We are so used to living side by side with animals that we don’t really realize just how important they are. Ancient people lived much closer to animals, both domesticated and wild, that’s why they revered them more and often worshipped in forms of deities. Ancient gods and goddesses could turn into animals and had certain animals as their sacred vehicles. In other cultures animals became sacred as the main source of livelihood (like holy cows in India) or were closely associated with the forces of nature. Even the Chinese Zodiac is based on animals! Here are 7 sacred animals from around the world you need to know about.
Cow is the most sacred animal in India and there are numerous reasons for that. Cows have always been closely linked with people’s livelihood in India – they gave milk that was used to make dairy products, butter, and sweets, while their dung was used as a field fertilizer. Cow’s dung is still used to create incense in India! As cow is considered a sacred animal its urine can be used in religious ceremonies, too. In Hinduism, Lord Shiva’s most devoted follower was Nandi, a bull, who was so close to his beloved god that in Shiva temples you will always see a statue of a bull near the entrance. In Hindu mythology there was also a wish-fulfilling cow named Kamdhenu that lived in the realm of the Gods.
Ancient Egyptians loved cats above all other animals. They were the protectors of people, who killed poisonous snakes and got rid or rats and other harmful rodents that raided their fields. If someone harmed a cat, a punishment would follow immediately, sometimes resulting in death. Cats were glorified so much that they were even mummified after their death along with the most respected people of Ancient Egypt. Goddess Bastet was depicted with a head of a cat – that’s probably one of the reasons why ancient people respected cats so much. She warded off evil spirits and helped with various diseases.
Elephants are greatly respected all over Southeastern Asia, but this animal is most sacred in Thailand. It’s been the national symbol of the country since ancient times and was used as a part of the national flag until 1917. White elephants have always been considered the most auspicious animals that brought prosperity, health, wealth, and luck. They were also closely linked to royalty and high status. Elephants are sacred in many other cultures as well – in India the god of wisdom and prosperity, Ganesh, is depicted with a head of an elephant.
Ancient Mesoamerican cultures revered various animals for their special features, but jaguar was one of the most dominant sacred animals in that area. You can often see eagles, serpents, and jaguars in the ancient Aztec and Maya temples. Jaguars inspired fear in people, but they were also greatly respected for their agility, ferociousness, and strength. Hunters, warriors, and all men in general strived to develop the features of a jaguar. It was also an animal closely connected to the night, magic, and shaman rituals. Both royalty and priests used jaguar as their symbol to appear stronger and more powerful.
Snakes may play a devious role in most cultures, but you will find that these animals are often considered sacred in the East. In India, there is a whole festival dedicated to snakes – special ceremonies are being conducted and snakes get milk and all kinds of praises. In Hinduism, Lord Vishnu, the creator of the Universe, is always depicted resting on a huge snake named Ananta (infinite). Lord Shiva is also depicted wearing a snake around his neck, whose name is Vasuki – he is the king of all snakes who helped Shiva save the world once.
Tiger is one of the most revered animals in China, partly due to the fact that one of the four main gods in Chinese culture is a tiger as well. His name is Byakko and he is a protector of the human realm, wisdom, and world’s knowledge in general. He is the king of all animals and his abode is in the mountains. Byakko also protects humans from various disasters like ghosts, thieves, and fire. Because of the tiger’s ferocious nature Chinese people started connecting the animal with warfare. It is also one of the signs in the Chinese Zodiac. Tiger is a sacred animal in many other countries like India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and South Korea.
India is one of the many countries that regards monkeys as sacred animals. They are playful, mischievous, and can even become dangerous during mating period, but people still love them as they are closely associated with Hanuman, the monkey god. Hanuman is one of the strongest deities in Hinduism, the protector of people, who possesses immense speed, power, and the ability to fly. He played a vital part in India’s greatest epic Ramayana, helping Lord Rama defeat demon Ravana. In Chinese folklore there is also a character named Monkey King and one of the years in Chinese Zodiac is dedicated to a monkey.