Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Guardians and good luck charms
The physical attributes of some animals have been used throughout human history to offer protection and guardianship whether through association or sympathetic magic. Lions, for example, are well known for their strength and ferociousness and have featured as guardian figures in different cultures world-wide.
In the first century AD the Roman historian Tacitus noted that the people of northern Europe regarded the image of the boar as effective protection on the battlefield. Two small bronze models of boars found in the south of England, date back to between the first century BC and first century AD. They were made to be fixed on to something else and may have been decorations on a wooden bucket or box, or even fixed on top of iron helmets.
Composite creatures combine the powers of different animals. The ancient Egyptian goddess Taweret, for example, has a hippopotamus's body, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a crocodile. Combining the qualities of animals known for aggressively protecting their young, Tawaret was believed to frighten away evil demons that threatened women during childbirth.
Births usually took place inside the home, so Taweret was considered a household deity. No large-scale temples were dedicated to her, but instead small figures were placed on the household altar, that would have been part of every home. Such figures guaranteed the protection of the goddess against forces that might threaten the household, especially its children.
Kings, and later private individuals, sometimes dedicated statues of deities, or of themselves holding deities, to show their devotion to a god. The dedication of a figure of Taweret might be in order to gain her favour in a forthcoming birth, or be in thanks for her intervention in a recent one.
Archaeologist Austen Henry Layard (1817-94) worked in Assyria between 1845 and 1851. Among his many discoveries was a colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull. He suggested that such composite creatures combined the strength of the lion (or in this case, the bull), the swiftness of birds indicated by the wings, and the intelligence of the human head.
The figure has five legs, so that when viewed from the front it stands firm, while when viewed from the side it appears to be striding forward to combat evil. The 'Standard Inscription' of Ashurnasirpal II is inscribed between the figure's legs and records his titles, ancestry and achievements.
Stone sculptures of mythological figures were often placed as guardians at gateways to palaces and temples in ancient Mesopotamia. They were known to the Assyrians as lamassu and were designed to protect the palace from demonic forces. They may even have guarded the entrance to the private apartments of the king.
Fantastic animals may also have supernatural qualities and symbolize the boundary between life and death or between the earthly world and the world of the gods.
In Japan mythical beasts have been very popular subjects for netsuke, small toggles used by men to secure the cord on which they would hang accessories from the sash tying their kimono. By the eighteenth century, these traditional items had become finely carved ornaments.
The British Museum collection includes around 3300 netsuke. Carved in the form of the kirin, which had a human face and beard, two horns, a domed lump on its fore
head, four horns down its back, the tail of a shishi (a mythical leonine creature) and cloven hooves, a netsuke brought good luck to the wearer.
Netsuke in the form of more familiar animals, such as a rat, might be given as a gift for someone born in the year of that particular animal, or worn during that year.
The Japanese borrowed the Chinese custom of grouping years into cycles of twelve, each year dedicated to a particular animal. Rats were traditionally thought of as carefree, adventurous types, very attached to their family and gave these characteristics to people born in their year.
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