British Museum

A hound mauls a gazelle in the relief scene from the tomb of the vizier Ptahhotep II shown in the previous photo. A very different kind of struggle is shown on this inch-high, late-third-millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamian seal impression: Here a bull-man grapples with a lion, while another man takes on a water buffalo. Like the “tree of life,” these images are symbols of royal power. If the savage Egyptian scene suggests the might of the king subjecting unruly nature to civilized control, the balanced Mesopotamian image, with its mythical creatures locked in endless combat, suggests the king’s connection to forces of good and evil, heaven and earth, and life and death.

Author Marian Feldman argues that the Late Bronze Age royal iconography (or koiné, a Greek term meaning “shared in common”) borrowed images from much earlier Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources: From Egypt, they took violent attack scenes representing the king’s power (see the photo of the gold dagger sheath, showing predatory animals); from Mesopotamia, they took images of fantastic, otherworldly creatures symbolizing divine sources of kingship (see the photo of the gold bowl embossed with depictions of sphinxes and griffins).