On Animals, Humans, and Gods
It is popular, but wrong, to hand-wring on the question of animal psychology, specifically on the question of what Stephen D. Moore and Laurel Kearns have called “Divinanimality”—that is, whether animals have consciousness of the sort that can long for God, linger beyond death, and can perhaps even secure their eschatological reunion of soul and body after it. The simple answer is that of course they do and can, for the same reason that humans do and can: namely, that just as there preexists in God a Divine Humanity, which is the sophianic paradigm for the Created Humanity, united in Christ and the Church, so there is also a Divine Animality that is the true subtext and transcendent purpose for each individual creature. And since Created Humanity is not other than, but expressive of, Created Animality, it would stand to reason that an analogous connection preexists in the Divine Mind between Divine Humanity and Animality as well. There can be no Divine Humanity without Divine Animality, no God-Man without God-Beast or, if one prefers, God the Lord of Beasts.
Depicting the divine in animal form is older than depictions of the divine in human form, at least if our surviving evidence from early human cave art is any indication. The art in caverns like that of Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, Chauvet, Lubang Jeriji Salieh, Leang Tedongnge, and others depict more animals than humans, and, intriguingly, in some cases depict animals that were not or were unlikely to have been the primary prey or predators of early human communities. That fact has suggested to some evolutionary anthropologists that the function of these animal emblems was ritual or “religious,” as those at the much later site of Gobekli Teppe almost certainly were. Perhaps these animals were spiritual beings encountered in trance states, altered states of consciousness, dreams, or ritual performances; perhaps, as older generations of anthropologists once interpreted the figure of “The Sorcerer” from Les Trois Freres, these were beings whose qualities human visitors sought to enter into, put on, assimilate, or be absorbed into in ecstasy.1 In many indigenous cultures, divine powers and spirits continue to have botanical and zoomorphic forms that are more readily apparent and emotionally significant to the community than any humanized form. First Nations peoples in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania continue to venerate the natural world as expressive of and summed up in a number of animal divinities. In many cases, the zoomorphism of these divine powers is non-negotiable and essential to their character. Coyote is an “anthropomorphic” god insofar as he does humanlike things, but he is still a fundamentally, importantly canine divinity, just as his analogue Raven is an irreducibly corvine one: their mercurial wildness is not incidental to their animal identities, and so their animality is in some sense significant to what is distinctive about them as gods. It is easy to paint with too broad, lazy, and Western a brush when dealing with what is arguably the oldest and most continuous form of religiosity on earth—since it may very well preexist us—and to lump all the zoomorphic tendencies of First Nations peoples with cultures we do not often think of as “indigenous,” like the cultures of Japan, China, and India; I do not want to engage in that kind of bland equivocation here. But it is fair to say that as far back as we look, humans find something divine and akin in animals, just as they do in other natural phenomena, and that global indigenous cultures, African, and Asian societies seem to have preserved that primeval human tendency somewhat better than cultures stemming from modern Europe.
The prehistoric, deeply ancient, and archaic roots of our modern religious traditions evince a long, thoroughgoing, but sometimes contested zoomorphic or theriomorphic tendency, attributing animality to the divine and divinity to the animal, even while finding the humanity in each. In ancient Mesopotamia, where the gods were primarily anthropomorphic, the zoomorphic impulse still attributed choice animal parts, like wings for mobility and protection to gods, and animalistic, sometimes chimaeric guardians like Gilgamesh’s Bull of Heaven or biblical keruvim were thought to enjoy divine honors. Characters like Enkidu are traditionally depicted in their iconography with zoomorphic qualities like, for example, horns, which will also be attributed to YHWH (e.g., Hab 3:4), as will wings (Ps 91:4). Egyptian religion was much more thoroughly and unapologetically interested in portraying gods with animal qualities: Ra, Horus, Taweret, Bastet, Isis, Thoth, Anubis, and the like are all zoomorphs, and some animals, like cats, crocodiles, hippopotami, ibises enjoyed certain social approval for their divine associations. Wadjets—fiery, flying cobras, guardians of divine thrones, temples, and secrets, the inspiration for biblical seraphim—and other divine animals, including monsters like Ammit, were likewise to be found in the Ancient Egyptian religious landscape. Ancient Indian religion was similarly animated by divine beasts, zoomorphic gods, and therianthropoi. Among the cryptic seals left behind by the Indus Valley Civilization are Pashupati, an Indic version of the “Lord of Beasts” trope, as well as a variety of animals and animal-human hybrids. Generally speaking, dharmic texts love to stress the infinite fluidity between animality, humanity, and divinity. In the epic tradition of Ramayana and Mahabharata, as Wendy Doniger puts it, “[a] liminal space between anthropomorphism and zoomorphism is marked out by a mythological cluster about talking animals and humans who commit the fatal error of mistaking sexual humans for animals.”2 Many gods have vahanas, animal vehicles or companions that are their special friends and servants; gods might become incarnate as or sire demigods of partially animal character. Hanuman, the divine monkey king of the Ramayana, and his army of humanoid monkeys showcase the potential humanism of the animal, especially in the animal capacity for human language (in this case, Sanskrit). Beyond this, as Doniger goes on to note, “[t]he god Dharma takes the form of a dog in the Mahabharata” (near the end, to lead Ydhisthira up Mt. Meru); “the god Vishnu becomes incarnate as several animals (including a fish, tortoise, boar, half-lion and horse-head); and the god Indra becomes a stallion in order to seduce a queen.”3 Humans become animals on various occasions, metaphorically and magically, in Hindu texts of different kinds; and a variety of gods that arose to popularity in the classic period of bhakti and tantra often have animal qualities (like, e.g., Ganesa, the elephant-headed god). In Buddhist literature, ethical treatment of animals is advocated as an essential element of compassion; vegetarianism is commended as the ideal lifeway; and at least in the Jataka tales, the Buddha’s own past lives as a variety of animal and human beings are articulated. According to most dharmic traditions, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh, animals enjoy an “equal consciousness”4 to that of humans, and therefore deserve equitable treatment, ideally through a consistent practice of ahimsa towards them in recognition of their spiritual kinship to humans and gods.
Greek religion utilized divine zoomorphism as a kind of “supplement” to the more general divine anthropomorphism of archaic, classical, and religious practice: gods could be depicted with animal qualities, specialized symbolic animals, or in fully zoomorphic form, but typically to flesh out a particular feature of their theology (one quite possibly sublimated by their humanoid depiction).5 The Greeks periodically mocked the Egyptians for their theriomorphism, as did some Jewish authors writing in Greek, the common suggestion being that their worship of bestial gods meant worship of the passions (ta pathē, literally, “the sufferings”), since the main difference between animals and humans in the Greek mind was that the former were enslaved to the passions while humans could theoretically be free of them through appropriate exercise of the rational faculty, which was the goal of many philosophical schools. But Greek thought occasionally overcame this obviously prejudicial conclusion: Seneca (1 BCE - 65 CE), for instance, drawing on the Stoic belief that the kosmos at large was an animal and a visible god, concluded that there was oikeosis between humans and animals and therefore that humans had a responsibility not to disrupt their fellowship with animals, which he realized through vegetarianism (De Beneficiis IV.18.2-3). Pythagoras, Chrysippus, Ibn Sina, and Zhuangzi all differently advocated for the notion that animals possess soul, consciousness, rationality, emotion, and inner life in ways analogous or comparable to humans, seeking to de-anthropocentrize to some extent (but usually not completely) the universe away from the notion that humans alone are conscious, ensouled, or endowed with certain moral rights and ethical value. Modern philosophers and scientists tend to confirm their viewpoint. It seems clear, for instance, to anyone who spends significant time with them, that elephants have souls; that animals generally do; that in fact, our own consciousness stems from theirs; that they have complex inner lives; that they are aware of death; that all of these might be ongoing causes of our fascination with them, despite our artificial discomfort admitting what we perceive about them; and that this is the source of our deep-seated sense of ethical obligation to them, as far as we are able to fulfill it. I would also suggest that this is the source of our seemingly ubiquitous sense of the divinity of the animal and the animality of the divine, and our finding of human happiness in part through the embrace of our animal nature rather than its simple annihilation.
We should round out the picture, because the biblical tradition is also theriomorphic, in ways we are probably not accustomed to admitting. YHWH—a corporeal god in ancient Israel and Judah—roars like a lion (Amos 1:2; 3:8; Joel 4:16; Hos 5:14; 11:10; 13:7-8; Jer 25:30); in Ezekiel 43:15-16, we learn of an “Ariel,” a “Lion of God,” which is a Yahwistic altar hearth implying by its name that leonine figurines were cult objects for YHWH. He could also, like El and like other Near Eastern divinities, be depicted as a bull or bullish (abir ya’aqob, Gen 49:24-25; abir yisrael, Isa 1:24; Num 23:21b-22; 24:8). He is also attributed wings on occasion (e.g., Ps 91:4), like many other Near Eastern gods. As YHWH’s iconography became more humanoid and then abstract before being outlawed altogether in favor of aniconism, it is possible that several of YHWH’s theriomorphic features were pushed off onto the divine beasts in his entourage, like the seraphim and keruvim, or the “four living creatures” cobbled together from them in Revelation 4-5. Apocalyptic literature sometimes depicts God’s enemies as monstrous animals (e.g., the imperial beasts of Dan 7; the Dragon and Beasts of Rev 12 and 13; etc.), but apocalyptic motifs also make use of animals positively, as, for example, in the predication of Christ as the “Lamb of God” in Johannine literature (e.g., Jn 1:29; Rev 5), or the Synoptic Jesus’ speaking of wishing to gather Jerusalem under his sophianic, divine “wings” (Matt 23:37; Lk 13:34). The apocalyptic Jesus returns with heavenly armies all riding on celestial horses (Rev 19:11-21). The Spirit “flutters” like a bird over the primordial waters of creation (Gen 1:2) and descends like a dove upon Jesus (Matt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32), after which Jesus goes to the desert and is among “the wild beasts” (Mk 1:13). Christian liturgical art capitalizes in the animals that are centered in the texts of Jewish and Christian Scripture: deer drink from living streams in the mosaics of baptisteries, royal peacocks adorn polished olive wood iconostaseis, subjugated sea serpents hold up icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and John the Baptizer. Some of these theriomorphic or divinanimalistic motifs carry over into Islam, as well: birds, for instance, are often symbols of the soul in Islamic mysticism.
Zoomorphism or theriomorphism has dropped out of modern, Western religious practices, in the main, but there have been some attempts at preservation or reclamation of a sense of the potential divinity of the animal world. The Western Christian transmission of the Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic myths (in which animals, divine animals, and divinities taking on animal-like qualities feature heavily), the fairy faith, Arthuriana, “Merry Olde England” as reinterpreted by the Inklings (Lewis’ Narniad stands out here, but so too does Tolkien’s Legendarium, after a fashion), and a variety of Anglophone novels that feature animal characters (The Wind in the Willows; Watership Down; etc.) all engage in something like the portrayal of a divine animality. Neopaganism, in its distinctively Western forms, and the New Age movement, for all of its easily apparent nonsense, all evince a new interest in the kinship between animals, humans, and gods; and the scientific and philosophical research I link above is itself a kind of resurgence of theriomorphic tendencies, albeit often in reaction against the late, Western, Christian, anthropocentric, anthropofascist, even, attitude towards animals. But what should be apparent from all of this is that the scientific facts of our human continuity with the animal world and our deep-seated religious instinct to assume fluidity between the animal, the human, and the divine in iconography, scriptural text, and ritual practice across societies, geography, and time are all strong evidence against the views of, say, certain Thomists that animals have no afterlife. Such contradicts the collective wisdom of our ancestors and contemporaries. The continuity between the living human being (nephesh chayah) and the living animal being (nephesh chayah; Gen 2:7, 19), our collective and cultivated experience of animals as our “relations,” to invoke the Lakota principle of Mitakuye Oyasin, renders the notion that any fate which befalls us will not include them, or vice versa, absurd. There is no human being without the animal being, for humanity is an expression of animality even as it is an expression of divinity, implying that the difference between the animal and the divine need not be a dissension. The imago Dei that is stoked by godly fire into the blazing divine likeness of God in the universal reditus is not a human abstraction from the animal world; Divine Humanity implies a preexisting Divine Animality from which it emerges and to which it remains keyed, even as it also shares kinship with the angels and symbolizes God in reciprocating the whole.
We cannot then deny to animals those faculties which we find expressed in ourselves, for it is not really any special power which makes us most like God, but rather the uniqueness of the inflection that expresses God in the whole and the whole in God. In a way, this take on the imago Dei actually better reflects the term’s origins in trying to suggest that human beings are literally deiform, that is, made to look like the gods (especially, in ancient context, YHWH and Asherah, the divine power couple heading the pantheon composed by the b’nei Elohim). It is not that humans have a different soul than the animals (Scripture literally says the opposite, in fact); it is not that humans have anything in actuality that does not exist in animals in potency, and which is perhaps actualized in ways we simply do not understand in our human ignorance (cognition, language, contemplation, love, etc.). It is rather that the way these things come together in humans, and in the human vocations to culture formation, environmental stewardship, and so forth that make humankind the image of God. Or, perhaps to put it differently: it is the way that these animal powers are inflected in Homo sapiens that make them human, and therefore conduits of divinity for the rest of the animal world. (This definition has the advantage of leaving humanity open as the convergent mantle of more than just ourselves—which is already appropriate, it would seem, on the basis of the evolutionary history of the genus Homo alone.)
This may or may not be the first in a series of articles I will pen on the natural world over the course of the summer; I have been chastened enough by my own errancy to know better than to promise long continuous chains, at this point. But it seems to me that theriomorphism is an unexplored basis for articulating the religious grounds of animal rights and dignity, and the ethical necessity of better relations between humans and animals, at least in Western religions. (Dharmic religions, on the whole, are better at this kind of thing than we are.) Finding the animal in God can help us to rediscover our own animality in a healthy, rather than a monstrous, way, which in turn helps us to find the humanity and the divinity alike in the kingdom over which we have been given charge and of which, one fears to say, we will all one day have to give account.
The figure is a point of famous controversies in the anthropological study of religion; the other dominant interpretation is that he is a god, a sort of Lord of Beasts or god of the forest. In any event, his clear status as a therianthropos—a “beast-man”—implies the liminality of whatever the analogous categories were to the divine, the human, and the animal for the people who made the art.
Wendy Doniger, On Hinduism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 428.
Doniger, On Hinduism, 445.
Doniger, On Hinduism, 451.
See Julia Kindt, “Animals in Ancient Greek Religion: Divine Zoomorphism and the Anthropomorphic Divine Body,” 155-170 in Nature, Myth, Religion in Ancient Greece, ed. T. Scheer (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2019).