Animals: spiritual, heroic, divine.

By Katie Stone

A few hundred years ago, animals were regarded quite differently. Sheep were symbols of fertility, elephants were heroes, and cats were gods.

Sheep and elephants may have forgotten this, but cats certainly have not.

The practice of animal worship dates back to ancient civilisations. Humans have long respected and depended upon animals for spiritual strength, honouring them in the form of deities or divine symbols. Animals were seen as mysterious, wise, and other-worldly. Their natural abilities - to fly, swim, outrun a man, and live underwater or in the air - were believed to be supernatural powers.

 

By Katie Stone

A few hundred years ago, animals were regarded quite differently. Sheep were symbols of fertility, elephants were heroes, and cats were gods.

Sheep and elephants may have forgotten this, but cats certainly have not.

The practice of animal worship dates back to ancient civilisations. Humans have long respected and depended upon animals for spiritual strength, honouring them in the form of deities or divine symbols. Animals were seen as mysterious, wise, and other-worldly. Their natural abilities – to fly, swim, outrun a man, and live underwater or in the air – were believed to be supernatural powers.

Archaeological records reveal that animals played major roles in art, architecture, folklore, and the religious and spiritual rites of many ancient traditions. Various species have featured as figures and metaphors in religious practices across historical eras and geographical locations. Guardian spirits in the form of animals were often called upon to facilitate healing and wellbeing.

The first examples of animal worship began with the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Indians. Over time, some cultures have used the same animals to represent certain powers. The bull and the lion are often symbols of power and protection, the cow: of love and giving, the snake as a creator, and birds as seductresses. Although many of these ideologies are now ancient history, animals still feature strongly in cultures around the world.

The lore of lions

Caveman art dating back some 32,000 years portrayed lions as organised hunters with great strength, power, nobility, and skills. Later, cultural ceremonies used lions in various displays of magic, as deities, and as intermediaries.

In ancient Egypt, the war god Aker was depicted with the head of a lion, while the goddess Sekhmet had the head of a lioness. Sekhmet was a sun deity as well as a fierce warrior and protector. And cats – believed by the Egyptians to harbour divine energy – were dressed in gold and permitted to eat from their owner’s plate.

Today, some Middle Eastern cultures continue to regard the lion as the symbol of courage, bravery, royalty, and chivalry.

In Hinduism, Narasimha – the “lion-God” – is described as an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe. Narasimha is considered sacred by all Hindus. The goddess Durga, associated with protection, strength, and motherhood, is also depicted with a lion as her vehicle.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Snow Lion is a celestial animal used to show power and strength, fearlessness and joy, east and the earth. China also uses the lion to symbolise protection from evils, and temples often feature a guardian lion at the entrance.

In Greek tradition, the mythical sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a human. Representing the powerful sun god, the sphinx is an incarnation of royal power and the protector of the temple doors.

The godlike goat

The Greek god Pan – a fertility deity – was depicted with the upper body of a man and the horns and lower body of a goat. Along with chasing nymphs, this lustful god was credited with creating the pan flute.

Goats feature regularly in the Bible. In traditional Judaism, the goat is considered a clean animal and a kid was slaughtered for an honoured guest. On Yom Kippur, the festival of the Day of Atonement, two goats would be chosen: one to be sacrificed, and the other allowed to escape into the wilderness, symbolically carrying with it the sins of the community. This gave rise to the origin of the word ‘scapegoat’. The Azazel goat was also used to represent Satan or evil.

In Chinese culture, the goat is the eighth animal of the Chinese Zodiac, and a depiction of filial piety, purity, and kindness. People born in the Year of the Goat are believed to be loving and selfless, a little shy, and calm – and able to persevere through any difficulty.

The mischievous monkey

Hanuman and Ganesha

Monkey mythology in India pre-dates to 500 BC. The monkey Hanuman is thought to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva, one of the three Hindu gods. Hanuman is revered for his bravery, strength, loyalty, devotion, and dedication to justice. It’s believed that those who worship him will receive courage, strength, and longevity.

Monkeys also hold a divine role in Buddhism. Some scriptures suggest that Buddha lived many prior lives in many different forms before he attained enlightenment, including in the form of a monkey. In Chinese Buddhism, however, the term for “monkey mind” refers to being unsettled, restless, whimsical, indecisive, and uncontrollable.

Traditional Japanese folklore considers monkeys to be kind spirits that protect people from evil spirits and harmful intentions. The Sanzaru – three wise monkeys – embody the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. Ancient Shinto tradition venerates monkey-like god Sarutahiko Ōkami, who is believed to dwell at the Eightfold Crossroads between heaven and earth.

The enduring elephant

Venerated since the Stone Age, the strength and wisdom of elephants have been captured in ancient petroglyphs, cave art, sculptures, and architecture. One of the most famous religious forms of the elephant is the Hindu god Ganesha. Ganesha’s large elephant head symbolises his mighty intellect and understanding. The wide mouth represents his natural desire to enjoy life, and his large ears listen to the prayers and needs of all. His two tusks denote his most important characteristics: wisdom and emotion.

Elephants also hold special significance in Islam tradition. The Prophet Muhammad himself is said to have been born in the Year of the Elephant in 570. This was also the year that Abraha, the ruler of Ethiopia, tried to cross the boundary of Mecca. However, a white elephant named Mahmud, who led Abraha’s 40,000 men, stopped at the border and could not be persuaded to enter.

In Buddhism, the elephant represents mental strength. According to the Dharma, the gray elephant symbolises someone new to Buddhism; someone whose mind can run wild and wreak havoc at any time. The white elephant, however, represents someone whose mind has gained peace through becoming Buddhist: their mind is under control, they are powerful and can be used to destroy any obstacle.

The sacred sheep 

Sheep are revered for their innate traits of gentleness, timidity, and passivity. Unfortunately for sheep, these qualities have often been interpreted as a willingness to be sacrificed.

In the Bible, the lamb is the ultimate symbol of Christ. Although weak and vulnerable, the lamb is a model of strength, conquering evil through the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life. The lamb’s white coat is also thought to refer to purity and cleanliness.

The Bible tells how Jesus went on to fulfil the role of the “Lamb of God”: somebody who was defenceless before the people and is led without hesitation to his death. This sacrifice was a means of freeing his followers from the slavery of sin and death.

Other religions throughout history have associated sheep with weddings and fertility. In ancient Athens, the fleece of a sacred sheep – called an aegis – was brought to a newly-married woman by a priestess. The ram was also believed to represent sexual power and played an even more important role in Classical Greece. Rams were associated mainly with Hermes, the god of wealth, luck, fertility, and travel. Hermes was often depicted with a sheep close by, which is believed to refer to his connection to virility.

The beatific birds

White doves are the universal symbols of love, peace, and messengers. Some of the earliest manifestations of doves referred to Inanna-Ishtar, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love, sexuality, and war. Relics associated with Inanna date back to the beginning of the third millennium BC.

During the era of the Mughal empire, the majestic peacock was believed to be Mother Earth. Consequently, the Mughal and Persian emperors displayed their godlike authority by sitting in a Peacock Throne.

Birds are also revered as spirit messengers of the gods. The Bible tells how a dove was released by Noah after the Flood in order to find land, returning with a freshly plucked olive leaf.

In Norse mythology, Hugin and Munin were ravens who whispered news into the ears of the god Odin.

In the Inca and Tiwanaku empires of South America, birds are depicted transgressing the boundaries between the earthly and underground spiritual realms.

Māori mythology also has a legendary bird: the Pouākai, an enormous eagle capable of snatching humans.

Persian legends tell of the Simurgh, a gigantic bird that feasted on the tree of plant life, and whose task was to shake the seeds out of the tree.

To Native Americans, the eagle is one of the most highly respected creatures: a token of vision, valour, and healing power. Eagle feathers in a headdress must be ‘earned’ by performing an act of courage.

The wily wolves

Many Native American cultures hail the wolf for its courage, direction, family, endurance, and intelligence. The Shoshone tribe respects the wolf as their Creator god while some Northwest Coast tribes believe their first ancestors were transformed from wolves into men.

In ancient Rome, the entire Roman empire was based on the story of Romulus and Remus, orphaned twins who were raised by a she-wolf. The name of the Lupercalia festival – from the Latin word ‘lupus’ for wolf – was a pastoral festival observed annually on February 15 to purify the city, promoting health and fertility.

The wolf is also held in high regard in Turkey. The wolf Ashina Tuwu is the mother of the first of the great Khans, believed to have rescued an injured boy, nursed him back to health, and then given birth to ten half-wolf half-human children. The eldest of these, Bumin Khayan, became chieftain of the Turkic tribes. Today, the wolf is still seen as a figure of sovereignty and leadership and considered the mother of most Turkic peoples.

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