Animals and the sacred

A squirrel that came to visit me as I was writing this article

“Western culture has become more and more exclusively humanistic and ideas of ancient cultures, such as that of ancient Egypt that man and animal are partners and, to some extent, equals as living beings are largely forgotten and neglected.”

[Herman te Velde, Some remarks on the mysterious language of the baboons, p.129]

How did humans first acquire language?  It’s is a fascinating and important question.  The ancient Egyptians believed that that speech and writing had been taught to humans by the deity Thoth, alternately conceived as an ibis-headed god or a baboon-headed god.  Indeed, as the distinguished Egyptologist Herman te Velde explains in his fascinating paper quoted above, the ancient Egyptians revered baboons as sacred animals.  This was based on observing their behaviour at sunrise, when they appeared to greet the sun god.  An Egyptian text passage describes the dawn activities of baboons as follows –

“They dance for him, they jump gaily for him, they sing for him, they sing praises for him, they shout out for him.”

[quoted in Herman te Velde, Some remarks on the mysterious language of the baboons, p.130]

Further, it was believed that baboon language was a sacred language and that baboons had access to sacred knowledge, which humans might strive to acquire.

“Egyptians considered not human beings, whosoever, but baboons as the ideal and true performers of religion … it is said that the king worships the Sun-god.  This worship consists int. al. in the recital of Sun-hymns in that secret language of the baboons.”

[Herman te Velde, Some remarks on the mysterious language of the baboons, p.133]

Belief that animals have a special connection with what is sacred and holy is a theme that we can find in many cultures of the world.  We can think of animal postures in yoga, for example, where keen observation of animal behaviour is likewise emulated for spiritual development.  Indeed, in respect of learning from and revering animals, Indian society has much common ground with ancient Egypt.  In the Rāmāyaṇa, for example, we read of how venerable monkeys who are fathered by deities are esteemed by Rāma for their intelligence and physical ability, which they use to help rescue Sītā, and for which those monkeys are still revered today.

Cows have also been venerated in many countries, including India, where, as N.M Penzer explains –

“In the Rig Veda the cow bears the epithet aghnyā, “not to be killed” … the mystic relation between the cow and the universe is alluded to in the Rig-Veda in several places”

[Kathā-sarit-sāgara Vol2 p.240, Tawney & Penzer]

Cows were similarly revered in ancient Egypt, seen as ideal mothers based on their behaviour of lovingly tending their calves, and also because they provide milk for humans.  Thus the Egyptian goddess Hathor was sometimes depicted and worshipped as a cow-goddess.  As Wikipedia explains –

“Hathor was often depicted as a cow, symbolizing her maternal and celestial aspect, although her most common form was a woman wearing a headdress of cow horns and a sun disk. She could also be represented as a lioness, a cobra, or a sycamore tree.”

[from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hathor]

In Ireland, cows were traditionally held as sacred and associated with druids, who were like the Brahmins of ancient British and Irish cultures.   As Lady Jane Wilde explains –

“The most singular legends of Ireland relate to bulls and cows, and there are hundreds of places all commencing with the word Bo (one of the most ancient words in the Irish language), which recall some mystic or mythical story of a cow, especially of a white heifer, which animal seems to have been an object of the greatest veneration from all antiquity.”

[Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, p.168]

In pre-Hispanic Mexican society, we also find that various animals are connected with the divine.  Frogs were connected with the rain god Tlaloc, again seemingly based on a keen observation of their patterns of behaviour –

“Frogs were closely related with the water cult and they were symbols of fertility and renewal … the Aztecs considered them as announcers of water, probably because they croak intensely before it begins to rain.”

[Tenochtitlan Museum, Mexico City]

A different and perhaps more humorous connection between frogs, rain and the sacred is seen in the famous ‘frog’ composition of the Rig Veda –

Hibernating like Brahminic vow-keepers the whole year,
Roused then by rain-clouds, frogs speak their sounds.

Ribbiting, the rainy season is here, it has rained on them,
Thirsting and longing, thronging like sons called by fathers

Like Brahmins at the soma ceremony, croaking by the pooled-up pond,
you, frogs, stand round that year’s day which is the first day of the rains.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 7 Sūkta 103 verses 3,7,10 of Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi; my own translation]

Here the croaking of frogs is likened to the chants of Brahmin priests at the atirātra, or ‘overnight’ rite.  In another Vedic verse, the sacred chants from the Sāma Veda are likened to the chirping of birds –

“He chants the sāman like the chirp of a sparrow; we sing this song spreading like light.”

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 1 Sūkta 173 verse 1ab of Ṛṣi Agastya Maitrāvaruṇi; my own translation]

Indigenous dog breeds in Mexico were hairless dogs, the ancestors of the modern Xōlōitzcuintli.  These breeds were sacred to Mexicans, and as in other cultures around the world, they were believed to be guides in the next world.  Thus a museum exhibit label explains –

“The spirit of the dead reached the river of the underworld where the spirit of his dog was waiting for him, who carried him on his back. For this reason, it was common for the dog to be buried next to its deceased owner.”

[Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, Mexico]

In the Mahābhārata, the loyal companionship between a dog and his master features similarly.  In a famous dialogue, Yudhiṣṭhira rejects the strongly worded arguments from Indra to enter heaven without his faithful dog-companion.  The dog then becomes the god Dharma, and Yudhiṣṭhira is welcomed into heaven by all the gods.  Yudhiṣṭhira describes his affection for the dog in emotional terms –

“Lord of the past and the present, this dog is constantly and totally devoted to me.
Let him go along with me.  My mind is filled with kindness [towards him].”

“It’s said that to abandon one who is devoted is a great sin.  It’s the same as killing a Brahmin in the world.
So, great Indra, under no circumstances at all will I now abandon him for selfish reasons.”

[Mahābhārata, Mahāprasthānika-parvan, Chapter 3, Verses 7,11; my own translation]

As this article has only briefly illustrated, drawing inspiration from animal behaviour has been a theme in various religions and mythologies of the world.  We can thus perhaps revitalise our understanding of the sacred and divine by observing and interacting with all kinds of animals.

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