Animal Worship

Anthropology: Animal Worship in Ancient Cultures and Effects on Human Behavior

A group of various animals in a sunny pasture.
A group of animals in nature.

Worship of Animals

Zoolatry, the worship of animals, was fairly commonplace across the world’s ancient cultures, religions, and traditions. 

Religious cosmology has debated man’s connection to the greater world for generations. Humans have most often viewed themselves as possessing souls. In addition, they view the world as a spiritual existence. Plenty of ancient and modern cultures alike have found spiritual significance in nature and animals. In other words, they find spiritual meanings and symbolism in animals, and this has served as vehicles for religious reverence and defining the natural world. This is especially true in ancient cultures still making sense of the world around them, and the divisions between rational and irrational.

General Beliefs of Animal Spiritualism

Many ancient beliefs about animals incorporate metamorphoses of some kind. Folklore and legends across cultures often have some reference to humans or deities turning into animals. For example, Selkies, mythical humans that could become seals, and in Greek mythology, Zeus turned into animals to lure women. Furthermore, some deities even parent mythical animals, such as the Greek God Poesidan fathering Pegasus, the winged horse.

Many animals have possessed divine associations even beyond the fantastical, transformative or mythical animals of folklore.  Animals sacrificed in rituals would serve as offerings to appeal to deities and spirits. This practice was common in Europe as early as 4800 BCE, as seen in ritual sacrifices of sacred sheep, swine, goats, and cattle in Italy, Spain, and Crete. Most animal sacrifices were livestock, and there were variations in sacrificing the entire animal or only the least edible portions. Some cultures consider certain animals as holy when attributed to specific deities or cosmology. In Greek mythology, for instance, bulls and eagles are sacred to Zeus. In Native American culture, eagles, coyotes, turtles, buffalo, and ravens are known to be sacred.

Worshipping animals as symbols of respect

Worshipping animals has often developed in ancient cultures from observations of specific animal behaviors and traits bringing admiration. In some ancient cultures, family names would reference animals. In doing so, they attributed their respect in society to respecting the animal. As cultures develop reverence, animals take their place in religious practices and beliefs. Religious dietary expectations often factor in animal worship. An example is prohibiting eating an animal because it is sacred or unholy. 

As varied as animal reverence can be across cultures, especially at its peak popularity in ancient times, this sacred regard for animals shaped human behaviors, traditions, and beliefs worldwide, which grants them great anthropological significance for understanding human cultures.

A scenic Scandinavian lake with mountains in the background and small houses on the shore.
Photo: Yuriy Garnaev / Unsplash

Ancient Scandinavian Beliefs

Information related to Scandinavian beliefs related to religion has historically been limited to only a century before the introduction of Christianity. The ninth and tenth centuries, however, have provided records of possible animal worship in Scandinavia.

Scandinavian mythology relates many animals to deities, particularly as messengers. Odin had two messenger ravens and pet wolves. Thor had goats draw his chariot. Gullinburtsi the boar drew Freyer’s chariot.

Gods and goddesses would also often transform into birds while travelling the world, Odin especially. In Scandinavian mythology, “All the world’s wisdom” is the greatest, most elusive knowledge in existence. Whoever knows it becomes the world’s master and learns the secrets of nature. Odin carved the information into runes made of the bear’s paw, the wolf’s claws, the eagle’s beak, and the owl’s neb. The association of this most sacred lore to these animals indicates divine regard and significance.

Some myths present animals with human characteristics, which implies divine or supernatural significance to ancient Scandinavian beliefs. For example, Finnbogi the Strong slayed a bear that could understand human speech and reason.

A great white bear swimming in the water, its face emerging.
Great White Bear

Effects on Human Behavior

Scholars have not known ancient Scandinavians to have worshipped animals to a notable extent, unlike several other Eastern nations.  Populations did not give animal species temples or greatly worship them through cultural practices and traditions beyond their sacred associations. There is one record of ancient Icelandic worship of a bear. Eirkr the Red worshipped a large white bear upon his discovery of Greenland. Eirkr refused to kill the bear, despite how often the bear attacked the sheep. He greatly mourned the bear upon its eventual death. His worship of the literal, individual animal drove his decision to actively revere and spare its life. Modern day Scandinavia and Iceland still have widespread superstitions involving animals that most likely originated from ancient animal worship.

A sphinx in front of three pyramids in Egypt at sunrise.

Ancient Egyptian Beliefs

Egypt maintained animal worship from the earliest days of civilization to the modern age, as seen in serpents. Serpents were revered from the earliest age of ancient Egypt, and in the modern ages, serpents are worshipped and associated with cures in Sheykh Heridy.

Ancient Egyptian beliefs attributed symbolism to animal species based on their characteristics and nature, rather than totenmism. Beliefs connected animals to deities, places, and tribes. Associations of animals with specific deities were common as incarnations or emblems. When a species was considered sacred in a particular place or tribe, there would be punishments if that animal was killed. Some animals were revered for divine association but not worshipped. Frogs were not worshipped but were emblems of the goddess Heqt.

Animal characteristics greatly inspired animal worship in ancient Egypt.

Baboons were emblems of Tahuti, the god of wisdom, who was often depicted as a baboon in the first dynasty. Cultures deemed baboons to be wise due to their serious nature and to have praised the sun because of their loud behavior at sunrise.

Vultures symbolize maternity due to their inclination to care considerably for their young. This has led worshippers to identify the mother goddess of Thebes, Mut, with vultures.

Lionesses were associated with the destructive goddesses Bast, Mahes, Sekhet, and Tefnut. Jackals were known to lurk near cemeteries at the edges of the deserts, and were believed to be protectors of the dead, and to identify with Anubis, the god of the afterlife. Jackal-made paths avoided precipices and valleys. It was common for people to use their paths as guides for easy travel. This earned them recognition as Up-uat, a spirit that led the dead across the desert. 

Different locations emphasized animal reverence and divine associations to different extents.

Sinai emphasized the cheetah’s sacred relevance to Hathor, and Speos Artemidos and Bubastis emphasized small cats as sacred to Bast. The ibis was identified with Tahuti, the god of Hermopolist. Crocodiles were greatly worshipped in the marshy landscape of Fayum and the great lake, where they were common. Worshippers at Nubti and Ombos considered them to be sacred and identified with the god Set. 

Gods took on animal forms in mythology. Cultures worshipped those animals for that belief.

Ta-urt, the goddess of pregnancy, only has the form of a hippopotamus. Rams were worshipped as procreative gods. Worshippers in Herakleopolis identified rams with Hershefi. Worshippers in Thebes, and Ethiopians especially, identified rams with Amon. Hawks are the principal sacred bird and were mainly worshipped at Hierakonpolis and Edfu. Worshippers identified hawks with the gods Horus and Ra.

Beliefs stated that the souls of deceased kings would turn into hawks to fly to heaven. Myths portray the god of the dead, Seker, and the god of the east, Sopdu, as mummified hawks. Three goddesses take the form of serpents: Mert-seger, the goddess of the Theban necropolis; Rannut, the harvest goddess; and Uazet, the goddess of Buto.

A bust of Tetisheri wearing a Vulture headdress.
Tetisheri wearing the Vulture headdress

Effects on Human Behavior

Artwork honored sacred animals in ancient Egypt. The first dynasty symbolized serpents as fenders by depicting them in pottery coiled around hearths. Above all, serpents were found depicted in terra-cotta figures, amulets, and jewelry. These items depicting serpents were particularly popular in later times. In addition, Hawk figurines to be carried or worn were common in predynastic times. Lions and scorpions were depicted as personal amulets and life-sized sculptures for temples, which indicates a popular cultural respect for them. Ancient Egyptian queen mothers wore vulture headdresses with wings outstretched to protect the kings. Vulture figurines often lined the roofs of tomb passages to protect departing souls. Bulls symbolized power in battle and revival, so they were depicted in figurines as triumphant kings and self-renewing gods.

Sacred animals were mummified, especially serpents and hawks. This was because of the great cultural significance attributed to these animals. Some dogs seem to have been mummified and revered because they resembled jackals. 

Ancient Egypt maintained a great diversity of beliefs from the many inflows of various peoples. Theology was complex and varied and only grew over time. Animal and human gods were clearly divided. Later on in history, populations adapted animal gods into concepts of human gods through the creation of gods with human bodies and animal heads. There are many possible reasons for this combination of humans and animals, including how priests would wear heads of animals when impersonating gods in rituals. For example, high priests would don ram heads when impersonating Amon. This demonstrates how human behaviors shape beliefs, inversing the typical effects of beliefs on behaviors.

Ruins of Mycenae, Greece. Stone structures overlook green pastures and trees.
Mycenae Greece

Mycenaean Age Beliefs

The Mycenaean Age of Greek culture often attributed symbolic meanings to animals. For example, it was common to attribute stubbornness to donkeys. Cultures respected animals for the purposes they served in mythological stories. Donkeys were known as musicians, as servants to harvest-gods, and in connection to the Underworld.

Beyond the concept of animals being sacred in association with deities, the Mycenaean Age often portrayed gods themselves as animals. Dionysus, the Greek god of vegetation and wine, was conceived as a lion. For this reason, Dionysiac processions often included lions. Lions were commonly personified as death in Semitic mythology and in Greek symbolism. Furthermore, lions were believed to protect tombs, springs, and fountains of subterranean water. They would also attend Underworld deities. Worship of Artemis as a death goddess often portrays her as a lioness or in association with lions, particularly in Ambrakia. In short, lions were symbols of Chthonian power and the Underworld. 

Recreated fresco, performers dressed as donkeys
Recreated fresco, performers dressed as donkeys

Effects on Human Behavior

Notable effects of animal worship or symbolic beliefs in the Mycenaean Age on human behavior were in artistic depictions, rituals, and cult reverence.

Artistic Depictions

Due to their association with popular deities like Dionysus and Artemis, lions were frequently depicted in art in the Mycenaean Age. For example, a bronze plate discovered at Olympia depicts Artemis holding a lion in each hand. Such artistic designs represent the connection of Artemis to the wilderness and death, in accordance with beliefs about her and the animal. Relics of Mycenaean art often depict lions and leonine figures as bearing water vessels, again representing the cultural belief of their connection to the Underworld and its nether springs. Lions also denote the Underworld and death, and are often depicted in sepulchral monuments and mausoleums. The Lion-Gate at Mycenae is believed to have been designed to invoke the lions’ Chthonic association to protect the citadel.

These trends in human behaviors to artistically portray animals in association with their symbolic meanings demonstrate the effects that cultural beliefs have on behavior and traditional practices.

Rituals were common forms of animal worship, in rites and ceremonial practices.

Scholars believed that donkeys had their own cult, despite them being less common in artistic depictions in this age. In the pre-Homeric times, in the citadel of Mycenae and the island of Crete, worshippers conceived a Chtonian well-spirited deity as a donkey. The worshippers would dress in faux masks and skins to represent their devolution. The main ritual was a ceremonial rope dance while carrying a vessel of water.

In the age of Aristophanes, Athens, Greece became renowned for a ceremony in honor of the goddess Brauronia. Girls aged five to ten celebrated a propitiatory rite in the precinct of Akropolis. They would present themselves to Artemis while dressed in saffron robes and imitating bears. Less advanced societies would have the girls wear actual bear skins for the ceremony. While worshipping the god Dagon or Anou, people used to dress in fish skins and, at times, fish heads. Again, the connection of cultural beliefs involving animals being incorporated into real behaviors during worship is apparent.

Ceremonial performers wore such attire during rites. The lion cult practiced this, as well as ceremoniously sacrificing animals and carrying sacred vessels to water sacred trees. Records have indicated that lion worship lasted through the Dorian invasion of about 1100 BCE. The Mycenaean lion cult conducted rituals of animal oblation, watering sacred palms, and a mimetic dance performed by dancers wearing artificial lion skins. The connection of lions to Dionysus and vegetation is believed to have been the reason for the connection of palm trees to the lion cult. Cultural beliefs of symbolic meaning attributed to animals again allow for symbolic correlations to be reflected in real behavior. The lion cult presented emphasis on lions and palm trees for their similarities in symbolism.

Artwork of Worshiping Animals. A lamb is prayed to by a crowd.
Artwork of Worshiping Animals

Concluding Thoughts

The cultural significance that animal worship has in anthropology is undeniable. The effects these beliefs had on human behavior in ancient societies led to the foundations of culture and tradition. Across the world, populations have worshipped animals in various ways that range from ritualistically sacrificing the animal to punishment for harming the animal.

Ancient Scandinavian beliefs have inspired behaviors of worship that guide decisions. Erik the Red worshipped an animal and refused to kill it because of that, regardless of multiple reasons for doing so. Ultimately, beliefs regarding animal worship brought devotion and guided actions.

Developing styles of artwork are exceptionally common in relation to worship of animals. Art portrayed animals in association with deities or as the deities themselves. Cultural beliefs inspired this behavior. Subsequently, we see a connection that beliefs and practiced traditions have. Moreover, artwork also used animals to portray their symbolism through imagery. For example, depicting lions to reference beliefs related to Cthonian power in the Mycenaean Age.

Traditional practices even inspire beliefs themselves, as seen in how ancient Egyptian high priests donning animal heads for rituals furthered the development of animal-headed gods. Animal worship varied among people and locations, and most often based on the real behaviors of the animals. Sacred animals receive special treatment and rituals conducted in their honor. This is further evidence of how beliefs about animal worship are significant in developing cultural practices and beliefs as the eras carried on.

One thought on “Anthropology: Animal Worship in Ancient Cultures and Effects on Human Behavior

  1. This is a brilliant article. In the Indian tradition animal worship and Gods assuming animal shapes has been a dominant theme too.
    I loved reading this post. Very informative. 👍🏻👍🏻

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