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Remains similar to those of mythological hybrids have been found in burial sites discovered by archaeologists. Known combinations include horse-cows, sheep-cows, and a six-legged sheep. The skeletons were formed by ancient peoples who joined together body parts from animal carcasses of different species. The practice is believed to have been done as an offering to their gods.
Such hybrids can be classified as partly human hybrids (such as mermaids or centaurs) or non-human hybrids combining two or more non-human animal species (such as the griffin or the chimera). Hybrids often originate as zoomorphic deities who, over time, are given an anthropomorphic aspect.
Partly human hybrids appear in petroglyphs or cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic, in shamanistic or totemistic contexts. Ethnologist Ivar Lissner theorized that cave paintings of beings combining human and animal features were not physical representations of mythical hybrids, but were instead attempts to depict shamans in the process of acquiring the mental and spiritual attributes of various beasts or power animals. Religious historian Mircea Eliade has observed that beliefs regarding animal identity and transformation into animals are widespread. The iconography of the Vinca culture of Neolithic Europe in particular is noted for its frequent depiction of an owl-beaked "bird goddess", although this interpretation is being criticized as feminist archeology.
Examples of humans with animal heads (theriocephaly) in the ancient Egyptian pantheon include jackal-headed Anubis, cobra-headed Amunet, lion-headed Sekhmet, falcon-headed Horus, etc. Most of these deities also have a purely zoomorphic and a purely anthropomorphic aspect, with the hybrid representation seeking to capture aspects of both of which at once. Similarly, the Gaulish Artio sculpture found in Berne shows a juxtaposition of a bear and a woman figure, interpreted as representations of the theriomorphic and the anthropomorphic aspect of the same goddess.
Mythological hybrids became very popular in Luwian and Assyrian art of the Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age. The angel (human with birds' wings, see winged genie) the mermaid (part human part fish, see Enki, Atargatis, Apkallu) and the Shedu all trace their origins to Assyro-Babylonian art. In Mesopotamian mythology the urmahlullu, or lion-man served as a guardian spirit, especially of bathrooms.
In Archaic Greece, Luwian and Assyrian motifs were imitated, during the Orientalizing Period (9th to 8th centuries BC), inspiring the monsters of the mythology of the Classical Greek period, such as the Chimera, the Harpy, the Centaur, the Griffin, the Hippocampus, Talos, Pegasus, etc.
The motif of the winged man appears in the Assyrian winged genie, and is taken up in the Biblical Seraphim and Chayot, the Etruscan Vanth, Hellenistic Eros-Amor, and ultimately the Christian iconography of angels.
The motif of otherwise human figures sporting horns may derive from partly goat hybrids (as in Pan and the Devil in Christian iconography) or as partly bull hybrids (Minotaur). The Gundestrup cauldron and the Pashupati figure have stag's antlers (see also Horned God, horned helmet). The Christian representation of Moses with horns, however, is due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew text of Exodus 34:29-35 by Jerome.
The god Vishnu is believed to have taken his first four incarnations in human-animal form, namely: Matsya (human form with fish's body below waist), Kurma (human form with turtle's body below waist), Varaha (human form with a boar's head), Narasimha (human form with lion's head).