In search of . . . sacred animals

Sacred Animals in Literature

Through man’s innate narcissism and a tendency towards anthropomorphism, human principles and idealisations have been projected upon the workings of the animal world.  In most cultures, there are legends of hybrids, numinous and sacred animals—creatures that embody behavioural and physical features that transcend the species, typifying a ‘moral biology’ of the natural world.


Bonaparte encounters the Sphinx

The Pyramid Texts of Ancient Egypt (3000BC)

Cats were considered to be demi-gods and worshipped as such.  The punishment for harming a cat was severe, in some cases, the penalty of death.

Come forth, my lovely seneschal! so somnolent,
so statuesque!
Come forth you exquisite grotesque! half woman
and half animal!

Come forth my lovely languorous Sphinx! and
put your head upon my knee!
And let me stroke your throat and see your
body spotted like the Lynx!  (Oscar Wilde)


Srimad Bhagavad-Gita, Hindu Vedas (1500-500 BC)

In chapter 10, verse 28, Lord Krishna states, “Dhenunam asmi kamadhuk.” (“Among cows I am the wish-fulfilling cow.”)  According to the Vedas, cows are the foremost of all creatures in all the worlds.  The Vedas also state that the milk of a cow is equivalent to ambrosial nectar and that ghee derived from cow’s milk is the best of all libations poured onto the sacred fires of Brahmins.


Book of Songs, collected and edited by Confucius (400 BC)

Many of the poems in this collection refer to old myths in which sacred animals help to create the universe.  The dragon, the phoenix, the tortoise, and the quilin comprise the four numinous animals of ancient China.  The great poet Qu Yuan, in the spirit of ‘truth-seeking’, poses 172 questions on natural phenomena, ancient myths and legends, and historical events.  In his poem “On Encountering Trouble”, dragons and phoenixes are symbols for good men, while fleeting clouds and rainbows represent the ignoble.


Qur’an (653 AD), Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition

According to legend (the Qur’an only obliquely refers to animals in heaven), ten specific animals are allowed into heaven.  In case you’re worried, other ‘unspecified’ animals will be present in order that the inhabitants of heaven have the meat they need to experience bliss.  The ten named animals happen to be:  Jonah’s whale; Solomon’sant; Abraham’s ram; the cuckoo of Belkis; Saleh’s camel; Balaam’s ass; the ox of Moses; Kratim, the dog of the Seven Sleepers; Al Borak, Mahomet’s ass; and Noah’s dove.



Indigenous American cultures

For Indigenous Americans, animals have a totemic value.  For example, the Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Nootka, and Haida tribes view the orca as the embodiment of strength and speed.  It’s one of many animal ancestral spirits, others being the wolf, the bear, the eagle, the bison.


Oceanic cultures

Pigs are the most important domestic animal in Pacific cultures, being an important source of food and a basis for societal wealth.  They are also sacred animals that some cultures believe have souls.  (See below the Vatican’s take on the souls of animals and women.)


The Aberdeen Bestiary illuminated manuscripts (1200)

These folios collect legends of all animal species then known—both real and imagined—from the spider (“worms of the air”) to the snake (“crawling with hidden steps”) to the siren (“deadly creature”).  Part natural history, part allegory, with annotated references and beautiful illustrations, the Aberdeen Bestiary is considered to be one of the best examples of its type.  The images can be divided into four categories: portrait, narrative, allegorical, or appropriated.  While some appear to be creatures with which the artist is well familiar, others are clearly decoratively posed, looking more like a pattern on a textile.  The narrative, allegorical and appropriated subjects are to remind the reader of the Christian world view and the place of animals within it.


The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Charles Darwin (1859)

Darwin’s ideas were (and are!) controversial primarily because they conflict with the beliefs that species are unchanging parts of a designed hierarchy and that humans are unique, unrelated to animals.  However, far from destroying the notion of God, it may be claimed that Darwin’s seminal text restores animals to a place of holiness by revealing the unity of all life.



Through a Window, Jane Goodall (1990)

Today the sacredness of animals is acknowledged by our conservation efforts, something many believe is directly connected to the preservation of our humanity.


P.S. Do animals have souls?

Although in most cultures animals have been connected to the divine in one way or another and regardless that such doctrine contradicts many biblical passages, the Church of Rome, influenced by Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, has long maintained that animals lack souls.  There’s hope, though.  From the 6th through the 17th centuries, the Church debated whether or not women have souls and ultimately determined that they do.




    • You’ve underscored my ignorance, Paul. I’ve been looking for particular stories or ‘songlines’ in which animals take on spiritual roles–I know there are so many. If you can direct me, I’ll add a postscript. Also, I admit to being more than a little wary about putting up something that might ‘belong’ to Australian Aboriginal culture, especially because I am so ignorant.

    • The next search I’m planning, which has come out of this one, by the way, is on “the defective male” (i.e. female). So if you know of particular texts in which women are depicted as being defective because they are not males or because they do not have penises, let me know. I’m not necessarily looking for sexist texts, which we both know are rampant, but those that fit the narrow definition showing that women are missing something, (like a penis or a soul). .

  1. I was looking for information on sacred animals in ancient cultures and I stumbled upon your blog, I enjoyed reading you post 🙂

  2. It’s always interesting to read about what individual cultures hold sacred. To be honest, though, the best way to learn about culture is to experience it for yourself.

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