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Animal worship (or zoolatry) refers to rituals involving animals, such as the glorification of animal deities or animal sacrifice. When a god is respected or worshipped by means of a representative animal, an animal cult is formed (Teeter et al., 2002, p. 355). Animal cults may be classified according to their outward form or according to their inward meaning, which may of course undergo transformations.
The classical author Diodorus explained the origin of animal worship by recalling the myth in which the gods, supposedly threatened by giants, hid under the guise of animals. The people then naturally began to worship the animals that their gods had disguised themselves as and continued this act even after the gods returned to their normal state (Lubbock, 2005, p. 252). In 1906, Weissenborn suggested that animal worship resulted from man’s natural curiosity. Primitive man would observe an animal that had a unique trait and the inexplicability of this trait would appeal to man’s curiosity (Weissenborn, 1906b, p. 282). Wonder resulted from primitive man’s observations of this distinctive trait and this wonder eventually induced adoration. Thus, primitive man worshipped animals that had inimitable traits (Weissenborn, 1906b, p. 282). Lubbock put forward a more recent view. Lubbock proposed that animal-worship originated from family names. In societies, families would name themselves and their children after certain animals and eventually came to hold that animal above other animals. Eventually, these opinions turned into deep respect and evolved into fully developed worship of the family animal (Lubbock, 2005, p. 253). The belief that an animal is sacred frequently results in dietary laws prohibiting their consumption. As well as holding certain animals to be sacred, religions have also adopted the opposite attitude, that certain animals are unclean.
The idea that divinity embodies itself in animals, such as a deity incarnate, and then lives on earth among human beings is disregarded by Abrahamic religions (Morris, 2000, p. 26). In Independent Assemblies of God and Pentecostal churches, animals have very little religious significance (Schoffeleers, 1985; Peltzer, 1987; Qtd. in Morris, 2000, p. 25). Animals have become less and less important and symbolic in cult rituals and religion, especially among African cultures, as Christianity and Islamic religions have spread. (Morris, 2000, p. 24).
The Egyptian pantheon was especially fond of zoomorphism, with many animals sacred to particular deities—cats to Bastet, ibises and baboons to Thoth, crocodiles to Sebek and Ra, fish to Set, mongoose, shrew and birds to Horus, dogs and jackals to Anubis, serpents and eels to Atum, beetles to Khepera, bulls to Apis. Animals were often mummified as a result of these beliefs.
- 1 Hunting cults
- 2 Domesticated mammals
- 3 Wild mammals
- 4 Birds
- 5 Other non-mammals
- 6 Oracular animals
- 7 Shamanism and animals
- 8 Religion and animals
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 External links
There is evidence that connects the Greek goddess Artemis with a cult of the bear. Girls danced as "bears" in her honour, and might not marry before undergoing this ceremony. According to mythology, the goddess once transformed a nymph into a bear and then into the constellation Ursa Major.
The existence of an ancient bear cult among Neanderthals in the Middle Paleolithic period has been a topic of discussion spurred by archaeological findings (Wunn, 2000, p. 434-435). Ancient bear bones have been discovered in several different caves and their peculiar arrangement are believed by some archaeologists to be evidence of a bear cult during the Paleolithic era. (Wunn, 2000, p. 435). However, others argue that the placement of these remains, whether it appears to be an identified pattern or not, is due to natural causes such as wind, sediment, or water (Wunn, 2000, p. 437-438).
The Ainu people, who live on select islands in the Japanese archipelago, call the bear “kamui” in their language, which translates to mean god. While many other animals are considered to be gods in the Ainu culture, the bear is the head of the gods (Kindaichi, 1949, p. 345). For the Ainu, when the gods visit the world of man, they don fur and claws and take on the physical appearance of an animal. Usually, however, when the term “kamui” is used, it essentially means a bear (Kindaichi, 1949, p. 345). The Ainu people willingly and thankfully ate the bear as they believed that the disguise (the flesh and fur) of any god was a gift to the home that the god chose to visit (Kindaichi, 1949, p. 348).
Whales were little understood for most of human history as they spend up to 90% of their lives underwater, only surfacing briefly to breathe. Many cultures, even those that have hunted them, hold whales in awe and feature them in their mythologies.
A prevalent whale cult in Japan occurs around the coastal area. There are cemeteries with memorial stones dedicated to the whales which were hunted and killed to feed the people (Naumann, 1974, p. 4). Buddhist epitaphs mark these stones which implore that Buddha be reborn as a whale (Naumann, 1974, p. 4). Along with these memorials, there is evidence that whale embryos, found in a deceased mother’s womb, were extracted and buried with the same respect as a human being (Naumann, 1974, p. 5). For certain shrines, the bones of a perished whale were also deposited in the area (Naumann, 1974, p. 5).
In Alaska, there are cultures that have ceremonial tributes whales after they are captured in a hunt (Lantis 1938, p. 445). Some tribes bring the hump, the fins, or the nose of the whale into their camps or the whaler’s house. These parts are meant to represent the entirety of the whale and are honored as such during the festival (Lantis 1938, p. 445). The bones of a whale are also given ritual treatment. The Alaskan tribes that participate in such acts believe that their ceremonies protect the whale’s soul from injury and the soul can then be free to return to the sea (Lantis 1938, p. 445).
In China, Yu-kiang, a whale with the hands and feet of a man was said to rule the ocean.
Paikea (also maori name for humpback whales), the youngest and favourite son of the chief Uenuku from the island of Mangaia, in the present day Cook Islands, was said by the Kati Kuri people of Kaikoura to have come from the Pacific Islands on the back of Tohora (maori name for southern right whales) a whale many centuries before.
The whale features in Inuit creation myths. When 'Big Raven', a deity in human form, found a stranded whale, he was told by the Great Spirit where to find special mushrooms that would give him the strength to drag the whale back to the sea and thus return order to the world.
The Tlingit people of northern Canada say that the orcas were created when the hunter Natsihlane carved eight fish from yellow cedar, sang his most powerful spirit song and commanded the fish to leap into the water.
In Icelandic legend a man threw a stone at a fin whale and hit the blowhole, causing the whale to burst. The man was told not to go to sea for twenty years, but in the nineteenth year he went fishing and a whale came and killed him.
In East African legend, King Sulemani asked God that he might permit him to feed all the beings on earth. A whale came and ate until there was no corn left and then told Sulemani that he was still hungry and that there were 70,000 more in his tribe. Sulemani then prayed to God for forgiveness and thanked the creature for teaching him a lesson in humility.
Some cultures that associate divinity with whales, such as some Ghanaians and Vietnamese, coastal Chinese except for southernmost region, Japanese (also known as Ebisu), occasionally hold funerals for beached whales; a throwback to Vietnam's ancient sea-based Austro-Asiatic culture. See also the below-mentioned Ebisu in fish part for more details. In some lore, whales have been told to work for Ryūgū-jō as well.
The Bible mentions whales in Genesis 1:21, Job 7:12, Ezekiel and 32:2. The "sea monsters" in Lamentations 4:3 have been taken by some commentators to refer to marine mammals, in particular whales, although most modern versions use the word "jackals" instead. The story of Jonah being swallowed by a "big Fish" is told both in the Qur'an and in the Bible. The Old Testament contains the Book of Jonah and in the New Testament, Jesus mentions this story in Matthew 12:40.
Cattle and buffalo
Many religions have considered cattle to be sacred, most famously Hinduism from India and Nepal, but also Zoroastrianism, and ancient Greek and Egyptian religion. Cattle and buffalo are respected by many pastoral peoples that rely on the animals for sustenance and the killing of an ox is a sacrificial function.
The Toda of southern India abstain from the flesh of their domestic animal, the buffalo. However, once a year they sacrifice a bull calf, which is eaten in the forest by the adult males. The buffalo plays an important part in many Toda rituals. These buffalo are currently endangered.
Conspicuous among Egyptian animal cults was that of the bull, Apis. It was distinguished by certain marks, and when the old Apis died a new one was sought. The finder was rewarded, and the bull underwent four months' education at Nilopolis. Its birthday was celebrated once a year when oxen, which had to be pure white, were sacrificed to it. Women were forbidden to approach it when once its education was finished. Oracles were obtained from it in various ways. After death it was mummified and buried in a rock-tomb. Less widespread was the cult of the Mnevis, also consecrated to Osiris.
Similar observances are found in our own day on the Upper Nile. The Nuba and Nuer revere cattle. The Angoni of Central Africa and the Sakalava of Madagascar keep sacred bulls. In India respect for the cow is widespread, but is of post-Vedic origin; there is little actual worship, but the products of the cow are important in magic.
While there are several animals that are worshipped in India, the supreme position is held by the cow (Margul, 1968, p. 63). The humped zebu, a breed of cow, is central to the religion of Hinduism (Margul, 1968, p. 63). Mythological legends have supported the sanctity of the zebu throughout India (Margul, 1968, p. 64). Such myths have included the creation of a divine cow mother and a cow heaven by the God, Brahma and Prithu, the sovereign of the universe, created the earth’s vegetation, edible fruits and vegetables, disguised as a cow (Margul, 1968, p. 64).
According to Tadeusz Margul, observations of the Hindu religion and the cow has led to a misunderstanding that Hindi have a servile relationship with the zebu, giving prayers and offerings to it daily. Typically, however, only during the Cow Holiday, an annual event, is the cow the recipient of such practices (Margul, 1968, p. 65). Margul suggests that sanctity of the cow is based on four foundations: abstaining from cow slaughter, abstaining from beef consumption, control of breeding and ownership, and belief in purification qualities of cow products (milk, curd, ghee, dung, and urine) (Margul, 1968, p. 65-66).
Amun, the god of Thebes, Egypt, was represented as ram-headed. His worshippers held the ram to be sacred, however, it was sacrificed once a year. Its fleece formed the clothing of the idol. Another Egyptian ram-headed god was Banebdjed, a form of Osiris.
Silenus, the Satyrs and the Fauns were either capriform or had some part of their bodies shaped like that of a goat. In northern Europe the wood spirit, Leszi, is believed to have a goat's horns, ears and legs. A deity known as the Goat of Mendes is associated with the pentagram.
In Greece, Italy, and Egypt, the goat was worshipped in both goat form and phallic form (Neave 1988, p. 8). This type of worship has sometimes been said to have originated from the goat’s increased sex drive. One male goat was capable of fertilizing 150 females (Neave 1988, p. 8). The Greek god Pan was depicted as having goat characteristics, such as hooves, horns, and a beard. Along with Pan, the goat was closely related to Dionysus during the Roman era (Neave 1988, p. 8). To honor Dionysus, Romans would tear apart a goat and eat it alive. The goat was commonly associated with dark arts and the devil. This association was amplified in Egypt during the Middle Ages (Neave 1988, p. 8).
Excavations in Central Asia have revealed ancient ritual goat-burial that show a religious significance of the goat predominantly in the area (Sidky 1990, p. 286). These findings have been used as evidence for a goat-cult of Asia originating either in the Neolithic or Bronze Ages (Sidky 1990, p. 286).
Dogs have a major religious significance among the Hindus in Nepal and some parts of India. The dogs are worshipped as a part of a five-day Tihar festival that falls roughly in November every year. In Hinduism, it is believed that the dog is a messenger of Yama, the god of death, and dogs guard the doors of Heaven. Socially, they are believed to be the protectors of our homes and lives. So, in order to please the dogs they are going to meet at Heaven's doors after death, so they would be allowed in Heaven, people mark the 14th day of the lunar cycle in November as Kukur-tihar, as known in Nepali language for the dog's day. This is a day when the dog is worshipped by applying tika (the holy vermilion dot), incense sticks and garlanded generally with marigold flower.
Actual dog worship is uncommon. The Nosarii of western Asia are said to worship a dog. The Karang of Java had a cult of the red dog, each family keeping one in the house. According to one authority the dogs are images of wood which are worshipped after the death of a member of the family and burnt after a thousand days. In Nepal it is said that dogs are worshipped at the festival called Khicha Puja. Among the Harranians dogs were sacred, but this was rather as brothers of the mystae.
Horse worship has been practiced by a number of Indo-European and Turkic peoples. There is some reason to believe that Poseidon, like other water gods, was originally conceived under the form of a horse. In the cave of Phigalia Demeter was, according to popular tradition, represented with the head and mane of a horse, possibly a relic of the time when a non-specialized corn-spirit bore this form. Her priests were called Poloi (Greek for "colts") in Laconia. The mule and the horse are sacred to the Roman god Consus. In Gaul we find a horse-goddess, Epona. There are also traces of a horse-god, Rudiobus. Hayagriva is a horse-headed deity that appears in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The Gonds in India worship a horse-god, Koda Pen, in the form of a shapeless stone, but it is not clear that the horse is regarded as divine. The horse or mare is a common form of the corn-spirit in Europe.
Among the Balkan culture, swaddling an unmarried person in a horse-girth is a typical ritual. It is thought that the sexual potency of the horse is passed to the individual wrapped in its girth (Vukanović 1980, p. 112). Along with the Balkan swaddling, Virgil’s Aeneid bases the founding of the great city of Carthage upon a horse (Qtd. in Brown 1950, p. 32). When the Phoenicians dug up a horse head from the ground they decided to build their city (Carthage) upon that spot because the horse was a sign of success (Qtd. in Brown 1950, p. 32). Thus, Brown argued that the horse was sacred to the Phoenician people (Brown 1950, p. 32).
In Thailand it is believed that a white elephant may contain the soul of a dead person, perhaps a Buddha. When one is taken the capturer is rewarded and the animal brought to the king to be kept ever afterwards. It cannot be bought or sold. It is baptized and fêted and mourned for like a human being at its death. In some parts of Indo-China the belief is that the soul of the elephant may injure people after death; it is therefore fêted by a whole village. In Cambodia it is held to bring luck to the kingdom. The cult of the white elephant is also found at Ennarea in southern Ethiopia. In India, the popular Hindu god Ganesha has the head of an elephant and a torso of a human.
In Surat, unmarried Anāvil girls participate in a holiday referred to as Alunām (Naik, 1958, p. 393). This holiday is to honor the goddess Pārvatī. During this celebration, a clay elephant is prepared (most likely to celebrate Pārvatī's creation of Ganesha from a paste of either turmeric or sandalwood). Every day, the unmarried women worship this elephant by dancing, singing songs, and abstaining from eating salt. On the final day of Alunām, the clay elephant is immersed in some body of water (Naik, 1958, p. 393).
Certain cultures also used elephant figurines to display the animal’s importance. There was evidence of an ancient elephant cult in Sumatra (Schnitger, 1938, p. 41). Stone elephant figurines were built as “seats of the souls” in the Sumatran culture (Schnitger, 1938, p. 41). In North Borneo, however, wooden elephant figurines were placed on the top of a bamboo pole. This bamboo pole was only erected after the tribe chief had collected a certain number of human heads (Schnitger, 1938, p. 41).
In North America the Algonquian tribes had as their chief deity a "mighty great hare" to whom they went at death. According to one account he lived in the east, according to another in the north. In his anthropomorphized form he was known as Menabosho or Michabo.
The deer is important in the mythology of many peoples. To the Greeks it was sacred to the goddess Artemis, while in Hinduism it is linked to the goddess Saraswati. The deer also held spiritual significance to the pastoralist cultures of the Eurasian Steppe. The golden stag figurine found in the Pazyryk burials is one of the most famous pieces of Scythian art.
Rome's foundation uses wolves in totemic imagery.
The cult of the leopard is widely found in West Africa. Among the Ashanti people a man who kills one is liable to be put to death; no leopard skin may be exposed to view, but a stuffed leopard is worshiped. On the Gold Coast a leopard hunter who has killed his victim is carried round the town behind the body of the leopard; he may not speak, must besmear himself so as to look like a leopard and imitate its movements. In Loango a prince's cap is put upon the head of a dead leopard, and dances are held in its honour.
During the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty people began mummifying particular animal species as offerings to the god whom the species represented. Millions of mummified cats, birds, and other creatures were buried at temples honoring Egyptian deities. Worshippers paid the priests of a particular deity to obtain and mummify an animal and the mummy was placed in a cemetery near the god's cult center. The lion was associated with the Egyptian deities Horus, Nefertum, Ra and Sekhmet. There was a lion-god at Baalbek . The pre-Islamic Arabs had a lion-god, Yaghuth. In modern Africa we find a lion-idol among the Balonda. The lion was also sacred to Hebat, the mother goddess of the Hurrians.
In Judaism the patriarch Jacob refers to his son Judah as a Gur Aryeh גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה, a "Young Lion" (Genesis 49:9) when blessing him. Thus the Lion of Judah started to be reverenced in some others abrahamic cults, symbolising their prophets, as such as Jesus and Haile Selassie I, the ras Tafari.
Of great importance in Chinese myth and culture, the Tiger is one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Also in various Chinese art and martial art, the tiger is depicted as an earth symbol and equal rival of the Chinese dragon- the two representing matter and spirit respectively. The White Tiger (Chinese: 白虎; pinyin: Bái Hǔ) is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. It is sometimes called the White Tiger of the West (西方白虎), and it represents the west and the autumn season.
The tiger replaces the lion as king of the beasts in cultures of eastern Asia, representing royalty, fearlessness and wrath. In Chinese children stories, it is often depicted that the stripes on a tiger’s forehead represent the character 王 (“king”).
Some cultures that celebrated tiger worship are still represented contemporarily. In the suburbs of Kunming, China, there is a tourist attraction where the tiger worship of the Yi is displayed for visitors. This attraction called the Solar Calendar Square is complete with a growling tiger statue, measuring to be five meters high (Harrell & Yongxiang 2003, p. 380). In Chuxiong of China, a similar attraction exists. A tiger totem is presented for tourists; the totem portrays the Yi belief of the tiger setting the entire world in motion. A tiger dance of the Shuangbai County is also performed at such places explaining the history of the Yi and their worship of tigers (Harrell & Yongxiang 2003, p. 380).
Along with these tourist attractions that display historical practices of the Yi, there is also additional evidence for tiger worship. Tigers were found depicted on small stones. These stones were pierced and worn as amulets, suggesting that the tiger had a certain power of protection for its wearer (Waterbury 1952, p. 76). The Queen Mother deity of the west, Hsi Wang Mu, sometimes possessed a tail of a tiger in her depictions and, like the tiger, was associated with the mountains (Waterbury 1952, p. 76). The tiger was also a deity for both the Tungus and the Black Pottery people (Waterbury 1952, p. 80).
In many parts of Vietnam, the tiger is a revered creature. In each village, there might be a tiger temple. This worshiping practice might have stem from the fear of tigers used to raid human settlements in the ancient time. Tigers are admired for their great strength, ferocity and grace. Tiger is also considered a guardian deity. Tiger statutes are usually seen at the entrance of temples and palaces, keeping evil spirits from entering those places.
The tiger is associated with the Hindu deities Shiva and Durga. In Pokhara, Nepal the tiger festival is known as Bagh Jatra. Celebrants dance disguised as tigers and "hunted". The Warli tribe of Maharashtra, India worship Waghia the lord of tigers in the form of a shapeless stone. In Vietnamese folk religion and Dongbei folk religion tiger-gods are also found.
In Hinduism the monkey deity, Hanuman, is a prominent figure. He is a reincarnation of Shiva, the god of destruction. In orthodox villages monkeys are safe from harm.
Chinese religions and mythologies give monkeys and apes cultural significance as metaphors for people. Chinese deities sometimes appear in the guise of monkeys, for example, Sun Wukong or "Monkey King" is the main protagonist in Wu Cheng'en's picaresque novel Journey to the West. In traditional Chinese folk religion, monkeys are supernatural beings that could shape shift into either monkey-demons or were-monkeys, and legends about monkey-human interbreeding are common. In Daoism, monkeys, particularly gibbons, were believed to have longevity like a xian "transcendent; immortal", and to be innately adept at circulating and absorbing qi "breath; life force" through the Daoist discipline of daoyin "guiding and pulling". Similar to Daoism, Chinese Buddhism paradoxically treats monkeys as both wise and foolish animals. On the one hand, the Jataka tales say that Gautama Buddha was a benevolent monkey king in an earlier incarnation; and on the other hand, monkeys symbolized trickery and ignorance, represented by the Chan Buddhist "mind monkey" metaphor for the unsettled, restless nature of human mentality.
In some countries, e.g. India, a small number of temples are dedicated to the worship of wild mice. Whilst widely regarded as a creature to be avoided, for pestilential reasons in such temples the animals are actively encouraged. It is frequently associated with St. Thomas and Ganesh. As a creature capable of survival, it is to be revered and respected.
The Raven is the chief deity of the Tlingit people of Alaska. All over that region it is the chief figure in a group of myths, fulfilling the office of a culture hero who brings the light, gives fire to mankind, and so on. A raven story from the Puget Sound region describes the "Raven" as having originally lived in the land of spirits (literally bird land) that existed before the world of humans. One day the Raven became so bored with bird land that he flew away, carrying a stone in his beak. When the Raven became tired of carrying the stone and dropped it, the stone fell into the ocean and expanded until it formed the firmament on which humans now live.
In the creator role, and in the Raven's role as the totem and ancestor of one of the four northwest clan houses, the Raven is often addressed as Grandfather Raven. It is not clear whether this form of address is intended to refer to a creator Raven who is different from the trickster Raven, or if it is just a vain attempt to encourage the trickster spirit to act respectably.
Together with the eagle-hawk the crow plays a great part in the mythology of southeastern Australia. Ravens also play a part in some European mythologies, such as in the Celtic and Germanic Religions, where they were connected to Bran and the Morrigan in the former and Woden in the latter.
North Borneo treated the hawk as a god, but it was technically the messenger of the people’s Supreme God (Waterbury 1952, p. 62). There were rituals that involved the hawk when the natives wished to make decisions about certain events, such as journeys from home, major agricultural work, and war (Waterbury 1952, p. 62). In North Borneo we seem to see the evolution of a god in the three stages of the cult of the hawk among the Kenyahs, the Kayans and the sea Dyaks. The Kenyahs will not kill it, address to it thanks for assistance, and formally consult it before leaving home on an expedition. It seems, however, to be regarded as the messenger of the supreme god Balli Penyalong. The Kayans have a hawk-god, Laki Neho, but seem to regard the hawk as the servant of the chief god, Laki Tenangan. Singalang Burong, the hawk-god of the Dyaks, is completely anthropomorphized. He is god of omens and ruler of the omen birds, but the hawk is not his messenger. For he never leaves his house. Stories are, however, told of his attending feasts in human form and flying away in hawk form when all was over.
According to Florance Waterbury, hawk worship was universal (Waterbury 1952, p. 26). This particular bird was “a heavenly deity; its wings were the sky, the sun and moon were its eyes” (Waterbury 1952, p. 26). The hawk is commonly associated with the Egyptian god Horus. The souls of former pharaohs were the followers of Horus and therefore, the hawk (Waterbury 1952, p. 26). Horus was depicted by the Egyptians as a human body with a hawk head after the Fourth and Fifth Dynasty, but before that he was represented as a hawk (Waterbury 1952, p. 27).
Egypt was not the only location of hawk worshippers. There were several other cultures which held the hawk in high regard. The hawk was a deity on the island of Hawaii and symbolized swift justice (Waterbury 1952, p. 62). Along with the lone island from the Hawaiian archipelago, the Fiji islands also had some tribes who worshipped a hawk god (Waterbury 1952, p. 62). Furthermore, although animal worshipping is not a part of Sikh culture, a white falcon bird is mostly regarded in Sikhism as it was associated with the sixth guru and especially the tenth guru. The tenth guru would always carry a white falcon perched on his hand when going out to hunt. The tenth guru was known as the Master of White Hawk. Many people believe that the bird carried by Guru Gobind Singh was a hawk, however historians believe that the bird was a gyrfalcon or a saker falcon.
On Easter Island until the 1860s there was a Tangata manu (Bird man) cult which has left us Paintings and Petroglyphs of Birdmen (half men half frigatebirds). The cult involved an annual race to collect the first sooty tern egg of the season from the islet of Moto Iti and take it to Orongo.
The Frigate Bird Cult is thought to have originated in the Solomon Islands before immigrating to Easter Island where it became obsolete (Balfour 1917, p. 374). The Frigate-Bird was a representation of the god Make-make, the god of the seabird’s egg on Easter Island (Balfour 1917, p. 374).
The worship of the serpent is found in many parts of the Old World, and in the Americas.
In India snake worship refers to the high status of snakes in Hindu mythology. Over a large part of India there are carved representations of cobras (nagas) or stones as substitutes. To these human food and flowers are offered and lights are burned before the shrines. Among the Dravidians a cobra which is accidentally killed is burned like a human being; no one would kill one intentionally. The serpent-god's image is carried in an annual procession by a celibate priestess.
At one time there were many prevalent different renditions of the serpent cult located in India. In Northern India, a masculine version of the serpent named Nagaraja and known as the “king of the serpents” was worshipped. Instead of the “king of the serpents,” actual live snakes were worshipped in South India (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 1). The Manasa-cult in Bengal, India, however, was dedicated to the anthropomorphic serpent goddess, Manasa (Bhattacharyya 1965, p. 1).
In Africa the chief centre of serpent worship was Dahomey. but the cult of the python seems to have been of exotic origin, dating back to the first quarter of the 17th century. By the conquest of Whydah the Dahomeyans were brought in contact with a people of serpent worshippers, and ended by adopting from them the beliefs which they at first despised. At Whydah, the chief centre, there is a serpent temple, tenanted by some fifty snakes. Every python of the danh-gbi kind must be treated with respect, and death is the penalty for killing one, even by accident. Danh-gbi has numerous wives, who until 1857 took part in a public procession from which the profane crowd was excluded; a python was carried round the town in a hammock, perhaps as a ceremony for the expulsion of evils. The rainbow-god of the Ashanti was also conceived to have the form of a snake. His messenger was said to be a small variety of boa. but only certain individuals, not the whole species, were sacred. In many parts of Africa the serpent is looked upon as the incarnation of deceased relatives. Among the Amazulu, as among the Betsileo of Madagascar, certain species are assigned as the abode of certain classes. The Maasai, on the other hand, regard each species as the habitat of a particular family of the tribe.
According to the Jewish scholar Rashi, the Canaanite god Dagon was a fish god. This tradition may have originated here, with a misinterpretation, but recently uncovered reliefs suggest a fish-god with human head and hands was worshipped by people who wore fish-skins.
In Japan, there was a deity called Ebisu-gami who, according to Sakurada Katsunori, was widely revered by fishing communities and industries (Qtd. in Naumann, 1974, p. 1). Ebisu, in later traditions, normally appeared in the form of a fisherman holding a fishing pole and carrying a red tai (a perch), but would sometimes take the form of a whale, shark, human corpse, or rock (Naumann, 1974, p. 1). The general image of Ebisu, however, appears to be the whale or the shark, according to Sakurada (Qtd. in Naumann, 1974, p. 2).
During Ebisu-gami festivals, there have been legends told of strange fish creatures which have arrived and been considered sacred. Examples of such fish creatures include familiar species of fish with multiple tails (Naumann, 1974, p. 2). Sometimes these fish were considered to be simply an offering to the deity. Other times, however, they were considered to be Ebisu himself, visiting on the festival day (Naumann, 1974, p. 2). Large marine megafaunas such as whales and whale sharks (also called as "Ebisu-shark") were often referred as Ebisu himself to bring mass of fish among them, and as guardians of fishermen.
Animals are frequently used for the purposes of divination. Birds are especially common in this role, as by their faculty of flight they offer themselves to the interpretation as messengers between the celestial and human spheres. Augury was a highly developed practice of telling the future from the flight of birds in Classical Antiquity. The dove appears as an oracular animal in the story of Noah, and also in Thisbe in Boeotia there was a dove-oracle of Zeus. Animal imagery was also often employed in the oracular utterances in Ancient Greece. Parrot astrology is a form of divination using green parakeets which originated in South India and is still practised in modern times.
Shamanism and animals
Animals were an important aspect of the Shaman religion in Central Asia. Also known as “assistant spirits,” “guardian spirits,” and “helping spirits,” animal spirits are an integral part of a shaman’s work. The more animal spirits a shaman had under his control, the more powerful the shaman (Waida, 1983, p. 228-229). When a shaman set out to journey spiritually to the outer world, animals were a key component, assisting him in his work. There were three primary reasons for a shaman to take such a journey: to find a lost soul, to bring an animal spirit to the high gods, or to lead a soul to its new resting place in the underworld. All of these were extremely important to followers of shamanism and animals were extremely important in facilitating the shaman’s efforts (Waida, 1983, p. 231).
An example of animal spirits in Shamanism comes from the Yenisei Ostiaks culture. During a healing procedure, a shaman invokes a number of animal spirits to help him. The spirits arrive and enter his body. The shaman is not possessed by these spirits; he is free to expel them at any time (Waida, 1983, p. 223). His body begins to leap all over the place, symbolizing that his soul is rising, leaving the earth and going up to the sky. It is a bird spirit that is lifting him through the atmosphere and he cries for it to take him higher so he can see further. According to Adolf Friedrich, at this point the shaman’s essence has, in fact, transformed into the bird spirit that crossed the threshold into his body (Waida, 1983, p. 223). He finally spots what he is looking for, the soul of his ill patient. Still assisting him, the animal spirits carry the shaman to the patient’s soul. The shaman retrieves it and returns the soul to its rightful place, healing the patient. Without the presence of animal spirits, the shaman could not have accomplished such a feat (Waida, 1983, p. 231).
In the Inner Eurasian religion, the transformation of a shaman’s essence into an animal spirit is referred to as “becoming animal” (Baldick 2000, p. 167). The importance of animals in this shamanic religion is shown by the capabilities that animals grant to human beings. Without the assistance of animals, humans from Inner Eurasia were not capable of reaching the sky, traveling rapidly throughout the earth, or going beneath the earth’s outer crust, all of which were important activities to the culture (Baldick 2000, p. 167). Heaven was not attainable for a person without the assistance of an eagle. Because of the eagle, an animal, the Inner Eurasians believed that they were capable of achieving their after-life and living in the home of their ancestors and Supreme God after their departure from the earth (Baldick 2000, p. 167). Heaven was represented by the people in assemblies of animals, usually grouped in sevens or nines (Baldick 2000, p. 167). When participating in hunting or warfare, Inner Eurasians also took on animal qualities because they believed it would increase their success (Baldick 2000, p. 167). Animals were a central part of this religion (Baldick 2000, p. 167).
Religion and animals
One of the most important sanctions of the Buddhist faith is the concept of ahimsa, or refraining from the destruction of life (Regenstein 1991, p. 234). According to Buddhist belief, humans do not deserve preferential treatment over other living beings. Thus, the world is not specifically meant for human use and should be shared equally amongst all creatures (Epstein 1990). Buddhists recognize that all animals are sentient and are capable of feeling pain, grief, fear, happiness, and hunger (Regenstein 1991, p. 234-235). The Dalai Lama once said “Even ants and other insects will run away from danger... They have intelligence and want to live too. Why should we harm them?” (Qtd. in Regenstein 1991, p. 235). Not believing in inflicting harm on any living, sentient being, some Buddhists also follow a vegetarian diet to avoid causing pain to animals (Regenstein 1991, p. 238).
Avoiding the destruction of life can affect aspects beyond a Buddhist’s diet, such as travel plans. In order to avoid crushing any living thing, be it plant, insect, or animal, some Buddhist monks do not travel during rainy seasons (Regenstein 1991, p. 236). Originally, shortly after Buddhism was first founded, monks traveled during all seasons, but public opinion changed this. The people protested that so much life was crushed and destroyed when monks traveled during the wet season. As a result, monks were required to seek shelter during this season and abstain from journeys (Chapple 1993, p. 22).
Living creatures, including humans, culminate to form one large, united life-force in the Buddhist religion. Buddhists, therefore, believe that to harm another living creature is to, in fact, harm yourself as all life-forms are interrelated (Regenstein 1991, p. 237). There are many tales that depict humans sacrificing their lives so that an animal may live. A jataka, or previous incarnation story, tells how the Buddha, (upon hearing the distraught cries of a lioness struggling to feed her hungry cubs), leapt from a cliff and smashed his body to death as an offering, so that she could feed his flesh to them (Chapple 1993).
Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, believed that the only way to be released from the cycle of life (birth, death, and then rebirth), one must follow, like Buddhists, ahimsa and not harm any living creature (Regenstein 1991, p. 229). Some Jains will carry a broom with them and sweep their path as they walk to avoid stepping on any living creature. Jains will also wear masks over their mouths to prevent swallowing insects and inspect their fruit for worms. The fruit inspection is not, however, because of their aversion of worms, but for the protection of the worms themselves (Regenstein 1991, p. 229-230). Jains are also only allowed to eat during daylight hours, when their vision is not restricted, so that they avoid eating insects or other small creatures that could possibly be in their food (Regenstein 1991, p. 230).
Jainism includes a lay form which is somewhat less restrictive (Regenstein 1991, p. 231). Basically lay Jains must distinguish between what forms of violence are necessary and unnecessary, but do not have to abstain entirely (Vallely 2002, p. 5). This results in avoiding all forms of hunting, tilling the soil (tilling involved disturbing creatures embedded in the earth), and brewing (brewing involved using living organisms such as yeasts) (Regenstein 1991, p. 231).
Food will never be prepared especially for them. They beg for food from others believing that because the food was prepared for someone else, they are not the cause of violence towards living creatures (Vallely 2002, p. 5).
Lay Jains, who have the financial capacity, will visit animal markets and buy/rescue animals destined for slaughter for the good that it does. (Regenstein 1991, p. 232).
Hinduism is the primary religion of India (Regenstein 1991, p. 221). Hinduism has evolved over several centuries from Vedic times when there was no restriction on animal worship and also animal consumption for food, to later Buddhist and Jain-influenced eras that led to a wider concept adaptation of non-violence and respect for animals, ahimsa (non-violence) is a major concept in Hindu belief (Regenstein 1991, p. 223). Humans and animals are one family and therefore, humans should treat all living creatures with respect and kindness. Pets are often treated as if they are truly members of the family (Regenstein 1991, p. 223-224).
There are some exceptions to ahimsa in Hinduism. While Hindu belief forbids the slaughter of animals for human sustenance, animal sacrifice was an accepted ritual in some parts of India (Regenstein 1991, p. 225). An explanation for this supposed paradox is that a sacrificial animal is not really considered to be an animal, but a symbol. Thus, when the animal is sacrificed, they are sacrificing the symbol and not the animal (Regenstein 1991, p. 226). The killing of an animal for human pleasure or lavishness is prohibited. An example of such lavishness would be hunting for pleasure, a fur coat made from animal skin, etc. (Regenstein 1991, p. 226).
- Animal sacrifice
- Moral status of animals in the ancient world
- Animal welfare
- Animal-assisted therapy
- Animal assisted interventions
- Nature worship
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