Animals in Arabian and Near Eastern Religion and Art

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Horses were renowned for their strength and capabilities in travel, hunting and warfare. Cavalry commanders in Nabataea even held high positions in society. Horses were tamed in North Arabia during the mid-first millennium BC at the latest. Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330–395) tells us that the Saracens ranged “widely with the help of swift horses and slender camels in times of peace or of disorder” which shows that horses were a normal mount for both the nomadic and settled peoples of the region.

Rock art of horses and horsemen are found all over Harrat Ash-Sham and the Arabian peninsula. They are one of the most frequent subjects of these rock drawings, and are shown by themselves and in scenes of hunting, raiding and fighting. Horses were used to hunt lions (often with the aid of archers on foot), oryx, ibex, gazelle and sometimes onager and ostrich. Onager hunts were mostly done on foot and sometimes ostrich were hunted with bows on camelback. Hunting and raiding on horseback was often done with a long flexible lance but short throwing spears were also used. Swords and bows were mostly used on foot.

Horse figurines outnumber all other animals in Petra. Some figurines include mounted riders but its unclear if they're meant to be deities or human warriors. On the façade of Al-Khazneh we have two Dioskuroi, sons of Zeus, linked to Gemini. The Diosckuroi and the terracotta figurines might be alluding to Syrian mounted deities such as 'Azizu, Arsu, Ma'an or Abgal. Its interesting to note that these deities are sometimes referred to as gny' (jinn) while the horse is said to descend from a jinn. Jinn often take the form of horses in folklore. Unridden horse figurines were used as votive offerings when asking for the security, growth and health of the flock. These figurines could replace the sacrifice of living animals or represented an animal that was left to pasture and die a natural death, which is a practice attested in Muslim sources on pre-Islamic Arabia. Horse figurines could also be deposited in burials to symbolically transport the dead through the afterlife.


The life of a camel-herder and that of his family depended on the camel. The camel's milk and occasionally meat, feeds them. Its hair clothes them, gives them shelter, and camel dung fuels their campfires. For merchants, camel caravans brought them great wealth. Because of the value and cultural importance of the camel we have many depictions of the animal in the form of sculptures, coins, reliefs, rock art and figurines. Wild camels were hunted while domesticated camels were raided and sacrificed. Rock art, monumental carvings and votive figurines of camels could be dedicated to deities.

In Egypt the camel is associated with Seth who was banished to the desert after the conflict with His brother Osiris for the throne. The camel was viewed as an impure animal and its blood was used in malignant magic. This negative association did not exist in Syro-Arabia where deities were often depicted riding camels. An inscription from Dura-Europos refers to Arsu as rsw wmty "Arsu the camel-rider." Many of the reliefs in Palmyra that represent armed deities depict them as pairs, the horseman representing a military escort and the camel-rider representing a traveler.

Camels were used during ceremonial processions where the animal would transport the image or sacred stone of a deity to a temple or between temples. This is depicted in Palmyra's Temple of Allat where four veiled women walk behind a camel. The camel carries a small round tent reminiscent of the Islamicate mihmal, a passenger-less litter carried on a camel among caravans of pilgrims to hajj. This tent is called a qubba, a portable shrine used to carry holy objects. Today the term is applied to the domed tombs of saints. In front of the camel is a unattended donkey who guides the procession of the camel. Its possible that the donkey acted as a medium that identified where the temple should be built similar to the fable in which Mohammad's camel Qaswa decided the location of his home which would later become a mosque. Only 50 years ago, the Bedouin of the Sinai and Negeb were still using a howdaj, a curtained acacia-wood frame similar to the qubba, mounted on a very special camel, which was lined with ostrich feathers and housed a chunk of meteorite believed to possess supernatural qualities. The meteorite lead them to good pasture and was taken on raids. In Hatra's Temple of Allat the Goddess is represented riding on a camel alluding to a procession in which Allat was introduced to the city. Both in Hatra and Palmyra the camel represents Allat's nomadic roots and in both cities the camel has a wasm tribal mark which indicates that the camel was dedicated to the Goddess.

Islamic-period sources describe a burial practice called the baliyyah. This practice involves hamstringing a camel at the grave of its owner to provide a mount in the afterlife. An excavated baliyyah from Wadi Ramm contained a buried camel. A terracotta figurine could have been used in place of a live camel since they and figurines of horses were placed in Nabataean tombs.


The most popular animal in Neolithic Near Eastern art is the ibex. Its easy to identify the crescent moon rising out of the mountains in the east and then setting in the mountains of the west with the ibex who lives in these mountains, symbolically carrying the moon on his head. The moon's cycles understood as symbolizing life, death and rebirth, paralleling the cycle of the soul. Millenia later the ibex was sacred to the Mesopotamian Tammuz and South Arabian Athtar. It was depicted on ritual furniture by both cultures. In South Arabia the ibex was the victim of a rain-making hunt practiced well after Islam. The connection between the ibex and rainfall is confirmed in Sabaean inscriptions where Athtar withheld the rains because the ibex hunt wasn't done properly.

Rock art near the Jordan-Saudi Arabian border and Negeb show an absolute obsession with the animal. At Jabal Ideid rock art depicts a man who touches the horns of an ibex with pole while a woman gives birth with upraised arms in prayer. The relationship between the ibex, fertility and life is explicit here. Other scenes depict people touching the horns of an ibex either with bare hands or with a pole. Some rock art depicts dogs attacking or chasing ibexes. Sometimes men are hunting the ibex with bows. This must've been an initiatory ritual hunt as the ibex was not a major food source.

In some instances the ibex is saved rather than hunted, with the hunter shooting the dog. Parallel motifs can be found across the Near East. Since the dog is usually seen killing the ibex we can associate the dog with death and the underworld, similar to Anubis or Cerberus. One example of rock art parallels a seal with Tammuz being mirrored by another version of Himself that is upside-down. Beside Him an ibex is being attacked by a dog. The rock art also depicts an ibex that is mirrored by another upside-down ibex with a line separating the two, indicating that the upside-down ibex is in the underworld. The ibex sometimes occurs with a star, a cross, a dot, or the sun alluding astral associations. The most common type of horned animal depicted in Nabataean terracotta figurines is the ibex. Ibex horns show up as part of pottery vessels and vessels molded in the shape of ram or sheep bodies show up well. At Jabal Serbal a pair of copper ibex horns once part of a statue were placed on an altar. Its clear that ibex iconography was key in certain Nabataean rituals. The ibex could represent the main aspect of Dushara as a mountain God of storms and fertility. In the Greco-Roman period the animal was sacred to Dionysus, who was syncretized with Dushara. Dionysus also has dying and rising qualities like Tammuz.

Gazelle and Deer

The gazelle represents the wilderness, the untamed land. On tablet I of the Gilgamesh epic, Enkidu, the untamed savage, is characterized as a companion of the gazelles. Gazelle representations are rare in Mesopotamian art, deer are far more common. Often scenes portray a lion attacking a deer. Abundance and fertility appear simultaneously with death and demise. In the Greco-Roman period both Temple XI at Hatra and the Temple of Heracles at Masjid-i Solaiman yielded gazelle-pendants. They may reference the famous episode of Heracles’ chase of the Ceryneian hind or the stag of Artemis. At Hatra and Dura-Europos, the gazelle is frequently represented in hunting scenes, mainly in graffiti or paintings. Unlike the ibex, the gazelle was often eaten. In Allat's temple at Palmyra a monumental figure of a lion with a gazelle sitting peacefully between its paws is displayed indicating that the shedding of blood in the precinct was forbidden. Two hand-made heads of a deer or a gazelle were found in Petra, probably handles of pottery.


In the myth of Etana an eagle breaks an oath of mutual aid with a snake and devours the snake's young. When the snake comes back he prays to Shamash who instructs him to hide in a bull's carcass that will be feasted on by the eagle. When the eagle arrives to feast on the carcass the snake attacks the eagle and throws him into a pit to starve. The wounded eagle prays to Shamash for help and so the God sends Etana who saves the eagle and nurses him back to health. In return Etana gets taken up through the seven heavens on the back of the eagle and finally meets with a Ishtar to get the plant of birth.

In the Nabataean temple of Khirbet Et-Tannur a sculpture of an eagle with a snake was set up. The sculpture might represent disharmony or duality. In the myth of Etana the eagle lives on top of a tree, while the snake is at the bottom, the eagle flies, the snake crawls. In earlier versions the snake hunts but only the eagle eats. The eagle and snake also symbolize heaven and earth, or water, respectively. It may have also been an apotropaic symbol. A solitary eagle was carved on the façade of Petra's treasury and atop a sculpture of a Goddess (possibly a personification of the spring) in Khirbet Et-Tannur. The eagle was frequently carved on the doorways of tombs at Hegra, possibly representing Dushara as Lord of Heaven and protector of tombs. Ba'al Shamin's temple at Si', a popular pilgrimage destination for Safaitic nomads, had an eagle carved above the entrance. The association between supreme weather Gods and eagles is not surprising given the fact that rain clouds and thunderstorms gather around mountains which were considered to be the home of the Gods. Allat is also associated with eagles in both Hatra and Palmyra.

The eagles atop tomb entrances could also represent the soul's flight from the body. Folklore and Muslim sources tell us that ancient Arabs believed the soul would leave the body in the form of a bird. This is usually an owl but sometimes an eagle. This alludes to the eagle’s role as psychopompos, a guide of the souls to heaven. The Roman emperors made their apotheosis in the same way, on the back of an eagle like Etana or Ganymede, and an eagle was released from the pyre of important funerals, symbolizing the ascent of the soul. In ancient Egypt small statuettes in the form of a bird, often a falcon, with human heads represented the ba (soul) of the deceased.


The earliest dated sculpture in Petra is the Snake Monument dated to the late 2nd century BC. Its a high rock-cut cube crowned with a snake, likely a python. The snake was an apotropaic symbol. We have found votive reliefs with an upraised snake and snake representations on Nabataean tombs in Petra and Hegra. At Bab as-Siq in Petra two reliefs were carved on the wall. One is a horse or mule carrying a baetyl and to it's right are two snakes with a quadruped between their heads. The left snake prevents the animal from escaping while the right snake is trying to pull the animal backwards to devour it. The quadruped is likely a dog or a jackal representing death being devoured by the snake signifying immortality.

The snake is associated with immortality in the Epic of Gilgamesh where it eats the plant of life. Snakes' annual shedding of their skin rendered them a symbol of regeneration and everlasting life like the phoenix. Hence the snake was associated with healing deities such as Asclepius, Eshmun, Shadrafa and Hauron. Hauron, once co-ruler with El, was punished for rebelling against Him. But when He repented, Hauron was reprieved and banished from the mountainous abode of the Gods. Before leaving the mountain, Hauron took revenge by destroying the Tree of Life and transforming into a huge poisonous serpent, pouring His deadly spittle over its life-giving fruit, turning the Tree of Life into a Tree of Death, and enveloping the world in a poisonous fog. As a result the Gods lost Their immortality and so They decided to send one of Them, named Adammu, down to save the world.

Hauron had hidden himself in the Tree of Life and was too fast for Adammu to escape His deadly bite. Adammu tries to free Himself from the teeth of the serpent, but fails. He doesn't know how “to bind the Biter" and how to conquer the poison. The venom starts to paralyze Adammu and so He invokes eleven Gods with a plea to subdue the serpent by binding and feeding it, presumably with a leaf from the Tree of Life. As in Mesopotamia, the serpent is an adversary to the divine order. However, when none of the eleven Gods answer, a twelfth is prayed to, Hauron. He gives in and uproots and trims the Tree of Death, thus making life possible again. The remedy against the serpent’s venom is the homeopathic principle of like cures like. A statue found in the Hauran, the volcanic desert east of Damascus, depicts Hauron as the divine physician Aesculapius, feeding a leaf to the serpent encircling His staff. To protect the new life on earth, Hauron engenders the Kotharat, seven divine midwives who protect and help pregnant women. It is interesting to note that so far two sculptures of Aesculapius have been uncovered in Petra.


The lion occupies a predominant place in the iconography of the ancient world. Its in all manifestations of the Zodiac as Leo, which is why the lion corresponds to the heat of the summer in Greco-Egyptian magic. Towards the end of winter Leo is directly overhead, displaying its maximum power as it "kills" Taurus, the Bull, which is trying to "escape" below the horizon. Taurus then disappears in the Sun's rays for forty days and then reappears announcing the Spring equinox.

Egyptian myths represent the lion as a symbol of power, courage and revenge. The Egyptian Goddesses Sekhmet and Menhit are depicted with the heads of lions. In Palmyra, Allat's temple displayed a monumental figure of a lion with a gazelle sitting peacefully between its paws, indicating that the shedding of blood in the precinct was forbidden. Inside the temple Allat was depicted in civilian dress enthroned next to two lions looking very much like Atargatis. However, Allat lacks a male consort such as Hadad, the mural crown, the spindle, kestos, or rays around Her head as seen in depictions of Atargatis. It is far from certain that the lion iconography was borrowed from Atargatis. Allat's association with lions is at least as old as the association of lions with Atargatis and countless other Near Eastern Goddesses were also linked to lions such as Anat, Astarte, Qedeshet, Ishtar and Nanaia. Allat's iconography could have been borrowed from any of them, if it was borrowed at all.

Allat’s association with lions dates back to at least the first century and is attested in a region that stretches from the Hauran to Mesopotamia. Throughout this region lions are associated with Allat both in the form of Athena and in civilian dress. Sometimes they flank the Goddess’s throne like in Her temple in Palmyra, but in other representations Allat is shown sitting on the back of a lion, standing on a lion, or riding a chariot drawn by lions. The lion seems to embody or represent Her. Hence we can understand the lion of Allat monument as Allat Herself protecting the gazelle and ensuring that the sanctuary is not defiled by blood. In the vision of the temple guardian Eusebius he sees a flaming meteorite crash down accompanied by a gigantic lion coming down from a mountain near Emesa where Allat had a sanctuary. Its clear that the lion represents a fundamental aspect of Allat’s personality. In Petra lions are carved along several procession ways leading to high places and temples. One of these temples is a major Nabataean sanctuary called the “Temple of the Winged Lions.” Its columns were decorated with winged lion capitals. Winged lions show up on a mural at Siq el-Barid near Petra which depicts a winged Eros harnessing two winged lions.


The dolphin was one of the major religious symbols of the Nabataeans. Even those living inland would have been familiar with dolphins as Tyrian and Sinope coins struck with dolphins were in circulation for centuries. And indeed dolphin motifs are found in places far removed from the site or smell of the sea. They were placed on altars and carved in temples such as Khirbet Et-Tannur and Khirbet Brak. Dolphin tails and dolphin heads appear on facades. In the temple of Allat at Wadi Ramm we've found a bronze dolphin tail that was once the handle of a ritual implement. Atargatis and Aphrodite (who were synonymous according to Lucian) are both associated with dolphins. Aphrodite was also linked to the sea in general, and Her form Aphrodite Anadyomene (emerging from the sea) was incredibly popular in Syria and Nabataea. Dolphins are found on Phoenician and Jewish sarcophagi and in Petra dolphins and tragic masks representing death are often paired. The animal was considered to be the harbinger of fair weather, successful enterprise, and safe journeys both in this life and the next.


Its helpful to look at figurines and reliefs of animals as a source of information to illustrate the religious attitudes and beliefs of the ancient Arabs and their neighbors. They act as religious tools to perceive the divine world. Certain animals were associated with certain deities, such as Aphrodite with the dove or Allat with the lion. Figurines also act as votive offerings as an expression of thanks for all the good things one receives each day. These are typically given at a shrine or altar before statues or baetyls. They are tokens of respect to supreme beings, and a way of acting and communicating with the Gods, and of keeping in contact with Them.

The Gods are the source of all that is good. Anyone wishing to draw closer to the Gods should establish an altar with iconography that can include animal motifs. Historically votive figurines of animals, in particular horses and camels, were mass produced. They may have been connected with the hope for security, growth and health of the flock. Placed on an altar, or elsewhere prominently displayed, they acted as a legitimate substitution for animal sacrifice, or indicated that a living animal was allowed to pasture in the pastureland of the God and die a natural death. Sacred animals were also symbols of Gods or their manifestations. Animal bodies and parts could be depicted on ritual vessels such as incense burners, libation bowls and offering dishes. Most of terracotta figurines were found in houses giving us a real tangible view of Nabataean household worship.

The following is a list of animals depicted on reliefs, terracotta figurines and zoomorphic vessels from Petra as well as their associations:

  • Horses: Strength, travel, hunting, warfare, Gemini, mounted deities
  • Camels: Wealth, travel, the desert, wayfinding, nomadism, Allat
  • 1Ibex: Moon, life, death, rebirth, reincarnation, Rudhaw, Dushara
  • Gazelle: Wilderness, spring, abundance, fertility, innocence, Allat
  • Dove: Atargatis, Aphrodite, Mother Goddesses, Allat(?), Al-'Uzza(?)
  • Eagle: Ascent, the heavens, rain, sun, Dushara, Ba'al Shamin, Allat
  • Snake: Health, immortality, healing, rebellion, medicine, healing deities
  • Lion: Leo, summer, kingship, power, courage, revenge, Allat, Al-'Uzza
  • Dolphin: Safe travel, fair weather, wealth, Allat, Atargatis
  • Monkey: Apotropaic symbol, wards off evil spirits

References and Further Reading