Human & Animal Forms in the Art of the Ancient Near East

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  • 0:01 Mesopotamia
  • 0:37 Humans & Animals in Art
  • 2:35 Anthropomorphism in Art
  • 3:44 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the ways that cultures of the ancient Near East represented both humans and animals in their art and how these figures interacted with each other. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ancient Mesopotamia

In the region of the Near/Middle East between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is a place known in ancient times as Mesopotamia. The people of Mesopotamia developed some of the earliest advanced civilizations in the world, with large cities, complex political systems, and lots and lots of art. Like artists from any time or place, ancient Mesopotamians created art that reflected their understanding of the world around them. And what were two things that were very common and very important to Mesopotamians? Humans and animals.

Humans and Animals in Art

Ancient Mesopotamian art often depicted humans, especially kings or other rulers. These people were important and wealthy enough to pay artists to depict them, or their deeds, in art. Although there were several styles that developed across Mesopotamia, a few common characteristics jump out in the representation of human figures, especially powerful men. Ruling figures very often appeared in long, flowing garments, contrary to the outfit of a worker, and usually wore some sort of headdress and held a weapon.

There was also a major tradition of giving men very long and curly beards. Many times, these beards were probably exaggerated to show power or manliness. Free standing sculptures of Mesopotamian humans also commonly had large eyes, creating a major focus on that part of the human body.

For as many humans as are found in Mesopotamian art, there are just as many animals. Animals are a major focus in Mesopotamian art because animals were a major part of Mesopotamian life. The people of this region were shepherds, rode horses in battle, used pack animals to travel, and hunted for both food and recreation. This region was among the first to domesticate dogs, sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs, and cats.

In Mesopotamian art, animals appear both with humans and alone, indicating their prominence in ancient culture. Certain animals were respected for their strength, speed, or ferocity and appear in art as representations of those ideas. This also had a spiritual element, as these qualities were associated with gods who shared those traits. For example, the bull represented the god of thunder due to its strength and low, rumbling bellow. The image of a bull in art did not mean the god had taken the form of a bull but was a metaphor for the presence of the god.

Anthropomorphism in Art

Humans and animals often appear together in Mesopotamian art, but they are also shown acting like each other. In some Mesopotamian works, scenes appear of animals behaving like humans, probably reflecting ancient Near East myths or fables. Regardless, animal and human behavior often intertwined. On the other side, kings or other people could be seen with animal traits, perhaps wings of an eagle or even the head of a lion. The mixture of human and animal traits on a figure is called anthropomorphism, and it often represented a person who embodied the respected traits of that animal.

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