The History of Human-Animal Interaction - Ancient Cultures And Religions

animals believed gods god

Scientists believe that the first true human settlements sprang up in Mesopotamia (roughly modern-day Iraq) around 8,000 B.C., Africa and India around 6,000 B.C., China around 5,000 B.C., Europe around 4,000 B.C., and the Americas around 3,000 B.C.

The Mesopotamian region of the Middle East is considered the cradle of civilization because the peoples that settled there were probably the first to form cities and develop writing systems. They produced literature and works of art and began practicing farming and animal husbandry. (Husbandry is the control and management of a resource.) Mesopotamia was home to the Sumerians, Babylonians, Israelites, Assyrians, and Persians, among others. All of these cultures developed from many independent tribes or groups of people that had different religions and cultures.

The peoples of most ancient civilizations were polytheistic (meaning that they believed in more than one god). Many ancient peoples worshipped animals as gods, used animals to represent their gods, or thought that their gods could assume animal form when they wished. The Sumerians believed that they could divine what their gods were thinking by examining the internal organs of animals like goats and sheep. These and other livestock animals were often sacrificed in rituals in attempts to appease the gods and goddesses or obtain favor from them. This practice was common in other major cultures and religions as well.

Chinese zodiac
SOURCE: Created by Kim Masters Evans for Thomson Gale

Rat Ox Tiger Rabbit Dragon Snake Horse Sheep Monkey Rooster Dog Boar
1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919 1920 1921 1922 1923
1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933 1934 1935
1936 1937 1938 1939 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 1946 1947
1948 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971
1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983
1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995
1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

Many early civilizations also worshipped heavenly bodies, like the sun and moon. These cultures believed that the stars and planets had magical influences over earthly events. They tracked the positions and aspects of the heavenly bodies very closely and believed that such information could be used to foresee the future. Astrology and the zodiac evolved from these beliefs and were adopted by people in many different cultures, including the Babylonians, Egyptians, Hindus, and early Chinese. (See Table 1.1.) Most ancient zodiacs used animals to represent some or all of the constellations. In fact, the word "zodiac" comes from the Greek term zodion kuklos, meaning "circle of little animals."


At various times, ancient Egyptians held different animals as sacred and as representations of their gods and goddesses. Some animals may have been worshipped as deities, but others were most likely used to present deities in a recognizable form. Animal worship in Egypt extends back to predynasty times (that is, before 3,100 B.C.). The graves of many ancient Egyptians contain carefully wrapped remains of dogs, sheep, and even cows that were buried along with the humans.

One of the earliest religions was called Apis, or the cult of the bulls. This was one of several bull cults that developed in Egypt. The bull symbolized great strength and courage, and ancient artists sometimes depicted Egyptian kings in bull form. The cults believed that a bull born with very specific markings was sacred—a god to be worshipped. When a sacred bull was born, the people held great celebrations. The bull was housed in a majestic stable and given the best food to eat. Even the mother of the sacred bull was revered and called the Isis cow.

Another animal that the Egyptians are known to have worshipped is the cat. Its Egyptian name was "mau" or "myw," which seems very much like the sound that cats make. Many goddesses, including Mafdet and Bast, were represented as cats or cat-human mixes and were thought to be able to switch back and forth from human to cat form. Most representations featured wild cats (like the lion). Bast was usually represented by a domestic cat and called Bastet when she was in cat form. The Sphinx, which dates back to 2,500 B.C., is a massive statue in Egypt with the body of a lion and the head of a pharaoh. As shown in Figure 1.3, some Egyptian gods were depicted with human bodies and animal heads.

A number of cat statues and mummified cats have been found in Egyptian tombs and cemeteries, including hundreds of thousands of mummified cats in the city of Bubastis. All archaeological evidence indicates that cats were treated very well in Egypt during this time period, and harsh punishments were imposed for killing or harming a cat. The penalty for killing a cat, even by accident, was execution. Despite their sacred status, cats were also put to work protecting grain stores from rats and other rodents.


The first signs of civilization in India date to the fourth millennium B.C., when nomadic people began to form agricultural settlements. The Indus, as they are called, cultivated grains as their main food source, but also ate fish, beef, pork, fowl, and mutton. There is evidence that they used elephants as beasts of burden and kept domesticated dogs and cats.

Although ancient Indians had varied spiritual beliefs, many of these beliefs were blended together into the practice of Hinduism around 3,000 B.C. In general, Hindus believe that animals and people experience rebirths after they die. In other words, a human can be reincarnated as an animal, or vice versa. This means that all life forms are to be respected. Because Hindus consider virtually everything to be divine, they worship many animal gods and believe that their gods can take many forms, including human-animal forms. For example, Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a man. Cattle, especially cows and bulls, are particularly sacred.

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (circa 563–483 B.C.), an Indian philosopher who came to be called Buddha. Buddha believed that animals were FIGURE 1.3
Egyptian gods
SOURCE: "Egyptian Gods," in SPARE Pet Name Hieroglyphic Translator, Society for the Protection of Animal Rights, 2001, (accessed March 11, 2005)
very important spiritually and were evolving toward a higher consciousness, just as humans were. Therefore, Buddhists consider it wrong to cause any harm to an animal or any other living being.

Jainism also originated in India and is similar in many respects to Buddhism, although it is perhaps much older. The Jains are so adamantly opposed to killing any life form that they allow themselves to be bitten by gnats and mosquitoes rather than swatting them. They often carry brooms so they can brush worms out of their path to avoid stepping on them. The Jains strongly condemn the eating of any meat. They became well-known in later centuries for their animal hospitals.


Chinese cities began to appear sometime around 3,000 B.C. Archaeological evidence indicates that farming and animal husbandry were practiced at that time and that horse-drawn chariots were in use. The ancient Chinese are also credited with raising silkworms to produce silk. This was important, in part, because it meant that people no longer had to rely on animal skins for their clothing. A Chinese emperor of the first century B.C. established the Garden of Intelligence, one of the largest zoos in the world.

China contained many different cultures, each with its own spiritual and philosophical beliefs and customs. Historians lump these under the heading of Chinese Traditional Religion. This encompasses many local belief systems, as well as Buddhism (which came to China from India), Confucianism, and Taoism.

Confucianism is based on the teachings of Confucius (551–479 B.C.), a Chinese philosopher who became famous for his sayings about how to live a happy and responsible life. In general, Confucius encouraged respect for animals, but not reverence. In other words, animals were not to be treated as deities. Killing animals for food was allowable, but killing them for sport was not.

Taoism is a spiritual philosophy that developed in China during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Although some historians believe that it was founded by Lao-tse (604–531 B.C.), it may also have developed from the writings of several different philosophers and teachers. Taoism is based on a concept known as the Tao, which is roughly translated in English as "the path" or "the way." Taoists believe that there is a power that envelops and flows through all living and nonliving things and that all life should be respected.

Hebrew Tribes and Judaism

The origins of Judaism lie with Hebrew tribes that populated the Mesopotamian region of the Middle East. Although the Hebrews followed various worship practices, including animism, eventually they developed a central religion known as Judaism. This change was largely brought about by a Hebrew leader named Abraham, who devoted himself to a single god called Yahweh (or Jehovah in Latin). Around 2,000 B.C. Abraham led his people to a land that was eventually called Israel. The followers of Judaism came to be called Jews.

Judaism was unique among the many religions of the time because it is monotheistic. The Jews worship only one god instead of many gods. The Hebrew Bible—which is also called the Old Testament and comprises half of what later became the sacred text of Christianity—says that humans were created in the image of god. Therefore, the Hebrew god is anthropomorphic, or humanlike.

According to the first book (Genesis) of the Hebrew Bible, God created the earth and populated it with all kinds of creatures. God granted humans "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." This idea of dominion was to have a profound effect on Western civilization for centuries to come.

The book of Genesis also tells the story of a great flood, in which a man named Noah and his family rescued a male and female of every animal species and took them into an ark. All other life on earth was destroyed. After the floodwaters finally subsided, Noah was instructed to release the animals to repopulate the earth. But first he took some of the animals and offered them as a burnt sacrifice to God. Animal sacrifice was an important and sacred ritual to the Hebrews.

Many domestic and wild animals are mentioned in books of the Hebrew Bible. Domestic animals include asses (donkeys), horses, camels, goats, cattle, sheep, oxen, mules, pigs, and dogs. Most dogs were probably wild, as they are often referred to as scavengers traveling in packs. Small dogs may have been kept as pets.

The Hebrew Bible also includes some very strict dietary rules regarding the eating of meats. Orthodox Jews are only allowed to eat certain animals that they believe are considered clean by their god. These include:

  • Animals with parted hooves that are cloven-footed and chew their cud
  • Fish with fins and scales
  • Most birds, except birds of prey
  • Locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets

Jews believe that all other animals, including pigs, are considered unclean by God and are not to be eaten. Animals that are eaten have to have the blood removed because consumption of blood is forbidden.

The Old Testament also contains some instructions on how animals are to be treated. For example, animals as well as people were supposed to rest and do no work on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening). In another verse the Old Testament states that "the righteous person regards the life of his animal."

Arabic Cultures and Islam

The first kingdom appeared in the Arabian Desert around 1,000 B.C. Prior to that time, the region was inhabited by scattered families and clans, many of whom were nomadic, called Bedouins, who raised camels. The Bedouins were animists who believed that spirits lived within all natural things. They also worshipped their ancestors and heavenly bodies.

Over the next few centuries, society became more centralized and the worship of many gods became common in temples and cults throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad (570–632 A.D.), who believed in only one god, that of Abraham. This is the same Abraham of Hebrew tradition. But the followers of Islam called God by the name Allah rather than Yahweh. Muhammad said that the angel Gabriel had revealed Allah's word to him and named him as his messenger. The Koran is the Islamic sacred text and contains the writings believed to be the revelations made to Muhammad by Allah.

The Koran includes many references to animals, particularly camels. Falcons, pigeons, cats, and horses were also considered important in early Islamic cultures. Legend has it that Muhammad was so fond of cats that he once cut a hole in his robe to keep from disturbing a cat that had fallen asleep on his sleeve. Muhammad also spoke highly of horses and considered their breeding to be an honorable task. The Arabs bred very fine and fast horses that were used in warfare, transportation, and sporting events.

Although the Koran does not specifically mention animal souls, it does teach respect for all living creatures. Muslims, people who practice Islam, sacrificed certain animals to Allah and included meat dishes in their feasts and festivals. But Muslims are forbidden by the Koran to eat certain animals, mainly swine and those that have died of natural causes (such as illness or old age). The Koran also forbids the eating of animal blood or any animal that has not been blessed in the name of Allah.

Classical Greece

The ancient Greeks were polytheistic, but their gods were overwhelmingly anthropomorphic (humanlike). Although Greece was associated with a variety of cultures around 2,000 B.C., the classical Greek period from 500–336 B.C. was the most influential for future ideas about animals. The classical Greeks did not have one central philosophy but followed the teachings of various schools established by wise men and philosophers. Some of the most famous were Socrates (470–399 B.C.), Plato (circa 427–347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.).

In general, animals were widely used for food, clothing, and work in Greek society. These uses were not questioned on moral or philosophical grounds because the people believed that everything in nature had a purpose. In other words, plants existed for animals and both plants and animals existed for the welfare and enjoyment of humans.

However, the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (circa 582–507 B.C.) and his followers did not eat meat because they believed that animals had souls. Many other Greeks, including Plato, recommended a vegetarian diet for ethical or practical reasons. Plato believed that a vegetarian diet made good economic sense because it required less land than animal husbandry to produce food.

Plato's student Aristotle is considered the father of zoology in Western history. He wrote extensively about animal anatomy, behavior, and reproduction in History of Animals and On the Parts of Animals. Aristotle believed that there was a natural hierarchy in which humans, animals, plants, and inanimate objects were arranged by their level of perfection. This arrangement came to be called the scala naturae or "ladder of nature." Later philosophers called it "the Great Chain of Being."

The top rungs of Aristotle's ladder were occupied by humans, because Aristotle believed that they alone had rational souls that were capable of belief, reason, and thought. Below the humans were animals; Aristotle believed that animals had limited souls that allowed them to feel, but not to reason. Plants had the lowest forms of souls and ranked the lowest on the ladder. Among humans, Aristotle believed that there was a natural hierarchy, with free men ranked above slaves, women, and children. Aristotle's ideas about the rank of humans and animals in society would influence thinking in Western cultures for centuries.


Christianity began as a sect of Judaism during the first century A.D. Its followers believed that God had come among them in the form of a human named Jesus Christ. Jesus preached a message of peace and forgiveness, but his criticism of Jewish rulers and claims of divinity got him into trouble with authorities. He was executed by crucifixion around 33 A.D., but the Christian movement did not end with his death. Jesus' followers believed that he was resurrected. They set down their beliefs in scriptures that came to be known as the New Testament of the Bible.

His followers considered Jesus' death to be a human sacrifice, similar to the animal sacrifices that were common in Jewish religious practice. This symbolism played an important role in the new religion. The New Testament mentions many animals, but mostly in the context of everyday life and as food sources. Jesus ate fish on several occasions in New Testament stories and in another story cast a demon into a herd of pigs, causing them to plunge over a cliff and die. Because the Christian religion had its roots in Judaism, early Christians followed Jewish laws and customs regarding the eating of animals. However, the sect soon split apart from Judaism and abandoned the idea of clean and unclean animals. Afterward, Christianity had no specific constraints on eating meat or the treatment of animals.

Christians did maintain the belief from the Hebrew Bible that humans had dominion over animals. The importance of the human soul was central to Christian theology. Many Christian philosophers of later centuries, such as Saint Augustine (354–430 A.D.), argued that only humans (not animals) had rational minds and souls.

Animal symbolism was common in early Christian literature. Physiologus is a book that dates back to 200–500 A.D. It describes animals at length in a fanciful manner using Christian symbols and morals. Jesus was often identified in stories as a lamb, a lion, or a phoenix.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire actually began as a single city, the city of Rome, which became a republic in 510 B.C. The Romans had a warrior mentality and built their empire by conquering other peoples and cultures. They worshipped many different gods and goddesses, most of which were in human form, and often adopted the deities of other cultures, particularly those of Greece. Animal sacrifices were common in Roman religious practices.

The rulers of the Roman Empire delighted in brutal competitions and sports and invented many "games" to entertain their citizens. The Coliseum of Rome was a massive arena that featured events in which wild animals fought to the death with each other or with humans. Ancient texts describe the deaths, very torturous and cruel by today's standards, of thousands of bears, bulls, lions, tigers, elephants, and other animals. Often the animals were chained together or tormented with burning irons and darts to make the fighting fiercer.

Historical evidence shows that the Romans were very fond of horses. Their economy, troops, and postal service were dependent on the work done by horses. A shrine to the horse goddess Epona, who had been adopted from some of the tribes of western Europe that the Romans had conquered, was erected in every Roman stable. Although Epona was usually depicted in human form, she often rode a horse and was followed by dogs and birds. The Romans also practiced animal husbandry with cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens and kept cats and dogs as pets or working animals.

Dogs held a special significance in Roman legend. Romans believed that twin babies named Romulus and Remus had been thrown into a river and washed up on shore. Miraculously, they were suckled by a she-wolf and survived. Romulus later killed Remus and founded the city of Rome. Historians believe that Romans were the first to use the dog name Fido, as a shortening of the Latin word fidus (meaning trusty) or fidelis (meaning faithful and loyal).

Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 325 A.D. This put an end to the killing of humans in the Coliseum, because the human soul was sacred to Christianity. There is no evidence that animal games ceased, however, until the Empire became too poor to acquire exotic and wild animals for them.

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