In India, cows rule the roads. Taxis, rickshaws, even ambulances all come to a screeching halt when a cow steps hoof onto the highway (which, I might add, is rather often). Growing up traveling to India every other year, I didn’t think much of it. In the Hindu religion, cows are sacred; clearly they should always have right-of-way. Whenever I tell my stateside friends this, they think it’s completely ridiculous, and I guess it does seem pretty odd. While cars here might come to a full stop on a major highway to let a herd of cattle cross, it’s mainly to avoid an accident. And cows rarely roam onto the road or hang out in the streets. They’re animals, and in the United States, that means they’re penned up.
Hindus, however, are not the only religious group to worship four-legged folk. Numerous ancient societies believe that animals have a special spiritual significance. Animism is the belief that all creatures, even inanimate ones, have a soul. Though more actively practiced in folk religions and in ancient times, animals still play an integral role in our society and our religious beliefs.
In Hinduism, the cow is a symbol of food and life. Vedic scripture dictates they should be treated “with the same respect as one’s mother.” They should never be killed or eaten. Cows are a symbol of the earth. They provide so much nourishment—in the form of milk for food and dung for fuel—and need little in return. Although Hindus do consider the cow as sacred, they do not worship bovines; they simply regard them as one of God’s gifts. In rural India, a cow is considered the most generous and pious of all gifts. and is often traded in the form of dowry.
Arctolatry, the worshipping of bears, is one of the world’s oldest religious beliefs. Dating back to Neolithic times, the bear has always been a highly revered animal. Primarily a North American and Eurasian belief, bear worship dates back to Neanderthal societies. In ancient Western European society, the goddess of wildlife always appeared as a bear. Similarly, the Greek goddess Artemis appears in the form of a bear. The Nivkhs, an Ancient Russian society, offer a bear in celebration to honor a fallen solider. In Japan, the Ainu people name bears kamui, which means "god." The Ainu people would eat bear, as they believed that the animal’s fur and meat were a gift from the gods.
Spiritually Significant Sheep
Sheep have historical significance in many cultures. In ancient Eastern civilizations, including the Middle East and Mediterranean areas, sheep had religious symbolism, and their skulls were often centrally placed in shrines. In Madagascar, people were forbidden to eat sheep, as they represented the incarnation of ancestral souls. Followers of Islam often sacrifice a lamb on Eid, the holiest day of the year. Greeks and Romans also sacrifice sheep regularly in religious celebrations, especially during the Passover and Easter holidays. In Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), sheep have always played an important role. Numerous important religious figures—including Abraham, Isaac, and Muhammad—were all shepherds.
In Thai culture, elephants are symbols of peace and power. They have historically played an integral role in wars, as well as acted as beasts of burden. In Thailand, older generations consider the elephant to be a magic animal. Images and idols of an elephant with an upturned trunk are especially auspicious.
A white elephant specifically is believed to contain the soul of the deceased. If one is found and captured, the elephant should be brought to the king to keep. They are not allowed to be purchased or sold. Upon its death, the elephant is mourned like a human.
In Surat, India, unmarried women celebrate the holiday Alun?m. During this festival, single women dance and sing around a sculpture of a clay elephant.
In some parts of the world, owls are an ominous symbol. They are associated with death and bad luck. In other parts of the world, they are actually a symbol of prosperity. Hindus consider owls to be very lucky, as they are related to the Goddess Lakshmi. In Ancient Greece, the goddess Athena was often portrayed accompanied by an owl, which represented wisdom.
Lyle, Lyle Crocodile
To the ancient Egyptians, the crocodile represented the god Sebek. Impressed by the crocodile’s speed, dexterity, and hunting skill, they identified the qualities of this regal animal as those necessary to their Pharaoh, especially in battle.
In Chinese culture, the tiger replaces the lion as the King of the Beasts. The tiger represents monarchy, bravery, and rage. It is also one of the twelve zodiac animals—an important symbol in Chinese myth and culture. It is often portrayed as an equal rival to the Chinese dragon; together they represent the battle between matter and spirit. In ancient China, the tiger was a symbol of war and represented the highest rank in the army.
The rare and elusive white tiger has a deeper significance. In China, it is valued as the god of the west, Baihu, and is associated with the fall season and metal. White tigers appear often in pop culture as symbols of strength, beauty, and distinction.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” While I am definitely known to swat down a pesky fly or squash a scary spider, there is something to be said for being kind to all of Earth’s creatures. Before I grab my can of Raid to rid my kitchen of invading ants, I’ll be sure to stop and think about the fact that somewhere, at some point in time, these pesky creatures might have been considered godly.
Updated October 1, 2010