Playing with Bulls: There is not only one

While I am going to be focusing and bulls and cattle in general in this post, it is going to serving as an example that can really be applied to any sacred animal (for instance the swan which is a sacred symbol of at least Apollon, Ares, Aphrodite and Zeus, with probably a number of others to be thrown in as well), because there is an idea at times that an animal sacred to a particular god is *only* sacred to that god. It can sometimes be seen as something of a bitter line of contention too among devotees who just can’t fathom how this animal that they consider as a most powerful example of their god’s nature and domain can be shared with another deity. This is particularly the case when you have deities that have been scholastically and popularly perceived as being oppositional to each other. And yet despite how much some of us may want to cling to very insular and segregated concepts of the gods, history shows us that is not really the case. In most cases just about any animal that you see attributed to one god, you can find attributed to at least one or two more, at minimum. The swan I gave above is a good example, another example can be the turtle which is commonly assigned as belong to Hermes but is also an animal associated with Apollon, the form of which he took to seduce one of his lovers. And yet perhaps the most widely shared animal, aside from the serpent, which in reality perhaps the most common sacred animal among many gods, would be bulls. Aj has a great article in which she highlighted many bull associations that can be read here.

From the above article you can get an idea of just how diverse bull imagery and associations were, and more importantly why. Because she covered the why so well I don’t think I need to go into it. Clearly though in Hellenismos the first gods that come to mind when one thinks of bulls though it is Zeus and Dionysos. This is not a unfair bias because both have heavy cultic bull associations, especially Dionysos. But, sometimes the emphasis on Zeus and Dionysos, especially the latter, with bulls will sometimes overshadow the importance of bulls in the worship of other gods. Don’t get me wrong, bull imagery is very important in my worship of Zeus and Dionysos, and in the case of the latter also calf imagery. I would love to have bull horns for their altars to be honest. But if I were to commission a drinking horn (which I do plan on doing someday when I can afford it) it would not be for either of these gods…but rather for Apollon. For it is Apollon who has been depicted with the rhyton (drinking horn). Now for folks who are stuck on the idea of the dichotomy of Apollon and Dionysos as opposite polarities may say “Whoa, hold up! What?!” Just as they probably would have done regarding Apollon and snakes. The idea of Apollon and Dionysos as polar gods often effect how people see what is sacred to the gods, and therefore Dionysos gets categorized in the box of wild god, wild things, bull-god, drink etc. And Apollon gets put in the box of civilized, sober, swan-god. Yet both gods being equally civilized and wild, both gods liking the bacchic festivities of drink, and both gods sharing several sacred animals. So whereas Dionysos may have his drinking cup exclusively, Apollon has phiale (not exclusively) and is the only god I have seen with a rhyton to date (but I am not going to say exclusive, I am just saying the only one I have seen as of yet).

Despite popular understanding, bulls, oxen and cattle in general are sacred to Apollon. Pausanias tells us of a statue of Apollon in Caria in which the god has his foot upon the head of an ox, even as he tells us that in Delphi Apollon was given a devotional gift of a large bronze bull. And speaking of devotional gifts, a lovely find in Bulgaria came to my attention today. A small perfume bottle in the shape of a bull was found in the temenos of Apollon. We are also told in the Orphic Argonautika we are told by the poet that Orpheus was continually hounded by the double bull-goads of Dionysos and Apollon which I think is rather significant. Apollon also tended the cattle of Troy while the great wall was built by Poseidon, which we are reminded of by Homer through the dialogue of Poseidon in the Iliad. And of course none can forget the Homeric Hymn to Hermes in which Apollon must recover his cattle that were stolen by his brother Hermes (and which is a subject of one lost play in which Apollon is aided by the help of satyrs in his search for them). By extension we even find Apollon’s son Aristaios making the first domestic beehive out of the carcass of a bull. Certainly the bullwhip (and symbols of herding) that he traded to Hermes for the flute and kithara remain as much his as the kithara and lyre remains Hermes and have been bestowed by Hermes upon mortals.

Of course even as  Apollon’s connection to bulls are often overshadowed by Dionysos, it can also be seen at times in Poseidon’s connection to bulls overshadowed by Zeus. Poseidon himself is the great bull of the sea (Poseidon Taureos). Poseidon’s association with the Cretan bull, which he sent from the sea, of course is perhaps the greatest testimony to this connection he shares. Another deity to whom bulls have been sacred, who is often forgotten because the cow is more often attributed to her, is Hera. Pausanias tells us that anciently in Argos two bulls were used to pull the priestess of Hera to the temple. Yet on an occasion the bulls were late arriving, and so the sons of the priestess pulled their mother (acting as bulls in their stead) and died for it. Ever afterwards oxen were used, and the application of the title of ox-eyed to Hera further associates her with oxen. Even though we find that the end result is a favor of oxen, the fact that bulls are the traditional vehicle of choice for Hera (in the form of the presence of her priestess) is important and can’t be reduced to merely her relationship with Zeus (to me that would be like saying that deer are sacred to Apollon only because of Artemis, and that laurel is sacred to Artemis only because of Apollon etc). According to Hera’s servant Argus was mythically connected to the bull, who following the death of the bull which ravaged Arkadia, covered himself in its skin.

Other gods associated with bulls are Helios and Selene (which Aj does touch upon the bull representing both the sun and the moon). In the Odyssey we find that Helios has an island with a great pasture of cattle sacred to him, and for Selene we find that she has everything from a cart driven by bulls or oxen, when not using horses, to being described as a goddess who is bull-eyed. There are quite probably others but these are the most immediate that come to my mind. It just goes to show that when it comes to sacred animals, regardless of what animal it is, there is never only one god to which it belongs.


5 thoughts on “Playing with Bulls: There is not only one

  1. The power of the symbol is relevant to many different gods. I see it in other symbols as well. The boar is sacred to Ares, but also shows up in the symbolism of several heroes and is on the crest of clan Campbell (of which I am considering requesting membership by virtue of matrilineal descent) among many other places. In each case it’s the meaning imparted that matters. Boars are ferocious fighters. The bull is an ancient symbol and it’s not surprising that its powerful symbolism has found its way into the cultus of a variety of deities.

    • Oh absolutely. With the boar alone you have associations with Ares, Artemis (and in one alternate myth Apollon instead of Ares). Boars are just as awesome and fascinating symbolically as bulls. It is of no surprise to me that powerful creatures would belong to multiple gods.

  2. This is very timely for me to read, with my festival of Poseidon Taureos coming up in a few weeks. I generally always think more of Uruz rather than Fehu when I think of bulls and Poseidon — so, wild bulls/aurochs rather than domestic cattle, because Uruz taps into a primalness that Fehu doesn’t quite touch. And yes, I’m applying rune mysteries to Poseidon. Tough 😉 The discovery of the perfume jar is great — and the photo of it is *adorable*. One maybe ought not want to snuggle a perfume jar, but there it is.

    • Enjoy your festival of Poseidon Taureos! Also I think anciently the distinction between cattle and wild cows was probably a bit less than it is now. There were no fenced grazing grounds of tame cattle really. The animals were pretty much left to their own devices with one herder (or maybe a few herders for a large herd) looking out for predators from what I understand.

  3. Pingback: Into day three . . . | Strip Me Back To The Bone

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