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My Favourite Planet > English > People > Mistress of Animals

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Mistress of Animals

Ancient Greek mythology, religion and art

The name Potnia Theron (Ἡ Πότνια Θηρῶν), also referred to as the Mistress of Animals, Mistress of Beasts or Mistress of Wild Things, is the name given to female figures in ancient Minoan, Mycenaean, Greek and Etruscan art, shown with animals. The figures are often depicted with wings, holding animals in both hands. It is thought that the figures represent a nature goddess, although it is not certain exactly what significance such figures had in the different ages and cultures or whether they represent the same entity.

A Minoan figure, interpreted as a male deity, has been named the "Master of Animals" (see below).

The type of figure is thought to have originated in the Near East, and ancient artefacts from Syria and Mesopotamia are often cited as antecedents. Again, there is no certainty of a direct connection between the figures from these cultures and those from around the Aegean or in Italy.

Mistress of Animals figures appear in Archaic Greek and Etruscan artworks in metal, ivory, pottery and jewellery from the 8th century BC, particularly in the Peloponnese and East Greece (eastern Aegean islands, Dodecanese and western Anatolia).

The name has been taken by modern scholars from a single mention in Homer's Iliad (Book 21, line 470) of Artemis as "the mistress of the wild beasts, Artemis of wild places" ("πότνια θηρῶν Ἄρτεμις ἀγροτέρη", Potnia Theron Artemis Agroteri). [1]

Representations of Artemis from Anatolia (Asia Minor), and particularly at Ephesus, as well as Archaic depictions of Artemis Orthia from the Peloponnese, show the goddess with animals, and have been referred to as Mistress of Animals figures.

Minoan representations of a female figure with snakes, referred to as the "snake goddess" (see below), may or may not be related to to the Mistress of Animals. A 7th century BC terracotta plaque of a snake goddess was discovered in the Athens Agora in 1932 (see below). According to a recent theory, the figure may represent the goddess Demeter.

An ivory plaque with a depiction of the Mistrees of Animals from Syracuse, Sicily at My Favourite Planet

An ivory plaque with a depiction of
the "Mistress of Animals" in the
Peloponnesian tradition. 700-650 BC.
The figure, with sickle-shaped wings,
stands between a sitting bull or cow
and a standing goat.

Found in a tomb in Syracuse, Sicily.

Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum,
Syracuse, Sicily.
Cretan Master of Animals, British Museum, London at My Favourite Planet

Minoan sheet gold pendant showing a Cretan nature god,
known as "the Master of Animals". Circa 1850-1550 BC.

The figure, wearing a tall headdress, Minoan kilt, earrings and bracelets, stands
in the attitude of the Master of Animals, holding two birds (geese or swans) by
their necks. The curved, ridged elements on either side of the birds are thought
to derive from stylized bulls' horns. Egyptian influence can be seen in the three
lotus flowers among which the figure stands.

From the "Aegina Treasure", a collection of Minoan jewellery
said to have been found in a tomb on the island of Aegina in 1891.
Height 6 cm, width 6.3 cm, weight 138 grains.

British Museum. Inv. No. GR 1892.5-20.8 (Jewellery 762). Purchased in 1892.
Replicas of two faience figurines of Minoan snake goddesses at My Favourite Planet

Replicas of two reconstructed faience figurines of Minoan "snake goddesses"
from the "Temple Repositories" in Knossos, Crete, 1650-1600 BC. Height 34.3 cm.

Casts made by Halvor Bagge (1866-1939?), a Danish artist who worked at Knossos
1902-1905. The original figurines, discovered in 1903 and reconstructed by
Arthur Evans, are in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Inv. No. AE. 1106, 1106 a.
The snake goddess plaque from the Athenian Agora at My Favourite Planet   The head of the snake goddess plaque, Agora Museum, Athens at My Favourite Planet
The "snake goddess plaque" discovered in the Athens Agora.

A painted terracotta votive plaque, dated to the mid 7th century BC,
with a depiction of a female figure standing betweentwo snakes.
Height 24.8 cm, width (top) 13.3 cm, (bottom) 12.5 cm, thickness 1.1 cm.

Agora Museum, Athens. Inv. No. T 175.

The plaque was excavated in March 1932 in a deposit containing several other fragments of Proto-Attic ceramic objects, 1.9 metres west of the north-south wall of the Agora. The objects may have been brought from other locations outside the Agora, and used as fill material for the foundation of a path or road during the 7th century BC.

The painting is in deep red over a white slip, with some details in yellow and blue. There are holes in the upper corners, indicating that it was nailed to the wall of a building.

The figure, wearing a long, voluminous chiton, stands with both arms raised and with spread fingers; her thumbs are extended inwards, her palms facing forwards. Her head and neck are in relief, with the facial features modelled three dimensionally. Her painted hair has a curled fringe along the top of the forehead, with four wavy locks on each side of the head falling to her shoulders. The oval face has wide open, blue-green eyes, lined in red, with red-painted brows which meet above her nose and closed mouth.

Either side of the figure is a long snake with a wavy body taking up most of the height of the plaque, ending with a head just below the head of the goddess. The snake on the left, painted red, has a forked tongue, and is separated from the goddess by a painted frame from which plant-like forms extend horizontally into the spaces formed by the inner curves of the snake's body. The snake on the right is blue with a red outline; the spaces of the inner curves of the body have been filled with orientalizing dotted floral motifs.

It is thought that the scene represents an epiphany: the goddess revealing herself to her worshippers. According to a recent theory, the figure may depict the goddess Demeter, one of the Greek female deities asscociated with snakes.
Archaic bone Master of Animals statuette at My Favourite Planet

Archaic bone statuette of a male figure
in the "Master of Animals" pose.

From Delphi, Greece. Thought to be a work of a
Greek artist from East Greece (western Anatolia
and eastern Aegean islands), with oriental
influence. Second half of the 7th century BC.

The back of the figure is flat, suggesting that
it was an attachment from a box or piece of
furniture. The figure may represent a hero or
deity, perhaps Apollo, taming a wild animal.
He holds a spear in his right hand, and his left
hand rests on the head of the animal. The figure
stands on a base decorated with a meander.

Delphi Archaeological Museum.
Gold plaque pendant with a depiction of the Mistress of Animals from Kamiros, Rhodes at My Favourite Planet

Gold plaque pendant with a depiction of the Mistress of Animals
in the Daedalic style. From Kamiros, Rhodes, 720-650 BC.

As in the plaque below, the figure thought by some scholars
to depict Artemis, wears a long chiton, has sickle-shaped
wings and holds in each hand a lion by a rear leg or tail.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Inv. No. AN 1896-1908 G.441.
Electrum plaque with a depiction of the Mistress of Animals, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford at My Favourite Planet

Electrum plaque with a depiction of the Mistress of Animals.
From Kamiros, Rhodes, 720-600 BC.

On either side of the figure is an object, which
appears to be a flask on a shelf, and a head.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
One of a group of objects, Inv. Nos. AN 1896-1908 G.439 - G.442.
The Mistress of Animals depicted on a large Cycladic krater at My Favourite Planet

The body of a large Cycladic krater depicting Apollo (left) returning to Delos from the land of
the Hyperboreans, greeted by Artemis (right) holding a deer by its antlers (see detail below).

Made in a Parian workshop, circa 640 BC.

Apollo, holding a kithara, stands in a chariot drawn by four winged horses, with two
female figures, perhaps Hyperborean maidens. Artemis holds the deer with her right
hand, and has an arrow in her left hand. The neck of the krater shows two heroes,
probably Achilles and Memnon, engaged in Homeric combat (see Homer).

National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Inv. No. 911.
Artemis holding a deer by its antlers on the body of an Archaic krater at My Favourite Planet

Artemis holding a deer by its antlers on the body of the Cycladic krater above.
The Mistress of Animals depicted on a bronze sheet from Olympia, Greece at My Favourite Planet

The Mistress of Animals depicted on a bronze sheet
from the Sanctuary of Olympia, Greece. About 600 BC.

National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Inv. No. 6444.

The bronze sheet, possibly made in a Samian workshop, is thought to have been a decorative cover for an object in the sanctuary. It is embossed with representations of mythical figures in four vertically arranged panels. From the top:

1. three eagles;

2. two confronted griffins;

3. Herakles shooting arrows at a Centaur at the battle with the Centaurs on Mount Pholoe;

4. the Mistress of Animals holding in each hand a lion by a rear leg.
  The bronze sheet from the Sanctuary of Olympia at My Favourite Planet

The bronze sheet from
the Sanctuary of Olympia.
A plate showing a winged goddess with a Gorgon head at My Favourite Planet

Ceramic plate showing a winged goddess with the head of a Gorgon,
wearing a split skirt, and in holding each hand a bird by its neck.

Made on Kos about 600 BC. From Kamiros, Rhodes.
Height 2.5 cm, diameter 32 cm, weight: 1.19 kg.

It is not known why the figure on this plate has a Gorgon's head, or to
put it another way, why a Gorgon was depicted as the Mistress of Animals.

British Museum. Inv. No. GR 1860.4-4.2.
Plate showing a winged female figure standing between two geese, Izmir, Turkey at My Favourite Planet

Restored fragmented ceramic plate (pinax type) showing
a winged female figure standing between two geese.

6th century BC. From Bayrakli, Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey).

Department of Ceramics, Izmir Museum of History and Art.
A relief of a goddess holding a lion from Dorylaeum at My Favourite Planet

Detail of a marble grave stele with a relief of a winged goddess
holding a lion by a front paw. About 525 BC.

Found in 1893 in Dorylaeum (Δορύλαιον, Dorylaion),
Phrygia, northwestern Anatolia (today Eskişehir, Turkey).

Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. 680. Cat. Mendel 526.

The top of the two-sided stele, now broken, was decorated on both sides with reliefs of palmettes, similar to the akroteria (roof decoration) of buildings. One side has the relief of the goddess, while on the other side are badly damaged reliefs in two registers: the upper register depicts a youth in profile riding a horse to the right, accompanied by a walking male figure and a dog; the lower register shows two-horse chariot driven to the right by a male figure (perhaps representing Death).

The figure of the goddess, walking to right, is almost complete apart from the missing feet. She has sickle-shaped wings which emanate from behind her waist. On her head is a polos decorated with triangular rays. A thick swathe of hair falls in neat rows from the back of her head to behind her shoulders. She wears a peplos over a chiton, fastened by three buttons at her right shoulder. Her right breast and lower right leg are bare. In her right hand she apears to be holding an object, possibly a flower or plant tendril, in her left hand she grasps the left forepaw of a lion which hangs vertically with its head facing downwards.

The best known Archaic grave markers in the form of tall steles (or stelai) with reliefs were made in Athens and Attica in the 6th and early 5th century BC (see, for example the grave stele of Aristion by Aristokles), after which they ceased to be made there. However, the production of Attic type grave steles continued beyond the Early Classical period (mid 5th century BC) in other places in Greece, for example in northern Greece, where double sided reliefs have been found. Steles from other places in the Greek world often feature very different types of iconography.

Following this stele's discovery in 1893, several scholars speculated over the identity of the goddess, with theories summarized in 1895 by the German classical philologist Alfred Körte [2]. The relief figures were compared to Attic works and reliefs from the column bases of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The white, crystalline marble was considered to be from an Aegean island, and the sculptor from Ionia (East Greece).

It was suggested that the stele was made for a Phrygian or Persian client (Phrygia had become part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire during the 540s BC, following Cyrus the Great's conquest of Lydia). The client may have identified the deity as the Persian goddess Anahita ("the Persian Artemis", a theory which Körte refuted) or the Phrygian mother goddesss Kybele. However, according to Körte, in the artist's mind she was Potnia Theron as Artemis.

It has also been suggested that the deity was believed to be the protector of the dead, in this case presumably the deceased horseman shown on the other side of the stele.

Height of surviving fragment of the stele 72.5 cm,
width 37.5 - 39 cm, depth 12 - 13 cm.

Drawing of the Dorylaeum stele from Gustave Mendel's catalogue at My Favourite Planet

Drawing of the Dorylaeum stele
from Gustave Mendel's catalogue
of sculptures in the Istanbul
Archaeological Museum [3].
The other side of the Dorylaeum stele at My Favourite Planet

The other side of the Dorylaeum stele.
Terracotta antefix with Artemis holding two lions at My Favourite Planet

A terracotta antefix (decorated end of a roof tile) with a winged figure
of Artemis holding two lions by their front paws.

Made in Campania (southern Italy) around 500-480 BC. From Capua.
The figure combines Greek and Etruscan styles.

British Museum. Inv. No. GR 1877.8-2.13 (Terracotta B 588).
Donated by Alessandro Castellani.
Gold plaque showing the Mistress of Animals, from Smyrna at My Favourite Planet

Small gold plaque showing the Mistress of Animals standing
between two lions. From Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200-1 BC.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Inv. No. AN1912.65.
A relief showing the Delphic tripod of Apollo, Ephesus at My Favourite Planet

A relief in Ephesus depicting Apollo's tripod
with a plaque showing the Mistress of Animals.

One of the two matching, almost identical marble pedestals (bases for statues or pillars?) facing each other on either side of the upper Kuretes Street in Ephesus. This is the pedestal on the north side of the street (on the left as you go up the street, see Ephesus gallery page 9). On the side of the bowl of the tripod, above the central leg, is a plaque with a figure with sickle-shaped wings, holding an animal in each outstretched hand (see larger photo below).

The small image is badly worn on both pedestals, and it is not possible to tell whether the figure is male of female, or what animals he/she is holding. However, it is sufficiently similar to other depictions of the "Mistress of Animals" to safely assume that it is the same figure as, for example, on the Archaic gold plaques from Rhodes (see photos above). The figure in this case may be Artemis, the patron deity of Ephesus.

Between the lion-claw feet of the tripod is the omphalos, indicating that it belongs to the Delphic oracle of Apollo, the twin brother of Artemis. The pedestals may have been associated with a nearby sanctuary of the healing god Asklepios, Apollo's son. Alternatively, there may be a connection with the adjacent Prytaneion, or the Upper Agora. On the left (west) side of this pedestal is a relief of Hermes leading a male goat, and on the right side of the other Hermes with a ram.

The pedestals have been dated to somewhere between the 1st and 4th centuries AD (according to one source circa 3rd century AD), which is rather vague, and little seems to have been published about them. On one hand it is wonderful to see them on the street of Ephesus, but strange that they have been left here and not sheltered in the museum.
A relief of the Mistress of Animals in Ephesus at My Favourite Planet

Detail of the relief on the matching stele, on the south side of the
street in Ephesus, with the plaque showing the Mistress of Animals.
of Animals
Notes, references and links

1. Artemis as the Mistress of Animals in Greek poetry

The Ionian poet Anacreon (Ἀνακρέων ὁ Τήϊος, Anakreon of Teos, circa 582-485 BC), also referred to Artemis as the "mistress of wild beasts" in a fragment of a poem thought to be a prayer to the goddess on behalf of citizens of Magnesia on the Maeander in Caria, western Anatolia (Asia Minor). However, he may have borrowed the phrase from Homer.

"I implore you, deer-shooter, fair-haired daughter of Zeus, mistress of wild beasts, Artemis, who now somewhere by the eddies of Lethaios look upon a city of brave-hearted men and rejoice, for you shepherd citizens who are not savage."

Anacreon, PMG fragment 348.

The Lethaios river (Ληθαῖος), one of three rivers of that name, has its sources in Mount Pactyes in Caria, and runs south to become a tributary of the Maeander just southeast of Magnesia.

2. Alfred Körte on the Dorylaeum relief

Alfred Koerte (1866-1946), Kleinasiatische Studien I: Eine archaische Stele aus Dorylaion, in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung, Band XX, 1895, pages 1-13, plates I and II. Verlag von Karl Wilberg, Athens, 1895.

3. Drawings of the Dorylaeum relief in Mendel's catalogue

Gustave Mendel, Catalogue des sculptures Grecques Romaines et Byzantines, Tome Second, No. 526, pages 230-234. Musées Impériaux Ottoman, Constantinople, 1914.
Drawing of the other side of the Dorylaeum stele at My Favourite Planet

Drawing of the other side
of the Dorylaeum stele
in Mendel's catalogue.
Photos and articles © David John
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