animalistic! Animals and hybrid creatures in Antiquity

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animalistic! Animals and hybrid creatures in Antiquity

Exhibition texts


Exhibition plan

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Hybrid creatures 31

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Animals and humans. An ambivalent relationship 18

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Humanity vs. the wild 39

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Entrance

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1 Animalistic! Animals and hybrid creatures in Antiquity Ever since human beings began to make images of their world, there have been depictions of animals. In all the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean world, animals were synonymous with the basic necessities of life, yet at the same time, metaphors for danger. They were hunted and reared for food and raw materials. As providers of meat, milk, and wool, as beasts of labour and means of transport, no agriculturally-based way of life was imaginable without them. Yet at the same time, the animal world was also a source of danger, something against which humans had to protect themselves, and which they often explained by locating it in the realm of the divine. Wild, unknown animals and creatures typified an alien and potentially dangerous natural world, in which humans had to find their place. In time, this confrontation with animals, their observed or supposed characteristics, their power and strength, culminated, in the human imagination, in the creation of hybrid creatures, decisively influencing the visual world of Antiquity.

Animals and humans. An ambivalent relationship


2 Animals and humans. An ambivalent relationship «Animals can teach much to humans. Men learned the art of weaving and embroidery by imitating the spider, the art of building by imitating swallows and the art of singing by imitating songbirds, swans and nightingales.» Democritus (5th century BCE) “In like manner, we may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man.” Aristotle (4th century BCE) Humans have always defined themselves in terms of their relationship with the animal world, searching for commonalities and differences and attempting to interpret and explain them. Fundamentally, human attitudes to animals fall between two opposite poles. At one end, animals are seen as creatures whose innate abilities make them superior to and more perfect than human beings, and therefore to be emulated. In this view, people and animals are all living creatures and the differences between them are only those of degree. At the other end is the anthropocentric outlook which declares that animals are to be dominated by humans. Fundamental to this attitude is the Greek philosophy of Aristotle, who created the foundations of modern zoology by his empirical categorisation of the animal world. He defined nature as a hierarchic structure, in which creatures with a lower capacity for judgement were subordinated to those with a greater capacity for the purposes of exploitation. In other words, being devoid of reason, animals should serve humankind and be subordinate to them in everything. This ambivalence between the superior power of animals and their exploitation by mankind is clearly exemplified in ancient sculptures.


3 Wild nature “This eastern part of Libya as far as the river Triton which is inhabited by nomads, is low country and sandy by nature; the western part, however, which is inhabited by farmers, is mountainous, rich in forests, and full of large wild animals. There you find giant serpents, lions, elephants, bears, poisonous snakes, horned donkeys, humans with dog’s heads, and headless people with eyes on the chest, as well as wild men and women, and numerous beasts which are not mythical beings.” Herodotus (around 450 BCE) In all ancient civilisations, people saw themselves as part of their environment. What was their place in that environment, and what was their relationship to other creatures? These questions seem especially to have preoccupied the people of Greece in the early first millennium BC. This was precisely the time when – after a long interruption – urban culture was beginning to reemerge in place of scattered, isolated settlements. Towns provided a sheltered living environment for their inhabitants, while the surrounding countryside, with its cultivated fields, provided the necessary resources. Diametrically opposed to this human-dominated world was wild nature, whose dangerous animals represented a special threat. Feline predators, bears and wild boars could not only pose a direct, concrete danger to humans, but could also destroy their livelihood by laying waste to their fields. The depiction of wild animals served, in the first place, to define nature as a dangerous zone, against which humans should protect and defend themselves, while also highlighting the existential necessity of living in an urban environment.

4 Animal friezes Early vase painting from the city of Corinth is a tyical example of the depiction of nature as wild and dangerous. In the 7th and early 6th centuries BC, the city was a leading centre for the production and export of painted ceramic vessels. The most frequent motifs are so-called animal friezes, showing feline


predators such as lions and panthers, wild goats, ibexes and birds. It is striking that all the animals are wild and no domestic animals are present. Even though they have no narrative context – no actual story is being told – these rows of animals should not be seen as meaningless decoration. They are, in fact, an imaginative reflection of the way in which the vase painters and their clients saw nature – as wild and remote from civilisation. Included in these rows of exotic beasts, singly or in pairs, are hybrid creatures, such as the lion-(wo)man (sphinx) and the bird-(wo) man (siren). The friezes are not narratives of particular myths, however, in which hybrid creatures play a role; they are simply representations of an alien world, which may be home, not only to wild animals, but also to such hybrid beings. In the world of the Greek imagination, therefore, chimeras are not simply fantasy beasts; they may actually exist as inhabitants of an alien nature. It was no coincidence that these images emerged precisely at a time when the Greeks were trying to expand their world through voyages of exploration and trading missions and were coming across unknown regions in the process. 1

Vessel for mixing wine (krater) with a frieze of figures and animals | Clay, Corinth, c. 580 BC (Inv. BS 444)

2

Jug (oinochoe) with an animal frieze | Clay, Corinth, c. 640 BC (Inv. Lu 11)

3

Jug (oinochoe) with an animal frieze | Clay, Corinth, c. 590 BC (on loan)

4

Drinking cup (skyphos) with an animal frieze | Clay, Corinth, c. 580 BC (on loan)

5 Animal friezes – not just decoration The habitat of human beings at this early period was still very restricted. Uncertainty, fear, and the dangers of the natural world dominated everyday life. Animal friezes depicted the dangers of the wild. The development of agriculture and better organisation between communities allowed them to spread their network of contacts beyond their immediate region through trade and cultural exchange.


1

Lion | Bronze, Greece, 6th century BC *

2

Panther | Gold, Eurasia, 6th century BC *

3

Lion | Bronze, Etruria, c. 550 BC *

4

Ibex | Bronze, Italy, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

5

Lion | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 2nd century AD *

6

Ibex | Bronze, Luristan (Iran), 8th century BC *

7

Panther | Bronze, Greece, Ist millennium BC *

8

Swan | Bronze, Italy, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

9

Boar | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

10

Ibex | Bronze, Iran, 6th century BC *

* loaned by the foundation “In memoriam Adolf und Margreth Im Hof-Schoch”

6 The wild animals of Egypt “In Egypt … animals are one and all accounted … sacred, some of them living with men and others not.” Herodotus (around 450 BCE) Animals were omnipresent in Egyptian art and culture. The flora and fauna of Egypt were extremely diverse and because of the topography of the country, humans and animals lived together in relatively close proximity. Jackals, cobras, and wild cats inhabited the dry steppes of the desert plateau, while the fertile Nile valley was home to hippos and crocodiles, birds, fish, and amphibians. 1

Statuette of a hippo | Clay, Egypt, late 4th millennium BC (Inv. BSAe 1053)

2

Amulet in the shape of a hippo | Calcite alabaster, Egypt, late 3rd millennium BC (Inv. BSAe 1004)

3

Statuette of a toad | Serpentine, Egypt, 13th centrury BC (Inv. BSAe III 7012)

4

Mummy of a fish | Mummy, Egypt, late 4th century BC (BSAe III 6751)

5

Statue of a jackal (Anubis) | Wood, painted, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (loaned by the Musée cantonal d’art et d’histoire, Lausanne)

6

Amulet in the shape of a cobra | Faience, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (Inv. BSAe III 5257)


7

Statuette of a cat | Bronze, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (on loan)

8

Head from a statue of a cat | Bronze, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (on loan)

9

Mummy case with a shrew | Wood, mummy, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (Inv. BSAe 14308)

7 Mistress of the Animals “But his sister railed at him hotly, even the queen of the wild beasts, Artemis of the wild wood, and spake a word of reviling.” Homer (late 8th century BCE) The Mistress of the Animals (the male equivalent was less common) is the name given to a figure with outstretched arms, holding two wild animals or hybrid creatures in submission. The motif was derived from ancient Oriental models dating back to the 4th millennium BC and was disseminated, in various versions, from the Middle East via Egypt, Greece and Italy as far as central and north-western Europe. Although Homer uses the term ‘Mistress of the Animals’ to refer to the goddess Artemis, it must have meant, more generally, a nature goddess who was intended to symbolise human domination of animals and thus of nature itself. 1

Horse frontlet with genii | Bronze, Urartu (Anatolia), early 1 st millennium BC (loaned by Dr. B. Begelsbacher)

2

Standard with a ‘Master of the Animals’ motif | Bronze, Luristan (Iran), 9th – 8th century BC (Inv. Hess 57)

3

Handle in the shape of a lion-tamer | Bronze, Greece, c. 550 BC (on loan)

4

Wine jar (amphora) with a ‘Mistress of the Animals’ motif | Clay, Athens, c. 550 BC (Inv. BS 497)

8 Statue of a panther Marble, Athens, c. 330 BC (Inv. Kä 231)

9 Sarcophagus handles in the shape of lions’ heads Bronze, Syria, c. 2nd century AD (Inv. BS 505)


10 Lions “The mountainous part of Thrace, on this side the river Nestus, which runs through the land of Abdera, breeds among other wild beasts lions, which once attacked the army of Xerxes, and mauled the camels carrying his supplies.” Pausanias (2nd century CE) In Antiquity, lions were found in North Africa, Ethiopia, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Arabia, and Persia. They were still found in the northern regions of Greece until the middle of the 1st millennium BC. In all cultures, lions symbolised the untamed strength and danger of the wild. In both Egypt and Mesopotamia, the power of the lion was chiefly associated with the person of the ruler, the only one capable of taming it. In Greece, Etruria, and Rome, likewise, the lion was a metaphor for danger but also strength, boldness, and courage. Because of its extraordinary abilities, the image of the lion was often believed to ward off evil. 1

Sculptor’s model of a lion | Limestone, Egypt, 3rd – 2nd century BC (Inv. BSAe 6489)

2

Vessel fitting in the shape of a lion’s head | Clay, Syria, early 1 st millennium BC (Inv. Bo 170)

3

Bowl with a lion’s head | Steatite, Syria, 8th century BC (loaned by Bloch, Bern)

4

Axe with the heads of a lion and four boars | Bronze, Luristan (Iran), late 2nd millennium BC (Inv. Su 21)

5

Head of a lion | Clay, Crete, c. 700 BC (Inv. Bo 152)

6

Ointment jar (aryballos) with lions | Clay, Corinth, c. 610 BC (Inv. Lu 12)

7

Vessel in the shape of a lion’s head | Clay, Ionia, c. 570 BC (Inv. BS 312)

11 Heracles capturing the Hind of Artemis Plaster cast , Roman copy of an original by Lysippus, c. 300 BC (Inv. SH 279)


12 Hunting Together with the collection of wild plants, hunting is thought to have been the earliest means of sourcing food. For millennia, it was people’s main activity. When they became sedentary, around 10,000 BC, hunting lost its importance as the primary food supply. From then on, hunting was only pursued to protect settlements and cultivated fields from wild animals and became a privileged activity of the upper classes. Mythological hunting scenes were often represented in the visual arts. 1

Wine cup (kylix) with hunting scene | Clay, Athens, c. 500 BC (Inv. BS 438)

2

Vessel in the shape of a deer | Clay, Gilan (Iran), early 1st millennium BC (Inv. Su 37)

13 Man – a hunter Since the dawn of human history, hunting had been the main source of food. It was also a means to control threats to human settlements from wild animals. When people became sedentary and agriculture began to develop, hunting grew less and less important. It became an activity for the elite, an opportunity to show off their power and influence. 1

Dolphin | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 2nd century AD *

2

Gazelle | Bronze, Etruria, 5th – 4th century BC *

3

Bear | Resin, Italy, 1 st – 2nd century AD *

4

Eagle | Bronze, Italy, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

5

Fish | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

6

Horse | Bronze, Italy, 1 st century AD *

7

Hare | Bronze, Italy, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

8

Dog | Bronze, Iran, 8th century BC *

9

Hind | Bronze, Amlash (Iran), 9th – 8th century BC *

10

Stag | Bronze, Italy, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

* loaned by the foundation “In memoriam Adolf und Margreth Im Hof-Schoch”


14 The world of the gods It was probably humans’ observation of animals’ extraordinary abilities – such as flying, for example – and their great superiority in terms of strength, speed, and adaptation, which led to the idea that they belonged to the world of the gods. It was an idea that helped to make the inexplicable forces of nature more comprehensible. It is why in many ancient and later civilisations, animals represented the attributes of the gods and emphasised their absolute power.

15 Statue of the goddess Cybele Marble, Greece, c. 320 BC (Inv. BS 1217)

16 Animals and deities Unlike the the ancient Egyptians, who very often conceived of their deities as hybrid creatures, combining both human and animal attributes, the Greeks and Romans depicted their gods with purely human features. Nevertheless, the gods, too, shared their world with numerous animals. They often had animal companions, particularly wild animals, to emphasise their all-encompassing power. From time to time, deities could also transform themselves into animals in order to pursue their goals without being recognised. Zeus, for example, turned himself into an eagle or a bull. 1

Statuette of Zeus with Ganymede | Clay , Greece, 2nd century BC (Inv. AME 03)

2

Statuette of Europa on the bull | Clay, Greece, c. 450 BC (Inv. Kä 322)

3

Wine jar (amphora) with Athena springing from the head of Zeus, the father of the gods | Clay, Athens, c. 550 BC (Inv. BS 496)

4

Drinking cup (skyphos) with an owl | Clay, Etruria, 5th century BC (Inv. Zü 380)


17 The world of the Egyptian gods From prehistoric times, divine power in Egypt was associated with animals whose abilities surpassed those of humans. The earliest images of deities were purely animal. Over time, however, these powers in animal form underwent a process of humanisation in which they acquired human body parts. A crucial development, characteristic of ancient Egypt, began in the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3000 BC): the fusion of a human body with an animal head. Although this type of theriomorphic representation became established as the norm for ancient Egyptian deities, it never replaced the gods’ purely animal forms, but merely complemented them. 1

Statuette of Apis, the sacred bull | Bronze, Egypt, 3rd – 2nd century BC (Inv. BSAe 5530)

2

Statuette of a Horus falcon | Bronze, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (on loan)

3

Scarab | Serpentine, Egypt, 10th – 8th century BC (Inv. BSAe III 1504)

4

Statuette of the god Thoth | Wood, painted, Egypt, 7th – 6th century BC (Inv. BSAe 1094)

5

Statuette of the god Anubis | Bronze, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (on loan)

6

Statuette of a goddess with a lion’s head | Faience, Egypt, 3rd – 2nd century BC (Inv. BSAe SSOM 55)

7

Amulett in the shape of the goddess Taweret | Faience, Egypt, 4th century BC (Inv. BSAe 1248)

8

Magic wand with a depiction of deities | Hippopotamus ivory, Egypt, early 2nd millennium BC (on loan)

18 Animal sacrifice In ancient Greece, animal sacrifice was considered to be the most important ritual act of the community. The sacrifice was made to the Olympian gods and took the form of a food offering. With the people gathered round, the sacrificial animal (usually a cow, bull or ox, sheep or goat) was led in solemn procession to the altar, wreathed in garlands. There, it was sprinkled with water to make it nod its head, a sign interpreted as consent. The actual killing was done by opening the animal’s


carotid artery. The fact that the ceremony was primarily a ritual slaughter is key to its meaning. Invoking the gods legitimised both the act of killing and the consumption of the meat which followed. 1

Vessel for mixing wine (krater) with a sacrificial scene | Clay, Athens, c. 350 BC (Inv. BS 1438)

2

Statuette of a male offering bearer | Clay, Syria, 3rd millennium BC (Inv. BS 824)

3

Statuette of a female offering bearer | Clay, Greece, c. 475 BC (Inv. BS 311)

4

Statuette of a female offering bearer | Clay, Greece, 4th century BC (Inv. BS 1921.491)

5

Statuette of a ram-bearer | Bronze, Greece, c. 480 BC (Inv. BS 1906.123)

19 Nature tamed Through domestication – deliberately turning certain species of wild animal into domestic animals – humans succeeded, to some extent at least, in taming wild nature and exploiting it for their own purposes. This process took place during the Late Stone Age (Neolithic), around 10,000 BC, in the area of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ between the Syrian desert and Mesopotamia. It was driven by the same populations that cultivated the first arable crops. These two achievements represent one of the most decisive steps in human history, since they formed the basis for the first productive economy, giving rise, in turn, to the development of permanent settlements and the storage of food supplies. This epoch-making turning point has therefore been termed the ‘Neolithic Revolution’.

20 Domestic animals In ancient cultures, domestic animals such as sheep, cattle and pigs served primarily as suppliers of food and raw materials. Along with plant products, animal produce such as meat, milk, wool, skins, and sinews were among the basic necessities of life. For most people, however, meat accounted for only a small proportion of their diet. Cattle were used principally for ploughing and transportation.


1

Model of a wagon with a bull’s head | Clay, Mesopotamia, 3rd – 2nd millennium BC (Inv. Bo 171)

2

Model of a wagon with a team of oxen | Bronze, Northern Syria, 3rd millennium BC (Inv. AME 06)

3

Statuette in the shape of an ox | Alabaster, Mesopotamia, 4th millennium BC (on loan)

4

Vessel in the shape of a recumbent dromedary | Clay, Syria, 1 st century BC (Inv. BS 366)

5

Statuette of a cow | Marble, Rome, 1 st century BC (Inv. BS 1210)

6

Statuette of a ram | Clay, Southern Italy, 2nd century BC (Inv. Zü 233)

7

Rattle in the shape of a pig | Clay, Greece, 3rd – 1 st century BC (loaned by the foundation “In memoriam Adolf und Margreth Im Hof-Schoch”)

21 The horse The most respected domestic animal in both the ancient Middle East and Greece was the horse. First as a draught animal for war chariots, then as an actual mount, the horse made a decisive contribution to the military expansion of numerous empires (Hyksos, Assyrian, Hittite). The care and expense involved in keeping horses meant that they remained a luxury animal for the upper classes. Particularly in early Greece, the horse symbolised the noble, aristocratic warrior. 1

Statuette of a horse | Bronze, Laconia, c. 750 BC (Inv. Me 27)

2

Snaffle bit with stylised horses’ heads | Bronze, Luristan (Iran), 9th – 7th century BC (Inv. BS 555)

3

Vessel for mixing wine (krater) decorated with horses | Clay, Etruria, c. 725 BC (Inv. Lu 63)

4

Statuette of a horse | Clay, Southern Italy, 4th century BC (Inv. BS 1921.445)

5

Statuette of Harpocrates on horseback | Clay, Egypt, 1 st century BC (Inv. BSAe III 5405)

22 Funeral stele with a Laconian hound Marble, Athens, c. 410 BC (Inv. Kä 206)


23 The dog The dog is man’s oldest animal companion. Descended from domesticated wolves and jackals, domestic dogs have been the faithful friends of human beings since the Neolithic period, at the latest, rendering valuable service not only as hunting and fighting dogs, sheep- and watch-dogs, but also as childrens’ playmates. 1

Statuette of a dog | Bronze, Greece, 5th century BC (Inv. Kä 509)

2

Amulet figure of a child playing with a dog | Faience, Egypt, 19th – 18th century BC (on loan)

3

Statuette of a dog | Clay, Greece, c. 760 BC (Inv. Bo 45)

4

Waterspout in the shape of a canine protome | Clay, Italy, 1 st century AD (Inv. Zü 451)

24 Birds Birds were admired for the variety of their species and their ability to fly and sing. As domestic animals, they provided a source of food, were playmates for children, and entertained their owners with birdsong. In the mythological and religious context, their most important attribute was their ability to fly, which led to their being associated with various deities. They were also believed to have divinatory powers, allowing them to foresee certain natural phenomena. 1

Statuette of an ibis | Wood, bronze, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (Inv. BSAe 1311)

2

Cosmetic spoon in the shape of a duck | Wood, Egypt, 7th – 4th century BC (loaned by the Musée cantonal d’art et d’histoire, Lausanne)

3

Vessel in the shape of a bird | Clay, Rhodes, c. 760 BC (Inv. BS 1906.236)

4

Vessel in the shape of an eagle’s head | Clay, Ionia, c. 550 BC (Inv. Zü 325)

5

Lamp in the shape of a bird | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 3rd century AD (Inv. BS 556)

6

Statuette of a bird | Clay, Anatolia, 1 st – 2nd century AD (on loan)

7

Statuette of a bird | Bronze, Greece, 7th century BC (Inv. Su 06)

8

Statuette of a bird | Bronze, Greece, 7th century BC (Inv. Su 07)


25 Animals and agriculture Agriculture, which had been developing since the Neolithic period, was a strenuous and dangerous occupation. Everyday life was beset by great challenges and setbacks. Over time, farmers grew better at organisation, becoming the main suppliers of food for settlements and developing cities. 1

Mouse | Bronze, Italy, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

2

Boar | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

3

Billy goat | Bronze, Italy, 2nd century AD *

4

Bull | Bronze, Greece, 5th century BC *

5

Hen | Bone, Italy, 2nd century AD *

6

Horse | Bronze, Iran, 8th century BC *

7

Fly | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

8

Mule | Bronze, Italy, 1 st century AD *

9

Sheep | Bronze, Greece, 6th century BC *

10

Bird | Bronze, Luristan (Iran), 9th – 8th century BC *

11

Ram | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

12

Hare | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

13

Cow | Bronze, Eurasia, 5th – 4th century BC *

14

Cock | Bronze, Western Europe, 1 st – 2nd century AD *

15

Dove | Gold, stone, Italy, 1 st – 2nd century AD *

16

Dog | Clay, Corinth, 5th century BC *

17

Duck | Haematite, Mesopotamia, 1 st millennium BC *

* loaned by the foundation “In memoriam Adolf und Margreth Im Hof-Schoch”


26 Difficult childhood years The early years in the life of a child in the ancient world were very hard and life-threatening. Due to poor medical care, many children died in the first few days and weeks of their short lives. This is why very few toys are found during archaeological excavations. Children often found playmates in the animals on the farmstead, but they also had to take responsibility for them when they were still very young. 1

Mouse | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 3rd century AD *

2

Bird | Faience, Iran, 9th – 7th century BC *

3

Dog | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 3rd century AD *

4

Hen | Bronze, Greece, 5th century BC *

5

Goose | Bronze, Etruria, 5th – 4th century BC *

6

Turtle | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 3rd century AD *

7

Cicada | Bronze, Eastern Europe, 5th century AD *

8

Hare | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

9

Grasshopper | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 2nd century AD *

10

Duck | Bronze, Italy, 1 st – 2nd century AD *

11

Fish | Bronze, Western Europe, 2nd – 3rd century AD *

12

Small wine jug | Clay, Athens, 5th century BC (Inv. BS 1941.122)

* loaned by the foundation “In memoriam Adolf und Margreth Im Hof-Schoch”


Hybrid creatures


27 Hybrid creatures Numerous hybrid creatures inhabited the visual world of classical Antiquity. These chimeras comprised all sorts of combinations. Most involved the fusion of bodies of different animals, but combinations of human and animal elements were also common. The selection of motifs appears to have been based primarily on the characteristic attributes of the animals concerned and the abilities they possessed that were superior to those of humans. Wild animals were already seen as metaphors for nature’s dangerous aspects and the threat they posed to the civilised way of life of human beings. Combining different animals into hybrid creatures heightened the danger they represented still further. Like the wild animals in the animal friezes on Corinthian vases, these ‘monsters’ belonged to a world which, though distant, could not altogether be dismissed as imaginary. The most common chimeras emerged between the early 7th and the 6th centuries BC. It was no coincidence that this was precisely the period when trading activities and the founding of colonies were bringing Greeks into contact with distant parts of the world, such as the Black Sea region, North Africa, and the Middle East. The absorption of foreign visual motifs into the repertoire of Greek artists and craftspeople can be seen as directly connected with these broadening horizons. The turn of the 7th century, in particular, a period generally described as the beginning of the ‘orientalising period’ in Greek art, saw the adoption of Middle Eastern models, most of which reached Greece in the form of imported goods. The ‘classical’ chimeras – the sphinx (lion-person), the siren (bird-person), and the minotaur (man-bull), for example – did not come from nothing. Their visual appearances were seldom genuinely Greek inventions but represented a reception and adaptation of visual motifs from Egypt and, especially, the ancient Middle East. Once adopted and adapted, they were imbued with new content and meaning. All chimeras shared in common the fact that when they first appeared in the pictorial world of the Greeks, they did so anonymously, without any clearly recognisable narrative context.


28 Sphinx «And the Sphinx had the face of a woman, the breast and feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird.» Apollodorus (2nd century BCE) A sphinx is a chimera consisting of a lion’s body and a human head. It first appeared around the 3rd millennium BC in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is still unclear whether Egyptian and Mesopotamian sphinxes developed independently or were influenced by each other. In the visual world of ancient Egypt, sphinxes were shown as a combination of a lion’s body and a man’s head. They were mainly used in the context of royal iconography, where they linked the untamed strength of the predatory feline with the person of the pharaoh, thus embodying his unique power. Following a complex route from Egypt to the eastern Mediterranean, the visual formula of the ‘lion-person’ was adopted and adapted in northern Syria and Phoenicia and enriched with elements of the Mesopotamian tradition, acquiring wings in the process. From there, via trading contacts between Greeks and Phoenicians, the creature eventually found its way into the visual world of 7th-century-BC Greece. Although many early sphinxes in Greece were shown with a beard and are therefore interpreted as male, the female version ultimately predominated. Initially, the sphinx was merely a nameless chimera in the Greek visual world, similar to other predatory animals. It was only later that it came to be used as the visual image for the riddle-setting monster of the Oedipus myths. 1

Cylinder seal with a sphinx | Frit, Mesopotamia, 9th – 8th century BC (on loan)

2

Lamp in the shape of a sphinx | Clay, Egypt, 3rd – 1 st century BC (Inv. BSAe SSOM 0944)

3

Statuette of a sphinx | Clay, Egypt, 1 st century BC. (Inv. BSAe III 27031)

4

Statuette of a sphinx | Clay, Greece, 7th century BC (Inv. BS 808)

5

Fragment of a relief pithos with sphinxes | Clay, Crete, early 7th century BC (Inv. BS 615)

6

Jug (oinochoe) with an animal frieze and sphinxes | Clay, Corinth, c. 640 BC (Inv. BS 1406)


7

Ointment jar (aryballos) with a female sphinx | Clay, Corinth, c. 600 BC (Inv. Bo 04)

8

Ointment jar (aryballos) with a male sphinx | Clay, Corinth, c. 590 BC (on loan)

9

Fitting in the shape of a winged lion | Ivory, Ionia, 5th century BC (loaned by P. Steinmann, Binningen)

29 Sirens «O Siren Maids, but wherefore thus have ye the feet and plumes of birds, although remain your virgin features?» Ovid (1st century BCE) The story of the Sirens is probably one of the most famous episodes in the epics of Homer. Homer relates how Odysseus and his companions sailed past the island of the Sirens on their return from the realm of Hades. Seated in a flowery meadow, the creatures tried to lure passing sailors to their doom with their enchanting songs and promise of omniscience. Apart from the fact that they were female, however, Homer tells us nothing about their appearance. From the 7th century BC onwards it became customary in Greece to depict Sirens as hybrid creatures who were part human, part bird. Although most of the ancient images which have survived show birds with female heads, some of the very earliest examples are male. The emergence and spread of the Siren motif, unknown in Greece until then, occurred during a period of Greek art known as the ‘orientalising phase’, characterised by the adoption of Middle Eastern visual motifs into the repertoire of Greek artisans. Many hybrid creatures made their way westwards at this time, thanks to trading contacts and cultural exchanges with Syria and Phoenicia. Models for the Greek Sirens may, for example, have been large bronze cauldrons decorated with male winged creatures that were imported from northern Syria. In the visual world of the Middle East, winged and bearded genii belonged to a tradition that can be traced back thousands of years. For the Greeks, however, the motifs had no apparent context, and they had no difficulty in finding a place for them in their own imaginary world. In this way, the originally anonymous ‘winged


man’ became a female chimera used for the visual representation of Homer’s Sirens. 1

Cauldron with handle attachments in the shape of winged men | Bronze, Northern Syria, late 8th century BC (Inv. BS 548)

2

Statuette of a ba-bird | Wood, painted, Egypt, 3rd – 1 st century BC (Inv. BSAE Ku 127)

3

Vessel in the shape of a male Siren | Clay, Corinth, early 6th century BC (Inv. BS 1407)

4

Wine jar (amphora) with an animal frieze and Sirens | Clay, Athens, c. 570 BC (Inv. BS 466)

5

Ointment jar (askos) in the shape of a Siren | Clay, Rhodes, 6th century BC (loaned by the Bonsera family, Allschwil)

6

Wine jar (amphora) with a Siren | Clay, Athens, c. 550 BC (Inv. Lu 17)

30 Griffins «Griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle.» Pausanias (2nd century CE) Like the sphinx, the griffin – a hybrid creature with the body of a lion, usually winged, and the head of a bird of prey – originated in the visual world of the East. It probably emerged in the 4th/3rd millennium BC in Elam (Iran) and was adopted in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. Griffins reached Greece in the early 8th century BC, often, like Sirens, in the form of decorative protomes on bronze cauldrons. Like other hybrid creatures, they were, at first, nameless beings from the wild and dangerous natural world. Watchful and fierce, they ultimately found their place in Greek mythology as the guardians of the legendary gold mines of the Riphean Mountains. In the Middle Ages, not least because of their function as guardians, they were employed as a heraldic beasts. In Basel the “Vogel Gryff” is synonymous with Kleinbasel’s most important festival, the celebration of the Three Honourable Societies. Since 1429, the Vogel Gryff, the supporter in the coat of arms of the Honoura-


ble Society of the Griffon, has availed himself of the iconographic attributes of the ancient griffin – the lion and the bird of prey. 1

Griffin protome | Bronze, Samos (?), late 7th century BC (Inv. Me 02)

2

Fitting in the shape of a griffin | Clay, gilded, Taranto, late 4th century BC (Inv. Kä 317)

3

Fitting in the shape of a griffin | Clay, gilded, Taranto, 4th century BC (Inv. BS 310F)

4

Fitting in the shape of a horse and griffin | Clay, gilded, Taranto, 4th century BC (Inv. BS 310E)

5

Fitting in the shape of two griffins and an Arimaspian | Clay, gilded, Taranto, late 4th century BC (Inv. Kä 312)

6

Fragment of a relief panel (“Campana relief”) showing a griffin and an Amazon | Clay, Rome, 1 st century BC (Inv. BS 1921.570)

7

Vogel Gryff | Daniel Burckhardt-Wildt (1752–1819), Gouache on paper (loaned by the Historisches Museum Basel, Inv. 2011.536)

8

Stained glass panel showing the Vogel Gryff and the Basel coat of arms | H.-R. Jäger, 20th century, Glass, lead solder (loaned by the Historisches Museum Basel, Inv. 2020.342)

9

Head of a griffin | Marble, Greece, 4th century BC (Inv. BS 1225)

10

Table leg (trapezophore) with a griffin | Marble, Rome, c. AD 100 (Inv. Lu 273a)

31 Centaurs «Mightiest were these of men reared upon the earth; mightiest were they, and with the mightiest they fought, the mountain-dwelling centaurs, and they destroyed them terribly.» Homer (late 8th century BCE) As well as adopting foreign motifs, the Greeks also created their own hybrid creatures, such as the centaur, a combination of man and horse. The earliest surviving images of centaurs show a creature with a front part consisting of a complete human torso, with the rear, horse part appearing to spring from the buttocks. Most of the creature, therefore, looks human, with the animal aspect represented only by the horse’s hindquarters. In the 7th century BC, this image was replaced by a new version. The human part was now reduced to the upper body, while the


lower body consistied of an entire horse’s torso, complete with four legs. Centaurs, inhabitants of the mountains of Thessaly, often appeared as wild, aggressive and sacrilegious creatures, who had to be defeated by civilised humans. 1

Statuette of a centaur | Bronze, Greece, early 6th century BC (Inv. BS 1906.145)

2

Vessel for carrying water (hydria) with a battle with centaurs | Clay, Etruria, c. 560 BC (Inv. BS 1410)

32 Satyrs and Silens Like the centaurs, young satyrs and older Silens were daemonic beings who inhabited the forests of ancient Greece. Wild creatures of nature, they were chimeras, with hirsute human bodies, asses’ ears, horses’ tails and, usually, erect penises. Their faces featured snub animal-like noses, saucer eyes, and large mouths. Followers of the god Dionysus, for whom they pressed wine, they were seen as particularly rough, wild creatures, who were permanently intoxicated and constantly in pursuit of their female equivalents, the maenads. 1

Wine jar (amphora) with satyrs and maenads | Clay, Athens, c. 550 BC (Inv. BS 424)

2

Fitting from a utensil in the shape of a semi-recumbant Silen | Bronze, Etruria, early 5th century BC (Inv. BS 1921.730)

3

Head of a satyr | Clay, Etruria, 3rd century BC (on loan)


33 The Gorgon Medusa «But the Gorgons had heads twined about with the scales of dragons, and great tusks like swine’s, and brazen hands, and golden wings, by which they flew; and they turned to stone such as beheld them.» Apollodorus (2nd century BCE) The three Gorgon sisters, Medusa, Stheno and Euryale llived on an island beyond Oceanus, at the edge of the known world. Originally, Medusa was enchantingly beautiful, but she was turned into a monster by Athena in punishment for a love affair with Poseidon. From then on, she had snakes for hair, boar’s teeth, a protruding tongue, a fearful grimace and a hideous gaze. Anyone who looked at her was turned to stone. In Greek art, the head of the Gorgon (“gorgoneion”) appeared on roofs, doors, and weapons as an apotropaic symbol, to ward off evil. 1

Fitting with a running Medusa | Bronze, Greece, c. 540 BC (loaned by Dr. B. Begelsbacher)

2

Vessel in the shape of a crouching Medusa | Clay, Taranto (?), c. 650 BC. (Inv. Lu 80)

3

Clay roof ornament (antefix) with a gorgoneion | Clay, Taranto, early 5th century BC (Inv. Lu 161)

4

Medallion with a gorgoneion | Clay, Taranto (?), 3rd – 2nd century BC (Inv. BS 328)


34 The Chimera and Pegasus «The Chimaera was of divine stock, not of men, in the fore part a lion, in the hinder a serpent, and in the midst a goat, breathing forth in terrible wise the might of blazing fire.» Homer (late 8th century BCE) «When her head was cut off, there sprang from the Gorgon the winged horse Pegasus.» Apollodorus (2nd century BCE) The Chimera was believed to be the sister of Cerberus, the Hydra, and the Sphinx. In ancient literature and art she was depicted as a fire-breathing hybrid of a goat, a lion, and a serpent. In the far distant regions of Lycia (south-western Turkey) she threatened the inhabitants and laid waste to their fields. Today, the word ‘chimera’ is still used as a general synonym for a hybrid creature. Pegasus was a winged horse, whose mother was the Gorgon Medusa. He sprang from her body when the hero Perseus beheaded her. Bellerophon, another hero, was given the task of defeating the Chimera. With the help of the goddess Athena – who enabled him to tame Pegasus – he approached the Chimera, flying on the back of the winged horse, and killed her. 1

Wine jar (amphora) with the Chimera | Clay, Etruria, late 6th century BC (Inv. Zü 399)

2

Staters with Pegasus | Silver, Epirus, early 4th century BC (on loan)

3

Wine jar (amphora) with Bellerophon and Pegasus | Clay, Etruria, late 6th century BC (Inv. Zü 394)




35 Humanity vs. the wild. The eternal struggle for civilisation Dangerous animals and hybrid creatures lived at the edges of the known world. These periphal, potentially dangerous regions had to be, if not completely subdued, then at least held in check, since they posed an existential threat to the community. In particular, there were numerous wild animals and hybrid creatures that laid waste to cultivated fields, thus threatening the food supplies and the very means of survival of human beings. Moreover, the uncivilised way of life of these hybrid creatures – the centaurs, for example – represented the antithesis of the civilised norms of human society, therefore also threatening its cultural achievements. It is in this context that the mythical images of the ancient Greeks, first traceable to the late 8th and especially to the 7th century BC, must be interpreted. The dominant theme of their earliest narrative art is the battles of Greek heroes – Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, etc. – against wild beasts and hybrid creatures of all sorts. These myths and their illustrations belong to a period characterised by the emergence and fortification of city-states, the Greek poleis, as the dominant model for society. Characteristic of the poleis and important, to a certain extent, for their survival was the need to differentiate between civic culture and an alien, threatening and even dangerous natural world and guarantee the livelihood of the community’s members. In concrete terms, the cities, which functioned as cultural, political and religious centres, had to assert and defend themselves in a partially hostile environment (wild animals, enemies, natural phenomena). Ideologically this effort was illustrated and underpinned by the battles between heroes and animals or hybrid creatures. In this sense, the myths served as identity-creating metaphors, whose goal was to make tangible the contrast between nature and culture.

Humanity vs. the wild


36 Heracles and the Nemean lion «The Nemean lion, which Hera, the good wife of Zeus, brought up and made to haunt the hills of Nemea, a plague to men. There he preyed upon the tribes of her own people and had power over Tretus of Nemea and Apesas: yet the strength of stout Heracles overcame him.» Hesiod (8th century BCE) The motif of humans and lions fighting emerged as early as the 4th millennium BC in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. As the most extreme form of struggle between man and beast, fighting the lion was seen as a ruler’s duty and privilege. In Greece, Heracles – the epitome of the Greek hero – was the most famous lion-tamer of all. The first task set him by King Eurystheus was to bring him the pelt of the invulnerable lion of Nemea. This monster rampaged through the mountains of Nemea, destroying livestock and tyrannising the rural population. Thanks to his incredible strength, Heracles was able to strangle the most dangerous animal in the world with his bare hands. Heracles, the hero of pure physical strength, saved human society from deadly danger. 1

Bossed beaker with a fight between a genius and a lion | Bronze, Luristan (Iran), 9th century BC (Inv. Su 4)

2

Vessel (stamnos) with Heracles and the Nemean lion | Clay, Sicily, c. 650 BC (Inv. BS 1432)

3

Wine cup (kylix) with Heracles and the Nemean lion | Clay, Athens, c. 560 BC (Inv. Bo 88)

4

Vessel for carrying water (hydria) with Heracles and the Nemean lion | Clay, Athens, c. 510 BC (Inv. BS 437)

5

Statuette of the Farnese Heracles | Plaster cast, Athens, c. 310 BC (Inv. SH 681)


37 Heracles fighting other monsters «A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes.» Apollodorus (2nd century BCE) Heracles was the epitome of the civilising hero. Many of his deeds are seen as metaphors for the threat posed to human achievements by nature. The Nemean lion and the Erymanthian boar, for example, destroyed farmers’ fields and livestock, thus robbing them of their means of existence. The Hydra, who threatened not only cattle but also transport routes, thus endangering trading links within the Argolis, was also defeated by Heracles. 1

Wine cup (kylix) with Heracles and the Erymanthian boar | Clay, Athens, c. 525 BC (Inv. BS 457)

2

Lamp in the shape of two wild boars | Clay, Greece, c. 430 BC (loaned by the foundation “In memoriam Adolf und Margreth Im Hof-Schoch”)

3

Ointment jar (aryballos) with Heracles and the Hydra | Clay, Corinth, c. 590 BC (Inv. BS 425)

4

Finial from a candelabrum with Heracles and a serpent | Bronze, Etruria, late 5th century BC (Inv. Kuhn 15)

5

Wine jar (amphora) with Heracles and Cerberus | Clay, Athens, c. 500 BC (Inv. Kuhn 57)

6

Relief of Heracles and the Hydra | Marble, Taranto (?), 1st century BC (Inv. BS 210)

38 Child’s sarcophagus with a boar-hunting scene Marblem, Rome, late 3rd century AD (Inv. Lu 257)


39 Theseus and the bull of Marathon Originally from Crete, the wild bull was captured by Heracles, who set it free again on the mainland. It went on to wreak havoc in the region around Marathon, destroying fields and threatening cities. The Attic hero Theseus succeeded in catching it and brought it to Athens, where it was sacrificed to the god Apollo. 1

Wine jar (amphora) with Theseus and the bull of Marathon | Clay, Athens, c. 440 BC (Inv. Lu 54)

2

Statuette of a bull | Clay, Greece, late 2nd millennium BC (Inv. Bo 174)

3

Vessel in the shape of a bull | Clay, Cyprus, 13th century BC (Inv. Bo 72)

40 R elief from the temple of Hephaistos in Athens showing a battle with centaurs Plaster cast, Athens, c. 440 BC (Inv. SH 137)

41 Centauromachies Images of battles between heroes and animals or hybrid creatures were far more than mere scenes of combat. At stake was the defence of civilised culture against the threats posed by wild nature. Battles with centaurs (Greek: kentauromachia) were often used as metaphors for these ‘cultural’ struggles. The rough, unbridled behaviour of the ‘horse-men’ threatened central norms of Greek society, such as hospitality and marriage. By their bravery in battle, the heroes Heracles and Theseus were defending civilisation. Equating centaurs with danger became so habitual that from the 5th century onwards, centauromachies appeared on numerous Greek buildings to symbolise external threats of every kind (for instance, the Persians). The mythical context was thus applied to real, political events.


1

Wine jar (amphora) with Heracles, Deïaneira and the centaur Nessos | Clay, Athens, c. 510 BC (Inv. BS 1921.330)

2

Drinking cup (kylix) with Heracles being entertained by the centaurs | Clay, Athens, c. 500 BC (Inv. BS 489)

3

Fragment of a drinking cup (kylix) with a battle with centaurs | Clay, Athens, c. 500 BC (on loan)

42 W ine jar (amphora) with a relief showing Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur Clay, Tinos (Cyclades), c. 670 BC (Inv. BS 617)

43 Theseus against the Minotaur The struggle between Theseus and the Cretan Minotaur is one of the most famous mythological conflicts. As punishment for the sacreligious behaviour of King Minos and his wife Pasiphaë, the gods made Pasiphaë fall in love with the Cretan bull. The product of this unnatural alliance was a creature who was half-human, half-bull. Its parentage alone contravened every cultural norm, but that was not all. Its dangerous nature posed such a threat that it had to be locked in the labyrinth and pacified with human sacrifices. The Minotaur represented a perversion of every existing order. The threat it posed could only be averted by Theseus, aided by the king’s cunning daughter, Ariadne. 1

Relief tablet (pinax) with Theseus and Ariadne | Clay, Taranto, 7th century BC (Inv. Bo 105)

2

Jug (oinochoe) with Theseus and the Minotaur | Bucchero, Etruria, 6th century BC (Inv. Zü 146a)

3

Ointment jar (lekythos) with Theseus and the Minotaur | Clay, Athens, c. 540 BC (Inv. BS 455)


44 Statue of a sphinx The Greek sphinx was a female winged creature. A favourite artistic motif, she could appear as a daemon of death, a tomb-guardian, or the embodiment of the Theban sphinx. Marble, Italy, Roman copy after a Greek original c. 450 BC (Inv. Lu 226b)

45 Oedipus and the Theban sphinx «And having learned a riddle from the Muses, the Sphinx sat on Mount Phicium, and propounded it to the Thebans. And the riddle was this: What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?» Apollodorus (2nd century BCE) In the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the hybrid creatures mentioned in myths gradually took on a concrete visual identity. The sphinx had originally appeared as an anomyous creature in friezes decorating Corinthian vases, but in the 6th century BC, at the latest, the image of the ‘lion-woman’ became associated with the sphinx from the Theban cycle of myths. This monster lay in wait outside the city of Thebes to menace travellers. Anyone who could not solve her famous riddle was strangled. The king’s son, Oedipus, was the first to solve the puzzle. Defeated by Oedipus’s intellect alone, the spinx threw herself from her rock into the abyss. 1

Water vessel (kalpis) with the Theban sphinx (?) | Clay, Athens, c. 500 BC (Inv. BS 411)

2

Statuette of a sphinx | Clay, Taranto, c. 450 BC (Inv. Zü 244)

3

Drinking cup (kyathos) with a sphinx | Clay, Athens, c. 500 BC (Inv. BS 413)

4

Akroterion in the shape of a sphinx | Limestone, Greece, early 5th century BC (Inv. Kä 207)


46 R elief from Temple C at Selinunte showing Athena, Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa Plaster cast, Selinunte, c. 530 BC (Inv. SH 440)

47 Perseus fights the Gorgon Medusa «So Perseus stood over them as they slept, and while Athena guided his hand and he looked with averted gaze on a brazen shield, in which he beheld the image of the Gorgon, he beheaded her.» Apollodorus (2nd century BCE) The hero Perseus was sent by King Polydectes to kill the Gorgon and bring him her head as proof. With the help of the goddess Athena and Hermes, the messenger of the gods, Perseus managed to approach the Gorgon while she was asleep, using a shield as a mirror to avoid being turned to stone by her gaze. He beheaded her with a sickle. In the end, he gave her severed head to his protectress, Athena, who sewed it onto her breastplate as a symbol for warding off evil. 1

Clay roof ornament (antefix) with a gorgoneion | Clay, Taranto, early 5th century BC (Inv. Lu 160)

2

Merrythought cup with Perseus and the Gorgon’s severed head | Clay, Apulia, c. 360 BC (Inv. 1419)


Notes


Notes