Lord of the Animals

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LORD OF THE ANIMALS . The concept of a special type of deity or spirit that reigns over the animal kingdom is common among many Old and New World peoples. The universality of this conception suggests that formerly some form of cultural contact existed that bridged the continents. As a fundamental element in the life of the human as hunter, a lord of the animals is a familiar figure among hunting cultures, but he also occurs, in modified forms, in many agrarian and pastoral societies. In the latter instance the concept is often associated with a spiritual herdsman of wild game, a spirit analogue to human domesticators of animals. But the idea of an animal lord or spirit can be traced even further back than the development of herdingindeed, as concrete evidence shows, into the Old Stone Age.

The lord of the animals often appears as a lord of the forest, mountain, or seanatural areas that may possibly have been inhabited by individual spiritual sovereigns that eventually blended together to form a lord of animals. For many cultures, the forest (or tree), the mountain, and the cave are the preferred residence of the animal lord, though for hunters of sea mammals and fish, the sea floor and the deep sea are conceived as his abode. Occasionally the lord is associated with the sun, the moon, a star, or a constel-lation.

The lord of the animals is often a helper of mankind. He guides the animals to the hunter or helps him discover the trail of his prey. In addition, he often provides a magical weapon or a mystical spell that assures success in finding game. Such assistance, however, often assumes that certain conditions are fulfilled or specific regulations observed: the lord of the animals punishes the malicious, those who wantonly kill more game than is needed and those who are disrespectful of the dead game, especially in handling the bones, which must be meticulously saved, for from the bones, the same type of animal will be re-created (with or without the intervention of the lord of the animals). It is most often assumed that the soul of the dead animal returns to its spiritual master, from whom it will receive another body. Frequently, the lord of the animals is held to be the creator of the game and is therefore often named "Father" or "Mother." At the very least, he gives the animals their names or other distinguishing features. In cases of misbehavior on the part of the hunter, the animal lord either retains the game (which is often believed to reside with him) or strikes the guilty hunter down with sickness, or punishes him by withdrawing his luck in the hunt. To win his favor, the lord of the animals must be called upon before the hunt with a plea to release some of the game, and afterwards must be given thanks. Frequently a small offering is also made before the expedition, some tobacco for example, while after the hunt a portion of the game might be left behind as an offering.

Precise physical descriptions of the lord of the animals vary considerably from culture to culture. He may appear in anthropomorphic as well as zoomorphic form, as a mixture of these or as some other fabulous creature, or as a giant or dwarf. In the majority of instances the lord of the animals is masculine, but we often find a feminine conceptualization and in some instances a bisexual character. When envisioned in zoomorphic form, the lord of the animals often combines various parts or markings of different types of animals, thereby emphasizing and enhancing his authority over all game.

In addition to belief in a lord of all animals, a corresponding or supplementary belief may exist in an individual master or lord of each separate kind of animal. Such a being is classified ethnologically as a "species spirit." This spirit, when envisioned theriomorphically, may also represent another animal type besides its owna relationship that is often alleged to exist naturally. Many scholars maintain that the belief in species spirits is a more recent manifestation of older, more general conceptions of the lord of the animals.

When the lord of the animals is associated with an individual representative of a specific kind of animal, a different situation develops. Such instances occur among hunting groups when a defined game animal plays a predominant role in tribal subsistence patterns. Frequently, the lord of the animals must be propitiated when a member of that particular species is killed. This expression of the idea of an animal lord can be accepted as a more ancient form, especially when it appears concurrently with the conceptualization of this deity as a prototypical or exaggerated version of that animal species. In such cases the spirit is often envisioned as an exceptionally large, and therefore supernatural, member of the species in question. Sometimes he is conceived in human form riding the animal with which he is particularly associated. In general, scholars hold the theriomorphic version of the lord of the animals to be older, in cultural-historical terms, than the anthropomorphic form. In this respect, frequent observation of ceremonies performed for the ritual handling of slain large game (bear, lion, elephant, etc.), and even prehistoric testimony about such ceremonies, have proved to be of great importance. The reverence shown to large game is closely associated with the original form of the lord of the animals and deserves further study.

A distinctive characteristic of the animal lord is the fact that, despite his role as protector of wild game, he makes certain concessions when considering the needs of the hunter. To the extent that this is true, the animal lord functions as a god of the hunt, which in some cases is the predominant role. This aspect has caused many researchers to seek his origin outside a purely zoological sphere. The question remains open, however, whether or not this hunting-god aspect is connected with the anthropomorphic aspect of the lord of the animals. An ethno-religious order can be arranged as follows. In many cases, particularly among hunting peoples, past as well as present, the lord of the animals is clearly a real god, distinctively named and sovereign over his realm. In other cases, however, he is merely a game spirit, who is named solely by his association with a particular animal species. Such a game spirit is sometimes outwitted because of his awkwardness and may be characterized by unpredictability, arbitrariness, and tomfoolery (i.e., he is a trickster); in many conceptions he has the ability to transform himself into many forms and thereby confuse the hunter. In still other cases, the lord of the animals may have shrunk to a mere mythological or legendary figure disengaged from the immediate life of the society.

The distinctions between these different categories are, of course, not rigid. The relationship between the lord of the animals and other supernatural beings varies also. He may be incorporated within the character of a tribal father or of the supreme being that creates life and provides subsistence. Many ethnologists of the Vienna school, following Wilhelm Schmidt, viewed the lord of the animals as an offshoot of the supreme being. This theory contradicts an understanding of the lord of the animals as an older, independent god who served as a fundamental element in the construction of the idea of a supreme being. In the opinion of the notable historian of religions, Raffaele Pettazzoni, the supreme being himself was the lord of the animals.

The primary areas of diffusion for the concept and veneration of a lord of the animals include northern Eurasia, ancient Europe, and Africa, as well as the regions occupied by the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, from the extreme north to the southernmost tip. Such beliefs are also found elsewhere, but only occasionally.

It is in ancient Greece that one encounters the most familiar animal deity, Artemis, whose double role as goddess of the hunt and mistress of the animals was never fully understood. In Homer's Iliad and other sources from antiquity, she is described in an obviously preexisting formula as potnia thērōn, or "mistress of the wild animals." Although she cares for the animals as a mother does her children, she also hunts them with bow and arrow. The deer is her devoted companion, consistently appearing beside her in works of art, and she is sometimes referred to as the "deer huntress" in the Homeric Hymns. She is also mistress over the entire wild animal kingdom, which includes not only land animals but the birds in the sky and fish in the waters.

Artemis herself is depicted as wild and uncanny and is sometimes pictured with a Gorgon's head. The rituals by which she was venerated also took on an archaic character. Reverence was displayed by the hunter's hanging the skin of the animal, including the antlers, on a tree or special pole. Besides the deer, Artemis had other favorite animals, including the lion and, especially, the bear, which has led some researchers to the opinion that, although this was not understood by the Greeks, she originally appeared as a female bear. In keeping with this interpretation, Artemis has been associated with the lord of the animals in the Northern Hemisphere, where bear rituals were an essential religious element. Even among the ancient Greeks, Artemis was the central figure at the bear feast, and her tradition can be traced to a Cretan or Minoan goddess of animals. Diana was her counterpart among the Roman goddesses. During the period in which the Romans occupied Gaul, the goddess who was interpreted as the indigenous parallel to Diana was known as Artio (from the Celtic artos, "bear"; arta "female bear"). This information comes down to us in the form of a bronze votive offering with a Latin inscription found in Muri (near Bern, Switzerland), an area occupied by the Helvetii. It depicts a sitting female who is being approached by a bear that has come out of a tree. The veneration displayed in Gaulish ceremonials to the slain bear as a lord of the animals closely resemble the rites dedicated to this animal over an extensive area. According to A. Irving Hallowell (1926), bear ceremonials are widespread among peoples of northern Eurasia, from the Finns, Saami (Lapps), and Mansi (Voguls) in the west, eastward through Siberia to the Yakuts and the Tunguz, further east to the Paleosiberian Nivkhi (Giliaks), the Chuckchi and the Ainu, and across the Bering Sea to the northern regions of North America. Although it cannot be generalized, the most suggestive interpretation of the intent of such ceremonies is that of the Japanese ethnologist Kyosuke Kindaichi concerning the bear feast of the Ainu. Kindaichi suggests that the bear itself is god. All animals are deities that live in human form in another world. When these deities occasionally come to this world, they appear in the form of animals. The bear is the highest of these gods. Any animal that is not captured, killed, and eaten by the Ainu has the unfortunate fate of wandering aimlessly throughout the world. The killing of an animal is therefore a sacred act, since the god himself has come into their midst. And with his coming he brings presents to mankind: his meat and fur. This divine animal, however, is satisfied, since it will now be able to return to its eternal home ("The Concepts behind the Ainu Bear Festival," Southwest Journal of Anthropology 5, 1949).

To ascertain the antiquity of such bear cults, we must return to Europe. Caves in Switzerland, southern Germany, France, Silesia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, dating from the middle to early Stone Age, have revealed small manmade stone chambers containing the skulls, teeth, and long bones of bears, arranged in orderly fashion. In addition to these bear burial sites, however, particularly important evidence of a bear cult dating from the early Paleolithic period has been obtained from a cave near Montespan in Haute-Garonne, France. In a vault at the end of a tunnel, a clump of molded clay was found that obviously represented a bear. Although headless, the animal figure was distinguishable by its legs and high, rounded withers. In the flat surface at the top of the figure, a hole was bored, apparently to support a forward-projecting pole. Instead of a clay head, which was sought in vain, a bear skull was discovered between the front legs. This led to the conclusion that the figure was a base constructed to support the head and skin of the animal on ceremonial occasions.

This conclusion found substantial support in a similar animal figure reported among the Mande in the western Sudan. A slain lion or leopard, either of which is equivalent to the bear in Europe, was skinned with the head attached. This skin was then laid over a headless clay figure of the animal. Such a figure was placed within a circular hedge of thornbushes especially constructed for ceremonial purposes. The existence of a Eur-African hunting culture has become an accepted doctrine among many ethnologists, most notably Hermann Baumann (1938). This example, along with many others, fits quite appropriately into a scheme of unifying factors that suggest connections between the two continents.

The conceptual figure of a lord of the animals, appearing among less advanced hunting cultures like the San and the Pygmies in Africa, remains to this day a functional belief; one example should suffice. The creator god Khmwum is the supreme being among the Pygmies of Gabon. He lives in heaven and appears to humans as a rainbow in the eastern sky when he sees that they need his help. A singer raises his bow in the direction of this heavenly "bow" and intones: "Most powerful bow of the hunters that follows a herd of clouds that are like startled elephants, rainbow, give him [Khmwum] our thanks" (R. P. Trilles, Les pygmées de la forêt équatorial, Paris, 1931, p. 78). In this way the supreme deity is identified with the lord of the animals. Khmwum also manifests himself to humans in dreams, appearing as a huge elephant who reports the location of an abundance of game. This gigantic elephant is called Gor, and he towers over the tallest tree in the forest. Blue in color, he supports the sky on his shoulders, and since he is immortal, no one can kill him. Gor is the chief of all elephants; he is responsible for giving them life and preserves them from the threat of extinction. He directs the elephants to those paths that the hunters take care to follow. A slain bull elephant is decorated with a bright blue liana, and the chief of the Pygmies dances on the carcass and sings to "father elephant." This song is a solemn incantation in which the chief expresses the conviction that the elephant should not be outraged at being killed but pleased that he is going to the land of the spirits; he also says that the spear that erroneously took the elephant's life was misguided. Such excuses are made to the hunted animal out of fear of revenge and a guilty conscience at having killed the animal; this is a widespread phenomenon, typical of a hunting mentality.

In northern Eurasia we encounter the concept of a lord of the animals who either is anthropomorphic or has affinities with predominant animals other than the bear. Although such a concept occurs among numerous peoples in Eurasia, specific examples need not be mentioned here.

In the New World there exists, among the central and eastern Inuit (Eskimo), an extraordinary deity named Sedna, who is known as the goddess of the sea animals. She is an old woman who lives on the ocean floor and sends sea animals to the world above as long as humans do not aggravate her. If she does become angry, however, the shaman must venture on a dangerous journey to visit her below. Such an undertaking is made to pacify her so that she will release the animals once again. To accomplish this, the shaman must comb Sedna's hair, which has become soiled by humansparticuarly womenwhose violation of taboos causes her anger. Through combing, the shaman cleanses her hair of dirt and parasites, an act that Sedna herself cannot perform, since she has no fingers. According to the mythology, Sedna lost her fingers as a young girl because of an undesirable suitor, the storm bird. He appeared as a human and followed Sedna and her father, who fled in a kayak across the water. In his fear Sedna's father threw her into the water, but she held on tightly to the side of the boat. Her father then cut off all her fingers, and as they fell into the water they turned into seals and walruses. Sedna in turn sank to the ocean floor, where she took up her abode and became the mother of sea animals. The souls of these sea animals reside with her for a short period after their deaths; then, when the time has come, she restores them to life once again.

Among the Inuit of western Alaska, a male moon spirit replaces Sedna as lord of the animals. When the shaman is called upon to represent the moon spirit, he wears a mask encircled by miniature figures of reindeer, seals, and salmon, which symbolically depict authority over the animals when the spirit is implored.

The lord of the animals plays an important role among many North American Indians, as for example the Algonquin tribes of the eastern woodlands. According to the Delaware, Misinghalikun ("living solid face"), the "boss" or master of the deer, who himself rides a deer, is the mentor of those placed under his protection. His position was obtained directly from the creator. When a hunter is leaving for the hunt, Misinghalikun will appear to him in person, wearing a bearskin with a large oval mask that is painted red on the right side and black on the left, a form that reflects his name. This masked figure accompanies the hunters a short distance into the woods, during which time a spokesman drops six pinches of tobacco in each of two fires while begging Misinghalikun to seek out deer and help the hunters.

Numerous examples of the conceptual form of the lord of the animals in North America could be mentioned. Josef Haekel (1959) collected all available material source concerning the lord of the animals among the ancient, culturally advanced peoples of Mesoamerica and their descendants. Although the concept arose prior to the full development of these cultures, it becomes apparent that the lord of the animals also possessed qualities of an agrarian deity of the earth and master over cultivated plants. Even among the descendants of the advanced Andean culturesthe Quechua, Aymara, and othersthis combined conceptual variation is known to occur. These characteristics are displayed in Pachamama, the Quechua earth mother who is at the same time the maternal progenitor of plants and of humans and animals. She is viewed as the actual owner of all llamas and alpacas, which she lends to humankind; if they are mishandled by humans, she repossesses them. A part of the ritual slaying of the llama involves the interment of the bones of that animal in a burial ground near the area in which the sacrifice took place. Such an act expresses trust that the earth mother will create a new animal from the bones of the old onea notion typical of hunters.

Sometimes, however, Pachamama also functions as the mistress of the wild animals; thus, creatures like the guanaco, vicuña, and deer are referred to as "animals of the earth." This is reflected in practices like the offering (by burial) of a sacrifice to Pachamama before the start of a vicuña hunt.

Ideas and rites such as these, which either evolve in a hunting culture and are then superimposed on a pastoral one, or vice versa, are also found in the Old World; they have been observed, for instance, among the people of the Hindu Kush, particularly when the animals are conceived as being related. Like the Peruvians, the people of the Hindu Kush associate the wild and domesticated animalsin this instance, goats.

European chroniclers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the tropical lowlands of the Amazon continually encountered mention of a lord of the animals and a wild game spirit known as Korupira or Kaapora, a familiar figure among the Tupi-Guaraní tribes and comparable to a deity of other agricultural Indians. Among the mixed population of Brazil, belief in Korupira has likewise remained alive. Korupira's characteristic traits were collected and recorded in 1920 by Theodor Koch-Grünberg, a renowned researcher of the Indians of the Amazon whose primary source materials included the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century chronicles.

Among the hunting and planting tribes of eastern Brazil, the Sun is often viewed as the protector of hunted game. The Ge-speaking Indians of this region turn to this male deity with a plea for the maintenance and increased abundance of the various animal species. An appearance of Father Sun to a hunter ensures a successful expedition. Similarly, the hunting and gathering tribes of Tierra del Fuego conceive of a masculine sun (Kran or Lem), who is the "owner" of the animals; he is called upon by the Selk'nam (Ona) and Yaghan peoples to help them acquire subsistence. Watauineiwa of the Yaghan, who is viewed by many researchers as the supreme deity of these people, is in actuality the creator and owner of all animals. He entrusts his animals to humans for food and other essential uses, but only to the extent to which they are needed for survival. He watches out for his animals and assures that they are not killed wantonly, lest the meat be wasted. All these traits can be identified most precisely in describing a lord of the animals, and have also been used by Pettazzoni in describing a supreme being.

See Also

Animals; Artemis; Bears; Bones; Lady of the Animals; Sedna; Supreme Beings; Tricksters.


Baumann, Hermann. "Afrikanische Wild- und Buschgeister." Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 70 (1938): 208239. A basic work on the lord of the animals and related deities in Africa.

Dirr, Adolf. "Der kaukasische Wild und Jagdgott." Anthropos 20 (1925): 139147. A specific study, incorporating what was then groundbreaking research, of belief in the lord of the animals in the Caucasus.

Friedrich, Adolf. "Die Forschungen über das frühzeitliche Jägertum." Paideuma 2 (1941): 2043. An exceptionally good overview of the topic, including the lord of the animals in Siberia among ancient hunting cultures.

Haekel, Josef. "Der Herr der Tiere im Glauben der Indianer Mesoamerikas." Mitteilungen aus dem Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg 25 (1959): 6069. A study of the relevant concepts of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica. Haekel also writes extensively on the basic phenomena of the lord of the animals.

Hallowell, A. Irving. "Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere." American Anthropologist 28 (1926): 1175. The doctoral thesis of this well-known American anthropologist presents a comprehensive investigation of bear ceremonials and is of great importance for the concept of the lord of the animals.

Hultkrantz, Åke, ed. The Supernatural Owners of Nature. Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religions, vol. 1. Stockholm, 1961. An article presented at a symposium for Northern studies, about the religious conceptualization of "master spirits" of places and animal types.

Paulson, Ivar. Schutzgeister und Gottheiten des Wildes (der Jagdtiere und Fische) in Nordeurasien. Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religions, vol. 2. Stockholm, 1961. A standard work concerned with the lord of the animals and the species spirits of the animals of northern Asia.

Schmidt, Leopold. "Der Herr der Tiere in einigen Sagenlandschaften Europas und Eurasiens." Anthropos 47 (1952): 509538. A study that traces the motif of the restoration of life to slain animals from their bones, in Eurasia.

Zerries, Otto. Wild und Buschgeister in Südamerika. Studien zur Kulturkunde, vol. 11. Wiesbaden, 1954. The only work that deals exclusively with the lord of the animals and related manifestations in South America.

Otto Zerries (1987)

Translated from German by John Maressa