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The Origins of Animal Worship

Decorated Indian elephant.

Decorated Indian elephant.

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.

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The Dark History of Black Cats

Trio of black cats. Click for source.

Trio of black cats. Click for source.

During the Halloween season, we are bombarded with images of black cats on the heels of wart-nosed witches. Not only are black cats an essential part of Halloween decor and costuming, but they are present in almost all popular depictions of Halloween in film and television.

In many parts of the world, the black cat is a symbol of wealth and prosperity, but not so in the Anglo-American world.

As far back as the fourteenth century, the cat became closely associated with the Devil, in part due to its more-than-keen senses, silent walking, glowing eyes, and mysterious nature, all of which were seen as otherworldly. For a time, cats in general suffered at the hands of superstition, and thousands of cats were burned to death in England for allegedly being demons or witches’ familiars. This resulted in an increased rat population, which in turn led to the spread of the bubonic plague. After the plague tore through England, the role of cats as rodent control was acknowledged, and their reputation was mostly restored.

But for black cats, the association has lingered far into modern times. The black cat’s reputation has remained forever tarnished, probably because of its sleek shiny coat and the association of the color black with evil and demonic practices. The early American settlers took to accusing owners of black cats of witchcraft and sorcery, and black cats themselves were viewed as witch’s companions or spells conjured up to do ill deeds. This has led to the more modern superstition that black cats bring about general bad luck.

According to some myths, Halloween is the day of the year when the boundaries thin between our world and the next. Black cats, with their mystical association, become highly visible. Traditionally, the black cat was sought after as a semi-magical entity in order to aid in Halloween rituals — sometimes with cruel and unfortunate results.

While most modern Americans perpetuate the bad luck association for tradition’s sake and nothing more, some take the enigma surrounding the black cat very seriously. Many cat shelters refuse to adopt out black cats during the Halloween season. Cat owners are also often advised to keep their cats indoors for similar reasons.

While these rituals are few and far between, the fact remains that black cats are a misunderstood creature, especially as one of Halloween’s most visible representatives. And even where superstition is not a problem, it is a good idea, in general, to protect one’s cats by keeping them indoors and locked away. Cats are easily stressed by strangers and change, and hundreds of children roaming the night, asking for candy, dressed as ghouls and witches, certainly spells bad luck for them!

World Animal Day

St. Francis statue. Image via Wikipedia.

St. Francis statue. Image via Wikipedia.

Initiated in 1931 by a convention of ecologists in Florence, Italy, seeking to bring awareness to the plight of endangered species, World Animal Day is now held every October 4th, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Known as the patron saint of animals due to a popular collection of folktales, Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis), penned a century and a half after his death, St. Francis is said to have preached the duty of men to protect nature as well as the duty of non-human animals to give glory to God. In recognition of his feast day, many churches hold a Blessing of the Animals, which has also been carried over to synagogues and other places of worship along with nondenominational community centers, animal shelters, and parks.

This is the Blessing of Pets commonly read over animal visitors at Franciscan churches:

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.

The mission statement of World Animal Day designates October 4th as a day “to celebrate animal life in all its forms; to celebrate humankind’s relationship with the animal kingdom; to acknowledge the diverse roles that animals play in our lives – from being our companions, supporting and helping us, to bringing a sense of wonder into our lives; [and] to acknowledge and be thankful for the way in which animals enrich our lives.” On October 1st, the National Museum of Animals & Society launched Souls Awakened, an online community art and photo exhibition designed to show and tell the individual stories of animals that have changed how we feel, how we think, how we act, and who we are. While you spend time today reflecting on how animals have impacted your life, consider contributing your image and story to our collection and becoming a part of our shared history.