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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Throughout history, people of various cultures have practiced animal worship (or zoolatry). There are many theories as to why certain cultures find certain animals to be sacred.
In Greco-Roman myths, the gods would often disguise themselves as various creatures. Zeus, for example, famously seduced women in the guises of both a swan and a cow. Thus, in these cultures, the respect and elevation of animals came from the belief that animals were of use to a god, or that an animal could in fact be a god in disguise.
In religions with the belief in incarnation, the idea of treating animals fairly comes from the belief that anyone could be an animal in the next life, or had been one in the past.
In classical Egyptian myth, animals were often intermediates to the gods, and many deities had animals sacred to them which they had special communion with. Cats were especially sacred to ancient Egyptian culture, which in turn actually influenced their perception of the goddess Bastet, who transformed from a lioness to a cat goddess during her worship.
The cultural question becomes, why were certain animals viewed as sacred to certain people? While cats were significant to the Egyptians, they had little to do with the ancient Indians, who were more concerned with, say, elephants. Sociologically, it makes sense why different animals were fixated on in different cultures. In Egypt, cats were acknowledged and esteemed for their ability to catch vermin. In India, elephants were mysterious, gigantic beasts that could not be easily tamed or understood.
Due to the usefulness of a creature, or the mystery or danger of it, the perception of certain animals differed from culture to culture. While a cat’s use was not much known to other cultures at the time, it was well known to the Egyptians, who are among the first people to keep cats as pets, and thus, among the first to understand their function as vermin hunters. Outside of India, an elephant was not much known, and so could not be regarded as mysterious or awe-inspiring, a quality that the Indians were well aware of. These are but a few examples.
Animal deities and reverence are found in every area of the world, from Japan, where the owl is an omen, to North America, where ravens were thought to embody departed human souls.
While some religions, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in particular, did not worship animals, animal imagery is still heavy in their holy books, with their God being compared to various creatures such as lions, lambs and doves, and other animals, such as ants and eagles, used to emphasize moral lessons.
Even today, the awe and respect one feels before certain magnificent animals is not diminished. The sense that certain animals embody certain human traits has also not lessened: we still perceive foxes as clever, cats as aloof, dogs as loyal. The truth is, humans sense both the differences and similarities between themselves and animals and seek to close that gap. In ancient cultures, this took the form of holy reverence. Today, it takes the form of friendship.