Animal Influences in Paleolithic, Egyptian and Greek Art There are numerous ways in which animals have resonated within the human mind. Throughout history there have been representations ranging from the realistic, to myths, legends, symbols, and even horrific murderous beasts; at the same time providing fascinating perspectives of our own humanity. Various forms of art have conveyed ideas and concepts of animal's intelligence, as well as behavior, from generation to generation. Animal art is used as a tool to make the connection between different cultures at different time periods and it relates historical and symbolic meanings. In most cultures animals have been linked with the supernatural forces which were believed to control the natural world and the destiny of humans. They were often revered as the agents. or associates, of gods, and goddesses, and were even the focus of worship as deities.
Following the tracks of historical animal art, through the human imagination introduces a trail of creativity and unsurpassed beauty. Paleolithic art: Cave paintings are the earliest known example of human art dating 40,000 to 8,000 BCE. The paintings mainly feature various animals running, sleeping, and eating. Some also contain a few humans, geometrical shapes, and even hand prints. The artist used permanent features like ceilings, floors, and walls of rock shelters and caves as their canvas. Pigments of black, yellow, red, and brown were utilized to display the observations of animals.
The painters gathered a great deal of information about finding food, and which foods were safe to eat or to hunt, by closely observing animals. The valuable information was passed to others through the details in the artwork. The construction of the figures are sporadic over uneven surfaces and small confined areas in the caves. Paintings in this position would have been difficult to view, and may not be simple decorations, but possess a special or spiritual purpose. Researchers, "took what they thought were the most important features of the content of Paleolithic art (the animals, the arrows. etc.) and stressing the locality of the art (deep done in caves far from habitation) inferred a secret magical function". 1 The paintings depict strong, dangerous, and swift animals which may be a form of sympathetic magic, in an attempt to control them through representation. (fig. 1) Many paintings have marks indicating wounds or bleeding, which may be connected with hunting.
One theory is that prehistoric hunters believed that by depicting the animal on the wall they would capture it's soul, and inevitable death during the hunt. However there has also been evidence "that the animals used most frequently for food were not the ones traditionally portrayed in cave art". 2 The paintings reflect the human relationship with animals; for admiration, fascination, the feared and the hunted. Researchers have divided the animals into three major groups. "The first comprises the large herbivores-bison, ox, mammoth, horse; the second, the small herbivores-stag and ibex; and the third, the most dangerous animals-lion, bear and rhinoceros, all of which occur by themselves in the rear portions of the caves". 3 (fig. 2) Smaller animals such as rabbits were not painted, perhaps because they were very abundant.
The reason for the paintings will never be fully answered. They may be part of rituals marking a successful hunt or maybe it is 'art for art's sake. ' Andre Leroi-Gourhan feels, "By this route alone, thoughts of these men who are the only people anywhere in the world, at any epoch, to have sheltered their works of art in the dank depths of caves". 4 Egyptian art Egyptians and animals (3150 to 2700 BCE) together symbolize many mysterious and magical powers. Marilyn Stockstad states, "The many god and goddesses were depicted in various forms, some as human beings, others as animals, and still others as creatures half human, half animal". 5 The symbolic nature of the lion, like that of many animals, is ambivalent.
In Egypt it represented notably the living power of the sun in it's identification with the solar deity Ra, but also death and afterlife, because of its association with Osiris, the ruler of the underworld. The lion was also believed to guard the spirit realm. The Sphinx at Giza (fig. 3) is a recumbent, lion bodied statue of the pharaoh Kha fre. The tradition of the sphinx combined the idea of the lion, the king of beasts with that of the divine ruler, symbolize the union of intellectual and physical powers incarnated into the pharaoh. The Ibis was widely associated with the sacred to the moon god Aah, and the god Thoth, who were often depicted with an ibis's head. The wading bird was thought to be free from illnesses.
The bird's ability to fly makes it a natural symbol of the flight of the human soul, but sometimes the connection is less obvious. In a frieze from Tutankhamun's burial chamber (fig. 4) combines the symbolism of the leopard, death and the afterlife. It shows Tutankhamun's successor, King Ay, wearing the magical leopard skin mantle and engaged in the ceremonial ritual of opening the mouth on Tutankhamun's mummy, This would ensure the passage of his soul into the other world. Whether consciously or not, the Egyptians recognized the vital role animals played in ensuring the constant recycling of elements that make life possible. H.W. Janson observes, "Egyptian art alters between conservatism and innovation, but is never static. Some of its great achievements had a decisive influence on Greek and Roman art, and thus we can still feel ourselves linked... by a continuous, living tradition".
6 Greek art It is often possible to trace the evolution of a myth almost like the development of a real animal. There are few imaginary beasts that do not contain some element of zoological truth. The early adventures of warriors, and sailors, with sea animals, conjured imaginative stories that when they returned to Greece, theses stories inspired Homer to create the Cyclops, in his epic, "Odyssey". A feature throughout history has been imagining animals that are the magnification of the human body to superhuman size and power. The Greek's Centaur (900-400 BCE) were said to have the power and speed of a horse with the intelligence and emotions of humans (fig. 4).
The frieze at the Parthenon (fig. 5) shows the battle between the La piths and the Centaurs. Stockstad detects, "What should be a grueling tug-of-war between man and beast appears instead as an athletic ballet... ". 7 Many pieces have broken off but what is left is a masterpiece of it's time. "Of all Greek originals which have come down to us the sculptures from the Parthenon reflect this new freedom perhaps in the most wonderful way", 8 as commented by E.H. Gomribrich. An influenced of the Egyptian art, is the sphinx.
It's appearance and evolved into a lion's body and the wings of an eagle with a woman's head. It was a enhanced feature on the helmet Athena, the warrior goddess of Athens, and a frequent image on gravestones. The Greeks were inspired from the past, which created a new and original period. This style of art is a delicate mixture of artistic styles, and image, which blend the realism and idealism, mythology, and monstrous beasts (fig. 6). Robert Scranton says, "Greek art is notable, ... for it's concentration of focus; there is almost always a well-established dominant to which all else is subordinate and related in a definable scale". 9 Different cultures grab on to different attributes to construct very different mythologies, but all cultures, have integrated a close observation of the animal kingdom into their artistic style, symbols, and stories.
The evolution of animals in the human imagination stretches from teachers to ancestors, to protective and finally gods. Humans have developed a world where animals were once beyond control, or understanding, could now be understood and affectionately appreciated through the arts.
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