Animals played a significant role in the religions of many cultures from time immemorial. Often the sacred power of a deity was thought to be manifested in an animal as a representation, epiphany or incarnation of the deity. Animal symbolism has been a component of several religions including modern ones like Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. In religious iconography certain venerated qualities are identified with specific animal species.
Zoolatry is the term used for rituals involving animals, including the worship of animal deities and the glorification of animal sacrifice. In ancient times, humans were not only close to animals but also dependent to them in many ways. They were an integral part of local culture and could not be separated from religion. In some religions, animals were considered to be the guise used by the gods that were worshipped. In this way the deities acquired a physical form that could be interacted with.
Animal worship also resulted from man’s curious observation of animal traits. Animals were observed to have unique traits that were not imitable by humans and this was a source of wonder. They were the bearers of strength, speed and abilities that humans could not even aspire to have. People as a result attributed divine natures to animals. Zoomorphism was especially common in Egypt with many animals attached to particular deities. Here we have a look at some animals that have for long been worshipped in various cultures.
· Many religions consider cattle to be sacred. These include Hinduism in India and Nepal, Zoroastrianism, and ancient Greek and Egyptian religion. Jesus Christ of Christianity is often associated with the image of a lamb. Sheep also are of symbolic significance to Christians around the world.
· Pastoral peoples generally venerated cattle and buffalo as they relied on them for their sustenance. The killing of oxen is often considered a sacrificial offering by many of these groups.
· Ancient Egyptians worshipped cows as deities and as forms of deities. Hesat, the goddess of milk and motherhood is depicted as a full cow. Mehet-weret, was a Celestial Cow sky goddess whose body was made of the sky and the four legs marked the four cardinal directions. Bat, a goddess of music and dance, was a woman with bovine ears and horns. She is associated with the musical instrument sistrum which is frequently used in Egyptian temples. Other Egyptian goddesses like the Isis, Hathor and Nut have also been depicted with bovine associations. Hathor is a personification of joy, feminine love, motherhood, dance and music. Egyptians also worshipped bulls. The bull god Apis was embodied in a live bull kept at Ptah Temple at Memphis. Other sacred bulls include Mnevis and Buchis and after their death, they were considered to become part of Osiris.
· The cow is the supreme animal worshipped in India. The humped zebu breed of cow is important to Hindus. Hindu myths include the creation of a divine cow mother and a cow heaven by the Brahma and Prithu gods. The sanctity of the cow is revered by abstaining from cow slaughter and beef consumption. Breeding and ownership of cows are controlled. Cow products including milk, curd, ghee, dung and urine are believed to have purifying and healing qualities.
· In Hinduism the dog is believed to be a messenger of Yama the god of death, and is believed to guard the doors of heaven. Dogs are worshipped during the five day Tihar festival in November in some parts of India. They are also worshipped in Nepal in a festival called Khicha Puja. Socially, dogs are thought of as the protectors of homes.
· The Nosari of western Asia and the Karang of Java worship and have cults of dogs.
· Canine deities are also part of Egyptian culture. Anubis the god of the dead is represented as a seated jackal. The black color of Anubis was the symbol of the discoloration of the corpse after death. He was the chief deity of Cynopolis (the city of the dogs).
· In Japanese mythology, there is a warrior god named Amida. It had the body of a human and a dog’s head.
· Ancient Egypt had a lot of cultic activities involving birds. Sanctuaries dedicated to the veneration of the ibis were present in many places throughout Egypt. The ibis on a perch was the hieroglyphic symbol for the god Thoth, the god of writing and knowledge. Thoth was often portrayed as an ibis-headed human. He maintains the universe and settles disputes. Thoth is considered to handle magical arts, and the development of science. The curved shape of the ibis’ beak which resembles a crescent moon or a pen could be the reason for its association with the god Thoth.
· Snakes have a high status in Hindu mythology. Carved representations of cobras called nagas are present in many parts of India. Nagaraja or the “king of the serpents” was worshipped in North India whereas actual live snakes were venerated in South India. The Manasa is an anthropomorphic serpent goddess worshipped in Bengal, India.
· In Dahomey, Africa, python worship was central. Pythons were treated with respect and death was the penalty for even accidentally killing one. The rainbow god of the Ashanti was thought to have the appearance of a snake. In many parts of Africa, serpents are considered to be the incarnations of relatives who have passed away.
· Egyptians had a number of snake deities. The uraeus was a divine cobra. It was worshipped as the protector of Egyptian kings and deities. On the other hand Apophis a serpent was a malevolent demon who sought to destroy the chief deity Ra.
· The Echidna of Greek mythology is a cave dwelling half woman- half snake. She was considered to be the mother of all monsters by the Greeks.
· Nureonna is a half-woman snake of Japanese folklore, who leads a lonely life. If disturbed though, she will kill the attacker and suck the blood from the victim’s body. Gorgons were women with snakes as their hair. A popularly known Gorgon is Medusa. The powerful gaze of a Gorgon could turn a man into stone, it was believed.
· According to Greek mythology, the Sphinx is a mythical creature with a human head and a lion’s body. It sometimes had the wings of a bird. It was believed that the ones who could not answer the riddle of the Sphinx were killed and eaten.
· The Egyptian Sphinx is a benevolent male deity with ferocious strength. It was considered a guardian of temples and tombs. Maahes is the Egyptian god of war, knives, protection and weather. It had the head of a lion. Other Egyptian deities with a lion’s or lioness’ head are the Pakhet (god of flash floods), Sekhme (goddess of war, healing) and Tefnut( goddess of moisture, rain).
· The lion-faced clawed being Narasimha is considered an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. He came to destroy the demon kings who were evil and persecuted devotees. Prathyangira, an incarnation of Durga has the head of a lioness.
· The Raven is a chief deity of Tlingit people in Alaska. The raven is believed to have originally belonged to the land of the spirits which existed before the creation of the world of humans. The raven got bored with the spirit land and flew away with a stone in its beak. When it became tired of carrying the stone, it dropped it and it fell into the ocean. The stone is believed to have expanded and created the land on which humans now live. The raven often addressed as Grandfather Raven is the totem and ancestor of one of the four clans, and is revered as the creator.
· Ravens also play important roles in European mythologies. In Celtic and Germanic religions, they are connected to Bran, Morrigan and Woden deities.
There are many other animals that have played important roles in several different religions and cultures. These include crows, crocodiles, bulls, scarab beetles, fishes, eagles, hawks, elephants and so on. Many of these have associations to particular deities and others are of symbolic significance. In the modern world, much of animal worship and the concept of man-animal divinities have been abandoned. Most of the popular Gods now are purely anthropomorphic. Nevertheless, the persistence of olden customs in several cultures gives animals a role even now in religion and spirituality. Animals continue to symbolize qualities that human beings aspire to achieve. Animals are regarded as protectors and keepers of humans and their possessions. And as long as humans dwell with animals, they will continue to have a symbolic role to play in our lives.