Also known as Animal Worship.
The veneration of an animal, usually because of its connection with a particular deity. It was found in many ancient (nature) religions. In these cults animals were regarded as representatives or appearances of the deity, or were attributed divine characteristics.
Legends and mythologies of every culture in the world are full of accounts of animals closely related to specific deities. The ancients strongly believed in the connection between animals, humans and deities. This connection was often expressed by statues or pictures showing a god or goddess with an animal head, wearing an animal mask, accompanied by animals, or in animal form. This form duality visually expressed the specific powers of the deity and made easier for the less-educated common people to understand and relate to their gods.
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At first, the people knew that the deities in reality did not have animal heads and consequently did not worship them as animals. Later, loss of spiritual knowledge and the propensity of some spiritual leaders to hold back information brought about a change in belief. Ordinary people gradually shifted from understanding the symbolism to actually believing that the deity dwelt in a specific creature. For example, later Egyptians kept and worshiped particular bulls, cats, and crocodiles.
One legend about Egyptian zoolatry records that the various deities under Seth's persecution transformed themselves into their animals counterparts. In this account the gods from Greece flee to Egypt, leaving only Athena and Zeus behind. Apollo (Egyptian Horus) becomes a falcon, Hermes (Thoth) an ibis, and Artemis (Bastet, Bast) a cat.
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Sources: (1) Witt, R. E., Isis in the Ancient World, The Johns Hopkins University Press; (2) Conway, D. J., Animal Magick: The Art of Recognizing and Working with Familiars, Llewellyn Publications.
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