Ancient civilisations and the animal kingdom.


For thousands of years, animals have played a significant role in the imagination of man. In the religious pictures of prehistoric man, animals were regarded as the earthly manifestation of the gods because of the many characteristics which made them superior to man (strength, sense of smell, speed, fertility), indispensable to him (as a source of food and clothing) or feared by him (snakes, flights of birds).

The portrayal of animals is practically as old as the history of mankind itself. Constant encounters with both wild and tame species led man to begin reproducing them in sculptures and drawings. This meant that favoured animals which had positive characteristics attributed to them could be carried around as a talisman at all times.

Dangerous species were depicted, in the hope that these renderings could pacify them and exorcise the threat they posed. Animals were realistically reproduced in Egyptian art, where they were considered to be divine beings. Not only were animal gods worshipped, but gods were also portrayed in human form with animals heads. The conception also prevailed in the Near East that gods revealed themselves in the shape of animals. If the gods themselves were not zoomorphs, they were shown riding or accompanied by animals. The worship of animal/human hybrids was also commonplace.

As well as protective amulets, votive offerings to gods in place of animal sacrifices, deities of nature in zoomorphic form etc., people had pictures with magical connotations decorating their homes (and increasing the value of them). This concept goes right back to Ice Age cave paintings and Roman murals and artistically fantastic sculptures and floor mosaics.

The subject was treated in a far more down-to-earth way by the Greeks than it was by the Egyptians and the civilisations of the Near East - animals did not play nearly such an important part in classical Greek art. Hellenism was devoted to realistic, often genre-based animal portrayal. The Romans also created charming and partly true-to-life sculptures, paintings and mosaics featuring animals captured in movement. In early Christian art, animals were used to symbolise God and the faithful (the lamb to represent Christ and his apostles and followers; the dove for the Holy Spirit). Early Christianity laid the foundations of animal allegory which lasted well into the Middle Ages.

From 3000 BC onwards, so-called animal burials became increasingly common in Egypt, the Near East and Europe. Mostly this was for domestic animals (dogs, cows, sheep, goats, horses) - graves of game animals (stags, roe deer) seldom being found. The reason for this could be that the chosen animals were to be an escort to the next world (soul guides), as draught animals or mounts, or specifically to be companions for life in the kingdom of the dead. Animals buried separately would appear to be for the purpose of putting a divine animal to rest. It is also possible that they were occasionally buried among the foundations of houses as a sacrifice.

In the third century BC, King Ptolemy II established the first zoo known to the western world in Ptolemais by the Red Sea. However, it was used principally as a site for elephant hunts. In the first century BC, well-to-do Romans began extending their land by creating fenced or walled-in game reserves, which could stretch over an enormous area and were home to both big game and wild boars, hares and rabbits. These served partly for hunting, partly as an additional food supply. From the first century AD, royalty kept their own zoos - well-known among these are Nero's zoo and that of Domitian.

According to legend, the zoo of Gordianus III at the Porta Praenestina had a stock of 537 animals in 240 AD. Not to be confused with these zoos are the animal pits once located in several squares in Rome (including the Campus Martius on the Tiber), which were for holding wild animals imported for public games in the Arena.

The author of this article in 1993
First published in Magazine "Ancient" in 1998

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