Among all the common symbols of rams, goats, and deer, we would be amiss to ignore to one of the most prominent of cult animals: cattle. As an animal that was perhaps one of the most prized (and likely the most costly) animals of sacrifice, it is perhaps not so strange that these are linked to a very specific collection of deities in the forms of bulls, cows and oxen. In a more generic sense cattle are connected loosely to Apollon and Hermes in the sense that these are the animals which they are associated with as herdsmen. It was the cattle of Apollon (perhaps, as I have suggested in my book Crowned with Nine Rays, aligned with the cattle Geryon in the west..that by their location may represent souls in their collective, not to mention domesticated, habit of living and their prized value among the gods) that Hermes stole, and who Hermes took to herding upon exchanging his pipe and kithara for the bullwhip and cadaceus of Apollon. Neither of these gods are in fact directly linked to cattle outside of their basic providence over the function of herding and caring for cattle. It should be pointed that such association with cattle doesn’t specifically refer to bulls (which were often kept away from the herds for breeding purposes if memory serves me), but rather in a more generic sexless manner.
However, when it comes to bulls we see an entirely different matter. In the coarse of this section I will be referring to information about bulls from this website. The most important thing about a bull is that it is a fully intact male bovine. Naturally then those gods which are associated with the bull are particularly fertile deities, very distinctive from the gelded steers and so not to be confused! This includes Poseidon from whom the Cretan/Marathon bull came, as well as Dionysos who has been frequently depicted with bull horns on his head and carries epithets that referred to the god as horned (likely in reference to this feature). Dionysos has also been compared by some with the Apis bull of Egypt that was reared and sacrificed. Foremost, though, is the association of the bull with Zeus. In the myth of Europa he takes the form of a bull to carry off the maiden of his affections away from Hellas. As the bull of heavens, it is appropriate too that Hera is closely associated with the cow…the combination of their bovine characteristics compiling in the myth of Io, wherein the priestess of Hera and lover of Zeus was transformed into a beautiful cow. Meanwhile the only goddess that seems to have a direct association with bulls is the moon Titanide Selene, which may refer to the horned aspect of the moon, though is revealed more commonly in poetics which refer to her as “the bull-eyed” similar to how Hera has been likewise called “ox-eyed” or “cow-faced”. In the latter case it may refer to large, warm, soft eyes compared to a somewhat more aggressive gaze of the bull.
The association of Hera with the cow may also be linked to conflation of Hera with the cow-horned Isis, just as Aphrodite has been associated with the cult of Hathor. That said, there seems to be less direct associations with the cow in the Hellenic worship of Aphrodite. Though bearing associations with the cow, Hera is more commonly connected to the ox. Though there seems to be some who specifically distinguish between cattle and oxen claiming that the latter is a very selectively bred type of sub-specie related to cattle, this doesn’t appear to be a universal classification. At the above cited website there are other opinions that oxen have not always been regarded as separate from cattle, but rather referring generally to cattle that are bred and trained specifically for draft labor rather than for a food source. It can be said again to be procreative in line with the bull and cow symbolism in a more controlled manner, rather than the general associations of cattle with food products (ie nurturing functions). Hera then can said to be as the nuturing cow, the procreative cow, but also as the ox. It seems quite important that her priestess was drawn particularly by a pair of white oxen. So sacred were these that when the white oxen had failed on an occasion to draw the priestess, her sons, Cleobis and Biton, were immortalized for assuming the role of oxen and sacrificing their lives in this role by pulling their mother’s chariot in Hera’s honor.
The oxen-drawn chariot of the priestess seems to have some relationship too the martial chariot of Zeus which is referred to in a myth wherein Zeus tricked Hera into returning him by a pretense of marriage in which he and his “bride” were drawn in such a chariot. So whereas a bull represents the masculine virility and feritlity, these oxen instead seem to be directly associated with the production of the earth as plow animals. In which case the Theogamia of Zeus and Hera may very well be associated with a cosmic-scale life-producing union which would be appropriately characterized by a marriage-cart drawn by oxen, as symbols of their marriage union bringing prosperity and life. One which is reflected by the role of the Oxen associated too with Demeter. There is nothing of marriage to this particular symbol but is directly related the propagation of life (with the aid of of the yoke and plow invented by Athena which harnesses the purpose of the oxen) for immediate application to our world.
Demeter, meanwhile, has not associations that I have found directly to either cows, or oxen. Her oxen pair are specifically the vehicle to which her purpose is done. In such a manner I would hazard to say that the two oxen are the oxen of Zeus and Hera’s marital cart, which is being utilized by Demeter in order to produce foods. It is from this force that Demeter’s grain comes, perhaps being an appropriate symbol of the fathering of the Kore by Zeus. It seems to be of some interest that in Egypt both Hera and Demeter were associated to cult of Isis. This certainly seems to indicate some flexibility in later Hellenic thought between the identity of the two goddesses, the latter of which has little body of myth outside of that of her daughter’s mythos. This is not to suggest that they are the same goddess, but rather that their domains have a significant point of merger that seems the most evident in the symbolism of the oxen, which as connected to the marital union can bring some alignment between the grieving widow aspect of Hera when she separated from Zeus (which the mock-wedding mentioned above put to an end) and the grieving mother of Persephone, for which the oxen are utilized to break up the hard earth to sow the grain to return the Kore.
It can be suggested that the relationship between Hera and Demeter is not unlike that Zeus and Poseidon. This can be particularly interesting when we compare the bull of Crete to the image of Zeus as a bull in the myth of Europa, indicating a close alignment of imagery of a white bull of great beauty emerging from and submerging into the sea. As an animal associated with fertility, and therefore life producing semen, it suggests a liquidity of the bull’s nature which is further carried out by Dionysos who brings the moist fruits to the earth. This is a bit different imagery that the less sexualized oxen (probably for the fact that male oxen, as labor animals, are often castrated and therefore generally do not carry the same kind of raw symbolic associations. In the end we are presented with imagery of the fertile and nurturing cow who accepts the fertile semen of the bull, and yet with her more controlled companion ox (who may be a bull since it isn’t always the case that oxen are castrated though that practice is regular) she is able carry forth civilization and progress.