celtic crosses.

Kells Market Cross

Cernunnos? - Kells Market Cross

One outstanding legacy left to us from Celtic Christianity are the marvelous Celtic Crosses and I was indeed surprised to find a depiction of a similar motif on the 8th or possibly 9th century Kells Market Cross in Ireland. We see, on one of the side panels of the vertical section, a horned man flanked by two canine animals. If we look carefully we notice that his arms are holding the two by their tails which come upwards between their legs. And indeed he appears to have a tail himself. It would be interesting to hear a contemporary explanation: it might be some Celtic Christianised take on the horned god, Cernunnos but equally the horns could be interpreted as denoting some demon or devil. Even Peter Harbison the renowned expert on Celtic Crosses passes over this panel (Irish High Crosses p69) with barely a mention because it is out of character with the other panels which typically take their themes from the bible except for the base of the cross which will often show local scenes associated perhaps with the patron who originally commissioned the cross.

Daniel - Kells Market Cross

Now if we look at the most important part of the cross where we expect to find Christ either crucified or triumphant we find instead the motif of Daniel in the Lion's Den and then finally if we travel up the road in Kells to the original monastic site we find the cross of St.Patrick and Columcille. The motif here shows Daniel again in a prime position on the cross and this time depicted in a manner that is almost indistinguishable from that of the motif of the animal master.

Daniel - St.Pat and Columcille Cross

We can trace these motifs all the way back to Sumer and there are numerous depictions of this motif in Mesopotamia (associated with Gilgamesh types) but eventually these peter out and we're faced with the dark chasm of pre civilisation. To try find our way down into this we need to first back track a bit.

Note: In the Summer 2014 edition of Archaeology Ireland there is a reference to a large gallery of such images.

Mistress of the Animals

Artemis (Wiki Commons)

With Artemis we get our first clue. The root of Artemis is Art which derives from the Indo-European root for bear, and this is borne out by the fact there was a group of young girls called the arktoi who used dress up as bears and were associated with Artemis's shrine at Brauron. Artemis is thought to be a personification of pristine nature unsullied by contact with human kind (hence virginal), often found hunting with her bow in the deeps of mountain forests and not appreciative of unwelcome intrustions as the story of Actaeon illustrates. A goddess then to be approched with care.

There is a single reference in Homer's Iliad where Hera refers to her as a lioness; worth mentioning in anticipation of our later consideration of the bear and feline as Animal Master, or indeed, Mistress of the Animals.

I know your bows and arrows, and what a lioness you are to women, whom Zeus allows you to destroy at your discretion.
(E.V.Rieu, The Iliad, p393)


Map of Paleolithic Vegetation (Wiki Commons)

Before proceeding we have to approach things from the other direction and ask what happened the original hunting culture of our paleolithic forebearers the artefacts of which have been found from Altamira in Iberia all the way across to Mal'ta near Lake Baikal. From the map we can see that the region indicated above had similar vegetation meaning that the large animals that grazed on the steppes could be hunted across this whole region. However there is also ample evidence that these hunters traveled across the Bering Land Bridge and, over time, found their way eventually all the way down to Tierra de Fuego in South America. It is somewhat harder to judge the ebb and flow of peoples between Africa and Europe but certainly there does appear to have been an influx from Europe around 10,000BCE into North Africa associated with the subsequent Capsian Culture. In any case there appears to be strong similarities in the customs of the hunting peoples as exemplified for instance almost up to the present hour by the Bushmen who have found their penultimate refuge in the remorseless Kalahari Desert. The mythologies of the people who made these original migrations have in many cases not (until recently) encounter civilsations and so in some rare cases there was no requirement to update their myths to take account of agriculture and the arts of civilisation. And so we find almost identical mythological motifs in North America, South and America and Africa and can interpret these to get some sense of the original idea of the Animal Master.

The Animal Master

Bear Figurine (Thursac,France)

We now take a great leap deep into the past until we arrive in the world famous (paleolithic) Valley of the Vézère. In the Summer of 2011 as I was paddling down the River Vezere, my wife wandered into a Chateau near Thursac and took photos in the museum, among which was this one which may indeed be a Master of the Animals. But before we go on perhaps we should get a description of what exactly we're talking about.

The best description I've found is that of a Kalahari Bushmen called Samutchoso who told Laurens Van Der Post the following after the expedition appeared to be foundering in the backwater of the Okavango delta :

Some days journey from the place where he lived in the swamp, Samutchoso informed me, straight out into the desert, there were some solitary hills. The Bushman called them the Tsodilo Hills, the Slippery Hills, and they were the home of very old and very great spirits. He had heard that European huts were divided into many rooms, and so, he would have me know was the interior of the Slippery Hills. In each compartment dwelt the master spirit of each animal, bird, insect, and plant that had ever been created. At night the spirits left their rooms in the hills to do their business among the creatures made after their fashion, and the spoor, the hoof marks left by their nocturnal traffic, could be seen distinct and deep in the rocks of the Slippery Hills. In a place in the central hill lived the master spirit of all the spirits. There below it was a deep pool of water that never dried up. Beside the pool grew a tree with the fruit of knowledge on it, and hard by the tree was the rock on which the greatest spirit of all had knelt to pray over his creation, could be seen to this day. All around on the smooth rock surfaces there were paintings of the animals the great spirit had made, and in all the deepest crevices lived swards, of bees that drank at the pool of everlasting water and tumbled the desert flowers to make the sweetest of honey for the spirits. There, he said, among these hills, once a year, for a short season, the Bushmen gathered. (The Lost World of the Kalahari p158)

For those familiar with the idea, the myths: The Buffalo Wife, The Undying Head and indeed the covenant of the peace pipe with the Buffalo Woman in Black Elk Speaks, give some idea of the power of this deity who may indeed be the first carriers of this. The bear rituals recorded by James Frazer for different tribes too are insightful. The Animal Master had to be treated with by a person in the role of a shaman, or medicine man. I think we see the dynamic illustrated in the following remarkable image that was discovered in Chauvet Cave.

Chauvet Cave

Animal Master - Chauvet

This cave painting from deep in the interior of Chauvet cave dates back over thirty thousand years. We see the bison animal master (or shaman) painted on a stalactite styled in the fashion of the female pubic triangle. The idea would be of the animal master controlling the replenishment of the herds from the womb of the earth to replace those lost to hunters. There are no surprises there. The feline though emerging from the motif, and indeed the prominence of felines in this most sacred part of the cave raises some questions. By way of suggesting the ambivalence exhibited by the hunters towards animals which were in effect their rivals but with whom they also appear to have identified - in some measure, the brief African hunter myth of Kulluballi (the first hunter) recorded by Leo Frobenius is instructive.

Kulluballi and a lion were stalking the same antelope. The little antelope approached the Kulluballi the hunter and said: Shoot me; break off one of my horns and put my blood into it; then, when the lion attacks you, he will only scratch you but will not be able to kill you.

Kulluballi did as the antelope advised him. He shot it and broke off one of its horns, then he poured the antelope's blood into the horn. Afterwards the lion attacked the Kulluballi, and tore open his sexual parts with his claws, so that a shred was ripped away. But the lion did nothing more to the Kulluballi, who set up his first house there and settled on the spot. He became a very great hunter.
Lion Man - Hohle Fehls

It is noteworthy that the initiation rite of different hunting peoples (Frobenius mentions the Bafulbe) appear to have incorporated this shredding of the scrotum by a lion or leopard claw as part of their initiation rite.

Now we started with the bear as a possible candidate as the oldest Animal Master and now appear to be considering the lion. If we visit the cave of Hohle Fehls in Swabia in Germany with artefacts dating from 30~40,000 years ago we find the following statuette.

For a living example of such a culture, the account by the Reichel-Dolmatoffs in their Amazonian Cosmos, quoted by Joseph Campbell on p347 of his Way of the Seeded Earth part 3, gives a good succinct overview.

In summary they view hills (and rapids) as dangerous places where the master spirit, or prototype to use their word, of each species exists. A paye (shaman) can visit these hills physically or in trance and negotiate the release of animals into the jungle for the hunters to kill. When the payes visit these hills in person they draw paintings (pictographs) of the animals (as well as uterine and phallic symbols) on the walls as an aid to their fecundity. On some of these friezes the dominant character is the jaguar.
The animal-master may emerge from the hills and hunt in the jungle itself in which case it uses a red stick which when it points it at an animal, kills it. The animal-master may also waylay girls in the jungle, in which case they will die soon after but the fecundity of the forest will increase.

The Dangerous Feline

Returning to the Bushmen, Van Der Post reports that they will on occasion herd antelopes, and other ruminants, towards packs of lionesses, who then ambush and kill them. They will then chase them away with fire and smoke, no doubt happy that the blood of the animals is not to their account.

Yet it may happen that a hunter is obliged to kill a lion or a leopard. And then, Joseph Campbell drawing directly from Frobenius' Kultureschichte Afrikas writes in Primitive Mythology (p347) that:

..when a lion or leopard has been killed. A place called Kulikorra Nyama is arranged in the forest, consisting of a circular enclosure of thorns, in the centre of which the clay form of a beast is set up, without a head. The pelt is then removed from the killed lion or leopard, together with the head, still containing its skull; the skin is arranged on the clay form; and then all the warriors surround the enclosure of thorns and the one who killed the beast goes dancing around the figure within, while the remains of the beast are buried.

Also quoting from Frobenius, Campbell continues:

In western Morocco, when such a panther is killed, the hunter must immediately creep up on the dead beast from behind, with closed eyes, and try to blindfold the panther as quickly as possible, so that it may no longer see - to avert the danger of the evil eye. And here possibly, we have our clue to the longbones pushed through the eye holes of the cave-bear skulls in the sacred bin of Drachenloch Cave.
And finally on the same page Campbell adds the comment:

..we must ask whether, actually, the African forms of the cult may go back even further in time than the bear cult of Neanderthal, so that the shift of role would have been rather from lion to bear than from bear to lion - according to the principle of land-namá, described earlier.


The view that we can never know anything about the psyche or world view of people back in the Paleolithic is not altogether tenable. The survival of hunting cultures and their mythologies up to almost the present hour can give us some insight into how paleolithic people viewed and engaged with the world around them. In his four volumes The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell maps out the narrative of how humankind evolved from this period and how new mythologies were developed to meet the organisational challenges that first agriculture, and later city states and then empires, imposed upon the human psyche. New discoveries such as the cave of Chauvet and artefacts at Hohle Fehls allow us to better flesh out this narrative in tandem with a better use of existing materials by means of the web.

Tony Dolan Spring 2012


Reichel-Dolmatoff's - Amazonian Cosmos - Quotations

These houses of the hills or houses of the waters are sacred and dangerous places. The rapids are, of course, unavoidable passes for the traveller and are navigated in silence, but the hills of the forest are avoided at all times. Besides being the places where the animals live, the houses of the hills also contain illness, and their dark and inhospitable aspect indicates this danger. The cracks, caverns, and tunnels are the entrances to the interior of the hills, to the great malocas of the animals. There, within their dark interior, the gigantic prototypes of each species exist, and thousands of animals are kept: deer, tapirs, peccaries, monkeys, rodents, and many more, in a great community similar to that of human beings.
When the shaman, the paye, on his hallucinogenic quest, arrives in the Animal Master's house, either in the hills or in the waters, Vai-mahse' receives him willingly and shows him his animals hanging in bunches from the rafters, The paye indicates those that the hunters have asked him to release, and when the price in souls has been agreed upon, Vai-mahse' shakes the relevant rafters to wake the animals selected, which then go out into the jungle to be killed. "The price," it is said, "is charged 'per shake' and sometimes more are awakened than had been agreed upon and the paye must reopen negotiations."
But sometimes, Reichel-Dolmatoff found, the payes go to the hills, not in their hallucinations but in reality, to affirm their requests and to foster the fertility of the animals. On many of the hills the rock walls are covered with pictographs representing various animals and fertility symbols, where generations of payes have drawn, in red, yellow, or black, the forms of game animals.
The drawings show deer, tapirs, monkeys, rodents, turtles, and birds, together with phallic and uterine symbols; the stripes and diamonds of pamuri-gahsiru, the mythical snake that brought men to earth, are also depicted. Sometimes these rock walls are true palimpsests with a superposition of drawings that, through the centuries, show changing styles. At times the figure of a jaguar dominates the multitude of representations, just as the fertilizing power of this divine beast dominates the jungle,

Excerpts from 347 The Way of the Seeded Earth Vol III

Jeff King (Navajo Medicine Man) - Where the Two Came to their Father (associated with Navajo ritual)

Bear Madonna

(the two heroes have arrived at the House of the Sun and having survived the very severe tests inflicted on them are now being shown around by the Sun)

They saw all kinds of game, deer, mountain sheep, elk, antelope and so on. And these all ran bunched together to get out; but Water Carrier shut it. Sun said, Is this what you want?
We shall need it in the future but not now, the boys said.

Maud Oakes asked about the difference between the Sun's House and Changing Woman's House and was told by Jeff King:

The House of the Sun is the same as Changing Woman's House (the earth).

Bear Iconography in the Mesolithic and Neolithic

In the above we're following one particular thread but rather skip over the intervening mesolithc and neolithic periods.. A nice example of the bear in Neolithic cultures is the Bear Madonna cited by Marija Gimbutas as part of the Vinca Culture (5,500-4,500BCE). In mesolithic culture of Northern Europe we find amber bears (National Museum of Denmark) dated to around 7000BCE both onland and from submerged settlements.