Among Goats and Cattle: The Sacred Cow and Nanny-goat

This actually started as a series of tweets but I decided I wanted to expand it in an article on my blog.

One of the things I have encountered as a syncretic Hellenic-Hindu is the holy mother symbolism in sacred animals. Generally among icons from the Hindu religion cows are prevalent as sacred mother and nurse symbolism. Just about every Devi is mounted on a cow of some kind, the cow representing that which nurturers and sustains all life and representative of the feminine nurturing influence in the cosmos. As a western person who was reared drinking cows milk and eating cow cheese and yogurt,  I can understand this attachment to the maternal nursing cow. And yet it is something that, while not altogether absent, is not prevalent in Hellenic icons and myth.

With some consideration this seems to boil down a lot to geographic variables. Unlike the wide stretches of pasture lands which can sustain numerous cattle and the fertility of the region, Hellas had a considerably rougher and harsher landscape that historically would not have been able to sustain large herds of cattle commonly. Cattle would have been exclusively the property of the wealthy who employed herders to oversee them. These would be the very cattle that would be offered as hecatombs by said wealthy individuals are in special cases such as the white bull of Minos that was to have been offered to Poseidon. Cows and bulls in such instances would have therefore have been associated with the highest and most noble of the hierarchy. This is reflected too in the hierarchy of the gods which cows are associated with Hera and Demeter, the most stately and revered daughters of Rhea, whereas bulls are connected to Zeus, Poseidon, Dionysos and Apollon (in a less direct sense as a herding god and god of the bull-goad).

Yet when it comes to matters of male virility and fertility, and feminine nurture it is far more common to see goats prevalent. Even though Dionysos is the bull god, he is also the god of the virile he-goat and companion of Pan who wears the form of a half man half goat. Apollon is associated too with the he-goat, especially in the Peloponnese, as Artemis is associated with she-goat as a nurse goddess who provides for the young. This symbolism of the divine nurse in Hellas is so strongly set in Hellas that even the nurse of the infant Zeus was a sacred she-goat. The goat is by far more universal among people in Hellas than what we would find among cattle, it is therefore reasonable that the goat is so connected with such universal nurturing and fertile deities that would have more commonly been associated with cows and bulls in India. Apollon with the curling goat horns, accompanied by intelligent goats among the Doric civilizations may very well have a similar thread to the power of the bull with Siva in Hindu imagination. The bull representing righteousness and Dharma in Hindu thought as being of the way and protector of the abode of Siva can have similar bearing to the goat which was used among Doric herders to lead and control the flocks of sheep. In any case the horned brow as the enlightened mind reaching out to the god can be attributed to just about any horned animal of consequence among bulls, goats, rams and stags (for which Siva and Nandi too held the antelope in his anthromorphic form as representative of the mind under control).

In many ways the goat served the common purpose in Hellas similar to the cattle among the noble and wealthy. When the nobles would offer sacrifice of cattle, their most precious of beasts, to the gods, the poor would rear goats for the same purpose. Where cow milk and cheese probably did get consumed among the wealthy, the common fare was goat milk and goat cheese (something which is a very nutritious and delicious ethnic food particular to the region that I have thoroughly enjoyed for years). And for this purpose the gods which are most concerned with nurturing the welfare of the living and creation of life are associated with cattle and/or goats. The queens and world mothers and nurses, the kings and world sires.

This is different from the cattle-focused demographic of India, but no less rich in its symbolic and sacred value.


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