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Origins of Animal Deities

A 20-meter tall spirit bear puppet dances with...
What Are Animal Deities?

Human spiritual belief systems evolve according to the location and circumstances of the people.

Humans with modern brains like ours have been around for 200,000 to 300,000 years. Up until about 10,000 years ago all humans were food gatherers (women) and hunters (men).

Around the world some small groups of gathering-hunting cultures still exist. They live in South American, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Australia.

Most have been changed by contact with invading peoples, but some gathering-hunting cultures still follow their original animist beliefs.


The oldest belief system known is animism. People who gather almost all their food in the wild—fruits, vegetables, nuts, bird eggs, etc.—and do a little bit of hunting to supplement that—begin as animists.

Their living depends on understanding nature, the animals, plants, and seasons. So they honor and interact with the spirits of animals, plants, nature, and the land.

In the classic so-called “hunter-gatherer” cultures, the gatherers, the women, provide typically 75 to 85 percent of the food, sometimes more. Meat is a supplement to the vegetables, fruits, nuts, and roots the women gather, not the main course.


Eventually the gatherers learn to plant seeds and roots to grow food to supplement what they gather. The culture then begins to change. They becomehorticulturalists, gardeners. And their belief system may begin changing.


If the culture turns to growing most of their own food,  they become a farming culture. The men may take over much of the gardening work. That changes the cultural belief system even more. Male influence in the culture tends to becomes stronger, and that affects spiritual beliefs.


Cultures that are more focused on hunting, though still gathering most of their food, may go from following certain animal herds to capturing and breeding certain animal species for food, clothing, and implements. They become pastoralists, animal herders. Their culture and beliefs change accordingly.

In cultures that herd large animals, such as cattle, horses, or reindeer, men tend to be more dominant. That dominance then shapes spiritual beliefs.

How Lifeways Change Belief Systems

As cultures change, beliefs evolve. Gathering-hunting cultures honor the spirits of animals, plants, and the land as elders, teachers, equals, brothers and sisters. Much later, farmers, herders and city people create goddeses, and later gods, in their own human image.

For example, farmers who grow almost all their own food and trade the surplus for items such as metal implements have a very different outlook on life from plant gatherers. They also have a more restricted diet, because they become dependent on just a few plants.

That makes their lives vulnerable to plant diseases and extreme weather conditions. They may begin to see nature as harsh rather than nurturing. Farmers and herders begin to view deities as harsh and judgmental gods, requiring ritual and sacrifices to appease their wrath.

Animal Deities

In the process of change from all spirits being equal to a few spirits being revered as humanoid gods and goddesses, there is a transition stage in which some animal spirits are revered more than others. Some eventually become goddesses or gods; some do not.

In some cultures the process seems to happen fairly fast. In others the deities seem to be frozen in a transition stage for centuries or even millenia. the ancient Egyptian deities are a good example.

Though they are often referred to as gods and goddesses, the Egyptian deities clearly began as animal spirits. Isis (Au Set) was the vulture; Sekhmet, the lioness (mightiest hunter and symbol of the sun); Sobek, the crocodile; Horus, the hawk; and so on.

This site, Animal Deities, focuses on that transition stage, when animal spirits become deities, before they become goddesses, and later gods.

For more information on the oldest known belief system, animism, visit our sister site, Shamanista.

Note: The Animal Deities site is in the process of being redesigned and reorganized. We have deleted the videos and will be adding much more written content and pictures.



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