Lady of the Animals

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LADY OF THE ANIMALS . The term Lady of the Animals is a scholarly convention used to describe anthropomorphic images of Godesses with companion animals. The image of the Lady of the Animals is well known to readers of the classics: Aphrodite riding a goose or in a chariot drawn by doves, Athena with her owl, and Artemis with her deer. But the image goes back much further than the classical age of Greece (fifth and fourth centuries bce), even much further back than the times of Homer (before 700 bce) and Hesiod (c. 700 bce). Female images with zoomorphic body parts (wings, beaks, snakelike bodies, bear heads, and the like) are common in the Neolithic era in Old Europe (65003500 bce) and elsewhere. Their origins can probably be traced to the Upper Paleolithic (30,00010,000 bce). The Lady of the Animals is found in almost all cultures.

Because prehistory has left no written records, interpretation of the meaning of the earliest images called Lady of the Animals cannot be certain. She was known to her earliest worshipers as "Mother of All the Living" (a phrase used to refer to Eve in Genesis 3:20), as "Creatress," "Goddess," "Ancestress," "Clan Mother," "Priestess," by a place or personal name, or, simply, as "Mother," "Ma," or "Nana." Whatever she was called, the Lady of the Animals is an image of the awesome creative powers of women and nature. The term Mother of All the Living may in fact be more accurately descriptive of the wide range of creative powers depicted in images commonly called "Lady of the Animals."

A very early sculpture of a Lady of the Animals was found in Çatalhüyük, a Neolithic site in central Anatolia (central Turkey), dating from 6500 to 5650 bce. Made of baked clay, she sits on a birth chair or throne. She is full-breasted and big of belly, and she seems to be giving birth, for a head (not clearly human) emerges from between her legs. Her hands rest on the heads of two large cats, probably leopards, that stand at her sides. From Sumer (c. 2000 bce), a Lady of the Animals appears in a terra-cotta relief, naked and winged, with two owls at her sides and her webbed feet resting on the backs of two monkeys. From Minoan Crete comes a small statue unearthed in the treasury of the new palace of Knossos (c. 17001450 bce); staring as if in trance, she holds in her outstretched arms two striped snakes; her breasts are exposed, and a small snake emerges from her bodice.

In Ephesus, an enormous image of a Lady of the Animals dominated the great temple of Artemis or Diana (rebuilt 334 bce and known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). Her many egg-shaped breasts symbolized her nurturing power, while the signs of the zodiac forming her necklace expressed her cosmic power. Her arms were extended in a gesture of blessing, and her lower body, shaped like the trunk of the tree of life, was covered with the heads of wild, domestic, and mythical animals. At her feet were beehives; at her sides, two deer. The city crowned her head.

In Asia Minor the Lady of the Animals is known as Kubaba or Cybele and is flanked by lions. In Egypt she is Isis the falcon or Isis with falcon wings and a uraeus (snake) emerging from her forehead; she is also Hathor the cow goddess or Hathor with the cow horns. In Canaan she is Ashtoret or Astarte holding snakes and flowers in her hands. In India she is Tārā or Parvati astride a lion or Durgā riding a lion into battle and slaying demons with the weapons in her ten arms. In Japan she is Amaterasu, the sun goddess, with her roosters that crow at dawn and her messengers the crows. In China she is Kwan Yin standing on a dragon that symbolizes good fortune. To the Inuit (Eskimo) she is Sedna, goddess of the sea and sea animals, especially seals, walruses, and whales. To the Hopi she is Kokyanguruti, or Spider Woman, the creatress and guardian of Mother Earth, who presides over emergence and return. To the Algonquin she is Nokomis, the Grandmother, who feeds plants, animals, and humans from her breasts. In Mexico she is Chicomecoatl, Heart of the Earth, with seven serpent messengers. In Africa she is Osun with peacocks and Mami Wata with snakes. In Christianity her memory remains in the images of Eve with the snake and Mary with the dove. She lingers, too, in such folk images as Mother Goose, the Easter bunny, and the stork who brings babies.

Composed between 800 and 400 bce, the Homeric Hymns, some of which may reflect earlier religious conceptions, provide two powerful written images of the Lady of the Animals that can help us interpret earlier drawn and sculpted images. In the "Hymn to Earth" she is "well-founded Earth, mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all creatures that are in the world, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly." In the "Hymn to the Mother of the Gods" she is "well-pleased with the sound of rattles and timbrels, with the voice of flutes and the outcry of wolves and bright-eyed lions, with echoing hills and wooded coombes."

In these songs the Lady of the Animals is cosmic power, mother of all. The animals of the earth, sea, and air are hers, and the wildest and most fearsome animalswolves and lions, as well as human beingspraise her with sounds. The Lady of the Animals is also earth, the firm foundation undergirding all life. The hills and valleys echo to her. In these images she would not be called a "lady of the plants," which suggests that the conceptions reflected in these hymns may have originated in preagricultural times. Jane Harrison (1903) has suggested that the "lady of the wild things" becomes "lady of the plants" only after human beings become agriculturalists.

The Paleolithic Age

Marija Gimbutas, Gertrude R. Levy, and E. O. James are among those who concur with Harrison in tracing the Goddess symbolism of the Neolithic and later periods to the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age (c. 30,00010,000 bce). Therefore, we must ask whether the image of the Lady of the Animals also goes back to the Paleolithic era.

Many small figures of so-called pregnant Venuses have been dated to the Upper Paleolithic. Abundantly fleshed with prominent breasts, bellies, and pubic triangles, they were often painted with red ocher, which seems to have symbolized the blood of birth, the blood of life. These images have been variously interpreted.

These images may be understood in relation to the cave art of the Paleolithic era. Paleolithic peoples decorated the labyrinthine paths and inner recesses of caves with abstract line patterns and with drawings and paintings of animals, such as bison and deer. Small human figures, both male and female, were sometimes painted in the vicinity of the much larger animals. The drawings and paintings of these animals, and the rituals practiced in the inner reaches of the caves, have often been understood as hunting magic, done to ensure the capture of prey. But Gertrude R. Levy argues that the purposes of these rituals cannot have been simple "magic compulsion" but must have involved a desire for a "participation in the splendor of the beasts" (Levy, 1963, p. 20). If, as was surely the case later, Paleolithic peoples also understood the caves and their inner recesses to be the womb of Mother Earth, then is it not possible to recognize the aniconic image of the Lady of the Animals in the womb-cave onto which the animals were painted? And can we not also see the Lady of the Animals in the well-known Paleolithic carving found in Laussel of an unclothed full-bodied woman holding a bison horn? Must we not, then, interpret prehistoric rituals in the labyrinthine recesses of caves as a desire to participate in the transformative power of the creatress, the mother of all, the Lady of the Animals?

Old Europe

Anthropomorphic images of the Lady of the Animals appear in abundance in the Neolithic, or early agricultural period, which began about 9000 bce in the Near East. Marija Gimbutas coined the term Old Europe to refer to distinctive Neolithic and Chalcolithic (or Copper Age) civilizations of Central and Southern Europe that included the lands surrounding the Aegean and Adriatic Seas and their islands and extended as far north as Czechoslovakia, southern Poland, and the western Ukraine. There is reason to believe that Neolithic-Chalcolithic cultures developed along similar lines in other parts of the world, including, for example, Africa, China, the Indus Valley, and the Americas.

In Old Europe (c. 65003500 bce), Gimbutas found a preBronze Age culture that was "matrifocal and probably matrilinear, agricultural and sedentary, egalitarian and peaceful" (Gimbutas, 1982, p. 9). This culture was presided over by a goddess conceived as the source and giver of all. Although originally this goddess did not appear with animals, she herself had animal characteristics. One of her earliest forms was as the snake and bird goddess, who was associated with water and represented as a snake, water bird, duck, goose, crane, diving bird, or owl or as a woman with a bird head or birdlike posture. She was the creator goddess, the giver of life.

The goddess of Old Europe was also connected with the agricultural cycles of life, death, and regeneration. Here she appeared as, or was associated with, bees, butterflies, deer, bears, hares, toads, turtles, hedgehogs, and dogs. The domesticated dog, bull, male goat, and pig became her companions. To the Old Europeans she was not a power transcendent of the earth but rather the power that creates, sustains, and manifests itself in the variety of life-forms within the earth and its cycles. Nor did the goddess represent "fertility" in a narrow sense of human, animal, and plant reproduction; rather she was the giver of life, beauty, and creativity. Instead of celebrating humanity's uniqueness and separation from nature, Old Europeans honored humanity's participation in, and connection to, nature's cycles of birth, death, and renewal. A combination of human and animal forms expressed her power more fully than the human figure alone. Many animals, such as the caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly, the bird that flies in the air and walks on the earth, and the snake that crawls above and below the earth, have powers that humans lack.

In Old Europe, the creator goddess who appeared with animal characteristics was the primary image of the divine. According to Gimbutas, the "male element, man and animal, represented spontaneous and life-stimulatingbut not life-generatingpowers" (Gimbutas, 1982, p. 9). Gimbutas stated that women were symbolically preeminent in the culture and religion of Old Europe. Although women were honored, the culture itself was not "matriarchal," as women did not dominate men but shared power with them. It is generally thought that women invented agriculture, which led to the Neolithic "revolution." As the gatherers of plant foods in Paleolithic societies, women would have been the ones most likely to notice the connection between the dropping of a seed and the springing up of a new plant. Women are also the likely inventors of pottery and weaving in the Neolithic era, for pottery was used primarily for women's work of food preparation and food storage, and weaving clothing and other items for use in the home is women's work in almost all traditional cultures. Each of these inventions of the Neolithic era is a mystery of transformationseed into plant into harvest, earth and fire into pot, wool and flax into clothing and blankets. If these mysteries were understood to have been given to women by the goddess and handed down from mother to daughter, this would have provided a material and economic basis for the preeminence of the female forms in religious symbolism.


The culture of Çatalhüyük, excavated by James Mellaart, seems similar to that found by Gimbutas in Old Europe. Like Gimbutas, Mellaart found a culture where women and goddesses were prominent, a culture that he believed to have been matrilineal and matrilocal and peaceful and in which the goddess was the most powerful religious image. In Çatalhüyük the Lady of the Animals was preeminent. Wall paintings in the shrines frequently depict a goddess, with outstretched arms and legs, giving birth, sometimes to bulls' or rams' heads. Other shrines depict rows of bull heads with rows of breasts; in one shrine, rows of breasts incorporate the lower jaws of boars or the skulls of foxes, weasels, or vultures. Besides the small figure, mentioned earlier, of the seated goddess, hands on her leopard companions, giving birth, Mellaart also found a sculpture of a woman in leopard-skin robes standing in front of a leopard. One shrine simply depicts two leopards standing face-to-face.

Wall paintings of bulls were also frequent at the site. Mellaart believes that the religion of Çatalhüyük was centered on life, death, and rebirth. The bones of women, children, and some men were found buried under platforms in the living quarters and in the shrines, apparently after having been picked clean by vultures. According to Mellaart, vultures were also associated with the goddess, thus indicating that she was both giver and taker of life.

As Mellaart states in Earliest Civilizations of the Near East (1965), the land-based matrifocal, sedentary, and peaceful agricultural societies of the Near East were invaded by culturally inferior northern peoples starting in the fifth and fourth millennia bce. These invaders and others who followed set the stage for the rise of the patriarchal and warlike Sumerian state about 3500 bce. According to Gimbutas, the patriarchal, nomadic, and warlike proto-Indo-Europeans infiltrated the matrifocal agricultural societies of Old Europe between 4500 and 2500 bce. As a result, in both the Near East and Old Europe, the creator goddess was deposed, slain, or made wife, daughter, or mother to the male divinities of the warriors. The Lady of the Animals did not disappear (religious symbols linger long after the end of the cultural situation that gave rise to them), but her power was diminished.

Minoan Crete

In the islands, which were more difficult to invade, the goddess-centered cultures survived and developed into Bronze Age civilizations. In Crete the Lady of the Animals remained supreme until the Minoan civilization fell to the Mycenaeans about 1450 bce. In the old and new palace periods of Minoan Crete (c. 20001450 bce), a highly developed pre-Greek civilization based on agriculture, artisanship, and trade emerged. From existing archaeological evidence (Linear A, the written language of the Minoans, has not been translated), it appears that women and priestesses played the prominent roles in religious rituals. There is no evidence that women were subordinate in society. Indeed, there is no clear evidence that the "palaces" were royal residences. The celebrated throne of "King Minos," found by excavator Arthur Evans, is now thought by several scholars (including Nano Marinatos, Jacquetta Hawkes, Stylianous Alexiou, Helga Reusch, and Ruby Rohrlich) to have been occupied by a priestess or a queen, while others suggest that it dates from the time of Mycenean occupation of Knossos.

In Minoan Crete the goddess was worshiped at natural sites, such as caves or mountaintops, and in small shrines in the palaces and homes. She had attributes of both a mountain mother and a Lady of the Animals. In Crete the Lady of the Animals is commonly found in the company of snakes, doves, and trees, particularly the olive tree, which may have first been cultivated in Crete. In a seal ring found in the Dictean cave, the goddess appears with bird or snake head between two winged griffins, the same animals that flank the throne of "Minos."

Other pervasive symbols in Crete include the stylized horns of consecration, which evoke not only the cow or bull but also the crescent moon, the upraised arms of Minoan goddesses and priestesses, and the double ax, which may originally derive from doubling the sacred female triangle, the place where life emerges. Heiresses and heirs to Neolithic religion, the Minoans continued to understand the divine as the power manifesting itself in the cycles of nature. Thus, Cretan pottery and frescoes abound in rhythmical forms; images of waves, spirals, frolicking dolphins, undulating snakes, and graceful bull leapers are everywhere. The Minoans captured life in motion. Exuberant movement must have represented to them the dance of life, the dance of the Mother of All the Living, the Lady of the Animals.


Eventually all the Neolithic and (isolated) Bronze Age cultures in which the creator goddess was supreme fell to patriarchal and warlike invaders. By the time of decipherable written records, we begin to see evidence that societies are ruled by warrior kings; goddesses are no longer supreme and women are subordinated by law to their husbands. On mainland Greece, Apollo took over the holy site of Delphi, sacred first to Mother Earth and her prophetess, after slaying the python, the sacred snake that guarded the sanctuary. This act can be compared to Marduk's slaying of the female sea snake (or dragon) Tiamat, to the association of the formerly sacred snake with sin and evil in Genesis 23, to St. George's slaying the dragon-snake, and to St. Patrick's driving the snakes out of Ireland.

According to the Olympian mythology found in Homer, Hesiod, and the Greek tragedies, Zeus, the Indo-European sky God, is named father and ruler of all the gods and goddesses. Hera, an indigenous goddess whose sanctuary at Olympia was older than that of Zeus, becomes his never fully subdued wife. Athena is born from the head of Zeus, but her mountain temples (for example, the Parthenon) and her companions, the owl and snake, indicate her connection to the mother of the living, the Lady of the Animals. Aphrodite retains her connection to the dove and the goose. Artemis is the goddess of the untamed lands, mountain forests, and wild animals such as bears and deer. Although she is named a virgin goddess, she aids both human and animal mothers in giving birth. Of all the Olympian goddesses, Artemis retains the strongest connection to the Mother of All the Living, the Lady of the Animals.

What happened to the goddesses in ancient Greece happened elsewhere. They were slain, tamed, made defenders of patriarchy and war, or relegated to places outside the city. Yet the attempt to banish the image of the Mother of All the Living, the Lady of the Animals, was never completely successful. Like an underground spring, she burst forth in images of Mary and the female saints throughout Christian history. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries she has reemerged in the work of feminist artists and in a widespread Goddess movement.

See Also

Animals; Goddess Worship, overview article; Lord of the Animals; Megalithic Religion; Prehistoric Religions.


The reconstruction of Old European religion and culture by Marija Gimbutas can be found in The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco, 1989) and The Civilization of the Goddess (San Francisco, 1991); a summary of her conclusions can be found in "Women and Culture in Goddess-Oriented Old Europe," in The Politics of Women's Spirituality, edited by Charlene Spretnak (Garden City, N.Y., 1982), pp. 2231. Gimbutas's work has incited scholarly controversy, some of which may reflect a backlash against feminist uses of her work; see From the Realm of the Ancestors, edited by Joan Marler (Manchester, Conn., 1997); Ancient Goddesses, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris (Madison, Wis., 1998); and Varia on the Indo-European Past (Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph 19), edited by Miriam Robbins Dexter and Edgar C. Polome (Washington, D.C., 1997). The works of James Mellaart, particularly Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (New York, 1967) and Earliest Civilizations of the Near East (London, 1965), are essential for understanding Goddess symbolism in Neolithic civilization. For a brief overview of reconsiderations of Mellaart's work, see Michael Balter, "The First Cities: Why Settle Down? The Mystery of Communities," Science, November 20, 1998, pp. 14421443; visit the website of the new excavation, "Çatalhöyük" at Gertrude R. Levy's Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age (New York, 1963), originally titled The Gate of Horn (London, 1948), remains a valuable resource on prehistoric religion, especially on the question of cave symbolism. Jane E. Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903; reprint, Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1981) has never been superseded as a comprehensive reference on Greek religion with particular emphasis on the prepatriarchal origins of goddesses. Jacquetta Hawkes presents a dramatic contrast between patriarchal and prepatriarchal Bronze Age societies in Dawn of the Gods (New York, 1968). Nano Marinatos presents an original scholarly reconstruction in Minoan Religion (Columbia, S.C., 1993). For a general overview of Goddess symbolism in many cultures, E. O. James's The Cult of the Mother Goddess (New York, 1959) remains extremely useful. Erich Neumann's The Great Mother, 2d ed., translated by Ralph Manheim (New York, 1963), contains a wealth of information mired in androcentric Jungian theory. Buffie Johnson's Lady of the Beasts (San Francisco, 1998) is also written from a Jungian and therefore ahistorical perspective. Anthropological research on Goddess symbolism and ritual in numerous cultures, most of them contemporary, can be found in Mother Worship, edited by James J. Preston (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982). The Book of the Goddess: Past and Present, edited by Carl Olson (New York, 1983), presents research, some of it feminist, on historical and contemporary Goddess religions. Women and Goddess Traditions in Antiquity and Today, edited by Karen King (Minneapolis, 1997), addresses the role of women in Goddess religions. The emergence of Goddess symbolism in contemporary women's art and spirituality is discussed in Elionor Gadon, Once and Future Goddess (San Francisco, 1989).

Carol P. Christ (1987 and 2005)