The relationship between man and animal has always been an intricate one. For years, the mutual bond has been beneficial to both. As man evolved, his relationship with animal evolved too, and somewhere in this journey animal became a part of man’s various religions.
According to Johannes Weissenborn, the author of Animal-worship in Africa, the primitive man began worshipping the unique traits of animals long before the idea of religion came into being. As society grew, mythologies across the globe displayed an overlap of animals and religions.
The origin of the link between animal and God has been attributed to a legend. Classical author and Greek historian Diodorus traced African folklore and found that according to one legend, the gods were threatened by the giants and had to hide. They decided to do so under the guise of animals. This prompted people to worship those animals. Even after the gods came out of hiding, animal worship continued.
Not all religions look at animals in the same way though. While those following Paganism believe in the spiritual essence of nature and worship animals, the idea that gods walk the earth embodied in animals is disregarded by Abrahamic religions.
Let’s take a look at some animals that have been associated with gods across cultures and religions.
Considered the wisest of all, the owl is known as the symbol of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. According to a Hindu legend, the nocturnal nature of the owl symbolises ignorance and darkness. However, another legend says that the owl is a representation of Alakshmi–goddess Lakshmi’s other half who was born out of the dark side of Lord Brahma’s face. In yet another version, her owl is Uluka, another name for Lord Indra–the king of heaven–who represents glory, power and wealth.
While most Hindu legends look at the owl as a symbol of darkness, goddess Lakshmi encourages us to rise above our ignorance and take the path of light.
The owl is also sacred to Athena, the Greek virgin goddess of wisdom and courage. As per legend, the bird is either the goddess’ escort or just represents her. Athena’s association with the owl has many explanations by various mythographers. The most interesting is by Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist who traces the goddess’ origin as an old European bird. Greek legends associated with Athena also associate the owl with wisdom as it can see clearly in the dark.
The swan is the vehicle of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom and of Apollo, the Greek god of music and poetry, among other things. According to the Hindu mythology, the swan symbolises the ability to discriminate between good and evil as it has the power to drink only milk from a mixture of milk and water, hence the association with the goddess of wisdom.
On the other hand as per a Greek legend, Apollo’s father Zeus gifted him a golden mitre, a chariot drawn by swans and a golden lyre. The bird, over time, has come to represent the powers of poetry.
The lion and tiger
Considered the vehicle of Hindu goddess Durga, a tiger symbolises unlimited power that the goddess uses to protect virtue and destroy evil. She also rides a lion which is a symbol of uncontrolled tendencies like anger, arrogance, selfishness, greed and jealousy. The goddess, through the lion reminds us to keep these vices in check.
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, rides a chariot usually drawn by lions or tigers. Both these beasts symbolise chaos, danger and unexpected reactions.
One of the most beautiful and powerful creatures, the horse appears in quite a few mythologies. The Hindu sun god Surya rides a chariot drawn by seven of these majestic creatures. According to legend, the sun god’s seven horses represent seven sins and his control over them.
Predictably, the Greek mythology also has a powerful god linked to the horse. Poseidon, the god of the sea, is known to have created the horse in a bid to woo Demeter, the goddess of grain. While not exactly using it as a vehicle, Poseidon has been known to have taken the shape of a steed occasionally.
The next creature on our list, the bull is known as the ride of Lord Shiva. Called Nandi, the bull is also Shiva’s doorkeeper.
Ptah, the Egyptian god of craftsmen and architects, is said to have merged with Apis, a sacred bull. While not taking a form of the beast, the bull was instead, a kind of servant for Ptah. This bull was considered divine only when he would host the god.
From the raging bull, we move to one of the most gentle animals in the wild–the deer. In the Hindu mythology, the goddess of wisdom Saraswati takes the form of a red deer. In ancient times, scholars were known to wear deerskin and sit on deerskin mats when learning.
In ancient Greece, Artemis, the goddess of hunt, forests and hills, rode a chariot of four stags and the animal is sacred to her. According to one legend, two giant brothers called the Aloadae giants were feared even by the gods. Artemis discovered they could only be killed by each other. She took the form of a deer and jumped between the brothers when they were hunting. Both threw their spears at Artemis, but ended up killing each other.
The Hindu god of wisdom, Ganesha rides a mouse. According to common belief, it’s because of this unique vehicle that lord Ganesha is able to go into nooks and corners and do his job as the destroyer of obstacles.
Meanwhile, the Greek god Apollo, the god of plagues, doesn’t really use the mouse as a vehicle, but he is associated with the rodent since he raised havoc during the Trojan War by unleashing arrows that turned into mice.
When we talk of the mouse, the cat can’t be far behind. According to the Hindu mythology, Shashthi is a folk goddess who is the protector of children and the deity of vegetation and reproduction. The black cat is considered sacred to her and she is often depicted riding a cat with eight infants in hand.
The Norse goddess Freyja, the deity of love, is known to have ridden in a chariot pulled by two giant grey cats given to her by the god Thor. Farmers are said to leave offerings for cats for a good harvest.
The Hindu god of death, Yama has two dogs with wide nostrils and four eyes guarding the road to his abode. The dogs are said to wander among people as Yama’s messengers. Anubis, the Greek god of mummification and afterlife, is represented by a black-coated dog. In many places, Anubis is also portrayed as a human with the face of a hound with erect ears.
Man has always been fascinated by the unique characteristics of birds and animals. The fact that animals are linked to gods and we look to them for guidance, clearly highlights their importance in our lives.