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Why Do Some Goddesses and Gods Have Animal Heads?

Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess in the ancient ...

Why do some goddesses and gods have animal heads? The deities you have probably most often seen depicted with animal heads on human bodies were the Egyptians gods and goddesses. The reason for this has been debated since the time of ancient Greece, and there is a lot of outdated theory floating around.

Modern Theory

Until recently the most widely accepted theory has been that the animal heads (falcon, dog, ram, etc) were representative of animals sacred to that goddess or god, and not the goddess or god themselves. That is a purely modern idea.

In the case of the Egyptian deities, and others such as the Indian deity, Ganesha, that is almost certainly wrong. In fact, the notion of human-like gods and goddesses arising first, and then having animals attributed to them is backwards.

Until recently the European bias toward monotheism, and the patriarchal rewriting of myths hid the truth. For example, we now know that the much older, very sophisticated Indus Valley civilization of India was overrun by invaders who adopted some deities but made up new stories to account for their origins.

The same thing happened in other ancient societies, such as Greece and Egypt, where maie gods were given the powers and attribute of much more ancient goddesses. It took archeologists decades of work to separate the facts from later revisions and to stop viewing ancient artifacts through monotheist dogma.

Once archeologists began to put their preconceived notions aside, and as thousands more ancient artifacts were unearthed, the ancient beliefs became more evident, and they nothing like the patriarchal, Western-biased notions.

Origins of Goddesses and Gods

According to archeologists, animal deities came first. Human spiritual beliefs evolve from hunter-gatherers believing that all things have some degree of consciousness (animism) to animals (our closest relatives, teachers, allies) as deities.

Stratified cultures, in which people have different occupations and social status and some live in cities, more or less separated from nature, turn their deities into human-like beings. One step along the way is to represent human figures with animal heads.

In other words, animal-headed “gods” and “goddesses” started out as animals, became revered as deities for their various powers and attributes, and then later were turned into humanoid deities with animal heads. The animal head represents the particular animal nature and powers of that particular deity.

Eventually in most cultures the deity becomes a god or goddess and is depicted as completely human-looking with one or more animal companions representing their true origins and the source of their powers. A good example is Lakshmi, the Indian goddess. Lakshmi probably began as the Elephant Mother. Later, as a human figure, she was always shown with elephants. Later she began to be shown sometimes flanked by cows.

Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

In Egypt the goddess Sekhmet began as the lioness, the greatest hunter of the desert and a fiercely protective mother. Later she was shown as a woman with a lioness head.

Originally the Egyptians adopted wild mountain cats to use for hunting. After they became farmers, whose stored grain needed protection from rodents, Egyptians domesticated smaller cats to keep mice and rats away from the grain.

As population increased, and storing grain became increasingly important to prevent famines caused by droughts, the cat, as Bast, the cat mother, became deified. She is usually shown as a woman with a cat’s head.

Why Show Humans With Animal Heads?

Remember that writing was only invented about 6,000 ago, while modern humans (with fully developed human brains) have existed for about 250,000 years. For several thousand years after writing developed, only a small group of people, scribes and priests, could read and write.

Most people were illiterate in every culture until just a couple of hundred years ago, when the idea of public schools started to catch on. How do you convey complex ideas to people who cannot read? Through art and symbolism.

So instead of putting written labels on depictions of Sekhmet, Bast, Isis, etc (who would all look alike, like ordinary human women), the Egyptians showed them with animal heads—or wings, in the case of Isis, who was the vulture.

Animal Origins for Goddesses and Gods in Other Cultures

Many other goddesses (in particular) and gods began as animals. Artemis was a bear, and Athena was an owl, for example. However, the Greeks, like many other cultures, often gradually combined goddess from several locations or tribes into one.

That is why you often see several animals associated with one goddess or god. That may account for the association of cows with Lakshmi, or it may not.

When one culture conquers another, often the deities of the two cultures that have similar traits gradually merge in the minds of the people. So if one tribe or nation associates motherhood with bears, and another associates motherhood with cats, the two goddesses gradually merge into one human-looking goddess who is often depicted with a bear and a cat.

If you are interested in what animal a god or goddess was originally (if they were), look at what animal or animals are associated with them. Notice that it is most often goddesses that have animal companions, because goddesses developed first.

According to archeologists, the original “gods” were female—goddesses, as shown in the oldest Greek statues and in the thousands of Old Europe artifacts analyzed by archeologist Mariya Gimbutas, which are almost all animal goddesses or human bodies with animal heads and other animal features.

Male gods are a fairly recent (only in the last few thousand years), and they often represent more abstract qualities. For some of the male gods, the animal associations may have come along later, as they began to take over the powers and attributes of the older goddesses.

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Posted in Animal Deities, Animism, Cats, Egypt, India, Questions and Answers.

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