Mistress of Wild Animals
by Dr. Alena Trckova-Flamee, Ph.D.
The Mistress of the Wild Animals (Potnia theron) or Queen of the Wild Bees appears under many names. Her Minoan name was Britomartis or Sweet Virgin and she was related to Dictynna. The name Potnia is known from the Linear script B tablets and was used for the principal Mycenaean female deity. The type of goddess who — in iconography — was surrounded by animals, and who appeared in archaic Greek art, was usually called Potnia theron, or sometimes Artemis.
During the fifteenth century BCE, the Mycenaeans, heavy influenced by Minoan culture, presented the Mistress of Animals in a Minoan manner and with her usual sacred symbols. However, by the Late Mycenaean period, the old type of deity flanked by animals was forgotten. On wall paintings the goddess is sometimes accompanied by a griffin, but generally new iconographical religious themes and types were applied.
The Mistress of Animals, a counterpart of the Master of Animals, is usually described as a hunting deity, but some authors associate her not only with wild animals, snakes, and birds, but further with a sacred tree and pillar, with poppy and some lily, and eventually she looked like a Mistress of Trees and Mountains. M.P. Nilsson believed that she was an earlier form of the Minoan Mother of Mountains. The Mycenaeans adopted the iconographical type of the Mistress of Animals and applied it the goddess of nature, who was represented with vegetation — mainly palms and papyrus flowers. The archaic Greeks, following the tradition, used the old iconographical scheme with their own aesthetic program, but over time the name of Potnia theron and her attributes and functions were integrated into Artemis.
Minoan seal reliefs depict the Mistress of Animals in frontal position with raised hands, turning the lower part of her body, and dressed in a Minoan skirt. She is flanked by animals, a double ax and snakes, which are evidence of her divinity. Her close relation with nature and her domination over animals is illustrated on the relief — one of the griffins, accompanying the deity, is suckling her breast. Another representation on a golden ring shows the deity with a galloping griffin. The griffins, the same as the beasts, became followers of the divinity and also function as her guardians. Occasionally, the mythical animals and the wild animals are depicted on their own, or with some religious equipment (such as an altar or a column), which provides information about the presence of the deity or about her sacred places.
In early archaic Greek art, the Mistress of Animals emerges again. The relief on the pithos of Thebes show her in frontal position with raised hands, accompanied by lions and two small human figures, while a Boeotian vase illustrates her domination over many kinds of animals. Necklace plaques, decorated with the Mistress of Animals, and dating from the second half of seventh century BCE, present her with wings in a daedalic style, surrounded by lions, or with a body of bees without the company of animals. Finally, the vase by the François painter depicts the type of deity with wings again, holding a lion and a deer, but in this situation she is sometimes sometimes Potnia theron and sometimes Artemis.