In the ancient world, humans were not just close to animals but, in most cases, deeply dependent on them. Since they were part of the local culture, they could not be separated from religion. So there was a willingness to use animals as gods. As time went on, humans fused with animals in all the major religions as a way to get beyond human limitations. Animals were, and are, seen as wiser, more mysterious, with access to secrets in nature that are hidden to humans. They gave added meaning to the divine. They were stronger, faster, could live in the sea or air, had abilities and senses that the human could not even aspire to. So they made the divine so much more than the mere superhuman. The Indians, Greeks, Mesopotamians and Egyptians led the way, but every culture, strangely enough, used the same animals to represent the same powers: The bull and the lion represent power and protection, the cow represents love and giving, the snake is the creator of the world, the birds are seductresses.
The Echidna is a cave-dwelling half woman-half snake who is the mother of all monsters of Greek mythology. On the other hand, Nuwa of Chinese folklore is the goddess who created mankind and repaired heaven. Nureonna, the Japanese half woman-snake, is amphibious and wants to be left alone, but will suck the blood from her victim’s body if disturbed. The Hatuibwari of the Soloman Islands has the head of a human, four eyes, clawed arms, bat wings and the body of a snake. The belief is that he created and nourished all living things as the male version of Mother Earth. In Egyptian mythology, the cobra headed Meretseger, meaning “she who loves silence”, exerted great authority and was considered to be both a dangerous and merciful goddess. She spat venom at anyone who tried to vandalise or rob the royal tombs. Gorgons were women with snakes instead of hair. In Greek mythology their powerful gaze could turn one to stone.
In Sumeria, Kusarikku had a human head and torso, with bovine ears and horns and hindquarters and is known as the Bull Man. He is a door keeper to protect the inhabitants from malevolent intruders and evil spirits. He is associated with the God of Justice.
The Lamassu is a Mesopotamian protective deity encompassing all life, depicted with a human head, a body of a bull or a lion, and bird’s wings. Large Lamassu figures, spectacular showpieces in Assyrian sculpture, are the largest figures known to have been made. They represent power and protection and are placed at entrances in palaces. Unfortunately, the Lamassu now represents the International Xenotransplantation Association, a collection of companies/scientists who are trying to make animal organs fit to be transplanted into humans.
Montu is the Egyptian god of war with the head of a bull and the body of a human. Egypt’s greatest general-kings called themselves Mighty Bulls, the sons of Montu. Mentuhotep, a name given to several pharaohs, means “Montu is satisfied”.
In Greek tradition a Sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion and sometimes the wings of a bird. Those who cannot answer its riddle are killed and eaten. Unlike the Greek sphinx, the Egyptian sphinx is male, benevolent, with a ferocious strength. Both are guardians flanking the entrances to temples and tombs
Each of these Egyptian Gods has the head of a lion. Maahes is an ancient Egyptian lion-headed god of war, protection, and weather, knives, louses, and devouring captives. Pakhet is a lioness headed deity associated with flash floods. Sekhmet is a warrior goddess as well as the goddess of healing. It was said that her breath formed the desert. She was seen as the protector of the pharaohs. Tefnut is the goddess of moisture, moist air, dew and rain. Married to her brother Shu, she is mother of Nut, the sky and Geb, the earth.
One of the Hindu god Vishnu’s incarnations was Narasimha, the lion faced and clawed being, who came to destroy evil and religious persecution by defeating the demon kings Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha.
Pratyangira, also known as Narasimhi, is a Hindu goddess who has the head of a lioness. She is an aspect of Durga. In the Ramayana, the son of Ravana, Indrajit was performing the “Nikumbala yagya” (a sacred ritual to worship Prathyangira) while Rama’s army was waging war in Lanka. Hanuman came down to stop this ritual because he knew that if Indrajit completed it, he would become invincible. In some temples Pratyangira Devi Havan is performed on no moon (amavaas) day.
The Egyptian Hathor, the cow headed goddess, personifies the principles of joy, feminine love, music, dance and motherhood. Bat, meaning soul, is also an Egyptian Goddess with the horns and ears of a cow. She is associated with the musical instrument called the sistrum, one of the most frequently used sacred instruments in Egyptian temples. Bat is similar to Hathor except that Bat’s horns curve inwards and Hathor’s curve outward.
Anubis is the African golden wolf (previously thought to be dog or jackal) headed Egyptian god of death, mummification and the god who ushered souls into the after-life. Bastet is the cat-headed Egyptian goddess of warfare and the protector of cats. Khepri is the famous dung beetle (scarab) headed Egyptian God. Like the scarab pushes dung in a perfect ball before him using his horns, Khepri pushes the sun across the sky down into the underworld, from where it emerges the next morning. The word Kheper means ‘to come into being’ and the god is associated with rebirth and renewal and the sun at daybreak.
Tawaret, meaning the Great One, is the hippopotamus-headed Egyptian Goddess of childbirth and fertility.
The ibis-headed Egyptian God Thoth maintains the universe, arbitrates godly disputes and judges the dead, handles the arts of magic, the system of writing and the development of science.
Japanese mythology has a warrior god named Amida who has a human body with a dog’s head.
The Japanese Tanuki is a badger or raccoon who can turn into a human and trick people by impersonating Busshist monks. The fox-like creatures, known as Kitsune, also possess similar powers, and they trick men into marriage by turning into seductive women.
In Chinese Mythology Chu Pa-chieh is a divine being who, because of his licentiousness in heaven, is sent to earth with the head of a pig and the body of a man. He kills his family and preys on travellers until he is turned to the path of virtue by the goddess Kuan Yin. He then becomes a priest. (We have a similar story of Valmiki, the author of the Ramayan). Khnum, the ram-headed Egyptian God, is the god of the source of the Nile River and the creator of the bodies of human children, which he makes at a potter’s wheel from clay, and places in their mothers’ wombs.
The crocodile-headed Egyptian God, Sobek is associated with pharaonic power, fertility, and military prowess, but serves additionally as a protective deity against the dangers presented by the Nile river.
In the modern world, most of the religions have abandoned the concept of man-animal divinities. Our Gods now are purely anthropomorphic. Even the new Goddesses that are added to the Hindu pantheon, like Santoshi Maa who was created in the seventies, are just simply divine women without any animal magic at all.
*About the author: Maneka Gandhi is a minister in the Union Cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She is also a leader of animal welfare movement in India. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org