Zoomorphism explained

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. The topic of one of my first videos was the prehistoric sculpture. And, analyzing the first statuettes created by our ancestors, we learned that one of the most common subjects was about human figures mixed with animal features.

That approach actually continued also in other cultures, for sure more advanced, like the Egyptians and Greeks. So today we are going to understand the concept of Zoomorphism and why it is so common in ancient art and in populations with traditions completely different from each other.

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Back to our Zoomorphism, what does this word mean?

Zoomorphism origins

It derives from the Greek zōon, meaning “animal”, and morphē, meaning “shape” or “form”. So Zoomorphism means assigning a person, event, object or a deity with animalistic characteristics.

The Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel is a perfect example since we can see that the statuette has a human body with a lion head. But there is more: it has been determined by carbon dating to be between 30,000 and 40,000 years old, so it is the oldest-known zoomorphic sculpture.

Beside the record, this info is really useful because it gives evidence that even the first hominids had a cognitive process that permit to mix human’s traits with animals’ features. We don’t know if the statuette represents a god or a superstitious attempt of getting some of the lion’s power. However, the lion-man is just the first evidence of the zoomorphism diffusion.

Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel view from 3 sides
Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel

Zoomorphism in Egypt

Who for sure created zoomorphic deities have been the Egyptians. You have probably seen many times these two guys: Anubis and Horus.

Anubis, with his jackal head and human body, was the god of death. Jackals had been strongly associated with cemeteries because they were scavengers which uncovered human bodies and ate their flesh. Death was really important in the Egyptian culture, so the creation of the god in charge of it was fundamental.

In fact, one of the main reasons why gods were created was to justify some natural events that nowadays are explained by science, but back then were still a mystery.

Horus for example, often depicted as a man with a falcon head, served many functions: most notably god of kingship and the sky. Being the sky, he was considered to also contain the Sun and Moon. Egyptians believed that the Sun was his right eye and the Moon his left, and they were switching based on which side he was flying. So even here the zoomorphism was used to explain a natural event.

Last judgement of Hu-Nefer, Ancient Egyptian papyrus
Last judgement of Hu-Nefer
However, if those deities were specifically of a culture, some of them were in common: a well-known example is the Sphinx. A mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion with the wings of a falcon present in many traditions: Egypt, Greece and Southern Asia.

Similar to the Sphinx was the Assyrian Lamassu: human head, the body of a bull or a lion, and bird wings. It was a protective spirit and that’s why they were often placed as sentinels at entrances.


But it’s probably thanks to Greek mythology that we know most of the zoomorphic creatures: the minotaur with human’s body and bull’s head, the half horse and half human centaurs, the satyrs with horse’s ears and tail (or with goat’s ears, tail, legs, and horns for the Romans), the harpies with woman’s head and body and bird’s wings and claws or the less scary, but still dangerous, mermaids.

Even in Asia there are many examples. In Hindu iconography there is the elephant-headed Ganesha: god of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings. But also Kamadhenu, the mythical cow which is considered to be the mother of all other cattle and she is often portrayed as a cow with human’s head, peacock’s tail and bird’s wings.

As you can see, zoomorphism is actually really common. As humans it’s easier to develop creatures that share some characteristics with us, combining them with animal features to create mythical characters that we can admire, venerate or fear, but with whom we can still feel related to.

Thanks for reading. Give a look to Facebook and Instagram for more info and pictures. See you soon

Sandro Botticelli Pallas and the centaur
Pallas and the centaur - Sandro Botticelli
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