Sacred bull

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Bull heads excavated from Çatalhöyük in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.
2nd Century A.D sculpture of Nandi bull.

The worship of the Sacred Bull throughout the ancient world is most familiar to the Western world in the biblical episode of the idol of the Golden Calf. The Golden Calf after being made by the Hebrew people in the wilderness of Sinai, were rejected and destroyed by Moses and the Hebrew people after Moses' time upon Mount Sinai (Book of Exodus). Marduk is the "bull of Utu". Shiva's steed is Nandi, the Bull. The sacred bull survives in the constellation Taurus. The bull, whether lunar as in Mesopotamia or solar as in India, is the subject of various other cultural and religious incarnations, as well as modern mentions in new age cultures.

In prehistorical art[edit]

Aurochs are depicted in many Paleolithic European cave paintings such as those found at Lascaux and Livernon in France. Their life force may have been thought to have magical qualities, for early carvings of the aurochs have also been found. The impressive and dangerous aurochs survived into the Iron Age in Anatolia and the Near East and was worshipped throughout that area as a sacred animal; the earliest survivals of a bull worship are at neolithic Çatalhöyük.

The bull was seen in the constellation Taurus by the Chalcolithic and had marked the new year at springtide by the Bronze Age, for 40001700 BCE.

In antiquity[edit]


The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh depicts the killing by Gilgamesh and Enkidu of the Bull of Heaven, Gugalana, first husband of Ereshkigal, as an act of defiance of the gods. From the earliest times, the bull was lunar in Mesopotamia (its horns representing the crescent moon).[1]


Hathor as a cow, wearing her necklace and showing her sacred eye – Papyrus of Ani.

In Egypt, the bull was worshiped as Apis, the embodiment of Ptah and later of Osiris. A long series of ritually perfect bulls were identified by the god's priests, housed in the temple for their lifetime, then embalmed and encased in a giant sarcophagus. A long sequence of monolithic stone sarcophagi were housed in the Serapeum, and were rediscovered by Auguste Mariette at Saqqara in 1851. The bull was also worshipped as Mnewer, the embodiment of Atum-Ra, in Heliopolis. Ka in Egyptian is both a religious concept of life-force/power and the word for bull.

Eastern Anatolia[edit]

We cannot recreate a specific context for the bull skulls with horns (bucrania) preserved in an 8th millennium BCE sanctuary at Çatalhöyük in eastern Anatolia. The sacred bull of the Hattians, whose elaborate standards were found at Alaca Höyük alongside those of the sacred stag, survived in the Hurrian and Hittite mythologies as Seri and Hurri (Day and Night)—the bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs or in his chariot, and grazed on the ruins of cities.[2]


Bulls were a central theme in the Minoan civilization,being a major religious object,with bull heads and bull horns used as symbols in the Knossos palace. Minoan frescos and ceramics depict the bull-leaping ritual in which participants of both sexes vaulted over bulls by grasping their horns. See also "Minotaur and The Bull of Crete" for a later incarnation to the Minoan Bull.


The Iranian language texts of Zoroastrian scripture and tradition have several different mythological bovine creatures. One of these is Gavaevodata, which is the Avestan language name of a hermaphroditic "uniquely created ( cow (gav-)", one of Ahura Mazda's six primordial material creations that becomes the mythological progenitor of all beneficent animal life. Another Zoroastrian mythological bovine is Hadhayans, a gigantic bull so large that it could straddle the mountains and seas that divide the seven regions of the earth, and on whose back men could travel from one region to another. In medieval times, Hadhayans also came to be known as Srisok (Av. *Thrisaok, "three burning places"), which derives from a legend in which three "great fires" were collected on the creature's back. Yet another mythological bovine is that of the unnamed creature in the Cow's Lament, an allegorical hymn attributed to Zoroaster himself, in which the soul of a bovine (geush urvan) despairs over her lack of protection from an adequate herdsman. In the allegory, the cow represents humanity's lack of moral guidance, but in later Zoroastrianism Geush Urvan became a yazata representing all cattle, and the 14th day of the month is named after her, and is under her protection.

Indus Valley[edit]

Nandi appears in the Hindu mythology as the primary vehicle and the principal gana (follower) of Shiva. Bulls also appear on the Indus Valley seals from Pakistan as well,


In Cyprus, bull masks made from real skulls were worn in rites. Bull-masked terracotta figurines[3] and Neolithic bull-horned stone altars have been found in Cyprus.


The Canaanite (and later Carthaginian) deity Moloch was often depicted as a bull.

Exodus 32:4 "He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt'."

Nehemiah 9:18 "even when they made an idol shaped like a calf and said, 'This is your god who brought you out of Egypt!' They committed terrible blasphemies."

Calf-idols are referred to later in the Tanakh, such as in the Book of Hosea,[4] which would seem accurate as they were a fixture of near-eastern cultures.

King Solomon's "bronze sea" basin stood on 12 brazen bulls.[5][6]

Young bulls were set as frontier markers at Tel Dan and at Bethel the frontiers of the Kingdom of Israel.

Much later, in Abrahamic traditions, the bull motif became a bull demon or the "horned devil" in contrast and conflict to earlier traditions. The bull is familiar in Judeo-Christian cultures from the Biblical episode wherein an idol of the Golden Calf is made by Aaron and worshipped by the Hebrews in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus). The text of the Hebrew Bible can be understood to refer to the idol as representing a separate god, or as representing the God of Israel himself, perhaps through an association or syncretization with Egyptian or Levantine bull gods, rather than a new deity in itself.[citation needed]


The Rape of Europa, Jacob Jordaens, 1615
The Rape of Europa, Jean-François de Troy, 1716

The Indo-European culture of Sacred Bull remembered by the Indo-European race in Aegean basin, the they worshiped their tradition beliefs on many occasions, in the form of the myths that have survived.

In the Olympian worship, Hera's epithet Bo-opis is usually translated "ox-eyed" Hera, but the term could just as well apply if the goddess had the head of a cow, and thus the epithet reveals the presence of an earlier, though not necessarily more primitive, iconic view. Schliemann, 1976 Classical Greeks never otherwise referred to Hera simply as the cow, though her priestess Io was so literally a heifer that she was stung by a gadfly, and it was in the form of a heifer that Zeus coupled with her. Zeus took over the earlier roles, and, in the form of a bull that came forth from the sea, abducted the high-born Phoenician Europa and brought her, significantly, to Crete.

Dionysus was another god of resurrection who was strongly linked to the bull. In a worship hymn from Olympia, at a festival for Hera, Dionysus is also invited to come as a bull, "with bull-foot raging." "Quite frequently he is portrayed with bull horns, and in Kyzikos he has a tauromorphic image," Walter Burkert relates, and refers also to an archaic myth in which Dionysus is slaughtered as a bull calf and impiously eaten by the Titans.[7]

For the Greeks, the bull was strongly linked to the Bull of Crete: Theseus of Athens had to capture the ancient sacred bull of Marathon (the "Marathonian bull") before he faced the Bull-man, the Minotaur (Greek for "Bull of Minos"), whom the Greeks imagined as a man with the head of a bull at the center of the labyrinth. Minotaur was fabled to be born of the Queen and a bull, bringing the king to build the labyrinth to hide his family's shame. Living in solitude made the boy wild and ferocious, unable to be tamed or beaten. Yet Walter Burkert's constant warning is, "It is hazardous to project Greek tradition directly into the Bronze age";[8] only one Minoan image of a bull-headed man has been found, a tiny seal currently held in the Archaeological Museum of Chania.

In the Classical period of Greece, the bull and other animals identified with deities were separated as their agalma, a kind of heraldic show-piece that concretely signified their numinous presence.

Eucharist analogies[edit]

Walter Burkert summarized modern revision of a too-facile and blurred identification of a god that was identical to his sacrificial victim, which had created suggestive analogies with the Christian Eucharist for an earlier generation of mythographers:

The concept of the theriomorphic god and especially of the bull god, however, may all too easily efface the very important distinctions between a god named, described, represented, and worshipped in animal form, a real animal worshipped as a god, animal symbols and animal maskes used in the worship, and finally the consecrated animal destined for sacrifice. Animal worship of the kind found in the Egyptian Apis worship is unknown in Greece. ("Greek Religion," 1985).

Roman Empire[edit]

Tauroctony of Mithras at the British Museum, London.
Bull used as an heraldic crest, here for the Fane family, Earls of Westmorland. (Great Britain, this example 18th or 19th century, but inherited early 17th century from a much earlier use of the idiom by the Neville family).

The religious practices of the Roman Empire of the 2nd to 4th centuries included the taurobolium, in which a bull was sacrificed for the well being of the people and the state. Around the mid-2nd century, the practice became identified with the worship of Magna Mater, but was not previously associated only with that cult (cultus). Public taurobolia, enlisting the benevolence of Magna Mater on behalf of the emperor, became common in Italy and Gaul, Hispania and Africa. The last public taurobolium for which there is an inscription was carried out at Mactar in Numidia at the close of the 3rd century. It was performed in honor of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian.

Another Roman mystery cult in which a sacrificial bull played a role was that of the 1st-4th century Mithraic Mysteries. In the so-called "tauroctony" artwork of that cult (cultus), and which appears in all its temples, the god Mithras is seen to slay a sacrificial bull. Although there has been a great deal of speculation on the subject, the myth (i.e. the "mystery", the understanding of which was the basis of the cult) that the scene was intended to represent remains unknown. Because the scene is accompanied by a great number of astrological allusions, the bull is generally assumed to represent the constellation of Taurus. The basic elements of the tauroctony scene were originally associated with Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

Macrobius lists the bull as an animal sacred to the god Neto/Neito, possibly being sacrifices to the deity.[9]


A prominent zoomorphic deity type is the divine bull. Tarvos Trigaranus ("bull with three cranes") is pictured on reliefs from the cathedral at Trier, Germany, and at Notre-Dame de Paris. In Irish mythology, the Donn Cuailnge ("Brown Bull of Cooley") plays a central role in the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge ("The Cattle-Raid of Cooley") which features the hero Cú Chulainn, which were collected in the 7th century CE Lebor na hUidre ("Book of the Dun Cow").

Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, describes a religious ceremony in Gaul in which white-clad druids climbed a sacred oak, cut down the mistletoe growing on it, sacrificed two white bulls and used the mistletoe to cure infertility:[10]

Medieval and modern[edit]

The practice of bullfighting in Iberia and southern France are connected with the legends of Saint Saturninus (or Sernin) of Toulouse and his protégé in Pamplona, Saint Fermin. These are inseparably linked to bull-sacrifices by the vivid manner of their martryrdoms, set by Christian hagiography in the 3rd century CE.

In some Christian traditions, Nativity scenes are carved or assembled at Christmas time. Many show a bull or an ox near the baby Jesus, lying in a manger. Traditional songs of Christmas often tell of the bull and the donkey warming the infant with their breath. This refers (or, at least, is referred) to the beginning of the book of the prophet Isaiah, where he says: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib." (Isaiah 1:3)


  1. ^ Jules Cashford, The Moon: Myth and Image 2003, begins the section "Bull and cow" pp 102ff with the simple observation "Other animals become epiphanies of the Moon because they look like the moon.... the sharp horns of a bull or cow were seen to match the pointed curve of the waxing and waning crescents so exactly that the powers of the one were attributed to the other, each gaining the other's potency as well as their own."
  2. ^ Hawkes and Woolley, 1963; Vieyra, 1955
  3. ^ Burkert 1985
  4. ^ "Hosea 10:5 The people who live in Samaria fear for the calf-idol of Beth Aven. Its people will mourn over it, and so will its idolatrous priests, those who had rejoiced over its splendor, because it is taken from them into exile". Retrieved 2012-10-30. 
  5. ^ "1 Kings 7:25 The Sea stood on twelve bulls, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south and three facing east. The Sea rested on top of them, and their hindquarters were toward the center". Retrieved 2012-10-30. 
  6. ^ "Jeremiah 52:20 The bronze from the two pillars, the Sea and the twelve bronze bulls under it, and the movable stands, which King Solomon had made for the temple of the LORD, was more than could be weighed". Retrieved 2012-10-30. 
  7. ^ Burkert 1985 pp. 64, 132
  8. ^ Burkert 1985 p. 24
  9. ^ Macrobius, Saturnalia, Book I, XIX
  10. ^ Miranda J. Green. (2005) Exploring the world of the druids. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 18-19
  11. ^ Natural History (Pliny), XVI, 95

See also[edit]


  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion, 1985
  • Campbell, Joseph Occidental Mythology "2.The Consort of the Bull", 1964.
  • Hawkes, Jacquetta; Woolley, Leonard: Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, v. 1 (NY, Harper & Row, 1963)
  • Vieyra, Maurice: Hittite Art, 2300-750 B.C. (London, A. Tiranti, 1955)
  • Jeremy B. Rutter, The Three Phases of the Taurobolium, Phoenix (1968).
  • Heinrich Schliemann, "Troy and its Remains" (NY, Arno Press, 1976) pp. 113–114.

External links[edit]