Unlocking The Secrets Of Ancient Iconography: From The Indus Valley To Mycenaea Come Similar Artistic Themes


Five thousand years ago humanity had a cosmopolitan culture that spanned the Near East from India to the Aegean Sea and this is evidenced by works of ancient art.

The archaeological record from the Bronze Age shows recurring artistic themes to be found in artifacts located as far apart as the Harrapan culture of the Indus Valley and the Mycenaean culture of the Aegean Sea. Notable amongst these themes are the “Master of Animals” and the “Confronted Animals” motifs.

The Master Of Animals Motif

This image of a humanoid figure flanked by two animals is typically thought to be representative of a hero such as Gilgamesh or perhaps a god such as Enki wrestling with and showing mastery over wild animals. The human/divine figure is also at times anthropomorphized to show an even greater affinity between the worlds of humans and animals. This image is found throughout ancient Mesopotamia, around the Aegean Sea, far to the east on cylinder seals from the Harrapan civilization and on the mysterious Egyptian artifact known as the Knife from Gebel el Arak.

This image on the ivory handle of the Gebel el Arak Knife, which can be dated to around 3,000 BCE, is particularly compelling because the the human, in this case standing between two lions, is clearly similar to representations found in Mesopotamia at this time. The hat and skirt of the “Master” do not match the other figures on the knife and are not Egyptian in design. This artifact has been used by some to propose that ancient Sumerian colonists or invaders were responsible for the rise of Dynastic Egypt. However, while there is no evidence of such activity the implications of the images on this ancient knife handle are at the very least indicative of close cultural contact.

Some of these images can be understood as portraying actual mythologies, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, while others are more abstractly symbolic. The symbolism of the Master of Animals is usually understood in the context of a world where people were still competing for resources with animals on a daily basis. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley lions, tigers and bears presented very real threats to small populations that were still reliant on hunting and fishing to subsidize their diets. However, the animals are not always large beasts like lions as the images from the Mycenaean civilization reveal. These artifacts sometimes show snakes being held instead of animals being grappled and they also often portray a “Mistress of Animals” rather than a “Master.”

The Confronted Animals Motif

The motif of “Confronted Animals” is similar to the “Master of Animals” with the absence of the master. Both of these motifs show a balance between the two sides of the image. Many “Master of Animals” motifs could also be categorized accurately as “Confronted Animals” with the insertion of a humanoid for additional symbolism.

This simpler image of two animals, usually shown as mirror images or facing each other head on, is in fact very widespread in ancient art. Examples of stylized animals, such as the long necked lionesses known as Serpopards, can be found on the Narmer Pallete from Egypt and on a cylinder seal from Uruk which both date to around 3,000 BCE.

Some pairs of animals are shown with the “Tree of Life” or another divine symbol between them. The famous Mycenae “Lion Gate” shows two lionesses flanking a column which may be an abstract representation of the Mistress of Beasts. Etruscan and Roman art continued the use of Confronted Animals, as an image designed to provide magical protection, down until at least 300 BCE.

The Conflict

It is wrong to look at these artifacts with a who did what first or who influenced who point of view. This distorts what the artifacts can tell us. This unfortunate inclination towards a biased viewing of ancient artwork in however fostered by the modern educational system and its apprehension towards cross disciplinary studies.

This problem is particular endemic in Ancient Near Eastern History where scholarly disciplines encourage students to focus on one area of study such as Egyptology or Assyriology. While this does allow for a mastery of specific components of the source material it often prevents big picture observations from being made. This happens for two reasons. First, few scholars are expert in enough fields of study to say anything with authority regarding how the different areas of study overlap. Second, no one benefits from research and discoveries that don’t fit into an accepted discipline.

There is however sufficient evidence to strongly suggest a broad based pattern of cultural exchange that dates to before the beginnings of the written record. These similarities can reveal the challenges faced by early civilization and the symbols they used to convey them. A full appreciation of ancient history can only be gained with the realization that the division of that world into scholarly disciplines is a modern device and by no means reflects any real divisions between peoples and cultures as they existed in the past.


  1. Hoffman, Micheal. Egypt Before The Pharaohs, (Barnes and Noble, New York, 1979)