A look back in time on the worship of animals, and their relevance in our lives today.
If you are one of the 22 million pet owners in the UK, you'll have no doubt about just how special your furry, scaled or feathered friend is to your wellbeing. Animals are sensitive souls that people are privileged to have around. Animals sometimes seem to be able to sense when their owner's mood is low and offer a measure of comfort. Stroking the fur of cats or dogs has a therapeutic effect, proven to reduce stress levels and lower blood pressure in humans. While we are a nation of pet lovers, our ancestors and the current belief systems of other countries valued animals much more highly. Far from being just cute and cuddly companions, our ancestors transformed them into gods and goddesses worthy of worship.
Animals are firmly rooted in human spirituality. Several spiritual schools of thought, especially Hinduism, teach that animals are not inferior to human beings because all life forms are manifestations of the Divine. Buddhists have a similar belief. Believers in reincarnation think that animals can be incarnated as humans and vice versa. Others describe animals as purer spirits, than humans, so much closer to the Divine. French thinker Anatole France expressed the following sentiment that most animal owners can identify with: "Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains un-awakened."
Gods & Goddesses Our affection for animals has profound roots in the ancient past when animal deities were (and still are) part of the Pagan pantheon of gods and goddesses. The qualities of an animal, such as speed, agility or cunning, were admired by our ancestors and particular types of animals became sacred to certain cultures. There's seems little doubt that domestic cats were worshipped in ancient Egypt but there is debate over whether other animals were worshipped directly or as an extension of the god or goddess to whom they were associated, for instance Greek goddess Athena's owl or Celtic horse goddess, Rhiannon.
Evidence of a belief in zoomorphic gods, meaning humanoid half man, half animal gods, is carved on temple walls across the globe from Egypt to Mexico to India. These fascinating depictions of deities fuse the attributes of animals with man, showing a sense of wonder at the power of animals that ancient religions wanted to embody in their gods.
Sacred animals Here is a small snapshot of some of the animals who were/are sacred to different religions, plus the names of some of the zoomorphic gods and animal deities.
The Cat Britain's most popular pet by a whisker was deified by the ancient Egyptians. Cat goddess Bastet was a representation of the domestic moggie on a grand scale. Cats were admired for their gracefulness and ability to kill rats which were decimating Egyptian grain stores. Their fearlessness in facing dangerous creatures such as snakes was also valued. It was a crime punishable by death to kill a cat, even accidentally, at one point in ancient Egypt.
The cat's cousin, the lion was revered in ancient Egypt in the fierce form of the lion-headed goddess, Sekhemet, who signified justice and the execution of justice. The lion was considered a creature of the sun god and was immortalised by the creation of the Great Sphinx of Giza with the head of a man and body of a lion.
In Norse mythology, two blue cats pulled powerful battle goddess Freya's chariot across the sky. The cats may symbolise Freya's graceful strength.
The Dog Man's best friend has always been revered as a loyal protector of humans. Dogs are worshipped by Hindus in Nepal during a festival every November. Believed to stand at the entrance of heaven, some Hindus pay homage to these guardians.
In the same but slightly darker doggie vein, Cerberus, the three-headed canine of ancient Greek mythology stood sentry at the gates of the Underworld to prevent any souls escaping. While jackal-headed Anubis of ancient Egypt protected the dead on their journey to the afterlife.
In the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism, which still has followers today, dogs are highly regarded as spiritual creatures and are thought to protect people from evil influences. The Cayote of Native American tradition is an anthropomorphic (meaning humanlike but given animal traits) figure of a man with a cayote's fur and snout. Cayote is a cunning, clever complex creature embodying the instincts of the cayote with the often foolishness of human nature.
The Horse Perhaps from as long ago as the Bronze Age, horses were seen as the personification of warrior spirit. The great chalk rendering on a Berkshire hillside, known as the Uffington White Horse is thought to date from the Iron Age and illustrate the veneration of these creatures by ancient society.
One of the best known mythical horses is Pegasus, a magical winged steed who became the lightening bearer for Zeus.
The Elephant The great Hindu god Ganesha is depicted with an elephant trunk. His enlarged head symbolises the wisdom while his enlarged ears represent an ability to listen. The usual calmness of an elephant is thought to be the ideal state to emulate for a spiritual person.