Allegorical Animals: The Connection Between Paganism and Early Christian Art (Part One)

PART ONE: FROM CAVE PAINTINGS TO CHARIOT RACES 

Animal Farm, published in 1945, is an allegory of Soviet Communism. The story follows a group of oppressed farm animals who rebel against their cruel master, Farmer Jones. At the outset, all is well: led by Snowball (stand-in for Leon Trotsky), an intelligent and idealistic pig, the animals establish a utopian government based on self-governance and equal sharing of food and work. Eventually, the pigs grow arrogant with power and change the rules to favor themselves. Snowball is ousted and another pig, Napoleon (stand-in for Joseph Stalin), takes over as dictator, backed by a “secret police” of dogs (stand-in for the KGB). Soon the other animals are near starvation, fearing for their lives and ultimately no better off than they were under humans.

Orwell’s casting of the animals is a curious commentary of sorts on human views of animals: the physically strongest and the most democratic animal on the farm is Boxer, a horse (stand-in for the faithful workers), yet he selects the most unhygienic and perceived sloth-like animal to become the most corrupted.

From ancient myths and folk tales to modern books such as Animal Farm, animals have always been a component of human storytelling. The earliest surviving examples of human artistic expression are the cave paintings near Lascaux, France, dated between 28,000 and 10,000 BCE (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lasc/hd_lasc.htm).  The Stone Age artists used the contours of the rock to imply volume and painted vivid representations of animals that included cows, bulls, horses, bison, and deer. Kenneth Clark disagreed with the idea that these paintings were intended to give humans power over animals: he notes the difference in size and detail between the animals and humans in the depiction and concludes that the paintings were actually rooted in admiration. Clark deduces that this admiration leads to the next stage in man’s relationship with animals, which were as sacred symbols or as totems.

Totemism is a complex system of ideas, symbols, and practices based on an assumed relationship between a social group and a natural object known as a totem. The totem may be an animal or several animals. Totemism has existed all over the world, but it is in Egypt that totemism evolved into religion.

Camille Paglia conjectured that the cat was the model for the Egyptian aesthetic. According to Paglia, cats have personality and are priest and god of its own cult, following a purity ritual by cleaning itself religiously (the cat character in Animal Farm, never works — not really part of the ‘team’— and is absent for long periods). Paglia briefly compares the cat to the gorilla, finding the former far more sophisticated: the gorilla is more human, but less beautiful, “bumptious vulgarians lurching up the evolutionary road.” Paglia notes that in Egypt it was the cat; in Greece it was the horse. The male centric Greeks did not care for the feminine cat, they admired the athletic horse. The cat is a law unto itself while the horse is a serviceable, but proud animal (i.e. Boxer in Animal Farm).

“Trojans, trust not the horse. Whatever it be, I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts.” – Laocoon to the Trojans. Virgil, Aeneid 2.48

Parthenon: A section of the west frieze showing a rearing horse with a dismounted rider

Parthenon: A section of the west frieze showing a rearing horse with a dismounted rider, 438 BCE, Acropolis Museum, Athens.

The Greeks believed that Poseidon, god of the sea, created horses and occasionally they were sacrificed to the god by drowning. Horses were first domesticated in Europe during the Neolithic period and were important to the Greeks for battle, racing, traveling, and hunting. Treatises instructed horse owners on the correct treatment of their animals. The oldest one still surviving today is The Art of Horsemanship by the Greek writer Xenophon, which details the proper care and training of horses. The picture on the right is of a section from the west frieze of the Parthenon showing a rearing horse with a dismounted rider.

Mosaic of the Circus at Carthage

Mosaic of the Circus at Carthage, Early 3rd century CE, Bardo Museum, Tunis

Roman chariot horse races date back at least to the sixth century BCE. Races were associated with religion, particularly to the chariot-driving deities Sol (the sun) and Luna (the moon), and to a god called Consus, an agricultural deity. Originally, chariot races were held only on religious festivals like the Consualia, but later they would also be held on non-feast days when sponsored by magistrates and other Roman dignitaries. Pictured on the left is an early third century CE mosaic of the circus at Carthage that depicts a hortator on horseback and a sparsor holding an amphora and a whip. The mosaic is unique because it shows both the interior of the arena and the exterior façade as well as two temple-like structures above the seating.

The Christian Apologist, Tertullian, who was from Carthage, was not so enthusiastic about the chariot races and wrote in De Spectaculis (IX): “Equestrian skill was a simple thing in the past, mere horseback riding; in any case there was no guilt in the ordinary use of the horse. But when the horse was brought into the games, it passed from being God’s gift into the service of demons.”

Next time in Part Two: Christianity Connects with Pagan Motifs.

Sources:

Kenneth Clark. Animals and Men. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1977

E. Washburn Hopkins. “The Background of Totemism.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 38 (1918), pp. 145-159; https://archive.org/stream/jstor-592599/592599#page/n0/mode/2up

Camille Paglia. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York. Vintage Books, 1991

Harold B Barclay. The Role of the Horse in Man’s Culture. London. J.A. Allen. 1980

Roland Auguet. Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games. London. Allen and Unwin. 1972

Tertullian. Minucius, Felix (Author). T. R. Glover (Translator). Rendall, Gerald H. (Translator). Tertullian: Apology and De Spectaculis. Minucius Felix: Octavius. Loeb Classical Library. 1931 http://archive.org/stream/apologydespectac00tertuoft/apologydespectac00tertuoft_djvu.txt

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