The panther as a symbol of the unleashing of inner desires

Recently I had the rare opportunity to view a very special piece of work by one of Australia’s most iconic and controversial artists, Norman Lindsay, at a friend’s art gallery.

I have long been a fan of the artist’s work and am especially interested in ‘Pantera’: the exceptional detail (especially in the gorgeous dress) and the mysterious subject matter. Just what is going on in this sensual arrangement?

Pantera main image smallest

The original etching is one of five in a book called ‘Idyllia’, published in 1922. The gorgeous book was printed as a very limited edition of 133 (only 100 of which were offered for sale) and intact editions are extremely rare – unfortunately the books are more valuable sold as individual etchings.

Here are the opening lines of the poem that accompanies ‘Pantera’, one of the fifteen poems by Hugh McCrae contained in ‘Idyllia’.

“Pantera dear, between us two,
How much is dream… how little true?
If one a phantom… I, or you?”

I asked my friend her thoughts on the symbolism of the etching ‘Pantera’ – the half woman/half panther depicted watching over a beautiful woman sleeping on a panther skin and eagerly anticipating her awakening.

In Greek mythology the panther was a favoured mount of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, and later the arts. Dionysus represents ecstasy; personal delivery from the daily world through physical or spiritual intoxication (and dreams?); and initiation into secret rites.

Unlike most gods, Dionysus was not a god to be worshipped only, he was also present within his followers; at those times, a man would possess supernatural powers. As a means of transport for Dionysus, the panther could be seen as a symbol of the unleashing of this power and inner desires.

The panther is also the symbol of the feminine, death and rebirth, reclaiming ones power and is associated with lunar energies.

In ‘Pantera’ Norman Lindsay has woven together the feminine symbology of the panther and the associations of the god Dionysus. The varied expressions on the faces of the women surrounding the sleeping beauty may then represent the desires and fears playing out in the sleeping woman’s dreams.

Dionysus is often depicted accompanied by nymphs and part-human/part-animal satyrs or sileni – and his priests wore panther skins.

Many of Norman Lindsay’s works feature beings half human/half animal. Maybe Norman was an admirer of Dionysus – he wasn’t likely to be a worshipper as he shunned alcohol in order to keep his hands steady for the intricate work he did.

sphinx small wide

The Norman Lindsay watercolour above also depicts a beautiful half woman/half panther. Beneath the signature is written ‘for Hugh McCrae’, the author of the poem ‘Pantera’ and a much more likely candidate for a disciple of Dionysus.

Norman Lindsay was a prolific artist in the mediums of oil, watercolour, pencil and etchings. He also wrote eleven novels and numerous poems.

Some of his work is available to purchase at:

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