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Animal Deities and Evolving Beliefs

The warrior goddess Sekhmet, shown with her su...

Beliefs about animal deities change over time. Animal deities are themselves a transitional belief between animism, where all spirits are equal and all things have spirit, to humanoid gods and goddesses.

Because spiritual belief systems grow out of and are based on the land where people live, and how they make their living, as lifestyle changes, so do beliefs. That is, when nomadic gathering-hunting peoples become animal herders or farmers, their spiritual beliefs change.

As society becomes stratified and hierarchical, with different occupations and classes, so does religion.

The animal-headed deities of ancient Egypt and Ganesh in India are examples of such transitional deities. Writers often refer to the animal component as just a symbolic attribute of the humanoid god or goddess, but that is missing the point. Many gods and goddesses derive from animal deities.

Often you can trace that from their “attribute” animals and from the specific talents and powers of each goddess or god. For example, Athena was an owl to begin with. Isis was Vulture, and Sekhmet was Lioness. Over time, the animal deity is turned into a human-looking deity to suit the beliefs of the people.

I read somewhere, though I cannot now locate the source, that Ganesh was originally the son of the elephant goddess. Makes sense, right? Most historians say that Ganesh worship is fairly recent, perhaps a few hundred years. They trace it from mentions of minor demons in elephant shape who gradually assumed importance.

However, they may not be going back far enough. Folk deities, ancient deities beloved by the people, have a way of living on unofficially, undocumented, underground, so to speak, and resurfacing later in slightly different forms. There are many examples of that in the Americas, where indigenous deities were disguised by a veneer of Christianity by indigenous peoples and African slaves.

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