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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Animals that are gods: an example of religious fanaticism

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The Greeks and Romans are familiar in their mythology with the coexistence of animals with the gods. Moreover, they conceived their gods as men, which allowed to conceive some men as gods

Or more likely the process was reversed: when some men became very powerful by wealth accumulation in Neolithic (with agriculture and animal husbandry), they conceived their gods and men. In any case it seems like a very primitive stage, no doubt corresponding to the time of hunters men, whereby there is an intimate and organic link with the animals, the animals were divine. The importance of the totem pole in every civilization shows that.

In Greece and Rome some remains, albeit in a later stage, in which animals appear compounds: half man half animal creatures, usually with divine characteristics, centaurs, griffins, sphinxes, etc .; worship and rites dedicated to one of them as Licaón, the werewolf; animals associated with the gods as the eagle to Jupiter or the pigeon to Venus; importance of some animals like the wolf feeding Romulus and Remus.

It seems as if these animals were little were  little by little anthropomorphizing, they acquire body of man and divinity is made from the animal: first whole animals, then half man half animal, then a part as a wolf's head of the Egyptian god Anubis, of hawk of Orus, then even less significant part animal, like the wings of the feet of Hermes and finally the animal as a representation of divinity, as the eagle of Jupiter.

Animals are an essential element in all religions, even today, and basically what they  are stating is the radical equality of all living beings on earth; if the Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf,  Buddha was engendered by an elephant; in Hinduism, the cow is sacred; we should remember the important role of the dove in Christianity as "Holy Spirit".

Well, despite all the Greeks, and of course the Romans could not understand worship, reverence and respect that the Egyptians had for their animals from the beetle to the hawk, the dog, crocodile or cat; this animal appears embalmed after death as the bodies of men. Surely they drew attention how the Egyptian bowed reverently before the passage of a cat, feline otherwise unknown long in Rome and in no way domestic.

Diodorus  Siculus (from Sicily) tells an episode in which this lack of Egyptian customs cost dearly to a Roman, a Roman citizen, even when a Roman citizen implied enjoy a unique status of rights in that world.

Diodorus tells us on his Historical Library (History shelf would be the literal translation) I, 83.1 to 9 a case in which he was witness.

As regards the consecration of animals in Egypt, the practice naturally appears to many to be extraordinary and worthy of investigation. For the Egyptian venerate certain animals exceedingly, not only during their lifetime but even after their death, such as cats, ichneumons and dogs, and, again, hawks and the birds which they call "ibis," as well as wolves and crocodiles and a number of other animals of that kind, and the reasons for such worship we shall undertake to set forth, after we have first spoken briefly about the animals themselves.

In the first place, for each kind of animal that is accorded this worship there has been consecrated a portion of land which returns a revenue sufficient for their care and sustenance; moreover, the Egyptians make vows to certain gods on behalf of their children who have been delivered from an illness, in which case they shave off their hair and weigh it against silver or gold, and then give the money to the attendants of the animals mentioned.  These cut up flesh for the hawks and calling them with a loud cry toss it up to them, as they swoop by, until they catch it, while for the cats and ichneumons they break up bread into milk and calling them with a clucking sound set it before them, or else they cut up fish caught in the Nile and feed the flesh to them raw; and in like manner each of the other kinds of animals is provided with the appropriate food.  And as for the various services which these animals require, the Egyptians not only do not try to avoid them or feel ashamed to be seen by the crowds as they perform them, but on the contrary, in the belief that they are engaged in the most serious rites of divine worship, they assume airs of importance, and wearing special insignia make the rounds of the cities and the countryside. And since it can be seen from afar in the service of what animals they engaged, all who meet them fall down before them and render them honour.

When one of these animals dies they wrap it in fine linen and then, wailing and beating their breasts, carry it off to be embalmed; and after it has been treated with cedar oil and such spices as have the quality of imparting a pleasant odour and of preserving the body for a long time, they lay it away in a consecrated tomb. And whoever intentionally kills one of these animals is put to death, unless it be a cat or an ibis that he kills; but if he kills one of these, whether intentionally or unintentionally, he is certainly put to death, for the common people gather in crowds and deal with the perpetrator most cruelly, sometimes doing this without waiting for a trial.  And because of their fear of such a punishment any who have caught sight of one of these animals lying dead withdraw to a great distance and shout with lamentations and protestations that they found the animal already dead.  So deeply implanted also in the hearts of the common people is their superstitious regard for these animals and so unalterable are the emotions cherished by every man regarding the honour due to them that once, at the time when Ptolemy their king had not as yet been given by the Romans the appellation of "friend" and the people were exercising all zeal in courting the favour of the embassy from Italy which was then visiting Egypt and, in their fear, were intent upon giving no cause for complaint or war, when one of the Romans killed a cat and the multitude rushed in a crowd to his house, neither the officials sent by the king to beg the man off nor the fear of Rome which all the people felt were enough to save the man from punishment, even though his act had been an accident.  And this incident we relate, not from hearsay, but we saw it with our own eyes on the occasion of the visit we made to Egypt.
Translation by C. H. Oldfather

   
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