Animal worship

Animal worship

Animal worship (or zoolatry) refers to religious rituals involving animals, especially in pre-modern societies, such as the glorification of animal deities, or animal sacrifice.

The origins of animal worship have been the subject of many theories. 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 churches such as Independent Assemblies of God and Pentecostal, 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.


Classification of animal cults

When a god is respected or worshipped by means of a representative animal, an animal cult is formed (Teeter et al., 2002, p. 355). Such cults may result from early man's awareness of his essential equality with animals (Raglan, 1935, p. 331). Given this fundamental equality, it was just as reasonable for them to represent their gods in animal form (Gilbert, Qtd. in Raglan, 1935, p. 331).

Animal cults may be classified in two ways:

  • according to their outward form;
  • according to their inward meaning, which may of course undergo transformations.

By outward form

There are two broad divisions:

  1. all animals of a given species are sacred, perhaps owing to the impossibility of distinguishing the sacred few from the profane crowd; (Sacred-profane dichotomy)
  2. one or a fixed number of a species are sacred. It is probable that the first of these forms is the primary one and the second in most cases a development from it due to
    1. the influence of other individual cults,
    2. anthropomorphic tendencies,
    3. the influence of chieftainship, hereditary and otherwise,
    4. annual sacrifice of the sacred animal and mystical ideas connected therewith,
    5. syncretism, due either to unity of function or to a philosophical unification,
    6. the desire to do honour to the species in the person of one of its members, and possibly other less easily traceable causes.

By inward meaning

Treating cults according to their meaning, which is not necessarily identical with the cause which first led to the deification of the animal in question, we can classify them under ten specific heads:

  • Pastoral cults: The pastoral type falls into two sub-types, in which the species is spared and sometimes receives special honour at intervals in the person of an individual. (See Cattle, Buffalo, below.)
  • Hunting cults: In hunting cults the species is habitually killed, but occasionally honoured in the person of a single individual, or each slaughtered animal receives divine honours. (See Bear, below.)
  • Dangerous or noxious animals: The cult of dangerous animals is due to the fear that the soul of the slain beast may take vengeance on the hunter, to a desire to placate the rest of the species. (See Leopard, below.)
  • Animals regarded as human souls or their embodiment:Animals are frequently regarded as the abode, temporary or permanent, of the souls of the dead, sometimes as the actual souls of the dead. Respect for them is due to two main reasons: the kinsmen of the dead desire to preserve the goodwill of their dead relatives and they wish at the same time to secure that their kinsmen are not molested and caused to undergo unnecessary suffering. (See Elephant, below.)
  • Totemistic cults: One of the most widely found modes of showing respect to animals is known as totemism (see totem), where a particular animal is seen as sacred to an individual or group, but except in decadent forms there is but little positive worship. In Central Australia, however, the rites of the Wollunqua totem group are directed towards placating this mythical animal, and cannot be termed anything but religious ceremonies. In secret societies we find bodies of men grouped together with a single tutelary animal; the individual, in the same way, acquires the nagual or individual totem, sometimes by ceremonies of the nature of the bloodbond. While an individual's or group's totem is sacred to them, it would not be sacred to another individual or group. By contrast, sacred animals in other religions are thus seen as sacred to the gods, and thus to all humanity, rather than particular individuals or tribes, even though only those sharing this belief will acknowledge their sacredness.
  • Cults of nature and vegetation spirits: Spirits of the landscape such as vegetation, rain and the earth in many parts of the world, such as Europe, Chine and Mesoamerica are conceived in animal form. (See Goat, Serpent below.)
  • Cults of ominous animals:The ominous (in the sense of being an omen) animal or bird may develop into a deity. (See Hawk, below.)
  • Cults of animals associated with zoomorphic deities: It is commonly assumed that the animals associated with certain deities are sacred because the god was originally zoomorphic or theriomorphic (shapeshifting) ; this is doubtless the case in certain instances; but Apollo Smintheus, Dionysus Bassareus and other examples seem to show that the god may have been appealed to for help and thus become associated with the animals from whom he protected the crops, and so on.
  • Cults of animals used in magic: The use of animals in magic may sometimes give rise to a kind of respect for them, but this is of a negative nature. See, however, articles by Preuss in Globus, vol. lxvii., in which he maintains that animals of magical influence are elevated into divinities.

Hunting cults


The bear enjoys a large measure of respect from all cultures that come in contact with it, which shows itself in apologies and in festivals in its honour. Bear worship is found in a number of religions, including Finnish paganism.The most notable ceremonies involving bears are found in East Asia.

There is a festival among the Nivkhs that takes the form of a celebration in honour of a recently dead kinsman, to whom the spirit of the bear is sent. There have been some attempts to revive the practice.

There is a good deal of evidence to connect 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 bear is traditionally associated with Bern, Switzerland. It is believed that the city's name derives from the Germanic word for "bears" (Bären in German) and a bear is featured on the city's flag and coat of arm. In 1832 a statue of the Celtic bear goddess Artio was dug up there.

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 Iomante ceremony (bear sending). Japanese scroll painting, circa 1870.

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).


In middle and South Vietnam coastal area, whale is considered sacred creature, who bring lucks and prosperity to fishermen. They are respectfully addressed as "the Lord". Coastal villages often hold funerals for beached whales, their remains are buried and skeletons are collected to be revered.

The first emperor of the last dynasty of Vietnam is believed to be rescued by a whale when his ship was capsized in a storm. After unifying the country, he sainted the whale who came to his rescue, which is known today as "Đông Hải phúc thần" (the deity of Fortune in the East sea).

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 were certain tribes that had ceremonial tributes to pieces of a whale after it was captured in a hunt (Lantis 1938, p. 445). Some tribes brought the hump, the fins, or the nose of the whale into their camps or the whaler’s house. These parts were meant to represent the entirety of the whale and were honored as such during the festival (Lantis 1938, p. 445). The bones of a whale, however, were also given ritual treatment. The Alaskan tribes that participated in such acts believed that their rituals protected the whale’s soul from injury and it could then be free to return to the sea (Lantis 1938, p. 445).

In the book Moby Dick can be found a longer description of the symbolism of the whale.

Domesticated mammals

Cattle and buffalo

In Hinduism, the cow is a symbol of wealth, strength, abundance, selfless giving and a full Earthly life

Many religions have considered cattle to be sacred, most famously Hinduism, 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).


Only in Africa do we find a sheep-god proper. 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.


Pavement mosaic with the head of Pan. Roman artwork, Antonine period, 138–192 CE.

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. In Africa the Bijago people are said to have a goat as their principal divinity. 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 Europe 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 Afghanistan 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). An example of a goat-burial finding was discovered on the Oxus River. Along these banks, a Neanderthal grave was excavated surrounded by several pairs of goat horns, suggesting significance of goats in Central Asian religion (Sidky 1990, p. 286).


A dog after being decorated in Kukur tihar festival in Nepal

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(France) 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).


A statue of Ganesha - the elephant headed Hindu god of wisdom and obstacle removal

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 tumeric 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).

Wild mammals


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.


In many parts of Vietnam, 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 cult of the wolf is frequently found among the tutelary deities of North American dancing or secret societies. The Tlingit had a god, Khanukh, whose name means "wolf," and worshipped a wolf-headed image.

In Altaic mythology of the Turkic and Mongolian peoples, the wolf is a revered animal. The shamanic Turkic peoples even believed they were descendants of wolves in Turkic legends. The legend of Asena is an old Turkic myth that tells of how the Turkic people were created. In Northern China a small Turkic village was raided by Chinese soldiers, but one small baby was left behind. An old she-wolf with a sky-blue mane named Asena found the baby and nursed him, then the she-wolf gave birth to half wolf, half human cubs therefore the Turkic people were born. Also in Turkic mythology it is believed that a gray wolf showed the Turks the way out of their legendary homeland Ergenekon, which allowed them to spread and conquer their neighbours.

Both Zeus and Apollo were associated with the wolf by the Greeks, but it is not clear that this implies a previous cult of the wolf.

In Western culture, the most obvious example is the symbolism of Rome's foundation, and the use of 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.[1][2] 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.

In Mesoamerica the jaguar was revered as a symbol of fertility and warriorship among the Aztec, Maya and Olmec, and had an important role in shamanism.

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.[3]

The tiger replaces the lion as King of the Beasts in cultures of eastern Asia,[4] representing royalty, fearlessness and wrath.[3]

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).

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 Warali tribe of Maharashtra, India worship Waghia the lord of tigers in the form of a shapeless stone. In Hanoi and Manchuria tiger-gods are also found.


In India the monkey-servant of God, Hanuman, is a prominent figure.He is a deity born as the reincarnation of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. In orthodox villages monkeys are safe from harm. Monkeys are said to be worshipped in Togo. At Porto Novo, in French West Africa, twins have tutelary spirits in the shape of small monkeys.



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).

Frigate Bird

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 Frigate birds). 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).

Other non-mammals


The altar where Serpent deities are worshipped in a temple in Belur, Karnataka, India
Quetzalcoatl depicted as a snake devouring a man, from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

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.

The Ancient Egyptians worshiped a number of snake gods, including Apophis and Set, and the Sumerians before them had a serpent god Ningizzida.

In America some of the Native American tribes give reverence to the rattlesnake as grandfather and king of snakes who is able to give fair winds or cause tempest. Among the Hopi of Arizona the serpent figures largely in one of the dances. The rattlesnake was worshipped in the Natchez temple of the sun and the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent-god. In many MesoAmerican cultures, the serpent was regarded as a portal between two worlds. The tribes of Peru are said to have adored great snakes in the pre-Inca days and in Chile the Mapuche made a serpent figure in their deluge beliefs.

Serpent worship was well known in ancient Europe. There does not appear to be much ground for supposing that Aesculapius was a serpent-god in spite of his connection with serpents. On the other hand, we learn from Herodotus of the great serpent which defended the citadel of Athens. The Roman genius loci took the form of a serpent where a snake was kept and fed with milk in the temple of Potrimpos, an old Slavonic god. The ancient Greeks also featured the Gorgons and Medusa in their mythology.


A modern interpretation of Dagon as a "fish-god"

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.

Supposedly, there were sacred fish in the temples of Apollo and Aphrodite in Greece, which may point to a fish cult. The goddess at Ashkelon, Atargatis was depicted as half woman, half fish, and according to Xenophon the fish of the Chalus were regarded as gods.

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).

The praying mantis and the caterpillar, Ngo, are the incarnations of Cagn, a prominent figure in Bushman mythology. It was called the "Hottentots' god" by early European settlers.

The cult of the lizard is most prominent in the Pacific, where it appears as an incarnation of Tangaloa. In Easter Island a form of the house-god is the lizard. It is also a tutelary deity in Madagascar.

Oracular animals

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.[5]

In Chinese traditional religion, the tortoise is an oracular animal.

Notable oracular animals of the modern period include Lady Wonder, Punxsutawney Phil, Maggie the Monkey, Lazdeika the Crab, Paul the Octopus and Sonny Wool.

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 parables 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, p. 22).


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 with vedic times when there was no restriction on animal worship and also animal consumption for food, to later Buddhist and Jain influence that led to the concept of non violence and animal respect and consideration, 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).

See also


  1. ^ Quirke and Spencer 1992, pp. 78, 92–94
  2. ^ Owen, James (2004), "Egyptian Animals Were Mummified Same Way as Humans", National Geographic News,, retrieved 2010-08-06 
  3. ^ a b Cooper, JC (1992). Symbolic and Mythological Animals. London: Aquarian Press. pp. 226–27. ISBN 1-85538-118-4. 
  4. ^ "Tiger Culture | Save China's Tigers". Retrieved 2009-03-07. 
  5. ^ J. L. Lightfoot, The Sibylline oracles Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780199215461, p. 237, fn. 105.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainThomas, Northcote Whitbridge (1911). "Animal worship". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Baldick, Julian (2000). “Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia” New York University Press, New York
  • Balfour, Henry (1917). "Some Ethnological Suggestions in Regard to Easter Island, or Rapanui” Folklore, 28(4).
  • Bhattacharyya, Asutosh (1965). "The Serpent as a Folk-Deity in Bengal” Asian Folklore Studies, 24(1).
  • Brown, Theo (1950). "Tertullian and Horse-Cults in Britain” Folklore, 61(1).
  • Chapple, Christopher (1993). “Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions” State University of New York Press, Albany
  • Epstein, Ronald (1990). “A Buddhist Perspective on Animal Rights” San Francisco State University, [1]
  • Harrell, Stevan; Yongxiang, Li (2003). "The History of the History of the Yi, Part II” Modern China, 29(3).
  • Kindaichi, Kyōsuke (1949). "The Concepts behind the Ainu Bear Festival (Kumamatsuri)", Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 5(4), Trans. Minori Yoshida.
  • Lantis, Margaret (1938). "The Alaska Whale Cult and Its Affinities” American Anthropologist, New Series, 40(3).
  • Livingstone, A (1988). "The Isin “Dog House” Revisited", Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 40(1)
  • Lubbock, John (2005). "The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man", Kessinger Publishing Company.
  • Margul, Tadeusz (1968). "Present-Day Worship of the Cow in India” Numen, 15(1),
  • Meyerowitz, Eva L. R. (1940). "Snake-Vessels of the Gold Coast” Man, 40.
  • Morris, Brian (2000). "Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography", Berg, New York.
  • Naik, T.B. (1958). "Religion of the Anāvils of Surat", The Journal of American Folklore, 71(281).
  • Naumann, Nelly

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