Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The Lord/Master of the Animals and Potnia Theron (“The Mistress of the Animals”)

Posted by Fredsvenn on July 20, 2015

Gundestrup Cauldron, Silver - Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark

Gundestrup Cauldron, Silver – Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1

The Lord of the Animals (also known as Master of (the) Animals) is a generic term for a number of deities from a variety of cultures with close relationships to the animal kingdom or in part animal form (in cultures where that is not the norm). They sometimes also have female equivalents, the so-called Mistress of the Animals.

Horned gods are not universal however, and in some cultures Bear gods, like Arktos might take the role, or even the more anthropomorphic deities who lead the Wild Hunt. Such figures are also often referred to as ‘Lord of the forest’* or ‘Lord of the mountain’.

The implication being that these all have a Stone Age precursor who was probabably a hunter’s deity. The classic example of which is the ‘horned god of the hunt’, typified by Cernunnos, Herne the Hunter and Arnon, and a variety of Stag, Bull, Ram and Goat gods.

Alulim was the first king of Eridu, and the first king of Sumer, according to the mythological antediluvian section of the Sumerian King List. Enki, the god of Eridu, is said to have brought civilization to Sumer at this point, or just shortly before.

The Sumerian King List has the following entry for Alulim: “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug (Eridu). In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years.”

In a chart of antediluvian generations in Babylonian and Biblical traditions, Professor William Wolfgang Hallo associates Alulim with the composite half-man, half-fish counselor or culture hero (Apkallu) Uanna-Adapa (Oannes), and suggests an equivalence between Alulim and Enosh in the Sethite genealogy given in Genesis chapter 5. Hallo notes that Alulim’s name means “Stag”.

Potnia Theron (“The Mistress of the Animals”) is a term first used (once) by Homer (Iliad 21. 470) and often used to describe female divinities associated with animals. The word Potnia, meaning mistress or lady, was a Mycenaean word inherited by Classical Greek, with the same meaning, cognate to Sanskrit patnī.

Homer’s mention of potnia theron is thought to refer to Artemis and Walter Burkert describes this mention as “a well established formula”. An Artemis type deity, a ‘Mistress of the Animals’, is often assumed to have existed in prehistorical religion and often referred to as Potnia Theron, with some scholars positing a relationship between Artemis and goddesses depicted in Minoan art and “Potnia Theron has become a generic term for any female associated with animals.”

Inara, in Hittite–Hurrian mythology, was the goddess of the wild animals of the steppe and daughter of the Storm-god Teshub/Tarhunt. She corresponds to the “potnia theron” of Greek mythology, better known as Artemis. Inara’s mother is probably Hebat and her brother is Sarruma.

In Egyptian mythology, Satet (also spelt Satis, Satjit, Sates, and Sati) was the deification of the floods of the Nile River. Her cult originated in the ancient city of Swenet, now called Aswan on the southern edge of Egypt. Her name means she who shoots forth referring to the annual flooding of the river. Satet was also connected with the Eye of Ra.

She was an early war, hunting, and fertility deity who was seen as the mother of the goddess Anuket, the personification and goddess of the Nile river in the Egyptian mythology, and a protector of southern Egypt. Satet, goddess of the hunt, was shown with the horns of a deer, and sometimes a deer’s face.

One of her titles was She Who Runs Like an Arrow, which is thought to refer to the river current, and her symbols became the arrow and the running river. Satet was pictured as a woman wearing the conical crown of Upper Egypt, the Hedjet, with gazelle or antelope horns, or as an antelope, a fast moving creature living near the banks of the river in the southern portion of Ancient Egypt. She also was depicted with a bow and arrows.

Other interpretations say her primary role was that of the war goddess, a guardian of Egypt’s southern (Nubian) frontier and killing the enemies of the Pharaoh with her arrows.

She usually is depicted as holding an ankh also, due to her association with the life giving flooding of the Nile. Consequently, Satet acted as a fertility goddess, thus granting the wishes of those who sought love. Satet is also described as offering jars of purifying water.

Later she became regarded as one of the consorts of Khnum, the god identified as the guardian of the source of the Nile, with whom she was worshipped at Elephantine (the First nome of Egypt), indeed the centre of her cult was nearby, at Sahal, another island of the Nile. Since she was most dominant at the southern end of Egypt, she became regarded as the guard of Egypt’s southern border with Nubia.

Satet’s child was Anuket, goddess of the Nile River herself, who formed the third part of the Elephantine triad of deities when formed. Anuket is in the interpretatio graeca, considered equivalent to Hestia or Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and home.

Deer have significant roles in the mythology of various peoples. The Insular Celts have stories involving supernatural deer, who are associated with a spiritual figure, and spirits or deities who may take the form of deer. In some Scottish and Irish tales deer are seen as “fairy cattle” and are herded and milked by a tutelary, benevolent, otherworldly woman (such as a bean sìdhe or in other cases the goddess Flidais), who can shapeshift into the form of a red or white deer. In the West Highlands, this woman of the otherworld selects the individual deer who will be slain in the next day’s hunt.

In Ireland, The Cailleach Bhéara (“The Old Woman of Beare”), who lives on an island off the coast of County Cork, takes the form of a deer to avoid capture, and herds her deer down by the shore. The Beare peninsula is also associated with the islands in the western sea that are the lands of the dead. Other Celtic mythological figures such as Oisin and Sadbh also have connections to deer.

Cernunnos is a mythological figure in Continental Celtic mythology, and possibly one of the figures depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron. He has deer or stag antlers on the top of his head. His role in the religion and mythology is unclear, as there are no particular stories about him.

An Anglo-Saxon royal scepter found at the Sutton Hoo burial site in England features a depiction of an upright, antlered stag. In the Old English language poem Beowulf, much of the first portion of the story focuses on events surrounding a great mead hall called Heorot, meaning “Hall of the Hart”.

In the Poetic Edda poem Grímnismál the four stags of Yggdrasil are described as feeding on the world tree, Yggdrasil, and the poem further relates that the stag Eikþyrnir lives on top of Valhalla. In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, the god Freyr is having once killed Beli with an antler. In Þiðrekssaga, Sigurd is presented as having been nursed by a doe.

Andy Orchard proposes a connection between the hart Eikþyrnir atop Valhalla, the hart imagery associated with Heorot, and the Sutton Hoo scepter. Sam Newton identifies both the Sutton Hoo whetstone and the hall Heorot as early English symbols of kingship.

Rudolf Simek says that “it is not completely clear what role the stag played in Germanic religion” and theorizes that “the stag cult probably stood in some sort of connexion to Odin’s endowment of the dignity of kings.”

In Greek mythology, the deer is particularly associated with Artemis in her role as virginal huntress. Actaeon, after witnessing the nude figure of Artemis bathing in a pool, was transformed by Artemis into a stag that his own hounds tore to pieces. Callimachus, in his archly knowledgeable “Hymn III to Artemis”, mentions the deer that drew the chariot of Artemis:

One of the Labors of Heracles was to capture the Cerynian Hind sacred to Artemis and deliver it briefly to his patron, then rededicate it to Artemis. As a hind bearing antlers was unknown in Greece, the story suggests a reindeer, which, unlike other deer, can be harnessed and whose females bear antlers. The myth relates to Hyperborea, a northern land that would be a natural habitat for reindeer. Heracles’ son Telephus was exposed as an infant on the slopes of Tegea but nurtured by a doe.

In Hindu mythology, the Aitareya Upanishad tells us that the goddess Saraswati takes the form of a red deer called Rohit. Saraswati is the goddess of learning, so learned men use deer skin as clothing and mats to sit upon.

A golden deer plays an important role in the epic Ramayana. While in exile in the forest, Rama’s wife Sita sees a golden deer and asks Rama and Lakshmana to get it for her. The deer is actually a rakshasa called Maricha in disguise. Maricha takes this form to lure Rama and Lakshmana away from Sita so his nephew Ravana can kidnap her.

The stag was revered alongside the bull at Alaca Höyük and continued in the Hittite mythology as the protective deity whose name is recorded as dKAL. Other Hittite gods were often depicted standing on the backs of stags.

The Tribe Naftali bore a Stag on its tribal banner, and was poetically described as a Hind in the Blessing of Jacob. In Jewish mythology – as discussed in the Talmud exists a giant kind of stag by the name “Keresh”. He is said to live in a mythical forest called “Bei Ilai”.

In Hungarian mythology, Hunor and Magor, the founders of the Magyar peoples, chased a white stag in a hunt. The stag lead them into unknown land that they named Scythia. Hunor and Magor populated Scythia with their descendants the Huns and the Magyars. To this day, an important emblem in Hungary is a many-antlered stag with its head turned back over its shoulder.

The Scythians had some reverence for the stag, which is one of the most common motifs in their artwork, especially at funeral sites. The swift animal was believed to speed the spirits of the dead on their way, which perhaps explains the curious antlered headdresses found on horses buried at Pazyryk. In Slavic fairytales, Golden-horned deer is a large deer with golden antlers.

Saint Giles, a Catholic saint especially revered in the south of France, is reported to have lived for many years as a hermit in the forest near Nîmes, where in the greatest solitude he spent many years, his sole companion being a deer, or hind, who in some stories sustained him on her milk. In art, he is often depicted together with that hind.

Deer figure in the founding legend of Le Puy-en-Velay, where a Christian church replaced a megalithic dolmen said to have healing powers. A local tradition had rededicated the curative virtue of the sacred site to Mary, who cured ailments by contact with the standing stone. When the founding bishop Vosy climbed the hill, he found that it was snow-covered in July; in the snowfall, the tracks of a deer around the dolmen outlined the foundations of the future church.

Saint Hubertus (or “Hubert”) is a Christian saint, the patron saint of hunters, mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers, and used to be invoked to cure rabies. The legend of St Hubertus concerned an apparition of a stag with the crucifix between its horns, effecting the worldly and aristocratic Hubert’s conversion to a saintly life.

In the story of Saint Hubertus, on Good Friday morning, when the faithful were crowding the churches, Hubertus sallied forth to the chase. As he was pursuing a magnificent stag the animal turned and, as the pious legend narrates, he was astounded at perceiving a crucifix standing between its antlers, which occasioned the change of heart that led him to a saintly life. The story of the hart appears first in one of the later legendary hagiographies (Bibliotheca hagiographica Latina, nos. 3994–4002) and has been appropriated from the earlier legend of Saint Eustace (Placidus).

Later in the 6th century, the Bishop Saint Gregory of Tours wrote his chronicles about the Merovingian rulers. Historia Francorum contains the legend of King Clovis I, who prayed to Christ in one of his campaigns so he could find a place to cross the river Vienne. Considered as a divine sign, a huge deer appeared and showed where the army could pass.

In the 14th century, probably keeping some relation with Saint Eustace’s legend, the deer again appears in Christian legend. The Chronicon Pictum contains a story where the later King Saint Ladislaus I of Hungary and his brother the King Géza I of Hungary were hunting in a forest, and a deer with numerous candles on his antlers appeared to them.

Saint Ladislaus told his brother that it wasn’t a deer but an angel of God, and his antlers were wings; the candles were shining feathers. He also stated his intent to build a cathedral in honor of the Holy Virgin in the place where the deer appeared.

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