BMCR 2008.03.42

The Feline-Prey Theme in Archaic Greek Art. Classification-Distribution-Origin-Iconographical Context. Stockholm Studies in Classical Archaeology, 14

, , , The feline-prey theme in archaic Greek art : classification, distribution, origin, iconographical context. Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis. Stockholm studies in classical archaeology, 13. Stockholm: Dept. of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University, 2007. 103 pages, 32 pages of plates : illustrations ; 27 cm.. ISBN 9789185445608 SEK 294.00 (pb).

Sven von Hofsten’s book is a meticulous study of the feline-prey motif in Archaic Greek art. The scope and criteria of the author’s research are clearly stated in the introduction: von Hofsten examines all kinds of objects manufactured between 700 and 480 BC that are decorated with a scene of one or more felines (i.e., lions, panthers) attacking their prey. He successfully undertakes the challenge of cataloguing more than 500 published objects of various material and diverse provenance ranging from eastern and mainland Greece to Magna Graecia and Sicily, in order to study variants of the theme and their distribution patterns. Von Hofsten’s goal is not a mere stylistic analysis of different schemes but a quest for possible prototypes of these popular animal scenes.

Towards the end of his introduction, the author presents previous scholarship on the feline-prey motif, its function and meaning, followed by a section on his own methodology with a description of his classification system. This last section is essential because it provides the guidelines for understanding not only Von Hofsten’s charts but also his analysis, which largely derives from this painstaking accumulation of statistical data. The most decisive factor for the inclusion or exclusion of a feline-prey scene in his catalogue is the proximity and relation of the two animals. Thus, all episodes showing an imminent attack, those with lion(s)/panther(s) clearly attacking their prey, and those depicting the aftermath of the attack with the assaulted animal completely defeated form the core of his study. On the other hand, scenes with no physical contact between the two animals are excluded, as are the representations of a lion attacking a man. One wonders, however, how fine the line is between the no-contact scenes and those where the attack is about to occur, and if the inclusion of the former would have altered the author’s final conclusions. The numerous friezes of felines and other animals in procession are not taken into account.

The first chapter outlines the different categories of the feline-prey theme, classified by the author in eight “constellations”, depending on the combination of attacking species and their prey: lion(s)/panther(s) vs. bull, deer, boar, equus, goat, ram, hare and undetermined. Von Hofsten proceeds to a schematic arrangement of the above-mentioned variants, which largely fall into two groups, Single and Double Attacks. Tables 1 and 2 illustrate in a concise and informative way the cross-references between the 22 material groups examined and the constellations and schemes of the feline-prey motif. The most significant result of this analysis is the strikingly high number of arulae (small altars) from Magna Graecia decorated with felines attacking (250 examples), followed by Attic black-figure vases (120 examples). The author points out that in single attacks, i.e. in the case of one single lion or panther attacking, the bull is commonly attacked from the front, while the deer from behind but he offers no thoughts as to the significance of this observation. Quite interesting is his commentary on the popularity of the scheme with two lions attacking a bull in Archaic Athens. Von Hofsten notices how the bull faces right in the pedimental compositions of the Hekatompedon and the Archaios Neos, while on 32 Attic black-figure vases of the same period the bull’s head is posed to the left. Based on this observation and other minor discrepancies in the animal’s pose, von Hofsten reevaluates the assumption that the Acropolis pedimental sculpture was the direct prototype for the vase-paintings. This approach, however, is not altogether convincing, since it is supported solely on minute stylistic differences and lacks any consideration of alternative explanations.

Quite intriguing is von Hofsten’s discussion of another vase, the fragmentary calyx-krater by the Andokides Painter, also from the Athenian Acropolis.1 Even though the main decoration of the krater (Symposium/ Dionysos on chariot) is rendered in the red-figure technique, a secondary a scene of two lions attacking a bull is executed in black-figure. Choosing an older technique for the animal scene shows, according to von Hofsten, that the scheme of two lions vs. bull “must have been considered an antiquated motif” (p. 24). Even though von Hofsten does not take into consideration the experimentation of vase-painters with alternative techniques and the combination of new and old elements during the transitional period from Attic black to red-figure vases, his thesis that the black-figure rendering of the animals is related to deliberate traditionalism is persuasive. His argument may find further support in the long-lasting production of Panathenaic amphoras, and second-rate black-figure lekythoi produced well into the 5th century BC.

After the classification of the motif’s variants, von Hofsten proceeds to observations on their geographical and chronological distribution, correlating in Table 3 schemes and areas of production. One third of all the material studied originates from the Greek mainland (“Greek mother country”). Even though the earliest appearance of the feline-prey motif occurs on Laconian ivories and Proto-Corinthian vases of the first half of the 7th century BC, Attic black-figure vases form the majority of this geographic group. The role of Cyprus is singled out in the East Greek production of artifacts decorated with animal-attacks, consisting mostly of scarabs and vases. The earliest examples date around 600 BC. In Western Greek art the motif appears much later, towards the middle of the 6th century BC, and becomes a popular decoration of the arulae. Von Hofsten notes that of the two felines, the lion was by far the preferred choice in Greek mainland, while in Magna Graecia panthers and lions were equally popular, but it is disappointing that he does not offer any suggestions as to why this occurred.

In Chapter Two, von Hofsten explores the antecedents of the Archaic feline-prey theme following a three-fold approach: he examines the literary sources and archaeological evidence for the existence of lions in Greece, followed by a study of the motif in the Geometric Period and the Bronze Age. He concludes with an investigation of Near Eastern forerunners, emphasizing the impact of Syro-Phoenician prototypes, and considers the media and routes that facilitated the introduction and diffusion of the motif in Archaic Greece. Among the most significant issues that von Hofsten addresses are the questions of continuity of the scheme from the Geometric era, its potential Bronze Age revival and the possibility of combined sources of inspiration within and outside the Hellenic world. The author concludes that the feline-prey theme in Archaic Greek art was not inspired by real animal fights in nature, nor was it influenced by pre-existing Geometric or Bronze Age motifs, although a Mycenaean origin for some heraldic variants of the theme cannot be excluded. The most valuable contribution of von Hofsten’s work lies in his well-supported and convincingly argued thesis that the origin of the scheme of a lion attacking a crouching bull from the front derives from Syro-Phoenician luxury items. The rest of the types he construes either as “Greek innovations or further developments of an already existing theme” (p. 45). Von Hofsten’s conclusions offer a much-needed clarification as to which kind of Oriental influences penetrated Greek art, as well as an elaborate discussion of the grade, media and longevity of this infiltration. To summarize von Hofsten’s proposed route of diffusion, the Phoenician motifs sparked the introduction of the feline-prey scheme, with the Phoenician settlement in Corinth and the Perachora votives playing a key-role. These motifs had a great impact on Protocorinthian vases, and they, in turn, influenced Attic pottery and sculpture. Quite interesting is von Hofsten’s treatment of the feline-prey motif in Etruria, a step beyond the original scope of his study. The author estimates that the Phoenician influence in Etruria was not as direct as in the case of Greece, but rather a by-product of imported Greek (mainly Corinthian) works.

Chapter Three is dedicated to the iconographical context of the feline-prey theme and its possible meanings. An extensive chart (Table 4) provides a good overview of the iconographic subjects with which the feline-prey coincides. These include fights and pursuits, non-fighting warriors, Dionysiac episodes, animals, and miscellaneous mythological, mourning and athletic scenes. The author points out correctly that the scheme has different degrees of meaning depending on the object/monument it decorates. For this reason, a scene of a lion attacking a bull set on a temple pediment must be treated differently than the same scene depicted on a small perfume vase. In addition, he is critical towards the earlier assumption that the feline-prey motif on Attic vases was an illustrated version of Homeric animal similes, rightly arguing that both animal combats and warrior scenes were two of the most popular themes on Attic vase painting that were bound to coincide. He does, however, allow room for one exception: the calyx krater by Exekias from the Athenian Agora combining on one side the fight over the body of Patroklos with two lions attacking a bull.2 Turning back to temple decoration, von Hofsten attempts to refine Fernande Hölscher’s interpretation of the feline-prey theme,3 originally viewed as apotropaic, by characterizing it as “a beautiful, imposing composition that reflects divine power and reminds mortals of what happens when the gods are challenged ” (I paraphrase, p. 53) Based on statistical data, he argues that the connection of the feline-prey motif to warlike scenes is not as valid as previously thought and thus one should avoid relating it to heroic triumph and bravery. Instead he interprets it as a symbol that delights the gods and reflects their power in a tangible way. Such an approach may justify the popularity of the theme with home altars (arulae) from Western Greece: the power of the god and its temple was transmitted in altars through appropriate decoration. Specifically for the case of Athens, von Hofsten not only accepts the well-known association of the Olympian gods with lions, but he goes further and interprets the lion scenes on the Acropolis pediments as attributes of the goddess Athena. This innovative proposal helps explain the proliferation of similar scenes on Attic black-figure vases as well.

The last sections of von Hofsten’s book include a summary of his conclusions, a detailed catalogue arranged in groups of different material and in chronological order, a list of plates and tables, followed by bibliography. Even though von Hofsten provides drawings of nearly all the feline-prey motifs in his catalogue, a few exemplary images of the most characteristic cases would have been a welcome addition.

Overall, von Hofsten’s book makes an important contribution to the field of Archaic Greek art. The author efficiently navigates through a tremendous amount of material and succinctly elaborates on the origins, distribution and meaning of the feline-prey theme. Von Hofsten’s work will be of interest to both Greek and Near Eastern archaeologists, particularly to those conducting iconographical research.


1. Athens NM 726; ARV2 5.5.

2. Athenian Agora AP 1044; ABV 145.19; Para 60.19.

3. F. Hölscher, Die Bedeutung archaischer Tierkampfbilder (Beiträge zur Archäologie, 5). Würzburg 1972.